Guitarist Steve Kimock and drummer Greg Anton formed Zero in the early ‘80s after playing together in Keith and Donna Godchaux’s Heart of Gold Band—a group that performed only one show before former Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux tragically died in a car accident. After recruiting a stacked lineup of some of the Bay Area’s most revered instrumentalists, including Nicky Hopkins (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who), Vince Welnick (The Tubes, Grateful Dead), John Kahn (Jerry Garcia Band), Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship), Bobby Vega (Santana), John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), and Martin Fierro (Quicksilver Messenger Service, Legion Of Mary) among others, Zero earned notoriety among San Francisco’s tastemakers with their improvisation-heavy performances and psychedelic takes on popular songs, helping to lay the foundation for the modern jam band scene.
For the first time in over ten years, the elusive Bay Area jam legends have released a new album, out now via Omnivore Recordings, along with a set of tour dates. Entitled Naught Again, the album features an iconic performance recorded at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in 1992. A set from the same run of shows was released in 1994 on the album Chance In a Million, and now, 30 years after the original sessions, this previously unheard recording, which includes covers of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and more, has been newly mixed by Emmy®-nominated engineer Brian Risner from the original multi-track tapes recorded by Dan Healy and Don Pearson (Grateful Dead).
The recording captures a pivotal moment in Zero’s history when the band began adding lyrics to their songs after years of playing as a purely instrumental ensemble. Known for attracting the best of the best players in the Bay Area, they called upon Grateful Dead lyricist and Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer Robert Hunter to pen lyrics and invited powerhouse vocalist Judge Murphy to sing them.
We called Steve Kimock to get his perspective on the album and the band’s early days. We caught him just as he received the newly minted CDs. [Note: Transcript has been edited for length and clarity.]
Steve Kimock: You know what, I just got the box of CDs in the mail and I haven’t even seen them yet. Obviously I’ve heard it, but I haven’t seen the thing. Here it is right here.
L4LM: That’s exciting! It’ll probably actually be my first CD in a long time.
Steve Kimock: [Laughs] Yeah, I know. I got two boxes of CDs and I was like, “Oh Jesus, what’s next, wax cylinders or something?”
L4LM: It is coming out on vinyl too, right, in October?
Steve Kimock: Yeah. Thank God. Vinyl on some level kind of saved my life during the pandemic. With no way to kind of scratch the performance itch and the logistical itch of gigging, which I’ve done constantly since I was super young, I filled that time listening, you know, and to have the vinyl, as crap as my record player is, is just great.
L4LM: That’s awesome. I gotta ask what you’ve been listening to.
Steve Kimock: Oh, man. Well, you know what I have on vinyl that are family favorite records, but that for some reason I didn’t have on my iTunes was the first couple of John Prine records, which are fantastic. Fantastic songwriting, production, and the band, you know. The stuff is evergreen. If you’re not familiar, you should go back and listen. What’s that first one, I think it’s just called John Prine. He’s sitting on a bale of hay. But it’s funny, a lot of the vinyl is either, well it makes sense, it’s all like ’50s, ’60s, early ’70s jazz and country music of all things—country and folk music. I still have all that on vinyl. Roy Acuff.
L4LM: I don’t know him well.
Steve Kimock: You’re not familiar with Roy Acuff?
L4LM: No, not really.
Steve Kimock: Well, there’s a style of dobro and steel playing that everybody does, up to a point, where they play the lick on the top two strings—they call it ting-a-ling—and the guy that played with Roy Acuff, Bashful Brother Oswald, he’s one of the cats that popularized that style on dobro. So it’s like all of that stuff kind of came from him, you know, on some level.
L4LM: Very cool. I’ll have to check that out for sure. I want to ask you some questions about the new release you have coming up. …These are some pretty legendary shows you’re releasing, or one show that you’re releasing, and I’m curious, all these years later—it’s been almost 30 years since you played them—what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you remember this run of shows?
Steve Kimock: I think my most enduring memory of it is the room itself—Great American Music Hall—because, I mean, I know we had played there before as Zero and I played there with other bands here and there, but that was early enough that we hadn’t done a lot. I think by the time I moved away from San Francisco, I played American Music Hall a hundred times or something like that. I played there a lot, but this was an early show there. And it was a big deal to us that we were in there. I think that’s what I was thinking, you know. As opposed to being at one of the smaller rooms in San Francisco, we thought that was a big deal.
So that was probably the biggest thing, just remembering the room. When you’re standing on that stage, it’s very ornate and there’s these gold balcony things going all the way around. It’s really cool. So I remember that. And then after that, I remember the giant recording setup that they somehow got into some room in the basement, one of the dressing rooms, and the enormous console and all this stuff, and seeing a bunch of the Grateful Dead guys doing that. Yeah, that was super cool, you know, and then the musicians too, but when I think back about it, I think of looking into that room and going, “Wow, this is cool!”
L4LM: This was around the same time that you started adding lyrics to your songs, right?
Steve Kimock: [Laughs] Yeah. “Singer wanted for instrumental band.”
L4LM: Yeah, exactly. I wanted to ask about that transition. Was that a conversation you had as a band? Did you really advertise it like that?
Steve Kimock: No, no, no. It wasn’t a conversation we had as a band. It was a conversation that Greg, the drummer Greg Anton, and Robert Hunter had at a party. And I think Hunter said something like, “You guys ever think of having some songs with words?” [Laughs] You know, cause we just, we didn’t. I mean, at some point somebody must have stepped up to a microphone and said something, but for the most part, we just played, you know, like some kind of prototype jam band kind of setup.
And Greg says, “Yeah, how about some words?” and that was it. He gave us a couple of tunes and then he came out to the ranch, this little forest barn where we rehearsed, and kind of quizzed us for ideas, for direction for lyrics. And we gave him some ideas and then it just went back and forth, and I enjoyed it. I still do because I like songs and I like singers and I like playing behind a singer, and I like the whole craft aspect of pop music, which is an entirely different thing.
I mean, it’s almost the exact opposite thing of figuring out how to get yourself into shape to improvise freely as an ensemble. They’re just completely different disciplines or pursuits, you know? You’re just going off in different directions. With songwriting, we could spend hours or days or weeks or even a year working on something and then wind up with three minutes of music that we thought was cool. As opposed to figuring out what to listen to or how to model yourself or get your gear working or what kind of chops you need to get up there with a blank canvas and turn it into 15 minutes of playing that isn’t just awful. They’re different trips. So I dug the songwriting as a craft.
L4LM: I was gonna ask if Robert Hunter kind of came into the picture and inspired you to add lyrics or if it was the other way around, with you intentionally seeking him out, but it seems from what you’re saying that he kind of helped inspire that decision, right?
Steve Kimock: Oh, yeah. I don’t think at any point we were going, “We need a singer.” [Laughs] We didn’t have that kind of song. We didn’t care, you know? We were literally just taking a little bit of this song and a little bit of that song and mashing them up and playing them. It had very little to do with writing songs with words or thinking you could get a song on the radio, which was something that you would still think about back then. I remember it was around that time in my life we were all so impressed with Fleetwood Mac because they made this record at the Record Plant in Sausalito and they were like right there in town—“You Make Loving Fun” and “Rhiannon” and stuff like that. When that stuff came on the radio, it was just like, “Wow, how could they write such good songs?”
L4LM: Speaking of radio appeal, I was gonna ask if you experienced any changes in the audience or the commercial appeal of the music after adding lyrics.
Steve Kimock: Well, I mean, commercially, not really. In terms of selling music, we weren’t all of a sudden like, “Hey, we had a big hit,” because we didn’t have a big hit. We didn’t have anything. We made some records, or whatever we were making back then, CDs or cassette tapes or something like that. We were basically handing them out as promo material, and I’m sure we sold a couple, but you know, it was nothing to write home about. But it could not have hurt the attendance to just have another handle on the band or on the trip, you know? And so I think people dug it and we were kind of lucky in retrospect to get the singer that we got, that guy Judge who’s since passed away, so RIP Judge Murphy.
Against all odds, that guy could stand in front of a rock band when we were really throwing down. We were just shamelessly loud and just sort of brash and energetic. It wasn’t a super delicate kind of a trip, you know? We played hard and we played loud and he could get up in front of the band like that and just deliver. He did great. It would’ve been different if we’d gotten a singer who had been more shy ’cause it would’ve influenced the band to be less pushy. And I think the fact that we were no less pushy with the singer than without really helped, you know what I mean? We didn’t feel like we had to adjust really. We just kept playing.
L4LM: I was actually gonna ask about Judge Murphy too. How did he end up playing with you guys?
Steve Kimock: Oh man. Nobody knows the answer to any of these questions. [Laughs] You know what I mean? At the time we had this horse barn. The first time I saw it there was horse sh–t three feet high, and me and Johnny [Morgan Kimock]‘s mom shoveled it out to get the rehearsal thing started. It was like a gang clubhouse kind of thing, and, you know, it was California. We were just playing our guitars and rolling joints, and people would come in and out constantly, all kinds of people, and I mean, some really remarkable singers and players, and just people showing up from other countries, and it was just great. It was just like this little hub of activity, but I don’t think anybody was paying particular attention to, “Oh yeah, we tried to get this guy.” He just finally showed up on Christmas Eve. You can make up your own story about that. It would be just as good or true as anything I can say.
L4LM: I was gonna ask the same question about Robert Hunter. Was he kind of around the band before you started working together?
Steve Kimock: I’ll give it to you from my perspective, and that won’t be exactly the same as anybody else’s perspective. But one of the unique things about being in California at that time where we were, in Marin and Sonoma Counties—my entire life there happened to the west of 101—it was all just rural, you know, sheep ranches, cattle ranches, pot farms, hippies in the woods kind of thing, “proud to be a hippie from Olema” kind of vibe, and that’s where those guys were. I’d save my money to get $10 and somehow survive through the month enough to save money for a set of strings, and I’d walk to the music store down in Miracle Mile to get my set of strings and it’d be pouring rain and I’d be hitchhiking home in the rain with my set of strings in a little bag, and Phil Lesh picked me up and drove me back to Fairfax, you know, just like that.
It’s just, everybody was right there. You saw them going in and out of the deli, and the very first guy I met in California was Howard Danchick, who was doing the sound and engineering on that record. And at the time he was doing sound for Hot Tuna, so we were very impressed. We went around the corner to our neat place that we had gotten in Fairfax, California—this was with the Goodman Brothers, before Zero—there was a big truck painted up, like with that psychedelic worm thing, like the cover of the Hot Tuna record and there was Howard on his bicycle. So he’s been part of the trip for me since day one, but all those guys, the crew, the musicians, everybody was right there. So, you know, it wasn’t weird that we ran into these people or talked to them, and it wasn’t weird that they talked to us. It was just like, “Hey, how you doing?” And for whatever reason, that Grateful Dead trip, which I was not familiar with when I got there—
L4LM: Oh, really?
Steve Kimock: No, it just kind of dovetailed with the stuff that we were doing. And I met most of the significant tech and crew people right away, just hanging out, and then over two or three years, I met all the musicians. Yeah, it was neat, but that was what was going on back then in California. Even in the mid-to-late ’70s and into the early ’80s, but not much beyond that, it was super fertile. Just everybody was there playing music and crashing into each other. It was a great scene. So I was lucky, really lucky to be part of that. There was no need to go out of your way to try and run into people, whoever they were, they were right there.
L4LM: It sounds like a special time, and I’m sure it didn’t hurt being a great guitar player that everybody wanted to play with. Another question I had, and you kind of addressed this a little bit already, is about the band’s writing process. What was that like and how did it change once you started adding lyrics? Did you encounter any challenges when you started doing that?
Steve Kimock: Oh, yeah. I think the biggest challenge was our own naivete and lack of experience with songwriting. Honestly the biggest challenge was that we had this opportunity and, you know, we weren’t Lennon and McCartney [laughs] or Carole King or something like that. Like I just explained to you, we were a bunch of guys in a horse barn smoking joints. But we had the luxury of time and kind of a useful energy and endurance to work on this stuff. So it was one of those constant applications of torque kind of things. It would’ve been easier if we’d been better writers. It would’ve been easier if we were better musicians, you know? The challenges were just our own personal limitations, mostly.
L4LM: It must have been a challenge. Did you incorporate a lot of improvisation in your writing process, or did you tend to write songs on your own and then bring them to the band?
Steve Kimock: Oh, a little bit of both. You know some stuff I don’t—let me look at the record and see what’s on it. [Laughs] Let me see if there’s something on here that was strongly one way and something that was strongly another way. Let’s see. Well, I mean, not a single one of these songs was in anywhere close to recordable shape when we started it.
I know some people and I work with some people today who write a song and finish it, and that’s it. They know how long it is. They know what the sections are. There’s no ambiguity about it, you know? That wasn’t us. We would have some lyrics and maybe an idea for a melody or a little sketch, a couple of chords. A lot of this stuff was written by Greg on the piano. He would just sit down and bang out a couple of chords and then would try and look for melodies or phrases that would fit the little bit of chords we had with the words. But all of the stuff was developed by playing it. And the instrumental stuff definitely more so than the vocal stuff. All of the instrumental stuff took a lot of improvising, I think. Just a lot of playing it over, trying different stuff, and then you finally go, “Oh, that was cool.” And you keep that little bit. It’s like a process of elimination. You have more ideas than could all possibly be good, so you play 50 things and you use half of one of ’em, and that’s it.
L4LM: Right. And you released a recording of another show from the same run at Great American Music Hall back in 1994. Why are you releasing this show now after all that time? You said you used to use recordings as promo material, do you still think of it that way?
Steve Kimock: Oh no, I mean, how long was that first bunch of Music Hall stuff? There was one record, but we played for three nights and it was some great recording. And more than anything else, just from a personal level or a heart level, for surviving members of the band, hearing some of that stuff back with Martin [Fierro] playing the tenor sax, Judge singing, Nicky Hopkins, and John Kahn—all these people are great musicians and dear friends, and the loss of their friendship and musical influence in my life is something I feel every day—it was like this stuff’s great! The saxophone on this record is just extraordinary. It’s so good. It’s like, why are we sitting on this? It just seemed like a shame to let it sit. And so I think Riz [Brian Risner] just had the energy and the motivation to go in and say, “I’m gonna whip this into shape,” you know? It’s a lot of work.
L4LM: So then you just so happen to be going on tour soon too?
Steve Kimock: Well, no. I mean, yes and no. The two things are obviously related. It helps if you’re going out to play to have a story because then people can write about it. We’re talking about it now. So to the extent that the promotion raises some consciousness that this thing exists at all, then that’s good. Somebody will listen to the music and come to the show and go, “Oh, this is good.” And they’ll enjoy it on the level where they’re served, where their spirit is served, you know? It’s just good. Music is good for people, you know, and it connects. Like Bob Marley said, “you feel alright.” And we kind of need that these days.
L4LM: Who did the painting on the album cover?
Steve Kimock: Oh, my dear friend of many years Bill Krinard. We’ve been collaborating on electric guitar amplifiers for decades. He started a company that built amplifiers called Two Rock and he did that for a long time and still does it, but I think somebody else is taking care of most of the day-to-day. And so we’re still in touch. He did the cover for this really weird, I mean really weird solo record I did. It was this very naively psychedelic sound bath kind of record called Last Danger of Frost. And the cover of that is a Bill Krinard painting as well.
L4LM: Very cool. I’m not really familiar with that record, but I’ll definitely check it out after this.
Steve Kimock: If you were one of those people that as a young teen would literally go into the closet with the stereo speakers, press the side of your head to them, and listen to Pink Floyd, then you’ll appreciate it.
L4LM: [Laughs] Yeah, that sounds cool.
Steve Kimock: If you didn’t do that, you’ll go, “What is this?”
L4LM: I’m definitely intrigued. Is there any anything else that you want to share about the album that we won’t hear on the recording? Any stories we haven’t covered?
Steve Kimock: Oh, that’s a subject for an entirely different interview, you know? You could do hours on any one person in the band. It was such a crazy bunch of people. But you know, I think the big resonance in it for me emotionally is simply that that was then, and this is now, you know? And some part of who we all are needs to remember how things were ‘cause we’re in kind of a perilous place. And you know, maybe reminiscing doesn’t necessarily help, but the way things are in the world today, there’s lots of conflict, and there’s lots of troubled people in trouble, and I think music heals that. The community around live music particularly helps heal that. That kind of fellowship and stuff, and gathering. We haven’t had that. Politics is all screwed up, and there’s war. So we try to do something positive—anything. And it may be just getting together and remembering.
L4LM: I think that’s great. So two last questions about the future. First, do you think can we expect any more consistent touring from Zero moving forward?
Steve Kimock: Probably. [Laughs] Maybe. I don’t know. That’s a good question. That would certainly be nice. But it’s not entirely up to us. We gotta figure out a way to do it. Like I just said, it would be nice if we could figure out a way to do something, because I think at this point any little bit that anybody can do to create some good energy is probably a good idea. So let’s all do our best to try and make some good energy. It’s a question of whether the logistics, the cost [of] touring, the f–cking pandemic, and all the rest of it allow for us to do that.
I’m a musician. I’m 66 years old now and I’m gonna die with my boots on. I’m not gonna retire. I’m not gonna go home. I’m gonna keep playing ‘cause I don’t know how to do anything else. So I will be out there doing that in some fashion. It would be great if I could be out there doing it with Zero and if we get the support to do that and we’re lucky enough to be living in a world that allows it, then awesome. In the meantime I’m gonna keep trying.
L4LM: Yeah, I know you have a few tour dates already announced, but I think I saw you’re gonna announce some more soon. How extensive will the tour end up being?
Steve Kimock: Oh, well we’ll do what we can, you know? It’s not gonna be like B.B. King with 360 dates a year. We’ll get out seasonally, you know, for a bit here and there, and we’ll continue to look for suitable festivals or, you know, hippie high holy day dates that people tend to gather on to go out and do stuff.
But compared to where we were for many years, which is just completely idled, we’re being kind of pushy about it now, actually going out and getting some gigs.
L4LM: That’s awesome. …Maybe you already answered this, but what inspired you to get this band back together instead of doing another Kimock tour?
Steve Kimock: It’s just something that we spent so much time working on, you know? A lot of musical investment, and lots of investment of time into the thing, and all gladly given, but it seemed like a shame not to continue to play that stuff that we worked so hard on for so long, for so much of our lives. I mean, I dig it. I like doing it. I like the people, I like the music, I like the fans. I like the energy of it. It’s still really kind of in your face compared to a lot of stuff. It’s fun. So all of those reasons.
L4LM: Yeah. I mean, I can tell you from my perspective, it’s nice to have this album coming out as a preview or a flashback to ground me in Zero history.
Steve Kimock: You know, the funny part about it for me though is no matter how hard I try, if I had to actually recreate the performances that are on the record, like actually do it just exactly like that, even though it’s still me, I still got that same guitar, I got all the same stuff, but it’s different. [Laughs] You know what I mean? It’s just one of those things. It’s like you never step in the same river twice kind of thing. It’s always moving. It’s always different. There’s huge swaths of it that you can’t go back to, and then there’s huge swaths of it that are always with you. It’s neat. It’s just neat to have been with a project and to have the support of those friends and those people and that audience who are so on. It’s just nice.
L4LM: The last question I have is about you personally, not necessarily Zero. What plans do you have in the works that you’re excited about or that we can get excited about?
Steve Kimock: Oh, well, I’m going to get to do a bunch more of my own stuff. My own little rock idea, the Steve Kimock & Friends thing with my friend Billy. My friend Billy Goodman is coming back from Germany in just a couple weeks and we’re gonna get back out there and play some more—me and Billy and Johnny [Kimock] and Andy Hess on bass, and Jeff Kazee on keys, and whoever else we can pull into the thing. I hope to see Leslie [Mendelson] again. And I’ve been working on some really, really out there stuff that I’m going to make a record of just because it’s so out, but it’s also just very … I mean, left my own devices, man, my current thing is so far away from Western music or pop songwriting or anything like that. It’s unrecognizable, but it’s really cool! [Laughs] If you like that kind of stuff. It’s hard to explain, but yeah, I’ve got some ideas that’ll frighten the children for sure, so that’ll come out soon.
L4LM: Alright, I’ll definitely look forward to that.
Steve Kimock: Okay, good. It’ll be me and you, and that’s it. [Laughs]
Naught Again is now available on all streaming platforms and double CD. The double-vinyl edition will be released on September 2nd. On October 15th, Zero will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Chance In a Million sessions that produced the record with a show at The Fillmore in San Francisco. The band also has three upcoming shows at the end of July in Eugene, OR; Portland, OR; and Seattle, WA; with more to be announced soon. View a list of Zero tour dates and album details below. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the band’s website.
Zero – Naught Again
Zero 2022 Tour Dates:
July 28 – Seattle, WA @ Neptune Theatre
July 29 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater
July 30 – Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
October 15 – San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Naught Again Zero Band Lineup:
Steve Kimock – Guitar
Greg Anton – Drums
Martin Fierro – Tenor Saxophone
Judge Murphy – Vocals
Pete Sears – Organ, Piano, Backup Vocals
Nicky Hopkins – Piano
Vince Welnick – Piano, Vocals
John Kahn – Bass
Bobby Vega – Bass
Liam Hanrahan – Bass