Venice-based quintet is first band to rock this year’s summer-long music series
By Michael Aushenker
“The sun goes up
and the sun gets down/
But like the heart of the sun
My heart continues to pound.”
– Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Behind the Sun,” 1987.
When it comes to Santa Monica Pier’s 29th Annual Twilight Concert Series, reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff may usher in its “twilight” come September, but this concert series is set to rise this week with the sun – Terraplane Sun, that is.
In recent years, Johnny Zambetti and Ben Rothbard, who lives walking distance from the venerable Santa Monica landmark, used to hit the Twilight Concert Series every summer. Now, they will launch it at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 11, opening for Florida headliner Surfer Blood.
“I am so beyond thrilled (to play the pier),” Terraplane lead guitarist Zambetti told The Argonaut.
Terraplane Sun plays the pier in advance of their new EP, “Ya Never Know” (out July 16). The lead single “Get Me Golden,” which hits radio July 23, epitomizes Terraplane’s mix of swampy Delta blues, California surf and Led Zeppelin-esque rock.
Lead singer-songwriter Rothbard, who plays guitar and harmonica, put together a version of Terraplane Sun when he was working solo, but the group came together after Rothbard joined forces with co-songwriter/lyricist Zambetti and bassist Cecil Campanaro. After a change of drummers to include Lyle Riddle on percussion, Terraplane solidified into its present alloy, which includes Gabe Feenberg on keys and trombone.
In its relatively brief existence, the Venice band, who will also play the Sunset Strip Music Festival Aug. 3, has opened for The White Buffalo, The Alabama Shakes and Nikka Costa. Terraplane’s new single, “Get Me Golden,” has already been used in Citibank TV commercials and in the Columbia Pictures feature film “21 Jump Street.”
Following in the Southern California sun-soaked footsteps of genre-blending bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and Sublime, Terraplane, as Zambetti describes it, lyrically describes “Southern California, frustration with the music business” and the usual relationship stuff.
But the burning question might be, ‘What the heck is a ‘Terraplane?’ Vintage car aficionados know that the Hudson Motor Car Company manufactured the Terraplane brand and model in Detroit (1932-38). More specifically, Rothbard named the band as an allusion to “Terraplane Blues,” a raunchy little ditty that blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded in San Antonio in 1936, which employed more double-entendres than your average AC/DC banger.
Malibu-raised Zambetti played in a band called White Star when he was 17. He also worked for Malibu rapper Shwayze. But after a few years of gigging in other people’s projects, “I was tired being sort of a sideman hired gun,” Zambetti said.
Zambetti and Rothbard met at the Forum, not as musicians performing the Inglewood concert arena but while doing extra work on the set of an All State Insurance commercial. As Zambetti remembers it, he overheard Rothbard in a conversation debating the best records of the 2000s and they became fast friends. After hearing one of Rothbard’s CDs, Zambetti was struck by “that voice. (I thought to myself) That’s something.”
Coincidentally, Zambetti’s father played guitar in a group called The Malibus about 35 years before he moved there. Zambetti draws from a wealth of musical influences beginning with The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
Rothbard’s mother, a classical pianist, is also a musician.
“She always had music playing,” Rothbard recalled. “We were a Jewish white family but we always had Motown and the blues playing.”
But it was when Rothbard tried to decipher the musical roots of teen rock infatuations, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, that “led me into trying to figure out where they got their influences.” Rothbard got hooked on the Delta blues.
“Our ears are tuned to the same kind of stuff,” Zambetti said. “I would sing harmonies before I sing melodies. That’s the way my mind works.”
“Cecil and I knew each other the longest,” Rothbard continued, regarding Terraplane’s origin. After a previous project fizzled out in early 2009, Rothbard and Campanaro called it quits until Rothbard met Zambetti in late 2009. This time, the chemistry stuck. Rehearsing in the Venice Beach bedroom of original drummer Scott Passaglia, Terraplane Sun played its first live gig in January 2010 at the now-defunct The Stronghold on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. A year later, they released their first album “Coyote,” and one of their songs, a cover of “Funnel of Love,” “picked up a lot of steam. (Original ‘Funnel’ artist) Lawanda Jackson gave us approval,” Rothbard said.
Then came creative differences.
“He was amazing,” Rothbard said of Passaglia. “He was a multi-instrumentalist, he wasn’t just a drummer. If we wanted to go to the next level, we needed a drummer.”
At The Diamond Light’s bass player, Brian Stanley’s, suggestion, Riddle boarded Terraplane in May 2011, just as it started to soar with a Las Vegas residency.
“We kind of lived at the Cosmopolitan,” said Rothbard of the hotel where Terraplane played The Booking Stage four nights in a row.
The six-song EP “Friends” came out in 2012, the year Terraplane began tearing up the Eastside of Los Angeles with Silver Lake gigs at the Echo and the Satellite.
“There’s much more of a music scene out there, man,” Rothbard admitted. “Venice is struggling. We have to hit the Eastside to make a name for ourselves. But we live out here. I love Venice; it’s artistic, but where’s the art?”
After touring with Shwayze in February, Terraplane recently opened for KROQ darlings Imagine Dragons at the Hollywood Palladium, with three more pending Dragons gigs in New York (July 25), Nashville (July 27) and Cleveland (July 30). The Venice quintet also looks forward to joining fellow Angelenos The Mowglis in Columbus. In September, Terraplane’s new album is set to make its label debut on Universal/EMI-subsidiary Trauma2.
On July 11, attendees can expect new numbers such as “The Stone,” seven minutes of experimentation, to underscore the band’s evolution as a unit. As Johnson closed “Terraplane Blues,” “…And when I mash down on your little starter/Then your spark plug will give me fire.” With the Sun set to open the Twilight Series, expect some fire at the pier performance.