Zach Zeller goes solo but still likes to share
It’s noon, and Zach Zeller is still working on his first cup of coffee. He’s sporting a wispy beard, and his hair is slightly disheveled and piled high on his head. Zeller’s semi-slacker appearance is countered by his gregarious and friendly demeanor and his equally smart wardrobe—black jeans, a gray button-up shirt and a black vest.
In fact, at first glance, Zeller has an uncanny resemblance to a young Bob Dylan. But even that doesn’t accurately predict the music the 21-year-old singer-songwriter has been making of late. Sure, he plays folk, but it’s not so … well, folky.
Zeller is set to release From Here to There, an album full of layered, warm folk-pop with his pure, unaffected voice as the centerpiece. Of course, there are hints of Dylan, but there are also equal parts Leonard Cohen and Jeff Tweedy.
It’s been a busy year for Zeller, who wrote and recorded the new album as well as Swords (released in February) in his small, non-descript east-Chico apartment buried deep in a maze of family-friendly stucco apartment buildings.
Zeller’s apartment is also the headquarters for the Around Town Collective, a group of a dozen or so local artists, including Zeller and some lesser-known talent including Boy Elephant, North Cedar and Tokyo Montana Express.
“I wanted to have a reason to keep making music,” Zeller explains. “It seemed like a good idea to put it all together and support each other.”
The whole concept of “supporting each other” was birthed during Zeller’s early days of playing music in the dry, strip-malled cityscape of Redding, Calif. It was as simple as sharing his basement practice space with other bands. Zeller was still learning guitar and fronting folk-rock outfit Belda Beast, and soon other Redding notables like History Invades and Fire Breathing Dragons were setting up in the space.
But as music venues began dying off in Redding the idea of a collective seemed far-fetched and Zeller and many of his musical comrades made the jump to the more inviting musical climate of Chico.
Ironically, it was around that time that Zeller toyed with the idea of playing solo. With one member still in Redding, Belda Beast was performing less. Zeller recalls a nine-month stretch here where he was writing new material. He had also become more comfortable on the stage after a couple of weekend gigs the Pacific Northwest performing with History Invades guitarist Paul Harper.
“That trip showed me the performing side,” Zeller says. “Before that there was no interaction. I just went up there and played the songs.”
Zeller released his first solo effort Spitting Teeth, and invested more time into Around Town Collective, which put out records by Me Runner, Cougar Club, as well as two compilations, 2007’s Winter Songs and this year’s After the Winter.
The early days of performing solo were nerve-wracking, Zeller admits, and he was surprised to see that Chico had quite a contingent of singer-songwriters. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but Zeller found himself connecting with local troubadours like Erin Lizardo and Pat Hull.
In fact Zeller is humble and charming as he talks about the musicians that have influenced him and his music. He doesn’t hide anything, either. The walls of his apartment are covered with framed posters; most notable the one for Wilco’s A Ghost is Born record.
“I’m actually in the Jeff Tweedy DVD,” Zeller says, referring to his appearance in the crowd in Tweedy’s live film Sunken Treasure. “To be able to control a crowd, now that’s something in itself.”
It’s endearing. And it comes through when Zeller talks about his own music. There are no pretensions, no stale rock ‘n’ roll clichés. In fact, Zeller still looks back fondly on those days sitting in with bands in Redding, and says he hopes that maybe he can have that same sort of influence on others.
“It helped me grow as a musician,” he says, taking a sip from his coffee. “Sharing is what it all comes down to.”