Photo by Peter Wochniak
Regina Zernay Roberts
Exclusive Interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 11, 2011
Regina Zernay Roberts first picked up the bass when she was a teenager. Not long after graduating from high school, Regina found herself playing all along the West Coast, everywhere from small clubs and dives to The Whiskey on Sunset and everywhere in between. As her career continued to blossom, Regina has since performed on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, Good Morning America, Ellen, Regis & Kelly and many other national TV programs.
For over three years, Regina played with Cowboy Mouth, performing over 200 shows a year throughout the U.S., as well as on military bases in Kuwait and Iraq. Most recently, Regina played bass for hip-hop superstar Cee Lo Green in his all-girl band, Scarlet Fever.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
RZR: There was always a piano in the house when I was little. I took lessons when we lived in Florida, but, to be honest, I had a really mean piano teacher! [Laughs] I noticed she wasn’t very nice, but I never told my parents. I remember the day she tried teaching me to write notes on the staff. Midway, she stopped abruptly and suddenly started talking very sweetly to me. I didn’t understand why.
Then she said, in her nicest voice, “If you try to write with your right hand, I’ll give you a cookie.” I guess she was old school, thinking being left-handed was a bad thing. I had no idea what the big deal was, so I said, “Sure” – I really love cookies! – and started writing with my right hand. She smiled, bigger than I’d ever seen her smile before, and went to the kitchen for the cookie.
When she got back, she looked like the sky had fallen. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d switched to my left hand while she was gone. Either I’d told my parents what happened or she thought I was the devil because my piano lessons with her stopped after that incident.
There was a gap of a few years in my playing. Even though I loved music and singing along with the radio, I didn’t decide to play an instrument again till I became a fan of Duran Duran. Pre-teen logic: I knew I’d never meet them as a groupie, but if I was a musician, maybe one day we’d have an excuse to talk. So I pestered my parents about getting me an electric guitar until they finally gave in. One thing led to another and I discovered bass was what I really wanted to play.
FBPO: Did you always know you wanted to be in the music world, or did it just hit you one day?
RZR: I think I always knew. I remember being in second grade and saying it to anyone who’d listen. But you’re told pretty quickly it’s not stable, or even considered a real career. So I was encouraged to pick a suitable major and finish school. The idea of majoring in music? No way! My parents didn’t stop me from playing. They just didn’t think it was a job for me. They really wanted me to be a doctor. Wow, talk about shooting for the moon! I’m a total space cadet. I doubt I could have made it through the classes. Too funny, I still giggle with my mom about it now. Through it all, the only consistent thing about me was playing bass.
With Cowboy Mouth
FBPO: How did you end up as a bass player?
RZR: It was in high school. I had a group of friends who wanted to start an all-girl band. They said they knew I played guitar and wondered if I’d switch to bass. I said, “Sure,” and totally fell in love with it.
FBPO: Who were your influences as a young, up-and-coming bass player?
RZR: By the time I started playing bass, my friends were introducing me to California punk – Social Distortion, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, and all the music that went along with that, like Minor Threat, the Toy Dolls and, of course, The Ramones. The bass players in those bands are so good, but so totally underrated!
KROQ was amazing, too, with Jed the Fish and Rodney on the ROQ. When you’re a lonely kid who can’t afford all the records you want, you just live off the radio. When I got a little older, that’s when I found out about Led Zeppelin. Life-changing.
In fact, I got to meet John Paul Jones recently. And you know what? He didn’t say one word to me! He just smiled and nodded while I gushed about how awesome he is. Maybe that was the smartest thing ever. At least I can’t hold anything he said against him!
FBPO: I get the feeling you loved what you were doing so much that you were happy to play with anyone and everyone, just as long as you were playing. Is that about right?
RZR: It’s true! When I’m not playing, I’m pretty miserable. Not to say I don’t have other interests, but it’s the one thing that makes me the happiest.
Early on, I asked a good friend, an amazing guitar player, what’s the fastest way to get better. He said, “Gina, just play, play and play. Join every band you can, and don’t stop.” I took his advice to heart and played with anyone I got the chance to. There were times I was playing in three bands at once. I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be in a band and play shows. It never felt like work. I really love it, probably just like everyone else who plays bass.
With Cee Lo Green at an NBA All-Star game
FBPO: It’s been said you have a penchant for the “darker” and “noisier” side of music. What does that mean?
RZR: I think it can mean a lot of things. Serious or suggestive lyrics, minor chords and progressions, distortion, dissonance, even outright noise. The right combination will get me to jump out of my chair, but even a little grit gets my attention. To me, it’s got more sex appeal and it’s a little forbidden, too. The masses want polished pop, right? But if you break that rule, for some reason I want to hear it more!
The singer of a band I’d been in once told me, “I don’t make pop music for kids, I make adult music for grown-ups.” That stuck with me. It’s the day you hear Mick Jagger say, “My hands are greasy, she’s a mean, mean machine” and you finally understand what he means. I must have heard that song a thousand times before that line actually registered. I remember thinking, “Holy crap! Did he really just say that?” Wow! That’s rock & roll. It’s rude and dirty. I love it!
FBPO: What’s it like being a female in a role that’s been traditionally dominated by males? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Or maybe even a neutral thing?
RZR: I’ve mostly played in bands with all guys. My experience with that was great. I was treated like everyone’s little sister. I felt a lot of love and support, both from the bands I played with and the people we played for.
Playing in an all-girl band was Cee Lo, I was surprised to see it’s different. There seemed to be a lot more criticism. Sometimes it was very harsh, even unreasonable. I’d never guess so many people would trip out over an all-girl band. To me, it’s just plain weird. I’m not sure what to make of it. Ask me in a year! [Laughs] But for now, let’s just say I can see how it’s both a blessing and a curse.
Photo by Joanna Brooks
FBPO: You were with Cowboy Mouth for a pretty good stretch. Tell me about that experience.
RZR: The first thing that comes to mind is touring, like, all the time! There were four band members, three crew and our driver. We all lived together in a tour bus for much of the time. You become very close and learn a lot about yourself and each other. We criss-crossed the country a half dozen times in the three-plus years I was a member.
There were so many highlights and laugh-out-loud stories. Playing tennis in the middle of an empty airport at 3 a.m. Stumbling through the French Quarter in New Orleans countless times. Furious over being shot at in Iraq. Bus dance parties – No, not the kind involving stripper poles! Just really good, clean fun. These are some of the kindest, biggest-hearted people I’ve ever met. Their fans are the same, too.
Fred (Le Blanc) and Griff (John Thomas Griffith) are the heart and soul of that band. They both took me under their wing. Even though I had a lot to learn, they pulled me up to a level far beyond where I was when I met them. And their musicianship, live performances, writing, recording … Good lord! They are the best in the world, to the point where it’s not even fair. They put other people to shame. Griff was like my mentor, a big brother and such a good friend to me. We still live within five miles of each other and talk often.
I loved being in Cowboy Mouth. It was super hard to leave. If I could have been in both Cowboy Mouth and Cee Lo’s band at the same time, I’d have totally done it. I miss those guys.
Photo by Joanna Brooks
FBPO: How did you get the gig with Cee Lo Green? You sure seem to have enjoyed it!
RZR: Totally! I had such a great time! How could you tell? [Laughs] I had been home for a couple of weeks last summer and called a friend to say hi. By coincidence, he was holding auditions for an all-girl band that same week. He said it was for some TV appearances Cee Lo was doing and wondered if I’d be interested.
I’d been a fan of Gnarls Barkley and Cee Lo for a while and I was excited to try out. I was so nervous! Plus, Cee Lo was there, so the pressure was on. If you’ve never met Cee Lo, I have to tell you he’s a really nice guy. Even-keeled, thoughtful, super supportive. Great qualities in a bandleader. He’s also someone with abundant talent and creativity. He’s very famous, a super successful artist and, if he wanted to, he could let it go to his head, be arrogant and talk down to you. But he never does. Instead, he’s got an open mind and collaborative attitude. He wants you to play well, encourages you to be the best version of yourself you can be. I noticed that early on, even the first day we met.
FBPO: What lies ahead for you and your career? What can we look forward to hearing and seeing from Regina Zernay Roberts?
RZR: I had a band of my own for a while called Méchant. It was fun, feisty power pop. I had a great time with it. I’ve been working on something for a while now that’s pretty different. It’s angrier, noisier, more in-your-face. If all goes as planned, I’d like to release a recording this year. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m super excited about where it’s heading. If the timing’s right, I’d like to tour in support of it.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
RZR: Vice President of the Universe! An angry attorney? Probably not a nun. How about a lead singer? [Laughs!] Truth be told, if I wasn’t a bass player, I’d be someone else altogether. Or I wouldn't exist at all.