By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of The Zoltars.
The year is 2008 and finals week is dawning upon the bleary-eyed students of the University of Chicago. Senior Jared Leibowich is hunkered down in his dormitory watching the sun do laps outside while towers of textbooks threaten his imminent graduation.
He’s come down with a particularly ugly case of mononucleosis. Rather than spend his time recovering, Leibowich is forced to study for exams that will determine whether he will pass or fail.
The stress mounts, his fever simmers, and a guitar looms in the corner of the room. He’s never played in a band before–much less considered himself a songwriter–but the six string beckons through the boredom and frustration nonetheless.
“I started writing songs to get my mind off of all the stress,” says Leibowich. “It ended up actually being a lot of fun.”
The songs were playful yet dark; taking pointed jabs at classmates and making aloof goofs all in the same breath. He might not have thought much about the songs at the time. They were little more than playful outlets to vent frustration.
It worked. Holding his degree with a fresh new outlook before him, Leibowich relocated to Austin where he hoped to jumpstart his career in filmmaking. He was four years into the making of a beatnik-inspired feature about cities and was eager to sink his teeth into the industry.
Much to his chagrin, the job market lay in shambles after a blundering financial recession rocked the nation. Employment was scarce and virtually nonexistent for budding artists seeking their big break. The music, however, never stops. Austin is a city rich with musical styles and live performances, so the graduate soon found himself immersed in the local scene.
Three years later The Zoltars became one of Austin’s most popular bands. Leibowich joined forces with drummer and best friend Richard Fetchick, and the duo made waves with weekly performances at the venue Beerland, among others.
The musicians ditched their last names in exchange for the surname “Zoltar” (think the fortune-telling machine in the Tom Hanks’ film Big) and started writing minimalist rock songs. The results were detached and moody, with the right amount of humor to keep everything afloat. Leibowich found himself drawing from the same well he’d discovered during his brief songwriting stint at the University.
Take a song like “Party at the Batcave,” where a bunch of disillusioned stoners make their exodus to Walgreens. It’s bleak and often hilarious in a way that can make you wonder why you’re laughing.
“A lot of my favorite artists incorporate humor into their lyrics,” says Leibowich. “It’s important to me to tell a story, and incorporating absurdism can help push things and explore.”
This was the beginning. Things have changed quite a bit for The Zoltars over the years. For one, the lineup grew from a duo to a trio, then most recently to a four-piece. With members leaving left and right for graduate schools, Leibowich has remained the last of The Zoltars. Lucky for him, finding new members has never proved to be difficult–he only chooses members that are his closest friends.
The songwriter likens the band to being in an intimate relationship. If you’re living together, spending countless days in a cramped van on the road, you can’t just adopt any gun-for-hire. Through choosing his best friends, Leibowich never has to worry about how his band mates will handle tension and pent-up feelings. They understand one another on a level that allows for forgiveness, empathy, and ultimately greater connection.
The sound also morphed considerably over the past year. The 2013 sophomore release Walking Through the Dark found the band at, not surprisingly, their darkest point. The songs trembled with despair and melancholy, only allowing the humor to act as a necessary buoy in stormy waters.
“In the early days, there was no pressure to write songs,” recalls Leibowich. “I’ve been getting back to that feeling of having fun, but on Walking Through the Dark I really pushed myself to add textures and layers.”
Fortunately, fans hungry for a dynamic progression of material will wind up feeling satisfied. If the two sides to Leibowich’s songwriting are darkness and whim, then his band’s most recent release is the latter side of the coin. February’s self-titled release finds the band far more playful than they’ve sounded to date.
The single “Sincere” is the perfect example of where The Zoltars have arrived. It’s a song that you can bounce around to with abandon. Leibowich points out that he wanted to make a record that reflected the band’s live sound. You can’t execute the dark, melancholy tunes in a live setting, he reflects, when people want to lose themselves and dance. It’s a buzzkill.
He also makes it abundantly clear that he has no intentions of making the same album twice. Each release should be a new journey expressing different ideas and sounds. So what’s next for The Zoltars?
A pop album, it turns out.
“I’m definitely leaning towards a straight-up pop album,” he says with a laugh. “It’ll be our least dark album yet.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret The Zoltars by clicking here.