319 Creates, a podcast.
319 Creates is a new podcast that I’ve started to highlight art and music in eastern Iowa. I’ll be talking with artists, musicians, and local businesses about what they bring to the area and how we all work together to make eastern Iowa a bit more interesting. I’ll be releasing new episodes every other Monday. If you want to be on or want to suggest someone, let me know!
Levi Zinser, Episode 1
Levi is a Cedar Rapids based musician and photographer. He started making music in high school when he formed Zolgen with a few of his classmates. He’s been in a number of different projects since then, including his solo career. We talked about what it was like writing music in high school with his band, and how that process changed in his other projects and his solo work. Levi released his pivotal album in 2015, Speechless. After releasing this album he removed the bulk of his previous work from the internet because he wanted Speechless to be the jumping off point. We discussed his motivation and why he feels everything before that wasn’t good enough. We talked about the role of open mics in both of our development as artists, and how he would sculpt his music to suit both a full release as well as open mics.
Mike Weber: Hi everyone. I’m Mike Weber, and welcome to the first episode of 319 Creates. This podcast will feature musicians, artists, and other creators from Eastern Iowa. Together we will explore different creative processes and discover how all of us work together to make Eastern Iowa a little bit more interesting.
My first guest is a close friend of mine, Levi Zinzer. Levi has been making music for over a decade, and he’s also an avid analog photographer. We will be discussing his early history as a musician and how open mics have helped shaped both of us as artists. I hope you enjoy.
Levi Zinser: Hello there. Thanks for having me on, especially on your first episode.
Mike Weber: Thank you for being here. So, Levi, you’ve been doing music since 2002. You want to walk us through some of the stuff that you’ve done over the years?
Levi Zinser: Ah, yeah, so when I started, I kind of jumped in, head deep. 2002, it must have been. It was towards the end of the year.
It was getting cold. And, there was a guitar laying around the house. It was my father’s and I kind of barely could play, you know, like, not really. And, a friend of mine I went to school with was like, “Hey, you know, this magazine I read… They’re having a songwriting contest. And we should throw it in there because no one else is going to. There’s not going to be many people that play music that are going to be doing this.” I’m like, okay, cool. You know, Windows 98 sound recorder – it was tape deck and Windows 98. Both were involved. Windows 98 and cassette. So we sent it off. No one cared. We put together a proper band – a bass player, drummer, me on guitar, him singing. And by then this guy was long gone because he was kinda like a low rent Fred Durst, for lack of a better term.
And so us guys were really players, you know. And we’re all learning, got together, and by the time that was all done, money came out of it. And we’re like, well, we probably should stick with this name because the internet knows us. And it kind of just went on from there for the next five years.
Mike Weber: So you did that mostly during high school, it sounds like. Did you guys stay together post high school? Did you start doing shows? What happened after that?
Levi Zinser: Post high school, it got kind of… So core wise, lineup wise, it was with that lineup, what I call the classic Zolgen lineup. Myself on guitar and vocals. There was Alex Khan on bass. He is a brilliant bass player and by the way, good harmonica player now. Really good. And guitar player, I think too. He’s a really good musician. And Justin Schultz on drums. And he was a great arranger of songs. So I would come up with riffs and ideas and he could really arrange and put stuff in order really well. And he’s kind of getting back into the music thing. He’s more of a keyboard player now. He has a lot of great ideas. He’s a really creative person and lyrically, he’s brilliant.
So we had that line up. And then Alex left for a bit, and Matt Nelson came in, and we wrote some of the songs here. I’m sure you’re at some point going to talk about “Speechless”. And we wrote some of the stuff that went on that because he was real enthusiastic player and him and I got on really well.
And then Matt left and Alex came back. Then we went on and did the Caustic Silence thing, which you might talk about. Or not. But after high school, it really kind of, we kinda hit that high point. When you’re a high school band, you hit that high point of like – we play the talent show, we went out, we know these people, that people, this house party. You kind of hit the high point of like, “Whoa, what now?”
And you’re trying to be adults. You get girlfriends and stuff and people get weird about that. When you’re a teenager, it’s hard to manage time. And we kind of let it go. And we also had a lot of creative differences because I was very much really heavy and really in the old school punkish thrash, British heavy metal. Justin (he and I were writing most of songs) was really getting into the psychedelic stuff. Hendrix and some of them are bluesy stuff, which is fine. And Alex was just the glue that held us together and kept us from beating the hell out of each other.
Mike Weber: So then moving on from Zolgen, what was the next step for you as a musician? Did you instantly dive into recording your own music or did you have other projects that you worked with other people?
Levi Zinser: Yeah, actually there was this period with that band where not a lot was happening and I was friends with this other guy. And I think you and I may have had conversations about Connor. He was just learning drums, could play guitar too. But he was real enthusiastic, had a lot of ideas. We just got together to hang out and jam. We did that, put some stuff on tape, and that was it. It must have been August of 2005 we got together again and we put together “Basement Blues”, which was like a demo. And our idea was – I was going to play bass guitar. He’s going to play drums. We’ll split vocals, and we’ll put a band together around this, you know?
It never happened, but that was my first go outside of the people I knew and then also in school. I played with a couple other people that never panned out. What started me recording on my own was recording ideas for the band because usually it was not stuff you would want to listen to. Just like a rough draft on tape or on an MP3 and listening and learning it or dissecting and throwing it away. And that grew into me and the other creative head of this band not agreeing on stuff. I thought we should just record this stuff. He didn’t agree. And it kind of spiraled from there on that. Also, you talk about other projects… Forgotten, with Stubby Webb. Great singer, very creative person. She’s brilliant, and she’s a great artist too. We did that for a long time, but that was also five or six years after what we’re talking about.
Mike Weber: So how do you feel that your solo material differentiates from Zolgen? You mentioned that the creative heads of the band were you and Justin Schultz, correct?
Levi Zinser: Yup. Yeah.
Mike Weber: How do you feel that your solo material is different from what you were doing with Zolgen now that you didn’t have to kind of play that back and forth with Justin?
Levi Zinser: Well, there was a big change, which was really interesting to me, and I still don’t understand it. What really got me fired up was the whole British metal thing that happened eight years before I was born. Which is fine. I think people should be inspired by things that happened before them. If that’s what you’re into, that’s cool. But, I was very much trying to emulate that. I was kinda stuck in that – I was playing that way and in that vibe and wanting to take that further.
It was weird because as I got older, and was living on my own, I almost discovered the whole singer songwriter thing without knowing what it was. A song like “Monster”, I can tell you when I wrote it, what I was feeling when I wrote it. I got paid to write it because I was writing it at work. That’s really kind of where I hit this wall. It’s hard to do the metal band or hardcore thing when you’re 19 years old. At least it was for me, that’d be like 10-11 years ago. It seemed like I didn’t know anybody or anywhere to go do that and have an outlet.
To me it seemed impossible. It was like, okay, at least write these acoustic songs and talk about these things that you’re feeling now that you have to deal with adult shit. It’s easy when you’re a kid to be like, I’m mad – heavy, you know? But as you get to be an adult and you have to pay some bills and have relationships, you have to deal with adult problems. Like maybe me and my live-in are going to break up, this is kind of bad and there’s money involved and sex. I needed to kind of break away from this, like the kill, kill, kill to like, no, we actually have to think about this before we kill, kill, kill.
Mike Weber: So then with your solo material, when did you actually start playing live or was it always just releasing stuff online or CDs? Cassettes? How did that play out for you?
Levi Zinser: It may be, again, just me being naive. There was really no online back 10 years ago, 2008 I mean. There was SoundCloud maybe in 2010. But yeah, it was really a lot of people who followed the Zolgen band and my friends. I’m going to cook a CD up, write on it with a Sharpie, print out something on the laser jet and hand it to him.
And you know, there was a time when cassettes, probably 2003-2007, had some validity and passed down and people still have boom boxes and stereos with the two cassette things.
But later on when I would do cassettes, it wasn’t so much like you do a CD to like give to everybody. You do a cassette to give to your musician friends to get their thoughts on your ideas.
Because this is an idea, a rough draft song. Should I do this or do I just shut up and move on? And that’s where that was then.
Mike Weber: So cassettes were more of a personal touch. Then CDs were the thing you hit go, spit it out, and then you can give that to everybody.
But when you were working with something that you wanted to get some feedback on, doing a cassette was something that took a little bit more work and then it had a bit more meaning behind it. Or am I digging too far here?
Levi Zinser: Well, yes and no. In the early days of doing band stuff everything went to tape and then it got moved over to CD and it was accepted that this could be a finished band song. It sounds very cassette-ish. It sounds as you would hear it sitting next to the band.
I think when it came to recording and computers came along to do that, you could record something, really polish it off. Whereas if you threw something cause you’re again at that point in recording now on a computer, but porting it to tape instead of burning it. You had more leeway on tape. If I gave you a tape back then it’d be like, “Hey, here’s some ideas. Here’s the tape, what do you think?” Whereas if I gave you the CD, it’s like: this is the record. This is the finished product. It was a different connotation.
Yeah. So definitely, it’s probably a personal thing.
Mike Weber: That makes sense. So the thought behind the cassette was more that this is a work in progress. It’s like handing someone a handwritten note versus something that you print it off of a printer.
Levi Zinser: Yeah, I think the thing that most younger people won’t realize is that every stereo that had a CD player also had tape decks back then. CDs then had a higher cost than to buy three cassette tapes at Dollar General for a dollar.
Mike Weber: I remember being in high school and out of my circle of friends, I was the only one that had a computer that was capable of burning a disc. And that was just because I built the computer myself and specifically went out of my way and spent the money to have that capability.
I remember when everybody was walking around with a Walkman. I totally understand how in the early to mid 2000s, the thought of handing someone a disc was something more significant than just a mix tape.
Moving forward from cassettes, to CDs, to eventually posting stuff online. As we’ve been talking about doing this, I noticed that you’ve pulled a lot of your older material off of your online presence. You want to talk about your reasoning behind that?
Levi Zinser: Absolutely, but I want to choose the right word for this. I know personally you’re a photographer and maybe it’s just me, but I think you have a certain nostalgia or connection, like the first time you had a really good shot or a really good song like you know that was really good and you have a connection to it.
At least I did. Maybe I’m nostalgic and I look back and I think a lot of that’s because I look back at the time with the old material, like the friends and the times we had to get to that. But what you’re talking about happened in late 2015. I made an active decision with “Speechless” to take down the older stuff.
I don’t think I’m a great singer. I can sing not that good, but I made a decision. I am a better instrumentalist and didn’t want to cling to things that happened in 2006 because that’s nine years ago. It’s okay, I think, to revisit that material and those songs, which I did very much. “Speechless” to me is one of those pieces. It’s like, how could I really ever do better than this? I’ve had my life’s work of material and the time to think about it and the time to do it right. How do I build on this? Maybe the answer is out there, but for me this is as good as it’s going to get and this other stuff needs to go because I don’t want someone to hear it. So a song I’m very proud of like, “Wallsend” or “Reckoning Vengeance” you hear on the album “Speechless”.
Or even if you look at “Epilogue” or “Society”, very proud of how that went down. Or “Electric Angel”. I don’t want someone to hear that and hear me at my best. And then go back and hear “Invasion” back in 2006 and have people think “What the hell were you doing?” Or, “You missed the note by half a step”. Especially when I look at “Aces and Eights”. I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but when I made “Aces and Eights”, I felt the same as I had felt with “Speechless”. I thought I really did something here and I look back on “Aces and Eights”, which I invested a lot of fucking time in, and it just feels like, “Why do I want to expose this when I have this shining star?”
Mike Weber: I can understand where you’re coming from, but at the same time, I look at the world as a whole in regards to music, and it seems like every popular musician, especially a lot of times after they die, there’s this push to release the demos, the unreleased.
And so to me that is another thing in and of itself. But like a band that I know both of us really enjoy, Pink Floyd. What if David Gilmore and Roger Waters decide “The Wall” is the best thing they’ve ever done? So everybody out there who likes “Metal” and “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” – too bad we’re pulling it off the shelves. No one’s ever going to get it again. So the copies that are out there in the wild, you have to go hunt it down. From the standpoint of a consumer of music, it seems almost selfish to pull that material off the shelf. I know there are a lot of people who like music, like seeing the progression that I don’t think they’re necessarily going to listen to something like “Aces and Eights” and think negatively. I think they’re more going to look at it as the journey that you’ve gone through as an artist. And especially going even further back to the Zolgen stuff when you were still a kid and you were still learning how to put together music.
Like as a photographer, I recently did a show of, not even my entire body of work, but just the last eight years of my live music photography. And I look back at stuff that was taken in 2009-2010. At that point in my personal career as a photographer, I had already been doing photography at that point for five and a half years. And I look at the stuff that I did then, and I’m like, you know, this is really bad.
But I still have stuff online from 2006-2008. And I had stuff from 2009 that I put in a show. I mean, it was “remastered”. I re-edited it. I went back to the original RAW file and I cleaned it up from the way that I had edited it back then.
But I think there’s a certain amount of censoring that, as artists, we like to do to our own material.
Levi Zinser: Absolutely.
Mike Weber: We’re trying to curate the image of who we are. As much as we are prone to wanting to do that, I think it’s really important that we leave an accurate representation of what we have done over the years.
Because eventually I would like to think that all of us will have somebody come back and look at our material down the road. Be it a fan, a significant other, a family member, a child, a grandchild, great grandchild if we’re super lucky, come back and are trying to piece together our progression as an artist.
I think it’s important to try and maintain the continuity of what we have done. So tying into that a little bit. I know that when I had met you in 2009…
Levi Zinser: It’s been that long ago?
Mike Weber: It’s been that long. I can’t remember exactly, but I know you were doing open mics when I met you. I don’t know when that started in relationship to when we met. The open mics I started shooting, which was also a big pivotal moment in my artistic career because that was the first time that I shot live music. So why don’t you talk a little bit about how you got into shooting open mics? When did that start?
Levi Zinser: Playing. You were shooting; I was playing. No, no, that’s great. I think it’s something we’ve never really discussed.
I was doing my own shit for a long time. And my live-in at the time said I should probably go out. Obviously some of my songs aren’t palatable. You can’t take something that’s really heavy and go out and knock it out on the acoustic guitar. If it’s riff driven, some will work, but most won’t. Some songs I was getting into at that point were written on our couch on an acoustic guitar and it sounded good then. And then you go out and do all the overdubs and it just sounds better. But at the base of it, you have a good song. No matter if it’s just you playing it with an acoustic or all of the overdubs and the fancy shit.
Someone told me about Cocktails and I think Justin was a dude that was running it then, but he was there doing that and I just put together that archtop I have. I wanted to go out and just play some songs. I wanted to do “Monster”. I wanted to do, “Feeling Yellow”.
Oh man, “Can’t You See the End”, which is an old ass song. It’s probably one of the oldest ones in my pocket. I just went and did it and it was really good. And then like a typical over-confident 20 something, my dumb ass went to all my coworkers and invited them. Like, now I’m going to go and plug my electric with humbuckers into their damn PA and play every goddamn thing I know that doesn’t require multiple parts. And that’s the thing you were at.
Mike Weber: Right. Yeah.
Levi Zinser: And I think my grandma, my grandfather was at, my folks were at. My work friends.
Mike Weber: I don’t remember if it was the first one that I was at, but there was one of the first couple that I went to where we showed up with an entourage.
Levi Zinser: Yeah. That was the second time I played there and it was a couple of our coworkers, my folks, my friends, my aunt, and my girlfriend at the time. It was an entourage and we kind of took over the place. Everyone was like, “Oh, what? This is weird. Who is this guy?“
Mike Weber: Yeah. I specifically remember your parents, your grandfather, I think you had two other family members. I was there along with at least three other people from the place that we worked at, which shall remain nameless for the sake of this podcast. But I personally remember that was one of the first open mics I took photos at.
I feel like it was the second one, but I remember both of those very clearly because as a 20 something (we were 21 at the time) that was really my first experience with live music in that type of situation. I had been to community events where there was a stage and people were playing, but it was the first time that I was at something specifically driven for the purpose of musicians playing music live.
And I remember being very taken aback by it and being like…
Levi Zinser: Yeah.
Mike Weber: I get this. I understand what is cool about seeing a musician play live. I remember when I was younger, any time I had the opportunity to see the bands I liked live and I always thought, “I’m going to pay all this money and I’m not going to get close to the stage and it’s going to be silly.” But when I started going to things and actually seeing musicians play live, that it’s not about necessarily the way it sounds live, and it’s not about being able to be right up in front. It’s about all the different pieces that work together, the experience that it creates and being in an environment that is conducive to the arts and creativity. For me, the big thing was going to the open mics. For some of the performers, the ones that were doing original music, I’m hearing music that I have literally never heard before in my life, played by the person who wrote it. And I am standing, you know, half a dozen paces back.
Levi Zinser: Yeah. You’re eight feet away from the originator.
Mike Weber: And some of the times, these are the first times that these scores have ever been heard by anybody aside the performer and maybe their significant other. So all of those things were very impactful for me as a young artist who is at the time and arguably even still today, just getting his footing in his own creative field. I found it very inspiring.
Levi Zinser: Yeah, it was an interesting time. It was one of two times in my life that was very interpersonally chaotic, and that was the calm before the storm. You know, kind of finding that and getting into that groove. And obviously if no one’s figured it out by now, we’ve known each other for years, we’ve said it a few times, but that was the calm before the storm. So that’s what made that period interesting. And that’s what made everything that came after it really kind of weird.
Mike Weber: So, I’m going to stop us here for a second, because I feel like this is a good opportunity for us to take a break and listen to you play “Monster”.
Levi Zinser: I’d be down for that.
(Levi plays Monster. You can hear his recently re-worked instrumental version of this song here.)
Mike Weber: Every time that you play that I feel like it sounds a little different.
Levi Zinser: Well, that time I, what was it in the last chorus? I just boondoggled that D just dropped it like a buck up.
Mike Weber: Oh, that’s not exactly what I was talking about, but alright.
Levi Zinser: No, I digress. Every time I play that I do put a different attitude into it. It has a certain satire to it. It’s very much, it’s a satirical point of view of things going on then.
Mike Weber: So I’m going to kind of segue. This is kind of related to “Monster”, but not really. I’ve heard a lot of your music over the years, and I’ve heard a lot of different versions of it. I know that you have different sets of equipment that you use in different circumstances. Why don’t you talk a little bit about how you feel your different pieces of equipment lend to different sounds. And how you change your music that you might record at home on electric that you end up playing acoustic when you do open mics and things like that. How does all that influence you as an artist?
Levi Zinser: My first guitar I ever owned myself, that wasn’t borrowed from my dad, was a Gibson with P90s in it. It was basically the Les Paul Special, and they called it the faded double cut, because, you know, marketing. I was playing heavy music early on and I put P100s in it, which are two single coils stacked. That gives you a little bit more muffled, darker… Like jazz players, according to the internet, love P100s, because they want that darker, smoky, kind of muted sound. But I just wanted to kick ass and take names with heavy fucking riffs.
So I used those, but that was the guitar, because I really had two guitars. The other one I have, which I use mainly, can be seen on the cover of “Speechless”, which you shot. That guitar is running really hot ceramic humbuckers, which I know is totally jargon, but you don’t want to plug those into a PA. They’re really aggressive. Most of it came out on P90 stuff and clean playing through tube amps. The P100 / P90 sound… I guess for those of you out there who maybe have heard a single coil, especially the Gibson like P90s. A P100 is basically like your P90 at seven or eight on tone and a little fatter on the bottom end.
So I was playing really clean stuff, especially being younger, on solid state amps in apartments. That kind of affected my sound. One of the main pieces of equipment that I’ve played on through all the years is a 1973 or ’74 (parts of it ’73, parts of a ’74, somewhere assembled in there) Aims dual 12″. I don’t think there’s a lot of those around from what I’ve found. And mine’s all virgin. The glass is all the original glass that was in it. That is a very honest amp. If you fuck up, there is no mercy. As you know, it is a very warm and for lack of a better term, detail oriented. There’s a lot of headspace, so if you fuck up somewhere in there, you better hope your recorder didn’t catch it because the goddamn amp did. And it gets even more brutal when you play behind distortion. I mean, you have to play like a laser and I don’t. If you make a serious mistake, it will point it out because it has so much headspace.
I feel so much room that it points those out. So I think it definitely made me a different player. I feel like I’ve always played more aggressively. I don’t know why. Maybe because, and something we haven’t talked about is I’m left handed, but I’m playing a right hand guitar. I have terrible coordination in my right hand. My left hand is pretty normal. When I play and pick, I am very aggressive and I think that has also affected my sound. This could be completely off topic, but that’s affected my sound. You’ve heard a lot of it and probably heard stuff that no one else has, demos and rough mixes. If you listen to my stuff, you can hear it’s me from the angle of attack on my pick and the way I play.
I guess I totally subverted your question. My apologies. Going back to what you wanted, for making it open mic palatable. Yes. It did. The idea that I have to make the song recordable, so it’s like a song with guitars and drums and a bassline, but I also have to make it something I can go out with an acoustic and play.
That was definitely my mindset. It’s something I had in my mind in 2008 to 2012, maybe even ’13 but there was definitely a period where when I wrote a song that was on top of the mind of. This has to be palatable. I can’t just make this overdub city and never reproduce it again.
Mike Weber: So one of the interesting things that I’ve noticed over the years, not specific to your work, but there is a big difference as far as what I saw musicians doing here in Cedar Rapids at the open mics, like at Cocktails and Bricks versus what they were doing down in Iowa City. I observed this going out to the open mics with you and later when I was going to the open mics in Iowa City, which started about this time in 2015. The reason I’m talking about this right now is talking about how having to make the music palatable and how it can convert to a one man, one guitar situation. What we saw in Iowa City was actually very different. Here, almost every person going up on stage was one guy, acoustic guitar. Occasionally we would see someone bring in an electric, but they would just play with like a small amp and play clean. Whereas when I started doing the open mic in Iowa City, it was very, very frequently – half to three quarters, more than that on some nights, all of the people going up were not individuals. They were either fully formed bands or just a group of people – it was a rotating cast of characters. They would go up and now he’s playing guitar or he’s playing bass, or they’re on drums. They were friends and they would work together so they could have these fully formed songs and still play them in the venue of an open mic and have it be palatable to an audience.
And I wonder if you had that opportunity, is that something that you would have done? If you could have taken your songs that were fully written, that were designed for a three or four piece band, would you have? Do you think that you would have concerned yourself less with rewriting or writing your material in a way that it could be translated into an acoustic and focus more on just writing the material that you wanted to make? That was a long question. I’m sorry.
Levi Zinser: No, it’s okay. That’s really good. I have two answers to that. I think. Oh man, this is really a loaded answer on one side, and I understand that there are songs that are good because there’s multiple things going on and it has an orchestration, but at the core of every good song.. Let’s look at orchestrated songs, like one that people really remember is Toccata by Bach.
There’s a lot of shit going on there. But there’s a core melody there and maybe a bassline. So I think it almost made me a better songwriter, because you have to look at what the core of this is. You can’t think, “I’m gonna play the solo here and the bass is going to play the bassline and the drummer is gonna have his little fill and we’re going to come back around.” It really made me focus more on the music itself. As to if I could have done that, then yeah, I absolutely think I would have.
One weird thing, and maybe it’s just because I played starting off with an odd cast, to put it nicely, and that’s not to be condescending. We were all characters. I’m the biggest probably of them all. When Schultz and I were playing together, you have two big, big, big egos, and I don’t even know if ego is the right word. Ideas. Personalities. Creative concepts. Just really butting heads. That made me really protective of my stuff.
It’s like, “Hey man, this is my shit. I don’t trust anyone to not fuck it up more than I’ll fuck it up.” At the same time, I’m okay with someone coming out and playing laps around me. That’s fine. I’m not the greatest player in the world. Someone can come out and play laps around me, but, if they’re not servicing the song the way I saw it, and this is very ego, it makes me sound very self centered. And I think as artists we get that way. So that was part of it, but it is the connections I had then and the people I knew. Maybe it’s me being naive again or not knowing the right people, but it just felt like what I wanted to do with the music thing… If I wanted to find people who wanted to do that, it was, for lack of a better term, fucking impossible.
Mike Weber: But I think we’re going to call it here. And, we’re going to end this with another song from Levi. I think he is going to play us out with some “Backroads”. Does that sound about right?
Levi Zinser: Yeah. We’ll play it out.
Mike Weber: We’re going to play it out. Thank you for listening. And here is “Backroads” by Levi Zinser. Enjoy.
You can find Levi online at zolgen.bandcamp.com and on Facebook. On our next episode, we will be talking to Amanda Bollinger about her art and how she incorporates recycled and repurposed items into it. We will also be discussing the upcoming Yewell Street Art Fair, which she is organizing.
Thank you for listening and hope you can join us next time.