It has many names—Mid-Life Crisis, Quarter-Life Crisis, Post-College Crisis, Dark Night of the Soul—but it’s a crossroads we all come to, at one point or another: “It’s that pressure to be who you want to be, but also what other people expect you to be,” says Zuli, the nom de plume of Long Island, NY-based psych-pop rocker Ryan Camenzuli. “I recorded this album with that in mind. I was writing from an emotional, weight-of-the-world-on-your-shoulders perspective.”
The 25-year-old rocker is referring to his debut full-length album, On Human Freakout Mountain, out October 20 via Swoon City Music. It’s a snapshot of Zuli and his tight group of friends—a crew called CON TEMPLATE, a collective of artists, designers, videographers, photographers, and musicians. “It’s our own in-house creative design team,” says Zuli, who enlisted the help of his collective to work on the album.
Many of the LP’s best tracks were inspired by the stories of his closest friends’ growing pains. He named the album On Human Freakout Mountain “because the songs all connected to this period in life where everything and everyone is in limbo,” explains Zuli. “You’re still connected to your childhood, but you now need to make decisions that will affect the outcome of your entire life.”
“I believe we all go through the same worries and anxiety,” adds Zuli, “It’s all about that little voice in your head that says, ‘Fuck, what am I doing?!’”
One of the LP’s highlights, the tender, hyper-catchy pop anthem “Neither Am I,” was inspired by a friend and CON TEMPLATE member who was suffering from severe panic attacks. “It was hard to watch him go through that,” Zuli explains. “He’s one of the most loving and thoughtful guys I know, and his life was spinning out of control.” His friend ultimately recovered and is “now doing better than ever,” says Zuli. “But at the time, it was scary. I was losing one of my best friends and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
So Zuli wrote as a form of catharsis. “It was never my plan to write about my friends—it just happened,” he adds. “A friend would tell me a story and I’d connect with it and write a song. After the fact, I’d often think, ‘Wow, this reminds me of that time this also happened in my life.’”
The hyper-melodic rocker “Blaze,” one of the first tracks written for the album, “helped shape the themes of fear, uncertainty & self-worth that string the album together,” says Zuli. “At its core, the song is about the anxiety and heartbreak that can build up in a toxic relationship, but was originally inspired by the relationship between a boy and his dog, Blaze.” Zuli’s friend was forced to put down his dog due to its aggressive behavior. “He would bite strangers and it eventually got out of control,” explains Zuli.
“I shouldn’t have to tell my baby when to behave / She treats me so bad / But I know she won’t change,” Zuli sings over jangling guitar and tender oh-oh-oohhhhs.
“The album is reflective of all the things that could possibly come up in your head—‘what the fuck to do with your life?’, ‘why bother?’, ‘why do this?’, ‘why do that?’ It’s common in your 20s, but it happens a lot across life. Second guessing the questions you’re facing and the choices you’re making—and trying to move past that.”
“Writing,” he adds, “was a way to get it all off my chest.”
After high school, Zuli spent stints playing music with Wild International, Lazyeyes and Allies, then returned to Long Island in 2014 to write and record his own material. Soon he’d produced his debut EP, Supernatural Voodoo, a collection of colorful psych-pop and rock. He was also demoing tracks for his upcoming LP, when he booked a seven-week tour himself and assembled a band to hit the road. “When I returned from the tour I felt like I’d aged 20 years – it was super grueling, but an amazing learning experience” he says.
Zuli decamped to upstate New York state to track the album’s 10 songs, playing every instrument himself (with the exception of drums, courtesy of Kyle Conlon). The tunes unite colorful, psychedelic textures with hooks and guitar driven pop smarts. It expands on Supernatural Voodoo and “goes deeper on every level,” he says. “The composition of On Human Freakout Mountain is more intricate, the harmonies lusher.”
The new album is the culmination of a lifetime spent playing and writing music. He started on the piano at age 5, excelling in classical music. At 11 or 12, he picked up the electric guitar after becoming obsessed with The Who and Led Zeppelin. Soon, he started his first high school band, named Bad Juju, a “Sublime wanna-be band that was for fun,” he says. Then, at 17 years old, he met Miles Cooper Seaton from cult folk-rock group Akron/Family, who became a musical mentor of sorts.
“Akron/Family were my favorite band then and are still one of my all-time favorites now,” says Zuli. “They were playing an 18+ show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, so I sent Miles [Cooper Seaton] a Facebook message to see if he could get me and my friends into the show. I didn’t think he’d answer, but we met before sound check, hung out, and were all let into the show.”
The one-time meeting turned into a deeper relationship between Zuli and Seaton. “We kept in touch and he started asking about my own music,” explains Zuli. This led to the two chatting over many late nights, discussing Akron/Family’s career, as well as different recording techniques, musical styles and more. Moreso, Seaton helped Zuli shape his first songs. “Miles was the first person to critique my music and help me grow as an artist,” he adds.
“The songs had a timeless vibe—and I wanted to extend that feel to the LP,” Zuli says. “The emotional arch is stronger. It feels more diverse, too. There’s a little something for everybody on the album.”
On “Follow You,” Zuli sings again of that sense of having no direction, over shimmering guitar and layers of vocal melodies: “The world’s turned upside down / What to do without out you… / Even though you know I’ve been lost before / You know you’re all I got.” And on “Kubadiver,” Zuli builds a tender melody to an all-out rock anthem: “In a second I could die, but I wanted to survive and keep you company / I didn’t want to waste all of your time / I really only like you when I’m high, high, high.”
Zuli says the music of the 1960s—the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Beatles—is a strong influence, as are many current indie rock acts, like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
“Look, I’m a sucker for pop sensibility,” says Zuli, “but with a weird twist.”