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The Zeftrons seek a home on Americana

By Jon Johnson, May 1997

It's tempting to assume that the fraternity of working musicians/clam shack owners is a small one.

Fortunately, those looking for evidence of such a link between clam shack proprietorship and working musicians need look no further than the 38-year-old Michael Landgarten: clam shack owner, dedicated father...

...oh, yes - and singer, guitarist and chief songwriter of The Zeftrons.

Landgarten has been a fixture in the Portsmouth, N.H. music scene since the late '80's, first as a member of the Doc Johnson Blues Band from 1990 until 1992. Though the group was successful, opening for the likes of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Band, Landgarten left because, as he put it, "I love the influence of blues, but it's not real honest for me. I'm a kid from suburban Worcester and I was singing Willie Dixon lyrics. They're great lyrics, but I could never have dreamt of writing them."

The Zeftrons were formed at the tail end of Doc Johnson, but with a whole different line-up of people as a cover band, according to Landgarten. "I learned how to play rock 'n' roll with those guys, but that band dissolved when the Portsmouth Brewery stopped doing live music. We were the house band over there. But all along I was working with Brian Coleman, who's the current bass player in The Zeftrons. We started playing with a wide range of musicians; just bringing people into my basement and trying out songs. We found (drummer) Jon Haas and (lead guitarist) Ned Chase and did the CD."

The self-titled disc, released on Landgarten's own Rockingham label, is one of the forgotten jewels that emerged from the northern New England music scene in 1996. Recorded over a six-month period shortly after the second version of the group came together, the album sounds more like the work of a group that has been together for years, with excellent production, Landgarten's fine songwriting, and top-notch musicianship.

"We've gotten a lot of press, but the key to selling records is radio play and playing out a lot," which has been difficult due to other commitments on the part of the group's members, including Landgarten's business and family, as well as Chase's on-going membership in another band, Portsmouth's Truffle. The Zeftrons frequently play between Portland, Maine and Boston and occasionally venture into Vermont and Connecticut, as well.

"The Zeftrons" (the name comes from a brand of acrylic carpeting) is full of several potential singles that would fit in well on any Americana playlist. The Americana format has emerged recently as a catch-all phrase to describe radio stations appealing for the most part to an post-30 adult audience, mixing folk, roots-rock, and some country, most of which can't find wide airplay in other formats with tighter playlists. About 80 stations around the country play at least some Americana.

Landgarten freely admits that he has no problem in being lumped in with Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Los Lobos and other mainstays of the Americana format.

"I love that. I love all kinds of music, but that's the kind of music I really like, so that's where I want to be."

Though Landgarten says that his deepest and oldest influences are Dave Alvin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen - and these influences lie at the heart of the album's sound - he adds that classic country songwriters such as Hank Williams have had a growing influence on his own work in recent years.

"People tend to forget that country and rock 'n' roll is a really essential marriage," says Landgarten. "I like the chord structure...the phrasing...the rhythms, (but) I have to be careful because it isn't in myblood per se. I didn't grow up in Tennessee. That's something I have to be careful of, because it's not honest."

"Extreme highs and lows," is the response that Landgarten gives when queried about his motivation as a songwriter. "Nothing in the middle. I write a lot about relationships. I really like what Dave Alvin writes about, but I don't have that. Maybe someday. He's more like a cinematographer. You can try to make a big, overarching statement, but you're probably going to screw it up. But by making the small statement, it looms larger."

"'Chains' is a song to myself. It's about my own reserve around relationships. 'She Got Married' is...from real-life situations. I was married and my ex-wife did re-marry," though Landgarten also adds that the song's main character isn't directly analogous to his former wife and his experiences with her.

"Some of the songs kind of float from one situation to another and I just create and embellish on fictitious situations, but they get fed from real-life situations."

Though it would be easy to focus on Landgarten as the group's focal point, he's quick to point to the contributions of the other members. Though Haas is the least-known member of the group, having come from the local bar band scene, bassist Coleman helped Landgarten put the group together, and assisted Landgarten and Chris Magruder in the album's production. Ned Chase is a longtime member of Truffle, a band which toured nationally several times and been one of the better-known acts in the Portsmouth area for a number of years. Chase's guitar work, in fact, is one of the album's strongest points.

"I was so impressed with his ability. He jumped into a really different style of music (from Truffle). What we play is a more aggressive form of music. But he believes in the song first."

Landgarten's future plans for the group include continuing performances in New England, trying to link the group with a larger label or better distribution and writing more songs.

And there is, of course, still the clam shack.

Located on Route 1 in Kittery, Maine, next to the Kittery Trading Post, Landgarten purchased the business (which has been in operation since the late '50's) around 1985.

"When I was 26, I bought this business. I've had this love affair with these roadside joints for years, and it's really been a healthy experience for me. I've gotten to the point where I have some very trusted, loyal folks, so I don't work in the restaurant very much - 10, 15 hours a week - so it works out well. Now the timing's good to give music a full push."