The Sound Board Was His Springboard

For the last 15 years, Chicagoan Paul “Ziggy” Zerang has traveled all over the globe as a sound engineer for some of the world’s biggest pop, R & B, and reggae stars–including James Brown, Paula Abdul, Third World, the Isley Brothers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Me’shell Ndegeocello. One of his most loyal clients is the New York acid-jazz band the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, which hasn’t hit the road without him since 1995. But in 1997 he inadvertently became something more than the group’s soundman.

That year, before a festival gig in Istanbul, Zerang taught the band how to play the Turkish standard “Uskudar.” He didn’t think too much about it; the son of Iraqi immigrants, he’d grown up listening to and playing Middle Eastern music, and this song was a bit of a novelty, something you’d hear in an old movie behind a belly-dancing scene. But the band did a dancehall version onstage, and “the crowd went nuts,” says Zerang. The organizers of the festival proposed that the band record a whole album of Turkish songs with Turkish musicians, and the band asked Zerang to help. He ended up selecting, arranging, and playing dumbek and keyboards on the ten songs that appeared on In the BuzzBag (Shanachie), recorded in Istanbul with the traditional Turkish ensemble Laco Tayfa.

But the adventure didn’t end there: The great Algerian rai singer Khaled heard the album and was so impressed that he enlisted Funk Essentials leader Lati Kronlund and Zerang to produce half the songs on his latest album, Kenza, out now on Ark 21. There are also plans for the band to back Khaled on a major European tour this fall.

Zerang, 35, has been playing with a family band called Kismet since he was eight years old. His Assyrian father, Edward, moved with his family to Chicago from Baghdad when he was 17; he married Suzy Yona, the daughter of family friends back home, several years later. A longtime music fan and an amateur percussionist, he was familiar with numerous regional strains of Middle Eastern music, and his four sons grew up amid those sounds. In the 70s he began playing picnics and weddings with young Paul, who performed on an old Farfisa organ that had been modified to play the quarter tones of Arabic scales.

Before long Zerang’s older brothers Steve and Michael–the latter now a dominant presence on Chicago’s improvised music scene–joined in on percussion, and to this day the group still performs at community functions. But fewer and fewer couples are looking for a traditional Middle Eastern wedding band these days, so Zerang is happy to be applying his skills elsewhere. Although Kenza is a big, elaborate production, a seamless marriage of Arabic tradition and contemporary dance pop, he says working with Khaled was a nostalgic experience: Before he fled his troubled homeland for France in the late 80s, Khaled recorded over schmaltzy synth riffs and low-tech automated beats. “When I was eight I used to play Middle Eastern songs with synthesizers and primitive drum machines that I didn’t know how to program,” says Zerang. “So when I first heard Khaled I could totally identify with it.”

Flying Blind

It’s hardly news anymore when a major label is caught jerking around a young band, but Chicago country rockers Mount Pilot say they’ve spent the last 18 months getting jerked around by an indie that was acting like a major label.

The Austin label Doolittle, also home to Slobberbone and the Bottle Rockets, signed the quartet in spring 1997. They’d just released their own debut, Help Wanted, Love Needed, Caretaker, which they’d spent $11,500 recording (in Athens, Georgia, with John Keane, who’s worked for R.E.M. and Uncle Tupelo) and manufacturing. Doolittle paid them $25,000 for the rights and reissued the album that fall. The label also gave each member a monthly stipend of about $600 and sent the band on the road.

Meanwhile Doolittle signed a distribution deal with the Chicago industrial-rock label Slipdisc, which in turn had a distribution deal with the Polygram subsidiary Mercury Records. In November 1998 the band–which by then had replaced original drummer Kevin O’Donnell with Sean Fogarty–entered an Atlanta recording studio with producer (and former Georgia Satellites front man) Dan Baird and a $55,000 budget. That month they cut the basic tracks and did overdubs, to which they say Doolittle president Jeff Cole reacted enthusiastically. They then flew to Los Angeles to mix the album with hotshot Jim Scott, who’s worked with Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Wilco.

According to Mount Pilot singer and guitarist Matt Weber, Cole started to sour on the album during the mixing process. In January 1999 Baird, Cole, and the band flew to New York, where Greg Calbi, another heavy hitter, was supposed to master the album. But instead Calbi and Cole decided that the basic tracks hadn’t been up to snuff in the first place. Cole sent Baird home and Mount Pilot to a total of three more studios, all in New York or LA, with engineer Jordan D’Alessio. “All of these decisions were made without consulting us,” says Weber. “He just wanted to be a big player.” But Cole says the band never offered any input. “They were Matt’s songs, but he never took a leadership role,” he says. “He didn’t really protest these things.”

Tension mounted while Mount Pilot was overdubbing new parts at a studio in Long Island, and Weber kicked guitarist Jon Williams out of the band. “[Jon] was one of my friends,” he says, “but we kept quarreling about the way the record sounded. I had to end up firing him over the phone while we were in the studio.” He was quickly replaced by guitarist Tommy O’Donnell, a member of another Chicago band, the Spelunkers. By April 1999 the record was mastered and slated for a midsummer release. It had ended up costing about $114,000, not including the monthly stipends or expenses like lodging. Weber says he suggested that they all stay “at a Best Western or something” in LA, but Cole got them a couple suites at a posh hotel, and again no one protested much.

By this time fallout from the previous year’s Polygram-Universal merger was making Doolittle’s distribution arrangement look precarious, and the label began juggling its release schedule. According to Weber, Mount Pilot’s release date was moved seven times in all. In March of this year, Cole quit and Cameron Strang of the Los Angeles-based roots-rock indie New West was brought in to run the imprint, which has since been folded into New West. Strang met the band briefly in Austin during South by Southwest, but no business was discussed. In mid-April, after booking a three-week tour, bassist Chris Grady had a real meeting with Strang, who informed him that the label could no longer supplement the band members’ incomes, and that the release had been pushed back to August.

Disheartened, Grady quit, and Fogarty did too. Weber called the label to break the news–and to assure Strang that he and O’Donnell planned to recruit a new rhythm section. But several weeks later Strang told Weber that because of the shakeup the label was dropping the record completely. It shouldn’t have been a surprise–despite all the money Doolittle has spent, Mount Pilot’s debut album has sold only 1,100 copies to date, according to SoundScan–but it was certainly a disappointment. Weber says New West is giving the album back to the band, although the terms of the deal haven’t been worked out yet, and that he will attempt to interest another label.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.