Zachary Gray covers a lot of ground in a short span of time. Over the course of a 45-minute interview with the Georgia Straight, the singer and guitarist discusses—among other topics—green energy, heritage conservation, feminism, and the evolution of his band, the Zolas.
That last subject is particularly germane because the Zolas have a brand-new album out, and it’s a corker. Swooner is a pop record, which is worth noting because the Vancouver-based Zolas have never really made one of those before. Previous outings Tic Toc Tic (2009) and Ancient Mars (2012) were both excellent LPs, but they showcased the artsy indie-rock side of Gray and his long-time collaborator, keyboardist Tom Dobrzanski.
“I kind of think that we’ve always been trying to make a pop record,” says Gray, interviewed at a West Broadway coffee shop. “It took a lot of experience and it took a lot of time for us to get good at it. I just don’t think we were that good at making pop records before, so that albums ended up being a lot more difficult because we didn’t really know how to be simple.”
The songs on Swooner are far too well-crafted to be called simple, but numbers like “CV Dazzle” and “Invisible” are built on infectious grooves that are relatively unadorned, with the hooks front and centre.
“We wanted to make something where there’s only ever five elements going on at most,” Gray says. “That’s always the music I love the most, where the pieces leave room for each other, and that’s how you get real texture and aesthetic out of sounds and stuff. We’d never really focused on the aesthetic of our album before. We kind of relied on a producer to do that. This time we were like, ‘No, we know how we want it to sound. We know what sounds we like. So let’s just find a few sounds that we really like and leave them alone.’ ”
In fact, the band produced Swooner itself at Dobrzanski’s Monarch Studios. For the first time, the core duo was joined by a bassist and a drummer who were actually members of the group as opposed to hired guns. Gray gives four-stringer Cody Hiles and kit-basher Dwight Abell much of the credit for redirecting the cerebral Zolas to the dance floor.
“This is the first album where we’ve had a really solid rhythm section right from the beginning,” he says. “They’re in the band, and it means that we get to write songs that are more rhythm-based instead of being melody-and-chords-based. I feel like melody and chords were the domain of the 20th century, and the 21st century has shifted really hard to rhythm-based music. You can make a song that’s catchy because the beat is catchy, with very little else going on, and we wanted to try our hand at that.”
Mind you, there’s a lot going on in these songs, at least on the lyrical level. Gray is justifiably proud of that aspect of Swooner, noting that this batch of songs contains “the best lyrics I’ve ever written”. Propelled by a guitar riff that bears a passing resemblance to the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Bang Baby”, the title track celebrates women who make their mark on the world while still finding the time and energy to be “the spine to a body of friends”. The synth-buzzed “Molotov Girls”, meanwhile, was inspired by the take-no-bull attitude of the balaclava-clad Russian shit disturbers in Pussy Riot, and “Male Gaze” blasts misogynists—in particular members of a contingent Gray describes as “this new millennial wave of chauvinist assholes”—who view women as the prizes in some real-life video game.
If you haven’t picked up on the common thread there, well, let’s just say Gray isn’t afraid to use the F-word.
“It’s definitely a feminist album, but it’s decidedly written by guys,” he says. “I can’t speak for women, I can’t speak for female feminists, but I hope they don’t mind us putting out an album like this.
“When I talk to my friends in town who are politically active, they’re mostly women,” Gray continues. “The people who give a shit about the world and want to make changes—in my group of friends, it’s mostly women. But that’s not the stereotype. I wanted to make a fun record about something that I felt passionately about, and ‘Molotov Girls’ is basically saying, ‘No, girls don’t just want to have fun.’ You just have to open your eyes and read the news to figure that out.”
Gray certainly has his eyes open, and he figures it’s his duty to use whatever clout he might have to comment on what he’s seeing. “People need perspectives expressed out there in the world, in art and in culture and on the Internet,” he reasons. “The kind of assholes who I disagree with have no qualms with voicing their opinion, so I need to do the same thing. I need to show the other side. I need to try to influence the same amount as them—although I don’t enjoy social media enough to actually be good at that.”
So Gray’s no Twitter champion. At least he has the opportunity to reach people through his songs, which he’ll have ample opportunity to do when the Zolas hit the road for tour dates across much of Canada in a few weeks.
“At the core of it, our band really wants to be a weird, intelligent pop band that says something,” Gray concludes—which is a pretty accurate description of the sort of weird, intelligent pop band that the Zolas already are.