Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook & Matt Mangano Dish On Their Boston Ties & Record Breaking Shows At Fenway Park

The popularity of Zac Brown Band is indisputable, especially here in Boston where they are poised to make history when they return to Fenway Park in a couple of weeks. The legendary band is currently on their Owl Tour and will be stopping in Boston on August 31 and September 1. (Editor’s Update 9/4: the band shattered their previous record of sellouts at Fenway to set a new venue record of 11 consecutive sold-out shows).

We caught up recently with band members Clay Cook and Matt Mangano to chat about their Boston ties, this year’s record breaking shows at Fenway Park and why they love playing in New England.

Photo Credit: Diego Pernia

You both attended Berklee College of Music (with John Mayer) and have been friends ever since. Tell us about your experience at Berklee and how it feels to return to Boston.

Matt: I was introduced to Clay and John (Mayer) and it was almost like a prearranged marriage. I walked in the dorm room and there was John and Clay, who was looking at a Jeff Buckley record. Neither has changed much since then. Yeah, we’ve all grown up, but the core of who they are is being true to the art of creating music. It’s not just about making music, but the art of creating it. That defined my experience at Berklee.

How did the opportunity to play together in Zac Brown Band come about?

Clay: There was a period of time Zac was doing cover shows in Atlanta before the Zac Brown we all know today. Matt played with him on and off for years like that. There was a huge network of musicians in Atlanta doing that. I had a studio space in Atlanta across the hall from John Driskell Hopkins, who is one of the original members of the band. At a certain point, I think Zac had as many members as he could afford. When “Chicken Fried” came out, I got a call from him asking me to join Zac Brown Band. Ironically enough, Matt was on the road for John Driskell Hopkins, who had just had his first child. I called Matt and he said they- were the most intense partiers he had ever met [laughs].

What’s it like to come back to Boston and play at Fenway Park?

Clay: We originally thought we were going to take this year off, but there was so much demand, which is a good problem to probably have. We’re really lucky because Boston does us right. We are actively working to do some neat stuff for the show. It’s also great to come back to the city and take some time to walk around and see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Matt: It’s almost like a hometown show for us. Boston is one of the most incredible cities in the country and my favorite city. People there are no nonsense. They don’t waste time and could care less who you are and what you do. The city is so rich in history, so there’s that element and they have one of the most amazing baseball teams. Fenway Park is the shining jewel of the city. To be able to go there and play music there is awesome. I think the music that we have made has been influenced by Boston. Music is what brought us to Boston and it’s what brings us back.

Boston is one of your largest fan bases in the entire country. Did you ever envision you would have such an impact here and why do you think you have become such a sensation up north?

Clay: For a few years before joining Zac Brown Band, I was in The Marshall Tucker Band, my uncle’s band, and their best markets were New England. If you ask any southern rock or country band, New England is a great place where the people either understand the southern dynamic or are just really interested in it. It seems like we just connect to the New England fan better than someone in the flyover states. Our first big show in Boston was at BU’s Agganis Arena. We couldn’t believe that many people wanted to see us play. From there, we went from playing at an arena to a theater at the next city.

Matt: I think the songs really resonate with the people of New England. Especially songs like “Free” and “Colder Weather.” Since the idea of “freedom” in the US really took hold in the northeast and where does it get colder than New England? [laughs]

This year, you guys are hoping to make history here in Boston if the second night sells out, which will be your tenth consecutive show that has sold out at Fenway Park – the most ever of any musician. That’s so impressive. How does it feel?

Clay: I like to think we are just extending our record. It feels weird to even say this, but it’s amazing. There’s so much demand and we are so happy to come back again to Fenway Park.

For someone who hasn’t caught one of your shows this year, what new things do you have planned on The Owl tour and how does it differ from last year’s Down the Rabbit Hole Live tour?

Clay: We have a new album coming out September 20 and have brought back the acoustic set. We are actively trying to figure out the best show possible at Fenway this year. I can’t say who, but there may possibly be some special guests.

Matt: I think it’s cool that the Fenway show is later in the season than last year’s show. Our show at the end of the year is very different from how it was at the beginning of the year. We are always adding new songs.

Will you be featuring some cover songs like you did on last year’s tour?

Clay: Oh yeah. It’s just figuring out how we are going to curate that over two nights.

This is your sixth studio album. Can you tell us about some of the new material and why you decided to take a new approach incorporating some electronic/pop sounds?

Matt: I think when you get down to it and listen to the entire album, it’s not too far off from what we have been doing. The performances have been framed in a different kind of way. With the editing capabilities today, we can be really creative and write some incredible songs. We are constantly trying to grow as artists, but at the core of it, we are still the same band.