Between their recent North American tour, a Juno nomination for breakthrough group of the year, and the success of their latest album, Swooner, it would be a surprise if The Zolas haven’t showed up on your radar. Released back in March of 2016, Swooner has received significant airplay on alternative radio with their songs “Invisible”, “Molotov Girls” and the title track “Swooner”, which reached number 4 on the alternative pop charts. If you’ve missed hearing about them, or want to learn more about this versatile Vancouver indie-pop group, here is your chance to catch up.
I had the chance to chat with Zach Gray (vocals, guitar) and Tom Dobrzanski (keyboards) about putting together a live show, advice on staying positive with everything going on in the world, and new music…
So I want to go back to the beginning, I know you and Tom met in boys choir. How did you first get into music? What made you excited about it? And what made you guys join boys choir?
Zach: Music is the kind of thing where you just… I don’t think anyone decides to do it, I think when you’re a kid if you have parents that put you in music classes then suddenly you have the chance to get good at it in the first place. I have little doubt that I would because my dad is a musician and my mom loves music too. I think Tom is more of a surprise because, his mom is in a choir now, but I don’t think any of his parents are all that musical. But they still put him in piano lessons and made him learn.
So did your parents put you in music lessons then? Did they put you in boys choir?
Z: Yeah they made us do it. They had to bribe us.
So you didn’t like it?
Z: Well, eventually I liked it, but at first it was purely for the bribe. I’m not sure what Tom’s bribe was. My bribe was.. I think every week I got pastries.
Tom: I think that they just got me a lot of money. I think I just got like. A sort of an allowance? Even though I was too old to get an allowance. Then I could also use it to pay for stuff for me when I got to highschool age. So they’d give me money back so I could like, buy a pair of jeans if I needed them. I think I got a little bonus for being in the choir to make it a little sweeter.
Amazing! So it was your first paid gig really. Fast forward to now, your recent success can be attributed to your latest album ‘Swooner’ which was released a bit over a year ago. Do you feel differently looking back on that album now that you have had time to sit with it?
Z: Naw, I think we crushed it. We wanted to make an album that was full of big, exciting, hook-y songs that dealt with the kind of life that all of us living in 2017 have to contend with. And I feel like we did a really good job. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Has your favourite song to play live changed since Swooner came out? What was it originally and what is it now?
T: When we first started playing these songs live my role was so different, playing all these loops and technical sounds on the keyboard. I was just like ‘holy shit’ trying to remember a hundred tiny things and act like I was relaxed and having a good time.
Z: I think that it was once we figured out how to play “Fell in Love with New York”, that was a big moment because that took a lot of weirdness and innovation. For us at least, we really changed the way that we organized the sounds in our band and so when we started rehearsing it was suddenly fucking impossible to make it feel good. But as practice will do, it’s now one of the easier songs for us to play. There’s some songs that you like that you wish that you could play and so there is a motivation to learn how to play really well and you just love it.
So Fell In Love With New York was one of them?
Z: Fell In Love With New York was worth it.
I would think the songs from the first album would be hard to put together since there is so much going on, from Tic Toc Tic?
Z: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on, but it’s going on on a small number of instruments. So the piano part’s busy and the bass part is busy and so are the drums, but it’s still just piano, bass, drums, and guitar basically. For the new songs it was more figuring out how we were even going to do it, with four people. Who’s going to make the sound, who has a free arm or leg or end a guitar to hit something with.
Oh yeah Zach you have that drum pad and you hit it with the top of your guitar! I thought that was really neat.
Z: It is cool, but it was born out of necessity, someone needed to hit that.
Well it makes it really interesting to watch when you have to do weird stuff like that, so it’s a plus for the audience too.
T: I didn’t think that he would be able to do it to be honest. I was really surprised when Zach could do that.
Since you now have Dwight and Cody as full members of the band, I was wondering how the addition of a percussion section has affected the way that you write your new songs?
T: They get to come together a lot quicker and it’s easier to base something around rhythm when you can hear it right away. Zach and I used to write songs just together and then one of us would be like hitting a piano bench or stomping on the floor what rhythm we might do one day. And now we can have a song that just starts with a drum beat and it totally changes what you play. I think from my personal perspective, when I sit at home and play stuff on the piano it’s almost never interesting to me, and if we’re in rehearsal and Cody’s just playing a drum beat warming up and I start playing piano to it, it kind of feels like a song much sooner. Like I find it easier to write something that I actually think is good. So that’s probably why those first songs are so fucking complicated, it was just the two of us and we had to entertain ourselves and fill all the real estate ourselves. And now when you write with a band you realize sometimes it’s more fun just to play the simplest thing.
So I know Zach, you put a lot of energy and thought into the lyrics. Do you have one that you are the most proud of?
Z: I don’t know, I don’t include any lyrics that I’m not super proud of. I feel really good about this album, I think this album has the best lyrics I’ve ever written. It depends, each song accomplishes a different thing, sometimes you’re writing pop lyrics and sometimes you’re writing something more poetry based. I remember feeling really good when I finished writing those lyrics for Male Gaze. I think I really crushed it with that one. That song is a tough subject to write about and I felt like that’s the kind of song that I wanted to write for a long time. It’s really difficult to write about real subjects in a way that still feels light enough that it could be a catchy song, and that’s always the challenge with singles. And that song, that’s the balance I was trying to strike and I think I really did a good job.
Isn’t that one about Misogyny?
Z: Yeah. Well a lot of them are a little about that but that one is from the perspective of a college bro who is just starting to realize his own blatant misogyny.
So your song Frieda on the mountain, I’ve always wondered who is Freida, is it a person?
Z: Freida was my great Aunt who died around the time that I was writing the song, but it’s not about her at all. It’s about the sort of fucked up balance that we’re forced to reckon with this generation which is on one hand having infinite information about what’s going on in the world in your pocket at all times, and you know all the outrageous doomsday scenarios that are happening on Earth at this moment, causes that you care about. So you have access to that information but at the same time that you have to live your normal life and have relationships and go out and go to parties and finish school and just do normal stuff. And it’s the kind of balance that very few generations have had to try to strike. That’s what the songs about. The songs about realizing that there’s something that you do care about- that basically you are unwilling to live in a world where that thing, where change isn’t made. Or protecting that thing isn’t done. So it’s about a moment of engaging with the world and trying to find that balance.
You said before that one of the album themes is trying to be optimistic in a world where there is so much to be pessimistic about. So what do you do to stay positive with all the terrible shit that’s going on in the world? Especially recently?
Z: Oh I don’t know, I’m no better at it than anyone else.
Aww I need some advice Zach!
Z: Pick something that you know you care about the most and that you are willing to actually devote yourself to and jump into it. And you don’t have to sacrifice your whole life for it but you need to stick your head out and not worry about looking cool and just jump into that cause.
What’s your cause?
Z: Well lately the cause that I care about the most in Canada is Electoral Reform. And it’s not a sexy topic on its own but the reason is that Electoral Reform is the device by which we will be able to make all the real changes that really matter in our country. Electoral Reform, if we do it right, will give us actual democracy where people who maybe don’t feel like there’s any point in voting will realize that there is a point in voting because every vote counts. Right now we have a system where not every vote counts and depending on what riding you live in your voice, your opinion, won’t be counted. And there’s a bunch of systems and we need to find the one that is best for our country, but it’s definitely not this one that we have right now. So that’s the change that I want to make and that’s the thing that I want to pressure our government to do, because all the things that really matter to me like the environment, and protecting health care, and growing our economy through clean energy, becoming a clean energy powerhouse in our country. Those are the things that matter to me, but we won’t be able to that if we don’t have real democracy.
Last thing I want to know about is your new music. Is there a specific sound that you’re going for, how much do you have done?
Z: I don’t want to go into too many details, but we know exactly what we want this next album to sound like and we’re very very excited about it. We never have been this clear about what we want.
What do you guys want?
Z: I don’t want to tell you because there’s a good chance – most of the time when I have a plan of what I want something to sound like it doesn’t end up sounding like that at all but it sounds like something completely original and so if I say we’re going to be, I don’t know, the next trance sensation, and then our next album comes out and we don’t sound like that at all, no one’s disappointed, you know? What I can tell you is that we’re not following the same trajectory that we’ve been following. We’re not getting cleaner and more produced and more synthetic sounding, that’s for sure. I think we’re going to surprise people a lot with this next group of songs.
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