Photos © Tyler D. Griffis Photography, 2009
Article by Jeremy Benson
On Halloween night, the crowd at White's Bar could tell by mere looks that the Tosspints meant business: literally in the case of guitarist Don Zuzula, who dressed as a white collar Viking, while John Johnson kept the drum set holy enough in his nun's habit, and Zak Zuzula, bassist, received plenty of handshakes and nostalgic stares for his vintage Ghostbuster proton pack. The band opened its performance with a sustained chord and a shout to the crowd—a cymbal crashed, and they were off!, barreling into their 45-minute set with all the kinetic energy Newton's laws of motion allow for a three-piece Celtic punk rock band. From there, the momentum only amplified. "We use our music like a hammer," says Don. "You don’t have time to stop to take a breath."
The escalating energy of a Tosspints show mimics the band's overall trajectory, from their beginnings as a standard bar band playing covers for beers, to the present, as they prepare their first full-length—and completely original—studio release, 11 Empty Bottles.
The trio, composed of brothers Don and Zak Zuzula and family friend John Johnson, have a wealth of experience, having previously played in punk bands together, as well as in outside projects. Don got his start entertaining in coffee shops before playing bass and guitar in a variety of punk bands. John, a food supply distributor by day and disc jockey by night, plays in local potty-punk band Beer Softened Stool with his son Tyler, and regularly lends his 41 years of precision timekeeping to jazz outfits. While Zak, in addition to teaching and adjusting to recently-attained fatherhood, has played bass for metal and punk bands, including Untamed Addiction, and once accompanied a country ensemble, which he calls "the worst few months of [his] life."
They formed the Tosspints in 2007 when Don returned to Michigan after five years of military assignment in Texas. There, along San Antonio's Riverwalk, Don frequented Waxy O'Connors pub, where guitarist Joe Walmsley entertained guests with Irish pastorals and Scottish pub tunes. Don, whom bandmates say can teach himself to play a new instrument in an hour, quickly learned the songs, and Walmsley invited him to strum along. "I ended up being his back-up act when he couldn’t make it to work." It was his first chance performing Celtic folk, although his interest in the genre first piqued in the 90s, when he saw Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys at Warped Tour. From there he sought out more traditional Irish music, which supplemented an early familial crash course in folk music—the Zuzulas' Scottish grandmother played accordion. "It was something I listened to before and I knew. I got an opportunity to do it live, and it was more fun than anything I've ever done." He recalls phoning Zak and John from Texas: "I called them, and I said, 'I'm really liking what I'm doing right now, and I want to keep doing this when I come back.'"
Went Back to What They Already Knew
Their first attempt as an acoustic Irish threesome fell more than a little flat. "It turns out I'm a terrible acoustic musician," Don admits. "We were going to have two guitarists and a percussionist, but [Zak] can't play guitar at all." He adds that John had trouble getting comfortable with the right drum kit. "He couldn't play that thing worth a damn … so we just went back to what we already knew." Don plugged in his guitar, Zak returned to the electric bass, and John assembled a street punk drum set. They started playing the pub-punk style of Ireland's original bad boys, Shane Mcgowan and the Pogues—"Tosspint" is the name of a Pogues' song—dropping "the flutes and lutes" known to accompany standard Celtic music and adding their own sense of American rebellion. "You have to find where you belong," says Don, "and that's what happened with this." They had found their groove.
In the last year, however, two events further solidified the group's identity and catalyzed major philosophical changes in how the band writes and performs. During a shared show with the Goddamn Gallows in Lansing last winter, the Tosspints sat slack-jawed at the Gallows's polished and energized performance: "They just played," says Don. "They had a set list, and they just played for 45 minutes." The band talked little and allowed limited downtime between songs—if a guitar had to be tuned, there was still music playing. "We went home and said, 'That's what we have to do … If you want [respect], you have to earn it, and we can earn it like that.'"
A Gogol Bordello show in June 2009 left a similar impression on the Tosspints, who wrote on their Myspace Music page, "Yesterday I witnessed a musical act that helped me transcend onto a higher level of consciousness." Gogol Bordello, a 9-piece gypsy-rock performance band hailing primarily from Eastern Europe, played for a continuous hour and a half, followed by a 45-minute encore. The entire concert flowed together, with individual songs coexisting as a single cinematic musical experience. While others around him danced and sang along, Don stood silent, tunnel-visioned to his epiphany while absorbing the theatrics on stage: "Watching someone in a similar genre do this, it was just shock-and-awe. I was elated." Soon afterward, the Tosspints revamped their stage presence, restructuring their set list and committing themselves to give their audience a high-energy show.
Committed to a High-Energy Show
Don says that's also when they began concentrating on writing. "We had a couple songs of our own, but that's when we phased out all the traditional stuff … We're going to do our own material, and we're going to chain it in a way that it all flows together." The Tosspints are now putting the finishing touches on 11 Empty Bottles, their first full-length album, containing 14 original songs recorded at Detroit music man John Reece's studio. The band wrote the album collectively, in its unique writing style: one member writes lyrics and suggests chords for a song, then passes this to another member, who interprets the music for himself. Decisions are made at rehearsals, when they bring together their individual interpretations and figure out what fits the song. Though not every song made the cut for the record, Don says he personally writes about "15 songs for every one song that makes it into the band. We all have this ratio. I crank out a lot of songs. So does Zak. But a lot of them don’t fit." The album will be released December 4 and 5 at back-to-back twin shows—the official release party on Friday at the Hamilton Street Pub in Saginaw, and a Saturday night street punk revue at Bemo's in Bay City, both with special guests the Waxies and the Hexbombs.
These are two events among many upcoming gigs for the Tosspints, who like to perform beyond the Tri-Cities as much as they like playing to audiences at White's Bar or the Hamilton Street Pub. Fans won't find them playing in Saginaw every night, or even weekly, as they prefer their act to remain fresh for local fans—when they book a local show, they like to bring in bands from out of town, so fans and bands alike will gain broader exposure. However, they can be found at Firkin and Fox in Burton on the first Thursday of every month, usually playing out their three-hour set of both traditional and original songs. More information on upcoming shows can be found on Myspace at http://www.myspace.com/thetosspints, where you can also hear music from their demo tape and 7-song EP Blood, Sweat, and Beards—both available, with other merchandise, at any Tosspints appearance.
© Jeremy Benson, 2009