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"My whole idea was, I want to kick this guy's ass," says singer Trevor Naud, smiling widely, his unkempt nest of hair shocked out like a Beethoven bust. Naud's talking about the early days with Daniel Clark, his musical soulmate and the guy he shares frontman duties with in Zoos of Berlin. At a spindly 6 feet, 2 inches, of metrosexual élan, Naud's beat-down idea is certainly figurative, if not telling. It's a small window into the competitive — borderline obsessive — partnership that has produced one of this city's most exotic exports.
Zoos of Berlin have been outclassing their Detroit peers for four years with a surreal, Krautrock-melted pop, and it has taken nearly that long for the rest of the country to notice. The name, possibly referencing animals roaming city streets after Germany's largest zoo was bombed to bits in World War II, also suggests Bowie and Iggy's art-rock Berlin period. The classic mid-'70s records that duo made there were fueled by a wild, antagonistic relationship, similar to Naud and Clark's creative friction and restless experimentalism.
The two Zoos have been making music together almost inseparably for nearly a decade, tailoring it to their madcap, art-damaged dreams; dreams that long ago began to form in a single thought-bubble that popped jointly from their uncombed heads. They talk of each other as if they're brothers, in the creative sense, and tell you it's really the tension beneath the surface — that Bowie-Pop thing — that drives their skewed, hook-rife rock.
"Really competitive, but super friendly and loving," is how Naud frames the struggle.
Clark is more dramatic: "Trevor makes music sometimes that just crushes me. I'll hear something that he's done and I will be distraught. I'll think, damn, there's no way I can top that bastard. This is a disaster. And I'll try my damnedest to come up with something that will inspire fear and dread in him as well."
The thing is, Clark's barely kidding. You can hear it in his voice. He sounds like an Ivy League professor, soft and with a lilting Old World formality that inflates with feeling when the subject comes up of Hidden Ghost Balloon Ship, Naud's recent solo side project. Naud made the record during an intense depression, but kept it from Clark, fearing his reaction. When Clark describes the night Naud finally confessed, after some heavy drinking, his voice pinches up, quavering like it's his wife who had cheated on him. He was "devastated" he says, partly because of the secrecy, but mostly from an artistic place, that weird mix of awe and creative envy that has propelled the duo all these years.
The story of how they became musical co-dependents and rivals is full of the same kind of eccentric, hot-blooded details as their music. It starts in the summer of 1999 with Naud working at a deli on the Mack Avenue border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe, the neighborhood where he and Clark grew up. Clark would stop in every afternoon for a two-liter of Coke and heard that Naud, the kid doing bottle returns, was into his kind of "weird" music.
"I start immediately grilling him," Clark says. "No preliminaries. Just, 'Name three Guided by Voices records. Give me the track list from Alien Lanes.' And he nailed it."
Later, when Naud got off work he knew Clark would be waiting.
"He'd be sitting in the parking lot in his minivan, smoking cigarettes, just drinking his two-liter of Coke," Naud says. "I loved it. I thought it was cool that there was this guy who grew up blocks from me, and we're into the same things and never knew each other."
Naud was playing in the band Red Shirt Brigade with brothers Ryan and Scott Allen. Their bass player had just quit so they asked Clark, who was going through something of a personal crisis of his own, to step in. "Dan came into the band like, 'This band's going to save me,'" Naud says. "He really poured his heart into it."
When Red Shirt Brigade imploded, the Allens ratcheted up the energy, forming the hyper-dancepunk Thunderbirds Are Now! But Naud and Clark were after something quieter, more considered. They began tinkering in their home studio, making multiple albums' worth of symphonic lo-fi collage and ambient soundscapes under the name South South Million.
But hardly any of that music ever came out, which is a frustrating hallmark of the Naud-Clark partnership. So why, in nearly eight years of feverish collaboration, haven't they delivered a finished album? It's mainly because they have ridiculously tough standards and they get bored (artistically) easily, often chasing a new idea before an existing one is fully realized.
"I think that we both set the bar very high," Naud says. "And sometimes I think it's unrealistic to try and get what we're trying to get."
When the two began rehearsing with drummer Collin Dupuis in late 2003 — an embryonic version of Zoos of Berlin — it wasn't just about getting out of the basement and back onto the stage; they thought new blood might help loosen the productive stranglehold.
Though Zoos of Berlin began as Naud and Clark's pensive, Eno-worshipping lovechild, the group has since flared into a real band. A big, beast of band, actually — a five-headed musical Hydra, bloated with ideas, with a sound pulling in myriad directions. Like an indie-rock think-tank, the brainy, accomplished multi-instrumentalists in Zoos of Berlin show a studious side that long ago gave way to a creatively rebellious streak. It's egg-headed and twee, but with a ballsy blast that manages to be noisy and cohesive. Imagine the Shins if they were more Bitches Brew than Pet Sounds.
Keyboardist Will Yates is the mutant of the group — he was born with perfect pitch, the musical equivalent of photographic memory. When he stepped in to replace original keyboardist Zach Curd years back, he nailed every twisted arpeggiation and mangled jazz chord in the band's repertoire, without batting an eye. Kevin Bayson's a bit of a freak too. His role has so far consisted of well-placed flashes of trumpet and guitar textures, but Naud says there isn't an instrument invented that Bayson couldn't play.
And then there's Dupuis. A powerful yet fluid drummer, he's also a studio rat eking out a career as a recording engineer and producer when not working as techno godhead Carl Craig's sidekick. Naud describes meeting Dupuis for the first time reverently, as if he were seeing Salvador Dalí resurrected. "Collin walked in with the Infinite Sweater. It's this black-and-white thing with llamas on it. And I was like, this guy is phenomenal. I didn't even need to see anything else. He just walked in with that sweater and I thought, this guy is in second territory. He's somewhere beyond."
Though the Zoos hive is a functioning democracy buzzing with ideas, their brainstorms can quickly lose focus.
"There aren't any quiet people in the band," Clark says, laughing in mock frustration. "You get all five of us talking and it just will not end."
And then there's that perfectionism problem. Zoos of Berlin played their first show in April, 2004 and, in the four years since, are only just getting around to releasing a short, albeit sprawling, three-song EP.
Plans for a full-length are under way; in fact, there's an embargo on new material while they get the 10 songs they've picked for release "as tight as James Brown."
Meanwhile, Naud and Clark continue to work out partnership kinks while leaving as much of the old rivalry intact as possible.
"The brilliant thing about it," Clark says, "is that we've managed to keep up this competition for so long without coming to despise one another."
Naud says they've survived any hurt feelings over his trips into more private musical territory. "I think that Dan and I are both realizing, through communication, that we need to be able to do what we need to do, but not lose track of what a good thing we have going on."
"Jealousy would be foolish," Clark says. "I just think that we're ideally suited for one another somehow. There's something about the music that he makes that cuts right to the quick of me. I feel like it was made just for me."
Zoos of Berlin - Wednesday, March 5 at New Dodge, 8850 Joseph Campau; 313-874-5963. With Novada, Blue Black Hours and Mick Bassett.
Daniel Johnson is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.