“I’m originally from Little Rock, Arkansas,” singer/guitarist Peter Shults shared with me, “that’s where Zula was from.” When he started playing guitar at age ten, he never imagined he’d be playing in a band named for his great-grandmother. “Back then I was just making abstract noise on the guitar,” he said. “It was a couple of years before I really knew how to play it.” Beyond Little Rock, Peter grew up in Saint Louis and San Antonio. He played cello in the middle school orchestra and learned “real music” from there, also confessing that he dressed up as a rock star in 2nd and 3rd grade complete with do-rags. Eventually, Peter came to Austin for college at the University of Texas and has been there since 2005.
“I met Josh (Halpern) through Chase of Marmalakes,” Peter shared. “And I met Chase at a songwriting competition the Kerrville folk festival put on.” Shults also plays in a band called Hello Wheels. “I started writing songs that didn’t quite have a place in that project but they were still songs that were fun to play. So Josh and I went off on our own and started fleshing them out. We spent a year gigging around town changing our band name every show and came up with some pretty awful names. Zula Montez is what stuck.”
A love for playing music runs deep in Peter’s family. His great-grandfather Bentley Bynum Wood – Zula’s husband – was a fiddle player. “He went deaf towards the end of his life, but he could still play,” Peter said. “We all called him Pal. “ Would Zula be proud of the music? I asked Peter. “I don’t know,” he said, with a curious air, “most of the stories I know about her make her sound like an old codger with a little piss and vinegar – but maybe? I hope? I’ve always really like her name and hope to improve on our legacy.”
Singer/guitarist Peter Shults of Hellow Wheels and drummer Josh Halpern of Marmalakes and Shearwater join us at Side Project Sundays with their band Zula Montez this Sunday. Taft Mashburn will join them on synth.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Austin? “Kome (sushi/Japanese pub) – get the fried oysters, miso soup, or the cream cheese candied jalapeno, avocado, eel and salmon/shrimp – the whole roll itself is deep fried. Their sauces are so good. There’s an eel sauce that is sweeter and tangier, and there’s an orange sauce that is creamy habanero.“
Do you have any tips for new bands starting out? “It’s hard out there. Since I’ve been playing music in Austin, I’ve gone through a number of approaches for how to be successful and have good shows. The longer I’ve done it the more I’ve come back to my instinct – with Austin there’s a temptation, there’s a lot of cool stuff and a lot of great bands – it can be tempting to try to adopt some part of their model – but finding the thing that works for you, making the community, the brand, or the aesthetic and focusing on the thing that is really inspiring to you.”
Tell us about your songwriting process: “This project (Zula Montez) has been a lot of fun because it’s been a step in a different direction for me in the songwriting process. The songs we are playing now are more experimental. Hello Wheels there are three different singers in the band, and a lot of harmony, democracy and co-writing. With Zula, this was an experiment in trying to do something less diplomatic and having the freedom to follow your whims. We’ve been jamming, recording, throwing stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks. I’ve gotten to collaborate with a lot of musicians I’ve known for a long time. It’s an enlightening way to approach songwriting and music. It has given me freedom to obsess about the little details you notice when you’re a creative person. For the beholder of the art it may not even be apparent to him, but I (can geek out) on this down beat of the bass, for example, and grasp onto those things when they move me, and really make them serve the song.
Tell us about one of your favorite songs: “One of our first songs we got a recording of is called Lean On. It’s all about how basically through life music has always been there. I had the melody for the song years before in my head. I remember showing it to other people and collaborators and not getting a lot of positive feedback. Finally I had a buddy who was leaving town. We wanted to have some fun recording together before he left. We didn’t have an agenda and that idea popped back into my head. We played it through the first take and came up with a lick I hadn’t thought about. An evening later it was a song. I showed it to some of those same people I showed before and they liked it so much better. Lean On is a song that helped us find the process and find the sound. “
I asked him to tell us a little more about Josh too: “Josh is amazing – he’s very fluid. My collaboration with him as friends and musicians – I never feel like we reach a dead end. If an idea isn’t working, he’s good at helping find that different feel and inject life into things. That’s the most fun thing about working with him – you never know where it’s going to take you. Often times for the better part of a year we’ve been working on a full length record and several songs as they have come to their final version are vastly different than when they started. I loved the guitar part but when we added an ingredient I go cold on the first inspiration and all of a sudden the song is 180 degrees from where you started. It’s like following different candy trails.”