Vancouver’s edgy, indie pop-rock band, The Zolas, made a stop in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 2, playing at Mavericks alongside James Younger (who is a member of The Zolas) and super indie, Canadian band The Mounties. Their lively 45-minute set included hit songs from 2012’s Ancient Mars (“Knot in My Heart”, “Ancient Mars”, “Strange Girl”, “Escape Artist”), tracks from their debut LP Tic Toc Tic (“You’re Too Cool”), and their latest single, “Invisible”.
Following their set, I sat down with the two founding members of The Zolas – Zachary Gray, the frontman and lead guitarist, and Tom Dobrzanski, a self-taught pianist who has an innate ability for sound, tones, and textures. Our chat took place at Union613, where we enjoyed some devilled eggs, catfish po boys, and ginger beer and chatted about photo shoots; the people, food, and roads of Saskatchewan; and what the future holds for this emerging band.
Why do people always like to use the photo with Zach topless?
Tom: I think the question should be, “Why is he topless?”
Ben: Well, let’s go with that, and build on that to say, “Tom, how were you feeling?”
Tom: I was like, “Is he really topless?” Throughout the shoot, I just pretended that I was cool with it.
Zach: You should see the other photos from that shoot. Tom couldn’t keep his hands off me. (laughter)
Tom: Oh, come on! He literally put his armpit in my face the whole time. (laughter)
Zach: Seriously, we don’t have a say in what the publications choose and, to be honest, that was heads and shoulders the best photo we gave them. That’s how you control what gets put up. You only give them one or two good photos, and the rest are so terrible that no one wants to show them.
Ben: You must have other photos?
Zach: Yeah, we did a shoot at the Vancouver Aquarium, where they have this incredible jellyfish exhibit, and we got these amazing shots with the jellyfish.
Tom: They let us in after hours to do the shoot. It was pretty cool to have the luminescence of the jellyfish in the background.
You’ve toured across Canada quite a bit over the last 4+ years. Who has the rowdiest fans besides your hometown?
Tom: There were two fights that broke out at our last show in Vancouver.
Zach: Girl fights no less.
Ben: Same show?
Tom: Same show. It goes without saying that Vancouver has the rowdiest fans.
Zach: But outside of Vancouver, there is this group of guys and girls from the Onion Lake First Nation. I don’t know where it is exactly, but it’s somewhere near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and they’ll sometimes see our shows in Edmonton and Saskatoon. They are the most loving, happiest, most positive fans that we have. They just want fist bumps after every song, and they won’t accept no for an answer.
Speaking of Saskatchewan, how do you pass the time crossing that great province?
Tom: For all the great fans that we have in Saskatchewan, I think there’s a part of it that doesn’t want us back. We ate at this really terrible diner once. I asked the waitress what the grilled vegetables were like and she said they were really, really good. So I got the plate with the grilled vegetables, and they were the frozen vegetables. The carrots had the crinkle shape you can get with McCain fries. And Saskatchewan tried to kill us one time. The roads are not exactly the most entertaining to drive.
Zach: What happened was that I fell asleep at the wheel, and what saved us was winter. We were going really fast and, if it wasn’t for winter, we would have gone into the ditch and probably would have been launched airborne. But fortunately for us, the ditch was full of fluffy snow at the time, so just landed softly into it. What’s also amazing is that after the tow truck pulled the car out – and the car was a rental – the car was just fine, almost perfect, so we were able to still drive it. When we returned it, the rental company didn’t even notice a thing wrong with the car.
Tom: We didn’t even miss the show. We told the guys at Amigos what happened, and they gave us really good scotch for free because we had a really close call.
As you are seasoned travellers across our country, have you ever come across a place where you said, “We have to do a video here”?
Zach: The colour palette between Canada and musicians is quite striking. When there’s a coating of snow but a bit of that long, pale grass sticking out – that white and tan colour – looks really cool. I’ve taken a lot of iPhone photos of that and doing a video with that is something to consider, but we would need more of a concept. These days, we’re not just satisfied with anything, and it can’t just be landscapes.
Tom: Otherwise, it’s just an Instagram video.
Zach: Exactly. Nowadays, we want to put together something that’s going to grab people’s attention.
I have to ask this one standard interview question – when will the next album be out and what can fans expect?
Zach: We have no idea. We have like four new songs written and those will likely go on the next album, but we need another six of so. I’ve heard our songs, and I really don’t know what people can expect. Really, I have no idea. Honestly, when we try to sound like something, we usually completely fail. It’ll probably sound something like we’ve done, but really I don’t have a clue right now.
Tom: Our goal right now is to not to fail too badly. (laughter)
Ben: Have you thought about maybe working with some local producers, like Pat Lok, who did one of the remixes for “Invisible”?
Zach: We haven’t worked with any electronic producers in the past. This last album has a bit of it, although it doesn’t have any electronic drums. You know, that’s a really good idea.
Tom: The difference with the next album is that we’ll be recording it ourselves, so we’ll be able to try new things.
Zach: The next album will also be influenced by our two new members. Well, they aren’t that new, but they weren’t around for the last album. James Younger, who opened today’s show, and Cody Hyles, who plays drums, are huge influences on us, so the next album will have a fuller band vibe.
FEEDBACK (some random questions)
If a movie was made of your career, what’s the title?
Zach: Biopics are almost always named after one of the band’s songs or albums, so ours would probably be “You’re Too Cool” because that’s a catchy name and I think people would see that movie. Or maybe “Ancient Mars”.
Tom: We don’t have much of a story yet to tell, so we almost have to foresee what the future holds.
Zach: Yeah, I imagine you dying in a plane crash.
Tom: Well, thank you, thank you for imagining that. (laughter)
Zach: So in this context, the movie could be called, “Up and Down”, about the rise and the crashing of The Zolas.
Tom: You could just call it “Top Gun”. (laughter) People would definitely know what they are getting.
Zach: Nice! Or something like “Stratospheric Meltdown”.
Ben: Tom, have you figured out a title?
Tom: “Zach Dies in a Horrific Train Accident”. (laughter)
What’s the highlight so far in your young careers, and, speaking about looking into the crystal ball, what would be the ultimate highlight?
Tom: The first thing that comes to mind is playing at The Commodore, which was our last Vancouver show. It was just one of those things that I just had to do and was on my list. It was like life wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t play that venue. That was a big one for me. The next day when I woke up, I felt really good knowing that had been checked off.
Zach: The highlight for me is hearing your music on the radio. It’s validating to know that people like what you’re producing. We’re here to produce music that is catchy and interesting, kind of combining art with populism. Having songs that we find interesting make it on the radio is amazing to me. There’s just so much music out there that’s completely mindless – and I love the radio for that – but it’s a challenge to put something on the radio that you think has substance yet still make people feel this lightness, like when they hear a fluffy tune by Lady Gaga. We’ve sort of achieved that this year, and it feels good.
Ben: What’s the ultimate highlight you hope to achieve?
Zach: Tom’s plane crash would be pretty cool. (laughter) It would be really cool, though, to highlight a major festival like Glastonbury or to be invited to play at the Sultan of Brunei’s daughter’s sweet 16th birthday. (laughter)
Tom: I don’t think it’s that far from what we’re doing, to be honest. We’re at the point where we can put a lot of time into the band, and we can go on tour with our friends. However, it would be good to be always doing new things, whether touring in new places, playing giant outdoor shows – things that allow us to take that next step.
Ben: Like getting your own bus.
Zach: Yes! That would be pretty sweet. But like Tom was saying, it is great that we can employ our friends. Some of them are better musicians than we are, and we can pay them to play with us. It feels amazing, and it will be even more amazing when we can pay them more and more.
Describe your diet on tour.
Zach: I’m not a slob. I eat pretty well, like when I’m at home.
Tom: Yeah, the idea is to not be way worse than you are at home. Today, I went to a grocery store and bought some fruit, yogurt, and granola, which is pretty close to what I eat at home.
Zach: I had this disgusting sub that I love. It’s my ultimate guilty pleasure. Nobody goes to Mr. Sub. So not only do I go to Mr. Sub but I also order the grossest sub they have, and I order it every time – the seafood and crab salad sub on rye bread. There’s something wrong with putting together imitation seafood and mayo yet so tasty.
What’s the toughest part about being a musician?
Zach: For me, the toughest part is when things are going well it means you have little time to connect with people, so it feels like you’re just skating over the surface of everywhere you go. You lose that intimacy with people – whether it’s family and friends back home or with fans on the road.
Tom: Balancing everything in life, like finding time to rehearse or to write songs or carve out time to go on tour. We all have other projects going on. For instance, I have a recording studio, a lady, and all these other things that I’m trying to juggle at the same time. I’m not trying to do just one thing, and I want to win at all of them.
Zach: Another tough part is the speed of the machine. It goes a lot slower than you want it to. You might want to release an album next month or two, but you need to give the publicists and the manufacturers lead time. You need to give the designers time to design things. So even if we started now to record a new album, we would be lucky to get it released in October. That’s why we’re having a lot of fun recording songs and releasing them as singles because you can get it out right away. Plus, press wise, the difference between the press reporting an album and a new single is really small, so why not just release a lot of singles? If you want to win at publicity and the press, releasing singles seems like the way to go.
Tom: The last song, for instance, we got it out quickly. It took us about a month to write, record, mix, and release it.
Zach: Yeah, we released it right away on the internet, and then it was on the radio almost immediately. It was a real good success story and a lot of fun to put together.
After a long day, what’s your go-to drink?
Tom: I drink a surprising amount of Manhattans. (laughter) It’s a drink that we like to make at home, so it’s a beer or a Manhattan for me.
Zach: Mine is brandy, lately. It’s such a grandfather drink, but I quite like it. I was in a play once, where I played a World War I pilot. They talked a lot about brandy because that’s what the French produced at that time. I had never had brandy before, and we would have these flasks on stage, but they were only filled with tea at first. Then eventually, we figured out we could put alcohol in it, and we chose brandy to be in the moment. Now I associate brandy with relaxing on stage, and it just makes me happy.
*Cover photo by Kirsten Berlie
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