Some significant talent, from Conor Oberst to Wynonie Harris to Mannheim Steamroller, has come out of the Omaha area over the years, but it’s been a while since anyone of much note has emerged from the Cornhusker State. The Real Zebos are planning to change that.
The five-man pop-rock rock band, fronted by keyboardist Connor Brandt and guitarist Jordan Gaul with guitarist Jake Strange, bassist George Cooper, and drummer Logan Swander, performs throughout the Midwest, as their press material says, “Winning over crowds with a combination of sugary hooks, strobe lights, and razor-sharp jawlines.” The band’s sound echoes everyone from Bowie to Duran Duran to the Romantics, as well as the more modern acts that were influenced by those bands. Their single “Rock Star Skinny,” with over half a million streams, brings Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople to mind. And taking a nod from the early Beatles and Paul Weller, The Real Zebos are a rarity these days: a band that actually understands and values the role of fashion in developing a following.
The Real Zebos recently released their single “Zombie” across all platforms, their fourth single this year. Connor Brandt told American Songwriter via email about the band’s influences, songwriting methods, and goals.
“I’ve always felt like kind of a ‘late bloomer’ when it comes to music,” said Brandt, who is one of the primary writers along with Gaul. “In high school, I was very much into the wave of big-name alt, indie pop bands of the 2000s/2010s like The Killers, Foster the People, MGMT. We all share an affinity for that era, as well as ‘60s/’70s pop. I also will love anything with a good hook. I’ve fully transitioned from that 14-year-old mindset of ‘I just discovered good music and I am the only one that knows what good music is’ to ‘I can appreciate just about everything.’ I’m very anti-music snob. If it sounds good, then it is good. We try to carry that mindset and apply it to our songs.”
“Neither Jordan nor I are trained singers,” he said, “but we are definitely thinking about melody and harmony first and foremost. I think a big part of what separates us is that we are songwriters first, musicians second. Maybe you can shred on guitar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can write a solid song. Having an ear for melody is so much more valuable to me than being a great singer. As far as process, I either hear a melody in my head and record it on my phone quick, or play back a loop of an instrumental I’ve already made and improv something over it. A great deal of my demos just have nonsensical vocals until I finally get around to writing lyrics. But that helps get a feel of which cadence fits with which section, and which vowel sounds work. I think a good percentage of hit songs owe their success to having vowels that are fun to sing.”
Where many bands like this one would be slogging it out in LA, The Real Zebos seem content to work from Omaha in this virtual age, at least for the moment. “Since we are a fairly small DIY band, we’re always doing everything at the highest level possible for us and our budget,” Brandt said. “That way, the average person sees us and thinks ‘Wow, that’s a real band.’ I feel lucky to have found a group of guys that are all focused on that goal. We definitely enjoy the freedom of being completely DIY, but are not opposed to the possibility of a record deal if something of the right fit were to come our way. Right now we don’t think we are in a place to leave Omaha. As enticing as LA is, being a hub for the music industry, that can have its downsides when everyone wants to move there. Being smack dab in the middle of the country is rough for touring, though. Those bands on the East Coast that can drive a few hours and hit up so many major markets have it made!”
As a whole, the members said they are intimately involved of all the facets of managing a DIY band: songwriting, recording, marketing, social media, music video filming/editing, booking, website and store management, etc. And Brandt said they plan to continue to cultivate their following in the Midwest while they formulate a plan for bigger things. “While there are a lot of cool acts in Omaha and the Midwest, there are no ‘big fish’ in this generation of bands. An ultimate goal of ours is to become ‘Omaha’s Band’ and dominate the region, before inevitably moving to the West Coast.”