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Zao’s Scott Mellinger Discusses ‘Awake?’

Metal-core forefathers Zao have released ‘Awake?’ today, their first album in three years, but it may not be at the nearest record store made of brick and mortar to you-only 8,000 CDs were pressed by Ferret Records. If you get one of those physical copies there are six different art panels of paintings by Gabe Felice to choose from as your cover of the album.

Scott Mellinger, the man behind Zao’s guitars, caught up with Noisecreep via phone after finishing a shift of day job work and talked up the ideas and pressing decisions behind ‘Awake?’, whether two songs are about a fictional serial killer, and if Zao will be leaving their slumber from touring to hit the stage anytime soon.

Why call the album ‘Awake?’?

Really I think it just boils down to the sentiment throughout the record. The album doesn’t have a central theme and it’s not a concept album by any means.

I know Dan has had a lot of problems and things that have happened to him in the last year that I think he kind of more alert and aware (laughter) of life. I think awake is a term that he actually brought up. Overall it’s about the idea of people not caring about anything, not even life. I mean life is so awesome but people live it so mundanely.

I think that was the idea he was going for.

How does ‘Awake?’ different from ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’?

Sonically there is a big difference of course. That’s going to be the first thing people notice. With ‘Fear’ what it was talking about and the whole essence of the record kind of flowed over to this one. In ‘Fear’ there was a lot of context that dealt in politics. For example the whole meaning of ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’ is essentially that people are bound by their fear and maybe make certain choices because they are afraid to take risk.

Fear in general I think manipulates people into making decisions that they might not actually make, or think, or be open minded to. So with this record being ‘Awake?’ it’s essentially in that same realm of that idea. You have fear guiding you and then on you wake up to realize that the fear has been manifested in false ways.

Was this album recorded to analog tape like ‘The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here’ was?

No. This was actually fully pro-tools. One awesome thing we had a discussion with Steve (Albini) about was analog vs. pro-tools vs. digital. The thing with Steve is he’s not against recording digitally whatsoever. But what he is against, and it’s what we didn’t like about it, are the manipulations all bands can do. You don’t have to be a good band but as long as you have things put into the computer files you can manipulate it fix it and make things sound right. So when we do it, whether on pro-tools or on tape, we don’t go in there with a magnify glass and fix everything. I think that takes the humanity out of a record.

I mean a lot of bands use that to be able to change things that wouldn’t be there. I think things that are awkward and weird that comes out of a recording are special so you shouldn’t consider them mistakes. Those mistakes are the coolest parts of some records.

Actually the fun thing about this record was I did a lot of the guitar at my house. The drums were done in LA, the vocals were done in a studio in Pittsburgh, but everything else was done at my house. I was able to be really comfortable and nonchalantly record. I wasn’t in any kind of pressure with someone telling me to do some part again. A lot of the stuff is one two take and we just kept it. There wasn’t any going back in and manipulating it; it was real natural.

Why did you guys decide to record with Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying and Daniel Castleman?

What we wanted to do was work with people we have been friends with for a long time and are comfortable with. Tim we’ve known for a long time. He was a fan of us for the longest time. We kind of met him through that and then through his band. We’re all fans of his band and them as people so it was an easy, real comfortable, situation to work with. This is the way Zao has always done things.

I think a lot of people think a producer is a guy who has his hand in every aspect of the band be it songwriting or be it whatever. And really Zao has never been like that. Every record we have ever done songs are done and then we go into a studio and record them. Essentially we have always produced ourselves. With this record Tim was more or less a guy there to help us more with engineering questions and he helped get different tones that we liked and had ideas of what we could do with sounds. That stuff was valuable.

With Daniel the fact that he was able to take all these little pieces and put them all together and turn them into a record that sounded like we did it all together is a pretty big testament to what he can do behind the board.

Producing wise, essentially I produced it because all the songs were written before hand. All the ideas on how the songs were gonna go were done. But with what those guys helped out with were sonics, like getting different tones for drums and guitar and stuff. It was kind of neat when I was recording guitars they would go into pro-tools essentially and add a clean signal so Daniel would send me back five or six different tones that he would re-amp in his studios. It was really neat to work that way; you don’t have that waste of time of just sitting there in the studio trying to get sounds.

I love doing it this way. It was a lot better than most of the recording sessions we’ve had. The one with Albini was probably the top though.

Why did you guys re-record ‘Romance Of The Southern Spirit’ for this album?

Because that is one of my favorite songs ever. Russ actually wrote that song all by himself. I came in and wrote my little vocal part but musically Russ did that whole song. When it was all finished and we had it for a b-side for ‘Funeral of God’ I was extremely disappointed in the way it sounded.

Liking that song so much I think it deserved to have a nice Zao-sounding recording for it. We wanted to give that song the credit it’s due. Before it just sounded like a whole mess. It sounded like a new band in a basement. I was kind of bummed on that. Not that that’s a bad thing, I mean it was kind of cool for what it was but we wanted to give that song a little better recording.

I have to ask, are the songs ‘Dark passenger Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 about Dexter?

Which is? Dexter who?

Oh. Dexter the TV show and book, the serial killer who works for the police department.

Oooooh I see what you mean now. Actually no. I think what Dan was going for in that was… actually I don’t know. I do know a lot of it was where you have this opposition involved in any choice made. There is always this like passenger, maybe it’s your conscious, but that’s kind of what his deal with that was.

And I know those songs dealt with a close friend of Dan and mine that committed suicide this past year. And those songs really deal with that kind of idea and that situation that happened.

I don’t know. That may be a good question for Dan. I’m going to ask him because I’m not 100% sure.

Yeah. On the show and in the books the dark passenger is the need to kill that needs fed, that is always there wanting to be the one in charge.

Ah! Plus if you look at what Dan was talking about it is that other part of you, that other side of your thought process.

It kind of fits in.

It does kind of fit in for sure.

How did you guys decide it was time to write a new record in the hiatus time?

Right when we got home from the last tour I started writing, I mean, I can not stop. It’s almost a compulsive thing with me that I have to write no matter what. It’s never a conscious thing. I just always write.

With this once there was just enough compiled songs that we liked that it was time to get another record out and it had been two years and a lot of people were moving on and doing other things. Life was just happening during those two years. We didn’t want to wait too long to put something out because then you become irrelevant. Which who knows, we might be now I don’t know.

Are their plans to play out at all coming up?

Oh defiantly. That is the one thing that does suck when you’re in a situation like Zao. The band is at a stature where we can defiantly play but touring… I mean I’m married and have a seven-month old daughter now so it’s really hard to leave. And financially it’s really hard to keep yourself afloat, especially in the economic time were in.

I think what happened with the band is we were touring so much and we were getting pushed into doing tours we didn’t necessarily want to do, all for the sake of selling records. You realize that our band has a following, that we love, and we might as well just do things for the following that we have. And I don’t want to go out there and fake being something that we’re not just to sell more records. We were all getting so burnt on the band it wasn’t fair to fans. I know for me personally, and I don’t know if everyone felt this way, but you get to the point to where in the thirtieth show on the eighth tour your doing you just don’t have it in you anymore. And the last thing we ever wanted to do was resent playing. And not that that ever happened but when you get to a point your not giving 100% it’s time to stop.

Did the band not touring work into the decision to only press 8,000 physical copies of the album?

Actually that whole scenario wasn’t even us. We didn’t even know that was going to happen until a couple of weeks ago.

I think. I mean. There is politics to a label. I understand with the way the music industry is right now and CD sales are defiantly down. For the label it does seem not cost effective to release physical CDs as it is to have downloadable content. Now personally, me I’m not into that. If I’m going to spend ten bucks I want a CD in my hands.

If it was up to me we would print as many CDs as humanly possible but I understand. I don’t fault Ferret whatsoever. I completely understand especially if we are not going to be touring 200 dates out of the year and pushing the record as much as they are then I can understand them not wanting to over spend on things.

What I’m hoping for is that the record can get at least enough push from fans that they would press more in the future. But they just want to be safe with what they are doing. Especially with the way our band is working, but it still bums me out.

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