Musician-producer Zack Arnett was able to clear his mind on road trip down the California coast with his actor buddy Scott Michael Foster of “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and his two dogs.
With a makeshift recording studio squeezed on board, the Monterey native worked to forget the sounds of his last groups (hip-hop Ostrich Head and electro-clash A Fire in the Hamptons) and create something new.
His project, Sur, premieres the debut EP “Savage Beast” in Berkeley this week.
On one hand, the trip was zenlike. He wended through his favorite spiritual haunts, like Big Sur, which inspired his band’s name. “We met other people who were wandering, too, doing solo missions like us, and it was interesting to hear their stories,” the singer says.
While they came across a black bear in the wild, the savage beasts they mostly encountered were human, such as the meth heads that careened into their Yosemite trailer park at 3 a.m. and began violently partying. “It was nasty, as grimy as hell, and they kept banging on our trailer all night,” he says. “But we had a shotgun, so I was awake the whole night with that shotgun.”
Mudslides in Ojai nearly did the duo in. “This f——- boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle fell right in front of our truck, and it would have annihilated us,” says Arnett. “Then we were going to Death Valley, into the canyon, where you swiftly descend. But this was our first time with this 20,000-pound trailer attached to a truck.”
By the time they fully descended, sparks were shooting out of the wheel wells where the inner workings had nearly been destroyed. “They were just molten gunk. We actually disintegrated those brakes completely,” he says.
Gradually, Arnett’s gritty new approach began to emerge, in bluesy tunes such as “Lean Back,” “Ball N Chain” and “Make it Till Morning.”
In retrospect, he barely noticed the songwriting changes overtaking him. “I only knew that I was channeling something, and I wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from. But it was definitely people’s pain and struggle. So it certainly was a rebirth that I felt happening, writing this completely different style of music.”
Arnett isn’t sure whether the bear, boulder or bad brakes set the change in motion. But he says, “It definitely was a useful experience. Now that I have a band, I think we’re going to go on an adventure of our own and get a little nutty.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Cornerstone, 2367 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
When: 9 p.m. May 24
Contact: (510) 214-8600, www.cornerstoneberkeley.com