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July 19, 2012

Tossing the Pint: an Interview With Don Zuzula

I first met Don Zuzula in 2009 at White’s Bar in Saginaw, Michigan, one of the only true music “venues” in Saginaw. Owner Bo White prides himself on sustaining a weekly lineup of local, regional and national recording artists. Don was up on stage with his band The Tosspints, at the time a very Irish-punk outfit. Over the last few years, it gets harder and harder to pigeonhole them. While there’s still the Irish-punk element, there are shades of straight-up rock and post-punk. All labeling and pigenholing go out the door when seeing the trio live.

Don’s stage presence is the cornerstone of their sweaty, Guinness-drenched romp. When you’re done staring at his beard, the next thing you notice is his intensity. Eyebrows dripping sweat. A man who appears to have a bubble around himself, oblivious to anything but his task.  When Don Zuzula starts a song, everyone in the room will know. Part of it’s his voice, sometimes reminiscent of Cobain if Cobain were a bear on speed. Part of it’s his appearance; I’ll invoke the bear image again. Part of it’s his personality, but that’s only if you know him. Let’s see if we can get you a bit closer to that.

TL: I have to start with this, and I’m sorry. But, talk about the name The Tosspints briefly. Why does it work so well?

DZ: I’m not sure that it has “worked out” so much. I would say that many people think that there’s a lot of originality to it, but the plain truth is that it’s actually the title of a Pogues song, and when we picked it originally we were a Pogues tribute act. It was an awesome name for a band like that, but as we grew it has sort of just been a name. Occasionally a guy will walk up to us and ask if we named our band after the Pogues song and I have to look down at my feet as I answer “Yes.” The saving grace to the name is that the song is about a gluttonous blaggard who is burned at the stake and that tosspint is also a translated Shakespearean reference which we printed on the back of our second tour t-shirt. “If any poor man in a day should earn a shilling, he shall certainly spend it tossing the pint.”

TL:What was your first band?

DZ: My first band, or my first real band? My very first band happened when I was 13-14 and a couple of guys got together and did Nirvana covers in a basement. We all wanted to be Kurt Cobain because that was the time and we didn’t know much about much. We played 1 gig and fell apart as far as I can remember. We had never even settled on a name for the group.

My first working band came not long after that and turned out really well as far as teen bands go. I was with my brother in that group which was great.  Even today he’s my wing-man in music and he’s my favorite bassist that I have  worked with because he’s got perfect pitch and is incredibly naturally talented. Anyway, the band we were in at the time was called “Chino’s Plastic Soldiers” which was a ska/punk band in the Saginaw area of Michigan. We played out quite a bit, had bar gigs and won some local talent contest which had gotten us a full page write up in the Saginaw News. In 1997, that was a big deal for us. I still have a copy of that on my wall. It’s been nice that as a musician I have been in 2 pseudo-successful bands and both were with my brother Zak.

TL: Your music: so many bands purporting to be whiskey-drinking hooligans often turn out to be guys sitting in their parents’ basements. How much of your music is autobiographical. The song that comes to mind first is “Whiskey be My Savior.”

DZ: A good chunk of it is autobiographical, and a good chunk just feels that way. I have never said this before publicly, but I’m a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I guess I have held that back because I am afraid of losing some of my punk audience. I also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a dysfunction that causes tremendous anxiety, depression, flashbacks and some social awkwardness. It’s also normally saddled with severe alcoholism which I’ve battled with for several years. A lot of my songs are about that because you write what you know. When you’re a borderline shut-in with a fifth-a-day drinking habit, you write about that. I am sure some people are going to read this and say “Now I get it.” after hearing this.

There is a caveat: Zak actually writes a little more than half of our material, much of what he writes is from what he reads. Believe it or not, he’s the one who wrote the songs about being in the military from our first album 11 Empty Bottles which would be about half the album. He is a history teacher and loves to read military novels.

Personally I can’t speak for where he gets his inspiration, but I’d like to know because I think he’s a better songwriter than I am. Our next album is going to be the first one where I write more songs than he does and I think it’s going to end up a bit different than the others, which is good because the last two sounded nothing alike.

TL: Several people have told me that having a child impacted their lives in different ways. You recently had a child, a daughter (10-11 months ago?) Talk about the impact she has made on your life. How has she become a part of your creative work?

DZ: My Daughter Eleanor. She’s the greatest love of my life besides writing, performing music, and my wife of 10 years Leigh Ann. There hasn’t been a single thing I’ve been more devoted to. As for my creativity, when she was first born I actually backed off of all of my creative endeavors. I was exhausted and couldn’t think straight enough to do much. It was a huge adjustment for me, a complete lifestyle change as well. I went from being a guy who was never at home except to shower, to a guy who never left the home overnight.

 

I wasn’t handling it correctly either. I won’t go into details, but about six months after she was born I had a breakdown and spent a ton of time in the hospital on and off. Since then I have gotten my life a bit more in order and in just a few months I became a powerhouse of creativity, I have written nearly an entire album of songs by myself. She did all of that for me, I wanted to get my life in order because I was heading down a hard road and it’s where I wanted to be at the time. She’s made a big change in me. I have an awesome little person who needs me and loves me. It’d be awfully sad to grow up without a daddy. Now I sit down and write and sing because I want to give her something to be proud of as a father, before I did it just to let out things I was keeping inside.

TL: When I first heard the Tosspints, you played more Irish or Irish-inspired music. Have you moved away from the traditional? — If so, which direction are the Tosspints leaning in?

DZ: The Tosspints are writing more original material than when we first started. We were successful at traditional stuff and we still do it. We like to dust off the traditional show and play it at Celtic heritage festivals, traditional pubs, or on holidays where we’re asked to do that show. It’s what we started off on. As we played in the first couple of years, we came across other bands who were being successful playing their own music on their own terms. We had been songwriters before and couldn’t keep away from it. The music we write isn’t much different than the way we presented traditional Celtic music, but we didn’t want to end up being 50 years old and not have anything of our own to show for after a long career.

The biggest moment in our career was meeting The Goddamn Gallows in 2008, they were really our model at the time we were both playing a Monday night show at Mac’s Bar in Lansing, MI. They got up and really taught us a lesson on performing and they were writing their own music, which we were doing little of. We wanted to be something more original — more artistic in both what we brought to the stage and how we presented ourselves. We worked hard after that to get our own identity. The funny thing is, as far as local acts we couldn’t have picked a better group to kick us in the ass, so to speak. They’ve really gotten big over the last couple of years, playing major festivals and touring with big names.

TL: I saw you throw down at the Lager House in Corktown. You had a decent handful of folks in the crowd. There were a few kids singing along to your tunes. Is there enough fan base here in Detroit to mount a comeback show?

DZ: We actually have some shows in the works for the near future in Detroit. The best part of living in the age that we live in is that the internet has been the great evener in the music industry. I have been shocked to get e-mails from all over the world and from states I’ve never played in asking when we’re coming through. Detroit isn’t an exception to that. We’ve been there a handful of times to include our date on the Warped Tour we had in early July of this year.

TL: Which performing artists do you hate the most. Be specific with your answer.

DZ: That’s a fun question. Some people think I’d say Henry Rollins because I met him once and he wasn’t very nice to me, but truthfully I respect his music and him as an artist. He was acting exactly how he acts in any person-to-person situation you find him in on youtube, and I wasn’t special.

I’d have to say from the bottom of my heart that the artist I most despise is probably Toby Kieth, and I have a really good reason. He inappropriately capitalized on the sense American Nationalism that welled up in the post 9/11 years. As a soldier I hated that fucking “American Soldier” song he did because people would blast it on jukeboxes and never know what being one was about; to them it was just a song, and now that we have a generation of wounded combat vets with mental illnesses who are virtually unemployable, that love has dried up. Believe it or not I have in the past few months grown a fondness for Kid Rock because of the charitable donations and time that he has donated to wounded veterans.

TL: If there were two fundamental changes you could make to the corporate music industry, what would they be?

DZ: Only 2? I am not sure what I would do. It would be nice for the larger companies to roll back to the seventies, before the pop star in a box came out. Right around the early 80s it seemed that they were signing pretty faces and decent voices and writing hits based on a formula and I’d prefer to see that go away.

Other than that, I think things are actually going in a good direction. I’d like to see the large label go away altogether, but as we see more and more internet radio and fewer on air stations, that’s already happening. Like I said before, the internet is the great evener. I can go out and solicit my own airplay these days and get my music into the ears of the listeners it’s going to be the most effective to right now. I am limited by resources at the time being, but I know that the smaller labels are perfectly capable of boosting their rosters and do have the resources to produce giants just as well as the big guys. Now, we just need the giants to topple and make room for more small to medium independent labels. Music is getting back into the hands of the musician, or at least will eventually.

TL: Are the problems in the music industry indicative of a larger problem in the United States?

DZ: Definitely. You can always see what went wrong with a culture as a whole by looking at the monuments they left behind. If we dissapeared, future scholars would have any number of shitty autotuned, over-produced pop songs to look back on and know that we didn’t have a whole lot of value in art and music. That doesn’t speak for everybody, but that’s the mass marketed stuff — the stuff that is shoved down the throats of the cattle when they’re in the feedlot. Consumer culture demands that they be fed often and they don’t care what’s in it, as long as it’s the newest and the best (best being determined by the number of gold stars the reviewers are paid to give it). We’re really lucky to have a counterculture to this who demands substance, or at least not to be given what’s on everyone elses plate without seeing the menu first.

TL: What are the Tosspints goals, and concerning them what is your advice to yourself?

DZ: Our goals. We want to drink a million beers, play for as many people as will listen and to keep making records as long as we can. We started this out just to have fun. In an ideal world we’d love to be The Tosspints full time, but we’re a ways off of that. If you look at our resume, we’ve played some awesome clubs, have won awards, played with some of our heroes, and have an awesome fan base that makes playing fun and worth while. If I had any advice for myself it would be to “never let this stop being fun” if it ever becomes work, we need to think about moving on, but right now I get the adrenaline rush of hitting the stage and I get to share it with two of the best friends I have ever had. We are pretty proud of the way this has turned out so far and want it to keep going as long as it can.

TL: What is your advice to kids who are just now picking up a guitar, dreaming of the stage?

DZ: I think it would be the same as the advice I just gave myself. I think there is a lot of truth to that, I see so many people who take it way too seriously and they never seem to enjoy what they are doing. You have to be a little serious too, the business side needs that. It’s not hard to get onto the stage, but you’ve got to play a lot of shows before you get to the big ones with the big crowds. I’m still working on getting bigger and better.

The Tosspints official webpage

Don’s official webpage

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