Uncle Z: songs audiences love that nobody else plays


By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

In this installment of our series profiling local musicians, we interview the duo Uncle Z (Doug Zernow and Zack Light). Together they bring a special kind of kinetic energy to perform rare but recognizable songs. You’ll catch yourself nodding and singing along if you join them on the deck at Boonedock’s in Glen Arbor.

Glen Arbor Sun: When and how did you know that you were a musician?

Doug: I started taking accordion lessons when I was in third grade. There was an accordion school in Dearborn that had an aggressive recruitment program. After I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, I wanted to play guitar. I stated taking guitar lessons at the accordion school. One day the teacher left the room while I was playing some boring song from the old Mel Bay instruction book everyone used. When the teacher came back I was playing stuff I had worked out on my own—probably “Day Tripper” or something like that. I thought he might be angry, but he seemed surprised and kind of impressed. I knew I was on to something. I tried some other schools and teachers, and even learned to read music (sort of), but found I did better figuring songs out on my own. By 5th grade I had a little band (guitar, plastic organ, maracas) and we played a four-chord instrumental I’d written, in front of the class.

Zack: I’m not sure I know when I became a musician, but a distinct moment in time that reified “musical awareness” for me was a situation at the (Traverse City) “Boardman Building”, where I saw a couple climbing four steps to ingress the Building. The steps were canted slightly to the East, giving me the vantage point of, for lack of better terms, the illusion of a bass guitar fretboard, and the couple’s traverse up the stairs perfectly illustrated intervalic movement, rather than linear movement, a huge asset in playing, garnering better speed, articulation, and, if playing flajolet notes, intonation.

Sun: Who were your early influences? (Teachers, bandmates, bands you loved)

Doug: My dad knew a guy at work who taught me fingerpicking, which was something new for me. I was into Simon & Garfunkel and I saw how you needed that to get the right sound. When I was around 15 I was in a wedding band with my friend who played drums, and his older sister, who was one of the local champion accordion players. She played this enormous electric accordion through a Leslie speaker—like a Hammond B3 organ. That was a valuable experience—learning the standards, which used a lot of chords I didn’t know, and learning to sing harmony and play single note lead lines. I loved, early on, The Beatles, of course, The Monkees, Donovan, the Woodstock soundtrack album. Then James Taylor, Cat Stevens. Later on prog rock—Procol Harum, Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd. But it’s still the stuff from the ’60s that pulls me back—like “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke.

Zack: Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, Stanley Clark, Gene Simmons (yes! Gene Simmons from Kiss) were, and remain, my primary influences on bass.

Sun: What are some of your most satisfying moments (performances, collaborations, albums) as a musician? What hilarious, amazing, or moving stories do you tell about being a musician?

Doug: Well, there’s playing music and there’s being a musician. A lot of guys were in it for the attention or the girls or both. It’s always satisfying to play with someone who just loves the music, and there are a lot of those people up here. I kind of retired from playing after I got married in 1984 and didn’t play much for about 10 or 15 years. On my first trip to Germany in 1996, the people who’d invited me learned I used to play professionally and asked me to play a few songs at a local restaurant. The response was really good, and I realized I’d been listening and thinking about music—and learning—even when I wasn’t playing. It took a while to get my fingers and voice back in shape, and I started playing at parties and friend’s weddings and so on. Then I met Jenny Thomas, a great TC singer/songwriter, and through her met Patrick Niemisto of New Third Coast, Luunappi, etc. Thanks to Patrick (and Jenny) I got back to gigging again and eventually hooked up with Zack to form Uncle Z. Fortunately, my wife Merilyn has always encouraged my playing and supported me investing time (and money) in it.

One of my favorite stories goes back to the early ’80s. I was around 25 and playing with a quartet in Ann Arbor. We were hired to open for and back The Drifters. The gig was at a club in Port Huron and I think they had one of the original members and three young guys that could dance and sing. (I think the original guy was Charlie Thomas, who’s now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.) We got there early to rehearse with them, but they didn’t show up until 10 or 15 minutes before we were supposed to go on. Charlie finally showed up, pulled out a briefcase with lead sheets that looked like they’d been stuffed in the night before, and quickly told us what songs we were going to play. After about five minutes he said, “OK. We got us a show,” and went to his dressing room. Our bass player was freaking out because he couldn’t really play from a chart and expected we’d be able to rehearse. Anyway, the gig went off fine. At the end of the night, they (The Drifters) were supposed to pay us. I waited outside their dressing room for about 45 minutes. Finally Charlie opened the door and said, “I guess you’re not going to leave unless I pay you.” He did.

There are lots of stories. I was playing in a country/oldies band downstate. We are at a pretty rough club and the local motorcycle gang decided they didn’t appreciate being banned from the club. One night while we were playing they decided to take over the club. Things got very intense and a bit violent. Luckily, one of the gang members was a blues guitar player who knew me, and he told me not to worry. “You’re cool.” I was glad I’d invited him to sit in the night before …

I’m very proud of my son Michael (aka Frosti). He lives in LA and he’s really made his own way in the entertainment industry doing parkour, TV commercials, films, etc. I wanted to express how I felt about him, so I wrote a song called “Astroboy.” I don’t often play it, but it seems to connect with people. When I finally played it for him he got tears in his eyes. At that moment I believed that he knew how I felt. Music and lyrics say more than words alone …

Zack: Although I toured extensively in the early 1980s as a pop/rock bassist, my defining moment as a bassist came in a chance meeting with Jay Webber, and the subsequent musical collaborations that followed. Jay’s atypical tunings, song writing skills, and voice from God completely rocked my world as a musician, and I’ll forever be indebted to him for that experience. That experience with Jay led to myriad subsequent musical collaborations and more importantly friendships that continue to this day. My close friendship with Doug Zernow and our act “Uncle Z” captures that initial musical excitement that I felt with Jay, and it continues to evolve into an exciting musical adventure!

Sun: What is your day job, how do/did you make a living, and how have you fit music into that life?

Doug: I’ve worked in marketing communications for most of my adult life, usually as a consultant. I also have done some marketing teaching and still teach in Germany for a few weeks a year. Working for myself makes it easier to fit music in. I don’t have to ask anyone if it’s OK to leave early for a gig or come in at noon after a late night.

Zack: “9-11” changed all Americans indelibly. After the second plane hit the Twin Tower, I called the Navy recruiter, and told him I wanted to immediately join the Navy to help fight the bastards who were flying planes into our skyscrapers and killing Americans. When the recruiter found out my age, he respectfully indicated, “I was too old” for induction into the Navy. Naturally, I was pissed. I pleaded with the recruiter, reiterating that I wanted to serve my country in its time of need. The recruiter suggested that I join a police academy, which is what I did, and I continue to work as Patrolman Light: BPD-MPD. It was in the police academy that I had the pleasure of meeting Leelanau Co. Sheriff Mike Borkovich. Mr. Borkovich is a good man!

Sun: What is most enjoyable about your work together as Uncle Z? What does each guy bring to the mix?

Doug: I like the musical space afforded by a duo. It’s conducive to exploring a bit and using dynamics as part of an arrangement. I enjoy playing rhythm guitar or chord-based fills, which fits well with Zack’s active bass lines.

Zack: Uncle Z affords Doug and me the musical palette to really do whatever the hell we wish to do musically. I sometimes call Uncle Z “The Garage Band For Adults”, because together, we approach our songs exactly like teen-agers, and have no preconceived boundaries limiting our creativity.

Sun: How do you pick the songs you play? (appeal, favorites, lyrics, licks, bass line?)

Doug: We like playing songs that audiences like but nobody else does. Also, as an acoustic guitar/electric bass duo, there are some songs that just fit the instrumentation and our playing styles. Sometimes we’ll try something that seems impossible for a duo—like “Beginnings” by Chicago or parts of Abbey Road—and find a way to pull it off. We do a few of my originals, but they’re not really suited to most of the venues we play.

Zack: If the song works with our sparse instrumentation-It Works! If it doesn’t, we had fun (and probably more than one “cerveza”) trying to make it work. Working with Doug is a musical dream come true. Hell, we’ve even played gigs in Germany, arising from our friendship and mutual “can do” attitude.

Sun: What gigs are coming up, and when?

Doug: Uncle Z is at The Mayfair Tavern in Elberta every Wednesday this summer. Every Thursday (and a few Saturdays with Patrick Niemisto) we’re on the deck at Boone Docks. Some Fridays we’re at the delightful Little Traverse Inn. I play in another duo (The Jameson Brothers) with Bryan Poirier of New Third Coast. July and August are peak season. My music calendar is on Facebook (Doug Z Music).