By David E. Gehlke
FATES WARNING's 1991 "Parallels" opus was the closest drummer Mark Zonder got to the mainstream. Arguably the most accessible in FATES' storied discography, "Parallels" found the band's videos making semi-regular appearances on MTV behind a joint Warner Bros. / Metal Blade Records deal that provided almost but not enough backing for an LP that came before DREAM THEATER's "Images And Words". As soon as momentum started to swell behind "Parallels", the grunge onslaught then management and record company miscalculations put FATES back at square one, never to sniff commercial territory again.
It's still something clearly on Zonder's mind, who has staked a reputation as one of metal and rock's most intuitive and innovative players. He left FATES WARNING in 2005 to focus on family but then launched SLAVIOR, a progressive/hard rock fusion that produced only one self-titled album in 2007. With his kids now grown, Zonder is back for one more try at the brass ring with A-Z, which features his former FATES bandmate, vocalist Ray Alder. The band's self-titled debut certainly is a far more digestible and accessible trip than anything Zonder (or even Alder) has done before. And inasmuch Zonder isn't lacking for chops, he isn't for confidence — he believes A-Z is now his best crack at gaining broader recognition.
Blabbermouth: You've done a variety of bands throughout your career, but nothing quite like A-Z. Has this idea been around for a while?
Mark: "Since I was about seven, I would say. The funny part is that I tried doing this in 2007 with SLAVIOR. There is a song on there called 'Dove'. It was great when the label guy came to me and said, 'Hey, man. This is great. We love it. It's a hit song, but, sorry, we don't know what to do with it.' [Laughs] Okay. Wrong place, wrong time — like my career in a nutshell with FATES WARNING with 'Parallels', the coulda, shoulda, what the hell happened? But I've always been a song guy. In my bands prior, I was playing with ANIMOTION, like a New Wave band. I was always a music guy who loved rock, but I always loved the big hook. You get to a point in your career where critical acclaim is overrated and cool but is not getting you where you want to go. It's not so much getting to the big dollars; it's the ability to record a record, do the cycle, do the interviews, do the videos, have a nice tour, it doesn't have to be the Oakland Coliseum, no, but I'd like to play in front of more than 50 people on a rainy night somewhere. It's business, too. I just love this stuff. I look forward to playing live in a band where I don't need a calculator next to me to figure out where the next bar is coming from. Playing in FATES WARNING, it's not, 'Hey guys. Let's rock!' It was mentally tough. Anybody who ever sat in that chair and did it right — ask [current drummer] Bobby [Jarzombek]. He could tell you. It's tough, but I always knew there was a combination of it, too."
Blabbermouth: Where are you drawing the line now as a drummer? You became known for playing "within the song," especially on the hi-hat. Is the "song" now more important than what you are playing?
Mark: "I think it's both. What's really interesting is that you mentioned it — you asked me about it when I came up with the big song idea, but I think my drumming has been song-oriented. It's always been about emotion, dynamics, the way I play. It's always in there, but I happen to play in bands that play in 13/9. If you look back at many of the bands I played in, it's all about the pocket. Even FATES WARNING, it was about the groove. You could play all the stuff as long as the people are locking into it. I used to say in my clinics is the greatest rock drumming of all time is four quarter notes on a kick. Everybody gets it. My mom gets it, but my mom doesn't get Dave Weckl and Jimmy Colaiuta. Whatever you want to call it, 'the heartbeat,' but it's rock and roll. We're playing for the hook when we're putting the songs together: bridge, chorus, instrumental parts. We're not doing nine-minute songs or long, extended stuff. The beauty of this record is Joop [Walters, guitar] and Viv [Lalu, keyboards] put the music together and when we gave it to Ray, I just said, 'Hey, man. Do whatever you want to do. Sing wherever.' It's interesting because he came back singing verses where I thought a chorus might be, but it's brilliant. It's the antithesis of a band: Everybody doing what they do best and putting it in a bowl together. My whole thing at the beginning was to find the best people I could find: Phil [Bynoe, bass], Ray, Joop, Viv, Chris Grosso doing the video editing, [artist] Hugh Syme — we could just leave that one there. You don't get any better than that. Even the label: Go with the best label [Metal Blade] you could find. We had other offers and different things, but, no, you get the best people you can find and at this point, I'm not 19. Let 'em do what they do. Someone has to drive the bus and say, 'Hey, man. Eight bars are way too long. Let's do it four bars.'"
Blabbermouth: What was it like to let go of the reins, then? Did you ever have to speak up and adjust someone's parts?
Mark: "Not necessarily on the music, but we knew once we got going because it started with me sending drum ideas to Viv. He'd come back and I'd go, 'I know we have something.' Then I'd send him a couple of other ideas in that tempo, thinking, 'Maybe we'll go to a different part.' Even now, writing the second record, it just kind of happens when it's right and there's serious magic. We'll get down to when we're done and listen back and go, 'Maybe we should have another part here.' Or, 'Let's let it hang for another bar.' But the basic riffs and basic grooves, those seem to be magical and come right out."
Blabbermouth: Ray seems like a great choice as the singer for this. What was your experience like working with him in this context?
Mark: "We didn't have pre-conceived anything. When I first talked to him…I checked out 20 guys. A few 'name' guys, small guys — it didn't matter. Nothing was happening. The funny story about the whole thing was that 'Here's three minutes and thirty-three seconds of music. Here's the chorus. Big chorus. Think beer commercial, car commercial, 'COBRA KAI'. Think that while you're writing.' I got [QUEENSRŸCHE's] 'Operation: Mindcrime' back or [FATES WARNING's] 'A Pleasant Shade of Gray' back from some of those dudes. I said, 'I told you we are not doing FATES WARNING in the music. Can't you hear it?' It was rough. I was thinking, 'Story of my life.' I thought, 'I don't know what's Ray doing.' Whatever FATES WARNING is doing is none of my business. I've been gone for a long time. I wish them all the luck in the world, but it's not my gig. I thought, 'I don't have a singer now, but I'll call Ray. If he hangs up, I still don't have a singer, so I'm good.' I remembered the old days when we talked and he was totally into this music. His parents raised him on this kind of stuff. The thing about Ray that nobody might pick up on besides a drummer, but that dude sings in the pocket. If you can create a pocket for him in the music, he is right there. A lot of other guys are up here and over there and have no conception of what you're doing, but I knew Ray, from experience, sang in the pocket. Even though it would have been a ten-pocket, it was still a pocket. That's what makes people feel that. He sent me the first song, 'Rise Again' and I about fell off my chair. I thought, 'Why weren't we doing this in 1984? We would have been on tour with BON JOVI.'"
Blabbermouth: Is this something you're ready to take on the road and do the work for?
Mark: "Absolutely. A lot of people don't know, but maybe they do — I have 16-year-old twins. Just when I left FATES WARNING. I just thought, 'That will never happen.' You can't go on the road. It's unfair to me. Unfair to the band. Unfair to the wife. Unfair to the kids. I just wasn't going to do that. I got married when I was 43. I had the kids when I was 48. I'll never forget, I did go to Japan with SLAVIOR. It was with Gregg [Analla, vocals], Philip and Wayne Findlay. I'm sitting in this little hotel room watching CNN and my son calls and I think he's three or four: 'Dad. I miss you.' I'm like, 'Okay, I can't do this.' But now they're 16. Hell, they can drive. [Laughs]
"The whole plan of this is, but I don't want to say 1980 revisited, but it's do the album, interviews, videos, do the touring, write for the second record and do the cycle again and again. I'm dying to go play. This was built for the stage. This is definitely built for the stage and if you listen to the album from top-to-bottom, that will probably be the setlist. I sequenced it like a live show. We might change out 'Trial By Fire' if it becomes the 'hit,' but you need that rocking tune that starts the show. But it's laid out like a concert. The beautiful thing is you have Hugh Syme's artwork, so you have nothing to worry about with what's happening on a back screen."
Blabbermouth: Do you miss touring and the grind of the road?
Mark: "I think anybody will tell you that's ever been on the road, it's not necessarily the van or the bus and technically it's not even the venue or the crowd, it's who you're doing the touring with. It sounds funny, but to me, it's two different things. You're going to pay me a lot of money and I can go play anything. I did a one-off or two-off in Sweden with Joacim Cans from HAMMERFALL back in the day because I love the guy. I thought I wasn't going to miss this. Hell no. I'm going. I do miss it, per se. I think the fact if you're doing something that's your thing and you really have control over it and you're really into it, it's different. It's like the WARLORD shows in Greece. Just completely out of control. I'll never forget backstage and the first band is playing and all you hear is 'WARLORD! WARLORD!' I looked at Bill [Tsamis] and said, 'This is what it must feel like playing like IRON MAIDEN. Every night no matter what, they're there to love you. You can fall on your face for 40 minutes and they'll love it.' But absolutely, yes, especially when it's something you want to turn on the world. I know for a fact that this will be bigger, faster, and stronger live than on the record. This isn't a bunch of session dudes who did this record and goes out live and it goes [makes deflating sound]. It's going to rock. Without a doubt."