In the English language, if you want to convey that something usually amicable and of normal proportions has now become gargantuan and destructive, there’s a certain suffix to be used; you add “-zilla” onto it. Bridezilla, Promzilla, etc. This all stems, of course, from the 1954 Toho flick “Gojira,” released in the United States in 1956 as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”
There are certain connotations, then, when a band decides to use the suffix and ONLY the suffix Zilla as their moniker. No band has ever gone full Godzilla, although French metal band Gojira has come close. (Does that count? It probably counts.) There’s Blue Öyster Cult’s classic jam “Godzilla,” about humanity’s hubris that seems oddly prescient when everyone is living in a Hell World. Eminem has a “Godzilla” as well, wherein he and Juice WRLD become the famed monster I think? It’s vague. So what, then, was the genesis behind the name Zilla, a four-piece from Little Rock made up of drummer Eric Cleveland, guitarist/vocalist Tanner McDaniel, bassist Tobias Peoples, and guitarist/vocalist Sam Williamson? I’ll let Sam explain.
“Eric wanted to call the band Lzial but we realized that that was against Tobias’s diet, so Tanner rearranged the letters and we ended up with either Azlli or Zilla. Eric, Tanner and I voted on Zilla, but let the record show that Tobias voted for Azlli. There is no meaning behind this, except for the fact that Tanner has had a lot of practice with magnetic alphabet letters.”
These days it can be hard to tell if rock ‘n’ roll is still alive. In the mainstream, it is all but dead. But in the underground, it’s as vigorous as ever. Little Rock’s always had a thriving underground music scene, and Zilla is currently one of the best bands in it. They were born, like many current bands, in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic. Cleveland, McDaniel and Williamson were some of the only people each of them felt safe being around, so they got into a room and started jamming together. “It was all pretty sick right off the bat,” Williamson says. “Tanner brought in the skeleton for the song ‘Mushroom Kingdom’ that day and all of our parts basically fell in together immediately.”
“Mushroom Kingdom” slaps. It comes at you with a slinky riff that any number of bands in the ‘70s could have written. “So don’t you panic/we’re feelin’ alright tonight” McDaniel yelps before a fitting solo that would be at home on an early Built to Spill song.
For the next year Zilla worked out songs at their space, with every member contributing to the writing process. “We do write collaboratively mostly. Sometimes Tanner or I come in with a song that has a more rigid structure that everyone then adds their own parts on top of, but it’s never like, ‘you play this and you play this and you play this,’” Williamson said.
Songs often emerge from jams. As McDaniel said, “Sometimes Sam and I will bring in a song or a riff we had separately been working on, or we’ll all just be jamming and pull it straight out of our bungholes. Depends on the weather and whose diaper is full or not.”
“Everything we write is brought to life with all of us in the room together,” Cleveland added. “Tanner and Sam will occasionally bring a skeleton of a song to practice but it takes a few jams, and sometimes even a few live run throughs on stage, for a Zilla song to really take shape.” After a year they finally played their first show, in October of 2021.
By the time 2022 rolled around, they had enough songs to record their debut full length album, “Mushroom Kingdom.” Released in September, it’s a wonderful knot of jams that melds Replacements-style snottiness with ‘90s noisy guitar solos that make you actively listen to fully absorb what’s going on. As far as what influenced the album, inspiration came from everywhere. As Williamson states, “More obvious influences have to be Green Day, The Replacements, Big Star, Ween. I’m pretty sure we all love The Cars. I know personally I’ve been wanting to write some Zilla stuff that gets way jammy and have been inspired by like live Grateful Dead concerts where there are these huge almost like concertos of rock instrumentation, but pared down and not bombastic or anything.”
“We could be jamming bands like Neurosis one minute and then turn around and be inspired by The Meters the next.”
Other influences thrown around: AC/DC, A-ha, The Clash, and King Tuff. Inexplicably, these diverse forebears all make sense on their lean seven-track album. Clocking in at 25 minutes, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a drive. The song “Mushroom Kingdom” opens the collection, followed by “King Cuck’s Ballad,” which it is anything but. “Bella Rosa” is next, where the band shifts from Diarrhea Planet-style bombast and gang vocals to a Smashing Pumpkins-style riff and introspection. “Daffodils” recalls Uncle Tupelo-style cowpunk, while “Long Night” is the most classic rock inspired song on the record. “The Score” brings back the sound of the first couple tunes, with one of the most sing-alongable choruses ever. “Well I don’t need you anymore/So here’s the score/Never miyiyiyiyiyihihind” will be stuck in your head for at least a week or longer. Closer “Mastermindia” starts with crunchy palm-muted guitars that let that Cars influence shine through. It’s the longest track on the album and the ideal song to end your joyride with. All throughout the album are guitar moments that take you by surprise. An acoustic guitar solo here, a delay pedal-drenched noise part there. The rhythm section holds it all down with aplomb and every song is tailor-made for a crowd of sweaty fans to sing along with emphatically.
As for what the future holds, Zilla has just finished recording their follow up album and the list of influences grows ever longer. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Thee Oh Sees. Fugazi. It’s due out in December, along with a show at White Water Tavern on Thursday, Dec. 29 that Williamson says is “to commemorate both records that will have dropped by the end of the year — sort of like an album release show for both. The lineup is going to be insane. A freaking legendary group of bands.” They’re already planning a third album early next year, and they aren’t slowing down. “I think goal-wise for Zilla, we just want to see how far and how absurd our songwriting can possibly get until people can’t stand us anymore. I think we all hope we’ll be able to make a living wage off this at some point. But if that’s not the case then we’ll just keep on keepin’ on in the trusty basement,” McDaniel said. “Our main goal for this band is to get an Old Milwaukee endorsement, whatever it takes.”