Zao is one of metal’s longer-running bands, but also one of its most enduring acts. The band started in 1993 and has weathered numerous lineup changes since, with a number of people coming in and out. Some remain constant, however, including guitarist Scott Mellinger — who’s been part of Zao since 1998.
Zao plays Saturday night at AURA Fest 2019. We spoke to Mellinger about the band’s history, evolving sound, and more.
You’ve been in the band for a long time - how did you end up joining?
Mellinger: I was really good friends with Russ [Cogdell] and Dan [Weyandt] prior to joining Zao, so I've known those guys for a really long time - since, like, ninth grade. We were all in different bands in those early days, so I knew of Zao but the band I played in was a little different scene. My main thing was just that I love Dan and Russ. They had something going that was really cool, so I was happy to jump in.
There's always been something of an evolution musically as members come and go, even though there's always been the Zao sound. When you came into the band, were you immediately contributing to the writing? How do you guys find your footing creatively as different people make their way in?
Mellinger: Zao had a lot of cool attributes prior to me joining that we didn't want to get away from, but we all kind of liked the same stuff so it wasn't a hard transition. We were open to each other's ideas, and we were all working together as a team. The vision was very similar with everybody, so there wasn't too much butting of heads early. There weren't any preconceived ideas on who would wrote.
Right before I joined, Zao was kind of a straight, riffy hardcore band. Then it moved to kind of a dissonant band, and then when I came in we moved to more of a metal, dissonant sound. There was an evolution there, and it definitely feels like everyone was open to it.
Do you prefer to be on the road as opposed to being in a studio making records?
Mellinger: I probably prefer the writing and recording process more than I like playing live. My personality is that I'm not a big outgoing guy. Being on stage is definitely a release for me, but to me the writing process and creating music is way way more exciting. But [playing live] is definitely a really awesome part of the whole process, and not many things compare to being able to play in front of people who care about what you're doing.
I love the hangout stuff [laughs]. I love meeting people and talking to the people who come to see us, and we make a huge effort to talk to every single person who wants to talk to us. But playing live is a high that doesn’t really have an explanation.
You guys have made a lot of records over the years. Is there one that you feel a particular attachment to?
Mellinger: I think I feel the most attachment to The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here. That whole process was really awesome. Getting to actually record with a hero of ours, Steve Albini, was a huge milestone. That's one of the things you put in the "holy shit" [category].
Was he doing his famous drum mic setup with y'all? He's known for a very specific thing. How did he approach working on a Zao record?
Mellinger: What's cool about Steve is that he considers himself a capturer of an essence. He's not there to change you or help write anything unless you ask. Our vibe really isn't much different than the vibe of bands that he grew up playing with and early bands he recorded. We went into the studio with him and were super rehearsed, and we knew what we wanted. We wanted the Albini drum sound - that's what everyone tends to work with him for.
The biggest bummer for me with that record is that because of the way we recorded it, when it got mastered it sort of changed what the record was. Which is the same problem he had with Nirvana. People want mastering to change different dynamics and make certain things louder.
The whole loudness wars kind of thing.
Mellinger: Yeah. It changed the dynamics of what we had originally. But other than that, we went in with him and he set up everything he'd normally set up. We did that record live, and didn't really fix much. We kind of just went for it. It was an unbelievable experience.