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Zambonis rock on new record

By Stu Hackel

It's always fun to talk with Dave Schneider, founding member, guitarist, singer and songwriter of the Zambonis, the Connecticut-based hockey rock band. We talk hockey, but somehow we always drift into all sorts of stuff, especially music.

The Zambonis have a new album out, entitled Five Minute Major (In D Minor), and when I phoned Dave last week to discuss it, our conversation began with the Hartford Whalers, whose goal celebration song "Brass Bonanza" (above) is the first track on the CD -- and it not only has some surf guitar but a sitar on it! And from there, it went to Whitney Houston, to gospel music, to lawyers, to the Beatles, to politicans' unauthorized use of rock songs, to jazz, to concussions, to Bob Dylan obsessives, to all night radio disc jockeys, to interpretations and cover songs, to speeding tickets.

"Did you ever hear Jimmy Smith's version of 'I Got My Mojo Workin'?" he asks somewhat breathlessly. "It's got Wes Montgomery on guitar. Holy crap! It's eight minutes and I've gotten two speeding tickets listening to it. If it was a four minute song, I'd probably only have one" (and it's here if you want to listen but, please, not in your car).

Dave's a funny guy. The Zambonis are funny guys. In their earliest incarnation, they all assumed the last name "Zamboni," the way the Ramones all adopted the band name as their last names. They still take the stage wearing unmatched hockey sweaters, helmets or touques, pants, shinguards and socks. And they still perform wonderfully weird songs with hockey themes, including the 15 new ones on Five Minute Major, their eighth album.

You can read about the history of the group on their website. I first met and wrote about them a dozen years ago for The Village Voice when they were a quartet of Schneider, brothers Peter and Tarquin Katis and Jon Aley. Dave and the Katis brothers were recreational hockey players and transferred their love of the game into music.

Drummer Matt Orefice joined them and they had something of a hit with the song "Hockey Monkey" back then, made a Beatle-esque video to go along with it and even had a guy in a gorilla suit join them on stage, which (thanks to Matt Gonzales) remains part of their act.

It helped carry them to getting their songs played in arenas throughout hockey, bookings by NHL, minor pro and junior teams and leagues, playing NHL All-Star Games - as well as small rock clubs wherever the game is found in North America and Europe.

During the 2004-05 lockout, when lots of NHL players went to Europe, so did the Zambonis, playing in Riga, Latvia. Around that time, I worked for the North American Hockey League ("the oldest and largest junior league in the U.S.," as I'd tell whoever asked), we designated the Zambonis as "The Official Band of the NAHL," and they played our three-day All-Star Festival in Frisco, Texas, including a full concert on the ice the day before the game. They were really, unexpectedly, great and the Texans loved them.

The performing group has changed through the years. Peter has become a successful record producer at his Connecticut studio while Tarquin designs websites, is a father and still skates regularly. The new record lists them as "Semi-retired Zambonis." Matt, Jon and Dave remain with the group and they've added some excellent musician friends to the Zambonis lineup, making Five Minute Major the best sounding album they've done to date.

“I really love this band," Dave says. "I’m not a musician’s musician, but luckily I can write these songs and have the stuff in my head and look at Jon and say, ‘Can you give me something Paul McCartney would do with a little Entwistle (John Entwistle, the great Who bassist) or 'Do what Charles Mingus would do here.' Jon’s a great bass player, but he actually plays guitar in the live band and sings. Tom Andrukevich is our bassist and he's great and now we have Shawn Fogel who is another mind-boggling dude and Cary Pollick on guitar who’s just really got the rock ‘n’ roll, the Stones and rockabilly stuff, the twang that country that I love. It’s a fun trip but they take the music seriously and I love playing with these guys."

And what they do together breaks down the game into an almost naive simplicity, like this from the new record.

That joins the canon of earlier Zamboni titles like "Breakaway," "The Goalie is Drunk", "Lost My Teeth," "Johnny Got Suspended," and "Slapshot Man." Clearly, the Zambonis don't take themselves or hockey too seriously. For them, the game is largely fun, the music they write about it is generally fun, and on stage, they're fun. There's an innocence to it all, set against a great backbeat.

While the lyrics always have a hockey theme, sometimes rooted in beer league and rec hockey experiences, great pop music from all decades informs the Zambonis' tracks. "The '60s, yeah, but we love the Cars, you know?," Schneider says. "And when I get stuck writing songs, I listen to Guided By Voices for three hours and I pick up the guitar and find a song. So, we're a little everywhere, definitely."

When these guys decide to be topical, they can't help but put their own flaky perspective on things, taking a serious topic like concussions and give it their admittedly dumb spin. "We want to have a weird edge, just be a little different. You already know that from 'Wild Hockey Weekend' and 'Fight on the Ice' from the new record, we could be perceived as, you know, the dumb hockey band."

For the Zambonis, a song like that is less about the lyrics than the music. On "Concussion," they just wanted to write something that sounded like one of their favorite '60s groups, the Dave Clark Five.

"We wanted to pretend that Dave Clark came by and took a break from what he's doing being extremely wealthy and wrote us a song, but we didn't," he laughs. "We gave him a little nod at the end in the last few notes (they're from the DC5 song "Can't You See That She's Mine"). We want to meet him, we want to meet all these guys, and maybe the only way to do it is to rip them off."

Well, everyone does a little borrowing here and there. But the Zambonis haven't often recorded other people's material (the Gear Daddy's original "I Want To Drive The Zamboni" being an exception) even though their fans have long suggested they take songs everyone knows and put hockey lyrics to them.

"For the last 20 years, people have said to us, ‘You should re-write the words to this song,’ or ‘You should rewrite the words to that song, it’s a great song. Give it hockey words.’" Schneider relates. "And I always tell them, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ Well, we were hanging out with some guys from NRBQ -- and the whole band loves them -- and Cary said, ‘You know, we should re-write the words for 'Wild Weekend,’ make it ‘Hockey Weekend.’ And then we got Johnny Spampinato (the NRBQ bassist) to play on it.

"And then the legal aspect of releasing that song came up.” Dave called the legal hassle "the hardest thing about the new record," since the song was originally an instrumental from the early '60s, for which the original composers didn't get proper recognition from the disc jockey who put his name on the credit and NRBQ got into things by adding lyrics decades later. (I put all three versions at the end of a blog post a couple of weeks ago.)

Yet, for all the whimsical stuff and laughs, they will allow themselves a more serious moment, like the song "Captain" on the new record. "That one to me is what I really try to do with a hockey song," Schneider confesses, "about the band breaking up, my wife and I having troubles -- and Rob Blake or Rod Brind'Amour, you know?"

I've always wondered why the group hasn't written songs about some great historical hockey events or specific personalities. It would be a natural concept for them, I've thought. Others have recorded some very noteworthy songs about Gump Worsley's life and Bill Barillko's death. But the more I talk to Dave, the more I see how that's not part of this band's personality, even though it's something he admits he's considered.

I’m a huge Johnathan Richman fan," he says. "I’m cracking up one moment and then I’ll cry. Johnny Cash did the same stuff. I would like that reach for the band. It’s just difficult when you’re sitting there in hockey pants and jerseys to achieve that. But hopefully, if we do it long enough, we’ll get it.

"Hockey mom is touching," he adds. "My mom cries.”

Mostly, however, the group's idea of expanding their musical palate is this adventurous song "Skating with Monk, NRBQ, A Sampinato (And A Duck)," in which they blend some angular Thelonious Monk-style changes with an NRBQ feel and a little Sun Ra sensibility. Pretty ambitious for a hockey rock band.

I would guess, however, that the Zambonis will continue getting to the heart of their game with the kind of endearing goofiness and joy that has always been their specialty. And the hockey world is better for it.

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