U-Melt’s Path To Abbreviation
Professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper always used to remind his opponents that just when they thought they had the answers, he changed the questions. Coming nowhere close to the Hot Rod’s meanspiritness, the same aura of unpredictability surrounds U-Melt. During any one of their storied late-night, after-hours shows, the foursome comprised of keyboardist Zac Lasher, guitarist Rob Salzer, bassist Adam Bendy and drummer George Miller, will spiral through blues, jazz, psychedelia, electronica and any other style within their grasp. Each of their songs, which in concert can stretch well into the twenty minute mark without losing steam, contain complexly textured arrangements and usually a few tempo changes to keep things interesting. Going beyond the music, U-Melt themselves aren’t ones to remain in stasis. At the release party for The I’s Mind, their second studio album, they used the occasion to debut three new songs rather than focus on their newly minted disc. U-Melt’s innovative vibe also spreads to the community gradually developing around the band. If the wild glow stick war that erupted at The I’s Mind party during “The Fantastical Flight Of Captain Delicious” hasn’t become a common occurrence at U-Melt’s gigs, an audience going completely tribal in the middle of one of their jams has.
Adopting a tried and true philosophy of bringing their music to the people, U-Melt has become one of the more relentless touring bands. Their travels recently brought them back to their home base of New York City for a headlining slot at TriBeCa’s Knitting Factory. Extremely at ease while awaiting their midnight set, U-Melt gathered backstage to reflect a bit on their origins, their communal and individual development as a band and gaze a bit into the future. Spend any time with U-Melt and you realize that they are a witty and articulate group of guys. Students of the game, they are well-schooled in the music they play and very plugged in to the scene that surrounds them. In sitting down with them, Salzer, Lasher and Miller enthusiastically play off of each other, freely adding to each other’s comments or gently poking fun at an answer they perceive as too serious. In much the same way George Harrison served as the silent Beatle, Bendy is easily U-Melt’s quietest member, preferring to let his bass and his chattier band mates speak for him.
U-Melt’s unpredictability shouldn’t be confused with imprudent planning or deficient foresight. To the contrary, U-Melt’s diverse performances are neither random nor impulsive but rather thoughtfully pieced together and attentively plotted. The intricate and complicated arrangements of U-Melt’s sprawling epics are the result of the wildly varying and seemingly disconnected backgrounds of band’s individual members, their resumes rich in musical theory and notable for their formal discipline. If you went back in time, the grouping of such four disparate musicians into one wildly excited jamband would have seemed highly improbable.
In one of the more startling revelations: Salzer, one of the most electrifying young guitarists on the scene today, began his career as a classically trained violinist and started his college career as a performance major. “I realized quickly that I was more interested in writing and arranging then performing,” he says of his exposure to a wide variety of music. “I wanted to understand how it all worked, mathematically and structurally. I enjoyed writing and arranging [my own work] more than I liked performing someone else’s music. So, on violin, I tried some jazz and other things and it was hard for me to improvise because I was so structured and classically trained. I ended up switching my major to composition and theory.” In order to break free of training that had become so ingrained, Salzer picked up a new instrument, one he had first played in his pre-teens. “Since I hadn’t taken lessons on the guitar, I found I was able to be much more creative. I had a huge head start by knowing how to play the violin. Once I was able to apply my theoretical knowledge to the dexterity in my hands from playing violin, it made the guitar pretty easy,” explains Salzer of his remarkably seamless transition between instruments.
Salzer hasn’t abandoned the violin; he still plays, only not on stage. Miller would like to see that change but Salzer seems hesitant, at least for the time being. “Right now, the logistics of playing violin on stage are just not worth it to me,” he says. Miller has his own thoughts on the subject, telling Salzer, “I just want to see you pick up the violin and strum the guitar with it like in Spinal Tap.” Salzer considers the idea before laughing off Miller’s sacrilegious suggestion. “That might happen one day,” he says of playing violin in the traditional sense – with U-Melt. “In fact, I know it will.”
A tireless drummer, Miller gained his stamina for U-Melt’s marathon-length shows in the marching band. After receiving his first exposure to music through his grandmother’s piano lessons, Miller found march and percussion. “I marched for about 12 years in the drum and bugle corps: in high school, in college [he attended West Virginia University on the “extended drinking program”], and afterwards, when I was done, I taught it for a few years.” Bendy, Miller’s counterpart in the rhythm section, majored in bass, studying jazz and commercial music at Five Towns College in Long Island.
Lasher is the only member of U-Melt that grew up wanting to be a rock star. “I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen,” he excitedly recalls. “I was always involved with music; it was the only thing that really made me happy. At my school, we had an electronic setup and I played piano until I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.” At this point, Lasher found a love for the theater and instead of pursuing his dream of becoming The Boss, enrolled in Emerson College. “I made a very definite decision that I was going to put music and piano aside and delve into theater.” Plus, from a practical matter, “it was a lot easier than practicing the piano.” After graduation, Lasher found steady employment in the theater, lining up eighteen months of stage contracts.
He seemed content until Springsteen reentered his life. “I graduated the summer that Springsteen got the E Street band back together and I returned to New York for the shows at the Meadowlands,” he recalls. “Somehow, I lucked into tickets – 10th row center on the floor – for the first night of the sold out run at the Meadowlands; Bruce’s first show with the E Street band in 10 years. I was watching the man sweat: just sitting there at the church of Bruce. I got on the bus after the show and thought, What was I thinking going to school for theater? All I’ve ever wanted to do was play live shows.’ I fulfilled my contracts and then moved on.” With a twinkle in his eye, Lasher can tell you the biggest difference between the two worlds: “In the theater, you can only work when somebody lets you work. But I can always write a song.”
Despite dissimilar backgrounds, in unity, there is harmony. “We all come from these very different directions,” explains Lasher. “We all have very disparate tastes but as a group we find out each other’s likes, we find out what makes each other happy and we all work towards that end.” Their tastes are as varied as their backgrounds. “For me,” says Miller, “it started with the Beatles and then progressed into prog rock by way of Zeppelin. Beatles, Zeppelin, Rush, Yes and from there into jazz.” Lasher’s a little more difficult to pin down. “As a student of music you need to incorporate things from everything you hear. Everything I listen to, I take from it something that I like. You also learn from the things you don’t like. You can hear what works and you can hear what doesn’t.” Salzer’s response is a bit more cryptic, if not a little unsettling. “Most of the time it’s an Andy Gibb song,” he says with a smirking deadpan sincerity.
Salzer and Lasher, the group’s primary songwriters, both agree that U-Melt’s songs are rooted in the music theory in which they’ve both been well instructed. It’s fascinating to hear a band so adept at masterful improvisation discussing form, arrangement and melody with such an intimate knowledge that it’s become second nature. “The beauty about music theory is that the more that you know about it, the more you realize you can do anything,” explains Lasher. “It’s a great thing to be able to start a song and when you get an idea, think where do I want this to go?’ So you dig in and think of modulations you can make.” Salzer takes a similar approach. “With music theory, you can approach each song with a little more than you did the last time. The learning process is amazing, you keep learning with every song you write.” Miller concurs but has a bit of a different slant. “I’m a little more free,” he explains. “What these guys do is rooted in theory: I’m creating rhythm to either go with it, against it or a combination of both. I’m given a little freer reign than these guys, but given the amount of rope that these guys have to work with, they sure do tie some fascinating knots.”
In learning from their own experiences, U-Melt also gains perspective from the music of others. In their early days, they used to pepper their sets with Pink Floyd, Traffic and other prog-rock classics. Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” remains an integral part of their set lists along with eclectic selections like The Smashing Pumpkins “1979” and Frank Zappa’s “Dancin’ Fool,” which features Miller channeling Zappa’s slick game-show host charm as if he’d found a portal to the otherworld. “The cool thing about doing covers: it always teaches you something different about a band or style of music that might not have been readily accessible before,” explains Miller. “When we started learning and playing the Pink Floyd stuff, it was all about space. It wasn’t so much about the notes you played, it was the space between them. For me, that was the most interesting.” “That helped us tighten up a lot,” says Salzer of learning the Floyd repertoire. “The cool thing about music is that you’re never done: there’s always more to learn, there’s always more to master, there’s always more to write. It can go on forever,” concludes Lasher.
Given U-Melt’s penchant for complex arrangements, it’s no surprise they’ve developed an admiration for Frank Zappa. Going beyond the prurient enjoyment they have for some of Zappa’s bawdier songs the Joe’s Garage tune that often accompanies their exeunt from the stage is their selection they admire his vision. “The thing about Frank Zappa is that he was utterly fearless,” explains Lasher. “He did not give a fuck what anybody thought about his music. He just didn’t care. He wrote all this stuff that had never been done before and he’s still ahead of his time. Zappa’s a really good example of an artist attempting to be something different. We’re not even trying to be that far out there, but to me anyway, he represents the mindset of the pure artist. I think it’s beautiful and really brave. I admire that freedom.”
The evolution of U-Melt’s catalog has been a steady process. Once a song has its genesis, it’s developed, nurtured and brought along slowly. Notwithstanding Miller’s penchant for catchy tunes like “Go,” “Air” and “Perfect World,” Lasher and Salzer handle the main songwriting duties. “When I write a song, I bring it to the band with very definite ideas,” explains Lasher of the deliberate process of a song’s development. For his songs, Lasher has found inspiration from Tom Robbins’ novels as well as a trek to Phish’s last live performances. “It takes me a while to write a song, I live with it for a long time and really try to think of all the different places it can go. By the time I start teaching it to the band, I can completely orchestrate where it should go. That’s when [Rob, George and Adam] come in and you have to let your babies go a little bit.” It’s at this point where the band’s versatility comes into play. “Most of the drastic things that happen with arrangements happen in rehearsal: you learn to play your part on your own and with everyone else, fine tuning a note here and there, trying different equipment and things like that. After we’re really comfortable with the song, that’s when we’ll start with the improv sections and the song starts to morph and then what happens with particular jams will start to change and it goes from there,” says Lasher.
The process can be time consuming. “It can take a year before you really get it in your hands and a year and a half to really start stretching out from that,” estimates Miller. He offhandedly mentions a three year rule, which, given the reaction, seems more like a postulate or corollary than a hard and fast rule “It’s hard to say,” says Salzer of the gestation period. “When we started writing, we wrote simpler songs than we do now. All the songs have multiple keys, multiple time signatures and straight-up hard parts to execute. The learning curve might be longer for these.” What happens when the song just won’t come together? “You just write another song,” retorts Miller to the delight of the others. “Of the things that get scrapped, some sections will be pulled out of them and put into something new,” finishes Lasher. “We’re really really picky,” says Miller.
U-Melt has made the after-hours set one of their hallmarks, turning heads with their impressive six hour set at Strangefolk’s 2004 Garden of Eden Festival. Without any breaks, they played into and through the wee hours of the morning, finally finishing when the main stages were ready to start up the next morning. In their infancy, U-Melt made the most of the extended time a late-night festival set provides. “They are a great way to gain fans,” explains Miller. “That’s how we broke on to the festival circuit in the East,” recalls Lasher of their first after-hours experiences. “The Wormtown festivals are at a summer camp in Massachusetts. They wouldn’t put us on the main stage but rather in these tiny little cabins where the kids sleep, It’s really packed, really hot, really tight, really sweaty and really fun. But that’s how we started. Any reputation we got from playing late-night sets came from there,” says Lasher. “On the bigger festivals, those are more prestigious spots.”
For this year’s festival season, U-Melt’s continuing their move into the daylight hours. For a band that’s accustomed to letting songs stretch well past twenty minutes, the confines of a tight festival set might appear to present them with a little difficulty. “We feel we're at our best when we have the most time to play and late night is usually when a band is allotted the most performance time,” explained Salzer. “We are psyched to be able to rage all night with fans that are up for it. Hour sets drive us crazy but having played so many shows and festivals, we’re really used to it. I think that we can really capitalize on these great opportunities we’re starting to get,” he pragmatically concludes. Lasher also takes a realistic view. “Festival season’s fun cause you can just go out swinging. In a 75 minute set, we can take four or five of our most banging tunes and just let them rock.”
Understanding that audiences are going to have different experiences depending on the length of time U-Melt has to play brings to mind the question of which format best presents the band. After considering a query akin to asking which child a parent loves most, Salzer gives a Solomon like response. “I think you have to split the difference. Although really, it’s a combination of both.” Miller agrees but has a preference for the late-night shows because they really have time to build momentum. “In my opinion, that’s where we’re, not really most at home, but where we most tend to get comfortable,” he says. “It’s the difference being doing a show and doing a showcase; the festival is a showcase kind of thing but when we’re doing our show, we’re doing our show,” says Lasher. “It’s one thing if you’re a band playing primarily in one genre when you have 45 or 60 minutes, but for us, we go through so many different genres during our set. People can see an hour set of U-Melt and still have absolutely no idea what we’re capable of,” follows up Salzer. Will they get an idea after three hours? Salzer smiles: “You’re getting a much better picture.” Miller agrees. “You’re definitely going to have a better idea of the scope of what we do.”
U-Melt traces their origins back to Phish’s 2003 IT Festival. It’s a story they tell fondly, hardly concealing their joy of possessing a back story filled with a tinge of comedy, a healthy dose of good fortune and one giant leap of faith. Salzer and Bendy’s band – a440 – were playing a gig somewhere amidst the expansive campgrounds and Lasher and Miller diligently tracked them down, following what amounted to fairy tale trail of bread crumbs. “We found little signs that they had put up. They were made of construction paper and ink that looked like they were put up in the middle of the night,” recalled Miller, playfully mocking his friends’ early attempts at marketing and promotion. “We found them but 3/5 of their band didn’t make it,” remembers Lasher of their quest to find a440.
“There were two or three other cars going up,” fills in Salzer. “One broke down and they aborted their mission. One of the other guys simply disappeared, never to be seen again. So it was just me and Bendy: I had an acoustic guitar, Bendy had his bass and we had a generator.” Seeing that the show was in the process of falling apart, Lasher and Miller offered to help out their friends and suggested they just jam. “We had nothing else to do,” relates Laser. “George and I picked up some percussion instruments and we started playing. I decided I couldn’t play the Clavia anymore, so I put it down and started talking to Rob’s girlfriend at the time and she said that a440 were having some issues, that they lost their keyboard player and maybe I could play with them.” Even though Head Monkey, Lasher and Miller’s band, were experiencing their own difficulties, Lasher remained loyal to Miller, protesting that he couldn’t ditch his friend and drummer. “’Oh,’ she said. Well, their drummer just quit too.’” Miller interjects with biblical flair: “And then the clouds opened up and the light shone down and the voices rang out Ahhhhhh.’”
“We spent the 14 hour ride home from Maine figuring out how to make it happen,” says Lasher. “Rob and I had a series of phone conversations where we were talking about what we wanted to do. He was a440’s main writer at the time and wrote pretty much everything for that band. I’m a writer too but I was looking for a situation where there would be someone else writing music. We started talking about where we were coming from and our inclination for this whole electronica thing that we hadn’t had the opportunity to mess around with yet. We were really on the same page.”
On the first day of rehearsals they knew they had something special. “We got the first tune cobbled together or at least the first half of it,” recalls Miller. “We got to a jam and almost simultaneously, Rob and I looked up and we were grinning, giddy; I knew.” Within weeks, the band that would become U-Melt were on the road as a440 playing their first of more than 30 gigs. “We learned how to play together on the road,” explains Miller. In the early days, they didn’t have too many songs: Lasher brought “Missed” and “Green Amber” which their old band couldn’t play because they lacked a bass player; they learned Medeski, Martin & Wood’s “Bubblehouse” and transformed “Schizophrenia,” an a440 song into their own. “With Zac and George, we could play the a440 songs the way they needed to be played,” says Salzer. “I feel bad for whoever was at those shows,” jokes Miller. “Our first show, we played 4 songs over the course of 2 sets,” recalls Lasher. “There was a lot of improvisation and a lot of feeling it out and figuring out what the fuck we were doing. It was very much a trial by fire,” he recollects. “We lost all their old fans.”
About four months after their first show, they went into the studio to record their first album. However, a new name was needed. “The music changed drastically and we weren’t the same band.” While brainstorming for a new name, they learned one of the hard lessons of rock and roll. “Finding a band name is real hard,” says Lasher with a bit of amazement. “Finally, our studio engineer said I’ve got this band name for you. It’s perfect. You’re going to call yourselves The Unbelievable Meltdown.’ We thought about it and it made sense; then we decided it was the worst band name ever. We were thinking in terms of merch and that U-Melt could be a college thing.” There were other practical concerns. “The Unbelievable Meltdown has a lot of letters,” noted Salzer pointing out how easy U-Melt fits on a T-shirt. “Who would go to Unbelievablemeltdown.com,” points out Miller. “However, it described the process that we had to go through to become a band, so it became the name of our first album,” says Salzer.
In addition to having a tremendous breadth of knowledge on the music whose traditions they help keep alive and thriving, U-Melt are also good historians. Knowing the pitfalls that have ensnared some of their predecessors, are they modeling their career path upon one group? “Probably not so much one band,” answers Miller. “It’s more of an amalgamation of certain things that certain bands did. Looking at what worked and what didn’t.” After opining that The Monkees seemed to have it going on, Lasher gives the question a bit more thought. “The Grateful Dead and Phish models to a large extent: however, they clearly had their problems and got to the point where it all kind of collapsed on them.” Salzer’s response is much more direct, “The Bangles. Definitely, The Bangles.”
Business models aside, U-Melt knows the secret to their success lies within their own hands. “It comes down to being true to the music,” explains Lasher. “We try to remain as true to our artistic vision as we possibly can. Anything that will allow us to do that is good; anything that doesn’t is bad,” he says, distilling the philosophy to its essence. “We’re not interested in compromising our art for any sort of compensation,” adds Salzer. “It’s just not worth it to us at this point. I’d rather play stuff we love for 300 people then stuff we don’t for thousands. That’s how you find peace with your soul and do what’s right,” he says with conviction before going completely Zen. “Material things mean absolutely nothing. Therefore the thought of selling out is the worst thing ever.”
At the present time, U-Melt has firm control over their music and everything surrounding it. In line with their goal of developing on their own terms, U-Melt maintains an arduous touring regimen. Constantly playing live shows yields benefits on numerous levels. “I think that the only way to get good at playing in front of people is to play in front of people,” says Lasher of one of the short range benefits. “You also learn a lot about the songs by playing them for an audience. You learn what works and what doesn’t well, you do if you’re paying attention.” As for the long term: “I look at bands like The Dead and Phish and to a lesser degree moe., Panic and Pearl Jam, these bands that spend a decade or more touring, they have these communities that form around them. People meet, ideas are exchanged, bonds are formed, people get married, have kids, and then before you know it, these bands have contributed to the propagation and hopefully the evolution of the species. I think that’s really the goal of any art. So when we’re on the road and I meet all these people who come to the shows, and they’re really cool people, then they come to our message board and meet each other and become friends: I can see the early seeds of this family forming, and it’s very exciting.”
Keeping themselves motivated doesn’t seem to be a problem. “It’s all about making yourself a better musician; making the music better” says Miller. “Every time we learn a song, it’s different from the last one, the arrangements get more difficult,” explains Salzer. “Right now, we play pretty well individually and collectively. But we are light years from being the players we want to be.” Lasher echoes his band mates and adds that: “Listening to other great music is extraordinarily motivating. It’s inspiring. I hear a great piece of music, go to a great show, it makes me want to go home and write something. It makes me want to go home and practice and get closer to what I just heard.” But in the end, they just want to be true to themselves. A thought Salzer sums up quite well. “If you’re motivated for bling, you’re going to do what it takes to get bling. But if you’re motivated to make original art that you love and that makes you happy and you can contribute to society by making music and actually doing something good? There’s no equal.”