It’s very rare to find music that makes you think, feel and want to mosh simultaneously, but with Countin’ Cards, Escape From The Zoo has struck the perfect balance between all three. It’s something that the band – the louder, faster, punk project that Days N’ Daze’s Jesse Sendejas co-founded with his wife Veronica – has always done, but never quite to this extent. Much of that is down to the circumstances that led up to the recording of these nine songs – most obviously a global pandemic that allowed for intense self-reflection. That was true for both Sendejas and We The Heathens’ Elliot Lozier, who recorded this album and played bass and drums on it.
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“I think both of us were sitting at home with not much to do,” recalls Sendejas. “It was probably a really introspective handful of months for everybody, but we both get stuck in our heads a lot. We get hit hard with waves of solipsism, where it feels like we’re the only people on the planet. That’s a weird and scary feeling, and it forces you to look at yourself because that’s the only thing that feels real at the time. So a lot these songs are Elliot and I sorting through thoughts and feelings and trying to make sense of why we’re having them and what they mean.”
That solipsistic self-awareness coincided with something equally as influential and important for Sendejas – the fact that, on a tour Days N’ Daze went on just before the pandemic hit, he got sober. So not only do these songs offer up deep and poignant existential questions about life – as well as the social and political constructs that surround and consume it – but they’re also a reflection of Sendejas’ newfound clarity and the path he’s now trying to take.
“I’ve definitely not been without my slipups,” he admits. “A lot of the album is about trying to be a better friend and bandmate and person overall, and struggling with wanting to do that really, really badly – but also knowing that instant escape and gratification and comfort is a drink or a pill away. And I’m just trying to reason that in my mind, and find a path that seems doable and one that I can actually stay on for once.”
It’s not in any way didactic or holier-than-thou, though. Rather, these songs are earnest expressions of everyday struggle and existence. Breakneck and buoyant opener “Heads Up 7 Up” questions conforming to a life in which you’re meant to spend most of your time working 9 to 5, eventually coming to the very valid conclusion that ‘the American Dream is a sham’. “Shitshow” – which, along with “Jars O’ Fears”, is one of two songs that Lozier mainly wrote and takes lead vocals on – wrestles with thoughts of impending mortality, “Sentient Beer” sees Sendejas question the inspiration and influence, both good and bad, that drugs and booze had on him, and “Wasted Years”, as the title suggests, is a melancholy but not self-indulgent rumination on days gone by.
That’s something Sendejas, who turned 30 in August 2021, has been thinking much more about in recent months. He needn’t worry. For while he may be older, these songs – which were recorded, with Lozier, at his parents’ house in Houston over the course of a month or so towards the end of 2020 – are brimming with youthful exuberance, albeit one paired with a wiser outlook. It’s an outlook that also extends beyond notions of self to also take on the military-industrial complex on the frenetic, upbeat “Draft Dodger”, and police brutality and systemic racism on the title track, which ends the album in a burst of singalongable outrage.
“That song is our thesis, our overview, on all the political and social frustrations that we saw over the last couple of years with all the police shootings and riots,” explains Sendejas. “There’s definitely a feeling of helplessness in it – that we’re stuck in a cycle, and until it finally breaks – and it could break for the better or break for the worse – the machine is just going to keep repeating over and over and over again.”
While that may not sound particularly hopeful, what this record does incredibly well is offer a sense of optimistic realism – or, perhaps, realistic optimism – both on a personal level and a more universal one. It achieves that through its artful mix of thoughtful, intelligent and incisive lyrics – and there are a lot of them – and visceral, exhilarating music (including horns played by Lozier’s brother, Zach). That combination is something Sendejas has always tried to do ever since he has a chat with his father about punk music when he was about 14 years old.
“He told me,” he remembers, “that his favorite songs are ones that are maybe a little bit depressing lyrically, but which are juxtaposed with a really upbeat, lighthearted musical track. That stuck with me always, and it’s what we really tried to go for with a lot of the stuff on this album. I was worried that lyrically it might be a little too bleak and depressing, but we tried to pick it up and inject it with a little bit of levity.”
They absolutely succeeded. And while all nine tracks are inspiring to a profound degree, it’s perhaps “Learning Curve”, which Sendejas says was him just trying to write himself out of a hole, that best exemplifies what this album is all about – offering solidarity and companionship in a world where it’s all too easy and common to feel lost and alone.
“There’s nothing more important to me,” he says, “than when someone shoots us a message and says ‘I was having a shitty time and I put this song on and it brightened my whole day.’ That’s how I want people to feel when they listen to this record. I want it to make them feel less alone, because they’re not the only ones having these weird awful thoughts run through their heads. It can be really easy to feel that you’re the only person on the planet who is depressed or drinking a handle of vodka at 10am, but you’re not. We’re all sharing the same shit, so if this album can make people feel like they’ve got some friends, even when there’s no-one around, that would mean the whole world.”