When pop-punk band Zoinks! was founded in 1993, the young musicians quickly became outliers in a Reno music scene that’s nearly unrecognizable today. They pressed three full albums, toured America and Europe, and played with both local and international legends like Green Day before officially breaking up in 1998. Now Zoinks! is reuniting for a slate of 30th anniversary shows in Carson City, Reno and Los Angeles this month.
To hear founding member and guitarist/vocalist Zac Damon tell it, Reno and Sparks in the early ’90s harbored a mélange of strange rock/funk hybrid bands, a small hardcore scene, and vestiges of the hair-metal scene giving way to the beginnings of the grunge revolution—all served by a collection of small, mostly unreliable venues.
“They were always either disorganized, or there would always be some sort of complication that would kind of ruin the fun,” Damon said. “So you know, the DIY basement shows always filled in those gaps when those kinds of places would lose their license or change ownership or wherever the case may be.”
Zoinks! is one of many Reno bands that embraced the DIY scene and the community it engendered. Damon and his housemates even turned the basement of their house on Ryland Street into a venue years before the establishment of Fort Ryland—perhaps Reno’s most famous DIY venue, located on the same street.
While many Reno bands got their start—or even found a whole career—playing basement shows, Zoinks! became a standout exception when the band’s unique sound took them out of the basement and around the world.
“I played in a band with (founding drummer Colin Pantell) in high school, a straight-edge hardcore band called Discipline, and we had left that band, and our tastes changed a little bit,” Damon said. “We were trying to do something a little different.”
After Damon and Pantell recruited bass player and vocalist Rob Borges to join their new outfit, the trio established a decidedly different approach than the harder, faster sounds they’d prioritized in the past.
“I particularly became more interested in melody, whereas earlier with punk music, I was really more interested in, you know, speed and aggressiveness,” Damon said. “I liked the marriage of the two—faster, more aggressive music blended with good, melodic pop hooks.”
Damon credits Bad Religion as his major influence during this era, but namedrops a series of other bands that informed the Zoinks! sound like the Pixies, The Mr. T Experience, Rocket From the Crypt, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Green Day, for starters. According to Damon, Zoinks! was the only real band in Reno leaning more into the “pop” dichotomy of pop-punk at the time—a choice that made them somewhat of a natural pairing for many of the big acts that toured through the city.
“We opened for NOFX; we opened for The Offspring; we opened for Face to Face; we opened for Pennywise; we opened for Rancid—you name any band like that, that came through town at the time, and we, nine times out of 10, were the opening band,” Damon said.
Shortly after the inception of Zoinks!, Pantell left on amiable terms due to personal reasons and was replaced on drums by another friend of the band, Bob Conrad. Damon credits Conrad, who operated a zine called Second Guess, for opening doors to the band with his connections to the local scene and larger West Coast punk community. At that time, Zoinks! had recorded several demos with Pantell on drums, which then became part of their original 7-inch vinyl release. While Pantell was credited as the drummer on those original records, Conrad became the credited drummer of the band going forward.
“As soon as Bob was in the band, things just took off just because of all his connections,” Damon said. “We hooked up with a local label called Satan’s Pimp. They put out a couple of singles. We got some attention from some bigger indie labels and ended up signing on with Dr. Strange Records out of Los Angeles.”
After signing with Dr. Strange, Zoinks! released its debut album Bad Move, Space Cadet— an album that now belongs to the official collection of the Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas. For the next five years, the band built and capitalized on its momentum, adding guitarist and vocalist Arne Cherkoss to the lineup, opening for Green Day to a crowd of 6,000 in Hawaii, touring both the United States and Europe, and releasing three more full-length albums.
Eventually, though, Damon left the band in late 1996 to pursue new projects (including other punk institutions Big in Japan and Screeching Weasel), and the official breakup of Zoinks! followed two years later in 1998. Damon stressed that it wasn’t acrimonious, and was mostly due to a mix of personal factors and a mutually waning interest.
The members still keep in touch occasionally and played a reunion show in 2007—but as the 30th anniversary approached, serendipity and a touch of nostalgia aligned to bring the planned reunion shows into place.
“Bill Plaster—he’s the owner and the guy who runs Dr. Strange Records—he had mentioned to Arne that he would love to have Zoinks! play a reunion show,” Damon said. “Arne ran it by me, and my initial response was, ‘Nah.’ But then it came up again, and I hadn’t really played in a band in a while. So I think maybe I was starting to feel that edge a little bit.”
In July of this year, Damon invited Conrad to play as a session drummer at the recording studio he operates with Toby Suess, Tin Roof Recording in Fallon.
“Just by chance that day, when I had Bob out—first time he’d ever been out to the studio—Bill and another friend of mine from Los Angeles called me while Bob was there, and are like, ‘Hey, man, are you guys gonna play this reunion show or what?’” Damon said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? Bob’s sitting right here next to me. So what do you say; you want to do this?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.’”
With commitments from Conrad and Cherkoss, Damon recruited a new member, Yotam Ben Horin, on bass and vocals in place of Borges, to play the reunion shows.
“I’ve been working with him at my studio, working on his new album,” Damon said. “He’s a big Zoinks! fan. So when this all came up, I was like, ‘Hey, he plays bass; he’s a great singer, and he’s a fan.’ So it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Shows will take place on Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Tap Shack in Carson City with Limbeck, The Atomiks, and Eddie and the Subtitles; and Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Holland Project in Reno with Elephant Rifle and Carson City punk band Last One Down. On Saturday, Oct. 21, Zoinks! will join other bands from the Dr. Strange label for a larger reunion show in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Zoinks! is returning to a Reno music scene that looks almost nothing like the one it came up in—something that Damon says is for the best, crediting the current wide range of genres and organizations like the Holland Project as signs of the town’s progress. To Damon, though, the return of Zoinks! is more about the past than the present or future.
“For me, doing this at this point in my life, there’s no pretense; there’s no ego behind it,” he said. “Just enjoying and remembering a really fun time in my life—to hang out with old friends and play these old songs. And I don’t know. We’ll see what comes up.”