Music History

The Psychodelic Zombiez, the Funk Band With Punk Mentality, Reunite

Psychodelic Zombiez were one of the most popular and beloved bands in Denver in the 1990s. Its blend of funk, punk and Danny Elfman-esque strangeness early on set it apart from many other bands of its day. Its rowdy antics on- and off-stage garnered the band a bit of a reputation for inspired chaos, but its musicianship and eclectic songwriting was never lacking,

The Zombiez began in 1989 when its original members were still in high school. Guitarist Josh Lopez, bass player Chevy Martinez and lead vocalist Mike Friesen attended Chatfield High in Littleton, and drummer Daren Hahn went to Evergreen High School. All were skateboarders, and the early wave of what would be called alternative rock struck the future members of Psychodelic Zombiez as more vital than the glam metal that dominated rock radio at the time. Bands like Jane's Addiction, Fishbone, Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers gave the fledgling band a glimpse into a less musically rigid world.

In the early days, the Zombiez were taken under the wing of the Jonez, a musically like-minded band of which the Zombiez were already fans. Getting work permits to play at Herman's Hideaway and playing all-ages venues like Mercury Cafe, the Zombiez honed their craft and garnered a sizeable audience among their peers who, when they all went to college in Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, attended shows in numbers, resulting in the band being able to regularly tour along the front range.

Local recording engineer and experimental music figure Mark Fuller, then of Big Foot Torso, captured the Zombiez's earliest material for a cassette but was also on hand as the engineer for the 1993 album An Evening at the Zoo. The latter came about in the wake of the group's latest lineup change: brilliant keyboard player Keefus Cianca departed, and the five-piece horn section came together, expanding the membership of the band to ten. At that time, not only did the Zombiez have a sizeable local following, it often toured the West Coast. “We had great support in Colorado, made money in Arizona, starved in Los Angeles and San Francisco, do okay in Portland and bank in Seattle,” Friesen says.

Apparently the work paid off as A&M Records and MCA both signed the Zombiez to a demo deal. Although no full length record came of it at the time, much less a true record deal, some of those recordings became the tracks for the 1995 album S.A.C. And others sat on tapes until 2015 before they were added to new recordings for the group's new album, Things That Are Brown. Although the Zombiez played shows with No Doubt and Primus early on, the latter for the Sailing on the Seas of Cheese tour, its own sound might have been too weird to truly fit on a major label.

“Being radio-friendly was so far from our thought process at the time and probably a good reason we weren't successful,” recalls Friesen. “Some of it got so out it was, 'What is this stuff?' Being accessible was the last thing on our minds. We were funk band with a very punk rock mentality back in the day.”

In 1992, when opening for GWAR when Melvins had to drop off the bill at the Gothic Theatre, the Zombiez played its usual funk oeuvre only to have the crowd boo and throw items at the band—until it switched to all Black Sabbath covers. That the group could make that shift in the middle of its set gives you some idea of the range of styles that existed within the band's songwriting.

The band fizzled out in 1999 after being joined in the final three years by keyboard player Jeremy Lawton, who was also a sound engineer at Kerr Macy Studios where the Zombiez recorded new material up to the end. During the period when the Zombiez had access to recording facilities in Los Angeles due to its deal with A&M and MCA, it had intended to record an album that represented its more accessible music, as on S.A.C., and an additional record of all the stranger stuff, reflecting the collective's artistic split personality. However, all of that unreleased music hasn't seen the light of day on a full recording until 2015.

Post-Zombiez members of the group have gone on to play in commercially popular groups: Scott Seiver currently drums for Tenacious D and guitarist Josh Lopez has performed with Justin Timberlake, De La Soul and Nikka Costa. Much of the band moved to California to pursue playing music professionally. Friesen, however, more or less stopped playing music when the Zombiez called it quits. That is, until 2014 when he hit up an old friend, Andy Guererro formerly of Bop Skizzum and The Flobots, to start writing and playing music. After joining Andy Rok and the Real Deal for a short period, Friesen realized he didn't want to tour or endure some of the less glamorous sides of being in an active band.

When in the summer of 2015 Martinez contacted Friesen about the possibility of putting the band back together, they didn't necessarily know it was possible. As it turns out, all the original members of the band in its various main incarnations were interested in making that happen. Once that ball got rolling, Lawton engineered a reworking of the lost album. Sharing files between Los Angeles and Denver, Things That Are Brown took shape. Friesen says the album sounds very '90s because the music was written and partly recorded then.

Many of the former members of the Zombiez still have family in Colorado and this Christmas weekend seemed like the time to reconvene. With a thirteen member, expanded line-up, the Zombiez will recreate some of the magic and musical mayhem it had during its initial run.

Psychodelic Zombiez will reunite and play on Saturday, December 26 at Bluebird Theater with Andy Rok and the Real Deal. Doors are at 8 p.m. with the show at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door, and it is 16+ event. For more information, please visit the Bluebird Theater website.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.