If Santa Cruz is about keeping it weird, then a quirky band like Coffee Zombie Collective is a natural choice as the musical entertainment for This Is How We Cruz, a celebration of all things Santa Cruz that will take place at The Rio Theatre on Wednesday, June 8th. CZC specializes in twangy, tongue-in-cheek adaptations of tunes by the likes of Sir Mix-a-Lot, Journey, The Flaming Lips and Motörhead for ukulele, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar, trumpet and melodica. True to the “Collective” part of its name, the band has a fluid lineup, sometimes bringing in stand-in musicians when one or more of its seven core members can’t make it to a gig.Ukulele player/lead vocalist Nate Lieby played electric guitar in the indie rock band 300 Pounds before founding Coffee Zombie Collective almost six years ago. The day after he got home from the former band’s first West Coast tour, he learned that his wife was pregnant. With a lifestyle change looming, he picked up the ukulele as “something I could travel with and noodle around on without bugging people too much.”
Faced with the choice of what to play on his new instrument (“I was like, ‘I’m not gonna sit around and play “Somewhere over the Rainbow”; I’m not gonna do what people expect someone to do on the ukulele,’” he recalls), Lieby found himself Googling the Prince-penned, Sinéad O’Connor-popularized tune “Nothing Compares 2 U,” The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” and other such songs that he could “oversell and get my goof on [with].” A friend of his, guitarist Dustin DiMauro, soon began playing along. Lieby’s wife Kristi, who was learning to play banjo at the time, joined in, and Coffee Zombie Collective began to take shape.
Lieby, a computer programmer by day, explains that when it comes to choosing songs for the band to cover, “the litmus test is: Could I go out to a random room, do this in karaoke, do the usual overselling and theatric performance of it and turn everyone’s head?” The fast-talking musician adds that “if there’s a song that we all flat-out hate to play, it’s not going to happen. But we’ve yet to really find the song.”
Lieby admits, however, that the band does play many songs that “none of us drove around in the car in high school and bumped in our cassette player.” He cites Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” as an example. “It’s [only] three chords, but it gets right into your brain,” he notes. “As a musician, how could you not appreciate that on some level? [The songwriters] are tapping into some part of your lizard brain. You might try to overthink it, outthink it, but it’s gonna get you. You’re gonna be walking down the street, and suddenly you’re singing, “I stay up too late…’”
Coffee Zombie Collective’s covers have provoked a wide and sometimes surprising array of reactions. “At one point we did a pair of songs by Mötley Crüe that we thought was going to just murder all the time, and they just flopped,” Lieby states. “Some of [the songs that don’t instantly go over well] we hang onto, because we’re like, ‘No, we’re gonna continue playing Motörhead until somebody gets it.’”
No combination of pop culture references—no matter how incongruous—is off-limits for Coffee Zombie Collective. For example, Lieby has been known to recite lines from Star Wars during a medley of Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song,” Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” The band has also recently taken to playing the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the middle of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
According to Lieby, who also provides percussion for the band by way of a homespun, foot-operated instrument called the BoomSlap, this kind of playfulness is what keeps the music new and fresh for the band. “If someone’s bored, they’re gonna look over at me and try to make me screw up,” he states. “They’re going to start making Chewbacca sounds at me, or they’re going to start doing the Carlton in the middle of the song. Every time we play, it’s that little twist of improv and winking and nodding at one another. We’re doing these jokes where if you saw us last time, we’ve added two things onto it. We’re constantly tweaking and upgrading stuff as we go.”
Coffee Zombie Collective
CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/coffeezombiecollective
Nate Lieby on Twitter: https://twitter.com/n8lieby
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