It may not be the most hallowed music venue in New York City. Still, for any band, it's pretty cool to post on your resume that you got to play Times Square.
Last summer, Tampa rockers Zulu Wave were selected to play a free show in New York's nerve center at New York's new CBGB Festival, alongside rock royalty The Hold Steady, Superchunk, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Duff McKagen from Guns N' Roses. It was an eye-opening (and door-opening) experience, and while they don't want to be known simply as "that festival band," they have to admit, playing Times Square was pretty cool.
"I'm always looking for confirmation that we don't suck," laughed keyboardist Ariel Cortes.
Added singer Michael Barrow, also with a laugh: "We're still looking for it."
Even before their Times Square gig, Zulu Wave had been winning over local fans with a polished, focused indie-alternative sound.
Born to British parents in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa - "I was, like, the only white kid for six hours in every direction," he said - Barrow always knew he'd come to America to pursue music. And since he had no preconceptions about the musical geography of the United States, when an uncle who worked at MacDill Air Force Base offered to help set him up, he came to Tampa in 2011.
"Before I moved here, I Googled Tampa nightlife," he said. "I got a bunch of stuff which wasn't interesting, like strip clubs, and I saw one article about New World Brewery being a place for young bands to play."
It was a start.
Even in Africa, Barrow was planting the seeds of his first American band. Cortes, a New York native who moved to Tampa as a child, responded to his Craiglist ad looking for musicians - "He never said he was in Africa," Cortes deadpanned - and within a few weeks, they were playing and recording together.
Early on, Barrow said Zulu Wave benefited from recording a polished-sounding EP, Theep, and posting it online. Tampa promoters heard their stuff - particularly their catchy single Puppy Tails - and began booking them, first as an opener on local shows around town, then at bigger shows like the Antiwarpt Music Festival, and opening for national acts like The Kills and And So I Watched You From Afar.
Their biggest break came last summer while playing a couple of small shows in New York City. In the crowd was Joe D'Urso, a co-owner of New York's iconic CBGB brand (the notorious club itself closed in 2006). They hit it off, and when D'Urso mentioned he was planning a CBGB Festival, Zulu Wave asked to be a part of it - and sure enough, they were selected. The high-profile Times Square gig was the icing on the cake. The fact that they got to meet artists like Krist Novoselic from Nirvana and Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols was, well, the icing on the icing.
The CBGB gig led to an appearance at another New York Festival, the CMJ Music Marathon. As all this was happening, Zulu Wave was working on songs that would become their second EP, Nyami Nyami, which features a more expansive sound with spacey, prog-rock touches.
"I don't want to be an instrumental band, I don't want to be a vocally driven band," Barrow said. "I don't want to write songs where I feel like I have to do something because that's what's expected. Nyami Nyami wasn't us planning so much; it was us doing what we felt was natural and right."
Zulu Wave hasn't coasted on their Times Square bona fides. So far in 2013, they've added a new drummer, recent Chicago expat Courtney Grove, and bassist, Brian Schanck, a veteran of many Tampa bands. They're gearing up for a summer tour with the South Carolina band Pan, and they're itching to record yet another EP - their third in three years.
"If I had my way, if we had the money and the time, I'd be in the studio tomorrow, and we'd have the thing out next week," Barrow said. "I'm that excited about it."
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Members: Michael Barrow, vocals/guitar; Ariel Cortes, keyboards; Courtney Grove, drums; Brian Schanck, bass
Recommended for fans of: Minus the Bear, Tokyo Police Club, Alt-J