There’s a video on YouTube from about 15 years ago of a band called the Real Jimmies, four young guys who used to busk on Pacific Avenue. One of them grew up to be Nate Lieby, the lead singer of Santa Cruz’s freakishly inventive cover band Coffee Zombie Collective.
The video is a portrait of the artist as a young crazy man: while the acoustic rock quartet plays Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” Lieby wails on a stand-up drum kit, dances, and occasionally blows a kazoo in between singing and interacting with passers-by at the corner of Pacific and Cooper.
“That’s where it all comes from,” Lieby admits of the showmanship he’s known for with Coffee Zombie Collective. “I built the stand-up drum kit. I had to find a way to get up in people’s faces.”
He’s still getting in their faces—and still covering Weezer, actually, via the monster medley CZC has built around “Come Undone” (aka “The Sweater Song”) that they call “The Sweadley.” Lieby’s put a lot of time into Santa Cruz bands that did original songs over the years—the Sneaky Creekans, 300 lbs.—but in the last five years he’s returned to covers, and it’s sort of like the Real Jimmies days all over again. Only a lot weirder.
Coffee Zombie Collective started when Lieby was fooling around learning songs on the ukulele after his daughter was born. Dustin Di Mauro, who would become the group’s guitarist, came over to jam one afternoon.
“We must have played for three hours straight, all these covers,” says Lieby. And despite the fact that they were playing acoustic, “we still managed to get the cops called on us.”
Nieby then roped his wife Kristi, who had been learning banjo in fits and starts, into the band, along with Peco Davis on bass, Joel Di Maurio on mandolin, Brian Forsse on trumpet and Sean Ring handling percussion.
So … a bluegrass band that covers rock songs? Not exactly.
“We’ve never followed the bluegrass aesthetic,” Lieby says. “We’ve got a trumpet in there, and I’m playing the drums with my feet.”
Though the instrumentation is obviously pretty rootsy, Coffee Zombie Collective are known for their weird twists on covers. Like turning Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” into a ska song, or adding call-and-response to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Lemmy would hardly recognize their cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” (but he’d like it once he did). And their mutant versions spin off even further in their live shows.
“Right now I’m trying to shoehorn the theme from Fresh Prince of Bel Air into the end of ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’” says Lieby.
The group was surprised and thrilled to win a Nextie; Lieby says they’ve been stunned at the way their quirky vision has been accepted in the local music scene. “We’re all completely mystified. We did it expecting nothing,” he says.
But they have worked hard to support Santa Cruz’s quirkiness, too, playing at all kinds of local events—last month it was the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival, a UCSC gig and Earth Day, among their other shows.
“The Kale Festival asked us to play. It was like ‘Yeah!’ Rock Scissors Paper Tournament? ‘We’ll play that!’” says Lieby. “I want this band to be part of Santa Cruz. We’re straight outta Live Oak.”