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Martin Zellar's music, priorities have changed since Gear Daddies

Martin Zellar

Things have happened in in the past 10 years of Martin Zellar's life that have been a higher priority than recording a new album.

He moved with his family to San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. They bought a house, acclimated and absorbed. Then there was a surprise baby, Clementine, an addition to a family with two teenaged boys. Now, finally, things have settled down.

Zellar, who made a name for himself as the front man for the Austin, Minn.-bred, alt-country band the Gear Daddies, returns with his first solo album in a decade, 25 years after the Gear Daddies' debut album.

"Roosters Crow," which became available Tuesday, is an 11-song collection of songs written during his hiatus. It's a mix of light and dark moments, a few fresh songs that cropped up while in the studio and a pop song with twang that Zellar wrote to pitch to a female artist before swapping the song's gender pronouns and keeping it for himself.

"I'm probably as excited as I've ever been," Zellar said in an interview from Austin, Texas, where he was rehearsing with his band the Hardways. "With that time off, I rediscovered why I love what I do."

Zellar plays an album release show at 10 p.m. Saturday at Pizza Luce. Fellow Austin native Charlie Parr is on the bill.

Gear Daddies

Twenty-five years after releasing "Let's Go Scare Al" and 20 years after disbanding as an active, album-recording band, Zellar is still best-known for his band the Gear Daddies. They are credited as among the first alt-country bands and they have a nostalgia appeal strong enough to lure 2,000 fans to a venue when they play a reunion show. The Gear Daddies played on a bill with the Suburbs during the Maritime Festival last summer on a stage behind Grandma's Sports Garden.

"The Gear Daddies were a beloved band," he said. "They're a huge part of people's formative years. We are, for intents and purposes, an oldies act. People come out and they have a great time. We have a blast. Just the opportunity to hang out with those guys is so much fun. There's not a lot of pressure. It's just like screwing around."

But he doesn't necessarily connect with songs like "She's Happy," penned when he was 19, the same age as his oldest son. Zellar describes playing Gear Daddies' music as feeling like he is playing cover songs. He's so far removed from those songs, he said, that he has lost touch with the person who wrote them.

Fan appeal

Zellar recently half-joked on his Facebook fan page that according to the page's statistics, his average fan is men between the ages of 45 and 54.

Zellar knows these are people who came of age to his music and now have a job, a family, a house in a place that isn't a convenient drive from a downtown club in a metropolitan area. They don't run out and buy CDs the way Zellar used to run out and buy the latest from the Replacements the day it dropped.

"That's all changed," he said. "It's like trying to figure out how to get our demographic out to shows and how to gain new fans. It's been difficult. It's a little worrisome. You do what you do and you hope for the best. That's what I've always done. There's no way to know. You go out and do what you do and hope you catch breaks and hope it connects with the people. Make leaps of faith."

It might not be a very rock 'n' roll approach, but he's also specifically designed gigs that appeal to his fans. When he headlines a show, he might flip the bill and play the opening slot.

"So our fans can come out and be home by midnight," he said.

Zellar isn't sure how to appeal to a younger audience and he is unwilling to compromise his music to do it. Digital voice tweaks and pitch corrections just aren't his scene. Example: "Roosters Crow."

"We just played and allowed the imperfections to come through," he said. "The little noises that happen, it was a far more organic approach. I like the imperfections of performance; that's what makes it human. My voice sounds a certain way and it's not perfect, but it's the way my voice sounds."

He's hoping the old fans who crowded Minneapolis bars will give "Roosters Crow" a spin.

"There are a lot of people who don't know I've done anything since (Gear Daddies)," he said. "I think a lot of those fans would like what I've done post-Gear Daddies."

The Zamboni in the room

Martin Zellar knows how to write a song with legs. He might not know that song has legs while he's making it, and he might not even like those legs years later when the song becomes a beloved anthem for hockey fans. Consider the lifespan of "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni."

"I have a real love-hate relationship with that song," Zellar said of the ditty that crops up in hockey movies, hockey commercials and hockey TV shows almost 30 years after it was born. "I wrote that song when I was 19 years old, half drunk at 2 a.m. I wrote it and thought, 'The band will get a kick out of it.' They didn't really think it was funny; they just thought it was stupid."

The Gear Daddies trotted it out occasionally and, though Zellar put up a fight, it ended up as a hidden track on the band's album "Billy's Live Bait." It might be the song that means the least to him, Zellar said. But earning royalties on the song has allowed him to be a full-time musician.

"I'm glad I wrote it," he said. "There is nothing wrong with the song. It's a fine song. It's a sing-along ditty that hit a niche that wasn't done before. That's the secret. You can write an incredible love song, but you're in competition with a hundred thousand other love songs. You write a song like 'Zamboni' and you don't have competition.

"I can tell you one thing, Zamboni drivers hate it. They've told me so. I said, 'I don't blame you.' "