The Core: Zero
Photo: Susana Millman
The pioneering psychedelic jamband’s mainstay members revisit their famed three-night 1992 run at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on their new LP, Naught Again
The Million-Dollar Question
GREG ANTON: Zero played for a few years as a mostly instrumental band. Then we started working with Robert Hunter, and he started writing lyrics to our instrumental music. We came up with a bunch of songs and decided to record them live at the Great American Music Hall over three nights in 1992. Dan Healy, the Grateful Dead’s sound guy, pretty much brought the Grateful Dead studio and installed it in the basement of the Great American Music Hall. And we got a bunch of guys that had played with us here and there together, played those three nights and made the  record Chance in a Million. [The album’s credits include Hunter, Nicky Hopkins (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who), Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship), John Kahn (Jerry Garcia Band) and Vince Welnick (Grateful Dead), among others.]
STEVE KIMOCK: With most things Zero, I’m too much of a geek to notice what’s going on. I had my nose to the grindstone for that entire thing, just trying to figure out how to play, but I remember the shows themselves. Curiously, I remember most shows. It was just wonderful to be playing at the Great American Music Hall—in the middle of all the activity that was going on there. It’s ornate in this super solid, old-fashioned way. It’s got the great big columns and the gold engravings and the secondfloor balcony. So there’s people right in front of you on the rail and then there’s people on the sides looking down, too. It’s also intimate and the people that were there joined us for an extraordinary few days.
Brian Risner, who had done a bunch of engineering for Zero, said, “You guys ought to remaster that Chance in a Million record–mastering is so much better today.” So we asked Greg if he could find a bonus track or something. And, Greg listened back to the rest of the material and went, “Ha, there’s a bonus double-album in here!” It was just a really good gig. It was our focus at the time. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we were just another band looking for a singer—and we had Robert Hunter writing lyrics. When we put that first Great American Music Hall record out, it was focused on that relationship—Hunter and lyric-singing. But there were a lot of great, extended saxophone solos in there, too.
Sleight of Hand Magic
GA: It was Hunter’s idea to write for us. I’d played drums with him on a handful of gigs and then I ran into him at a little party with about 10 people. We were just talking, and he said, “Zero is a great band but most of your audience is other musicians. You guys ought to expand a little bit and do some songs.” And I said, “You got any?” And he says, “Yeah, I got some. How about you? You got some?” And I said, “Yeah” and we started working together. I wrote about 25 songs or so with him and it was just such an honor. The guy was a magician, almost like sleight of hand—he would just pull lines out of thin air. I’d say, “We need another line for this chorus” and he’d just come up with it.
One time, Zero was in the studio making a record and we had the song “Home on the Range,” which we had been playing for a few years. We recorded an up-tempo rock version and, when we went to put the vocal down, we ran out of words because the song was moving so much faster than we had been playing it before. So I called up Hunter and I said, “You know, we need a couple more lines for the chorus of this song.” And he goes, “Lemme come down and check it out.” So he comes down to the studio, and he says, “Let me hear the track.” We play the track for him, and he says, “You got a pencil and paper? Play the track again.” And he wrote a fourminute song in four minutes. It was a brand new song called “Ermaline,” and then he went into the vocal booth and sang the lyrics that he had just written, just for a scratch vocal. He said, “Forget that old song. Here’s a new one.” We barely changed one word.
SK: Hunter was obviously a cool guy, and I was, of course, familiar with his stuff. It was neat to hang with him for a little bit, working on stuff. I took it all in stride, but I knew when a celebrity—whose work I was familiar with—was there. Kurt Vonnegut was at one of the gigs early on. And I was like, “Holy crap!” But I can’t stress enough how entirely immersed I was in whatever the hell I thought I was doing at the time. I was just trying to have an authentic relationship with my instrument, trying to stay on the leading edge of some learning curve.
[Before working with Hunter,] we probably had one or two songs that had some lyrical content, but not many. Coming out of the ‘70s and going into the ‘80s, I was happy to not lean on the rock-androll vocal thing. There was a whole bunch of rock-and-roll in the ‘60s, pre-Beatles, that I didn’t like the lyrics to very much. It was a lot of stupid stuff–and a lot of sexist and misogynistic stuff. So I thought, “An instrumental band, that’s good. At least, it’s clean. It’s just the music. It doesn’t matter what language you speak and nobody’s trying to tell you something—and it’s not like you’re trying to put anybody down or pick up a chick or something like that.”
Counting Backward From Zero
SK: Zero started after I got a phone call from Donna Godchaux. I wasn’t expecting it. I was a kid, and the phone rang, and she said, “Is this Steve Kimock?” and I’m like, “Yeah.” And the voice answered, “Steve Kimock the guitar player?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And then she said, “This is Donna Godchaux.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not, fuck you! Who is this really?” And she goes, “No, really!” And she says, “Come on down and play with me and Keith and a couple of guys.” And I was like, “Alright!” They were calling it the Heart of Gold Band, but it was basically Keith and Donna. Greg and John Cipollina were also there and we did that for a while. And then, tragically, Keith lost his life in an automobile accident. And it was hard to pick it up. But, eventually, it was me and Greg standing there in the dust on the driveway, at the ranch, going, “Well, do you wanna start a band?” And we’ve been trying to start a band ever since.
There’s quite a few people that have been in the band who I thought were just absolutely essential to this thing. And they’ve shuffled off this mortal world. [Singer] Judge Murphy isn’t here anymore and Martin Fierro is gone. And, at some point, it’s not easy to move on but we continue to do our best to play.
GA: Steve and Keith really hit it off musically—they were just two musical geniuses. After Keith died, Steve and I still felt a good musical connection and we went into a studio, just the two of us, and recorded the first Zero record, Absolute Zero. It was me on drums and piano and Steve on bass and guitar, and we created what was to become the instrumental repertoire of Zero. So then we said, “Let’s play out” and we got a bass player and a keyboard player and just started playing. Now, we’ve been doing it for decades. Sometimes we play more than other times—usually we play more when we have a record. We’ve both grown musically–Steve still plays great and it’s just so much fun to play with him. We kinda play off each other.
We never decided to stop playing [as Zero]—it’s just that some people died and the pandemic happened and all these other different things happened. But now, this new record’s coming out so we decided to tour behind it and we’ve got a great new singer/ keyboardist named Spencer Burrows. We’ve also got Pete Sears, who used to play piano with us, playing bass this time around. And we have Hadi Al-Sadoon on trumpet. The gigs just sort of happen naturally; there’s never a bunch of planning. Somebody offers us a gig and then we do another gig or we find the right guy to play keyboards or whatever. We stay in touch all the time and it’s just kinda evolved by itself—Zero is bigger than us.
SK: I moved out to California in the ‘70s from Pennsylvania, and then I moved back around the turn of the century. Then, I moved back to California again and went, “It’s too expensive and everything’s on fire!” [Laughs.] So I moved back to Pennsylvania where things aren’t on fire.
During the pandemic— not being able to perform—I started constantly listening to music pretty quickly. Playing at home is not the same as doing a gig so there is no way you cannot get rusty sitting at home. So I listened to an enormous amount of music—constantly all day, all night. And I loved it—I loved being able to refresh myself in that way without going back to the well. I think that was important. I needed that break and I didn’t know it. I’m sorry that it had to happen in the way that it did, but I’m glad I got to get back to pretty much constantly listening to music.
I have a lot of stuff coming up. I’ve been playing with Oteil Burbridge [in Oteil & Friends] and doing stuff with my son Johnny—we call it Steve Kimock & Friends. There’s going to be a reunion of this jazzy Dead thing I’m going to be doing, Jazz Is Dead, with Alphonso Johnson. And I’m supposed to be in the studio now setting up microphones to record some new music. So there are plenty of projects coming up and we’re just hoping that the health of the planet holds up.
GA: My new record Starfire came about because of a close friend of mine, and of Zero’s, named Marty Levine. He was good friends with the people at Telefunken Records—they make telefunken microphones. And those guys said, “Let’s do a tribute album to Marty.” They got some New England players like Tim Palmieri together [in 2019], and we did a one-night recording session. [The record also features saxophonist Rob Somerville (Kung Fu/Deep Banana Blackout), keyboardist Beau Sasser (Kung Fu) and bassist/vocalist Dave Livolsi (John Scofield).] So I’ve been working on that alongside the Zero record for a while and it is a coincidence that they are coming out around the same time.
I’ve also been working on a sequel to a book I wrote called Face the Music—it’s a novel about a guitar player and it’s available everywhere. I enjoy the writing process and working by myself—it’s such a contrast to playing music with a bunch of crazy musicians. It is so peaceful and so quiet, compared to snare drums and cymbals and power amps. Dennis McNally helped me with my book—he read a very early version of the draft and he said, “Greg, in this whole book there’s like three sentences about drummers.” I hadn’t even realized it but everywhere I’ve looked—throughout my entire career—I’ve seen guitar players. So that’s what I wrote about.
And I’ve been writing a new song with Robert Hunter. [Laughs.] I am working on some unfinished things we had. Michael Mann did a play called Cumberland Blues, and it’s the 20th anniversary of that play, which was pretty much all Hunter-Garcia songs. There was one song that I wrote with Hunter in the play, and now Michael Mann has one new song that’s called “Immigrant,” which is a very contemporary subject about an immigrant working in the Cumberland mines. So he asked me to finish that song.