The Detroit indie-rocker strikes an optimal balance between wit and sincerity on his refreshing new album.
“I’m a really goofy guy in my personal life, and I love making jokes and stuff. I wanted this album to be goofy and funny, but I still wanted the subject matter to be important,” VanZandt said.
“For artists, especially early on, everything can feel like it’s the art school film where it’s black and white and super serious. The big lesson I learned between the last album and this one is that a lot of my favorite serious art still has a lot of humor in it … and some of my favorite comedies are tearjerkers and have a real serious side to them.”
That ideal mindset flows throughout the 11 authentic tracks featured on Music to Your Ears. Filled with vivid tales of youth, nostalgia, and the passage of time, the album whisks listeners along from one memorable VanZandt adventure to the next.
Zany escapades occur at rock ‘n’ roll history museums, Wendy’s, Bruce Springsteen on ice shows, the Stranger Zone, mountaintops and other locales. Collectively, those stops provide greater insight into VanZandt’s past, present and future.
VanZandt also features brands and music artists as his ironic sidekicks throughout Music to Your Ears. These “pals” include AC/DC, Guitar Center, Jamba Juice, Eagles, Vineyard Vines, Enclave, Cat Power, Google Earth, McDonald’s and others to distinctly set each track’s scene and mood.
“When you go outside, it’s not like forests and rivers anymore, it’s Subway and Domino’s. If you’re going to do a modern-day landscape painting, like Jake Longstreth, it’s a painting of an abandoned Circuit City,” said VanZandt, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in art history from Wayne State University.
“I wanted it to have that feel and also in a pop-art way, like ‘What do brands mean and signify?’ That’s a big 21st century anxiety that we all deal with. I wanted it to feel true to actual modern life, and there’s something I love about how banal all that stuff is.”
Music to Your Ears
Peppered with infectious melodies, raw ‘90s indie rock and jagged noise rock, VanZandt’s Music to Your Ears sonically lands smack dab in the middle of sweet-and-sour goodness.
“The goal for me is for it to be hooky and poppy and accessible and super melodic, like my favorite songwriters are Robert Pollard and Paul McCartney,” VanZandt said.
“But I also don’t want it to feel too slick or too sweet. One songwriting lesson I’ve taken from Robert Pollard and Stephen Malkmus in the last few years is that while they have these super sweet, sugary melodies … they also have these vinegary sections where it’s super bitter.”
VanZandt demonstrates that balance on the nostalgic anthem “Night at the Rock & Roll History Museum.” Grateful electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums echo his respect for the classic-rock generation as sings, “If you only knew in time / That styles change, that people die / I will keep your song alive / I’ll hold it close until the end of time.”
“My mom passed away a couple of years ago … and the times where I’d feel most connected to her after or when I was able to properly grieve … is when I’d hear songs from her generation. I’ll listen to ‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen, and I can imagine my dad driving around because he’s a Springsteen head,” VanZandt said.
“As people from that Boomer classic-rock generation pass on, it feels like it’s connected to my mom’s passing. It’s just like that whole time is slowly going away, and I’m literally like a child of that era because my parents are both Boomers and I grew up on that culture.”
VanZandt also admits the track reflects a lighthearted side, including a nod to the 2006 Ben Stiller film Night at the Museum.
“It’s also a goofy thing of like how rock ‘n’ roll has had its time; it’s not the dominant medium anymore,” he said. “That’s my culture, and I want to stay true to it, but I also have to do it in a way that’s poking fun at it. It’s even a joke about Night at the Museum and things coming back to life.”
After spending a “Night at the Rock & Roll History Museum,” VanZandt visits a fast-food chain of the future on “Wendy’s in the Digital Age.” A determined ensemble of synth, electric guitar, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, bass and drums explore unexpected possibilities in a new world.
He sings, “Wendy’s in the digital age / Elon wants a drive-thru in space / Celestial devotion / Terrestrial the motion / A shifting of tectonic plates.”
“There was something I liked about that title ‘Wendy’s in the Digital Age.’ I liked that it could be Wendy’s the brand, but it also could be like Wendy is in the digital age. That’s a classic Bruce Springsteen character name … and it feels like ‘50s America, but now we’re in the digital age,” VanZandt said.
“It’s also about terraforming where people are looking at Mars and the moon and turning them into places where human life can exist. It’s like a comedic thing of ‘All right, how long is it going to take for Starbucks to show up on Mars?’”
Next, VanZandt departs “Wendy’s” and skids toward New Jersey for “Springsteen on Ice.” Downhome electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, drums and percussion reflect that Boss authenticity as he sings, “And if you don’t believe me / Then you just have shit taste / Come up front at our next show / I swear I’ll say it to your face.”
“I’m a huge Springsteen fan … and the title actually started as a joke. I had put up an Instagram poll asking what the next album should be called. They were all really goofy, dumb names, but then I kinda saw that one as a challenge to myself,” VanZandt said.
“If that’s a prompt, then how do you actually write a song around that and make it fit in a way? To me, the joke was like, ‘We know Disney on Ice,’ and then there’s been ‘Springsteen on Broadway,’ but imagine ‘Springsteen on Ice?’ and his world of characters.”
On a more serious note, the track also lyrically serves as VanZandt’s mission statement for Music to Your Ears
“A big thing for me about the album is not being too tasteful. I spent so much time early in life trying to have good taste and figuring out what that means,” he said.
“Then you hit a point and realize you’re just doing what everyone else has told you is good and that actually not being tasteful is more fun and cooler. All my favorite artists have always broken codes of taste.”
With his own tastes redefined, VanZandt shares his newfound enlightenment on “Theme from the Stranger Zone.”
Hyperactive electric guitar, bass, synth, glockenspiel and drums reflect VanZandt’s zest for life as he sings, “Meet me on Griswold after dark / Streetlights shine Capitol Park / We will light the city on fire / Always thought I’d fall if I walked on that fire.”
“The song’s mostly about energy and having the romance of being young at night in the city. You’ve got a couple of beers in you and everything seems magical—that’s kinda what rock ‘n’ roll is about,” said VanZandt, who moved to Detroit in 2018.
“It’s a nice balance where maybe if all the other songs have more thought-out lyrics, it can be nice to have a song that’s just about mood and the energy of rock ‘n’ roll and what makes it special in that way, too.”
VanZandt captures that special rock sensibility on the uplifting album closer “Our Light is Always Shining.” Hopeful electric guitar, acoustic guitar, pedal steel, slide guitar, bass, cello, banjo and drums unlock a new start.
He sings, “This is a coronation of all the times you lost / An exoneration of all your rights and all your wrongs / It’s a chance to start over.”
“I just wanted to write a good song for opening sets with,” VanZandt said.
“That one has a lot of open strings on the guitar … there’s just something about it that I felt like was a good way to welcome everyone in. I wanted the song to be like the band is slowly entering together, and you get that part in the middle where everyone crashes in.”
Album Creation and Release Show
VanZandt started seriously considering tracks for Music to Your Ears in 2018. At the time, he had written “Our Light is Always Shining,” and then churned out two additional songs once 2021’s Through the Fire, to the Place Beyond had dropped.
“Then I wrote ‘Night at the Rock & Roll History Museum,’ and that’s when I was going through this whole realization of ‘Oh my God, it shouldn’t be serious. It should be silly, and it should be fun, and it should be stupid. It can’t be dumb enough. Dumb is what’s fun,’” VanZandt said.
By spring 2021, VanZandt started recording the album’s 11 tracks with producer/multi-instrumentalist Austin Stawowczyk of Eureka Records. They did additional recording sessions that fall and into 2022 before finalizing Music to Your Ears.
“We hit it off right away. The first day in the studio Austin was making all these references to things that were super specific to my [tastes], like Thomas Pynchon, Tim Heidecker comedy and things I love to death. They’re like one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” he said.
“They’re so good at their craft that they can make something perfect, but they’re also silly and goofy enough to have the confidence to subvert that and not have it be perfect. They’re also the most versatile musician … they play every instrument that I play better than me.”
To help elevate the album’s sound, VanZandt also collaborated with George Jr. (bass), Gavin Langley (cello), Andrew Benjamin (backing vocals, percussion) Poppy Morawa (drums), Kris Herrmann (drums) and John Kick (drums, percussion).
“I met Kris through Austin, and they’re both in Shortly and Seaholm together so they have a long history. They’re like best friends, and they’re a team; they do all the Eureka sessions together. Austin’s this super trained producer, and Kris is just a monster drummer,” he said.
“George Jr. is my best friend, and he’s the bass player in the band. He’s the one I meet with the most to go over songs. I’ve known Andrew for years, and he’s probably the person I’ve played with the longest. Poppy plays drums, and I’m in the band In a Daydream with them.”
VanZandt, Herrmann, George Jr., Benjamin and Randy Favot will celebrate the release of Music to Your Ears with a show tonight at The Loving Touch in Ferndale. Jake LeMond, Au Gres and Lee Cleaveland & The Lefthand Band will open.
“We’re doing a 10-song set with one old song, so it’s gonna be nine songs from the album not in order,” he said. “We wanted to order it in a way where there’s enough contrast between soft moments and getting the energy back up.”
After tonight’s show, VanZandt will head to Portland, Oregon in February to record a new EP with Mo Troper. He’ll also do a couple of weekend tours with his bandmates.
“I’m a huge fan of Seaholm and Shortly, but I found them after meeting Austin and Kris,” he said. “This is the first time it’s like someone where I was a fan of them and now I’m getting to work with them. It feels like a childhood dream.”
Friday, Jan. 20 | Doors 7 p.m.
The Loving Touch, 22634 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale