I recently had a chance to talk with Scott Mellinger, guitarist of metal/hardcore act Zao. The band, which formed in 1993 in Parkersburg, West Virginia and are now based in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Though the band started off as one of the first and most influential Christian metalcore acts, the band has since abandoned that label, a stance which has led to the band describing themselves as a "band of Christians" rather than a "Christian band."

Scott talked about their recent experience working with the legendary Steve Albini, producer of albums from Neurosis, F-Minus, The Ex and Nirvana, as well as the "Christian hardcore" tag which still dogs the band, and what they hope to accomplish with their upcoming album.

So you guys just finished recording?

Yep, we actually just about two weeks ago did.

Yeah, and what was it like working with Steve Albini?

If was definitely the most rewarding and coolest recording experience of our lives, I would say.

That’s the one part of Christianity that I hate, I mean is the close minded, narrow mindedness of it, I mean, if you’re supposedly Christian and you believe in Jesus and Jesus loves everybody then why are you shunning, staying away from people?

Yeah he was just the easiest person to work with.His ideas pretty much melded with our ideas.We were all on the same page of how we wanted things to go and wanted things to sound.And I think that might be, might come from being a fans of his work and knowing how he works, and we do what we needed to do to make our record, be a Steve Albini successful record I would say I guess because I think a lot of bands might go in their with the wrong interpretation of what they have to do.Yeah we definitely loved it, I don’t think we could do another Zao record - I don’t think we would want to do it with anyone other than Steve Albini.

How did you guys hook it up in the first place?

Well actually we uh had a gig in Chicago and Steve’s girlfriend was doing a documentary film on underground culture like the Christian scene and underground hardcore, rock and metal bands and she actually had Zao in the DVD and she wanted to come and make sure that she had our permission to be on the DVD and use our image.

Of course we’d never say no to that stuff so we let her do that and she brought up that her boyfriend had recorded ibands n the past, so we’re like "oh ok, cool" but not thinking much of it and she adds "oh yeah his name is Steve Albini."

We said "Oh alright" (laughs) but that got us over to the studio and he gave us a tour of the studio, and said he liked the band and if we ever wanted to do a record with him he’d love to do it. So this record we went for it.

So what can you tell me about the record?

I can tell you that it’s probably the most brutal and definitely the fastest Zao record we’ve ever recorded. For a lot of the songs, we kind of wanted to go back to that three and a half or two and a half minute song.With the last record we did, we had a lot of four and a half, five minute plus songs and we wanted to get away from that as much as possible.This is definitely everybody in the band’s favourite thing that we’ve ever done and I think this record kills anything we’ve ever done in the past.

the Funeral of God was a concept record; is there any kind of lyrical focus on this one?

Not really; every song has its own little ideas and its own little thing. Nothing ties the whole record together.I think the only thing that ties the record together is how pissed off the whole thing sounds. (laughs).

So what are you guys pissed off about?

There’s too much to name.We come from a small town; we come from, having to work for everything you get, you have to suffer through things and not get things handed to you and I think over the years of being shit on and just pounded on and that is definitely the situation we’re in.I don’t think any of us are really pissed off people, I mean I’m married and I’m really really happy and Dan has has a steady girlfriend and is really really happy, but I think its our whole, living where we’ve lived and being through the things that we have been through and not having y’know, money, upbringing, you know all that stuff, I think it kind of moulds you. And for us, we like, like, I think there’s definitely some kind of attitude you have living in Pennsylvania instead of California.

You guys have had a lot of line up changes over the years, what is it that kept you together?

I think its just like been any band - me and Dan have always wanted it to be what it is now and I think we never wanted to let that band go. Always loving what we’re doing and having integrity with what you’re doing and feel like its not really completed yet.

I think me and Dan both felt that way all of the time, even though what was happening when Dan left and all that stuff, he’s never lost sight of what Zao should be and what he wanted Zao to be and all that stuff. And for me too, being in it and not leaving ever and then going through all of the hell that we did and knowing that there’s something that’s special about the band, we don’t know what it is but we feel that there’s something there. And that something drives us to keep going and seeing how far it can go.

You guys opened the door for a lot religious hardcore bands. I don’t think there was much before you, and now you have labels like Solid State with like a dozen or more bands in that kind of vein.

I think the original incarnation of Zao, before Dan or me joined, that band was definitely focused on like the religious aspect of what they were doing. I think that was the main focus for them. And I know I’ve heard stories from those guys how they’ve had people boo them, people throw beer bottles at them, people just definitely not giving them a chance.

And I think, I guess I think too like, as time has gone on, with Zao now, even when I joined it in Liberate, we never considered ourselves a Christian band. Some of the guys in the band have that belief and some of them don’t. So we don’t like to portray that as a band. But I mean with our vocalist being a Christian I think that does come off in the lyrics which we’re all fine with. Nobody’s against that at all so, but, in the early days when I joined the band we still got very shunned from like all different, like, secular bands.

We just wanted to play with everybody and play shows as much as we could, but we definitely did get a very odd look any time we played with some bands because they heard we were a Christian band. So I mean its been a very hard thing to deal with back then, but now its almost like, there’s all these bands that are way way, like actually more Christian than Zao is. It’s their focus as a band, and you don’t even hear anything about it. And with Zao it’s like every damn magazine you get that does any interviews is like the Christian metal core band, the Christian this, the Christian that. I mean Under Oath, Norma Jean, As I Lay Dying? All those bands are very Christian based bands and nobody, nobody pushes that on them like they do with Zao and I don’t understand that,

You guys were definitely among the first, which probably has a lot to do with it.

In theory, I mean, there’s a band called Living Sacrifice that was way before Zao. There was also a band called Crucify that was pretty important in Christian’s metal. I think Zao kind of put the first - maybe actually, you know what - this is what I think we were the first at - Zao was the first to kind of like, finally bridge the secular and the Christian market, where we could play to the secular fans and they actually started appreciating us.

You know what I mean, I think that’s what Zao might have broke the mold with. Because Zao was like, definitely wasn’t the first Christian hardcore metal band but it was the first band that actually got on tour with bands like Nile and Today is the Day and actually got heard, people actually gave them a chance.

One definite difference is that a lot of these bands go on these Christian package tours; they only play with bands that have the same type of viewpoint. I’ve noticed that almost every tour you guys have done has been with a lot of bands with very different perspectives.

Oh definitely. I think too, I mean, that’s the one part of Christianity that I hate, I mean is the close minded, narrow mindedness of it, I mean, if you’re supposedly Christian and you believe in Jesus and Jesus loves everybody then why are you shunning, staying away from people?

You should be out there being friends with as many people as you can. That was the one thing I never understood.

But I mean, with us, we just, like I said we’re kind of in the mindset of our music is the main thing and our band just wants to play with as many bands as we can and make as many friends as we can. But we don’t care who it’s with, we don’t care what you believe, y’know, we just want to, y’know, be there.

Did getting on Ferret help a lot in getting rid of that perception?

I think so, I think Ferret definitely helped us open up their eyes to help different people understand what Zao is all about. We’re very happy that to be away from that "only Christian" thing because, ike I said before, we never felt like we were that type of band anyway.

So with Ferret now we were kind of able to open up and say "Look, we’re just a band. Some of us have beliefs, you want to talk about them you can come up to us at any time, but as a band we just want to be a band. " With Ferret we’re able to do that.

I’m not a Christian myself so though I’ve always appreciated the band, it always felt a little weird because I wondered if you guys were talking to me or some other type of person

Yeah definitely it is. With Zao we never wanted to be that type of band. We wanted to have little ideas that were put out; we like to have imagery that people can kind of think about, look at and kind of have their own interpretation of.

We’re very happy that to be away from that "only Christian" thing because, ike I said before, we never felt like we were that type of band anyway.

With Zao, we never, like I said, our main focus was never to like change people or make people believe anything. We just wanted to be a band that actually created music.

And, being that, if you wanted to think what Dan’s lyrics are talking about, Christianity’s side of it, the whole spiritual side of it, if you get that from it that’s awesome, if you don’t get that from it, its music and you can just enjoy it - that’s fine with us too you know.

How’s the tour with In Flames been?

Unbelievable. We’ve all been big In Flames fans so it’s really cool to see those guys every night and, I mean I had never seen Trivium or Devil Driver before and both of those bands are awesome. Every single person on the stage and on the tour has been so nice, so friendly and we’ve been getting along with everybody so it’s really awesome.

It must be really cool to know they’re on the same label with you.

When I found out, our manager actually texted me and said "In Flames just signed with Ferret", I thought that it was not only awesome for the label but awesome for all the bands that are on the label, because it kind of also brings a new credibility to the label.

So you’ve been asking people to pick your set list. How’s that been going?

It’s been really cool, we’ve actually got a lot of songs that we figured people would pick and then there’s a lot of songs we would have had no idea they wanted to hear. So yeah what we’re trying to do is just gather up like what everybody wanted to hear and figure out the songs that are best suited for the tour now and learn them and try to give people that come to see us a little back. I’m sure there’s a lot of songs that we don’t play that people want to hear.

On that note, you guys did a DVD recently and it seems like bands that are a year-old nowadays do DVDs, and you guys have been doing it for ages.

Well I think mainly it was a lot of help from our manager. I mean our manager has been part of the family of Zao probably since I joined it, even though he wasn’t managing, he was always there, like with a helpful ear , just to be there anytime we had any problems he was there to ask and help and all that stuff.

] He’s actually kind of a fan of the band too, which is a very cool situation for us cause we have a manager that’s like a brother to us; someone who actually likes our band a lot, so when he brought up the idea of kind of telling the story because there is all this drama and all this soap opera crap that has happened in the ten years we’ve been around.

We just never thought that anybody cared enough to see it so we wouldn’t have brought it up ourselves, but when he kind of brought it up and we thought about it, and the way he wanted to do it too, we were excited. So he just went with it did interviews with us, compiled a whole, ten years of things together with pictures and all kinds of stuff and they went crazy with it and I think it came out great, I’m really happy with it.

Its nice because it looks like somebody really put a lot of thought into it, it’s not just a bunch of random stuff strung together.

Yeah its - he definitely took the time to write out questions for us to answer and him and his partner actually edited the whole thing and they spent almost two months doing all the filming, editing, all the stuff. I mean, they really busted their ass doing it. So that was amazing.

So what’s in the future for you guys? I mean, do you still see yourself doing this in 10 years? 20 years?

Maybe five years (laughs). No, I don’t know, we just want to be as long as our integrity is intact and people are excited to come see us, we’re always going to be ready to play, you know what I mean? I think that Zao’s never going to change to conform; Zao’s never going to do anything to make us bigger. But if people want to hear it still and we can go out there and play it for people and be able to do it, then I think nobody in the band would be against doing that so. Yeah we’re just going to hopefully see what this record does, we’re very proud of it, hopefully people like it, and then see what happens from that, just keep touring and doing what we’ve done.