Because it would be disingenuous, Zachary Gray isn’t going to argue that guitar-based pop music has never been more revolutionary or fashionable than in the 2020s. But he will willingly suggest that, in some ways, he couldn’t be happier living in a time when hip-hop is king, and EDM rules the clubs and the charts.
There’s a reason for an energy that positively crackles over the line as he talks about the Zolas’ fourth studio album, Come Back to Life. Working for the first time without longtime keyboardist and collaborator Tom Dobrzanski, Gray found himself in new territory during the writing process. And, at the same time, as he looked for a way forward along with drummer Cody Hiles and bassist Dwight Abell, he became obsessed with the past.
“Once Tom had officially left the band, the three of us who were left realized it was a chance for us to make the kind of music that we’d always wanted to make,” Gray reminisces. “And that was essentially Britpop music. We thought it was hilarious that we wanted to make Britpop music when there was nothing less cool than that. At the moment it could not be less in style, and that makes us all the more excited to do it.”
Initial sessions for the record that would become Come Back to Life had the Zolas embracing their inner fans of legend like Oasis, Blur, Supergrass, and Suede.
“And then we moved studios and let ourselves completely go for what sounded like Britpop songs with production elements stolen from other types of music that were happening in the same era in the same part of the world,” Gray notes. “So whenever we had an electronic element we’d try to steal a sound from the Prodigy or from Primal Scream or the Happy Mondays. And that was super fun. I felt like we hit a sound that no one’s doing right now, and that we really love. It was like ‘This could flop catastrophically, and I’d still be very happy.’ ”
The Zolas have every reason to be not only happy but thrilled with Come Back to Life, a record that nods lovingly to a fabled mid-’90s golden age of British music, but somehow still feels vitally fresh and current. Things kick off with the fantastically druggy and deliciously bass-bombed double shot that is “Violence On This Planet” and “Yung Dicaprio”. The Zolas gleefully unleash the champagne-supernova guitars for “Miles Away” and “I Feel the Transition”, but sound just as comfortable heading for the dancefloor with an electro-dub thumper like “Reality Winner”.
Laughing, Gray suggests that a good elevator pitch for the album would be “somewhere between the Trainspotting and Romeo + Juliet soundtracks”. Consider that a heads up that while he understands the simple brilliance of “Wonderwall”, he also has unending love for the atmospheric adventurousness of acts like Tricky, Massive Attack, and Portishead.
“At the beginning of 2019 I went around telling people that I was trying to write the next ‘Wonderwall’,” the singer says with a laugh. “That was 50 percent as a joke—actually more than 50 percent as a joke because no one was asking for the next ‘Wonderwall’. And that would have been an impossible task anyway. But that was my mission, and that informed things. I didn’t think that I would actually do it, but then we wrote ‘Miles Away’, and it was like ‘This is as close as I’m going to get.’
“I’ve always loved the Gorillaz and anything that Damon Albarn does,” Gray continues. “And any time you can steal loops and dub beats you’re going to end up in that direction, especially if you sing over them in a breathy way. So ‘Violence on This Planet’ has a real Gorillaz vibe to me. I’ve always believed that sort of ripping off people you admire is one of the most fun ways to write music—to steal from music that moves you, but make it your own.”
If there’s a way that the Zolas truly make things their own on Come Back to Life it’s the lyrics. Instead of revisiting a time of bucket hats, cigarettes, and alcohol, and girls who want boys who like boys to be girls, Gray decided that there were issues—some as important as they are heavy—that he wanted to deal with. On that front the Zolas tackle everything from global wealth inequality (“I Feel the Transition”) to Canada’s historic mistreatment of its Indigenous communities (“Wreck Beach/Totem Park”) to real estate prices that have driven young creatives out of Vancouver (“Bombs Away”).
Gray is perhaps at his most devastating on “PrEP”, a dark-wave blast of guitar techno inspired by a Reddit thread where users revisited what it was like to live through the ‘80s AIDS epidemic. The singer is the son of celebrated Vancouver playwright John MacLachlan Gray. And like many creative communities, the theatre scene was hit extra-hard by AIDS when it first surfaced in North America.
“My dad was in theatre, so in lots of baby photos I’m being held by friends of his I don’t recognize,” Gray says. “One day I asked him about them, and it turns out every one of them are gone. They were probably gone within five years of the pictures being taken. Now by some miracle HIV is totally manageable and it pisses me off that we’re not all out there celebrating the light at the end of such a long, dark tunnel.”
But as much as the Zolas aren’t afraid to go deep on Come Back to Life, what ultimately stands out is that the band sounds every bit as thrilled to be alive and making music as Blur on “Song 2”. And, while that might sound like hyperbole, it’s anything but.
“That whole Britpop movement was one of the most exciting eras of music in my lifetime,” Gray says lovingly. “And I don’t hear it these days. For me, the golden rule is ‘Make the music the world needs to hear.’ Actually, that’s too altruistic-sounding. It’s more ‘Make the music that would fuck you up if you heard it for the first time.’”
Guitar-music may be in one of its dormant periods, he acknowledges, but that’s nothing new. From Elvis Presley taking the throne in the ’ 50s, to the White Stripes making the world forget about techno and rap-rock in 2000, popular music has always been marked by palace revolutions. And, typically, things get most quiet before the storm.
“We’re in a world that’s so pop-focused, and where pop music is so uncool,” Grey says. “And it’s kind of wonderful to think about how few people love guitar music. It’s like a little subculture—just like it was back in the beginning. And that kind of makes it awesome again.”
The Zolas headline the Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival’s free concert series in Creekside Park on June 25.