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Songwriter Martin Zellar made his name as the leader of The Gear Daddies, which earned a cult following for blending weary-but-wry country-rock with raw, Replacements-style emotional vulnerability on 1988’s Let’s Go Scare Al and 1990’s Billy’s Live Bait. To Zellar’s bemused irritation, though, he’s best known for a jaunty sports-themed novelty song, “Zamboni,” which landed on the soundtrack to Disney’s The Mighty Ducks and still can be heard at hockey rinks around the country. After the Daddies broke up in 1992, Zellar moved on to a solo career, soon forming a new backing band, the Hardways, which plays frequently throughout the Midwest despite the fact that Zellar now lives in central Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende. Despite his busy concert schedule, Zellar hasn’t released a new studio album since 2002’s Scattered—which he’s about to change with Rooster’s Crow, recorded in Texas and chronicling his first few years in Mexico. Zellar and the Hardways play Rooster’s CD-release show Feb. 10 at the Fine Line. While in Minnesota in January, he talked with The A.V. Club about the new album and life as an expatriate indie musician.
The A.V. Club: Though the Midwest is still the base of your musical career, you’ve lived in Mexico for about six years. That’s quite a switch from growing up in Austin, Minnesota. Your music still seems rooted in Minnesota, in a lot of ways. How has living in Mexico affected you?
Martin Zellar: I was hoping it would jar me out of a rut, not necessarily musically. It’s hard to say. [Laughs.] I have no ranchero influence. You won’t hear any mariachi. But there are so many wonderful stories down there, very sad and very cool, that you absorb. I’m sure it will influence me, and I’m sure it already has. I just don’t know how yet. […] [Laughs.] And also, I’m a Midwestern guy. I’m always going to be Midwestern no matter where I go.
AVC: Rooster’s Crow is your first record in 10 years. What have you been doing in the meantime?
MZ: Mexico is a big part of that 10 years. When we moved there it took me two years just to absorb everything. Learning Spanish and the culture, just being there and experiencing it. And then I got really busy after Clementine was born. But before that it was a combination of laziness and, just, you know, personal reasons.
AVC: What made you start actively working on a new record again?
MZ: I had a lot of songs. I never stopped writing. But I just said one day, “I’ve got to go in and record.” I’ve never been fond of recording. It’s so sterile. There’s no instant gratification of a crowd or a paycheck.
AVC: You had several albums’ worth of songs written before you began recording Rooster’s Crow. What stood out about the songs you chose for this album?
MZ: I had a glut of pretty dark material. I went through a period of pretty serious drug and alcohol problems that permeates a lot of those songs. I fought with it. Those sort of songs are hard to share. I’m not sure I wrote a lot of them with recording or sharing them in mind.
AVC: The mood on Rooster’s Crow is pretty similar to the old Gear Daddies records. They have that same kind of weary, hard-won wisdom.
MZ: It’s true. I’m almost living in reverse. Going into both Gear Daddies albums, I had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol, and those CDs reflected it. The biggest difference is on the Gear Daddies albums, the subject matter wasn’t that different, but the arrangements cut that acid a little bit. […] I think that wasn’t tempered on this one. There’s a darker feel, a bit more tension. [...] “Rooster’s Crow,” the title song, is the one I’m most proud of. It’s the most personal, and with that song, I’ve come the closest to capturing the sound of my heart breaking on tape.
[Crow] will definitely throw me back to some things I don’t necessarily want to revisit, but these songs are the ones I needed to write, and that became the CD I needed to make. And that’s that. Now it’s gone, and the hard part is now I have to throw it out there for other people to listen to and judge. This CD is very important to me, and I’m proud of it, and I can be happy with just that. I’m comfortable with it.