An archived interview with Zao during the promotional season of The Well-Intentioned Virus‘s life cycle.
Zao. Arguably the best musical act to emerge from West Virginia, it is difficult to fully realise the scope of sound this band has covered. They have just dropped a new release titled The Well-Intentioned Virus, and it is quite possibly the best metalcore record of the year. Guitarist Scott Mellinger and vocalist Daniel Weyandt have been cruising with the band for almost two decades now, and they took the time to answer a few questions we had regarding their latest opus.
There has been a bit of a gap between Zao‘s last record and The Well-Intentioned Virus. 2009’s Awake? proved the last time an LP was released from the band, with the single EP Xenophobe/Fear Itself only making an appearance last year. There is something wildly exciting about the prospect of a new record from the same act behind metalcore masterpieces Liberate Te Ex Infernis, Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest, and The Funeral of God.
How does it feel to have The Well-Intentioned Virus on the cusp of release?
-Extremely exciting! It’s been such a long time since we started working with this material and to finally see it released will be an amazing feeling.
This excitement just oozes through the record’s playtime, and the darkened approach taken by the band thematically is visible even through this uncertain energy. Dan comments on The Well-Intentioned Virus’ barebones creation.
-Primarily I feel an anxious type of excitement. This is the first time we have had full control over all aspects of an album. This is the “purest” Zao record that I have ever been a part of in the sense that there is minimal outside influence. The band, the engineers and the visual art all working in sync. It is a raw nerve in a sense. No one else to place the blame on if it fails.
Regardless of small anxieties, there is a definite confidence here. The Well-Intentioned Virus is a powerfully genuine release. In light of the humanity beneath the folds, I can’t help but enquire about the whole production process. Scott took the helms, nodding to two decades worth of experience.
Was production a (relatively) smooth process? The act of creation is always an interesting endeavor, to say the least.
-Recording is always smooth, for us. It’s the mixing stage where things start to get tough. We have pretty distinct tastes when it comes to tone and overall sounds so we do have to fight a bit to get it right.
It is both amusing and humbling to know that a band this far into their careers still has reservations regarding album tone, and this is good. This record is gorgeously produced, loaded with a very individual tone for current metalcore, and some gorgeous dynamics. The individuality of tone transfers beyond just the production, and right into the album’s thematic approach relative to the band’s discography. The Well-Intentioned Virus feels like it is tackling a few different ideas simultaneously, causing a bit of thematic dissonance. Bookended by melancholic undertones, this looks to be one of the conceptually darkest albums released in 2016. Dan provided some insight:
-I feel that this is a very introspective and existential record. A catalog of observations as supposed to guiding the listener towards a specific thought or idea. In the end the listener’s interpretation is expanded by ambiguity. As always, the intention is for the listener to have an emotional response or an aural connection, something that promotes thought and/or discussion.
This ambiguity and introspection is also evident very strongly in the music, with the record being quite the shadowy beast. Relative to prior releases such as The Funeral of God, this album is dripping of grim desolation. Scott‘s comments on the musical creation process is quite impacting:
-Most of the music was written as my dad was dying and through until he passed. Writing a lot of this music helped me through that, I really think you can hear it in some of these songs, the anger and sadness from that happening.
While broad in scope, Dan references some important ties that hold the album together thematically:
-Personally, I can speak more so for the thematic/lyrical aspect of the new record. I feel the individual releases have always differed because there isn’t a specific core ideal lyrically. It’s simply the sharing frustration and pain, of sadness and anger.
There is personal experience behind those words.
-The things that bring on those feelings evolve beside us with age and personal experience. Those are the things that change us slowly. That being said a part of us always remains in the past as well as the past living on in us. It’s not that it is inspired; it’s more a catharsis. It’s our cumulative alter ego.
A cumulative alter ego. Something cumulative that sits on a more inspirational plain would be your discography. Even after all these years, Zao sounds like no one else. Scott discusses the formation of individuality.
Did you have a specific point of inspiration when creating The Well-Intentioned Virus?
-Honestly, I think we just try to please ourselves. There are a few key things we still enjoy putting in there like the breakdowns and spazzy metal parts but we try to just let things happen that feel natural. I think the fact that we all listen to so much different stuff helps inspire us to try other things some metal bands wouldn’t.
These key things are often considered as crowd-pleasers, and very few bands manage to pull them off as effortlessly as you gents have without compromising musical integrity. That being said, some tracks on this record feel like they were designed purely with a live audience in mind (namely the straight banger, “Jinba Ittai”). “Xenophobe” is brilliantly timely and “Jinba Ittai” is, as mentioned, a certain crowd-pleaser musically, but there is plenty on this record that begs to be dissected in the silence of self-meditation.
Would you say The Well-Intentioned Virus a personal reflective piece for you guys as artists, or is it directed specifically at a certain demographic?
-I think we always strive for our stuff to be really dissected, mainly the lyrics of course. Even the straight banger songs have deeply thought-out lyrics. We also are just as much fans of live metal so we can always interject parts in the songs that we would consider crowd pleasers.
Dan dives a little bit more into intentionality over surface-level impact:
-I don’t feel that we have ever purposely written songs with the intention of catering to any specific audience live or not. If anything we have always tried to avoid any type of trend within the general wheelhouse of the genre at the time. We write angry, ugly, riffy songs. Being inactive for a while was helpful in the sense that there was no pressure. We dig these songs and hope the listener will as well.
This trend of going against the grain has always been evident in the band’s history, with early releases under a predominantly Christian line-up discussing the extremes of human dejection. Recently, shows were announced with the brilliant boys over at Oh, Sleeper. I am curious to know where the current Zao line-up is spiritually/mentally/philosophically with the release of The Well-Intentioned Virus.
-We are definitely not a Christian band. We aren’t ever going to be a band that is anti-anything either. I have no problem with the Christian fans of our band. I respect what the band started out as and fully respect the differing views of people.
As Scott has said here, the band’s ideologies (as bands should) have shifted and altered over the years to create the band we see today. I am then curious to know where the force comes from.
What drives you to continue releasing music under a collective moniker spanning more than 20 years of content?
-The simple answer to why we soldier on is that this is our deep passion. We all love being in this band and love making music together. First and foremost, all of us are longtime friends so I’d be with these dudes regardless; might as well do something cool and fun at the same time.
Comradery. Dan pushes forward some introspection:
-I feel that I can only speak for myself when answering this question. I have found my peace in nothingness and hard truths. I have adjusted my lifestyle to manage my mental state. What drives me personally to continue is the idea that Zao is the positive outlet for everything negative in my life.
The idea of utilising Zao as a positive outlet for everything negative is apparent in the gorgeous yet often somewhat down-trodden harmonies between the guitars on this album. It is a gorgeous style of interplay, something I feel is purely unique to this album. In light of The Well-Intentioned Virus carrying many new styles of performance, I am curious to know if there is ever any pressure from the past. Scott takes a comfortable stance.
Do you ever feel you have to try and keep up with the band’s impressive discography?
-I don’t think about that stuff, honestly. I feel like Zao is just now hitting its peak in songwriting, I don’t think we’ve written our best record yet but The Well-Intentioned Virus is way closer to our goal.
Continuing undertones of a hopeful future, Dan follows:
-I would say it compels you in the sense that you always want to progress and become greater than you were while realising that the past was a different time and generation, trying to recreate that specifically brings nothing but negative things. Those albums were rungs in a Jacob’s Ladder.
Things are looking up in a big way. So, where do we go from here?
– We already have songs for an EP and the beginnings of the next record. We have a good plan for new music every year and hopefully a new full length every 2 years.
I am ridiculously excited at this prospect. In parting, what are the chances you’ll be hitting the Australian shores in the near future?
-We would be so honored to come play in Australia! We are a full up and running machine again we just have to be creative in when we play because of families and schedules. But as far as we’re concerned Zao is fully back and staying strong.
Brilliant! It has been an honour talking with you guys. Thank you for your time and insight!
-My pleasure, thank you.
-Thanks to you as well sir.
The Well-Intentioned Virus is an exemplary masterclass in generating response. It emanates with mystery while still providing clear commentary on issues that are relevant, and issues that hit us where it hurts. The band are in peak condition from a technical standpoint, and there is very little in way of critique to make about The Well-Intentioned Virus. It has seeded it’s brittle claws into my head, and I am afraid to cease pondering on the poignant remarks made should I forget about the things that matter. This is what metalcore strives to be in 2016.