Return To The Valley Of Zola

At 2:00 on a recent Friday morning, Zola Turn’s lead guitarist Alice Austin melts into one of the couches at Higher Ground. The club is closed, the colored stage lights are off and a high-powered white light illuminates the room. She is patiently waiting.

Drummer Rachel Bischoff is missing. She has been for quite awhile. While the other members of Zola search the grounds for their missing drummer, Alice looks at the falling snow through the window. “This weather sucks,” she says. Her words come out slowly. Although Zola walked off the stage three hours ago, her eyes display her exhaustion. “Sucks,” she repeats.

Have you ever thought about moving?

“Not without the band,” she replies.

No, I mean as a band. Heading down south, maybe?

She ponders it for a moment, never taking her eyes off the window. “No. This is where we are from. This is our home,” she turns her glance to me. “I mean, everything in Burlington is in a slump right now but, we are from Burlington and this is where our lives are. We just need to go on the road, that’s all.”

Over the past three years, the band that started as Sub Rosa has built a die-hard loyal following. Local high school students and old school/new school club scenesters attend local shows on a regular basis, familiar faces blending with new ones at every show. They travel around New England and beyond; playing shows in Boston, Mass, Portland, Maine, New York City and all points in between. They have released one full-length CD, 1997’s Cousin Battie, and two cassettes. The first cassette, back in 1996, was titled Side Saddle and the second, the self-titled Zola Turn, a three song vinyl and cassette EP released in late 1998. All three releases received rave reviews from press in Burlington and Boston. Zola Turn’s name appears periodically in Boston’s grandaddy music zine The Noise, and they also have begun to build a strong draw in “Beantown.” And you know what, don’t tell anyone... but they are all girls.

“You know, I never understood why some people find that surprising,” says Julia Austin, Zola Turn’s bassist. “It’s like, we walk into a club and the other bands and the staff look at us and say: `Hey! You’re all!’”

Hey, I’m getting laid tonight! I proclaim sarcastically.

“Exactly, or they think that there is no way that an all female band could have their shit together enough (to do what we do),” she finishes.

The reality is, rock and roll has a reputation for being a male dominated field. Sure, there has always been a female presence in modern rock since its early days, but it wasn’t until the sixties that women exploded into rock music; when personalities such as Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Mama Cass opened doors for Joan Jett, Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde who opened doors for today’s Shirley Manson, Courtney Love and Liz Phair. But how many all-female grassroots touring bands can you think of? L7 and Lunachicks are prime examples, aided by major record label money, of course. It is a rarity to have four talented women, going the “do-it-yourself” route completely on their own.

Zola Turn was originally the brainchild of Alice and Julia Austin. After Julia’s brief stint in Burlington’s indie-rock legends Envy (whose past members are now in Warner Brothers recording artists The Red Telephone) and Alice’s road scars from Plan B, a local cover band who were available for weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, the two sisters were hungry for something new. Julia recruited ex-Envy drummer Ann Mindell to come along for the ride and the threesome were searching for a fourth member as Jen Karson was playing her own solo acoustic music at coffee shops, clubs and open mics all over the city under the name Junket. At Wide Wail’s CD release party, Jen opened as Junket, and in the crowd like three hungry wolves waiting for their prey to step off stage... were Alice, Julia and Ann.

“I just wanted to play with Jen,” says Alice. “I liked what she was doing at the time. So we approached her.”

“I was little taken back,” states Jen. “I went to high school with Ann and I knew Jules from a long time ago, but it was my first time meeting Alice. We had a conversation and found out we had the same taste in music, I became interested.”

After some encouragement from local bassist Andy Cotton, Jen joined Alice, Julia and Ann in her basement to play together and feel things out. It was there, in Jen Karson’s freezing basement in November 1995 that the foundations for Zola Turn were formed. During their first practice, the foursome played songs that are still worked into setlists today like “Anastasia,” “Gothic Bloodsucker,” “Last Night” and, one of their most popular songs “Bulletproof Vest.”

One week later, Zola Turn played their first show at Club Toast. “It was under the name Junket,” says Jen. “Because I had already booked the show to play solo. I felt we were ready!” she laughs. “It was some kind of benefit that no one attended, no one except for Jim Lockridge.”

Jim Lockridge, the eccentric owner of Big Heavy World Website/Record Label that Burlington is lucky to have, reflects: “There was sort of an instant faith (in the band), a faith that has grown with the band. It was like “it” was there, not totally yet... but give it awhile. You could hear it.”

The band was asked by Club Toast’s owner Dennis Wygmans to return three nights later to play another show, this time on a Saturday night. “The big time!” laughs Julia.

The band needed a name, they had decided to continue on together and felt that the band need a new name, to get a new start. A la The Commodores, Alice picked up a dictionary, opened to a page and pointed: she landed on the word “Sub Rosa”.

sub ro•sa (sub ro’z&Mac182;). In secret; privately.

“We thought it was the coolest name ever,” comments Julia. “It’s a Roman tradition to hang a rose over a table, whatever conversation occurs at the table is sworn to secrecy.”

The band recorded Side Saddle, a cassette containing early versions of today’s Zola tracks. It was after the release of the cassette, they found out that “Sub Rosa” was copywritten by another band. The band needed a new name. Zola Turn was chosen.

Where the Hell would a name like Zola Turn come from?

“You know, I am psyched that we were finally going to answer that question!” says Julia, slumping into her chair.

“Zola Turn was a stage name that I gave Jen,” laughs Alice. “In Sub Rosa, I referred to her as Zola Turn.”

ZOLA TURN FUN FACT #1: All the members of Zola have secret stage names.

According to Rachel, they only come out when someone is being really prissy.

“I had a dream that Jen was named Zola Turn,” says Alice. “Julia was named Kim Friday, because all cool female bassists are named Kim.”

Kim Deal, Kim Gordon... okay, continue.

“Rachel is called Bridget Fancy,” finishes Alice.

Does Alice have a stage name? According to her, she doesn’t. However, after some sleuthing... someone in the Zola circle let it out: Alice is Holly Silver. So much for Sub Rosa.

It was around this time that Ann Mindell announced she was leaving the band to go back to school.

“It was actually pretty good timing,” says Julia. “It was becoming pretty obvious that the rest of us were thinking: let’s get this thing out of Burlington, let’s get this going, and let’s play a lot of different places. We wanted a lot of time and energy... and a commitment to do all this stuff, to go beyond where we were at. Simultaneously, Ann let it known that she wanted to go back to school and unfortunately, those two things cannot co-exist. We were having thoughts of expanding and that was different from what she was doing, so there was a lot of conflicting ideas and goals. What could you do besides give them your blessings?”

Julia Austin walked into Advance Music to check out used bass equipment and to hang up a “Dummer Wanted” poster on the community bulletin board. She bumped into Rachel Bischoff, who works at Advance.

“I went in (to hang up the poster) and she wouldn’t let me!” laughs Julia. “We were in the back room and she walked up to me and said: `What are you doing?’ I said: `Oh, I’m hanging up this poster’ and she said: `Oh, well you don’t need to hang that up, I’ll be in your band!’ I thought: ‘Well, that was rather forward!’”

“Is that really what she said!?!” asks Jen.

Julia (laughing): “Yeah!”

“That was rather presumptious!” Alice says, laughing.

Although Rachel was not present when I sat down with the Zola’s, I gave her a phone call to defend herself: “At the time, I really wanted to be in the band. I had heard their tape and liked it, so I thought that I should play with them before some other loser did. I mean... if it didn’t work out, they could just hang up the poster next week, right?”

Rachel sat in with the band and banged out a couple of the songs. Alice, Julia and Jen were a little more than impressed.

“Everything sounded really different,” says Julia. “I was like: `WOW! There is something here!’ She came into the band very upbeat and excited.”

“Ann was really intense on the slower stuff,” adds Jen. “Rachel plays harder, sometimes quirky, but always rocking. It was clear that she was as intense as we were about doing music. It was really exciting to think that now there was four of us. She had expertise She was a total gear head, she did sound, she knew her stuff.”

“She had a van,” Alice chimes in.

ZOLA TURN FUN FACT #2: Rachel Bischoff is a killer breakdancer.

According to the other members of Zola Turn, Rachel has demonstrated this arcane skill on more than one occaision.

“In the seventh grade, I was pretty good. My dancing name was ‘Baby Fresh’... I rocked,” says Rachel. “Go ahead and put that in the article because it will get out eventually.”

In 1997, Zola Turn released Cousin Battie, their debut CD release recorded and produced by Joe Egan at Eclipse Recording. The CD reflects the style of music that Zola would come to be known for: straight forward punk-influenced pop-rock songs like “Escape Artist,” “Bulletproof Vest,” and “Race Car Driver,” mixed with elegant and hauntingly hypnotic tracks like “Angels,” “What’s Going On,” and “Tired Words.” It became a near perfect collection of music to reflect all moods, from bitter and jaded to happy and enthusiastic. The album quickly became a favorite in a lot of people’s CD collections.

The band then toured across the northeastern United States, making stops in every market that would book them in support of Cousin Battie. They sent the CD to music magazines down the east coast and serviced the album to over 200 college and commercial radio stations across the country, one of these stations was Burlington’s own WBTZ- The Buzz where the band was added to regular rotation.

As 1998 crawled forward, the band decided to head back into the studio and record new material and they called on super producer Glen Robinson to record a three song EP that they released on cassette and on vinyl. Simply titled Zola Turn (see Good Citizen #11 review section) the songs display the eclectic songwriting styles of the band and gives them a chance to release new material. The first single, “Tastes Like Nothing” is already getting airplay on local radio.

A week after I interviewed Zola Turn, I gave Julia a phone call to check some facts before I put them in print. Somehow we managed to talk about the “all-girl” theme that seems to follow the band around. Julia commented: “You know, it never meant to be an `all-girl’ thing, it just happened that way... when we first started playing (as Sub Rosa) , and when Rachel joined. We never thought: you need to be a girl (to play in Zola Turn), we don’t have something to prove like some people think... we are females who play music and that is it. If you can’t deal with that or fathom the idea.. then that’s your fault.”

Chris Parizo plays bass for Burlington’s Chin Ho! and is co-publisher of Good Citizen.