Updated: Jan 7
One recurring theme I've noticed as I delve into Columbus music is the negative experience that bands who sign with record labels often have. Perhaps no one had a tougher go than Zero One. It wouldn’t be believable if it wasn’t true. Formed in the fall of 1986, Zero One had paid its dues in the clubs before signing a contract with Columbus-based Sisapa in 1990. The band spent four months crafting their debut album. A March 1991 release date was set. Sisapa’s distribution partner shipped copies nationwide. A release show was booked at the Newport Music Hall. The radio promotion campaign was set. And then, just before the show, Sisapa shuttered its doors. Out of business.
Darwin's Finch Vs The Flying Saucers
Sisapa Record Co. – D2-77711
"At first we were all in shock. The night I got the phone call from the company it was the last call in the world I was expecting," songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jeff Ciampa told The Columbus Dispatch at the time. "After putting so much time and effort into it, after working so hard for three years, we finally get a contract and all we're waiting for is the release day. It's frustrating. We kind of have a record and we kind of don't."
In perhaps an ominous bit of foreshadowing, the March 1991 Cash Box notice for the upcoming Zero One release got the album title wrong. The album, Darwin’s Finch Vs The Flying Saucers - named after the Paul Brown painting featured on the cover - is a remarkable and accomplished debut album, making the resulting lack of record company promotional push all the more disheartening. What could have been? But, such is life for working musicians. Sure, a little luck and right place, right time helps in any profession. But in the music business? It’s enough to frazzle the stoutest soul. But the band plowed ahead after Sisapa’s folding. "We're going on with the album release concert because we have released an album. Besides, it's a party," keyboardist Marty Vian told The Dispatch.
Although Sisapa was founded in and had a studio in Columbus, it was a label with national distribution, an office in L.A., reps across the US, and a sponsorship deal with an auto racing circuit. It signed acts like The Marshall Tucker Band, Crazy Horse, and Paul Cotton of Poco. This said merely to point out that, while Sisapa was independent, it was not a “Columbus label.” The story of the ill-fated Sisapa Record Company deserves to be told in depth at another time.
Ciampa started Zero One with drummer Peter Retzlaff as a project for Ciampa’s fledgling studio. Next, guitarist Kevin Oliver came on board. Eventually, keyboardist/vocalist Marty Vian and vocalists Tristen Hennigs and Cynthia Blair would join as well. Kay Harris replaced Hennigs on vocals before Darwin's Finch was recorded. Zero One immediately stood out from the crowd. Not just their level of musicianship, but original songs that married rock, jazz, funk and world elements to biting lyrics with Beatlesque melodies. Keep in mind this is the late ‘80s - the ascendance of grunge.
Zero One defiantly went against the flow of the prevailing musical trends of the time. The opening track of Darwin’s Finch, Art From The Garage draws a line in the sand. “Can’t play my guitar, that's how I know that this is art. I’ve got to sing off key so the critics agree.” They weren’t opposed to the assets of garage rock, however. "There's a strong attempt in our music to preserve the energy, the edge of that kind of music,” Vian told The Dispatch. “We certainly didn't want to polish this record until it gleamed." While there were some bands nationally like Jellyfish and Toy Matinee swimming against the tides, there weren’t many other artists in Columbus “painting with sound,” as George Martin calls it, in the studio like Zero One.
Recorded at Sisapa's state-of-the-art studio on Mt. Vernon Ave., this is music that rewards repeat listening. Little bits of ear candy tucked away reveal themselves over time. “I like the creative aspect of the studio,” Ciampa told The Lantern in 1990. “It’s a little bit more of a controlled environment. You can experiment with a lot of things you can’t do live.”
Local journalists were mostly supportive, but Zero One didn't necessarily feel the love from every corner of the music scene. In Cam Elkins’ interview for his Weird Music podcast in November, Ciampa touched on his time with Zero One. “We were too slick for the Columbus scene... We had a great following, but critics and the underground scene didn’t embrace us. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all… You work hard to become good at your craft, and you are embraced by certain people, but there’s a huge scene in Columbus that I think doesn’t really dig where I come from and where a lot of my compatriots come from.”
At an October 1987 Ruby Tuesday gig, critic John Petric apparently suggested a change of direction to Ciampa. Calling the music “melodramatic ‘80s pop,” in his Dispatch review, Petric noted that “the highlight of the night was backing vocalist Cynthia Blair taking the lead on an old Mother's Finest slow-burner, Love Changes. Perhaps a soulful blending of white pop and black grit could be in the offing, though Ciampa says no for now.”
But soulful backing vocals, such as those on Walk On Water, are one of the things that made Zero One stand out even among their peers nationally. The prominent and tasty bass lines and tone are another. Kevin Oliver’s master funk guitar chops are a third (see: the break in Sensitive Girl).
Although no single was released off of Darwin’s Finch (see Sisapa folding above), the atmospheric I Love You Better (When You Go Away) filled that role, with an earlier recording appearing on both the Exhibit C and Q-FM-96 Hometown Project Number Nine compilations in 1988. With its sardonic lyrics, fretless bass, and five-minute-plus run time, it’s an unlikely candidate. But that’s the thing about this album. It’s melodic and poppy, sure, but it’s not pandering to radio, critics or the audience.
"We wanted to capture a lot of feelings and emotions, we wanted something fairly textural. Everytime you listen to it I hope you can hear something different," Ciampa told The Dispatch in an April 3, 1991 article. "And just because there are elements of pop in the music doesn't mean we followed a formula. We broke a lot of rules recording Darwin's Finch. Red Glasses is nine minutes long. The shortest song is four minutes."
Zero One would go on to release the impossible-to-find cassette Boot in 1992 but would call it quits the following year when Retzlaff moved to New York City, where he continues to play professionally. Darwin’s Finch is a seminal release. A thread runs from Zero One through Vinyl on to Omnipop, with each one topping the last. But it started here. Ciampa and Oliver would go on to play together in the Hoodoo Soul Band. Oliver relocated to the Houston area in 2015 and plays with George Clinton and P-Funk. I was fortunate to have a front-row seat as Jeff produced my wife Elisa Nicolas' most recent album. Ciampa is an extraordinary musician and producer and we're fortunate he’s chosen to remain based in Columbus. I’ve heard rumblings that work on a new album of Ciampa's compositions is underway. I hope it’s true. I'm excited to hear what's next.
1 Art From The Garage
2 Single Desire
3 I Love You Better (When You Go Away)
4 Sensitive Girl
5 Walk On Water
7 Red Glasses
8 Hole In Your Head
9 The Waiting
10 Still Life
11 Mary Hallelujah
Copyright © – Sisapa Record Co., Inc.
Phonographic Copyright ℗ – Sisapa Record Co., Inc.
Manufactured By – Sisapa Record Co., Inc.
Distributed By – Curb Records
Recorded At – Sisapa Recording Studios
Mixed At – Sisapa Recording Studios
Mastered At – Frankford/Wayne Mastering Labs
Pressed By – Capitol Jax
Published By – Famous Music
Published By – Eleanor James Music
Mastered At – Frankford/Wayne Mastering Labs
Accordion – John Evans (tracks: 10)
Acoustic Bass – Doug Richeson (tracks: 10)
Front Cover Painting – Paul Brown
Backing Vocals – Ronn Price (tracks: 1, 4, 8)
Blues Harp – Joe Hunter (tracks: 8)
Creative Coordination – Martin Vian
Drums – Peter Retzlaff
Executive-Producer – Jimmy Dutt
Finger Snaps – Tom T.J. Johnson (tracks: 7)
Guitar, Vocals – Kevin Oliver
Lead Vocals, Backing Vocals, Bass Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Drum Programming – Jeff Ciampa
Mastered By – Rick Essig
Mixed By – Jimmy Dutt
Hammond B3, Synthesizer – Martin Vian
Photography By – Chas Krider
Producer – Jeff Ciampa
Recorded By – Tom T.J. Johnson
Assistant – Joe Viers
Saxophone – Joel Johanson (tracks: 7)
Screaming – Tom T.J. Johnson
Written-By – Jeff Ciampa