The popular Venezuelan punk band Zeta applied for U.S. residency in 2017. Now, the band’s fate is unknown after its co-founder, Daniel Saud, was the only member whose application to stay was denied.

 

Daniel Saud plays with Zeta at The Fine Print’s November 2018 benefit show. Photo by Elizabeth Townsend.

It was late at night in mid-January, and Daniel Saud braced himself for a winter storm. The 28-year-old co-founder of Zeta was driving a 15-foot van through the Colorado Rocky Mountains with his fellow band members Juan Chi, Gabriel Duque and Eduardo Sandoval, and their senior black Labrador, Tintan. They were en route to Montana, what would have been the 14th stop on the avant-punk band’s third tour across the United States since they migrated from Venezuela in 2015.

Around 3 a.m., Saud pulled up to a snow-covered gas station and checked his phone. Over a year ago, each member of Zeta had submitted a petition for residency to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), eager to continue their careers in the U.S. Saud had been denied in November 2018, had appealed, and was anxiously waiting to hear from his attorney.

The band was accustomed to overcoming obstacles on tour like wrecked strings, a broken amp or low funds for gas. But the moment Saud read the email from his attorney, he knew they’d have to head home. His appeal had been denied.

Saud now had 30 days to leave the country or appeal a second time. Though this is typical protocol, in Saud’s case, his lawyer sent him the news 10 days later than it had actually been issued, giving him little time to submit what would likely be his final appeal.

Zeta cancelled all but three of the remaining stops on their tour, sparing shows in Gainesville, Orlando and Miami to raise awareness and money to help Saud sort out his second appeal, which he submitted in early February. He expects to hear back in a month or so.

Even as thousands have rallied to support him over the past couple weeks, Saud doesn’t know what’s going to happen. This is in part because he is just one of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have migrated to the U.S. since 2005. His case highlights the seemingly arbitrary nature of the U.S. immigration system: Though Saud co-founded Zeta, he was the only band member who wasn’t approved to stay in the country.

“Even when it’s hard, we still believe in the magic and miracles,” Saud said. “And at the end, when worst comes to worst, everything happens for a reason.”

Saud picked up his first instrument, a bass guitar, when he was at his cousin Gustavo’s house in Lechería, the coastal town in Venezuela their family is from. When the cousins would hang out, Gustavo would give seven-year-old Saud cassette tapes and CDs and play him Nirvana, the first band that really caught the young boy’s ear. “He always played music for me, and let me play anything I wanted,” Saud said. “I loved that.”

Throughout his childhood, Saud was constantly seeking adventure — in his words, “something more.” He spent his free time practicing guitar, playing outside and going to music festivals, which was how he met Juan Chi in 2002. The two were waiting in line for a local festival when they struck up a conversation. At the time, Saud was 11 and Chi was 13.

“A pretty crazy friendship blew up,” Chi said.

A year later, the pair established a band. They named themselves “Zeta Once” — “Zeta 11” in English — but over time, fans and friends began to call them by their forename. Just “Zeta” stuck.

Fueled by fervor, the two would stay up late to record, Saud on guitar and Chi doing vocals. When they would play back the tracks in the morning, they’d usually end up erasing them and starting over. According to Saud, it just wasn’t enough. “We were never satisfied with any recording — ever,” he said, laughing, “And I think that’s good.”

Soon, Chi and Saud found the band’s first dummer, Hector Cabello, and the trio played their first gig on Feb. 11, 2003. It was a small house show in Lechería, and they covered Blink-182 and Deftones. They also started to get booked at local venues, but since they were so young, an older friend, sibling or Cabello’s mother had to drive them. “Everyone thought, after watching us for a while, ‘okay, these guys wanna be for real,’” Saud said.

Musicians and friends have filtered in and out of Zeta over the years, but Chi and Saud have remained the linchpins of the band. (Duque became the band’s bass player four years ago; Sandoval, the current drummer, joined Zeta two years ago.)

And as the band grew up, their sound evolved into a marriage of airy Afro-Caribbean music and gritty punk. “The sounds are always evolving,” Saud said. “The sound that we have is just the sound of the times.”

His case highlights the seemingly arbitrary nature of the U.S. immigration system: Though Saud co-founded Zeta, he was the only band member who wasn’t approved to stay in the country.

This dynamism eventually led to an album and critical success. Zeta started to gain attention outside of their hometown in 2011, after they embarked on a tour across South America for “Haedo,” their first full-length album, which is named after a city near Buenos Aires in Argentina. That year, Zeta was named “Best Metal Artist” by Distorxion Magazine Awards, a music magazine in Venezuela. Two years later, the group won “Best International Artist Projection” at the annual Union Rock Show Awards, which honors the best musical talent in Venezuela.

But all the while, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain careers as musicians in Venezuela. In 2014, Saud and Chi were living in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. One day, as Saud was walking to a convenience store after work, two men on a motorcycle pulled a gun on him, violently slammed him against a wall and stole his wallet, cellphone and other belongings. The next morning, Saud and Chi packed their bags and moved back to Lecheria.

“After two years [in Caracas], it was just too much,” Chi said. “The streets will make you paranoid all the time.”

As food shortages and hyperinflation became the new norm, the band started to think about leaving the country. For Saud, the economic troubles made it difficult to take care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. So in 2015, the group officially left. Like many other Venezuelans, they migrated to Miami.

Starting from scratch as musicians in the U.S.brought challenges for Zeta. Initially the band feared they wouldn’t be able to connect with American audiences, since their lyrics are in Spanish. And because their sound transcends most genres and labels, it was difficult for them to thrive among any specific scene, even in South Florida. They weren’t punk enough to fit into the punk genre, or metal enough to be metal.

Naturally, they wound up in Gainesville.

In 2015, the band played its first Fest, Gainesville’s annual punk music festival. Audiences were enamored by the synergy of Chi’s vocal roars and the nostalgic timbre of Saud’s bass guitar.

“They’re the most passionate people when it comes to playing music,” said Randy Randall, a musician in the band Dikembe and a friend of Zeta’s. “Everything is so rhythmic; it gets the crowd super hyped up. It was really fun to see a lot of people be like, ‘holy shit, that was incredible.’”

Zeta performs at the Civic Media Center in December 2018. Photo by Elizabeth Townsend.

Over the past four years, Zeta has returned to Gainesville at least 12 times to perform. The band also produces the majority of its merch here.

As the band began putting roots down in the U.S., Duque, Sandoval, Chi and Saud knew they’d have to apply for work visas. But work visas are only valid for a year. After extensive touring, the artists realized their careers’ future here demanded far greater permanency.

The artists initially considered applying for an O-1 visa, a nonresident U.S. visa for individuals, like musicians, who demonstrate extraordinary ability in their field. This would have allowed them to stay in the U.S. for up to three years. But according to Saud, their immigration lawyer advised against this: she told them with their experience as musicians, she was confident they could successfully try for permanent residency instead, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. indefinitely without having to reapply.

With their future and careers in mind, the four musicians took their attorney’s guidance. They knew they couldn’t possibly flourish as a band back in Venezuela, so they began the arduous process of applying to become permanent residents.

“I never imagined how hard it would be,” Saud said.

Saud’s initial denials from the USCIS left many confused. Chi and Saud, the band’s founders, applied through the same residency process and, in Saud’s words, have “grown the same garden of things” over the last 16 years.

On the band members’ applications, their attorney wrote descriptions of who they are. She listed Chi as “songwriter” and Saud as “lead guitarist.” The band felt that the USCIS assumed this wording implied that Saud was expendable.

”I compose the music. I play all the instruments. [I] record drums, bass, guitar, keys,” Saud said. “I produce the music — it’s my songs.”

The news was met with an outpouring of support from fans, friends and even complete strangers who have come across Saud’s story. Saud created a change.org petition that peaked at 8,934 signatures as of March 3.

The band also played a six-show tour around Florida in late January that the group called “Last Minute Sequence 2019 #KeepThemTogether.” Some venues even offered to help the artists raise some extra funds. Nice Guys Pizza in Cape Coral, where Zeta has played multiple shows over the past few years, agreed to match every five dollars paid to cover that evening.

“It is truly rare to see a band that is so connected and powerful in their performance,” said Jovana Batkovic, co-owner of Nice Guys Pizza. “The whole band is like one living, breathing animal in whose presence you cannot be left unmoved.”

“Bring your camera (if you have one), bring vegan food, bring your dog, bring your family and friends,” Chi wrote in an Instagram post. “Let’s make these shows last forever!”

“They’re the most passionate people when it comes to playing music,” said Randy Randall, a musician in the band Dikembe and a friend of Zeta’s. “Everything is so rhythmic; it gets the crowd super hyped up. It was really fun to see a lot of people be like, ‘holy shit, that was incredible.’”

After finishing this tour, the quartet plans to take a hiatus from the music scene to prepare for their future as a group. Between scrapping 10 shows off their tour, paying for over 2,000 miles worth of gas, lawyer fees, immigration fees, and now — after discovering that Tintan has metastatic cancer — veterinary fees, the band feels roughed up. Saud alone has spent over $18,000 during the entire process of applying for residency.

For now, Saud doesn’t plan on returning to Venezuela if his second petition gets denied. Instead, if he were to leave the U.S., he said he would likely settle down in Chile, where his wife is from and where he could continue to support his family.

Nevertheless, Saud feels fortunate to have been able to continuously help his family from nearly 1,600 miles away. Reflecting on his time in the U.S., he said he feels grateful for the extended family he has built across the country and all that he has been able to accomplish in his short time here.

“We just need to hold on tight,” Saud said. “I know this is is just another chapter of life that will make us stronger.”•