Just about every rock band worth its guitar picks started off as a garage band, a gang of skinny, hormone-driven geeks who were able to finagle the use of somebody's parents' garage, where they'd play on weekends, annoying the shit out of the neighbors with off-tempo drumming, out-of-tune guitars, and a singer whose voice had broken the week before and had a long way to go before it sounded anything like Robert Plant's. Or even Billy Corgan's.
Passion Seeds, however, is a garage band with a CD, some major-label interest, and airplay on local and college radio stations. A garage band that doesn't have to worry about the neighbors because it rehearses in an industrial complex just off I-95 in Hollywood, where the band's leader, Zach Ziskin, shares office space with his mother's voice-over company, Talkwrite. ("I've been the voice of Burdines for 25 years," is her greeting.) A garage band that doesn't play in an actual garage, but in a bay -- "Bay M," to be precise -- jam-packed with musical equipment (two pianos, half a dozen amplifiers and guitar cases, a sax, a standup bass, and a tangled web of wires) and flanked by an air conditioning company on one side, a dry-ice company on the other.
Ice is exactly what's needed on this steamy Monday night. Bay M's air conditioning broke down earlier today and won't be fixed till tomorrow. And, indeed, an hour into rehearsal, Ziskin's T-shirt is drenched and most of his long, dark brown locks have curled. If he looks tired, it's because he's been working hard lately, pushing the band's debut CD, Release, a product of Z Boy Music, the company founded to produce and promote the band. Because Ziskin is Z Boy, he books Passion Seeds' numerous in- and out-of-state gigs, hawks the CDs (500 sold so far), and sends press kits to record companies and radio stations. The 24-year-old is driven.
"I think there's no limit to what he can do," his mother, Connie Zimet, a former recording artist, says. "Zach has always done what he's wanted to do."
Right now, he wants to take "Here I Am" from the top. Like a few other songs on the CD, this one's about rebounding after a painful breakup. ("She showed me heaven, then she gave me hell.") But it's also about hope, surviving on the strength gained from experience. And hope, when it comes to Ziskin, is expressed through melody -- not just a catchy verse here or there, but an album's worth of memorable, if sometimes overly sentimental, songs. "Melody is king," he likes to say. And melody is evident not only in his crisp, calculated guitar work (one friend calls him "ex-Zach-ly"), but in a voice that stretches both musical and emotional boundaries. Vocally, he's the sunnier side of the late Jeff Buckley, but on Release he sounds just as troubled. Of the album's eleven songs, six make liberal use of the word "pain."
But painful Ziskin's voice is not.
In fact, it's what saves this bleak-looking complex on this hot summer night from resembling a nightmare. Just outside Bay M, where Passion Seeds -- which includes Jeff Kissinger on bass, Scott Graubart on drums, and Steve Kornicks on percussion -- has launched, full-throttle, into "Here I Am," there are plenty of distractions with which to contend: a speed-metal band practicing just a few bays down, the neighborhood dogs howling at the speed-metal band; and a cicada screeching from its perch in a nearby tree. Suddenly cymbals crash in Bay M, amps rattle, congas pop, and Ziskin, his eyes closed, wails of how the love he gave one woman wasn't enough. But still:
Here I am, 'cause I'm your man
And I'm standing in the rain (to be with you)
Here I am, I'm your man
And I'm lost inside the pain
Zach Ziskin doesn't look troubled. In person, he's happy-go-lucky, a wide-eyed young man who smiles so frequently you'd assume that everything comes easily to him.
"He's got so much talent. He's a great vocalist, and he's a great guitarist," says Kimba, music director at Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9) and host of the radio station's Sunday-night showcase, "Zeta Goes Local," on which Passion Seeds has been featured.
Karen Feldner, who hired Ziskin as a temporary lead guitarist for her band, Trophy Wife, gushes: "I've told his mom, 'Can't we just clone him?'" Ziskin not only stepped in on short notice; his "phenomenal" guitar-playing has done wonders for the band's sound, she says.
Genes are at least partly responsible for Ziskin's musical abilities. With plans to become "the next Ella," Zimet left Indianapolis for New York City at the age of 17 and eventually signed a recording contract. She says Victor Ziskin, Zach's father, "was being hailed as the next boy genius of Broadway" back in the '60s.
"Musical genius," Ziskin says of his father. "Studied with Leonard Bernstein, played [piano] at Carnegie Hall when he was eight, attended Harvard, composed a bunch of musicals."
But after a couple of those musicals fell through production-wise, Victor gave up Broadway and turned to Wall Street, where he made millions. The marriage, however, fell apart, and Zimet moved to Miami in 1972. Zach was born the following year.
He was a happy kid who spent a lot of his time in the studios where Zimet recorded songs, jingles, and voice-overs. At the age of six months, he crawled to a reel-to-reel machine and began to spool the tape like a professional, she claims. He remembers trying, at age six, to buy a tape machine off the Bee Gees, who were recording at Criteria Studios in North Miami. Ziskin, in fact, works part-time as a studio engineer, and he coproduced Release with his friend Greg Schwabe.
But, as technically proficient as he is, his songs wouldn't resonate without the Sturm und Drang included on the CD. Partial credit goes to his writing partner, Bruce Berman, Ziskin's second cousin and Passion Seeds' manager. Berman, at age 37, has seen a little more of life, tasted its bitterness. He gave acting a shot in Los Angeles during the '80s, only to return home to Miami in 1989, the year he introduced his cousin to the Beatles. Ziskin, then age 16, was a guitar prodigy who practiced six hours a day and worshiped Guns n' Roses. Leather pants, the ubiquitous cigarette butt, and a few kick-ass guitar riffs were limited in their appeal, however. "When Zach discovered the Beatles, his whole life changed," Zimet says.
"For me the highest influence is the Beatles," he admits. "They are, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest musical force ever. So I am always kinda takin' my cues from them, as far as songwriting, melody, lyrical arrangement -- stuff like that."
Berman, however, refuses to compare his partnership with Ziskin to the legendary Lennon-McCartney team. They tried that once -- writing and playing together. As the duo No End, they briefly tasted glory with the 1992 song "Somehow We Will Survive," a tribute to South Florida spirit in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. A video of the song, played on local TV stations, featured an 800 number that brought in $80,000 for the Red Cross. When Gloria Estefan hosted a charity concert in Joe Robbie Stadium, No End was invited to perform its song via satellite from a tent city in Homestead. "I was terrible," Berman recalls. Ziskin admits that it wasn't a great performance, and afterward he went solo.
But, in spirit at least, the Lennon-McCartney comparison is apt. The cousins still write songs together, splitting the credits fifty-fifty. "I think my stuff is a little darker," Berman says, "but Zach comes up with stuff that bites, too. 'Beautiful People' is his."
It's also a perfect example of what Ziskin can do with a song. It starts off innocently enough with Ziskin cooing over the congas and a soothing acoustic guitar. But soon he's offering a double-edged look at what's "beautiful": "Beautiful people with beautiful faces/Hide all the loneliness in beautiful places/I know I'll never be that beautiful/Only be what I am, something you can never do."
"Clearer," a song Berman got rolling, is much darker from the start, with odd noises and a discordant guitar thrown into the intro. It's also a wiser song, one that doesn't see everything in black and white but chalks the tough times up to experience: "I learned long ago that/Saying I love you can be a threat/ And I learned that love can always hurt you/ But you must not regret."
One person who doesn't have regrets is percussionist Steve Kornicks, a 30-year-old South Florida music-scene veteran who's given just about every musical genre -- rock, jazz, Latin, and fusion -- a try. But a couple of years ago when Ziskin approached him to play percussion on a demo, Kornicks was impressed by the melodies he heard. He even refused to accept money for his work, saying, "No, keep it, because I know [this music is] going to get in the right ears. Whatever I do for you is going to get in the right ears."
Standing just outside Bay M during a break in rehearsal, Kornicks is still confident. Of the Release CD he says: "I just have a gut feeling that the songs have that sort of vibe where a lot of people will like [the CD] once it gets distributed properly."
The rest of the band has that same feeling, even after only eight months together. Ziskin first formed Passion Seeds in a panic, after a demo he'd submitted to Zeta earned his then-nonexistent group an invite to a local-band competition sponsored by the station in July '97. He quickly gathered together Kornicks and Kissinger (with whom he'd performed before) and, through a mutual friend, recruited then-20-year-old Graubart, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts. The performance went well, and over the next several months, Ziskin finished recording and mixing Release. He then re-formed the band just before the CD's release.
At the age of 29, Kissinger's also been around the musical block. Originally from Ohio, where he played standup bass in a symphony orchestra, he says of Ziskin and Berman's songs: "To me everything is so well-written, it's so orchestrated. Everything is so --"
"Goal-oriented," Graubart interjects.
"It's not like a jam band," the fast-talking Kissinger continues. "It doesn't come across that way, nor do I think anybody would want it to. You know, what you hear on the radio is not jammin'."
"There's a definite purpose to what we're trying to do here," Kornicks adds, almost under his breath.
And that purpose is?
Kornicks raises his head, smiles, and says, "To be heard by a large number of people."
Ziskin is working on it. Thanks to his efforts over the last few months, Release is in the hands of the promotion and A&R departments of several major labels, including Arista, Hollywood, MCA, and Atlantic. But Ziskin isn't green when it comes to the intricacies of record deals. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he's read books and articles, participated in seminars, and talked to those who know the business, such as Berman, who runs his own management company, and Zimet. Before Ziskin signs a contract, he knows what he has to hear.
"The main thing is promotion -- radio promotion, video promotion," he says. "Because if the promotion department isn't behind you, you're dead. You're not going anywhere."
So, until the right deal comes along, self-promotion is key. As the rehearsal break comes to an end, Ziskin informs the band that, earlier today, he talked to Berman and the band's lawyer.
"They said it's useless for us to bother doing out-of-state stuff at this point," he tells them, "because what we need to do is focus on our back yard, focus on Florida."
"What are you snickering at?" Ziskin asks with a smile.
"Florida," Kissinger repeats, echoing what everyone else is thinking: Florida's a big fucking state.
Back in Bay M, where moths and mosquitoes twitter about, Ziskin suggests they try a new song, which he modeled on Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over" from Grace. Graubart and Kornicks haven't even heard "Waking Hour" yet, but Kissinger has been given a tape, mostly because the time-signature change -- from 7/4 to 6/4 -- isn't easy to pull off. And, indeed, as the song gets under way, Kissinger stumbles once, twice, then three times during the transition, each time with a smile and an, "I'll get it, I'll get it -- next time."
On the fourth run-through, after a shaky start, he does get it. And the song, which builds from a sashay to a climactic finish -- with Graubart's cymbals crashing, Ziskin's voice wailing over his crisp-clean guitar -- is finally a success. A now shirtless, exhausted Ziskin smiles as he unplugs his guitar.
"You're witnessing a birth," he tells a visitor. "Sometimes it's painful."
"C-section," Kissinger offers.
Not one to spoil a joke in the making, Ziskin adds: "Somebody give me an epidural."
Passion Seeds will perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 18 in Underground Coffeeworks, 105 S. Narcissus Ave., West Palm Beach (561-835-4792), and as part of LoveFest '98 at 10 p.m. Sunday, July 19 in Maison a Go Go, 2031 Harrison St., Hollywood (954-927-3635).
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