Interview with Zao vocalist Dan Weyandt, guitarist Scott Mellinger, and drummer Jeff Gretz
Things haven’t always gone smoothly for Pittsburgh metallic hardcore icons, Zao. Despite their grapplng with frequent lineup changes, issues with record labels, being written off as “Christian metal,” and the ever-changing underground scene itself, they’ve always found ways to adapt, thrive, and survive.
Of course, bands can only fight for so long before something has to give. For Zao, this turning point happened shortly after the release of their extraordinary 2006 record, The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here, which began a transitional phase of which they are still riding the wave. “We were burned [out] from the road and proud of The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here and were willing to let that one sit for a bit,” drummer Jeff Gretz admits. “The initial plan was to lay low for a little while and reconvene later. We were just kind of slow about it.”
Though the band’s hiatus was a temporary bump in the road, it also served to kick-start them in a much more positive direction. “We were all just kind of getting comfortable being family people—some of us were either getting married or having children—but I don’t think our original intention was for it to stop as much as it did,” guitarist Scott Mellinger explains. “I think we wanted the band to function the way it is now for a while, but we have finally been able to get the wheels moving.”
With the band now firmly back in the saddle, they just released their 10th studio album, The Well-Intentioned Virus, on Dec. 9 via their own record label, Observed/Observer Recordings.
While the band are no strangers to albums with grim imagery in their titles and lyrics, The Well-Intentioned Virus features some of their heaviest subject matter to date. “The title comes from the idea that the human race has a collective cognitive dissonance about itself where we perceive our intentions, purpose, [and] actions as good, well-intentioned, or at least justified,” vocalist Dan Weyandt suggests. “In the end, regardless of good intention, a majority of our actions blindly cause destruction to ourselves, our loved ones, society, nature, etc. The ‘effect’ of our actions spreads like a virus to everything it comes into contact with, slowly destroying the host. We are either blind to it or forced to observe. It is written in our code.”
Musically, the album also heavily features the raw, ferocious style that helped gain Zao such an iconic status, rather than chasing relevancy with a more “updated” sound. “We set out to make a real natural sounding record. We have always been huge fans of real instruments into real amps through good mics,” Mellinger states. “We just let what happens happen for the most part. Songs are able to have lives of their own, and the tones and sounds are allowed to develop. We obviously have parameters, but most of them consist of making sure the record sounds like a band playing.”
Though The Well-Intentioned Virus started out with a much more grandiose approach, eventually the songs themselves won out. “Our trick is to have an idea of the general production arc based on the songs themselves and then let happy accidents take over as we go,” Gretz admits. “It’s not healthy to try to shoehorn [in] what you want it to be when the album is trying to fight you to be something else.”
While the band’s sound has continued plodding towards more vicious, intense territory, the band themselves have been doing the same as well. After releasing their previous album, 2009’s Awake?, through Ferret Records, they realized that now was the time to branch off and release the new album through their own record label.
“We knew we wanted to do more, but the experiment of doing a one-off ‘out of contract’ record with a proper label wasn’t interesting to us anymore,” Gretz states. “No label was going to be happy with a band that didn’t want to get in the van and slog it out for the better part of a year. So, we started over and slowly figured out an alternate way to operate.”
“I think all of us like to control our art; we really enjoy being very involved in all aspects,” Mellinger agrees. “Jeff has spent a lot of time learning and understanding the ins and outs of running a label, and he’s doing an unbelievable job getting this all to work correctly.”
Although embarking on your own is never an easy thing to do, it has proven to be far more rewarding in the end. “Every day, there is something that gives me a migraine and borderline panic attacks, and also, there is usually something amazing that happens to balance it out almost immediately, so it’s a mix,” Gretz confesses. “In all honesty, we can’t really screw it up. If a ball gets dropped, it’s our ball. Trust me, I have watched many bigger labels than us screw things up—and not even ones we have worked with—in ways that I can’t even begin to comprehend. We at least have an excuse.”