Zanders has been banging out piano-based rock n’ roll tunes for quite a while. The trio’s first album, Been Better, came out in January 2014, and their second, Buried Men, followed in December 2015. Their third, Concentration Sixty-Four, released through Funnybone Records, dropped late January 2020. Alex Saraceno, Kevin O’ Donnell and John Rule III recently sat down at Kevin’s home studio to talk to writer Sabrina Cofer to discuss their penchants for storytelling, playground games, evoking physical presence and place in their songs and much more.
When I get to Kevin O’Donnell’s house the Sunday after New Years, it’s distractingly cozy. Stacks of vinyl tucked into shelves line one end of the living room. Three couches crowd the far corner—how many friends does he have to need three couches? A classical album plays softly from the record player beneath the large window.
Alex Saraceno, the writer, vocalist, and piano player of Zanders, arrives first, right on time. Jason Rule, drummer, pulls up five minutes later bearing gas station coffee and a seltzer. Inside, Alex remarks that the house looks cleaner than usual, and Kevin, bassist, laughs this off. I take in a Miller High Life mirror, a cardboard box with a cat-sized hole cut into it, and an American-flag painted lobster hanging on one wall.
As we settle onto the well-worn couches, Alex takes a second to look at me and ask, “So, how are you?”
To be honest, I’m a bit sleepy, immediately grateful for the coffee Kevin offers me, the pot and mug already placed on the table. I say I’m alright, and despite the fact that I’m pretty intimidated by the three very talented people all looking at me expectantly. A bit of comfort settles over me, maybe because they all seem so at ease. Playing and talking about music isn’t exactly new for any of them.
Zanders has been banging out piano-based rock n’ roll tunes for quite a while. Their first album, Been Better, came out in January 2014, and their second, Buried Men, followed in December 2015. Their third, Concentration Sixty-Four, released through Funnybone Records, dropped late January 2020.
Though their first record came out five years ago, they’ve known each other for longer. Kevin and Jason met in high school at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, while Alex and Kevin struck up a friendship in 2010 at the Center for Creative Youth, a summer arts program at Wesleyan University. From there, their journey to playing music together was a natural progression.
“We started to all intersect in one area of the state,” Jason explains, pulling and re-slipping a ring onto his finger. “We started to play with our respective bands at a house in Naugatuck. We would see Alex’s old band, and Alex would see our old band.”
Jason and Kevin stepped in originally as fill-ins for Alex’s band, which then quickly became permanent; that was in 2013. Recounting it, the timeline is a little fuzzy, though memories of now passed on show-houses and a summer “Fuck Tour” where each of them wore tank tops onstage help bring the memories back.
The last four years between records were spent playing the occasional shows and recording. In fall 2018, the three began officially recording Concentration Sixty-Four. Alex jokes about having a full “gestation period” for the record, but there’s some truth in her words. Their latest effort isn’t just longer—twelve songs instead of the previous two’s eight—but it also has a lot more stuff. While their past two albums were resolved to piano, drums, and bass, this one has the added layers of strings, guitar, and rich harmonies reminiscent of Pretzel Logic-era Steely Dan.
The very first day of recording was Alex and Jason playing the piano and drums parts together live, which explains why there’s such an electric, crackling energy to the songs. Those recordings were their foundation; then they began to add on.
“In the course of almost a year and a half we were working on it, there were many, many days of listening to it and listening to it and sitting at the piano and playing with it, extrapolating, and then scrapping how we did it the first time, redoing and adding to it,” Kevin explains, gesturing to himself and Alex. “The songs developed a lot in that process.”
Why the desire to try new textures and layers? Simply put, they had the chance to. Most of the recording happened right here at Kevin’s house, which allowed them to take their time and add all the pieces they wanted.
“There is almost no risk in trying things,” Kevin says, sitting back, one arm slung on the couch’s back. “Because there were plenty of things we threw away, but when you throw something away it was just an afternoon of our time.”
This album doesn’t only add other instruments, but there’s also some heavier nods to musical theater. There are strings, musical motifs, and lyrics that have a storytelling, bear-your-soul-during-a-musical-monologue touch to them. That territory isn’t a field most rock bands are turning to, so why go there? “I played in pits for some musicals,” Alex explains, sipping her coffee from a cardinal- decorated travel mug. “Even when I was quite young, going to the high school productions of the musicals was a very exciting musical experience. I would seek out that music, as it’s so catchy and dramatic.”
So for Alex, it’s a somewhat comfortable territory—here, Kevin interjects with a story of how Alex used her vacation time between graduate school to memorize every song from the musical South Pacific—but Kevin and Jason’s experience is a bit more subdued. For them, a lot of it is the storytelling component, musically and lyrically. There wasn’t necessarily a conscious reach for musical theater, but a natural expansion from each of their own penchants for storytelling.
I mention that on “Three Diamond Door,” one of the more theatrical songs on the record, when Kevin comes in for background vocals I can’t help but picture him in a tree costume downstage. He, thankfully, likes this.
“I’m glad it comes off as that,” he says, laughing. “Something I was very much going for in making how the record sounds was to evoke a physical presence and place things. As much as we didn’t record it all at once, I want it to sound like everything is occupying the same physical space.”
“To the people who know the game, they would be hard pressed not to hear the claps between ‘concentration’ and ‘sixty-four.’”
Kevin mixed the album, and as crisp as it sounds with all the added elements, it still feels homespun. There’s throat clearing, background voices, floorboards creaking, which was intentional.
“It was definitely a conscious choice,” he says. “At the end there were a few things that I removed from earlier versions, and they were requested to go back in, like ‘oh, I missed that chair moving.’”
A lot of the music he listens to leans toward those lo-fi elements, which he thinks gives albums a much warmer, tangible presence.
“You don’t feel like it’s a pop vocalist in a sterile vocal booth,” he continues. “If you can hear someone stepping up to the microphone, or stepping back, and you can hear the guitar when someone’s not playing it, you can hear their hands on it, that just adds to the physical, textual aspect of bringing the listener into it.”
As for the title of the album, Concentration Sixty-Four, I initially have no idea what it means. When I ask Alex about it, she sits up, eager to explain that it’s a hand-clapping game.
“You usually play it as a child,” she says. “I’ve heard kids all over the place know this game, so it’s not just a small, Watertown, Connecticut thing. If you do know the game, you would hear it in your mind, you would see those words together ‘concentration sixty-four.’ You hear ‘concentration’”—here, she claps three times—“‘sixty-four’”—and claps three more times.
As she explains the rules of the game, vague, deeply-buried memories of playgrounds, rhythm, and a bit of anxiety stirs in me. It’s an interesting decision to choose a title that connects to childhood when the album, though perhaps playful, isn’t too child-like. But the choice wasn’t necessarily connected to youthfulness; it was more about choosing a name that sparked an aural memory in the listener. To the people who know the game, they would be hard pressed not to hear the claps between ‘concentration’ and ‘sixty-four.’ The rhythm sticks.
“To read something,” Alex continues, “but have these associations that illicit a sound in your mind at the same time? It’s a unique experience. It’s a little childhood callback, but also an interesting level of some people will have some deep, old memories of their own, and some people will not and will create their own with it, which I think is a neat place to start. To have an interesting little connection to some words and sound.”
Jason nods and adds: “And the big idea of no repeats and no hesitations within the game applies across the board with the songs. ‘No repeats, no hesitations.’ That was convenient.” No repeats, no hesitations. Quite convenient indeed, for a band whose sound always feels so fresh, ready to take off wherever they want to go.
Read the rest of this interview in the printed issue - Issue 007, Spring 2020! Available in the Aislin Shop.