Arts, Features

INTERVIEW: Too Many Zooz’s Leo Pellegrino talks brass house music and busking

Too Many Zooz has gone from performing underground on subway platforms to being on stage at the CMAs alongside Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks. The band performed at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Saturday night, where their unique jazz sound trapped the audience immediately.

Saxophone player Leo “Leo P” Pellegrino has taken the role of leader of Too Many Zooz. His wild dance moves have captivated passersby on subway platforms in New York City since the band formed in 2013, but the group rose to fame when a video of one of their subway performances went viral in 2014.

In an interview with The Daily Free Press, Pellegrino said the band, whose other members are Matt Doe and David “King of Sludge” Parks, does not exactly have an organized way of writing songs; usually, the members “write a bunch of different things and then piece them together like a puzzle.”

As a self-defined “brass house” band, Too Many Zooz takes inspiration from a wide range of musical styles. Pellegrino said one of his biggest influences was his Italian father’s love of polka music. He also studied jazz in high school and college, where he played in an Afro-Cuban band, and he later got into hip hop.

“[Our music is] made for the people of New York and by the people of New York,” he said.

Matt Doe, who plays trumpet in the band, said in a press release from 2017 that the band takes pride in the fact that “nearly every person of every color, creed, background and upbringing can find something in our music to relate to.”

“Someone from Cuba can say, ‘I hear Cuban music in the cowbells,’” Doe said. “Someone into death metal will enjoy it next to a grandmother who hears it as old swing music.”

Pellegrino said he does miss busking in the subway regularly, but the band still performs in public spaces every once in a while. He said he likes the “immediate satisfaction” that comes from interacting with a crowd on the street and the liberty of setting up and leaving whenever he wants.

“It’s a great place to work on your craft,” he said. “[We no longer have the] surprise element we used to have when playing in the subway, since a lot more people recognize us.”

The band released their first full-length album, “Subway Gawdz,” in the summer of 2016. The cover art is an illustration of three apes strangling a naked man. Pellegrino said they tried to have a different sound on this album compared to their four previous LPs.

“It has no meaning — it is just a picture that my brother drew and we liked it,” Pellegrino said. “[It’s about] taking over, breaking out of your cage and overcoming the place that people put you on in your mind, and getting past it.”

Pellegrino said he wants to change the stigma that “sax players have never been the stars,” so he makes daring fashion choices. Prince and Michael Jackson are his biggest fashion inspirations, and he looks to fashion shows and labels based out of Tokyo for outfit ideas. He said he identifies with peacocks because of their bold colors and the idea of breaking down gender barriers.

“Male peacocks are eccentric and use their colored feathers to attract females, while in humans, it’s kind of the opposite,” he said. “[I want] to be free whenever I want; I don’t feel like certain styles should only be for one gender or one sexual orientation.”

Too Many Zooz’s lack of a vocalist has led Pellegrino to take center stage during many of their performances, but he says he likes not having a vocalist because it is easier for him to “focus on the drums.” He described David Parks, the band’s drummer, as the group’s guide.

“He has some type of wisdom that allows him to see with wider eyes, that prevents him from making the wrong decisions,” Pellegrino said.

The band has not ruled out the possibility of welcoming a vocalist into the group in the future, however. The group is fairly new, having only formed in 2013. Pellegrino said a vocalist or rapper could expand the band’s reach, and he has also considered adding electronic elements into their sound or collaborating with other artists to add more detail to their music.

A stepping stone in the band’s rise to prominence was their performance on Beyoncé’s songs “Daddy Lessons” and “Formation.” They were then asked to perform with her and the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 CMA Awards, and they now reach a global audience.

Pellegrino described performing with Beyoncé as “the best moment of [his] life.”

Since performing at the CMAs, Too Many Zooz has continued to perform on the streets of New York. Pellegrino says he almost prefers busking to performing onstage because he is not able to go “full out” in a confined theater.

“In a venue, people that go are already obsessed with you,” he said. “In the subway, there are all kinds of people.”

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