File under: Guitar pop of the gods
For fans of: The Apples in Stereo, Paul McCartney, the Kinks, Raspberries, Sloan
From: Boston, Massachusetts
Personae: Emeen Zarookian
Chances are you’ve already heard Emeen Zarookian’s work: You just don’t know it yet. As composer/sound designer for Harmonix, he worked on the research, sound effects, mixing and mastering, vocal and vocal harmony transcription for
His alter ego, Spirit Kid, is a bit less financially successful, but no less fun. It’s natural that he’d be behind games focused on both meanings of the word “hit” — Zarookian boasts timeless power-pop knowhow. Veteran of several Boston bands, he now writes, plays and produces crunchy, catchy, should-be classics that explode with speedy hooks yet gradually reveal hidden heartbreaks and acoustic niceties. He released an under-the-radar 2010 debut and some increasingly sophisticated singles, but his new album, Is Happening, truly captures the kinetic abilities that he still shares as touring guitarist for retro-soul revivalist Eli “Paperboy” Reed. His yearning yet hard-hitting style may be similarly vintage, but his vitality is definitely contemporary.
[As you read the interview, enjoy an advance stream of Is Happening, available everywhere March 25. — Ed.]
On Zarookian’s earliest musical inspirations:
As a kid, I really loved Back to the Future. I loved how Marty McFly played guitar and I wanted to be like that guy, so I got really into ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. My development in music went in chronological order. I had been taking piano lessons since I was about five, so I was playing a lot of classical stuff. But as soon as I heard the Beatles, I had to play guitar. I taught myself guitar by listening to their music, and that shaped who I am.
On his real name:
I’m Armenian by descent. My initials are EZ, which I think is cool. I know one other EZ; she lives in New York, Elizabeth Ziman. I played in her band, Elizabeth & the Catapult, so I wrote EZ on my bass. It’s still there now.
On becoming Spirit Kid:
I was in a punk band, and a reggae band, and then some of us in the reggae band formed a pop band, the Sterns. We did OK: We made a couple of albums and did some touring. I was the bass player and helped with arrangements, but was always writing on my own. That led to me doing solo recordings, and playing on-and-off with the Emeen Z Band, which was my solo thing, and that turned into Spirit Kid.
On the meaning of his adopted name:
The word “spirit” just kept showing up as [an indication of] being excited about something. Like, people say “school spirit.” It’s a reminder: Let’s stay positive and retain that childlike wonder, and try not to be jaded. But sometimes it’s hard [laughs]. You work at something, and if people don’t care, it’s like “What the hell?” I think this record’s pretty good and I’d like people to hear it. It’s not the end-all, be-all of my music career: I’m working on the next one already. But I’m proud of it, and think it’s the most representational thing I’ve done.
On his perfect power-pop singing voice:
It’s how I talk. The other night we were playing a show and someone in a band came up to me and said, “How do you sing that high? You must practice, right?” I was like, “Yeah, I practice a lot.” But the real answer is I’m not trying to do it: I can’t physically sing low. I feel lucky to have been in chorus growing up. My parents were both singers and they met in a chorus many years ago, so I’ve always been around music.
On his musical resemblance to Apples in Stereo leader Robert Schneider:
I’m flattered by the comparison, but it’s not something I consciously do. I believe we share the same influences and they come out in a similar way. We met when I was in the Sterns. When his New Magnetic Wonder album came out, he released samples for this non-Pythagorean scale he invented and encouraged people to make their own song with it. I did that, and he loved it. As far as I know, he’s planning on putting out some sort of CD of that stuff.
On Is Happening sounding as though it could’ve been recorded 40 or more years ago:
I think being a recording engineer helps. Me and my friend Jeremy Mendicino — he’s in a band, Pretty & Nice — we played nearly everything. He had a studio with a friend here in Boston, and we decided to do it all analog, so we got old tape machines and things. I spend most of my day on a computer working with ProTools or whatever, so I enjoy the process of rolling tape and not looking at a screen. I didn’t study under anyone. It goes back to the Beatles and knowing how they did things, what kind of equipment they used, and geeking out over it.
On the album’s inclusion of not-particularly-power-pop saxophones:
Saxophone is one of those instruments that is very polarizing, and I find that hilarious. I did demos of all the [Is Happening] songs, and for “Playing Cupid,” I played the kazoo where I wanted sax. On “Dot the I,” we were going for a close, intense, distorted sound, and so we slowed the tape way down. It doesn’t even resemble a saxophone anymore; it’s more of a guitar sound. All the music I grew up listening to, all the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, and even the Beatles a little later, there are cool saxophones in there, and they’re raw, really ripping into the tape. I have sax pride. [Laughs] I’m not ashamed. And if anybody is, they need to get over it.
On writing downbeat lyrics for his upbeat music:
Well, we all have our struggles. [Laughs] I always want to better myself, personally. And I’m not sad or anything. But people have said, “Well, your music sounds happy, but your lyrics aren’t necessarily.” It’s not a conscious decision: They just come out that way. People may tend to write off Spirit Kid stuff as “too happy.” What do you want? Should I be angry all the time? It kind of bums me out when people say stuff like that.
On his compassionate cover of the Kinks’ “Did You See His Name,” a quintessential example of a depressing lyric set to a cheery melody:
That is one of my favorite songs of all time. And it’s partly because it’s catchy, so it sounds happy, but it’s not. It’s about a guy killing himself because he was embarrassed to have stolen a can of beans. I’m a huge Kinks fan. Ray Davies is one of those songwriters who tell stories and they’re not always happy, despite it sounding that way. It’s more interesting.
On juggling his day job with his extracurricular activities:
Harmonix is wrapping up a game with Disney, Fantasia: Music Evolved. I have been composing a lot of original music that will be used throughout the game as well as working on remixes of popular songs. There’s some more stuff I can’t talk about yet unfortunately! I also write jingles here and there. I would love to tour as Spirit Kid all the time, although I don’t think my immune system could handle it. We played New York last night and drove right back in my station wagon. I didn’t get home until 4:30 AM and I was at work by 10. I’ll be here until tonight and then I need to learn more songs for the Eli “Paperboy” Reed show on Friday. It really is nonstop for me.