Zack Oden on living the high life and paleoanthropology
For a young band, the Annuals’ resume is rather impressive. After releasing Be He Me in 2006, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based group completed a whirlwind of appearances, highlighted by a visit to the Conan O’ Brien show and performances at Lollapalooza and South by Southwest. The Annuals recently finished a tour of Europe, and soon the members -- Adam Baker (vocals), Kenny Florence (guitar), Zack Oden (guitar and drums), Nick Radford (drums), Mike Robinson (bass), and Anna Spence (piano) -- will pile into the studio to record a second album. Here, Oden talks about the pressure of recording a sophomore effort; the Frelen Mas EP, a collection of B-sides from the Be He Me sessions; and the surprising origins of the band’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” cover. How did your band get together? Adam, Mike, and Kenny were in a group around Raleigh called Sedona, which is actually still active. Nick and I were in a band that was playing mostly Nirvana and Def-Tones covers. We just started playing together, and everything worked out. Anna had been playing in another band, and we were after to her join for a long time.
What is the deal with the title Frelen Mas? I Googled it and I don’t think it means anything. It actually doesn’t mean anything in particular. Adam came up with it, and he just likes the way it sounds. It has good syllable placement, and it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Whatever it makes you feel, you know?
As long as we’re airing out all the strange symbolism, what’s the deal with the cats hanging on the jellyfish? They’re mice actually, and it’s kind of an interesting story, We had to come up with designs for the T-shirts, and there are mice on the cover of Be He Me and four of us got mice tattoos last tour. Ana came up with the design. We thought it was funny and interesting. Turns out we were about the only ones. Going back to Frelen Mas for a second, why did you decide to cover “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”? The version of the song we’re most familiar with is the one by Johnny Cash. Everybody in the band listens to him, and his version of the song just struck a chord. Adam worked something up, and we made it sound like an Annuals song. We really could have covered anything, though, but “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has the added bonus of being in the public domain, so there’s no need to get permission to use it. You talk about making “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sound like an Annuals song. What is the short version of your writing process? Adam heads it all out and gets the ball rolling. The rest of the band listens to what he brings and develop our parts. Our role is to pile up sounds around his basic idea to make it larger. Our process isn’t complex. The emphasis is that it’s free-flowing and easy to do. We just want to have a lot of fun making music and stay away from any negative vibes. One of the best parts of the band is that nobody takes themselves too seriously. We’re just musicians. I think that one of the biggest problems with music is that people make it a big deal, and then it gets way out of hand. Has moving to a bigger label increased the pressure to produce? There’s always pressure there, but the people of Canvasback have been great. They’re behind the band one hundred percent and just want to put us together with the right people to make the best record possible. The biggest difference is that everything is just done the right way. We have more money and time and access to producers than we did with the first album. I think that the pressure comes from this being the second record. A band’s second record is a do-or-die situation.
What are some of the sources of support for the band? The last tour with Manchester Orchestra was great. We got along smashingly, you know, and played together on stage every night. It’s great to be able to jam with another band like that. I also think an older crowd is starting to appreciate the band. We used to play only for the younger people, now twenty-one-and-overs come stumbling over from the bar to hear the set. We even had some people in their mid- to late fifties coming to some of the shows, and that feels pretty good. You can poop on a record and young kids will like it. The older crowd is a little bit more of a discerning audience. Why should people seek out the Annuals? You don’t hear things like the Annuals on a daily basis. We’re experimental, but we can offer up a good pop song. We like to say that the Annuals are the perfect music for a drunken Friday and a Sunday morning. What does 2008 hold for the band? We’ve got a million things happening. I think the biggest thing in 2008 will be the new Annuals LP, which hopefully will be dropping in September. The band will also be playing a few dates around SXSW. We’re also hoping to do Coachella this year, so keep your fingers crossed that that one happens. We’re also looking into starting our own record label to put out some music that we find interesting. Adam’s been working on an electric side project that sounds a lot like Aphex Twin. Sedona’s still active, and I have a couple of side projects. Some of us are going back to school, too.
Say what now? Some of the band is going back to school during the break. I’m actually, while we’re speaking, getting my transcripts at my old high school. I love being a musician, but I’ve also always wanted to be a paleoanthropologist. Ana’s the real brainiac in the group, though; she’s going back to study corporate law. I’d be happy being a scientist or maybe a chef. Let’s finish up with some general-interest questions. Can you give me a genuine exclusive? I guess something that nobody knows about the Annuals is that we all have plans to move to the West Coast. We’re just in love with southern Oregon and northern California. If the Annuals ever get the money, we’re buying a house on Mount Shasta.
What would be your ultimate concert? That’s such a tough question. I guess the first band would have to be the Necrophages, followed by Radiohead and Bjork. And we can’t forget Johnny Cash. He’d have to be there.
I’ve recently done some interviews with bands from outside the United States, and they all have a particular distaste for American beer. What’s your take? Not to sound unhip, but beer is beer to me. I’ve got absolutely no problem living the [Miller] High Life, if you know what I mean.