Off the Clef
Move over, jazz fest -- Burlington's Jazz Guys kick out the jams and stomp on them
It's pretty audacious to name your band after a genre you don't actually perform. But Burlington's irreverent rockers The Jazz Guys have never played by the rules. At last year's Discover Jazz Fest, they were banished from the Church Street Marketplace following a particularly loud, bratty performance that pissed off listeners expecting something closer to swing or bebop. They've since become scene darlings, thrilling audiences with playfully infectious music that kicks ass and splits sides. They celebrate the release of their debut disc, A Blessing in Disguise, at Club Metronome this week.
The Jazz Guys' musical riffs are as potent as their comedic ones. A powerful chemistry exists between bassist-vocalist Herb van der Poll, guitarists-vocalists Max Schwartz and Maarten van der Poll, all 24, and drummer-vocalist Frank Zamiello, 31. Their explosive sound recalls classic rockers such as The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Who, but with a punky, satirical edge.
The genesis of the group dates back to 1998, when Grafton, Massachusetts, high school pals Herb van der Poll and Schwartz were given an assignment for a music history class. "It's a fascinating story, actually," van der Poll says. "Our teacher showed us a painting of old jazz musicians and told us to come up with a tale about what that scene was like. So we wrote a musical about a band that was trying to escape a crazy ex-girlfriend." That fictional band was called The Jazz Guys.
The course was completed, but the tunes kept coming. When van der Poll's twin brother Maarten came aboard, a flesh-and-blood version of TJG was born.
A couple of years later, members headed off to college. Maarten van der Poll and Schwartz enrolled at Johnson State, where the latter, ironically, studied jazz guitar. Herb van der Poll attended the University of Massachusetts and tinkered with tunes in his bedroom. He also participated in an improvisational comedy troupe, honing skills that come in handy on stage today. When he transferred to Plainfield's Goddard College in 2001, Vermont became Jazz Guys headquarters.
The band went through a few drummers, settling on Zamiello in 2003. His powerfully articulate style went a long way towards tightening the group's spasmodic sound. "That was the true birth of The Jazz Guys," says Schwartz. Herb van der Poll remembers his first encounter with Zamiello. "Frank was this arrogant, off-putting motherfucker," he jokes. "But we heard he was an amazing drummer."
Seven Days recently engaged the band in a fast-paced four-way. Conversation, that is.
SEVEN DAYS: You've managed to win over a lot of local rock fans. What are you trying to communicate to them, musically speaking?
FRANK ZAMIELLO: It's not obvious?
SD: Well, it might be to me, but what about others?
HERB VAN DER POLL: We're not trying to communicate anything. We're trying to recapture the sensation of music that excites and inspires us. We hope that on some level, people will feel that when we play.
SD: I have to admit, when I first heard you guys in 2003, I felt as though I was being put on. But I was blown away at a Red Square gig the following year. How did you improve so quickly?
MAX SCHWARTZ: Well, there was some extensive practicing.
HVP: To some people we come off as though we don't take anything seriously, and the music is a joke. But it's never actually been that way.
SD: Your early performances frequently included the reading of fan mail. Who is the typical Jazz Guys enthusiast?
FZ: Look in the mirror, my friend.
HVP: Our appeal is pretty broad. There are people that are into us who are obsessed with music, and know all the sub-sub-genres. But there are also people who don't go to a lot of rock shows that seem to really like us.
FZ: Because we offer them free beer.
SD: You've scaled the heights of Burlington rock stardom. Is it lonely at the top?
HVP: When you're as brilliant as we are, it can be very isolating.
MS: Regular people seem like cattle.
MAARTEN VAN DER POLL: Thank God we have each other.
SD: Your songs are typically straight-up rockers. Will we be hearing a Jazz Guys power ballad anytime soon?
MVP: We're hoping to have one together for our next performance.
FZ: Every great arena-rock band needs a ballad.
MVP: Unfortunately, none of us have [Journey front man] Steve Perry's voice.
HVP: We definitely don't want to fall into the trap of writing the same song over and over. So we came up with a softer song, an anthem to unrequited love. But it's still got some dizzying heights.
SD: So it's your "Stairway to Heaven"?
HVP: Well, it's more like a "Speed Bump to Limbo."
SD: Your new disc is about to be released. What happens after that?
FZ: We're gonna sell it!
HVP: Actually, the goal is to let as many people have access to the music as possible. I mean, nobody makes money selling music anymore.
FZ: Well, at least not the bands.
MS: So why should we?
HVP: It's not always the case; The Arctic Monkeys had the most downloaded album in history a week before the actual disc came out. But people still went out and bought it.
FZ: Yet I've never heard of them.
HVP: Oh, they totally suck.
SD: Have you ever been bothered by an angry swing combo that took offense to your name?
MS: We had a hard time with a band in Oregon when we were trying to buy the domain name "JazzGuys.com." We contacted them to purchase it. They never wrote back. But a couple of months later, the name was on an auction site starting at $600.
MVP: So we took theJazzGuys.com.
MS: Now it seems that they have disbanded.
SD: Would you be annoyed if there was a jazz band called The Indie-Rock Dudes?
MVP: That'd be great.
SD: Would you tour with them?
MVP: I'd go see them play.
FZ: I wouldn't.
HVP: Our name showcases our sense of irony.
FZ: It's more your sense of irony.
MVP: We looked up jazz in the dictionary once . . .
FZ: Just once, though.
MVP: . . . and there were a few definitions. One was to make things better, to "jazz up." And the other was "to deceive," as in, "Don't jazz me."
HVP: It's said that art is the lie that brings you to the truth. Hence, The Jazz Guys.
SD: You wear snazzy clothes when performing, but I imagine tight trousers aren't always comfortable. Would you ever consider wearing sweatpants?
MVP: Playing live is the most fun part of being in a band. So finding your tightest pair of pants and your coolest shirt kind of psychs you up to perform.
FZ: Everybody's got their little rock outfits that they put on. Kiss had them, [AC/DC guitarist] Angus Young had them.
MVP: It's like when Superman comes out of the phone booth.
FZ: And do you think Superman is comfortable? But you know why he does it? He does it for the fans.
SD: You all seem really connected when you play live. What's it like when you put down your instruments?
MVP: Three of us live together. And until last April, Frank lived across the street. There was our apartment, his place, and a bunch of college kids on all sides. We took a lot of comfort in having each other there.
MS: Frank was, like, the old man on the street. He'd be constantly yelling at these young kids who were just trying to have a good time.
FZ: Yeah, at my expense. It was driving me crazy.
HVP: Maarten and I are twins, and we've known Max since the third grade. Frank fits in musically, but he's also like-minded. Maybe you can fake that kind of chemistry, but I wouldn't know how to do it.
SD: It seems like a pretty fun lifestyle. Are there any downsides?
FZ: Ask us after something cool happens.
MS: I think it's coordinating our schedules. We all work very different hours.
SD: Is there any fear that audiences outside of Vermont might not get where you're coming from?
MVP: I think there's still fear about audiences inside Vermont.
FZ: But you never know how anything's gonna go over.
HVP: We really try to read the crowd as the show is going on. We're constantly interacting with and engaging them. But in order to expand our audience, we'll need to start looking out of town. We've pretty much mined what there is here. It's kind of a crossroads.
SD: Can you see yourselves playing together into old age, like the Stones?
FZ: As long as we keep writing exciting music that's interesting to ourselves, why not?
MVP: If I can still stand being in a room with these guys, I'll keep doing it.