It’s hard to pinpoint it, but there’s something about Emily Rose and Joe Zeph, the duo behind Zigtebra, that makes them impossible not to admire. They’ve spent the past four months traveling the United States; playing shows, writing songs and producing music videos, yet they bounce into Sip Coffee House with such energy and enthusiasm, you’d never know they’d only just returned to Chicago the day before.
Emily Rose falls onto the plush couch, coffee in hand, apologizing for her mere one-minute lateness as Joe Zeph takes a seat in the armchair across from her. They playfully banter, the admiration between each other evident as they recall their crazy endeavors of the last couple of weeks.
LLL: First off, welcome back to Chicago! How was the tour?
Joe Zeph: I would like to say that it was the best tour and the best summer of my life. We have our new CD out so it was great to be on the road and promote that and sell a bunch of t-shirts. We played over 80 shows. We went down to Key West and up to Maine. Then we went down to Tijuana and up to Seattle. Even north of Seattle. We went everywhere.
Emily Rose: It was a lot of fun. It feels bewildering to be back. Before this tour and before this year, we just dappled in Zigtebra. [About] a year ago we decided to get more serious about exploring pop music and totally committed in a crazy way. Joe blurted out, “Let’s go on tour for 100 days!” So we went on tour for 120 days, cause why not? [We] wanted to see if this tour would help us become better musicians or see if we were ready to be all in. At Lake Michigan, we made a promise. We’re like “We’re going to go on tour twice this much next year.” So, we’re going to go on two four-month tours [in 2018].
LLL: What were some of your favorite cities and memorable moments from the tour?
ER: We played in Key West on a sandy-floored outdoor restaurant. There were roosters running around and candles on the table. We didn’t have anywhere to stay so we stayed in the van and took showers in the ocean. I was scared I would be stung by a jellyfish. That was a neat scene too because it was a mix of locals and tourists.
JZ: We had a surprisingly awesome show in this high schooler’s bedroom in Currituck, North Carolina.
ER: We didn’t realize it was going to be a high schooler’s bedroom. It was a venue that we found online and then we got there and it was a fancy house.
JZ: But there were a bunch of people there and they loved our music.
ER: You have to come into it with an open mind. I feel like we played with so many different genres. This tour was whipped together pretty quickly. Some of the shows were booked last minute and you just have to go into it with an attitude of “whatever may come, let’s just jump in.” We’d open the door to shows and [it’d] be so different from what we would expect. It was humbling having to go in there with a crowd I was worried wouldn’t be into it and then be pleasantly surprised. People who like music like all kinds of music and if you’re having a fun, they probably are too. It’s really cool to pop into someone’s world. I feel really grateful when people let us in.
LLL: This year, you guys challenged yourselves to release a new song and correlating video each month, even while on tour. How’s that been going?
JZ: It’s been awesome. I’ve never written songs like this where we’ll talk about the concept of the song. It’s not music based. We’ll just be like, “What is this song going to be about? How is it going to make people feel? What’s going to be the feeling of the song?” We’ve been taking these really long hikes on our tour and that helps us get lyrical ideas or rhythms. Then right around the 18th [of the month] we throw all that stuff away and we start with an actual rhythm, like a drum or bass part, and we compose some melodies and pick the voices for the melodies. It’s really fun. Sometimes the song just hits you and you write it and it’s great. Other times you work really hard on a song and it’s also this really great thing.
ER: It’s such a good challenge. Usually, I feel like ten days before it’s due we’re like “Fuck, we got to sit down and write this song!” Even if I’m feeling crabby or tired or whatever, we just have to do it. This last song “Wildlife” feels like an anthem of how beautiful tour was even when things were tough. We were hiking a lot, it was the end of the tour and [shows were not booked] as well, so some of our drives were really long. When you’re driving out west, try as hard as you want to, but it’s hard to find two cities within five hours of each other. Sitting in a car driving, you’re not really writing music, even though you might idealize you can, you really need to sit down and talk together. This last [month], we almost thought we weren’t going to be able to make one. We didn’t think we would have enough time. But we looked at each other and were like, “Let’s just sit down and do it. We can do it.” I mean, this writing was so good for us. We sat down, we did it. It was tough, but I love the song. It’s one of my favorites.
LLL: What videos are some of your personal favorites?
ER: The videos that are the most fun for me are the ones where we have a story. I’m doing the editing of the videos off my computer. I loved editing and making a video of “Bring It On” where Joe is obsessed with aliens and looking for an alien love. It was fun to come up with the shots we needed. We shot it in Roswell, New Mexico walking amongst the tourists, [Joe] looking for this alien babe.
JZ: I think the tour served our videos well because we were in all these beautiful places and the locations took care of themselves. We were in some town in Massachuttes that had this automata museum with all these really weird clockwork robots on display and we could have never made that video because we would never have had the motivation to sit together and be like, “Okay, we’re going to Massachuttes. We’re going to this tiny museum. We’re going to hope we can film something there.”
LLL: How would you describe your dynamic as a musical duo?
ER: He’s the fun one. I’m the more serious one. On stage, I think we’re a good yin and yang. Joe’s just drumming and having fun and I’m kind of in my ethereal star bubble of dream pop. He keeps it from getting too mushy and I keep it from getting too goofy. I think about this sometimes, but when we write music together, I can’t imagine writing music with anybody else. We come up with crazy ideas and we know when to hold each other back or push each other forward.
JZ: What did you call me the other day? Your melody doula?
ER: Yes! He’s my melody doula. I will have an idea and I’ll kind of sing it and he knows what I mean and can get the notes down and write out the music.
JZ: Our dynamic is awesome. I think we push each other a lot because we’re not similar. We’re quite a bit different from each other and I think the longer we work together, we see those differences more and can appreciate them in each other. We do have some shared concepts going on, but the way we want to execute them is different. So, finding that middle place where we’re both happy with the final song is really great. And I feel the same. I’ve never written music this high quality and artistically interesting with anybody but her. Easy.
LLL: There’s so much noise happening in the Chicago music scene. What do you think makes Zigtebra stand out?
JZ: We’re unique because we came from underground Chicago, which is not unique, but we really appreciate a lot of different types of music. Inside both of us, there’s a super demanding Britany Spears and a super demanding noise kid. Finding things that make both our inner Brittany and our inner punk noise kid happy is a beautiful place. And I do think that Brittany Spears would love our new album.
ER: We started doing musicals, puppetry, dance and different forms of creative expression. From that strangeness and performative aspect, we let our love of pop music inspire us to become a pop band, but keeping it real and keeping it spooky and sparkly at the same time. I love that. It’s not straight pop and it’s too sparkly for straight up noisy underground, but I like to think that we are a bridge between those two worlds. People will come to our shows who love pop music and people come to our shows who like the weird stuff of life. To see both those people in one room, that’s what I want to do. To bring people together and inspire them to create their own thing because they don’t feel intimidated by Joe and I. We’re accessible people. We’re a friend to all. We’re writing music that we have a lot of fun with and we want people to have fun with it too.
Zigtebra’s next show will be on Saturday, September 16 at Schubas. The night will also include a performance by Picture This! Zigtebra will also be playing on Sunday, September 17 at the Ravenswood Art Walk.