There’s a memorable bit in This Is Spinal Tap—a film with more than its share of memorable bits—when Rob Reiner, as documentarian Marty DiBergi, asks Tap keyboardist Viv Savage for his philosophy of life. In his halting speech, the rocker answers, “Have”¦a good time”¦all the time.”
Zachary Gray, who sings and plays guitar for the Zolas, might not be quite as hedonistic as Savage, but he understands the importance of enjoying what you do. It was a hard-won lesson, though. Gray and his Zolas cofounder, keyboardist Tom Dobrzanski, were once members of the critically lauded indie-pop act Lotus Child. That band released a self-titled EP (2003) and then a full-length CD, Gossip Diet (2006), gathering buzz all the while. A cross-Canada tour and some major festival showcase slots helped broaden the act’s fan base, but a little over two years ago, right when it looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough into the mainstream, Lotus Child called it quits.
Reached on his cellphone in the middle of “Toronto traffic hell”, Gray tells the Straight that the band was doomed as soon as it started focusing on raising its profile to the exclusion of everything else. “When you first get in a band that has success—even a little success, like we had with Lotus Child—you get into that,” he says. “You want to build on that, and then sometimes that takes over. You want to build on that at all costs. You forget what was fun about it, and at a certain point you realize that you haven’t been having fun for the last year at all. And you haven’t been writing good songs.”
After a brief hiatus, Gray and Dobrzanski started making music together again, but in the most casual way imaginable. “We just decided to go up to my girlfriend’s cabin and play music and have a good time,” Gray says. “And what came from that were a bunch of songs that we figured we could record; because we could get a grant to do it, we thought we’d be crazy not to. So we decided to record them, and get our favourite bass player and our favourite drummer that we knew of, and our favourite producer, Howard [Redekopp], and just go into the studio together and have as good a time as possible for two weeks, just recording at Mushroom and at Tom’s studio, eating Indian food and drinking scotch and having a laugh.”
All that fraternal bonhomie resulted in the Zolas’ debut album, Tic Toc Tic (released in January by 604 Records), which is as fun to listen to as it was to make. Driven by Dobrzanski’s exuberant piano playing, highlights like “The Great Collapse” and “Cab Driver” sparkle with melody, their arrangements navigating a high wire stretched between pure pop and progressive alt-rock. (The album features bassist Aidan Knight and drummer Ali Siadat, whose respective roles are currently filled by Henry Alcock-White and Ajay Bhattacharyya.)
Lyrically, Tic Toc Tic is deeper and darker than you might expect. Its songs tell of angst-ridden young urbanites—their missed connections, their fumbling ambitions, their dreams haunted by the spectre of impending ecological doom. “I like to think of this record as sort of a little piece of what it’s like to live in Vancouver in your mid-20s in 2009,” Gray says. “People our age think about environmental apocalypse, and people our age think about, like, getting the nerve up to talk to girls on the bus. And people our age especially get in and out of long-term relationships and have a hard time shaking that, and maybe stew in it for longer than they should.”
The Zolas’ fans can clearly relate to the group’s songs. Aspiring musicians have begun posting their own versions of “These Days” and “Cab Driver” on YouTube, and one particularly ardent follower sent the band photos of her new tattoo: lyrics from “Pyramid Scheme” inked across her ankles.
“I remember how much I would pore over every lyric of every song from all the bands that I loved, and I would play their songs tirelessly from the age of 15 on,” Gray says. “To be thought of by someone as being worthy of that kind of devotion, it is humbling, but it’s a great feeling, because that’s what I was dreaming of that moment when I was 15 and poring over the lyrics from OK Computer. I wanted to write the next OK Computer. And obviously I haven’t, but at least to somebody, I’ve written something that’s good in the same way. And that’s just such an awesome feeling.”
One might think, however, that such displays of dedication put added weight on the Zolas’ shoulders, but Gray doesn’t seem fazed. “The point is to make as good art as possible, art that makes us excited—and to have fun,” he says simply. “And that’s it.”
Viv Savage would no doubt approve.
The Zolas play the Biltmore Cabaret on Wednesday (June 30).