Still Crazed After All This Years: Jon and Marsha Zazula Maintain Their Jam Band Roots
Jon and Marsha Zazula have been enthusiastic supporters of improvisational music ever since they attended their first shows in the late 1960’s. Eventually their paths led them to one another and then to a record store which they owned. They soon grew excited by the developments in the realms of heavy metal music, focusing their business in that realm. When the Zazulas first heard the demo tape of a young west coast band named Metallica they invited the musicians to the east coast. In turn the Zazulas embarked on new dual careers both as a record label (Megaforce) and as music management (Crazed). This led to their association with most of the guiding forces of the 80’s metal movement. Throughout all of this though they maintained their love for the jams that had electrified them when they attended shows at the Fillmore East and the Village Theater in the 1960’s. As a result, after a very brief hiatus in the mid 1990’s, the Zazulas recently returned to the fore creating Hydrophonics Records a label that currently works with the three artists they now represent through Crazed Management: Ominous Seapods, Disco Biscuits and Juggling Suns. Recently, Jon took a few minutes out of his day to share his thoughts on his groups, improvisational music and the current jam band scene.
D- I know that you took some off after more than a decade of intense dealings in the music business. When did you form Hydrophonics Records?
J- We started it around September of 1997. At that time we were managing Juggling Suns. The Disco Biscuits were also already in the fold and the Seapods were just an inch away
D- What inspired you to get back into things?
J- Stupidity. Absolute stupidity.
D- Was there any particular moment of epiphany?
J- The reality is that Marsha and I love music and this was the music that brought us together. We always liked psychedelic foreground music and we always liked the art of the jam. We got into those performers who could really take a jam over to the next level and cross over into new frontiers without just noodling and masturbating on stage. And we found three bands that just did it great, in three different ways. Three completely different journeys. So we got swept up into it again. And I don’t know if it was the right thing to do because I could up in Alaska right now fishing for Salmon [at the time of the interview the Zazulas had just returned from an extensive Alaskan vacation- so Jonny had the frozen frontier on his mind).
D- I know you have a long-term relationship with this type of music. Could you describe some of those early shows?
J- The very first experience I had was with Cream. I’m talking about during the Fresh Cream days, at the very beginning. Seeing Cream live was the first place where I really got it. Also by listening to some of those longer jams that James Brown did on those B sides that you never really got to hear on the radio. You could just hear him take it up on stuff like “Ain’t It Funky Now.” Of course, in those days there was Charlie Mingus- Live at the Village Gate was a big album for me. Marsha and I both loved the same stuff. I was a big Pharaoh Sanders fan and I loved listening to Sun Ra. Quicksilver Messenger Service was my favorite of the Bay jam bands. And my favorite band of the entire millennium was Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. It was the ultimate experience because they started at the top of a jam and just went from there and it was a magical experience, that original band. Actually, post-Ry Cooder. Ry Cooder was fun but the band as it appears on Trout Mask Replica and Doc at the Radio Station, that was a great, great band. Zappa, of course, was Marsha’s fave. Even into the eighties when we caused a riot with heavy metal, we also enjoyed the Brian Eno/Roxy Music/Phil Manzanera stuff which grew out of bands like Soft Machine. In fact I saw Soft Machine on a bill with Jimi Hendrix and Jimi Hendrix didn’t mean as much to me after that.
D-Where did you see that?
J- This was at Hunter College in New York. And then I saw them in the Village when they played again on Sunday.
D- I know during that time you also saw your share of Grateful Dead shows…
J- That goes without saying. I remember the time the Grateful Dead cured me of a very intense flu. I went out with this nurse, actually this is funny, I was on my way to Woodstock and I got side tracked. We ended up in New Paltz of all places camping out together. Anyhow, she came down one night in the late 60’s, and I had this fever. But two tabs of penicillin and hours of the Dead at the Village Theater and I sweated the flu out of me [editor’s note- the Village Theater became the Fillmore East]. I have to say post ’71 it wasn’t as exciting as it was at the turn of the 70’s. I went to a few hundred post ’71 but I only caught a handful of shows that I would compare to pre ’71.
D- Was that because of Pigpen? Because of the country turn?
J- I was absolutely ga ga over Pigpen. People don’t understand unless they were there to see it. He gave the Grateful Dead an edge that they never got back.. He was very intimidating, for instance when he would do “Lovelight” and go through the audience and find a guy that didn’t have a girl and a girl that didn’t have a guy and put them on stage and almost get them to have sex right there. He would give a speech as to why they should be together, and it was amazing. It was quite a feat when he would bop between the rhythms of Hart and Kreutzmann. One of the greatest experience was they put up a screen behind Kreutzmann and Hart and they had a film of rain and a windshield wiper and they kept the rhythm to the windshield wiper and he was singing about the rain and being in a car with his old lady in the rain. I’ll just never forget the visuals of that, it was the metronome to the stars. It was a great, great experience. The day it ended for me was when Mickey Hart walked off the stage at the Capitol Theater in Westchester. Marsha and I were both there, we didn’t see each other she was with her friends and I was with mine. We just figured we’d go to a Dead show, no tickets. I remember there was a bomb scare during the New Riders of the Purple Stage set, I remember that. But that was the night that Mickey Hart departed from the stage and departed form the group [ed. note- 2/18/71]. That to me was the beginning of the end of the Grateful Dead as we knew it. Those were the years when they really made you get on your toes.
D- Speaking of the Dead, I’ve heard an interesting story involving yourself, Branford Marsalis and his famed appearance at the 3/28/90 Nassau show.
J- Here’s what happened. We started in the jam/groove scene in 1990 with a band called Milk. We had a fellow who worked for us Jeff Lewi. He started with us and then we went out to WAR record in Colorado with the Samples and he became the head of marketing and promotion for the HORDE Festival, and later he had 420 Records and worked with Leftover Salmon. Jim Lewi worked for us for five years, and he brought us this group Milk. In fact, if everyone had stuck with it that band would have given Dave Matthews a run for their money. They had that whole saxophone. jazz/psychedelic feel. We did a song called “This River Has Gotta Flow” and we had this great sax solo in it and we played it for Branford. He really dug it and he came up and produced the Milk album for us. He really got into what we were doing. Plus he’s a metalhead. Branford listens to one of our albums, Stormtroopers of Death, S.O.D., all the time, he’s totally into it. Branford’s a real headbanger. Anyhow, someone gave us tickets for the show at Nassau and we couldn’t go. So Jim took Branford down to the show in our stead and he brought this horn. Well the next day at work Jim comes in and he says “Jonny, you should have been there, Branford went up and played with the Dead.” Branford is very cool people. Actually I wanted to get Branford to do some work with Disco Biscuits. I just never got around to it for “Uncivilized Area.”
D- Is that something that might happen sometime down the road?
J- Well you know what happened? This is another weird thing. Marsha and I managed a band called Raven alongside Metallica when they made those historic early tours. You don’t hear about them much anymore but they were amazing. Anyhow Raven’s drummer, his name was Rob ‘Wacko” Hunter. He kept it as that so he’s not confused with Robert Hunter. Well Rob became the studio engineer for the Milk project so he became friends with Branford Marsalis. The two of them went on to be partners. In fact Rob has been Branford’s live sound engineer for the past five years. Rob Hunter is the engineer on his albums and he’s also the producer of quite a few Buckshot Lefonque tracks. So the guy who did the Disco Biscuits record is Branford’s engineer/producer. We didn’t bring in Branford because of his schedule. We would have had to send tapes to him and then he would have done his bit along with the record. I don’t think that is what the Disco Biscuits is all about. If they have a jam going you’d want it to happen there live. So will it happen next time? We’ll see, I don’t know…
D- Speaking of your early days working with Metallica and Raven, I know there are a few people who might realize the full extent of your involvement in the music business during the past two decades. Could you provide a brief overview?
J- Well Marsha and I were responsible for quite a bit. We managed Anthrax for eleven years, we sold ten million records with them. The Megaforce label represented acts like Testament, Overkill, Manowar. We did a few solo albums with Ace Frehley’s. We also managed Ministry. Al Jourgenson who is legendary for being the number one innovator for what’s know an the industrial revolution, not that anything about that music is industrial to me but that’s what it’s called. Anyhow, Ministry sold several million records under our management. In 1992, we were number two bill on the Lollapalooza we went on just after Red Hot Chili Peppers. The bands that supported us on that tour were Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. With Anthrax we organized a tour called Clash of the Titans where we introduced a new band to the world that nobody had really hard of called Alice in Chains. We had a band called King’s X out of Austin, Texas that in many ways debuted the formula for what would become grunge. The early King’s X records were amazing. We also worked with the piano arranger protégé of Leonard Bernstein, John Bayless, we did a Concerto with Leonard Bernstein as producer, that went to number three on the classical charts. There’s a lot more, I can sum it up by saying as mangers and a record label we directly touched 37 million records. If you expand that to include all of the groups we’ve worked with that number goes up to 70 million worldwide.
D- I know you did the Warren Haynes solo album, Tales of Ordinary Madness.
J- It’s a really cool album. We have people like Bernie Worrell on the record. It was produced by Chuck Leavell. We were just a little early on that one.
D- Let’s turn to the jam band scene of today. There seems to be a swelling appreciation of this type of music.
J- I’ll tell you what. While I agree with you, lately I have been having a few doubts. The kids today are still somewhat slow in searching out and supporting these groups. I mean it’s nice that the Ominous Seapods will play to 450 people in Bozeman, Montana and that’s a feat in itself. But still on a national level, the drop off after a band like Phish is pretty severe. Sometimes it disturbs me. I mean things are getting better and the signs are there. When I was younger everybody was in their garage playing “For Your Love and “Wipeout.” Today, they’re probably playing “Fee.” So you have all these people who want to be in a jam band when they grow up. But as far as a big national swell I think it’s still about two and half years away. But you are also see something exciting things when 8,000 people, turn up for Hookahville. Just recently about 3,000 came out to see Juggling Suns at Jerry Garcia’s birthday bash. Disco Biscuits, I’m seeing them get requests from colleges everywhere. What’s wonderful about this groove scene is that when it happens it will be an explosion, it will be like the metal scene. I mean I had Metallica and Anthrax play New Years’ Eve in Mount Vernon, New York to about 90 people and within a year things just took off. Still I call remember way back when Marsha and I ran a record store that only carried metal music and we’d have these kids come in as soon as we had new releases and they’d buy up everything and then go home and listen to it have a party. I just can’t imagine right now that kids run out and say “I have to pick up that new Medeski Martin and Wood.” Plus they’re aren’t enough publications yet, you can’t the word out. In the old days a band like Testament would be on the cover of a dozen beautiful European glossy magazines that would be shipped to record stores and sold in the states. Where kids could cut out pictures and say I want to see what this is about. They’re aren’t even polls everywhere with a top twenty list so you can see whose playing what [editor’s note: it was this comment that led us to add the charts that now appear in jambands.com]. All in all it reminds me of the Heavy Metal scene in 1981 but it wasn’t until 1985 that the shit hit the fan.
D- Finally, could you riff a bit on the three jam bands that you currently represent.
J- Let’s start with Ominous Seapods. A great bunch of musicians, really locked into each others’ personalities and when they go off on a musical journey, they can turn on a dime. They have a real good vibe and it looks like they are on their way, which is nice because they’re a great bunch of guys. The Disco Biscuits is huge. Like all three bands we have they are very dedicated, they have integrity and they really trying to reach new frontiers constantly. They’re four more people who have given up a million dollars worth of education to become musicians. As for Juggling Suns, they offer one of the great guitar players on the scene in Mark Diomede. He’s an amazing guitar player with a great spiritual vibe. What they can do as I see them grow is they’re able to take some of the people who were just televisioned on the Grateful Dead and move them off a little bit left of center. The Juggling Suns are able to open the doorway so that some people will be able to understand Disco Biscuits or Ominous Seapods. Its nice to have a group that can bridge the gap. All three of three bands are very really dedicated to their audiences. For all three bands, at this point, money would be a wonderful thing but that’s not a motivating factor. They’re into this to get high on stage and to get the audience high.