Joshua Zimmerman, bassist and chief foot-stomper of San Diego band ” _cke_saved_href=”http://”>The Silent Comed” _cke_saved_href=”http://”>y, grew up as your typical all-American kid. It’s the same old, run-of-the-mill story – you know, preacher father announces to the family (which also includes his brother and bandmate Jeremiah) one day that they are going to sell all their possessions and travel the globe doing missionary work. OK, maybe not so typical. Actually, the Zimmerman clan’s unusual upbringing may help to explain why The Silent Comedy are not your typical indie rock band. Onstage, they look like they could have come straight out of a Mack Sennett silent comedy, from frequently-worn bowler hats, right down to guitar/banjo/mandolin man Justin Buchanan’s prodigious moustache. The Chaplin-era similarities end, however, when it comes to their sound, which crosses several musical genres. Part folk, part Americana, part raucous indie rock, and a dash of Vaudeville, perhaps, their robust songs and energetic live performance have created quite a buzz for the band from Southern Cal. At the outset of a Northwest U.S. ‘micro-tour’, I spoke to Joshua Zimmerman about ghost hunting, his band’s unusual fundraising techniques, and the importance of the utilizing the correct onstage footwear.
KP: You call San Diego home. How long have you lived there?
JZ: My brother and I have lived there for about 12 years. Our drummer Chad was born and raised there, and Justin has lived there for over 12 years, so it’s pretty much home for all of us.
KP: The last time you guys were in Boise, you had two fantastic, but very different performances: an ‘unplugged’ in-store at the Record Exchange, and a louder, ‘plugged in’ at the Bouquet. Really diverse shows in terms of instrumentation. It was great the way you were able to pull that off.
JZ: Yeah, we had a blast the last time we were in Boise.
KP: The venue where you played your full set, the Bouquet, has quite a history.
JZ: That’s what we had heard.
KP: With the aesthetic of the band, you seem to gravitate toward that ‘history’ kind of thing.
JZ: Yeah, when we’re touring, we really enjoy experiencing the historical nature of venues, and towns, learning about the past. We’re actually all kind of history nerds in our own way. When we played the Bouquet, we actually got to go into the upper floors of the building. It was great. It was creepy, though. I’m actually a bit of a ghost nerd. We did a gig at this place in Tennessee, in Knoxville – the Bijou Theatre – the oldest theatre in Tennessee. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and later as a brothel, and a bunch of other stuff. The front is a four-story building, and the theatre is behind that. The upper stories haven’t been renovated at all, but the theatre has been completely redone. I was talking to the management about it being haunted, and they said, “Oh, yeah, everyone here has seen stuff and had experiences with ghosts”. The general manager actually took me up into the un-renovated floors and showed me the whole brothel area and everything. It was insane!
KP: Did you take a bunch of photos while you were up there?
JZ: I took some video. I have it somewhere on a hard drive. I have night vision on my video camera – it was pretty dark. We love doing that kind of thing.
KP: Your bio makes mention of your unusual upbringing. It says your father was a traveling preacher, and you traveled all over the world. Can you elaborate on what that was like?
JZ: Our upbringing was pretty crazy. We moved around a lot, and in 1996, my dad informed us that we were going to sell all our possessions, and move to Asia. I was 12 and brother was 15. At that time we were living in Orange County (California)…
KP: Whereabouts in Orange County?
JZ: Huntington Beach. We spent a lot of our formative years in Huntington. The prospect of having no possessions and moving to Asia was not on the top of our lists! A few months after he told us, we were in Calcutta, and had nothing. We lived in India for a while, and Nepal for a while. We hit a bunch of different countries. Then we ended up in Spain, and North Africa. There’s kind of a long story about why we ended up there. Then we came back to the states rather abruptly. It was a complete surprise to us that we were going to come back. We then traveled around the United States for a while, still living out of backpacks. We were looking for a town to settle in, and my parents chose San Diego. It had a huge impact on my brother and I. He was 15 when we left, and turned 16 in Nepal.
JZ: It was a very interesting time – doing all that. Now, I’m very grateful, but at the time, I was not. I actually wish we had lived over there a bit longer.
KP: So your father was preaching in all these different places?
JZ: No he was actually doing missionary work, and doing research for several different missionary organizations His intention was to start a homeopathic medical clinic. India was where he wanted to be focused, to provide people there with an affordable healthcare option, and also run a missionary training center, sending people into remote areas to do a cross between humanitarian work and missionary work. So, that was the goal, but a bunch of factors made it impossible for him to do what he wanted to do. All the research that he had done before the trip ended up being wrong. At that time, a lot of missionaries ended up getting killed, and they don’t publicize that part of it. Once he hit the ground, he realized that what he had wanted to do was already being done, so he would just be duplicating previous efforts. So, that’s why we wound up coming back to the States.
KP: How do your parents feel about your career choice, and your music?
JZ: They’re extremely supportive. When they still lived in San Diego, they would come to every show that they could. They’re super, super supportive and proud of us. I think there’s aspects of it they don’t love – I, in particular, have a reputation for being a bit of a…carouser, I don’t think they love that. They never put pressure on us to live out any dream they had for us, they just wanted us to do our own thing. They’re actually proud to a nerdy extent. My dad knows about every article that comes out before I do. They live in Hawaii now – my dad pastors in a church there.
KP: That’s certainly a nice place to do that sort of work.
JZ: Yeah, I went and visited there for the first time over Christmas, and kind of had a vacation. They live in Kauai – it’s a great island to be on.
KP: The band has been together for a while now, and you have begun to establish yourselves, and build a reputation. Are you able to support yourselves strictly through the proceeds from the band, or do you still maintain other employment?
JZ: I haven’t had a job in about a year and half. I used to bartend, but the demands of touring and whatnot have become too great. Chad hasn’t worked in about the same time. But my brother still picks up shifts in a bar, and Justin still works at bars when we’re back in San Diego. We do really well, but we put most of our earnings back into the band, producing records, putting them out, buying our van and trailer. So we don’t make a great living, but we are able to sustain ourselves, which is awesome.
KP: I read somewhere that you had an unusual way of securing funding for the recording of your last album, Common Faults. Care to elaborate on that?
JZ: Yeah, we did a thing called ‘Moustache Mayhem’. I don’t know if (DIY fundraising website) Kickstarter was around back then but we just kinda did our own program. We invited our fanbase to submit photos of themselves wearing moustaches, and they would be included in the album when it came out. There were different contribution levels, and they would get different things for the different levels. So, when the first pressing of the album came out, the first run of 1,000 had a poster with all the moustache photos on it. That’s been sold out for a while now. The artwork was also different than the pressing that exists now. It was a cool program, and people really did help make the recording of the album possible. We recorded it ourselves, and mixed it ourselves. It was an extremely grassroots effort. We’re fortunate that licensing money will help us pay for our next record, so we don’t have our hand out. Volkswagen is going to pay for the next record, so it’s all good.
KP: Volkswagen? Really? How so?
JZ: One of our songs was just used in the new Beetle commercial.
KP: Has it been aired yet?
JZ: I think it has been because someone posted on Facebook that they saw a commercial with our song in it. I imagine at some point it’ll make its way onto YouTube.
KP: The industry has changed so much. The way things are structured now, it’s rare for a band to actually make money on an album. It seems like touring and attempting to get licensing deals are the way a band makes their living now.
JZ: It takes longer for a band to really get noticed now because the pool of artists is so huge. Especially with the way with the digital revolution has changed things. Everyone can record themselves now with high quality sound. There’s such a huge expanse of bands – it’s hard to differentiate yourself from the crowd. We really like the amount of control we are able to have in today’s climate. Licensing is an aspect that really keeps a lot of indie bands afloat these days.
KP: How long has the current configuration of the band been in place?
JZ: We’ve been playing under this name, technically, for about six years, but it’s really morphed in that time. In the beginning it was a side project of another group, and it wasn’t very serious. It’s probably only been about three years that we’ve really been serious and focused about it. We’ve gone through several lineups in that time, but now it’s down to four guys. We used to be a six-piece, but with the four-piece, I think we’ve hit upon a lineup that going to stay and be the permanent thing. We feel like we’re just starting out, in a way, because it’s so different now from when we originally formed. It’s actually inspiring to have fewer people. The songwriting process has become more streamlined. I’m really looking forward to the next record – it’s going to have a lot of the same things that people really enjoy about the band, but we’re just growing and progressing.
KP: When do you anticipate getting that new album out?
JZ: I think it’s going to be in the fall, unfortunately. We really want to do it as quickly as possible, but we’re trying to work with a particular producer who is really busy, and his schedule doesn’t open up until May, so we have to hold back a bit. We’ll put out some other stuff – some EP’s or something like that before the album comes out.
KP: I was going to ask you about that. How married are you to the concept of putting out an album every couple of years, as opposed to putting out singles or EP’s more frequently?
JZ: These days, the album becomes less and less important; with digital distribution, you don’t have to wait for the physical ‘album’ to put out the songs, but, to us, we’re kind of in love with the album as a conceptual thing. We like that structure. Also, the benefit of putting out a record, and then touring to support it is you focus on that album. It helps ticket sales, excitement levels, and all that. I think it gets a little bit diluted when you just do small releases all the time. That being said, our goal this year, and in the coming years, is to be more prolific, and get new material out to people in various ways, like video, which is something we really like to do.
KP: You do have some nice videos.
JZ: Thank you. We just shot one in San Francisco recently with some guys from Living Room Sessions, and that’s a brand new song. We’re putting out new songs in that way, so we can get a gauge on how people feel about them, and help us decide what we want to include on the new record, or a future project. That song is an example of how our music is changing. We like the softer stuff, but we like the rowdier stuff also.
KP: Speaking of rowdy, you do a lot of foot-stomping onstage. How many pairs of boots, or shoes, do you go through?
JZ: A lot, actually! I have a certain type of ankle boots that I really like. I buy them online. I get them in every color. I really go through a lot of them. They’re relatively inexpensive, which is one of the reasons I like them. One of the pairs I have on tour with me right now have big holes in the bottom. I also put a lot of strain on my body – I put a lot of detrimental force on my feet. My body is not a big fan of what I’ve chosen to do in life, but sometimes you just have to got with it.
KP: You’re just going to stomp for as long as you can?
JZ: Exactly. I’ll do the whole thing for as long as I can. Yeah, my back is messed up from whipping around with the bass. I can’t really experience music without doing that. I can’t sit still if I try – it doesn’t work.
KP: How did you come up with the name, Silent Comedy?
JZ: I was studying film in college. I’m fascinated with film – I still love it. Eventually I had to drop out of school to go to Europe and do some touring with another band. But that period of history, the ‘silent’ era, captivated me. During that period, most of the films were comedies. During class, the phrase, “silent comedy” kept getting repeated over and over, and I wrote it down in one of my notebooks as a good name for a band. To me, the best band names kind of evoke an image, as well as have a good ‘ring’ to them. The name evokes a lot of images from that time period, the early 1900’s, and we’re all fascinated with that point in time. Prohibition was not too far away – it was a really interesting time in American history. It’s a loaded phrase. Charlie Chaplin and all the facets of his personality and life are very interesting to me. We take a lot of inspiration from it.
KP: The inspiration certainly shows up in the way you appear onstage.
JZ: The other thing about our name – all those silent comedians had their roots in Vaudeville. My great-grandparents and that whole section of the family tree were all Vaudeville performers. So, showmanship has always been important to us. So, in ways, we take the aesthetic of that time period. In the indie music world, there’s mixed feelings about that. Some people think that somehow it ‘cheapens’ the music. But we don’t – the whole world’s a stage, really. Tying it in to how ticket sales are suffering, and it’s tough for people to spend money on shows when times are hard, we really feel if somebody is making the effort to come out and see a show, we should give them something for it, it should be worth their while. A good stage show can take a lot of different forms. I’ve always told other people in other bands who are critical of what we do, you don’t have to jump around and get crazy like we do, just do something that shows that you’re passionate about playing – it makes a difference.
The Silent Comedy will be displaying their passion in Boise on January 27th at the Neurolux, with special guests Jonathan Warren & the Billygoats. Get your tickets here.
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