We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Zac Eller has gone through a lot to become D.C.’s newest god of metal. A lot of equipment, especially—such as the cherry-red Guild S100 Polara, which met its maker during a 2002 show at U Street’s Velvet Lounge.
“On the last song, I dropped to my knees and pulled the guitar down,” recalls the Wooly Mammoth frontman, clutching a glass of beer at the Black Cat’s Food for Thought Cafe. “The headstock hit the stage and cracked down the middle.” Already dissatisfied with the band’s performance that night, Eller decided to go out like a warrior.
“I was like, This guitar is already critically injured, so now it must die. So I went to town on it. I mean, I Pete Townshend–ized it to the point where it was in at least six or seven pieces.”
Though he didn’t realized it until weeks later, says Eller, that moment of naked fury marked a breakthrough in Wooly Mammoth’s until-then-ponderous journey through the foothills of stoner rock. We’re onto something, he remembers thinking, because there’s no one else offering this kind of energy right now.
Two things happened after that show: Eller gained an eye-catching piece of abstract art by framing the Polara’s remnants and hanging them on the wall inside his LeDroit Park home, and Wooly Mammoth—which also includes Phil Adler on drums and Eller’s stepbrother, Kyle Connolly, on bass—threw out anything that could conceivably hobble the gallop of the music: the long, quavering guitar solos, the absentminded tuning and twanging between numbers.
A third thing happened, too: a record deal. And then another. The first was with Fredericksburg, Va.’s, Underdogma Records, which released 2002’s Ten Ton Baby EP, a brief set of high-torque but distinctly stoneresque songs such as “Six Hundred Pounds of Stolen Trucker Speed.” The next was with the Hyattsville, Md.–based label McCarthyism, which this May will put out Night Letters, a split LP with local doom-metal group the Hidden Hand, the latest project of former Obsessed legend Scott “Wino” Weinrich.
“Our first record, I would definitely think we’d have American motorcycles and long hair and some bitches on back, shit like that,” says Adler. “The second demo, that never went anywhere. I would think we wouldn’t have the motorcycles, but we’d be wearing fucked-up old jeans and T-shirts and have Confederate flags.” Now, says Adler, Wooly Mammoth conjures visions of “leather and tattoos.”
Eller agrees. “When we started out,” he says, “it was real sludgy, like a snail’s pace. The songs were like eight minutes long—were just these real slow, long, plodding epics. And now we’ve trimmed the fat and I just want to kick ass. I want to get up there and totally rock.”
For Eller, it seems, there’s really no other option. You can tell by the way he sits, or rather squirms—one hand dangling down to rub his shins, the other inches above the tabletop and keeping time with his words on an invisible typewriter.
“It’s manic-depression,” offers the 29-year-old, who works nights at Kingpin on U Street. “You don’t see me when I’m curled up in a ball.”
His bandmates have, however. “Sometimes when he’s, like, bouncing around the room and shit, I’m like, ‘OK, Zac, I hope this lasts for a while, because I know when this stops, man…I hope you’re home by then,’” says Adler, 31. Eller went on meds for while, but, says Adler, “that shit actually was making him worse.”
“With any artist—musician, painter, poet, writer—you need some kind of, I don’t want to say problem, but you need something in your life that makes you feel like that,” the drummer elaborates. “There has to be some driving force that does that.”
Whatever it is that winds Eller up, it jibed with the music of his formative years: hardcore. He got his first taste of it when a skater friend came over to his Silver Spring house with a copy of Bad Brains’ Rock for Light that had been recorded on an answering-machine tape.
“It was such a punch in the face,” Eller recalls. “I felt just like it sounded, because it was really urgent and sounded really necessary…though I had no idea what they were saying.” At 13, Eller asked for and received a drum kit from his musician parents and promptly began to beat the shit out of it. “I didn’t play any kind of standard beat,” he says. “It was just, like, play as fast as I can.”
The next year, Eller joined friends doing similar things to their instruments to form Worlds Collide, a metal-influenced hardcore band popular in the early-’90s straightedge scene. He dropped meat and booze from his diet and concentrated on playing really fast for benefit shows, most of them inside churches.
“It generally was a pretty insane experience almost every show,” says ex–Worlds Collide vocalist Matt Burger. On one side, says Burger, “lots of kids were really, really passionate about how much they liked us. There was floor-punching….You could see 18-, 19-year-old males literally crying in the front row.”
On the other side, he says, were the “vocal minority” of pumped-up punk kids who thought the band sounded too much like Metallica. It didn’t help that Burger and Eller ditched their anti-intoxicant philosophy while still in the band.
“I remember a show in Ohio where [bass player] Hillel [Halloway] just put the bass over his head, like he was going to start clocking heads,” Burger says. “Zac came out from behind him, and we were all just like, ‘You guys want to fight us? C’mon, we’ll fight right now!’”
To this day, the national straightedge scene—or at least the portion of it represented with Howsyouredge.com’s “Edge Break List v3.0a”—remembers Eller thus: “Grew his hair out & the edge was gone.”
“I love that some minor detail about my life, like the kind of beverages I choose to ingest or things of that nature, becomes important to some kid who’s building a Web site,” says Eller. “A lot of people from the hardcore scene now still kind of chuckle under their breath: ‘Oh, he used to be straightedge—look at him drinking beer in the bar and smoking a joint or whatever.’ It’s like, ‘Dude, I was 15! It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking Jack Daniel’s from the bottle.’”
Worlds Collide gave its final show at D.C.’s defunct Beta Punk Warehouse in 1993—a performance that ended after somebody discharged a can of Mace in the pit. Afterward, Eller went up to South Philadelphia to play in the mope-rock outfit Seven Gone and down to Athens, Ga., to live in his girlfriend’s dorm room. In between, he came back to Washington for a while to work at Rockville’s Yesterday and Today Records.
“I wasn’t feeling so good,” he says. “But I played music. I never stopped at all, really. There was probably only six months when I wasn’t in a band. Just, like, some of the bands didn’t go anywhere.”
By 1997, Eller had packed his bags once more for home and landed another record-store gig, this time at Silver Spring’s Vinyl Ink. That same year, both Eller and Adler quit one of those bands that didn’t go anywhere, Grand National, and started jamming together.
In his role as record-store employee, Eller had been devouring hours of Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer. After a decade of music-making, he says, such unadorned heaviness “felt like punk-rock again all of a sudden….It had a new energy where the old stuff had become a little stale.” It helped, Eller adds, that “at that point we were doing drugs.”
The musical direction of the new project—named after Eller quipped that its output felt like the prehistoric behemoth stomping on his head—became clear when Eller started teaching his friend how to play rock drums: “Hit hard and play less.”
“Who’s in favor of loud music?”
Eller’s stage whisper is something of a surprise, given that for the past 15 minutes, he and the rest of Wooly Mammoth have been tearing up the Black Cat as the headliners of Rock ’N’ Roe, a women’s-rights benefit show. The muted responses that float back from the crowd of assembled hipsters don’t sound like much, but compared with the minimal love the city showed the band a few years back, the murmur is monumental.
“No one would give us a show, and I remember taking it really personally after a while,” Eller says. “I was like, Goddamn. I’ve been playing music in D.C. for quite a while. This band is really good, and we can’t get a show. It was really fucking discouraging.”
Wooly Mammoth’s salvation came in a word: stoners. The long-haired, head-banging set immediately sympathized with Eller & Co.’s pounding backbeat and Jurassic guitar riffs. Two years ago, Youngstown, Ohio’s, annual stoner-rock festival, Emissions From the Monolith, booked the band—which in hindsight proved to be a mixed blessing.
“If anything did anything for us, it was that scene,” says Eller. “It was sort of a niche, a way into an audience…because in D.C., we had nothing.” Unfortunately, a former member pulverized a $2,000 drum mike with a swing of his bass, spurring a sound technician to charge the stage and interrupt the set with a storm of profanity.
“We haven’t been asked back,” laments Adler.
It remains to be seen whether the band will play another Rock ’N’ Roe. But by the end of the night, Eller finally has the crowd about where he wants it. “This is a song,” he declares from the stage, “about having a good time in Washington, D.C.—sometimes being anesthetized but always having fun.”
Wooly Mammoth rips into “Drone Roller.” Connolly stands stock still, head drawn back in a pose that might as well be captioned “Michelangelo’s The Bassist,” as Adler whales away on the drums like a souse pounding on the door of the girl who just locked him out. Eller, meanwhile, does the Gut Punch, the Bow-Legged Cowboy, and a sort of slo-mo strut best described as the Man Walking Into a Fire Hose.
The crowd, separated from the stage during the past two bands’ performances by a safe 15 feet or so, slowly moves up to the footlights. A few folks throw up devil signs. Couples tentatively place hands on adjacent asses. A large man bangs his head over the stage—then stops. So does the band.
Eller checks on the amp cabinet behind him, then bends a final time into the mike: “We’d love to play one more, but our equipment just broke.” CP