I recently spoke with Ali Tabatabaee, the frontman for the punk band, Zebrahead and he had a lot of interesting things to say. We talked about touring throughout the years, which bands have helped shape him and more.
Alex Obert: With the Slam Dunk Festival coming up, what are your thoughts on this year’s lineup?
Ali Tabatabaee: We’ve toured with a lot of these bands that are playing before, so it’s a lot of old friends on this thing. It’s gonna be good to hang out with them and catch up because some of the guys, we haven’t seen in a while.
Alex Obert: Who are you looking forward to reconnecting with and perhaps seeing perform on stage?
Ali Tabatabaee: We’ve played with Reel Big Fish forever. We’re good friends with the Goldfinger guys. I really like Taking Back Sunday. We’re friends with Patent Pending as well. It’ll be cool to also see The Bronx and Gallows as well.
Alex Obert: I saw Reel Big Fish a couple years ago for the first time and they just blew me away. What do you think of their live show?
Ali Tabatabaee: They are great with the crowd and they’re really fun to watch. And their songs are super hooky. It’s always fun to watch those guys. And we’ve toured with them for years. It’s always nice running into your friends at a show after not seeing them for over a year. It’s gonna be cool to see them and watch them play, I’m really excited.
Alex Obert: With bands such as Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger, how did you originally tour with them for the first time? Was it just labels putting you together to see how it would go?
Ali Tabatabaee: I’m sure it was something like that, through an agent or something. They thought we would be good match. Usually for us, you tour with bands and some of the time, you don’t necessarily have a lot in common. In those cases, you often don’t tour with them anymore. But when you tour with a band that you make friends with and hang out with, it’s good to say, “Hey man, let’s go on another tour together the next time we’re both free.” That has happened with a few of these bands. I think initially, it’s going through agents and management and stuff, and then if you get along and enjoy touring together, then it becomes more of a personal thing where you can call each other.
Alex Obert: What did you think of Punkspring earlier this year?
Ali Tabatabaee: It was cool, man. We played with a bunch of different bands and it was great to be able to watch them play. There were some bands we hadn’t met before, so it was cool to meet new people and get to see them play live for the first time. It was really cool experience and the shows are really fun. A very, very cool trip to Japan.
Alex Obert: Who are some of those bands that you saw for the first time?
Ali Tabatabaee: I had barely seen New Politics, we played a festival with them maybe a year ago. I got to see a couple songs then, but they were on this. It was really cool to see them. We actually made friends with this band called Man with a Mission over the past couple years and we got to watch them play a few times as well. We actually did a split EP with them that’s coming out real soon. We have gone out on each other’s sets and played a few songs together. Obviously Rancid, I’d seen them play before. We did Warped Tour with them years ago. And then Fall Out Boy actually blew me away, they were really good live. It was really cool, everybody was down to earth and super friendly. It was nice hanging out with a bunch of friends and playing shows together.
Alex Obert: So what was a typical day like on Warped Tour?
Ali Tabatabaee: Well it depends because times change often for when you play. You get woken up by your tour manager, sometimes it’s super early and sometimes you get to sleep in. We’re kind of a do it yourself band, so we would go find a place to set up our tent and merch. Then you get your meal tickets and stuff. If you have time, you go eat before you play. If not, you just go to the stage and make sure that all the equipment works. Once you play, everything was super mellow after that. You’d pretty much hang out and go visit your friends in other bands and see what time they’re playing. You’d go try to check out a few songs by each band. Then you’d eat dinner, there’s usually a barbecue each night. Then you’d get your tour bus or van and head to the next spot. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day, it’s very repetitive, but it’s a cool experience. You don’t mind doing it over and over again.
Alex Obert: What do you feel it takes to be a good frontman on the stage?
Ali Tabatabaee: There’s so many different styles of musicians who are frontmen. I think it’s just having a connection with the crowd and I think personally, having a good time. Realize the energy between the band and the crowd and how the show is evolving throughout the set. There’s so many factors, man. I think it’s just a feeling, really. Playing live is such a cool thing because you get this weird energy that you don’t get any other time.
Alex Obert: Was there a concert you attended that made you want to become a frontman?
Ali Tabatabaee: I saw Rage Against the Machine years ago, it was before the single came out. And they blew me away with their raw energy. They were pretty awesome live. Zack just jumping around and going nuts, it was such a cool experience. I had always wanted to do that, but I never thought it would be a realistic thing.
Alex Obert: Who are some of your favorite modern-day frontmen?
Ali Tabatabaee: There’s this band called Die Antwoord, we’ve played with them a few times at random festivals. They’re a South African hip-hop dance duo. They are really, really cool. Yolandi and Ninja are so different, they kick ass and they’re so engaging and interesting to watch. If you haven’t seen them, I would highly recommend it.
Alex Obert: What have you taken out of sharing the stage and vocals with Matty?
Ali Tabatabaee: Matty’s great, man. He’s always enjoying himself and he’s a genuinely good guy. It’s always fun to play with him. We’ve been touring together for over ten years now and you catch a groove after a while. It wouldn’t be the same if he wasn’t standing to my right when we played, don’t think I would enjoy that very much. It’s so nice where you play in a band where everybody really gets along and they’re friends. We always enjoy playing the set together. Matty’s always been really cool, I really enjoy it.
Alex Obert: When Zebrahead is performing on stage, do you feel that you know your bandmates in and out well enough to sense how they’re feeling and their general vibe?
Ali Tabatabaee: When you play music, you’ve gotta be really locked in to how everybody else is playing. You can tell when somebody’s having a bad show or technical issues or they’re sick and having a hard time, you can just always tell. You can tell just by the way they look at you during a song. It’s like anything else, if you do a lot with the same people, you can pick up on if anything’s off pretty quickly. Check up on them if you can, especially if there’s something you can help them with. It’s pretty noticeable when somebody’s having a rough time or something’s wrong.
Alex Obert: When you guys want to unwind after a show and chill out, are you a part of the beer drinking?
Ali Tabatabaee: Everybody’s got their own thing, but we’re all pretty similar. After the show, we like to hang out and often go to an after party or a bar close by. Oftentimes, the kids from the shows come and we all hang out together. We’ve always enjoyed that part of touring.
Alex Obert: Do you have a story from a fan that sticks with you about how your music was there for them when they needed it? Perhaps there was a reason it changed their life?
Ali Tabatabaee: We were doing this East Coast run a few months ago with MxPx and our tour manager came up to me and gave us a handwritten note. He said these guys wanted to talk to us, so we said to bring them on the bus. They came on and apparently, this guy was in a drive thru ordering hamburgers or something and he was listening to one of our songs. When the girl went to hand him his food, she was like, “Oh hey, you like Zebrahead!” He was like, “Yeah!” She said she liked them too and it was one of her favorite songs. They ended up exchanging numbers. And apparently, this guy had kidney issues all his life and he needed a kidney transplant. The get to talking and she offers to give him her kidney and it’s a match. She gives him her kidney and everything works out, he feels a lot better. And they fall in love and they get married. It’s crazy that our music has an impact that you never think about, it’s obviously very rare. It blew me away.
Alex Obert: That’s amazing, like something out of a movie. What song do you feel is there for you when you’re having a bad day?
Ali Tabatabaee: It always changes for me. When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of hip-hop music. Whenever I was angry or pissed off, I would listen to N.W.A a lot. Other times, I’d listen to A Tribe Called Quest. I really like their stuff. Nowadays, I’ve been listening to this band called The National, it’s mellow rock music. I really like their lyrics and he has a really, really cool baritone voice. It changes for me every few months, man. I’ll find a new band or revisit an old album that I hadn’t listened to in a while and it’ll bring back all these memories.
Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what are your plans for touring over the next few months?
Ali Tabatabaee: On the 23rd, 24th and 25th of this month, we’re doing the Slam Dunk Fest. We come home for a week and then we’re doing something called the Patronaat Festival and that is in the Netherlands. And then after that, we’ll be at Rock am Ring on the 6th in Germany and Rock im Park on the 7th. We then play the Deichbrand Festival on July 17th back in Germany. That’s what we’ve got so far, but I know we’re trying to set up stuff throughout the summer. I think we’re going back to Europe by August.
Alex Obert: Sounds exciting! I’d love to thank you so much for your time and a great interview.
Ali Tabatabaee: Thanks, Alex! I appreciate you taking the time to do this, man.