On his debut album, Better Haze, Garrett “Sleepy” Zuhoski went into the studio with a collection of songs he’d been working on for years. “It was a little unconventional,” says Zuhoski, “because we started with just the acoustic guitar and the vocals.” No doubt, it was this approach in the studio with producer Salim Nourallah (Old 97s, The Damnwells, Nicholas Altobelli) that gave his vocals a shoe-gazing, late-night phone confessional quality. “I was fascinated at how good that came out but it also kept me from getting too hyped when things started happening.”
The songs on Better Haze run the gamut of styles and influences. “I like a lot of variety,” says Zuhoski. “It keeps me from getting bored.” From the moody, ethereal folk and playful melancholia of “Asleep for a Year” and “Sour,” to The Foals dance-infused rock of “New Tattoo” and “Tsunami,” to the Radiohead-inspired sci-fi rock of “On a Cloud” and “Hate To Sleep,” there is no shortage of eclecticism. “I do kind of bounce around on different things. One of the cool things about working with a producer like Salim is he helped give it a cohesive element.”
Zuhoski attributes a lot of the ethereal and synthesized sounds to Dallas-based guitarist and composer, Nick Earl (Polyphonic Spree). “Nick would do ten or fifteen passes, trying different things every time. Sometimes it would be really hard to pick through all the cool things he had done. I’ve never heard a guitar sound like that.”
Creating and recording music has been a lifelong passion for Zuhoski who has lived in and outside of Dallas since the early nineties by way of Wisconsin and New York. “I remember being 5 or 6, before I could read or write, and making tapes of myself singing freeform, stream of consciousness crap. I guess every kid probably goes through that but it never really stopped for me.” That playful nature comes across in songs like the whimsical, Oedipal nightmare romp of “Love You to Death” and the hopeful, wide-eyed ballad, “Books.”
As a teenager, Zuhoksi discovered musicians like Radiohead, Bjork and Sigur Ros who impressed upon him the many ways music could be written and recorded, other than the post-grunge and pop that was on the radio. A much bigger musical world opened up for him. “I have a really broad taste in music,” says Zuhoski. “I listen to everything from hip-hop to free jazz. I want to put a little bit of everything in the music. Some people have a one-track mind where if they are going to make a rock record, it’s going to be a ‘rock record.’ I’d rather make a folk record with space sounds in it.”
After years of home recordings and playing in bands, Zuhoski was discovered by Salim Nourallah at an open mic a few times before inviting him into the studio to record what would become Better Haze. “I used the opportunity to collaborate more. Especially because I was in a new environment and I didn’t know what Salim was expecting. If it came to a point where we needed some direction as to where to go, I’d show them a bass line I had written on an earlier version of the song and sometimes that would help. We recorded each song differently.”
With all the different sounds on the album, playing these songs with a live band has proven to be a peculiar challenge. “I’ve hired a keyboard player to play all of Nick’s parts, as they are very synthy.” While there is no current plan to tour yet, Zuhoski says, “I would be interested. I think we would be a pretty good cover band of this record.”
Better Haze will be released later this year on Palo Santo Records.