-With a new CD and yin/yang balance, Zen Exit is focused on more than beer and toilet paper
by Lee Abraham
Passion screams through a tenor sax. Sweaty bodies shimmy and shake on the dance floor as the bass and drums lock into some sort of funkadelic Egyptian mambo groove. Slapping the beat into a frenzy, the conga player -is- time. Two guitar players blur the distinction between rhythm and melody, each painting sound in psychedelic, impressionist era pastels. Sweet and lilting, a female voice rises above the madly festive bohemian din, singing something about an underwater city. Music has become a runaway vehicle careening through another dimension. Breath deep and hang on to the steering wheel of your mind, life's freeway just got off at the -Zen Exit.-!
Las Vegas is bustling with bands. Each group has its own vibe, very few bands really resemble one another these days. Unlike some music scenes around the country that are pegged to a particular style of music, the Neon City sound is currently under construction. Styles, influences, and attitudes are as varied among local bands as the 7,000 plus people that have been moving to this town every month for the past decade.
Week after week, independent, locally produced CDs are released reflecting that diversity. A number of bands with distinctive styles appear poised for the -next level-.
"Sometimes the local scene is like a horse race," says Todd Janko, guitar player and co-founder of -Zen Exit-, "and sometimes I think we're the dark horse of this town."
For Janko the starting gun sounded about two years ago, when he met Kelly Zander Gaughan, a UNLV student at the time. The two strummed acoustic guitars together, had fun and started writing songs. Soon they were playing as a duet on the local coffeehouse circuit, calling themselves -Zander-. From there they put a band together and went electric. Line-up changes were constant.
As people came and went, the songwriting duo continued to develop material. With the creative fires burning brightly, -Zander- became -Zen Exit-, and the newly named creative collaboration went into the recording studio. Every step of the production process proved to be a learning experience. "We just wanted to do it right and make it something we could be proud of," says Gaughan. "We ended up redoing it three times."
It took a year to get the CD finished. Even as the tracks were being mixed, the band lineup was still in flux. The steep learning curve of the recording studio and other music biz crappola, including management company grief, had taken its toll. Piled on top of the blur of changing musicians, Janko and Gaughan were never sure what to expect from one day to the next. Both credit the steadying influence of Todd Jones at Montage Studios during this critical period of the band's development.
"He really shaped us up and helped turn things around, " says Gaughan. In addition to recording and producing the album, Jones helped out by playing drums and bringing in a few high-grade studio pros to play whatever parts were needed. Most importantly, he instilled a sense of musical discipline to Zen Exit's highly creative but unstructured approach.
With structure came harmony. Jone's steady beat in the studio took confusion out of the process. A yin/yang equilibrium quickly emerged with Janko, the intense, driven musician, balancing Gaughan's creative, playfully innocent muse. Just as the debut album, -Island of Tahoe-, was being finished, the rest of the pieces to the puzzle were also falling into place.
In addition to long-standing -Zen Exit- bassist, John Cashman, four new players have joined the band within the past six months. Jacob Lowry is a friend from way back. Adding his guitar to the live show enables -Zen Exit- to recreate the two-guitar interplay heard on the CD through the magic of multi-track recording. Dave Avillion, a drummer with an electronic kit and sax player David Bachart, had been in a band together in Pennsylvania. Both are technically trained musicians and have bolstered the band's fundamentals, continuing the gospel as preached by Zen master Jones. With the earthy texture of congas, Kris Ross adds yet another dimension to -Zen Exit's- polytonal projections.
Not only can these guys play, they each have something to contribute to the Zen state. "I thought they needed to take their entertainment seriously, so they could seriously entertain people," says Lowry, on his perception of the band before he joined. "We've accomplished that with the people we've got now."
With the new line-up, -Zen Exit- covers a lot of stylistic ground. From straight-ahead melodic power rock, to Latin tinged fusion and beyond, the music combines a little funk, a little metal, and a lot of energy. Far from a smooth groove machine, -Zen Exit- is a wild ride. Ranging from trippy hippie to hopeless romantic, Gaughan's lyrics also have a full twist of wackiness. "Beer and toilet paper go for top dollar in a city underwater," is just a glimmer of her mind-bending imagery.
Although -Zen Exit- has refocused on serious entertainment, there's no way they're going to get -too- serious. "It's not -all- about getting a record deal," says Janko. "It's about having fun." Says Gaughan, "We just wanna make the music that makes people smile."
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