To paraphrase Shakespeare: Some people seek greatness, while others have it thrust upon them. For Ken Zimmerman, “it” was a bass guitar.
“I’d never played an instrument before, and I walked in on my friends just kind of jamming around, and then I remember Robb looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Ken, guess what? You’re playing bass,’” said Zimmerman.
It’s now been more than 10 years since Robb Russo, frontman of electro alt-rockers Asphalt Socialites, gave Zimmerman that bass; the two are now the only founding members remaining after a litany of life and lineup changes.
In 2020, the band started releasing their first new music since 2014 EP Forever and Whatever, as a series of singles. What started as a pandemic recording project, though, has helped the band rethink engaging with a music industry—and a fanbase—that’s changed drastically in the last decade.
“Now we’re a lot more hands-on, I think, with everything going on, with every part of it, from promotion to everything,” Russo said.
Asphalt Socialites got their start playing local shows and touring around the West Coast in the early 2010s. The name was Zimmerman’s idea; it came from their habit of unwinding with a few beers in their rehearsal space’s parking lot after band practice.
“They hated it at first,” said Zimmerman. “We had a whole list of names, and that got put on the back burner.”
Russo and the other members eventually came around, and the name “Asphalt Socialites” became symbolic of the diametric qualities of their sound: ethereal yet relatable, electronic and organic, big enough to fill a stadium but intimate enough for solo listening.
“The name was very jet-set and working-class at the same time,” said Russo. “(We’re) not looking to be pigeonholed by making our album cover the Reno Arch. I’m proud to be from Reno—we both are—but we’re trying to reach out to the rest of the world from where we are. And that means touring outside.”
They leaned into their jet-setting ways for the production of Forever and Whatever, traveling to Chicago to record with the late Bjorn Thorsrud, a University of Nevada, Reno, alum who produced extensively for the Smashing Pumpkins. The production process took two long years, with Thorsrud and the band occasionally seeing each other in person, but mostly collaborating as much as possible through phone calls or video chats—a process they found as educational as it was tedious.
“It was so expensive to fly to Chicago … anytime we had ideas,” said Zimmerman. “We were sitting there trying to listen and say, ‘You know that part; it’s two minutes and 41 seconds in, right before the bridge,’ or something like that.’ It’s too hard to say what we want.”
Both Russo and Zimmerman list ’80s pop-rock icons like The Cure and Depeche Mode as big influences; shoegaze’s electronic strings also leave their footprint on the sound. Contemporary listeners might also hear comparisons to fellow Nevada natives The Killers, whom Russo once opened for in a previous band, or Cold Play. Russo and Zimmerman credit Thorsrud for much of the album’s cavernous drums, synth-laden swells and stadium-rock vibes—but they admit they felt a little lost on what to do after they got the album back.
“He was killing it on the production end and everything,” Russo said. “… (It) was about us having to figure out how to promote it. And we didn’t do a great job when we first started.”
The band toured over the next couple of years, building momentum and finding occasional mainstream success, like getting their track “6 Degrees” licensed as the theme song to a popular reality-TV web series. Several amicable lineup changes slowed their progress, though; Russo said it felt like taking one step forward and two steps back.
The pandemic forced the band into a period of introspection as venues everywhere closed, and they decided to produce a series of new singles with resources closer to home. They added their new guitarist, Ian Tipton, and engaged Rick Spagnola at Dogwater Studios in Reno.
“He knows our sound, and we kind of know what he’s capable of and what he likes to do,” Zimmerman said. “It’s almost like an artist with a brush on canvas. I take a paintbrush, and I can do a stick figure—and that’s about it. But over time, we’re working with him, and we’re able to get what we hear in our heads and get it out into the single.”
Asphalt Socialites have released six singles since 2020, a workflow that has given them the freedom to experiment with their sound and community outreach—leading to levels of success that surprised even them. A stripped-down love ballad called “The One,” for example, features departures from the band’s stadium-wave sounds, with Zimmerman on lead vocals and Russo on acoustic guitar.
“Ken had this great idea for marketing the song,” Russo said. “All those little photos (on the cover image) are of couples, all walks of life. Ken’s like, ‘If you’re a fan of our band, do you have a significant other that you love very much? Who’s your one?’”
Added Zimmerman: “Since we released it, everyone started listening to it, and it triggered the algorithm on Spotify, and it ended up getting on an actual Spotify playlist. Next thing you know, we have, like, 300,000 plays.”
Focusing on individual digital releases has given Asphalt Socialites a wider audience while meshing well with their limited free time. Both Russo and Zimmerman have full-time jobs and family commitments, and while they’ve never considered calling the band quits, their recent success has reinvigorated their devotion to their 13-year-old project.
“It’s just being able to have that big picture in our minds, too, that whatever we’re going through, the difficulty of this, it’s not the end there,” said Russo.
They’re currently working on booking their first live performances since the pandemic and will be opening for Strangelove: The Depeche Mode Experience at the Ranch House in Sparks on Saturday, April 15.
For more information, visit asphaltsocialites.com.