Originally published in the May 4, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
“We don’t want to abandon any of the posts we’ve held,” explains Zac, calling in from the Gulf Coast, where he is enjoying some time with his wife and kids. “We don’t want to abandon our fans that we have in country music, our fans we have around the songs and the band performing, but we are out to gain new fans as well.”
Zac and his group of merry music makers—Jimmy De Martini, John Driskell Hopkins, Coy Bowles, Clay Cook, Chris Fryar, Daniel de los Reyes and Matt Mangano—have been perfecting their balancing act of radio- friendly singles and genre-hopping experiments since before their album The Foundation introduced them to a mass audience. With their new album, Jekyll + Hyde—their first from a new arrangement between Zac’s Southern Ground label, designer John Varvatos, Republic Records and Big Machine—the talented eight-man crew is indulging all of its scattered musical interests and confidently setting its sights on becoming a global force in music.
The title, coined by guitarist and friend Don Dunlavey, hints at a duality. There’s the “Jekyll” side of Zac Brown Band, a scruffy group of players who conjured up country radio-friendly fodder like “Sweet Annie,” “Chicken Fried” and their latest Billboard No. 1, “Homegrown.” Then there’s the more experimental “Hyde” aspect of the group, which can masterfully cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in concert and record an EP with Foo Fighters chief Dave Grohl. It’s an appropriate title for an album that travels a lot of sonic territory in its 16 tracks.
“It covers the breadth of the record because there’s really no boundaries on it,” offers Zac. “Everybody’s exposed to so much different stuff now and they’re absorbing enough of that stuff. We stayed right down the middle with enough [of the songs], and that’s why we did 16 songs on there, was to experiment without taking the place of things people know us for and still allow room to explore.”
There are a handful of straightforward offerings on Jekyll + Hyde that appear to be mindful of radio, like the breezy “One Day,” the upbeat “Loving You Easy” or even the stately cover of Jason Isbell’s somber, war-themed “Dress Blues,” which comes complete with Jewel singing background and an interlude of “Taps.”
“It’s just stated so eloquently and beautifully that we had to record it,” explains Zac, who typically allows space for one cover song per album. “I feel like a lot more people needed to hear that song. I had to add the arrangement for ‘Taps’ and turn it into a big guitar solo in the middle. ‘Taps’ for me was really emotional because I’ve had some friends and family that have been put in the ground to that and I held it together until I heard that melody.”
Elsewhere on Jekyll + Hyde, Zac and crew take the brakes off.
The album’s opening song, “Beautiful Drug,” dispenses entirely with their jam-friendly country-folk template for a foot-stomping number influenced by dance music. The familiar acoustic instruments of the band are all still present, but there is a distinct bass drum pulse that hits on every quarter note and propels the thing forward with incredible momentum. It’s not unlike the anthemic electro-acoustic hybrids pioneered by Avicii, such as “Wake Me Up” and “Hey Brother.”
“Avicii was an incredible mixture of organic and electronic music together,” agrees Zac. “And when was the last time you were in a nightclub and heard a song that didn’t have those elements in it? If you want to climb into an arena with those things, the songs need that kind of accompaniment.”
Zac’s larger ambitions are hidden between the lines in statements like that. Electronic dance music has a massive global reach, and bands such as Coldplay and U2 have incorporated it into their sound to expand their already considerable fame. If they can do it, why can’t a gifted group of musicians like Zac Brown Band?
“This is our first shot at it, our first time doing it, but I think we have some songs now that can be played over in other countries where it wouldn’t have been as easy to sell our stuff before,” explains Zac. “But that’s the difference between a band that’s in a genre and an artist. I am continually trying to prove myself as an artist and not just a band within a genre. That’s important to me.”
A second dance-influenced song, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” brings in squelchy synthesizer noises (that might have been made by a guitar) and full-throated whoa-whoa choruses about living in the moment. Later in the album, the band reprises the tune as an acoustic hymn, giving it an exalted, spiritual feel that isn’t immediately obvious in its faster, more sensual sibling.
“It’s about the song,” says Zac. “If you strip that song down to a dude and a guitar, singing it, is it a good song? I’d like to think all of ours are, regardless of the type of construction that’s on there.”
For ZBB guitarist Coy Bowles, “Tomorrow Never Comes” still shares some DNA with the group’s previous work. “To me it still sounds like a Zac Brown Band song,” he says. “Zac’s voice has this innate quality in being emotional and being believable. ‘Tomorrow Never Comes,’ even though the groove behind it is energized from an electronic music standpoint, there’s still acoustic guitar and banjo; there’s still his voice. The song is still really good. It’s just like us doing a bluegrass tune.”
“Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Beautiful Drug” were also part of an important shift in the recording process for Jekyll + Hyde, which features contributions from producers like Jay Joyce, Darrell Scott, Jim Hoke and Zac himself.
Previously, all the band’s records had to be recorded in a way that could be re-created exactly in their live shows.
“The biggest thing we did with this album is we kind of agreed in a silent head nod, nonconversation, that we weren’t going to try to make this album that we can duplicate onstage verbatim from the beginning,” explains Coy, who co-wrote the breakbeat-driven “Young and Wild.”
“Within my seven guys in the band, what they could organically produce was the limits to what we could do,” adds Zac. “And now just studying the electronic part of the music, I want to include that in some things now.”
Zac Brown Band may also have some interesting challenges playing a song like “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop singer Sara Bareilles that comes out of Frank Sinatra’s brassy, orchestral playbook. Amazingly, that one will also be reinterpreted when the band heads out on tour this spring and summer (see sidebar).
“That’s the process we’re going through now, which is really exciting,” explains Coy of rehearsals for their live show. “[It] is like reverse engineering the album so we can play it live.”
Not content to confine their dabbling to the domains of Sinatra and Avicii, ZBB also takes a couple tracks on Jekyll + Hyde to prove themselves as serious hard rockers. “Heavy Is the Head” gets an assist from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and the seven-and-a-half-minute epic “Junkyard” mixes an interpolation of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anybody Out There?” in the middle of Muse-style bombast.
Ahead of the album’s release, “Heavy Is the Head” has already hit the Top 5 on the rock charts in the U.S. It’s a lurching beast built on a heavily distorted bass guitar riff, with both Zac and Chris firing up their best agitated howls. The song grew out of separate sessions with Darrell Scott and Don Dunlavey, and even out of the band’s eclectic choices of cover tunes on the road, like songs by Metallica and Rage Against the Machine.
“The core lick, the one that starts the song off and everything, is something I had in my head,” explains Zac. “I had worked on a couple sound checks with the band, doing that and getting the weird timing of it and figuring out exactly how that part moves. The song has come together in so many different little sit-down sections, and it’s finally at the end where it’s all come together.”
Lyrically, “Heavy Is the Head” is an allegorical tale with imagery of kings and the constant opposition they face, as well as the second-guessing that accompanies being the top dog. Zac sees something of himself in those fantastical descriptions of monarchy and creeping paranoia.
“The symbolism that’s in it is really close to me because sometimes it’s really lonely being the leader,” he says. “Hopefully you’re high-fiving everybody, but it’s not always fun letting other people go and making hard business decisions.”
Thankfully, Zac notes, he’s surrounded by a group of guys who aren’t interested in fighting against whatever vision he has for a song or album.
“I decided a long time ago to pretty much whatever idea Zac has, let’s go for it,” relates Coy. “What does it matter? I think my input on that stuff was to silently stand back, and anytime I thought it was getting in a place of not being genuine, I would speak up and say, ‘Hey, man, I think this is getting outside of our wheelhouse a little bit.’ The funny thing about it was, I never had to say that.”
“They’ve learned to trust me over the years,” agrees Zac. “If they really thought it was a bad idea, they kind of keep it to themselves. And I appreciate that because it’s not going to deter me from doing it. But they do have my back and they know ultimately that I have a plan even though it would seem far-fetched or seem crazy.” CW
Sidebar: Parks & Rec
Zac Brown Band has built a slice of its fan base the old-fashioned way, playing show after show as a killer live band who can play anything. This year, they’ll launch their tour on May 1 in Nashville, likely surrounded by peers, team members and the media.
“It’s a big statement for us, to be ready and have everything lined up when we come out—smack them in the ear,” says Zac. “We’ve got a lot to prove, and this tour is going to be as diverse as this record.”
ZBB also has an astounding three dates—the first for any act—at Boston’s Fenway Park, as well as dates at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Citizens Park in Philadelphia and Wrigley Field in Chicago, among other stadiums. That certainly coincides with the ambitious music on Jekyll + Hyde.
“This year is probably the first year that we really have a lot of stadium dates coming up,” says Coy. “It’s kind of hard to believe that that’s happening. You can start putting yourself in this frame of mind—what is the biggest we could get, and what is the potential of it?”
But fans used to seeing Zac and crew play shows will be in for something completely different this time around. Instead of the usual array of hits and choice cover tunes, the band will be playing Jekyll + Hyde in its entirety, in order.
“We’re gonna play this entire
record, front to back, and then five or six of our hit songs that we’ve had so it stays between the lines for everybody,” confirms Zac. “But when we come in to play that, it won’t have been out long enough for everybody to really digest it all. For some people it’s going to be a lot of new music to absorb in one night. But if we do our job right, it will be a lot of fun. I’m super-excited to play two hours of new music and not the same songs we’ve been playing for seven years.”