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Earning Their Stripes

To Everyone's Surprise, O.C.'s Zebrahead Has Been Invited Into the Playboy Family


The time of their lives. That's what Zebrahead is having.

For starters, the La Habra rock-rap band's latest release, "Playmate of the Year," is getting a major promotional push from the folks at none other than Playboy Enterprises. The video for the title track was filmed at Hugh Hefner's mansion, complete with the band members, playmates and a cameo by Hef himself.

In addition, Playboy, through a cross-promotional deal with the band's label, Columbia Records, will include 1 million copies of the "Playmate of the Year" CD single to subscribers in the magazine's November issue.

Talk about your good fortune.

"This time, we just bribed the right people," said lead singer Justin Mauriello by phone from a tour stop in Atlanta. "We didn't know who to pay off after our first record."

He's just kidding, of course. It's typical of the kind of wisecracking humor that sets the tone in musical offerings such as "Livin' Libido Loco" and the irony-laden "The Hell That Is My Life."

But seriously: How did a relatively unknown rock band from Orange County snag the attention of Playboy?

"When we took the song to them to make sure we wouldn't get sued, it turned out they liked it a lot," said Mauriello, 25, who is joined by rapper Ali Tabatabaee, 27; lead guitarist Greg Bergdorf, 27; bassist Ben Osmundson, 28; and drummer Ed Udhus, 43.

"I think the ages of our fan base is really appealing to them too. They said they've been looking for a young band to do something with because they haven't had a rock song related to Playboy since the J. Geils Band [with 'Centerfold'] in 1981."

The pop-oriented "Playmate of the Year"--the follow-up to 1998's "Waste of Mind"--has "hit" potential written all over it. Short, catchy and bristling with energy, the song is typical of an album that's quite different from the harder-edged rap textures roaring through "Waste of Mind."

"The format on the last record was similar in every song--Ali rappin' the verse, me singin' the chorus--and this time, we wanted to do something different, maybe a bit more experimental," Mauriello said. "I'm a sucker for big hooks, and this record is a little more pop-influenced. But at the same time, it's our own thing. It's definitely Zebrahead."

While the band thrives on its goofy onstage antics and generally frivolous nature, it has nevertheless endured scary, difficult times. Last year, Tabatabaee, a former UC Irvine premed student, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. The disease is in remission now after Tabatabaee went through chemotherapy and radiation treatment, two physically and emotionally draining experiences. But he didn't stop working on the new CD with his bandmates.

"It was tough when we first found out. . . . We had no idea what was going to happen," Mauriello said. "To do what he did, to carry on with our music, well, it was absolutely amazing and heroic on his part. You realize how fragile life is. We started cherishing every moment, and it definitely brought us all closer together."

The band has matured thematically since the release of "Waste of Mind," a development that has translated to the subject matter of date rape and drug abuse in the new songs "What's Going On?" and "The E Generation," respectively. Sample lyric from the latter:

I don't think it's wrong / Because the devil may care / But, I'm not the devil / So there.

"We're pranksters who do like to have fun and clown around, but you've got to balance it out," Mauriello said. "I'm interested in issues that young people face, like violence in schools and date rape. We'd never written anything about drug use before, but I thought it was timely, particularly with the increase in the use of Ecstasy."

At the same time, Zebrahead has been criticized by some for sending mixed messages. After all, isn't frolicking with scantily clad Playmates--not to mention the topless ones in the video made exclusively for the Playboy Channel--at odds with a stand against date rape?

"I've thought about it," Mauriello said, "but I don't think so. I really hope people aren't too judgmental and read too much into it. Every song is about something, and 'Playmate of the Year' just happens to be about a male fantasy. We're writing songs about what we feel is appropriate for us. My theory is that no matter what you write about, if it's controversial, someone's going to have a problem with it. There will always be people with opposing viewpoints, and we respect that."

In any event, "Playmate of the Year"--the single and album--is gathering momentum since being released Aug. 22. The title track, in fact, was a No. 1 hit in Japan for several weeks. Could the ambitious mixture of rock, rap and pop be Zebrahead's big breakthrough?

"We're not setting our sights too high. . . . We'd be happy selling 15 [million] to 20 million copies," Mauriello deadpanned. "We believe wholeheartedly in the record, and we're playing our heart out on the road. We're not holding our breath, though, to tell you the truth. We'll see how well the CD sells.

"There's no telling in this industry how things are going to go. We can't worry about that."

Zebrahead would rather emphasize the positive.

"We've developed a good fan base and we're very happy," Mauriello added. 'We're [touring] with Wheatus, and in a few weeks we'll be on the road with one of our favorite bands, 311. We are not angry youth; we're goofy, carefree [guys] from a decent suburban area of Orange County. That's just who we are, and we're having a blast."

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