Joshua Zarbo wrote and recorded LUNA by himself at home over the past two years. So yes… it’s a pandemic record. But it’s also a lot more than that, and many things at once. It’s a New York City record, by way of Austin and Nashville. It’s a D.I.Y. record from a trained musician. It’s a keyboard record by a lifelong bassist, and a pop record steeped in teutonic rock. It’s a product of divorce, Music For Airports, talk therapy, and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. It’s also a debut.
Like a character actor seizing his first romantic lead, or a sous chef finally opening his own restaurant, the 48 year-old Zarbo – a key member of Spoon for nearly a decade who has also played with the likes of Sondre Lerche, Fred Armisen, The Band of Heathens, John Vanderslice, and numerous other artists – is announcing himself as a headliner, compressing all of his passion and experience into five songs about loss and hope and rock’n’roll and Brooklyn. From the bubbling grooves and horn-like synthesizer riffs of “Mister Rock” – a wry, appropriately robotic meditation on the personas of both flesh-and-blood rock frontmen and rock show holograms – to the epic, blood-rushing anthem “Monastical,” LUNA is the veritable first record that took a lifetime… and will leave you wanting more.
“Bass is the lens through how I’ve seen and experienced being a musician,” says Zarbo, with such bassists as Phil Lynott, Andy Fraser, and Paul McCartney among his role models. But, similar to Sir Paul, he plays every instrument on LUNA, including guitars, programmed drums, and most of all, MIDI keyboards.
“Creating things from the kind of happy surprises that happen when you’re working with keyboard textures and keyboard sounds, that’s really where my heart and soul is at right now as a songwriter,” Zarbo says. “As strange as it is to start calling myself that. I guess I am one now.”
Zarbo first took up music, formally speaking, the summer before high school in his home state of Virginia. But during his freshman year as a music student at George Mason University, Zarbo’s upright bass instructor said he really belonged in Denton, Texas, at the storied University of North Texas School of Music.
The professor was correct, although – as has been the case for many a UNT student – Zarbo’s time in Denton became as much about the local music scene as education. He formed a band called Maxine’s Radiator with frontman Sean Kirkpatrick (who would later be in the live Spoon lineup during the Girls Can Tell era and was also in the Paper Chase with producer John Congleton); one night in 1996 they went to see Pavement play in Dallas and were equally impressed by the opener, a still somewhat-unknown band from Austin that had recently signed to Matador Records. A shared bill, introductions, and one audition later, Zarbo had become friendly enough with Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Jim Eno that they invited him to join the group (Zarbo jokes that one reason he likely got the gig is Eno noticed he was willing to pack up the Maxine’s Radiator drum kit).
Zarbo wasn’t Spoon’s first, second, or even third bass player, but he was formative, leaving UNT and joining just in time to record 1998’s A Series of Sneaks (on which he even has a writing credit – “Metal School”), then continuing through Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2002), and Gimme Fiction (2005) – three of the best records of the 2000s (you can look it up). Along the way, Zarbo left and returned, made a tentative attempt at going back to school, and endured about the expected amount of band drama. He also experienced amazing highs: international touring, TV appearances – from Austin City Limits to Rockpalast to the late-night talk shows, and of course, festivals – including ACL, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, and Coachella.
But school finally won out: two days after Spoon played “The Beast and Dragon Adored” at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, while David Cross performed an impromptu interpretive dance, Zarbo was in a classroom full of 19 year-olds at Texas State University. Ultimately, he wanted to do more than be in bands and live life on the road, patterning himself after such multi-disciplinary visionaries as Suzanne Ciani, Richard Davis, Yusef Lateef, and Mary Lou Williams.
“I’ve always been taken with musicians who were noted players or band members, and really contributed to a movement, sound, or scene, but had all these other interesting facets,” Zarbo says. “This real variety to their life, where they’re not just players, but they’re also educators, and composers. I wanted to have something that was richer, and where I felt more grounded. Where I felt like I could really contribute to a community, and make deep connections with people.”
Zarbo got both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at Texas State. He wrote his thesis on Motown bassist James Jamerson, all while still in demand as a freelancer for both recording sessions and live playing – including work with bands: Future Clouds and Radar, Fastball, Bee Caves; singer-songwriters: Bob Schneider, Jon Dee Graham, Betty Soo; and projects: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare Original Soundtrack. At the same time, he joined the Austin band Monahans, which made records for the Undertow and Misra labels. His years with Monahans remain a particular highlight. One song on LUNA, “The Loss of Feeling,” is actually a Monahans song, reimagined as a mid-tempo synthwave banger.
“Monahans was the richest, best band experience I’ve ever had because it truly was that ideal of like, four people coming together and really collaborating,” says Zarbo. “So ‘The Loss of Feeling’ is really connected for me, in a variety of ways, to the camaraderie and brotherhood that we’d established as a band.” When Zarbo first strung together the song’s chord progression, he was studying the work of minimalist composer Terry Riley, and those repeating elements – part pop hook, part metronomic pulse – are punched up on the LUNA version.
After grad school, Zarbo and his wife moved to Nashville. While he enjoyed his stint as a member of American Idol winner David Cook’s live band during his time in Music City, the Nashville scene was not a fit for him. Fortunately, New York City came calling in the form of full-time work: creating curriculum for Steven Van Zandt’s nonprofit foundation, specifically its education arm – TeachRock. It is and remains a dream gig, but along the way, Zarbo’s marriage crumbled; and in the midst of creating his new life, his dog, for whom LUNA is named (and who graces the cover of the record), died in 2020.
All the music on LUNA came out of those life-losses in some way. It’s also a record that began in therapy. Over the years, Zarbo had done all kinds of writing and recording of his musical ideas, but never for a particular project, and usually without ever coming up with lyrics. Therapy both saved his life and cracked open a creative path, helping him find his voice, both literally and figuratively. His therapist, Dr. Michael J. Feldman (who is thanked on the record) was particularly focused on the power of language and communication.
“He kept pulling out words, and we would investigate those words,” Zarbo says. “What the power was behind those words, and what those words meant. He kept doing that, and just got me thinking about it, and I started writing things down. And I thought, ‘you know what? I can fucking do this. I can write lyrics.’”
That revelation, combined with the pandemic, became a carpe diem moment – both to put in the work, and to invest in some new gear for the home studio (including a virtual bundle of vintage synthesizers – like an ARP 2600, same kind used by Brian Eno on his ambient masterpieces).
The songs on LUNA were greatly influenced by Zarbo’s south Brooklyn surroundings, whether that meant a moonlit night on the Bay Ridge Promenade watching ships go by, the sound of traffic on the Belt Parkway, or riding the R Train with Neu! or Manuel Göttsching on the headphones. In addition to kosmische musik and new age music, Zarbo drew inspiration from ‘80s new wave and more recent dream pop bands like Beach House and Chromatics. But also: Thin Lizzy – a lyrical influence as well as a harmony guitar influence – and Metallica, for both Master of Puppets-style sequencing, and Cliff Burton-inspired orchestrated bass.
LUNA is also something of a song-cycle, with three songs that are meant to play together – “Mister Rock,” “The Loss of Feeling,” and “Moonbeams,” broken up by the instrumental title track. Then comes the nearly nine-minute long “Monastical,” which is both an end and a beginning, and also a bit meta. It’s the sound of Zarbo coming in from the moonlight and the city and the water, going inwards – perhaps on lockdown, but also in the studio. “Inside away tonight I’ll sing the words,” he sings. “Press ‘record,’ red light and play the chords.” Then the song keeps building, picking up both speed and sound, before slowing and stripping down into just buzz and piano. And, then, finally, fading away, its maker, ready to go back into the world.
And now? Even as the pandemic ebbs and flows and Zarbo releases LUNA, it’s still what he’s doing every day: spending a couple of hours each morning at the keyboard before starting the day job, continuing to become a new kind of artist and new person, doing what he loves.
“It’s been a renaissance for me honestly, as a creative person,” he says. “I’m 1000 per cent the best musician that I’ve ever been in my life.” ~ Jason Cohen (2022)