The band Zebrahead has brought a sound of a different stripe to the Orange County music scene, combining catchy melodic-rock choruses with trenchant rap verses.
The ranks of punk- and ska-influenced acts and wrathful Korn-sound-alike hard-rock bands have swelled locally during the O.C. scene's commercial boom of the past 4 1/2 years, to the point where a "ho-hum, here's another one" factor has set in.
Zebrahead was born in mid-1996 out of boredom with the old punk-pop routine. Four musicians from La Habra and Fullerton who had been playing that style in three low-profile bands united with a hometown rapper buddy to form a band in which anything goes--and everything comes out sounding persuasively organic and cohesive rather than patched-together and jumbled.
Zebrahead's "Waste of Mind" album comes out today on Columbia Records, and the band will celebrate with a free show tonight at its home venue, Club 369 in Fullerton. First single "Get Back" (an original, not a remake of the Beatles classic) is spreading like a chain letter onto modern-rock radio playlists, helped by a push from influential Los Angeles station KROQ-FM (106.7).
Zebrahead's hallmarks are the intense, rapid-fire bark of rapper Ali Tabatabaee, coupled with the catchy chirping of Justin Mauriello, a rangy and reedy-voiced singer who sounds like the Offspring's Dexter Holland and has a similar knack for writing hooky refrains.
A week from today, Warner Bros. will issue "Never Enough Time," the first full-length album from Dial-7, a Laguna Beach band plying a parallel course. Acknowledged as a kindred peer by Zebrahead's members, Dial-7 is much more steeped in reggae than punk, but they share an ambition to link the linear rhythmic thrust and verbal torrent of rap with the ear-pleasing arc of a good melody.
Should these two releases succeed, another prominent Orange County subgenre--to go with the local punk-fueled, ska-spiked and wrath-driven modern-rock variants--will have been decisively launched. Successful rap strains from O.C. might even help the outside world update its antiquated perception of the sprawling, ethnically diverse suburb as an unvariegated mass of white.
Zebrahead's album opens with a glowering bass rumble and ominous, bird-of-prey shriek from the lead guitar; an uninitiated listener would assume that this is yet another kernel off Korn's gloomy cob. But it's only the start of a surprising trip that, for all its edgy modern-rock vistas, takes byways into a sun-dappled guitar solo reminiscent of Jerry Garcia on "Someday," Santana-style guitar shredding on "Feel This Way" and a colorful digression to the Caribbean during the title track.
Down the home stretch, Zebrahead decides to try its hand at funky disco music, and, on "Fly Daze," comes up with a lustrous, sentimentally romantic piece that pines for '70s pop culture and sounds like a potential hit.
Zebrahead's members recently sat around a table in a conference room in the Cal State Fullerton Student Union building--their makeshift hospitality room for a noon performance on campus--and mirrored in conversation the blend of easygoing, fast-quipping fun and earnest intensity that went into their album.
"I can't wait to see what the reaction is," Mauriello, the youngest member at 23, said of the prospect of listeners finding that Zebrahead's alterna-rock platter features a big helping of disco for dessert. "I hope kids have open minds and they can think that even though it's disco, it's fun."
Ben Osmundson, the dreadlock-sporting bassist, said it's all in keeping with Zebrahead's guiding principle: "Dare to have fun."
That was the theme of the band's performance for a student audience. Mauriello, whose goofy streak and friendly manner could have made him both class clown and the class president, bounced around in hip-hop baggy pants wide enough to fit a baby elephant, mugging as shamelessly as David Lee Roth. Osmundson and guitarist Greg Bergdorf also had airborne pogo-dance tendencies while keeping the musicianship sharp, with elder statesman Ed Udhus, 30, as the solid anchor on drums. Tabatabaee, a disciple of Ice Cube, went for straightforward intensity and concentration, taking a firm stance behind his microphone, grabbing it with both hands and barking out rhymes in a tongue-twisting, staccato rush.
Though essentially a lighthearted band, Zebrahead puts substance into its lyrics. The album portrays young people bumping up against obstacles, facing the temptation of hopping on trends to fit in (like the comfortably upper-class gangsta wannabes Tabatabaee mocks in "Check"), giving themselves pep talks to boost their determination and hewing to a central virtue of to-thine-own-self-be-true.
The band is also willing to be openhearted on songs such as "The Real Me," an ode to a supportive girlfriend, and "Move On," a pledge of empathy and support for a friend whose life has run aground.