His band's latest album, Serious Man, finds Tate showcasing familiar vocals and singing of similar misadventures while exhibiting a deeper musicianship than on many of his previous offerings. Serious Man boasts a new lineup, additional instrumentation — including a saxophone, a banjo and a mandolin — and reintroduces listeners to Rebecca Stoll, whose sultry voice offsets Tate's coarse, gruff vocals.
"From the moment I met John and Rebecca Stoll, I knew I wanted to work with them,” Tate says. "It's an intangible quality that a person can bring to a band — the capacity to give their best unselfishly and for the betterment of the song. When people bring their full enthusiasm to any experience, it resonates and makes the experience better for everyone. That's what John and Rebecca bring to music — theirs, mine, ours — in the end it's a shared experience."
Tate and crew decided to incorporate the saxophone after hearing Fred Linton perform with Funksion. Initially, they weren’t sure it would really work until Linton was performing in the studio, and the end result arguably turned out to be the record’s sexiest song, “Must Be Love,” which Tate refers to as a Frankenstein.
"It pulls from bits and pieces of lyrics and sentiments I wrote many years ago and combines them with a musical inspiration I got from watching local reggae band Cassette Tape perform live last summer,” he says. "Ultimately I was hoping to catch a little of their contagious dance groove.”
But Serious Man isn’t without its comedic relief, either. About halfway through the album, Tate regales his listeners with the story of a modern relationship — a man, a woman and her cell phone. “Is there such a thing as a four-minute comedy rock opera?” he asks.
Written with a visual in mind, it’s a firm dose of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with a bit of cynicism. Tate plans to produce a music video for the song in the near future, and hopes that it stands on its own in the meantime.
“Mixing and editing the songs makes it seem as though everyone’s contributions were carefully laid out beforehand when it was anything but that,” he says. “The script, the song, is an outline, but what happens the moment the record light goes on is organic. I do the best I can with the highest hopes that collectively we'll deliver a beautifully inspiring piece of music that moves people. Even if it's a down-and-dirty roadhouse number.”
In 2011, Tate said that albums, like movies, are abandoned instead of finished, that artists run out of time or money and eventually have to let go. With Serious Man, however, he feels as though fewer ideas were discarded.
"I included more songs than previous efforts so I feel as though I got to say more,” Tate says. "The downside of that is, like a long movie, is it too long as an album? More accurately, does the choice of keeping all the songs I did on the album make the listening experience better or worse? These questions can haunt but shouldn't be dwelled on.
"I've never really enjoyed albums from artists released 20 years later with bonus tracks or director's cuts of films,” he continues. "It just screams indecision, a lack of acceptance of what was, louder than anything else — rarely is there an improvement of the overall experience for a listener, in my opinion."
With Serious Man, Tate puts it all on the line. The album includes abrupt style changes between songs, which had him feeling a little unsure initially, but he cites the early works and bold instrumentation of The Rolling Stones as an example of a band making it work.
But abrupt or smooth, Tate is not afraid of trying something new.
Zach Tate performs 6 p.m. tonight at House of Blues’ Crossroads Stage (downstairs). He will be touring in France and the Netherlands this summer and is also planning to put his portraits of Texas musicians on display at a gallery in San Raphael, France.