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Interview – Ali Tabatabee, Zebrahead, September 2013

| 29 September 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Originally published in X-Press Magazine’s 17th September 2013 issue – HERE

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Iranian born vocalist Ali Tabatabaee tells SHANE PINNEGAR that getting a new lead guitarist on board led to Zebrahead’s new album Call Your Friends – out now – being their heaviest yet.

“We started writing with Greg [Bergdorf],” Tabatabaee explains, “then once he decided that he wanted to stay at home with his family and spend time with his daughter more, Dan Palmer [formerly with Death By Stereo] joined the band and we kinda started over and worked with Dan for most of the album.

“I think for Dan coming into the situation it took him a little bit of time to find his place and start speaking out on what he thought and throwing his two cents in. For some reason everybody was more interested in writing a little bit heavier songs, so it was kind’ve a combination of the mood we were in, Dan’s influence, Matty [Lewis, guitarist and co-vocalist] was writing heavier riffs as well. So I dunno, it came to be and Dan’s such a phenomenal guitar player too so he definitely had a large influence on how the album turned out.”

Call Your Friends, the band’s tenth album in 17 years, still features Zebrahead’s beer n’ chicks-fuelled frat boy humour and sounds like a non-stop party, despite Tabatabaee turning forty earlier this year.

“Shane, you know what,” he says, a mock serious tone in his voice, “it’s just sad because if you were to hang out with us you would be so shocked to see how immature we are…”

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Tabatabaee interrupts himself with a belly laugh before continuing, “Our albums and our songs are just kind of who we are, and I think hangin’ out together in this band for so long, we just try to make each other laugh and have a good time. Honestly dude, we’re just stoked to be able to play music for a living, and travel and see all these great places – and we don’t take that for granted. I think we just try to enjoy it and I think if you don’t enjoy something then there’s no point in doing it. Fortunately we’re all brothers and we like to hang out together, so it’s a very cool thing we’ve got going, and I think that sort of feeling comes through in the songs and the albums.”

The singer, who handles most of the rapping in the band’s songs, may have a life less ordinary, but he’s well aware of having to balance the business side of being in a successful band, not to mention newly entering his forties.

“The thing is,” he says, “being in a band and touring, you’re around so many young people all the time that you do forget that you’re fuckin’ forty years old! Every once in a while I do have to remind myself that I am forty, but I guess you are as old as you feel and when you’re touring or playing music, I still feel like I’m in my twenties. Its crazy man, I never thought I’d be doing it this long!”

“Absolutely not, man – it was kind’ve a joke!” he insists, about the band ever dreaming they could take their career this far. “Initially we never thought [it possible]. When we had somebody come up to us and say, ‘hey there’s this guy I know who manages Motorhead, and he wants to come check you guys out’, we were like, ‘come on, man, no way’. [Zebrahead provided the backing track for Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead’s 1998 Grammy nominated cover of Metallica’s Enter Sandman] We never, ever thought that would happen, so this has all been crazy and were very lucky to have had all the opportunities we’ve had.”

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Despite the non-stop frat party sound of the band, Tabatabaee insists he’s still grounded by his connection to his Iranian family’s culture.

“I have a pretty big family,” he explains, “and most of them are in the U.S. I have one Aunt that’s still in Iran. As far as the culture thing goes, we still celebrate the Persian New Year and other different occasions. I speak Farsi like my Grandmother does – I haven’t forgotten how to speak Farsi, which is good. I’m Iranian, so it’s part of who I am, I don’t think that’s going to change!”

The Tabatabaeepour family, as they were then known, emigrated from Iran to La Habra, in Orange County, California when the singer was 6 years old, and he says that he and his sister were lucky to have not been on the receiving end of much racial prejudice.

“There was my sister and myself – and another Iranian guy, but he didn’t come into the school ‘til my high school years – so there were literally no Iranians there” he recalls. “We moved onto a street where everyone knew each other, it was a really close community. I didn’t speak English at all for the first couple of years, but I remember one of my neighbours’ older kid, a really big dude – he was like, a football player – for some reason he kinda took a liking to my sister and I, and he introduced us to everybody and kinda looked out for us and made sure nobody really messed with us. Through him people became cool with us – so I think we moved into a really lucky situation. I haven’t personally had too much discrimination against me, so fortunately that hasn’t been something that I’ve experienced – but I’m sure there are places where that does happen.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues, “there are racist people everywhere, but in my experience we got really lucky, the place we moved to was really open minded and welcoming and kind of took care of us. It was a weird experience obviously, changing everything around, learning a new language, all that stuff. But it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been if there was people who were racist or hated us just for being Iranian, you know.”

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An opportunity to experience another culture recently fell through at the last minute when Zebrahead’s 4-date tour of China was called off at the eleventh hour.

“You know what,” he says, the disappointment showing in his voice, “the China thing – here’s a good story for you, by the way – didn’t pan out. Our work visas, on the day before we were due to fly out, weren’t cleared! So we ended up flying to China, getting a 24 hour tourist visa ‘cos we had a ten hour layover, then we ended up going to Japan early and doing press.

“We got out of the airport in China,” he continues, warming to retelling the adventure, “bucked it to the Great Wall, climbed the Great Wall and hung out there for a half hour. Then we jumped in a taxi and went and saw the Forbidden City, we were actually outside the Forbidden City for a half hour, then went back to the airport and went to Japan!

“It was crazy, man. It was like the fastest tourist stop ever. But it was amazing, man, it was so cool to be able to do that, but we didn’t get to play any shows, which we were really looking forward to, but hopefully next time we will be let into the country to play! We’re working on going back.”

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All this serious talk of trans-cultural respect, international sightseeing and responsibility is all well and good, but Tabatabaee soon makes good on his earlier declaration of immaturity by turning the rest of the interview into his own – admittedly hilarious – comedy spot.

Firstly, there’s the matter of whether the band might yet be announced on the Soundwave bill for 2014.

“You know,” he laughs, “I am trying to figure out who I have to pay to get on that festival – I have $25 and a 40 Ounce of beer right here for whoever gets us on that bill!

“I’m just kidding with you. We have our fingers crossed that we’ll play, but as of now we are not on the bill. And every day I look at the bill and go ‘GOD it’d be great to see Green Day, God, it’d be great to hang out and watch AFI…’ You know what, if there’s any way you can help out, I have the 25 bucks here for you!”

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That’s not a yes… but it’s not a NO, either…

Then there’s the matter of how to stay in shape on the road when you’re pounding beers, eating McDonalds and what not.

“Shane, to be honest,” Tabatabaee says, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “the secret is I just inject steroids straight into my eyeball, and for some reason that works really, really well! Also, a good way to lose weight before a show is to just go to the bathroom and throw up after every time you eat! You do the shot in the eye, go throw up, then run on stage…”

He’s practically rolling on the floor laughing, of course, and that doesn’t let up when I joke that the headlines will read ‘Bulimic Steroid Junkie!’

“Hey that’s the name of a song, I think!” he exclaims between the laughter, “Yeah, Shane, I think you just named the next album, bro!”

Finally, let’s find out what album he would magically be a part of the making of if he could travel in time…

“You know, I heard Jesus had a great first album – that would have been cool, to be there and hear him beatbox. That would be cool!” he jokes, successfully offending another group of people, before getting serious again “But you know what, I’m a huge Beastie Boys fan and I’d love to have been there for any of their recordings. I’d really like to see how they write together and make such cool rhymes. So I think a Beastie Boys album, I’d be stoked to go and be a part of that.

“That was the serious answer!” he laughs.


Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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