Gear Daddies was a work in progress
Published 5:01 am Sunday, August 18, 2013
Just before Martin Zellar and the Gear Daddies played for about 7,000 fans at the Skyline Music Festival July 26 at Target Field, the Austin native couldn’t help but look back at his his working class roots.
While today Zellar and the Gear Daddies enjoy a loyal fanbase across Minnesota, it didn’t come easy. The group was never a flash-in-the-pan music act, nor did they produce one big hit.
“You have to build it, at least we did,” he said. “We never had a radio hit. We were never on MTV. We were a band that lived and died by building a crowd through live performances. We just slugged it out.”
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Zellar will return to home to where his career began Aug. 24, when he and his backing band The Hardways will co-headline the Austin ArtWorks Festival Concert with indie rockers Cloud Cult.
Zellar traces his musical work ethic to Austin and his blue-collar roots. Zellar’s parents both came to Minnesota from a steel mill town in Illinois. Zellar was born in Austin on June 14, 1963, and he remembers Austin as a workingclass town.
Zellar met Nick Ciola and played in bands like Fallout before forming the Gear Daddies. From the onset, Zellar and his groups were known for their hardworking approach.
“I played every bar and service club, prom and homecoming in southeastern Minnesota, northern Iowa,” Zellar said.
Growing up in Austin, Zellar listened to country music on KAUS and power rock on KROC, two stations that would shape his sound.
“No matter where you were in Austin, one or the other was on, and I think that’s sort of what the Gear Daddies became: a strange mix between rock, pop rock and old school country,” he said.
‘A magic time’
The band moved to the Twin Cities in the 1980s. Though Zellar said it was “absolute culture shock” moving to a big city, a brimming music scene welcomed the group. Acts like the Replacements, Husker Du, Prince and Soul Asylum were kicking down doors and attracting the interest of labels.
“It was a magic time,” he said. “We were in the right place at the right time.”
After playing many shows at Seventh Street Entry and building a rapport with First Avenue staff, the Gear Daddies became a frequent opening act at First Avenue. They earned a solid reputation at the classic music venue as an act that could help sell tickets and boost a crowd.
“We really did work hard,” Zellar said. “We really did pay our dues. We did it because we loved it, and we weren’t getting paid a lot of money. It wasn’t glamorous, but we kept doing it until cool things started happening.”
For Zellar, nothing will ever top the early days in music, especially when held the Gear Daddies’ first album and when he first himself on the radio.
Though Zellar believes the Gear Daddies belonged on a smaller, indie label, timing and the thriving Twin Cities music scene led the group to Polygram, which re-released the debut “Let’s Go Scare Al” in 1989 when the band started work on “Billy’s Live Bait.”
The album would contain the song Zellar and the Gear Daddies are best known for: “(I Want to Drive the) Zamboni,” a hidden track that Zellar initially fought the label to keep off the album.
He thought “Billy’s Live Bait” was a serious album that would receive critical acclaim, while “(I Want to Drive the) Zamboni” would dilute the album since it was more a children’s novelty song. The label liked the track, and Zellar mused a label executive thought it was cute or was a hockey fan. A compromise was reached to include it as a hidden track.
“I always thought it was a throw-away,” Zellar said.
He was proven wrong: The song would go on the be featured in “The Mighty Ducks,” “Mystery, Alaska,” during the winter Olympics and at NHL games, becoming Zellar and the band’s most financially successful song.
Zellar has mixed feelings about the track, however.
“That song — depending on when you ask me — is the greatest thing that ever happened to me or the worst thing,” he said.
While he doesn’t want to be remembered strictly for a novelty tune he wrote in 20 minutes, the song has helped Zellar maintain his music career, earning him royalty money through its use in films and sporting events.
Zellar said he’d rather be remembered for a song like “Wear Your Crown” off “Billy’s Live Bait.”
“It still resonates with me,” he said. “When I play it, I can still feel it.”
Even with the backing of a label and a successful song, Zellar still admits the band still would face what he describes as weird times.
Plenty of good things happened, as the band played across the U.S. hitting all but a handful of states. But the Gear Daddies didn’t face universal success. The band played on Late Night with David Letterman and soon after played in Kentucky for about six people.
Despite varied success, Zellar remembers the Gear Daddies as hard working musicians who had to weather hard times and work to build a following.
“For the most part, we were just a working class band,” he said.
The Gear Daddies amicably split in 1992, largely from burnout, but Zellar and the group have reunited periodically since to play concerts. Zellar would continue playing and recording both on his own and with other groups.
He compared it to playing baseball in the minor leagues: Even though you don’t reach the majors, you’re being paid to do something you love.
San Miguel Allende
Zellar is a bit removed from Minnesota’s music scene today. About seven years ago, Zellar and his wife Carolyn moved to San Miguel Allende, Mexico, a town with a growing population of expatriate where Zellar plans to eventually retire.
The 50-year-old Zellar rarely frequents music venues in his spare time.
“The last thing I do when I have a night out is go to a club and listen to music,” Zellar said. “The music I hear is the bands that I’m playing with.”
He’s more likely to run into fans at a nice restaurant or out and about.
“I’m far more likely to get recognized at Target in the diapers section than I am anywhere else,” he said.
The Zellars live an unstructured life in Mexico, largely driven by raising their 4-year-old daughter, Clementine. On the side, Zellar spends time reading, playing, spending time with his family (including 21-year-old Wilson and 17-year-old Owen) and walking around the historic community.
“It’s a pretty good life,” he said.
‘Even the bad things are great
to think about’
Zellar has spent much time reflecting on his career. He seems at peace with what he described as his and his band’s middle-ring status, never quite cracking into the upper echelon.
Whenever he thinks about it today, he gets a big smile on his face “because even the bad things are great to think about now.” His bands had many “pinch me” moments, and Zellar said the group still attracts thousands to a show in the Twin Cities and around Minnesota.
That includes the place where it all began. Zellar is excited to come back to Austin, and he has heard rave reviews from friends and family about the Austin ArtWorks Festival.
“I’d wished that I could have been part of last year’s. … I’m very excited, and I hope that it’s something that can continue on,” he said.
Don’t expect an extensive tour soon, however. Zellar’s most recent album “Rooster’s Crow” was released early last year, and his busy life and young child in Mexico has caused him to question putting out another album, though he admits he’ll likely record again, however.
Zellar said he’ll always write songs because it’s cathartic. After all, leading people down a new path is the biggest rush.
“I’ll do that ‘til the day I die, whether anyone hears them or not,” he said.