Say Zuzu proves a hit in Italy

Cliff Murphy, December 1997

By Cliff MurphySay Zuzu is a New Hampshire based band playing rootsy, alt. country music. While not exactly a household name in its own country, the group developed a following in the country hotbed of Europe, Italy Guitarist Cliff Murphy wrote about the '97 Say Zuzu Italian tour in November.

We've got no record label, but have sold several thousand CDs in the US since 1993, playing mostly in New England, though we tour as far south as Alabama.

Until recently, I'd never been much of anywhere outside of the U.S. Montreal, Toronto, and a small Mexican bordertown (when I was 12) made up my list of foriegn places.

In February, the band had something really strange happen to us. We achieved success.

In Italy.

It really happened as a matter of coincidence - our 1995 CD "Highway Signs & Driving Songs" ended up in the hands of an Italian rock magazine editor (Paolo Caru of Buscadero magazine, out of Milan), who became a huge fan, and the rest is history. He gave us huge press for both "Highway Signs & Driving Songs and our new CD "Take These Turns."

In the span of five months, we sold about 3,000 CDs in Italy. We began to have visions of David Hasslehoff and Jerry Lewis. In June, we were contacted by an Italian promoter who wanted to book us for a 9-12 date tour of Italy, in venues ranging from 100-500 seats.

On Nov. 13, we boarded the plane at Boston's Logan Airport, and were off to Italy. We arrived at Malpensa airport in Milan on Friday morning, and it was only when I needed to find a restroom that I realized I knew absolutely no Italian at all.

From the start, the trip was incredible. Our first show was in a town called Canzo, on Lake Como, where the ancient Roman poets used to go to relax and write. It's on the edge of the Alps. Very nice place. Elton John has a house near there. From our hotel room, I could see my very own alp.

Our promotor, Carlo, ordered dinner for us."What did you order for us?"

"Don't ask. Just eat. It is good."

So we played our first show on a full stomach of lamb. The theatre was built in the 18th century, seating about 120 people. The venue was very, very Italian looking, and looked more like an Elizabethan string group's dream gig, than a roots-rock venue.

But the sound guys were listening to Billy Joe Shaver when we arrived to set up, so we had our license to rock.

The show was full. People knew our songs, requested songs, and they actually clapped. Yup. They do that there. They pay attention and clap after every song. When people in Italy go out to hear music, that's what they do. They sit and pay attention.

It was incredible. So we thrashed around on stage for an hour or so, and then signed autographs for a long time afterwards. We discovered the first night that making efforts to speak Italian onstage were usually rewarded with laughter, which is good, but conversation after the show bit stilted?

So the next night we played in Chiari, near Milan. We headlined a show with The Greg Trooper Band, an American group. We were never given any directions to the shows, just the names of the towns. So when we pulled into Chiari, we were relieved to see handwritten signs for "Concerto Rock" posted all over town.

That night we met Massimo Bubola, Italian pop star, and Italy's only indigenous roots-rocker.

Italian radio is very bad, so Massimo was interested in hearing if we Say ZuZu folks and Greg Trooper thought his music was truly rock, and not Italian disco pop.

In the first weird musical moment of our 19-day journey, Massimo sat in with Greg Trooper and did an Italian translation of Bob Dylan's "Romance in Durango."

In the following days, we played in a 13th-century castle that contained ruins of the ancient Roman city it was built on and went to see Steve Earle in concert in Milan.

Weird moment #2 occurred when Earle played "Devil's Right Hand," and a room full of Italians were singing "The Devil's Right Hand" full with Texas accents. Weirdness. It was the first show on his European tour, and the band had only practiced once, but it was impossible to tell. From what I could see, they were tired, but worked hard, and closed with an incredible version of "Billy Austin."

With a gesture that showed just how well Italian audiences treat performers, the entire crowd sang Earle back out onto stage for an encore with "I Ain't Ever Satisfied." It was obvious that he and the band were completely surprised by the enthusiasm and good-naturedness of the crowd, and they were all smiles for the remainder of the encore.

Before leaving for Italy, we had played a two-week stretch of about 10 shows in the southeast, including Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, DC. Most venues were new for us, and the tour was work.

We tour in a schoolbus, which has been converted into a motorhome. So we lived on the road for two weeks, cooking most of our meals, and trying to convince new audiences that we were worth listening to.

Though successful, to go from that to playing in Pisa (home of the leaning tower), where we played to a full house that knew our songs and sang and clapped along, was mind-boggling.

We've been playing out for several years, and I'm still always pleasantly surprised to see folks singing along. But Pisa, which was by far the most Mediterranean feeling place we visited, was something new altogether. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before the show, we were brought by the clubowner to a very very out of the way restaurant. We sat down, ordered the local dish - a bowl of Trippa (tripe, which is not made pickled like it is here in New Hampshire) - and sat back to relax for a bit.

Now, I mentioned it didn't get much more foreign looking than Pisa, right? Well, in the most exceedingly bizarre musical moment of the trip (not tripe), what CD was playing in the restaurant, but Son Volt's "Straightaways" album. Weirdness galore.

So we ate the tripe, noticed we were late (hey, we're a band, that's what we do), and ran to the club. Trippa is cow stomach, which does not mix well with running. So I made the mistake of complaining about it during our set, and of course, the owner of the restaurant was there to see us. Oops.

The club in Pisa was called "Borderline," full with Tex-Mex motif, and they loved us. It's difficult to explain how grateful we felt, to be so far from home and to be so well accepted by the Italians. It's an incredible feeling to discover fans in a place like Atlanta, but this was something different altogether.

Even stranger, they would say "Do you like Old 97's? Do you like The Derailers? Do you like Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy?" Truly incredible.

After leaving Pisa, we played in Pavia, at a club called SpaziaMusica. This was about as close to Borderline as Stalin is to Sam Houston. By which I mean, SpaziaMusica was a Communist Club. There were pictures of Lenin, Che, Stalin, Castro and best of all, Bruno, the owner.

Bruno may have been a dyed-in-the-wool Red, but he loved American music, and the walls of the club were cluttered with signed pictures of groups who'd toured through, and all of which were framed in Red. Bruno even drove a red car.

Ironically, we sold a lot of CDs there. That night we were interviewed by national Italian television. They asked us what our influences were, and how it was that we came to play American roots music when we were from New Hampshire.

The whole tour was well promoted. We were well fed. We were paid in full, people paid attention, and we slept in hotels that ranged from okay to honeymoon quality.

In other words, it was nothing like our American touring experience.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •