The Lenny Zenith Interview – Part 1 – Figaro
Just Another Zenophobic Android – Figaro August 18, 1980
By BUNNY Matthews & JON NEWLIN
One evening a long time ago, we were in the lobby of the Prytania buying a bag of popcorn and the person behind the counter — in between handing out Almond Joys and drawing large cups of orange soda – eventually engaged us in conversation. The conversation was about contemporary music and before we knew it, the person behind the counter had vaulted over same and was showing us this Fender Telecaster guitar that someone had poured paint remover on and further refined with a sheet of industrial grade sandpaper. The guitar’s surface somewhat resembled the current state of certain parts of Carrollton Avenue. Gritty.
With an axe like that, we figured that the popcorn-vendor-turned rocker would no doubt go far. Well, the guitarist turned out to be Lenny Zenith, leader of RZA and Len has indeed gone some distance from the Prytania’s lobby -as far as Jed’s and even Fat city (we won’t mention Brookhaven, Mississippi.)
The Lenny Zenith Interview:
The other day, Lenny turned up in the Fellman Tract. We flipped on our Sony and Lenny talked. The Lenny Zenith Interview, artifact that it is, will appear in two parts. FIGARO: How did you get started playing music? Lenny: I guess like everybody else, family-type stuff. My parents were musicians. I just like music. I had a babysitter though once – when I was six or seven – she used to play a lot of really weird rock and roll.
FIGARO: Like what? Lenny: Like a lot of black music-like Supremes. We lived Uptown – and she played like Supremes and Stevie Wonder and a lot of War before they were War – I forget what they were called. She did have a Cowsills record that I listened to a lot, I think that’s where my primary rock and roll influence came from but my parents were classical musicians – church-related stuff.
FIGARO: How old are you now? Lenny: 19.
FIGARO: You’re 19?
Lenny: I’ll be 20 next March.
FIGARO: What’s your birthday?
Lenny: 25th of March. Same day as Elton John. You know how everybody tries to figure out who’s got the same birthday they have…
FIGARO: When did you learn to play the guitar? Was it your first instrument?
Lenny: No, I played the piano first for a long time. My Mom always said “Learn to play the piano, learn to play the piano! and then maybe learn to play the guitar.” Because she felt like piano
started meeting all kinds of people. All these musical ideas flooded my brain, swimming around – new music, new ideas, you know.
FIGARO: There was a lot going on at N.O.C.C.A. Lenny: Yeah, well there was for someone who had been in isolated areas like rock and roll. I was introduced to all different kinds of music during my lifetime, but I never really could apply myself to what was going on. When you go to a place like N.O.C.C.A., it’s just like you focus into certain aspects. I started off being in the jazz department and, I don’t know, I just wasn’t black – I couldn’t get into the groove of things. I didn’t have the knack for playing jazz piano so I decided that I needed more discipline in what I was doing so I moved over to the classical department and started to listen to a lot of classical music. I focused in on how it’s put together and structured and we talked about avant-garde music and serialism and collage-type music. All these ideas came to my head and I just wrote about 15 songs that turned out to be the ones for the band.
FIGARO: The ones you play how? Lenny: Yeah, So, I don’t Know — it just came to me, plus I had gotten into new wave, listening to a tape somebody had given me of Elvis Costello. FIGARO: That was your first exposure to it?
Lenny: I had heard “Allison’ on the radio and then somebody gave me the tape and I just listened to it over and over again. I found out that WTUL had a new wave night, I wasn’t introduced to it as early as lost of the other people on the scene – you know, “I was listening to the Sex Pistols in ’77.” So, I was introduced to it in the more developed form.
FIGARO: Then when you formed the band you just had a whole repertoire of things already written. – Lenny: Yeah, it was strange it was mostly about what was going on in my life. I realized that I was getting older and I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I was a senior in high school and, uh, things just came to my head, like living at home and, you know, my Dad wanted me to leave – I was doing good in school, but I wasn’t practicing my piano and all. I was really getting into music and I’d sit in front of the stereo for hours and hours and he thought I should be concentrating either on being a classical pianist ’cause I was planning on going to a conservatory or something or being a composer, or on going to school – getting ready to go to college so I wrote things like ”Juvenile Discrimination,’ “Society,’ things that just were right there at my disposal.
FIGARO: Did you ever go to college or the conservatory?
Lenny: Well, I did go to college – I had trouble graduating from high school. They told me I didn’t have enough credits and I’d have to go back. Then I said, “okay,’ so I went back to high school to get some more credits and I was going to McMain at the time. I said, “Oh God, you know – I’ll have to go for a half a year just so I can graduate. I want to go to college because that’s what I’m supposed to do.’ And I went to Florida State University and studied some piano over the summer, went to camp and studied with some people and 1 came back and I went to apply at
was more of an important instrument. So I started back in about first grade and took it on and off for years and years. Then when I got in junior high I finally bought myself a guitar and started playing around with some songs. I learned to play real fast but I never really learned to play real well. I never really diligently practiced, you know, except for when I was first learning. I’d sit up at night you know, until about 3:30 in the morning learning how to do the chords and change them fast, so I could get the chords out at the same time I was hearing them. But then I never really worked on becoming proficient like a classical guitarist or a lead guitarist or anything like that,
FIGARO: Was RZA your first band? Lenny: Well, kind of. I lived in California for about four or five months…
FIGAR0: When were you there? Lenny: I can’t think in terms of years. I think in terms of high school and junior high. I think it was 9th grade – 9th grade I started at Hollywood High.
FIGARO: You went to Hollywood High? How did you go
high school and they said “Weren’t you supposed to graduate last year?’ And I said “No, I didn’t have enough credits.’ And they looked on my records and they said “Where did you go to school for the beginning of 9th grade?’ And I said I. was in California. They said they didn’t even have those transcripts.-come to find out that I had enough credits so I started UNO in the spring, in January and all that time I had been formulating ideas, for bands. I could never quite get anything out there?
Lenny: My parents split up when I was in the 7th grade and my Dad and I were living here in New Orleans and I didn’t like living here and I said, “Well, let’s go out West.” So we packed up and we went to California and we got a little apartment there and I started going – we were living in West Hollywood and I went to Hollywood High in 9th grade. And, there was a talent show and I was really into rock and roll and so we slapped together a band in about three weeks and we won.
FIGARO: What was it called?
Lenny: Oh – I can’t even remember anymore.
FIGARO: What was Hollywood High like? Lenny: It was weird. There was a lot of kids there, you know.
FIGARO: Was it like all those movies? Lenny: No, I never saw those movies. FIGARO: Were there teenage movie stars? Lenny: Um, well, there was a couple. There was the guy who played Hal in “Nanny and the Professor.’ That was the only real star there. We used to go and hang out at Beverly Hills High and terrorize all the rich kids.
FIGARO: Hollywood High isn’t as upper class as Beverly Hills High?
Lenny: No, Hollywood High is mostly a lot of Spaniards and middle-class kids but there were some affluent people who went there and, you know, creative-type personalities. But most of them went to Beverly Hills High.
FIGAR0: Then you came back to New Orleans?
Lenny: Yeah. Then I came back here and I started a rock band called Mirage – we played about three gigs here and three gigs in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And then we broke up.
IGAR0: What’s happening in Brookhaven?
Lenny: You’d be amazed. There’s this really exciting little skating rink on the far side of town. They have a stage and you don’t have to be a certain age to go there. We were all underage when we were playing so we couldn’t really play any bars and I was the only person who was really wanting to be in a band. They were playing a lot of covers and stuff and I’d sing a lot of Led Zeppelin, Styx and Yes. I had written a few songs – rock and roll type songs – and we did those but they weren’t paying me anything and they weren’t really good – they weren’t practiced musicians, I thought. So I kind of sat out of being in a band for a while. Then when I was a senior in high school, I started going to N.O.C.C.A. and getting my shit together, like I was really not calling people or trying to get a hold of drummers or anything, so the people right there at my access were people from N.O.C.C.A. ’cause I was still going there and I asked Gretchen, who was playing piano there and Julian, who was like their top drummer. He was into new stuff and was real open-minded so we got together at this girl’s house. She was like the first punk rocker I had ever met. Her house was decorated all punk and all her clothes were punk and her brain was punk and she was into everybody.
FIGARO: Who was that girl?
Lenny: Daria – you know Daria? She goes out with Bobby Fonseca from the Mechanics. She’s kind of heavy built. She’s real spaced-out, you know. She’s got like real acid eyes, you know, like when you trip on acid, you get those eyes. And, um, we went over there and she was living in an apartment complex of all places and we bring in our three little amps and a microphone that I had.