If you don’t know what you’re looking for, Monarch Studios can be hard to spot. On a relatively nondescript stretch of Commercial Street, the recording facility has its door set way back from the curb, nestled tightly between a restaurant-equipment warehouse and the last surviving detached house on the block. You would probably never notice the door is there at all, were it not for the butterfly stencilled on it. And you likely wouldn’t guess that the four men on the other side of it—Zachary Gray, Tom Dobrzanski, Cody Hiles, and Dwight Abell—are one of the city’s finest indie-rock bands.
A Juno-nominated band at that, albeit one given to humility and occasional self-deprecation. On the strength of their third LP, Swooner, the Zolas were up for the 2017 Juno Award for breakthrough band of the year, although it took a while for the news to reach all of the group’s members.
“I was up in the woods,” recalls keyboardist Dobrzanski, who also runs Monarch, interviewed with his bandmates at the studio.
“That’s actually a good story, yeah,” chimes in Gray, the group’s singer and guitarist.
“I was the last one to find out,” Dobrzanski says.
His bandmate picks up the story: “Yeah, somehow Tom was the last one to find out, even though I was at an orangutan sanctuary in Indonesia, on this river expedition. After we got back to Internet, I got all the texts.
“And these guys were all celebrating,” Gray continues, nodding in the direction of drummer Hiles and bassist Abell. “But Tom hadn’t even written in yet, so I was like, ‘Man, either he’s got ice in his veins or he hasn’t checked his email yet.’ ”
“I got back into cell reception and I started getting texts from a lot of people going ‘Congrats on the Juno nom,’” Dobrzanski says. “And I was like, ‘Huh, I guess we got nominated for a Juno.’ ”
The Zolas flew out to the Juno Awards ceremony in Ottawa and hung out (drunk and possibly a little starstruck) with Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Sarah McLachlan, but the Dirty Nil ended up taking home the breakthrough-group hardware. Dobrzanski took the loss in stride.
“They do say there’s a curse with that particular award,” he reflects.
“That’s what they tell you when you lose,” Gray adds wryly.
Shiny trophies aside, Swooner truly was a breakthrough for the Zolas. The album’s eponymous first single was an infectious knockout of groove and melody, driven by a crunchy guitar riff and buoyed by shimmering synth. It reached No. 4 on the Canadian rock/alternative chart, a career high for the group.
Riding high on the record’s success, the Zolas found themselves playing sold-out clubs on a headlining tour.
“Something happened, too,” Dobrzanski relates. “The fans on that last tour really knew all the music. Not just the new record. We played a lot of older songs. We played a real long set on that tour. They were along for everything. We pulled out some weird old songs we hadn’t played in years, and people would just sing along to every word. We’ve always had fans and there have always been people singing along, but—I don’t know how to explain it—there was just something different about it, where you realize these people are real Zolas fans now. Like, they care about the next record coming out.”
“When we released our last album, we knew that no one was really going to give a shit about that except for a small handful of people in Vancouver,” adds Gray. “Now this album will get listened to, so it has to be good.”
The Zolas are four songs deep into that next LP, and are in the middle of tracking a fifth when the Straight shows up and knocks on Monarch’s butterfly-emblazoned door. While it’s too soon to say exactly what it will sound like, Gray notes that the band has been drawing inspiration from Britpop-era acts including Supergrass, Blur, and Oasis. Oh, and a certain troupe of Mormon-led rockers from Las Vegas, apparently.
“This one that we’re working on now? Right now it just sounds like the Killers, to be honest, and we need to drag it into some other world,” the singer admits. “It’s never good when you can describe your song or your band with just one other band name. That’s usually what we do: we go in trying to rip off one person, and halfway through the song we decide to start ripping off someone else, and the synergy of the two makes for something that people don’t recognize as complete lifts.”
In case it doesn’t come across in print, Gray is joking. Presumably. Whatever the case, he also points out that, although Hiles and Abell were full-fledged band members when Swooner was in the works, this current batch of tunes will be shaped by more of the rhythm section’s creative energy.
“When I first came in, I was pretty creatively kept to myself, just trying to fit in,” says Abell. “You don’t want to be too loud or make too much noise. But this record, I feel like there’s a lot of collaboration between all four of us. I feel like a lot of these songs are just getting written in the jam space, where with Swooner, a lot of it, I felt like Zach had a solid idea, and it was like, ‘Play a bass line to it.’ But with this one I feel like we’re all writing together, and it’s pretty special that way.”
“I don’t think I’ve brought a single completed song to this,” Gray acknowledges. “Maybe I’ll bring a little part and then we’ll work on it together. It’s more fun in a lot of ways. For me personally, it’s nice not having the pressure to come up with everything. For example, Dwight came up with the bass line for this song that we’re recording now. If I had written it, I would have been so proud of myself. But I didn’t have to write it; he wrote it. So that’s really nice.”
The music seems to be flowing freely. The words? Not so much. Swooner had a decidedly feminist bent to it, with songs like “Molotov Girls” and the title track celebrating kick-ass women. With the ascendancy of the dangerously stupid right wing south of the border and elsewhere, you would think Gray has a virtual buffet of topics to fire him up. As it turns out, the world is providing almost too much material these days.
“These days it seems so hard to have anything to contribute, when there’s just so much discussion over the Internet,” he says. “What is there to say that hasn’t been said? There’s so many people writing little articles or comments or tweets going viral that every perspective is out there. It makes me want to just write about getting away from all that.”
And that, in fact, is exactly what he has done: “The first song that isn’t out yet is about throwing away your phone and not paying attention to that anymore.”
When Hiles jokingly suggests that the Zolas indulge in a bit of rock ’n’ roll escapism—Tolkien-inspired tales of dragons and cursed rings, perhaps—Gray dismisses the idea, albeit wistfully.
“To write escapist music right now would feel false,” he insists.
“You just can’t win,” Hiles laments.
“I can’t wait until we get to a point politically where it feels right to write songs about orcs,” Gray says.
That topic is perhaps best left in the hands of 3 Inches of Blood. As for what Gray does end up writing about, we’ll find out soon enough; the Zolas plan to start releasing singles in the next few months, with a full-length album appearing at some point after that. If that seems like a rather vague time line, so be it. The Zolas have learned not to make promises they can’t keep.
Says Dobrzanski: “I just think about how many times we gave answers to when that Swooner record was coming out that just ended up being so wrong. You just have to admit that you have no idea.”
One thing we can say with relative certainty is that the Zolas will be playing at the West 4th Khatsahlano Street Party this year. In fact, the four-piece will headline the annual neighbourhood festival, topping a bill that also includes the Courtneys, D.O.A., Louise Burns, War Baby, Art D’Ecco, Peach Pit, and many others.
“Khatsahlano’s going to be cool,” Gray says. “A lot of bands that we like are playing at that. It’s really Vancouver-y. I mean, it’s all Vancouver bands, it’s a lot of underground and East Van kind of bands that are playing. So I’m excited. There’s a few of them that I’ve never gotten to see that I’ve always wanted to see. There are a bunch of acts that are going to be super cool.”
The Zolas might be the coolest of them all, although they’re far too humble to agree with that assessment.
The Zolas play the West 4th Avenue Khatsahlano Street Party on Saturday (July 8).