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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010

Zebras Combines Noise and Punk, Milwaukee and Madison Musicians

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Vincent Presley and Lacey Smith, founding members of Madison’s “weird noisy punk band” Zebras, looked outside the city following the departure of their original drummer and bassist, recruiting members of the Milwaukee band IfIHadAHiFi.

Presley and Smith had formerly played in a band called the Window Smashers, and afterward formed Zebras with Presley on guitar, Smith on synthesizer and both sharing vocals. Zebras is sometimes compared to the Dead Kennedys because of their screeching guitars and wailing vocals, but they also add a layer of Devo-esque synthesizer sounds. The song “Me U God” typifies the group’s aesthetic, with slinking guitar, panicked vocals from Smith and tribal drumbeats. Smith jokingly describes the sound as “the Dead Kennedys mixed with Little Richard.”

“I try to write normal-sounding songs, but they turn out wrong,” says Presley, who does much of the band’s songwriting. “I tried to be in a normal-sounding industrial band once—that didn’t fly either.”

The Zebras’ connection with IfIHadAHiFi began when drummer DJ Hostettler (who performs under the stage name DrAwkward) saw Zebras perform at the 2008 Forward Music Fest in Madison.

“They were probably the best band I saw all weekend; if Madison has something that I like, it’s generally going to be a stoner metal band,” Hostettler says. “I got really excited about them and made sure we played shows together.”

The two bands began to book shows on the same bill at venues like the Borg Ward in Milwaukee and The Frequency in Madison.

After Zebras’ original bass player and drummer left the band (“We didn’t mesh well,” Presley says), Zebras approached IfIHadAHiFi about filling out the group in early summer this year with Hostettler playing drums and the band’s bassist Josh Davis (known onstage as MrAlarm, and also by his nickname “The Wizard”) filling in a variety of instrumentation, including synthesizers, “noise makers,” samples and the eerie sound of the theremin.

Hostettler says he liked the challenge of trying to navigate the stormy Zebras songs. “I always tell people that I finished watching them fairly exhausted and bewildered just trying to follow what’s going on,” he says. “It’s a little easier now that I know the songs inside and out from playing them, but trying to follow the logic of them usually left me pretty wiped out.”

The two bands are further collaborating by trying to plan an IfIHadAHiFi and Zebras tour, as well as a follow-up to their first album, Parasitic Clones Under the Strong Arm of the Robotic Machine.

The group says their reception in the two cities depends on who else is on the bill and the venue, but that typically the Madison audience is tougher than the Milwaukee crowd.

“In Madison the punk guys think we’re too weird and indie and everyone else thinks we’re too punk and noisy, so it’s real tough,” Presley says.

Zebras plays the Cactus Club Saturday, Nov. 20, with King’s Horses, Whales and Canyons of Static.