Oakland’s Merry Pranksters

What if Jim Henson and Ween spawned quadruplets? Meet Zoopy, the puppet-faced Oakland quartet.

The East Bay has a lot of weird bands, and winter is their season. The big national tours slow down. Booking schedules loosen up. And some strange things begin to fill in the gaps.

On December 7, one of them, a costumed disco-punk quartet called Zoopy, makes a classic entrance at Kitty’s in Emeryville. Monstrous puppet masks, a half-naked “Z Girl” named Becca, and a trench-coated MC named “Speed” weave through a heavily polarized yipster crowd to introduce themselves.

“Cool pants!” an onlooker says to Zoopy leader Jody Morris Gelbart, who wears extra-furry raver leg warmers on this cold winter night.

“What is this, Halloween?” a drunken frat boy chortles.

No fence sitters with Zoopy. You’re either for them or against them, and I’m for them, because they are quintessentially NorCal. Zoopy’s roots go back a decade to entertaining late locals Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as Zoopy Funk.

“He used to bring us in to create a fantasyland-like environment and make merry,” says 34-year-old bassist and singer Gelbart.

But Zoopy Funk disbanded after Kesey died and Gelbart’s twin brother, as he tells it, went insane from excess hallucinogens. Part of the group became the Yard Dogs, a successful vaudeville and burlesque road show based out of San Francisco, while Gelbart retired from music to be a bouncer at Oakland’s Kona Club and teach martial arts. At least five years passed. “I’m bad with dates,” he says.

This past summer, everything changed. Variety magazine reviewed an “impressive camp epic” named Starslyderz that featured Gelbart’s puppetry work. The Yard Dogs released a CD and opened for the String Cheese Incident.

“Losing my twin brother was a really emotional time for me and I retreated from music because of it,” Gelbart says. “But I sort of remembered who I was, and it made me want to fight for it.”

In two weeks he concocted an entire new Zoopy show with the help of his martial arts skills, the Kona Club, Craigslist, and his old music connections. MC “Speed” is actually Timothy “Speed” Levitch, an actor and personality whose credits include Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and Cartoon Network’s Stroker and Hoop, where he is the voice of Hoop. Gelbart saved the docile, philosophical Levitch from a fight in front of the Beauty Bar in San Francisco, and a friendship emerged based on their experiences growing up on the East Coast. “We’re both New York City rats,” Gelbart says. They currently share a residence in El Cerrito where the band practices.

Next came beatmaker and 25-year-old Oakland native and resident Patrick Fry. Gelbart says, “I was bouncing at the Kona Club, having a cigarette with Patrick, one of the best regulars, and talking about how I need someone who can make beats. Like, badass, booty-shaking rap beats. And he said that’s exactly what he did. He gave me a CD and I was ready to be disappointed, but it blew me away.

“Patrick takes the MPC [Akai’s Midi Production Center] and does something totally different with it than anything I’ve seen, like Dizzy Gillespie bending his trumpet.”

All that was left were the girls. Joe’s friend Becca Louie became the first of several Z Girls, whose uniforms include burlesque-esque skimpy tops, micro-miniskirts, garter belts, and heels. “About one in ten girls who answer our ads is a fit,” Gelbart says. “I’m not a choreographer, so it’s a lot about them. I just tell them, ‘Think of it as live Japanimation.'”

With a crew in place, Gelbart hand-sewed three costumes for Slee-nard (Gelbart), Dancing Piggy Boy (Fry), and Fartfire the Dragon (Pimp X) from found objects and embarked on two weeks of creating songs and practicing in El Cerrito. Zoopy tested out its eleven-song mash-up of reggaetón, rap and hyphy beats, shoe-gazer guitar drone, pop hooks, and psych vocals at its first show, which was in late August at the late Ivy Room.

“Our whole goal is for people to not know where they’ve been for the last 45 minutes. For one moment in time, to have that little voice inside your heads that’s like, ‘Nya nya nya,’ — that voice shuts the fuck up,” Gelbart says.

The group then hits the northwest coast for twenty dates. It has at least four booked for the holidays in the Bay Area.

“We’re really focused, and there’s nothing more potent than those first few months,” Gelbart says. “Winter’s a great time to see new bands that are just starting out. Bands that still have that ‘Eye of the Tiger’ fire.”

Gorillaz and Cookie Mongoloid, you’re on notice. There’s a new puppet crew in the mix, and it’s from Oaktown, baby.


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