Let The Green Zoo be your guide on The Adventures of Johnny Nihilist.
The Green Zoo CD Release Party - Friday, June 24
With special guests Red Hands Black Feet and The Western Mystics. Doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m., $15 (includes a copy and download of The Adventures of Johnny Nihilist). Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., facebook.com/vacuber. Get tickets atgreenzooreleaseparty.bpt.me.
Back in 2011, College of Idaho student Thomas Newby assembled a group of musicians to record an album he'd written for his senior project. He hadn't yet come up with a name for the project, though.
"I don't know about you... but names are the worst," Newby said. "It's like nothing's ever perfect."
Eventually, he found inspiration in "In the Green Zoo," a Polish song performed by Basia Bulat.
"It starts out as a sort of love song between these two lovers going to the zoo and checking out the monkeys," he said. "It's just kind of a nice, romantic love song, but at the end, the last lines are something like, 'It's great fun going to the zoo, but I'm not sure if we're here to watch the monkeys or the monkeys are watching us.'"
In Newby's mind, the uncertainty in those lyrics—as he put it, the question of "Which side of the bars are we on?"—suited his project, what would become The Green Zoo's first album, Crow Songs: An Auditory Exploration of Existential Themes (self-released, 2011). The song's balance of tenderness and pessimism also fits the band's sophomore effort, The Adventures of Johnny Nihilist (self-released, 2016), which The Green Zoo will celebrate with a release party on Friday, June 24 at Visual Arts Collective—local post-rock bands Red Hands Black Feet and The Western Mystics open the show.
The Adventures of Johnny Nihilist, which Northwest Music Scene praised for its "masterful use of a variety of musical styles and techniques," tells the story of an angry young intellectual who falls in love with a girl. He settles down and sheds some of his misanthropic tendencies but when she dies from unspecified reasons, he struggles to cope. The album ends with his resolve to carry on life in spite of his sorrow. This kind of a story could easily turn cloying or maudlin but the detail, restraint and wry humor of Newby's lyrics keep it grounded, as in "Coffee and Chamomile Tea": "Now I'm a whore / With a perfect credit score, / But the way she looks at me / Leaves me coming back for more."
Johnny Nihilist wouldn't be nearly as effective without the music, though. Newby, drummer Kieran Padilla, bassist Jeff Young, keyboardist Anthony Perry and guitarists Mike Ward and Ricardo Osuna shift effortlessly between somber ballads and intricate, thunderous rock. The deft musicianship and broad range of styles and moods would be enough to land the album on a list of this year's best local releases—coupled with the narrative, it would definitely be near the top.
Someone who knows Newby might see a little something of him in Johnny Nihilist's protagonist, "I was a pretty antisocial kid," he said. "I'm still relatively antisocial but better now."
An interest in theater at a young age helped Newby connect with his peers.
"People have to talk to you because you're putting on a production," he said. "And then you have to stand and say those lines in front of people, so it's like forced interaction."
Inspired by Samuel Beckett and other Theatre of the Absurd writers, Newby started writing his own plays. His songs share a sense of existential dread with Green Zoo Theatre productions like Child Killers (2015), which combines the stories of Abraham, Medea, real-life child murderer Susan Smith and a young office worker who discovers she's pregnant.
"I always thought I was going to do theater professionally in some form or another, which we sort of have," Newby said. "But the music is there. At this point, it's all kind of folding into each other, which I'm really excited about."
Newby's interests extend beyond music and theater. The Green Zoo's set at the release show will include a montage featuring Red Light Variety Show dancers Frankie McDonald and Aayla DuBois. He plans to film the show for a concert video and said The Green Zoo has other ideas in the hopper as well.
"One of the things we're working on right now is a podcast," he said. "A scripted, narrative, sitcom-style podcast that's got really trippy, surreal imagery. There's hipster robots and secret NAARP meetings where they decide how many women they're going to allow on TV this year."