Jesse Descutner, a 2016 Pitt graduate, heard the environmental term “urban heat island” in an undergraduate urban studies class and immediately thought it would be a good name for his band.
In that same class, Descutner, a guitarist, met bassist Sean O’Connor, a 2017 Pitt graduate. The two started jamming together and were set on using the name Urban Heat Island for the band.
Weeks after Descutner and O’Connor started playing together, they collected a few more band members — such as 2016 grad and drummer Stephen Kraus and Dave Pirozzi, another guitarist. Jack Stauber, a senior at Pitt and a popular solo artist, soon joined the band as lead singer.
“Once all five of us started jamming together, and we realized this was actually a band, we all agreed that we should probably shorten the name,” Descutner said.
After weeks of tossing around name ideas, the band eventually decided on Zaki, which stems from the band members’ mutual love for the work of Japanese director, animator and author Hayao Miyazaki.
After performing at local house shows and small concert venues for about two years, Zaki released its very first album — a self-titled collection of seven original songs — to the group’s Spotify and Bandcamp pages Feb. 13.
The first track of the new album is titled “Nookrug” and begins with surf rock-inspired guitar chords — but when Stauber’s vocals come into play, the entire dynamic of the song changes. Stauber is a vocalist known for eccentricity and smooth slides between notes, which adds a peaceful, dreamy tone to the song.
One factor that sets Zaki apart from other rock bands is that most of the time, it’s quite difficult to understand the lyrics Stauber sings. Oddly enough, that’s how the band likes it.
“Lyrics? We don’t know the lyrics,” Kraus said.
His fellow instrumentalists laughed in agreement. Stauber has an unusual — albeit very artistic — way of pulling a song together with his lyrics and voice, and it still stuns his bandmates.
“Jack’s an anomaly,” Descutner said. “He’s just his own essence, we kind of just let him be when it comes to lyrics.”
Constructing a song like “Nookrug” usually starts with the instrumentalists forming “jams” — as the group calls them — and then bringing the tunes to Stauber.
“Songwriting mostly just happens with us saying ‘We brought you this song, can you write lyrics to it?’ and then Jack sprinkles genius on it,” O’Connor said.
The result is a genre of music difficult for the band members to define. The members of Zaki all came into the band with different influences and styles of playing, and Descutner said this shows through in the group’s music.
Each musician brings a different sound element to the band. As drummer, Kraus said he brings “speedy, franticness and syncopation” to the music, creating a driving force. O’Connor brings basslines formed by mixing the sounds of alternative rock powerhouse bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and indie-pop artists like Two Door Cinema Club.
Stauber adds to this mix by providing vocals that remind his fellow bandmates of artists like The Cure. Descutner says that as a guitarist, he is not afraid to use distortion similar to indie rock groups like Real Estate, one of his favorite bands — while fellow guitarist Pirozzi looks to Mac DeMarco for inspiration.
“When people ask what our genre is, we can come to the conclusion that it is kind of like post-punk, but dancier,” he said. “It’s not very dark, it’s definitely got an upbeat nature to it. It’s not full-fledged punk, it gets melodic sometimes.”
O’Connor agreed, comparing the music of Zaki to some of the vastly different, much less uplifting music he enjoys listening to.
“I love sad music, Jesse and I both do, but Zaki songs get me pumped up,” he said.
Fans of Zaki will have experienced this upbeat, dancy punk at one of the group’s many shows in the Pittsburgh area recently. Zaki often plays venues popular with Pitt students, such as The Bushnel, but it is also no stranger to the Mr. Roboto Project and Mr. Small’s Theatre, both of which are popular with local and national acts alike.
Prior to the release of its new album, the band has booked shows at bars like Howlers Coyote Cafe and Brillobox. Because Stauber is native to the Erie area of northwestern Pennsylvania, Zaki has also had the chance to play shows in that part of the state.
“The Bushnel has kind of become our home base,” Descutner said. “We had our album release show there, and it was packed. We’re also playing Pittfest there in a few weeks, that’s going to be fun.”
The Pittfest event at the Bushnel will be a weekend-long concert beginning Thursday, March 29, featuring dozens of bands with Pitt-related members. Zaki will perform in the early evening Saturday, March 31, along with a solo performance from Stauber. Zaki’s Dave Pirozzi will also perform with another band he plays with, Pinstripe Sunny. The event costs $5 at the door and features other performers, including popular bands on campus like Soda Club, Surf Bored and Short Fictions.
O’Connor and the rest of the band said the group look forward to playing Pittfest, mostly because playing with Zaki creates moments of joy for them.
“I’ve been told that I look like I’m having fun when I play with Zaki,” he said between laughs with his bandmates. “Dave says when he performs with Pinstripe, he’s very focused and doing his thing, but when he’s playing with Zaki, his eyes roll into the back of his head and he just starts flying around.”