At first glance, one might fnd it hard to believe that the shaggy-haired, aging rocker wearing shorts and flip-fops has a lick of sense, let alone a wealth of business acumen, mad guitar skills and prolifc song-writing talent that have made Randall Zwart an icon among indy rock stars. With a catalogue of 108 singles, that include the mega-hits Lucy and Sturgis, the Randall Zwarte' Band has rocked across the United States enough miles to circle the globe 62 tmes – that's over 1.5 million miles of hard-hitting, axe-grinding, trail-blazing rock and roll. Featuring Zwart's gritty vocals, the band's seemingly inexhaustble performances and salt-of-the-earth lyrics has garnered legions of die-hard fans who continue to download thousands of RZB singles every year via iTunes and Touch Tunes electronic jukeboxes. Amazingly, it was all accomplished without the support of a major record label or commercial radio play. Today, the surprisingly laid back Zwart, looks back on the journey with a touch of philosophy, a good dose of humor and an eagerness to get back on the road.
“I hate to think of what a mess it would have been if we had taken off right away,” Zwart chuckles, shakes his head and then continues on a more serious note. “I wish we'd had a label to help carry a little water, that would have been nice. But as it turned out, without a record label in the middle we get all the revenue.”
Zwart's comments point toward what is perhaps the single greatest reason for the bands success – an innate ability to turn obstacles into opportunites. And there is no better example than the tale of how Zwart ended up as the lead singer. “Startng out, I just wanted to play guitar and do some harmonies,” Zwart says, but the universe had other plans. After a few disappointng, albeit entertaining attempts to secure a lead singer, one of whom went to Burger King in the early hours of the morning only to return with what turned out to be a 20- ounce cup of Jack Daniels, Zwart thought he had found the perfect frontman to take the lead, in the voice of James Dane. “He had a ferocious voice,” Zwarte says. “and I was writing the song specifcally to match his voice.” Much to Zwart's dismay, Dane was too preoccupied with one of his preferred pastimes to worry about learning a new song.
“We were at a bar in Illinois; your typical dumpy bar that bands play in when you're first startng out,” Zwart recalls. “I was back stage putting on strings and working on the song while James was out front getting hammered on 151 Bacardi with the owner, who must have been 80 years-old.”
“Now he's bombed and I'm writing the lyrics to match his voice,” Zwart says. with a tinge of regret. “I'd stll love to hear that version one of these days of him singing it the way it was intended.”
After more attempts to talk Dane into learning the tune, Zwart caved and performed the song himself. The song titled, Lucy, became a mega-hit that boasts more downloads today than when it was originally released over 20 years ago.
“Lucy” wasn't the only winner on that first album – the single, “Easy Street,” had legendary sound engineer, Glen Kolotkin high-fiving others in the sound booth claiming, “We've got another hit!”
And for a time, there was every reason to believe he was right. “The album took off and I was blown away,” Zwart says. “I'm going to the post office every week picking up good size checks and calls were coming in from California saying we were a phenom.”
In fact, there were only two other groups in the region outselling RZB at the time and one of them was Metallica. The rest of the nation was following suit with a wave of sales swelling across the United States. Surely, Zwart thought, they were on the cusp of being picked up by a major record label and he was right . . . almost.
Marc Allen arranged for Jason Flom of Atlantc Records to catch an RZB showcase in Kansas City. Through out his tenure with Atlantc, Flom had signed such colossal acts as Twisted Sister, Stone Temple Pilots, and Hoote and the Blowfsh. Needless to say, Zwart was more than a little stoked at the opportunity to strut their stuff for the legendary star maker. Once again, the fate of RZB took an odd twist when Flom literally fell asleep during the show.
“Part of me thought there goes everything right there because Flom is really good at what he does,” Zwart recalls. “But then I thought well, let's keep going.” Keep going they did, and that tenacity has paid off to the tune of hundreds of thousands of downloads in what has proved to be a platinum run.
“The sales kept going and the bookings kept coming,” Zwart says. “Now looking back, it might have been the best blessing ever, because I want to keep everything I have now and I can't imagine what it'd be like if we went down that other road.”
That other road took them through more American countryside than an odometer can register, ultmately landing them in the midst of one of the largest, wildest, rowdiest venues a rock band can hope to play – the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Heading into its 75th year, Sturgis is one of the largest bike rallies in the U.S., attracting nearly half-a-million visitors each summer to the small South Dakota town. Today, RZB is a household name among the throngs of Sturgis attendees who turn out to see their annual show. But it was a poignant letter, from the grieving mother of a deceased fan that cemented the band's bond with Sturgis and led them to one of their biggest hits, the song of the same name. “We were booked to play the Bufalo Chip so we arranged to meet the family while we were in town,” Zwart says. “They were there with the two younger sons that survived their brother – it was all very emotonal. I thought 'wow' this is heavy-duty.”
To his amazement, the boy's mother said the family would be honored if Zwart rode her deceased son's Harley while in Sturgis. Deeply touched, Zwart happily took the family up on their offer and set out for a cruise before taking the stage. Yet again, the road took an unexpected twist.
“We were on our way to sound check when the back tire blows out on the state highway in Sturgis and I'm stuck there waiting for them to bring the pick-up so we can load the bike up,” Zwart says, describing the mishap that left him with just enough time on his hands to write a future hit. “I'm standing in the ditch with a guy whose name really is Frenchmen, and I wrote the song right there on the spot and played the rough version on the stage at the Buffalo Chip. The rest is history.” History making, indeed. Released on the band's third album, the song Sturgis, was later adopted by the town's chamber of commerce as their official theme song and it is currently crowding in on 200,000 plays worldwide. A music video featuring the song can be found on the official Sturgis Motorcycle Rally web page at http://www.sturgismotorcyclerally.com/.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Zwart seems to thrive on pushing the envelope and seeing where it takes him. The recent release of his latest CD, Lucky Number 13, has the fifth child in a family of 13 siblings, countng on having fate on his side this time. Early feedback from commercial radio statons who once greeted him with closed doors is an encouraging move in the right directon. It's a far cry from the early days when Djs more often than not, said they'd be freed if they played indy music such as Zwart's. “We're in the midst of the radio tour to promote Lucky Number 13 and we're batting a thousand,” Zwart says. “Every station we appear on has added American Roads to their playlists.”
Considering that American Roads is currently shooting across the iTunes download charts like an Indian motorcycle flying across the salt fats, Zwart has good reason to be optmistc. These days, he takes great pleasure in quoting Omaha's Crash Davis with KMOO-101.9FM as saying, “American Roads has a hook you can hang a moose head on.” More lessons are in store for those who follow Zwart's current radio tour. He plans to take cameras along so fans and music hopefuls can get a backstage pass to the ins and outs of the music biz.
“I want these guys who write incredible songs and don't have a leg up yet to see how it all goes down,” Zwart explains. “All a radio staton has to do is just tell me the song sucks and I'll be out of their hair. But if they really like the songs, then tell me how it works.”
While he applauds the ability of technology to reach an infinite number of listeners, Zwart knows that the best way to really reach out and grab hold of one's fan base is to hit the road and hop on stage. It's a tenant to which legions of concert goers will attest. Heading toward more decades of live performances than Zwart wishes to count, RZB contnues to pack the house with their foot-stomping, whiskey swigging, asphalt burning brand of classic rock. As a result, they boast an ever-growing entourage of loyal fans. And Randall Zwart will tell you, that is what success really means.
“You know there's fans and then there are really, really big fans who become friends,” Zwart says. “I think we have the most fans who are friends of any band in the world and that's the best thing we've gotten out of the deal.”
As for the continued business success of the Randall Zwarte' Band, their founder and lead singer is puting his money on the wisdom of Mark Allen, former manager to Tommy James and the Shondelles.
“Allen said, 'you can't stop a hit,” Zwart says. “I've been countng on him to be right and so far, I think he is.”