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Ziggens-Zagging : The Band Goes In and Out of Lots of Musical Styles but Can Always Be Counted On for Fun


HUNTINGTON BEACH — As the Ziggens try to make themselves known to the world, prevailing trends in rock music are not on their side. But human nature probably is.

Conventional wisdom says that the bands most likely to hit it big in the alternative-rock sweepstakes are those that can deliver tough music for tough times by snarling their rage, crying out their anguish or venting their contempt. But some part of human nature still wants to take delight in what's sweet, silly and innocent; it still wants a good, lighthearted laugh.

Enter the Ziggens, an Orange County rock trio that, like Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band, is guaranteed to raise a smile.

For the past three years, members Bert Susanka, Brad Conyers and Jon Poutney--who use the common surname Ziggen for stage purposes--have been turning out music that's hard to sum up in a word or two, although "fun" covers a good deal of it.

Musically, the Ziggens go in and out of lots of styles: Their just-released album, "Chicken Out!" offers a good helping of exuberant surf-rock riffing, a touch of punk craziness and left-turns into funk grooves and ska rhythms.

For reasons that Susanka, the main songwriter, doesn't quite understand, the Ziggens also have a substantial repertoire of original country songs. Whatever style they attempt, the Ziggens are able to spice it with a catchy tune and an inviting vocal harmony blend between guitarist Susanka and drummer Conyers.

The Ziggens' lyrical concerns are even harder to peg briefly, although once again, it's the sense of fun and humor that registers most strongly. This is a band that has composed silly odes to TV characters, including Gilligan and Goober, that celebrates such everyday activities as grocery shopping and ordering a meal and that, in fact, seems to regard no speck of pop-cultural minutiae or snippet of daily routine as too small to serve as an object of wonderment or comic commentary.

On the other hand, Susanka also regularly crafts poignant ballads about romantic loss, alcoholic desolation and his own intimations of mortality, all of which benefit from his tendency to sound, in more mellow moments, like Paul Simon. The spiritual concerns that arose on a few songs from the band's 1994 cassette, "Rusty Never Sleeps," have grown more pronounced on "Chicken Out!"

What, really, is one to make of a band that gleefully belches its way through a surf-rock tune called "Burpin' U.S.A.," then turns around and offers, in "Real Presents," a folksy, straightforward declaration of faith in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation--the belief that the bread and wine used in the Holy Communion ceremony are transformed into the body and blood of Christ?

On stage, Susanka's usual outfit consists of two thrift-store purchases: a dowdy green ladies' dress and a shako--that furry, cocoon-like drum-major's hat. Conyers, a sharp, experienced drummer, has been known to sally out from behind his kit on a skateboard in mid-performance.


But there is no forced zaniness among the Ziggens when they sit down in person, as they did recently at the modest Huntington Beach apartment where Susanka, 32, lives with his wife and two sons.

Susanka, who makes his living running a medical office, is soft spoken and direct, an avowed lover of family life who cuddled his son Paul on his lap during the interview until the 3-year-old was fast asleep.

Conyers is the most likely Ziggen to offer a witty quip, bassist Poutney the most likely to smile amiably and say nothing. Both members of the Ziggens' rhythm team are 27; they work together at Knott's Berry Farm, doing sound engineering and staging for the theme park's entertainment department.

In "Chicken Out!," the Ziggens feel they have made their first real album. It features detailed studio work, abetted by producer Rob Perez, that rounds out the trio's efforts with additional instruments such as Dobro, fiddle, steel guitar and E-bow guitar.

The first Ziggens album available on CD, it's a long way from their 1992 debut, "Wake Up and Smell the Ziggens," which was recorded live in Conyers' living room.

Over the past year, Susanka and Conyers said, the band has begun to think that its idiosyncratic music and lighthearted style might be able to find a wide audience among the same generation that has been written off by many a broadly generalizing commentator as a terminally sour and resentful bunch.

"We thought that high-school kids would hate us. I thought they were going to want anger," said Susanka, who retired in 1993 from a brief career as a high-school teacher because "being hit in the head by flying metal objects" didn't suit him.

Nevertheless, the Ziggens decided a year ago to start playing more all-ages concerts, often sharing bills with Sublime, the popular, hard-edged Long Beach ska-punk band that has nothing in common with the Ziggens except a record label (Skunk), and an unlikely mutual friendship.

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