Marching band meets EDM with Too Many Zooz
New York’s Too Many Zooz harness the sonic chaos of the city and turn it into energetic music. The trio — which describes its sound as “brass house” — got their start playing in front of distracted commuters on subway platforms and sidewalks. Probably the toughest crowd in the universe — and Too Many Zooz pretty much always won them over. They make a lot of sound with a baritone sax, a trumpet, and a bass drum outfitted with some woodblocks, cowbells and other higher-register accenting pieces. You can watch YouTube footage of their frenetic busking performances. It will help explain their broad appeal, which mixes the pulse and thump of electronic dance music, the foot-sliding moves of James Brown and the propulsive honking blare of a marching band. These guys have gotten to work with Beyonce, which is a strong stamp of taste-making approval.
Too Many Zooz play Greensboro’s Blind Tiger on Sunday, January 19. I exchanged some email questions with trumpeter Matt Muirhead about the band last week.
If you don’t feel like watching videos of TMZ blowing away unsuspecting New Yorkers, take a look at their “Car Alarm” video, which is built around the insistent rhythmic beep of a car alarm, over which baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino (in a super-fly plum velour tracksuit) squonks out a slithery groove, followed by drummer David Parks (aka “King of Sludge”) pounding out a funky beat, to which Muirhead adds another layer of interlocking accents and gleaming trumpet blasts. It’s fun and funny, but also brilliant. Car alarms are part of the urban soundscape. And musicians have always responded to their sonic environment, mimicking the sounds of insects, birds, church bells, the clopping of horse hooves, the lonesome moan of train whistles, and the flapping time of windshield wipers. Creative musicians have incorporated the rhythms of all kinds of modern non-musical technology into recordings — the busy signals, rings and dial tones of telephones, the hissing of a dial-up modem, the rumbling of an idling engine. Too Many Zooz follow through on that timeless impulse, making the beeping alarm the centerpiece of the song and the video.
The song came about from a simple bit of inspiration.
“Leo just had this idea to play along with a car alarm, and we went out and rehearsed with a truck, haha. Which was interesting,” Muirhead said. “We just found something that worked and ran with it.”
I was swapping emails with Muirhead because last week because Too Many Zooz was out at sea when I was trying to reach them. The band was part of the lineup of the 2020 Jam Cruise, with artists like Moe, Galactic, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, bringing the eclectic freeform funk-leaning sounds of the jam-band scene to sun-loving vacationers ready for a break from winter. In addition to loads of live music, the cruise offers yoga, meditation and wellness seminars for participants. It sounds like the mellow vibe was working its magic on the members of Too Many Zooz.
“The cruise is fun! Lots of homies aboard with us, so it’s good to catch up with them, and chill out to some good music on a boat floating through the ocean,” Muirhead said.
One of the things about Too Many Zooz is that if you were to just crank up their records — like 2019’s Zombie.P — you might reasonably assume you were hearing some laptop-based music made with horn samples, drum loops and synthesizers. It’s like an undead-themed hip-hop record with skits and interludes. Pellegrino uses the booming smeared stabs of his baritone to play the equivalent of house-music bass lines. It’s club music made by guys using their hands and their breath. It’s like artisanal EDM. Sometimes it sounds like a Balkan brass band playing chip-tune wedding music. It’s music that’s made thoroughly of the 21st Century.
The sound is the product of the wildly eclectic tastes and backgrounds of the band members.
“We all have listened to a bunch of house and dance music in our day. With that being said, we all listen to a bunch of different stuff and like to try all different things,” Muirhead said. “We all came from wildly different places musically. Church, Klezmer, traditional African, jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, rap, all types of shit.”
The members of Too Many Zooz arrived in New York City to study and play music. Pellegrino and Muirhead met when they were students at the Manhattan Institute of Music. The band formed as a trio in 2013, and a video from one of their subway platform performances went viral in 2014, launching their touring and recording career. The busking experience helped shape their performance style.
“It just helps you gauge what people are really vibing with or not,” Muirhead said. “There’s no barrier physically and metaphorically speaking. There’s also no obligation for them to stand there, unlike a show where they bought a ticket and made a financial investment.”
Another aspect of the sound of Too Many Zooz relates to a contrast between density and openness. The band only has three members, so there’s a fair amount of sonic space, making it possible to really hear everything that each player is doing, and, at the same time, the three musicians make the sound dynamic and full on their own.
“[The trio configuration] just happened by chance,” Muirhead said. “It is a double-edged sword, in the way that the scarcity gives us space to really reach out and do crazy shit, but the scarcity also means that we all have to fill that space constantly.”
Too Many Zooz kicked 2020 off with the Jam Cruise, but they’ve got a lot lined up for the year — including more recordings and touring.
When I ask Muirhead what he’d be doing if he wasn’t playing in Too Many Zooz, he said this:
“I’m not sure about the other guys, but I think I would probably try to be a professional gamer or streamer, or both. I love video games, man.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Too Many Zooz play the Blind Tiger, 1819 Spring Garden St., Greensboro, on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 9 p.m. $16. theblindtiger.com