Just four years ago, Zebrahead’s future was so dubious that editors of their hometown newspaper couldn’t decide whether to refer to them in the past or present tense. Big things had been predicted for California’s punk-hip-hop fusioneers since their debut Columbia records release, 1998’s Waste of Mind, but it turned out to be a commercial disappointment. Then came the highly publicized Playboy mansion shenanigans of 2000’s Playmate of the Year, which didn’t quite yield the expected dividends, either—its biggest claim to fame being having anchored the soundtrack to Dude, Where’s My Car? That same year, Iran-born co-vocalist Ali Tabatabaee was diagnosed with lymphoma and began a rigorous course of treatment.

The blows didn’t stop there. Just as Zebrahead retooled their energies into the lean, focused aura of 2003’s MFZB—an album that garnered a sheaf of positive reviews and more forecasts of great things to come—co-founding vocalist/guitarist Justin Mauriello bolted the band shortly after completing their Japanese tour. While Mauriello would eventually resurface fronting his own band, I Hate Kate, Zebrahead rolled the dice to welcome Nebraska-born Matty Lewis, former frontman of popular Midwest punk-pop outfit Jank 1000, to their ranks just three months after Mauriello’s departure.
Founded in the mid-’90s by members of four other Orange County-based bands who shared space in the same rehearsal facility, Mauriello, bassist Ben Osmundson, guitarist Greg Bergdorf, and drummer Ed Udhus initially bonded over their interest in musical experimentation—and eventual Zebrahead influences like Fugazi and the Descendents—along with a mutually shared distaste for the ska-punk sound that dominated so many OC bands of the era. With an ear towards fusing punk energy and potent hip-hop rhythms, it wasn’t long before the band beckoned Ali Tabatabaee to join their ranks. A former high school friend-turned-rapper from La Habra, California, Ali may have been born in Tehran, but now counted NWA, System of a Down, and A Tribe Called Quest among his musical influences.

Zebrahead's Ali Tabatabaee

Flash forward to 2006. When Zebrahead released their first album with Lewis, Broadcast to the World, early that year, it not only breathed new life into a band so often on the ropes, but gratifyingly reversed their downturn precisely where it began—earning the band gold record status in Japan in just a month’s time. The band built on that success as they rolled through the U.K. and Europe that year and next, becoming a popular fixture on the Warped tour stateside as well.

None of that renewal has been an accident according to Zebrahead’s co-frontmen, Lewis and Tabatabaee. “We worked on that album much harder than we had on previous ones,” Ali admitted during a break from their 2007 European dates. “We were all enthusiastic, with all of us involved in the songwriting. Each of our experiences and ideas flowed into the songwriting, which makes the end result more exciting and varied.”

Lewis echoes Ali’s sentiments, expressing a disdain for musical pigeonholing that had been a fixture of the band since long before his tenure: “There was a notion that we’re a rap-rock band, like the Beastie Boys. But calling us that is an exaggeration. As [Ali] said, we mix musical styles up so that there’s actually no clear division for us. Additionally, everyone in the band has their own personal musical tastes?our guitarist Greg loves Van Halen, for example, while Ed and Ben listen to punk rock. So the songs get processed through each of our individual tastes.”

Between a typically busy domestic and international tour schedule, Zebrahead have been working on their studio follow-up to Broadcast to the World since March, with release now tentatively scheduled for Spring 2008.