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The Zoltars' good fortune

Band that's building a following prepares for tour of Texas, South

Peter Mongillo

During finals week at the University of Chicago in 2008, Jared Leibowich sat in his dorm room, sick with mononucleosis. Bored and down from having to study and being trapped indoors, he decided to write some songs. Leibowich, aka Zoltar, had spent four years working on a film and had never written a song before. He owned a guitar but had never played in a band.

The songs were funny and dark in an odd way, with some of them taking subtle shots at his classmates.

"I had to take these finals, and if I didn't pass them I wouldn't graduate, and I was struggling," Leibowich says. "I needed to get my mind off stuff, so I wrote these songs when I was really sick, and it was kind of a joke, and I realized 'Wow, this is fun to step on people's toes a little bit.' "

Three years later, the Zoltars rank among Austin's more interesting bands on the rise, with a growing following and a recent spot on Gerard Cosloy's second "Casual Victim Pile" compilation. This week, they're leaving town for a tour of Texas and parts of the South, with a kick-off show Thursday at Beerland.

When Leibowich, who grew up in south Florida, graduated from college, however, he didn't expect to be in the position he's in today. When he made the trek down to Austin, it was to find a job in the film business, but as he found out, those jobs weren't easy to come by.

"I kept applying for grants, and waiting and waiting," Leibowich says. "I need to be doing something and enjoying it at the same time, so I was like, why don't I play music?"

He began playing music with his friend Richard Fetchick, a drummer who had also just gotten to town. They played their first show at a house party in 2009 during the Fourth of July weekend, and from there they began playing shows at Beerland. He named the band the Zoltars after the fortunetelling machine (but not because of the film "Big," which he hadn't seen yet).

From the start, Leibowich found the experience liberating, especially compared with the world of film, which, in his eyes, had many more barriers to entry: equipment, a team of people and connections. With music, he could just pick up his guitar and play.

Or, as Leibowich puts it, "you write some songs, you play a show, that night you have a great experience."

They recorded some songs with Chris Stephenson of the Dikes of Holland, which were released as a 7-inch single by Austin vinyl label Sundae Records. Jared Canada, who runs Sundae and is a housemate of Stephenson's, discovered the Zoltars almost by accident, when he returned from work to find the band recording in the living room.

"I really liked that it was simple and catchy," Canada says. "It's just kind of odd, and I really like those traits in one band — simple, catchy, odd. It's something different than a lot of what's out there right now."

The resulting album consisted of four songs of stripped-down rock characterized by Leibowich's detached vocals and straightforward rhythms. And they're funny. "Party at the Batcave" talks about stoned kids going to Walgreen's. "Homicide" plays out like a murderous version of "Walk on the Wild Side," with Leibowich deadpanning "kill! kill! kill! kill!" before a heavier guitar kicks in.

Leibowich doesn't shy away from the Lou Reed comparison. "My favorite album of all time is a tie between 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' and this album by Wreckless Eric called 'Donovan of Trash,'" he says. "(Wreckless Eric) is not like stereotypical punk rock, like 'huaaa!' Sex Pistols or anything, but he's great, and he has a great sense of humor."

After several months, Fetchick left to go to graduate school in Florida, and Leibowich reorganized the band with John Gaglio on bass and Donald Gallaspy on drums (like Leibowich, they've all adopted the surname Zoltar).

In addition to the Zoltars tour, Leibowich is working on a multimedia project, which he calls a visual album, with his brother, who also studied film at the University of Chicago and is headed out to Los Angeles to work for J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions.

The idea came together when Leibowich's brother heard a collection of his early recordings and expressed interest in making a film based on the music.

"My brother listened to it and he got really, really into it," Leibowich says. "It's kind of an experiment, but my dream would be to work with my brother, we start some kind of company where I'm doing the music stuff, he's doing the film stuff, and we work together. I like the idea of hybridization of media and art."

In the meantime, the band is working on a full-length album and on making sure their tour goes according to plan.

On Thursday, a week before they were scheduled to leave, Leibowich was still in the process of securing gigs at a few remaining clubs. Handling booking and dealing with travel expenses on tour is a reality for bands, but Leibowich maintains a good sense of humor about it as he explains how the he and his band mates are attempting to fit themselves and all of their gear in his green Toyota Corolla. "It's awesome," he says. "It's like going on a road trip and playing shows every night."

It's a grounded attitude to have, but if the Zoltars continue on the path they're on now, there's a good chance it might not be just a short road trip in the future.

pmongillo@statesman.com

The Zoltars tour kickoff