Featured Music: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
King of the High C’s

Bobby Zanzucchi leads Sleepy Atlantis through all things rock to arrive at a wonderful place called awesome.


The first time I heard Bobby Zanzucchi perform, in the Ridglea Theater lounge about a year ago, my response was something along the lines of, “Hmm. A competent singer-songwriter. Not that there’s any shortage of those in this town.” But within a few months, the solo thang of Zanzucchi, accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson, had morphed into a full band called Sleepy Atlantis. Opening for Pablo and the Hemphill 7 at the Wreck Room not long ago, he and Nelson were joined onstage by a trio of Hemphill 7 guys: guitarist Steffin Ratliff, drummer Damien Lewis (who’d rehearsed with the group only once), and keyboardist Justin Pate (on no rehearsal at all, just joining in like the joining-in type of guy he is). The material had evolved, and the sound was big and full, with surprising depth for such a small unit.

The kicker came when I sat down to listen to Everyday Perception, the debut full-length by Sleepy Atlantis. Recorded at Dallas Sound Labs with Kimball Davis (who drums for Zanzucchi’s favorite band, Regal Dime), the c.d. has a lush but ethereal vibe, highlighted by Zanzucchi’s wistful, melancholic voice and Nelson’s sterling arrangements for piano, bass, and strings. Zanzucchi’s songs on the disc flow seamlessly together while conjuring all manner of associations, from classic ’60s psych-pop touchstones like Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello and Love’s Forever Changes to mid-period Pink Floyd to the masterwork of latter-day avatars of anguish like Buckley’s son Jeff and the late Elliott Smith. From the swirling Near Eastern spice of “Killing Kind” to the dreamlike, pensive valedictory of “Temperamental Beams,” it’s a highly accomplished effort.

Talking with Zanzucchi and Ratliff one night (Nelson’s currently on the road with the Polyphonic Spree), I learned that the evolution of Sleepy Atlantis’ music isn’t that surprising. “The songs were written with a full band in mind,” said Zanzucchi. “Performing with just a guitar can get boring.” The Flagstaff, Ariz., native honed his chops as a non-singing guitarist in a few Austin bands before finally settling in the Metroplex and studying recording technology at Dallas Sound Labs. Zanzucchi envisioned himself working with a revolving group of musicians. But after encountering Nelson (who’s also worked with jazz trios and the band Sugar Trip), he quickly realized that he had the nucleus of a regular performing and recording unit.

Enter Ratliff, “the most underrated guitarist in the Metroplex,” according to Daniel Gomez, former Ratliff bandmate in Bindle and now Goodwin’s evil dictator. The axe-slinger got to know Zanzucchi through the singer’s day job at the late, lamented Coffee Haus in Sundance Square. After hearing Zanzucchi’s three-song demo and being blown away, Ratliff offered his services. Super Love Attack frontman Mark McKeever drummed on the Everyday Perception sessions, but now Eric Dodson (Camino, Darth Vato) appears to be the band’s choice for a full-time stickman.

When he started gigging around town last year, Zanzucchi thought he’d be playing to “your typical singer-songwriter audience,” but his music has been unexpectedly well received by crowds who appear to be more into harder-edged music. He said that the rockers “aren’t used to hearing the kind of music we play, but they’re receptive to it.” This can be a mixed blessing, as it was the time he was playing at The Moon when a black-clad fella with sleeves of tattoos on his arms was particularly responsive. “He was going off while the rest of the people were just kind of sitting there,” said Zanzucchi. “He loved it. Then he asked me, ‘Do you know any Staind?’”

Zanzucchi’s hardly your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. He’s penned a couple of free-flowing pieces (“Lazy Recollection,” “Love Letters from an Insomniac”) in 6/8 — “a really comfortable time if you’re playing by yourself.” While they’re deeply felt and personal, his songs are hardly the kind of heart-on-your-sleeve confessional autobiography others favor. “I could really relate to the thing Elliott Smith said about not knowing which person he was in his songs,” he said. “It’s more about a feeling, not a specific character.” He takes his craft seriously, but says he prefers an approach without rules. “I’ve gone through lyric-writing books, doing exercises to find out what kind of brain type I have and trying to develop my weak areas. But when you think too much about what you’re doing, it gets boring.”

He found the experience of recording Everyday Perception both stressful and fun. “The hardest part was taking things out after we recorded them,” he said. “That was one reason why it took so long.” He’s looking forward to developing new material with input from the other band members. “Steffin comes up with the most amazing parts,” he said, “while Rick likes extended arrangements where he can come up with countermelodies.” Zanzucchi might not have to wait long for his next recording opportunity. His friend Davis wants to record the band again, and he’s received offers from an Austin indie label.

Currently, the band has no shows booked, but that’s about to change. Pablo and the Hemphill 7 will be taking a breather in December, around the same time the Polyphonic Spree comes off the road for two or three months. With Nelson and Ratliff increasingly available, Zanzucchi plans to step up the band’s level of activity, starting at the Black Dog Tavern in early December.

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