What does a musician do when he finds himself with too much time on his hands, gripped with a general sense of malaise?
If you’re Luke Hunter James-Ericson, erstwhile drummer of The Don’ts and Be Carefuls and frontman of Zealot, you set out to record a record, playing an instrument you’ve never played, alongside friends who have never played their instruments, either.
If that doesn’t work, try writing all the songs from the perspective of a werewolf.
“About four years ago, I had a summer off from grad school, so I had two months free, and I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to learn to play guitar and write five songs,’” says James-Ericson, sitting in the basement of the hi-dive before the band’s September 21 record-release show. “By the end of the summer, I had five songs written and technically knew how to play a guitar.”
And as if learning a new instrument wasn’t enough of a challenge, James-Ericson enlisted a cadre of experienced local musicians to round out his new band, with the caveat that they, too, would have to eschew their instrument of choice.
“Luke decided that since he was playing the wrong instrument, none of us could play our primary instrument, either,” says lead guitarist Kitty Vincent. “We spent two years just trying not to suck. We were literally just playing to our ability, and this is how it turned out.”
Despite the relatively quick process of learning new instruments, putting words to the new Zealot tunes, James-Ericson says, wasn’t so simple.
“I have a hard time writing from an earnest perspective, from my own perspective,” says James-Ericson. “When I thought of writing things in my own voice, I questioned whether or not it would be pretentious or silly. So I intentionally wrote from the perspective of a werewolf, of a character, so that I could obfuscate reality for myself and sort of look at what I was feeling from a simulated outside perspective.”
Approaching his songs from the perspective of the cursed creature, James-Ericson says, allowed him to confront his emotions but also to avoid coming off narcissistic.
Zealot, whose members learned new instruments to join the band, played an album release show at the hi-dive on September 21.
Oakland L. Childers
“In our day and age, it is so hard to write a sincere thing,” he says. “Sincerity. Earnestness. These are things that are hard to approach. It’s hard to get people to attach to these concepts now, because the world is up in flames. So to a certain degree, I feel the things that I attach to are things that walk the line between facetiousness and earnestness, and I feel I wouldn’t be able to do that without the werewolf.”
And after playing in abrasive, noisy bands his entire life, James-Ericson says he also wanted to make music that wasn’t trying to antagonize the listener or force itself on them. He just wanted it to be good.
“I think that giving a shit is very important,” he says. “I told myself, with this band, I want to try to make music that people like. But I don’t know how to do that, and I’m not going to be afraid to make stuff that people don’t like. I’m still going to try, even though I don’t know how to play guitar, and we’re going to just see what happens.”
What happened is Zealot’s sprawling, twelve-song debut, The Book of Ramifications, an album of quirky, fun and largely hopeful pop songs. The concept is nothing earth-shattering, James-Ericson says, but that’s not the point.
“I think to a certain degree you also have to get out of your head that you’re making anything real,” he says. “Music isn’t real or not real. Like, there’s no real rock and roll. Objectivity is a trap. It’s just rock and roll. No matter how you look at it, you only get one life. No matter what you believe after or before, the one right here is the one you get, so you may as well say something honest and have a good time.”
Vincent, too, says sincerity was of paramount importance if she was going to take on a project as ambitious as Zealot.
“I have no time for ironic music or bands who are bored with what they do,” she says. “There’s a whole genre of it, and I’m exhausted by it. I wasn’t going to be in a band with anybody who wanted to do that.”
And to James-Ericson, having the right people in his band was as important as the songs he hoped to create.
“The music is important, but what is primarily important is that I respect them all so much,” he says. “Honestly, they are much better musicians than I am, and they see the world more clearly than I ever will. My head is up in the clouds. I mean, we lucked out. All of this is the luckiest gosh damn thing that has ever happened.”
Zealot’s new debut album, The Book of Ramifications, is available now on all streaming platforms and on vinyl from the band. It is accompanied by a cassette of cover versions of the songs by other local musicians.
Oakland Childers has been a music journalist since he was sixteen.