A Year With Zoo Animal

It was on a Friday night at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, November 12th of last year to be exact. Yes, I was at church on a Friday night, but not in the sense that you’re thinking. There was a free, open-to-the-public rock show happening. I had originally went to the show because Retribution Gospel Choir was headlining, but there happened to be this band Zoo Animal opening for them. I’d only ever heard of them before that night. I mean, I had only heard good things, but I didn’t expect anything because the turnover rate for indie bands in Minneapolis is ridiculously high. There was something different though that happened when the trio took the stage. By the time they had finished playing, after lead singer Holly Newsom shredded her guitar on her knees then threw it down violently and ran offstage, not waiting for applause, I didn’t even want to see the next band. Retribution Gospel who? I wanted more Zoo Animal.

Now it is almost a year later. I’ve seen a countless number of their shows at every type of venue, from warehouses to the Basilica Block Party. I guess you could call me a super-fan, but it’s not just me who has been taking notice. As my enthusiasm for their music has grown, so has their popularity both locally and nationally. If you haven’t seen them live, you’ve probably heard them on the Current or Radio K. But just as they were working on new music in preparation for a national album release, drummer Thom Burton and bassist Tim Abramson decided to drop out. On the forefront of moving past the title of local-celebrities to something more, the band is being going through a drastic change.

This came as a very unwelcome surprise to me when I was at their recent show at The Cedar Cultural Center. It was a very positive show, which also happened to be Matt Latterell’s CD release, so everyone was having a good time. Matt was singing like it was his last show ever, the audience had no problem talking to the performers in between songs, and people even started dancing when Zoo Animal came on, something I’ve never seen before. But hey, that’s what you get at The Cedar. Despite the crowd’s enthusiasm, something was off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but their set was different than those I had seen before. They weren’t as focused. They seemed distracted. Then, a few songs before the finale, Holly went up to the mic. She looked at her two bandmates and said, “Some of us don’t want to tour, so after this there will only be one more show with this lineup.”

I word vomited. I couldn’t help it. My mind searched for something to say, to comprehend this, and in the silence that followed her announcement I issued a “WHhhAAt?!” loud enough for everyone to hear. I could feel people whisper behind me, asking their friends what was wrong with me, but I didn’t even care. I was far from worrying about anything other than my notion that my favorite band was breaking up.

It didn’t make any sense. This band that is working on a new album and is cemented in the local scene was losing two of three members. I had to see what was up. So I met with Holly Newsom on Friday to talk about this predicament.

Like most bands, they didn’t start off knowing they were going to be the next big thing. They just wanted to play music. Holly didn’t start the band with the goal of selling a certain amount of records or making it into a certain festival, but she did talk about their mission statement:

“I’m kind of a dork, ok, first of all, so I like to have goals even though I may not accomplish them. I just like to have a direction. And I remember when we started the band, I kind of was like, ‘Ok what am I doing? What is this?’ And I had a mission statement. I told it to the band a lot and it ended up coming up a lot like in practice and on stage and on tour. Really simple, I just said, ‘We’re supposed to write good music and perform it well.’”

While I don’t know any other bands with mission statements, it seems to have worked for them so far. So why would anyone leave when they have this good thing going? Not only that, but every time Zoo Animal plays they are intensely focused and connected to the music. It’s like walking in on a personal moment. Thom is at the same time exact and fervent in his drumming, and never seems to look at the crowd. He is in his own world, but when he abruptly ends a song by smashing a cymbal and then immediately grabbing it, silencing it, people can’t help but be drawn to him. Tim may seem like the silent bass player, but he doesn’t get lost as others in his position do. The bass lines come out a lot in their music and he has the same intensity, although less blatant. And Holly never sings a song the same twice. There are these nuances that show she is always present in the music, not just regurgitating it every show.

When as large of a change as this happens in the lineup of a band, it’s usually easy to see it coming. Certain members get sloppy with their instruments, act out at shows, and sometimes don’t even show up. This is not the case here. Holly explained that Tim and Thom leaving has been both friendly and necessary:

“It just ends up being one of those things where when this started I said, ‘Tim, you want to be in my band?’ You know, just like, that’d be fun. But then we start touring and Thom joins the band when we were kind of already known, so he kind of knew what he was getting into. But then as the band grows and as I—I want to be a career musician, that’s what I want to do. So I’m going to keep trying to get it going more and more. So Tim has been on three tours with me, I think, and Thom’s on two, and we’ve been out of town a little bit. And just like as things are going and the more that the band was kind of demanding their time, it just really manifested that they didn’t really want to be career musicians.”

“It was totally a friendly thing. We were down in Chicago playing a show and we’re in the green room and it was a conversation and both of them were just like, ‘Yeah, I just can’t be on the road.’ Because it’s really demanding, and Tim just got married. And I’m married too, but my husband, like, it’s a different thing. He wants me to be doing it. I was doing music before we got married and he knew that was happening. It’s lame to say it, but it’s a practical thing.”

That lead me to question the future of the sound of the band, because even if you are playing the same music, different musicians means a different feel to it.

“We were all in agreement that I should keep the name. And this solo stuff I’ve been doing I’m just going to start billing as Zoo Animal. I’m still going to do—you know we have sort of this history of like trio-grungy stuff, which there’s always going to be that flare in me, but it’s almost made me feel free to take more directions and be a little bit more experimental with some different kind of genres.”

Phew. We can all breathe now. Zoo Animal is NOT over. This is not an instance of a band breaking up, but of new beginnings. Not only will you still be getting the same minimalist grunge sound you know and love, but you’ll be getting a bunch of new stuff that will be equally as compelling.

But I shouldn’t even be talking like this yet. Zoo Animal still has ONE LAST SHOW left with the current lineup. So whether you’ve seen them before or this is the first time you’re hearing about them, you best be there (especially because it’s free). It will be on the night of November 11th at the best place to see a rock show in Minneapolis—Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. Yes, the same place I saw them a year ago.

On November 12th, 2010 I saw Zoo Animal for the first time. I found in them a band whose music I’ve connected with more than any other. Exactly a year later, I will see that version of the band for the last time. I’ve spent a year with their music in my life and while now it may seem like the end, Zoo Animal is not dead. They are just being reborn.