The band are known for their brand of fiery, punky garage rock and energetic, moshpit-inducing live shows and their first single perfectly showcases both of these aspects of the band.
On “All Or Nothing”, frontman Ben Hambro sings the cheeky line, “take me back to Maidenhead” before the band explodes into the song’s punchy, speedy, meat and potatoes chorus. With an identical length of two and a half minutes, “You Can’t Lose” hits you right out of the gate with pounding drums and a meaty guitar riff, until Hambro’s soulful, gritty vocals repeatedly yelp, “I have got to go” and in spite of the song’s ridiculously fast tempo, you won’t be able to resist singing along.
They’ve played a run of sold out hometown gigs and played shows with fellow UK bands like The Big Moon, Yak, Black Honey, and Vinyl Staircase. They also played a pretty crazy house party show last year in Hambro’s bedroom where other hotly-tipped UK acts, Willie J Healey and Dead Pretties, also played.
I saw the band live when they supported Vinyl Staircase at The Boileroom in Guildford a few months ago and it was during Van Zeller’s fantastic live set that I had a sudden realization: back to basics, no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll is back and it’s in really good hands.
I had a chat with lead singer, Ben Hambro, about the band’s origins, the Bristol music scene, working with Tarek Musa, their songwriting inspiration, crazy gig stories, future releases, what’s in store for 2017, and much more. Read the full interview below.
How did the band form?
Ben: We formed the band around two years ago when we started university in Bristol, but I’ve known all the others from before we even moved to Bristol.
Where did the band’s name come from?
Ben: I was looking at a map of Portugal one day and just saw a place called Van Zeller and liked the name.
How would you describe your sound to people that haven’t heard you guys?
Ben: We always find it difficult to really pin down our sound. A lot of people compare it to garage rock bands like Black Lips and Ty Segall, but I think I would probably describe it as a more classic 70’s rock ‘n’ roll sound, even though I love both those bands. I actually like not being able to describe it to people or confine it to a genre and let the listener sort of make up their own minds about it.
Where do you find inspiration for your songs?
Ben: Lyrically, most of the inspiration for the songs come from a lot of personal failure and I think writing about it is a way of sort of analyzing a situation and trying to understand why something happened, but a lot of the time, there is no real answer at the end of the song, which means they’re usually open to interpretation for the listener, which I like. Musically, I’m inspired by loads of stuff, but mainly stuff from the 60’s and 70’s.
How do you typically write songs? Do you all jam together in the same room or does one person write the songs before bringing them to the rest of the band?
Ben: It’s sort of a bit of both. At the start, I had a stack of songs that I took to the others with quite a clear idea of how I wanted it to sound, but as we’ve matured as musicians and writers, it’s becoming more collaborative, which I definitely like. We’re very much a live band, so we like to test out songs and ideas live as much as possible. Some of the newer songs we’ve been working on I’m really excited about and I want to keep pushing the songwriting out of our comfort zone to see what comes out of it.
What was it like working with Tarek Musa from Spring King, who produced your debut single and how did that come about?
Ben: Working with Tarek was great, he really nailed the sound I was going for on those first two tracks and he’s genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve met. In terms of how it came about, we both played this festival called Dot to Dot in Bristol last year and I went to watch Spring King after we played. I think I then drunkenly wandered into him outside the venue and just asked for his email and sent him the tracks and he agreed to mix them. We actually just played with them a couple of days ago as well here in the UK, so that was nice.
Were “All Or Nothing” and “You Can’t Lose” the first songs that you guys wrote as a band or did you choose those two songs as your first release because you felt like it was a good introduction to the band?
Ben: They were two tracks that we felt would be a good introduction as to who we are as a band. I remember when we played “You Can’t Lose” for the first time in the practice space and we just clicked as a band. Then, we got the opportunity to work with Flying Vinyl and it seemed like a great idea to just release them on vinyl only. We’re in no rush to put stuff out and I love all those 60’s garage compilations with hidden gems on them, so we had this idea to just kind of put them out as this sort of secret band that people might stumble upon.
Are there any bands that you all bonded over or agreed on before you formed the band?
Ben: We have a very eclectic taste as a band, but I think the band that really inspired us was a band from the UK called The Black Tambourines. They’re one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen and they just exude this infectious energy and the songs are fantastic. I think probably The Rolling Stones and Parquet Courts are two other bands that we all have a mutual admiration for and a band from Nashville called Music Band who put out a fantastic album last year called Wake Up Laughing that I think is one of the most underrated rock albums of recent.
How would you describe the Bristol music scene?
Ben: The Bristol music scene, or community, is probably one of the most diverse in the UK at the moment, which is great. I mean for a start there is the sort of guitar side with ourselves, LICE, Idles, The Karma Repair Kit, Milo’s Planes, Leeches, Josie Blakelock, and many others, but on the more experimental side there are bands like Spectres, The Naturals, Giant Swan, Oliver Wilde and then also the music that really put Bristol on the map during the 90’s such as trip hop. There are also some great record labels like Art is Hard, Howling Owl and Breakfast Records, as well as some great promoters like Nick Meadows. As a band, I think we feel really lucky to even exist around so much musical talent. Our mate, Alistair from LICE has actually been documenting a lot of the bands on YouTube in a series called “Bristol’s Golden Age.”
Do you think it’s particularly hard being in an up-and-coming band now or do you feel like there are a lot of opportunities out there?
Ben: I think we really pride ourselves on having a really strong DIY work ethic when it comes to getting out and playing shows and writing. We have no management, no label and no booking agent, so we really do make everything happen ourselves. I personally believe you have to make your own opportunities and just get out to gigs and shows and meet people and just ask, but you also have to put the hard work in yourself as well, even if that means driving hours to maybe play to a few people and then driving back again through the night. You have to just do it.
What’s the best gig you’ve ever seen as a fan and why?
Ben: Twin Peaks last year in Bristol at Simple Things festival. The show had to be stopped because the floor fell in after 20 minutes.
Are there any standout moments or shows from all the gigs you’ve played so far?
Ben: I think both the headline shows we’ve done so far have been real standout moments for me and selling out both those shows was really nice just because of the amount of effort that we put into this band. It was nice to see some of that hard work pay off with two really fun nights.
You guys got a pretty good mosh going while supporting Vinyl Staircase at The Boileroom. Has the response always been so positive at your live shows?
Ben: That show was really fun. I think we were pretty taken aback by the response of the crowd, but we loved it. We love Vinyl Staircase and Drug Store Romeos as well, who were the other band who played that night. The response hasn’t always been like that. We were soundchecking in Reading once and a group of people just shouted at us, “fuck off back to Weatherspoons!” (which is a chain of pubs in the UK). That’s probably my favorite heckle so far, but generally the crowds seem to like it and move around.
Have there been any crazy or funny stories while you’ve been gigging around that you can share?
Ben: We’ve done some really, really strange gigs, but I think the show we played in Edinburgh last year was one of the craziest we’ve done. Nick (our bassist) was just walking along the bar in the venue smashing glasses with his boots during one song whilst all these bartenders were frantically trying to move all the glasses. We also all lost each other that night and certain members of the band became completely incapacitated whilst a woman from Northern Ireland called Pauline then tried to break into the flat we were staying in, which resulted in the police being called and us waking up the whole block of flats. We haven’t been back to Edinburgh since, but I think a future show is on the cards.
Are there any great new bands that you think people should know about?
Ben: Firstly, Willie J Healey, who is a mate of ours from Oxford. He writes unbelievable tunes and has got one of the tightest bands around and his album is coming out later this year. Secondly, Dead Pretties, they’re just an utter force of a band, and Jacob has an amazing voice that holds the whole thing together. We had a house party at our old house and they played in our basement (along with Willie J Healey), which was my bedroom and it was just perfect. There’s a video on YouTube somewhere I think.
Do you have any favorite albums that came out this year?
Ben: I’ve been loving Tangerines – Into the Flophouse. They’re from London and they’ve nailed this classic rock sound that I really love. The guitar playing is fantastic as well. I also really love Happyness – Write In. It’s a really intricate album and full of great melodies and songs. I also love the new Fleet Foxes, Black Lips and King Gizzard albums, and I am so fucking excited for the new Sheer Mag album that I’m not sure I can put it into words.
When can fans expect the next Van Zeller release and how does the sound compare to your debut single?
Ben: We’re just in the middle of mixing the next single and we are really excited for people to hear it. It’s probably the most visceral and rhythmic thing we’ve done so far, but we’ve been playing it live for a while, so people who’ve seen us before will have heard it. In terms of how it compares to the previous single, it’s not too far off that sound, but I definitely think there is a progression in the sound that I hope people enjoy.
What’s next for the band for the rest of 2017?
Ben: We’ve got a headline UK tour coming up in September that we are really excited for because we have never toured before and we are finishing it up with a big hometown show at Thekla in Bristol which we are going to try and get some surprises for. Hopefully, we will put out another single as well towards the end of the year, but we’re not really in a massive rush so we shall see.
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