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A-Z's Mark Zonder: "I think the drumming is the best that I have ever done. It is just as complex as the past, but put around music that is selling the hook and the chorus"

Interview with Mark Zonder from A-Z
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 23 September 2022, 12:01 AM

Sometimes it is how one feels, nothing everything has to be complex, it can be the reach for the hook. Catchy songs in Metal music were always sort of part of the plan, these rounded up people, empowered them with strong lyrics and tough music that took them forward. Of course, being complex and over the charts with musicianship skills is rand, but to find the right path for a song that would stick, that is touch. Mark Zonder, a veteran drummer that saw a lot and his history is known, gathered up a few talented musicians to form A-Z. With a debut album out, Steinmetal had to find out about the new group, and talk shop about music.

Hello Mark, it is an honor to have you for this conversation with Metal Temple online Magazine, how are things on your end sir?

All good here. Thank you for taking the time.

After having been listening to your amazing articulate drumming technique over the years, whether in Warlord, Fates Warning and also you were featured in such acts as Spirits Of Fire, here you are with a new thing, a new baby perhaps, A-Z. What can you tell about the motivation to start this band in the first place, was it merely to provide the hook to the public in contrast to the complexities of the past?

Always love the band idea. I actually left Fates as I got married and we were starting a family. Those kids are now 16 and much easier to travel. But I tried the same idea in 2007 with Slavior. Basing songs on drum grooves and ideas to start. This kind of music is the kind that I really love and listen to most of the time. Who doesn’t like a catchy song? Even though the songs have big hooks, I think the drumming is the best that I have ever done. It is just as complex as the past, but put around music that is selling the hook and the chorus.

You speak of the 80s, at least from what I could conjure from the aspects that you mentioned, the pure vibe of the sweaty, keyboard induced, AOR, which in the US flourished quite well back in the day. Since you were there, and an active musician back in those days, I wonder, what makes the music of those days, Rock and Metal related, so compelling in your view?

Actually my 80’s were filled with Warlord. Not so much AOR, but Rainbow, Deep Purple and the Scorpions. Those days had great ORIGINAL bands with original sounds. Every band sounded different and had something new to offer.

Being larger than life, the stadium oriented band, or even larger venue driven, I believe for it to be the aspiration of many artists worldwide. The chance to perform, and being fanned, by vast crowds, that is something else. Since we are talking about accessibility, as a musician that has been clinging to the proggier edge, was it hard for you in a way to let that technical side of yourself to lower its guard, or lay low?

No, as I don’t think I have changed my style or playing. Would you say I did that in FW Eye to Eye? That song is a commercial song that crosses over. I have learned over the years that a lot of the crazy stuff goes over people's heads and they don’t get it. I always fashioned myself as a groove player, even in the most extreme situations. It is provided a foundation and a groove that the audience can grab onto.

Gradually, you recruited members to form the band, under the name of A-Z. Probably the main highlight of this lineup, and truth be told all are excellent musicians and great picks, you have an old friend as the voice, Ray Adler. Both of you played in Fates Warning, with the latter still there as the frontman. How did you know, right from the get go, and I know that you tried others, that Adler would be the perfect fit?

I knew he was into this kind of music and I knew he always tried to sing in the pocket and use the drums to map out his lines. He just got it.

About the lineup, what can you tell about the chemistry between the musicians, there is a difference of backgrounds for some, and different mentalities. How did that variety play its part for the better on the record in your opinion?

What really stands out is that everyone is allowed to do what they do. Yes, someone needs to drive the bus and make decisions, but when it came to the music we all just contributed. As you said, 5 different people that are bringing in 5 different points of view. We all have totally different influences and ideas. It is not like everyone in the band grew up together and had the same favorite bands. That would usually lead to a stale musical landscape. 5 people thinking exactly the same.

Together as one, you signed with Metal Blade Records, and recently, you released your self- titled debut album. With the album being out for a little while now, how have been the reactions? Would you say that what people had to say about the album is as you expected?

It seems like it is liked very much, both the press and the audience. More importantly it seems like both the press and the audience understands what we are trying to do and accomplish. When someone says it is not a prog record, they are correct as it was not meant to be. We were very clear about what it is and what it is not. It seems that 99% understand that and judge it on those merits.

The fact that this material has been waiting to get out since you started it back in 2020, I can assume that there was somewhat of a pressure to let it all out. Was that the case? Did the pandemic, or accurately, its end, had an effect on the two years gap right until the release?

Yes, it did. We turned the record in to the label in Nov 21 and it did not come out until Aug 22. That is a very long time. Covid and manufacturing had a lot to do with that.

While you were thinking about 80s related material as a reference, and a kickstarter for this journey, the album, “A-Z”, as I went through the tracks, is rather close and personal in its lyrical end, not painting a glowing picture but rather darkening a tad bit. In your perception, what is going on lyrically within the record? What is being expressed here on the majority of the songs?

You would need to ask Ray, but my conversations have given me this info. Ray mentioned that some of the stuff is his personal feelings and some of it is just good old rock and roll and it sounded good. This is not a concept record, just a good old fashion rock and roll record. I actually find the lyrics and music very uplifting and many people have said that this perfect as it is time for feel good music instead of all of the doom and gloom. I think Stranded kind of nails that.

With the 80s being the flying flag, the signal of the band’s musical spirituality, there is an introduction that it is not going to be your normal AOR / Hard Rock / Heavy Metal album. Twisting and turning with old legacies, while paying attention to the catch, the hook, there is an interesting fusion of directions on the record. As far as musicianship goes, and also according to your vision, what can you comment about this fusion?

The 80’s were not the goal. The goal was catchy songs, big choruses and I knew with the players I had it would have a deep musical direction that all musicians could appreciate it. As much as some of it sounds easy or simple, it is actually very deep and intertwined as a cover band would have difficulty trying to reproduce it correctly. The 80’s flag is about big hooks and choruses and not doing 8 minute songs.

What I liked about the songs, as I mentioned a bit about it earlier, is that you were able to break the Popish formulation that has been the guiding light for many albums, and songs, back in the 80s that are AOR up to Traditional Metal. This is a cause effect from a songwriting process that is of the next level. What can you tell about the songwriting approach on the record? How do you find this little breakaway from the known 80s patterns when writing songs?

We used a classic pop sensibility when it came to song structure and not using 12 parts per song. Much more difficult to write good songs with less parts and really have an emotional journey for the listener. As you noticed, we try and get the vocals started very early as well as getting to the first chorus. Again, we were doing what we thought sounded best, not relying on the 80’s formula.

We talked about breaking the formula, I have to say that just with your drumming alone, you made such colorful, and catchy, songs, even more interesting than maintaining the basics. You are one of the main reasons why this record sounds highly rich with content. What is your comment on that?

I believe as long as people can hear the drums and catch on to what you are doing and find the groove or pulse, you are doing your job. It was never written that it had to be kick snare kick snare. Stuart Copeland is another example of playing nontraditional commercial songs, but always having the groove covered.

Listening to “Stranded”, I found it to be an atmospheric pleasure, but in time, it changes its face, it opens up a new world, displaying drama, and a little intensity of the vocal end to make a strong point. What can you tell about this track? What is your appreciation of it?

Great song. Ray’s favorite. Again, would probably sound pretty flat with simple drum stuff. I start the song playing an electronic kit for sound choices and then it kicks into power ballad. The next verse has a reggae style feel and the drums just fit the vibe of the song. Love the ending. Will be awesome live.

Going groovier, and heavier, is the rolling thunderous force of “Borrowed Time”, where Adler shines with his great tone, and the music answers in its own special kind of greatness in kind. What can you tell about the creative process of this particular tune?

I sat down towards the end and listened to all of the songs and asked myself what was missing. A slow kind of grinding open song. So I sat down at 92 bpm on the click and recorded a few ideas to send to Viv and Joop. That is the slow verse parts. The cool thing about 92 bpm when it is double, it makes a great driving chorus part. But this song was planned to help round out the record. We were not just cranking out sounds and hoping for the best. Everything in the band is thought out and planned for maximum result.

Looking back when you first started this band, and through the process of recruiting, writing the songs, rehearsing and recording, and since there is always a first time for everything, no matter the experience, what can you say that you learned from the making of this album? What did you learn about yourself as a musician?

What I learned that when you produce the album and take charge you have to deal with everybody's different personalities and how they work. The way you deal with one person does not always work for the next person. As a musician it wasn’t really a learning process as much as a chance that I could make the decisions and do things my way. I had a certain version from the start and with 4 other guys it sometimes can go all over the place. I was able to keep the vision as I took charge and actually put my money where my mouth was to make sure these ideas were accomplished. If you want to do high end stuff, record budgets today, especially for a band like us, require you to come out of pocket.

Since your purpose was to get out there to be that big venue band, how do you see your schedule with A-Z to support the album?

Working on the live stuff now. Actually writing new material as well. Tough with the back log of bands that got cancelled in 2021, now playing in 2022.

Mark, it was a great pleasure of mine sir, to have you to talk about the new band and record. Thank you for making the 80s far more interesting musically, AOR / Hard Rock concerned at least. All the best

Thanks. Appreciate it. If you have any other questions or need more info, just let me know.


 



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