John Pippus Comes of Age
If everything has it�s own time, then this is John Pippus� time.
The Zolas started as a core duo, Zachary Gray (vocals/guitar) and Tom Dobrzanski (piano). They saw a lot of success from their first record Tic Toc Tic. People really responded to their “cabaret style” indie rock, where “cabaret style” this basically means they use a lot of piano. I was a fan of the first record, so it was great to see one of this city’s surprise success stories continue.
The Zolas are back with new record, Ancient Mars, a slightly more indie rock sound, and a reduced presence of Tom. I talked with Zach about the band’s triumphant return.
Scott Wood: Ancient Mars is the title of the second record. It sounds like a 1920s pulp novel that is inevitably going to be remade into a Disney blockbuster starring Channing Tatum. What does this title mean to you guys and your music?
Zachary Gray: Ancient Mars is a hypothetical world where all the beautiful times in your life are still happening and not just fossilized in the past. From a purely self-serving note, I've always been a sci-fi nerd and loved thinking about possible Martian civilizations from eons ago. The coolest thing is that, considering the universe is infinite as far as we can tell, other civilizations are a certainty—maybe not on Mars, but somewhere.
Scott Wood: Zach, you and Tom (the writing core of the band) met in choir around 14. How does a kid survive his voice changing in choir?
Zachary Gray: They didn't want to have to assign someone to babysit us especially, so they made us stand in our normal spots and lip synch. Psychologically you're just focusing on powering through the humiliation by being excited about maybe needing to shave soon.
Scott Wood: You guys were in a band before The Zolas. The project was called Lotus Child and it folded. How does a friendship make it through a band implosion and then on to a new project?
Zachary Gray: It's sort of the other way around. Being in that band together was making it not fun to be friends anymore. We were business partners (failing business partners) more than friends by the end of that band. Something had to go. We chose friendship and burned down the band.
Scott Wood: I read that you guys weren't entirely pleased with The Zolas first record Tic Toc Tic when it I've always been a sci-fi nerd and loved thinking about possible Martian civilizations. The coolest thing is that other civilizations are a certainty�maybe not on Mars, but somewhere. came out. Each of you said that it sounded too much like the other guy's ideas. How did you remedy this on the new record? Parking lot fight?
Zachary Gray: No. I think it was that we both stopped trying to push the band into being things that it wasn't. Tom got to exercise other musical muscles producing other bands and I got to do the same by playing in other bands for fun. When it came to making this album, we went in thinking, ‘Well ok, we don't listen to a lot of pop rock, but The Zolas are really a pop rock band, so let’s make the kind of pop rock record we'd want to listen to.’ I couldn't be happier with that.
Scott Wood: What's a good way to work through disagreements and hidden tensions in a band?
Zachary Gray: Yeah I do. We disagree on everything. For our first album, we couldn't name the band, or the album, or decide the album art. Eventually it got to the point of absurdity, so we went to an Indian buffet restaurant and stared across the table at each other. We decided just to divide and conquer. I would name the band unilaterally and Tom would name the album and choose the artwork unilaterally. Sometimes no compromise is the only way.
Scott Wood: You've said that this record Ancient Mars feels like “a Grizzly Bear record, if Grizzly Bear sold out.” To me, it seems like all Grizzly Bear needs now to hit it big is a featured performance by a big name female singer or a rapper. Can you explain what you mean about The Zolas new music?
Zachary Gray: I think Grizzly Bear still keeps their drums pretty tasteful. If they wanted to sell out, they'd probably start sample-replacing all their drums into maximum hugeness, making their songs a little more concise and their arrangements a little less intricate. I'd hate that because I love Grizzly Bear's drums and arrangements, but, for our record, we wanted it to sound as polished as possible. We'd been listening to a lot of pop production—Neptunes, Gorillaz, etc.—and we wanted it to be as polished and ear catching as we could make it.
Scott Wood: Tom's day job is in music and he produces other band's records (Said the Whale and We Are The City), but he chose not to produce your own record. Why?We'd been listening to a lot of pop production - Neptunes, Gorillaz, etc. - and we wanted it to be as polished and ear catching as we could make it.
Zachary Gray: This way we fight less because we're both just musicians. We each have our opinions, but in the end there's an overarching authority which is the producer. His job in part is to breaks ties and kick us out of creativity vacuums.
Scott Wood: What strange but valuable skill does your day job bring to the band?
Zachary Gray: Uhm... I don't really work right now. I'm still employed at the university though, technically, but I can't think what that gets me. I definitely bring the most flexible schedule to the band.
Scott Wood: You've said about this record that you were happy to have “the choice to work with people who make better choices than you.” Can you get into specifics about better choices on this record?
Ali says having her band behind her relaxes her.
Zachary Gray: There are a lot of examples of this. The one that comes to mind is that I wanted a classic 90's Pixies drum part in the choruses of “Observatory.” It fought hard for that, but got outvoted. Now I'm so glad we didn't do that. The part that producer Michael Jordan (his actual name) came up with is way more interesting. Even when you're making pop music, it's nice to do things you've never heard people do before.
Scott Wood: You once compared your lyric writing to controversial “author” James Fry (A Million Little Pieces.) Your lyrics are so confessional. What's the biggest lyric fraud on the record? (Note: Fry was the “author” of autobiography and Oprah Book Club Selection, A Million Little Pieces. It was later revealed the inspirational substance abuse triumph was as much fiction as fact.)
Zachary Gray: I think I was exaggerating in that interview a little. I can't think of anything from this album that's an outright lie. What I like to do is sew real stories and situations together to make the songs interesting or illuminative—and keeping the feeling of authenticity. Frankenstein-y. So it's all real, it's just re-contextualized.
Scott Wood: You’ve just completed a Canada-wide tour without Tom?! It looks like Tom is reducing his role in the band. What is the official Zolas word on this?
Zachary Gray: Don't fear. Tom's still in the band. This year, he made the jump from running a small basement studio to building the sexiest, roomiest, affordable, above-ground studio in the city. So he was swamped with construction and municipal red-tape hell and wouldn't have enjoyed going on tour in the middle of that. In our band, we have a rule of not doing things we won't enjoy, so we called out friend Matt to play keys and we toured on without Tom this season. So no, nothing's changed. He's still the prodigious brains and testicles of The Zolas.
Listen to upcoming episodes of the interview show for a full audio chat with Zach from The Zolas!
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