text: Michael Raine
Entering the stage through drawn curtains at The Great Hall in Toronto, a projection of 1980 film ‘Blue Lagoon’ drenching the stage and the musicians, Zachary Gray and his band launch into set-opener, ‘In Heaven’, with little fanfare or banter. Few in the crowd seem to notice the absence of keyboardist Tom Dobrzanski, the only other founding and full-time member of The Zolas. His absence is somewhat emblematic of The Zolas’ ethos; do what you feel like and don’t do what you don’t feel like. It also seems representative of the decades-long friendship and partnership between Gray and Dobrzanski, simultaneously harmonious and conflicted.
The Zolas was never supposed to happen. As Gray says, in the band’s sparse and dimly lit dressing room before the show, “The Zolas are one of those bands where we didn’t even want to make a band.” Six years playing together in their previous band, Lotus Child, left both Gray and Dobrzanski disillusioned with band life.
“We just weren’t having a good time anymore,” says Gray of their time in Lotus Child, despite the mild success the band experienced. “We weren’t any good, according to us, and we didn’t want to keep playing shows that way. We were just sick of being in that band and sometimes it just isn’t fun anymore. We either wanted to be in a band that we thought was incredible or we didn’t want to be in a band. So we quit that band and didn’t play in one for a year.”
Regardless, the breakup of a band does not always mean the breakup of a partnership. Gray and Dobrzanski continued to do what they had always done – hang out and write songs. Following the 2009 breakup of Lotus Child, Gray says he and Dobrzanski hung out in their hometown of Vancouver and “wrote a bunch of songs for no reason and then we ended up liking them. There is a label in town, [Light Organ Records], that said they’d put out an album for us, or they’d help us make an album, so we thought, ‘that sounds like a good time.’” Just like that The Zolas were formed.
Those songs written “for no reason” ended up comprising the majority Tic Toc Tic, their debut album released in 2010, and launching a second act for Gray and Dobrzanski that was unexpected both in its success and its mere existence. Tic Toc Tic’became a surprise staple on college and satellite radio, spawning at least three hit singles including the piano driven ‘The Great Collapse’, hipster-baiting ‘You’re Too Cool’, and the ceaselessly catchy ‘Marlaina Kamikaze’.
Despite the radio support and widespread praise from critics and fans, Gray doesn’t seem particularly pleased with ‘Tic Toc Tic’. “When our first album came out I was so devastated because Tom said something about how this album was a real ‘Zach album’ and he wasn’t really into most of the songs,” recalls Gray. “Which sucked because I thought it was a real ‘Tom album’ and I wasn’t into most of the songs by the time it came out. So we had this real ironic stare down where it was like, ‘I don’t know what happened there.’ It turned out that people pretty universally loved that album and it seems to be the luck that we have.”
The odd pairing of Gray and Dobrzanski’s goes back to their days as confused choir boys in Vancouver. “We were literally mid-to-pre-pubescent,” Gray says of their first encounter. “We were in a choir together and we hadn’t been friends but we ended up being roommates. I don’t know if it’s something like girls living together and their periods syncing up but our voices broke at the exact same time somewhere in Holland. So suddenly we couldn’t sing and we were confused and somewhat bored because we had to stand there and pretend to sing. That was sort of how we bonded. We bonded through mutual puberty.”
Maybe it takes a weird experience like puberty to bring together two people who have little in common. “I don’t know if we were meant to be this way but we’re either perfectly complimentary of each other or we’ve grown in complete opposition to one another,” explains Gray. “We have almost no overlap between things that he is good at and likes and things that I’m good at and like.”
“It’s a classic left brain, right brain sort of situation,” Gray continues, thinking about his friend and bandmate. “Tom can visualize schematics in his head. He designed his own recording studio and it just opened last week and it’s probably the sexiest studio in Vancouver and he designed it himself just through reading about design. He’s one of those autodidacts who reads a book about how to play drums and then just sits there and figures it out. It’s not a creative thing for him. Well, he is creative in that what he ends up making feels creative but he goes about it in a really non-creative way. I could not be less like that.”
This differing creative approach inevitably carries over their songwriting partnership and occasionally leads to some short-lived tension. “I’ll write a part to a song or a full skeleton to a song and then I’ll bring it to him and he’ll ruin it for me with the things that he wants to change,” says Gray with a bit of laugh. “I literally think that he is trying to ruin the song. Every time I realize that he made it way better and I have to eat my words.”
The Zolas’ recently-released sophomore album, Ancient Mars, shows no signs of tension or sabotage. It’s as catchy in parts as Tic Toc Tic but with more layers and textures, allowing it to stand up to repeated listens. As Gray explains, “We wanted to make weird pop songs but that pulse and throb and make you bob your head. We also wanted them to make you want to go driving at night.” In fact, a “nighttime driving record” may be the perfect way to describe Ancient Mars, with lead single ‘Knot in my Heart’ (Gray’s favourite track) serving as the pump up for the night ahead and ‘Cold Moon’ the comedown.
And unlike Tic Toc Tic, both band members are happy to take ownership of Ancient Mars. “We both felt it was our album and we both loved everything, which is crazy. That never happens,” says Gray. “So the honeymoon period is still pretty strong with this one.”
Unfortunately Dobrzanski didn’t come along for the honeymoon. Having spent the last year and a half building his dream studio in Vancouver and navigating “municipal red tape hell”, as Gray decribes it, Dobrzanski simply felt too burnt out to go on tour and actually enjoy himself. As such, Gray is on the road with a backing group of friends and accomplished musicians from the Vancouver area. “There is no ego and no sort of ill will at all. That’s the point of this band, to have a good time and make music that we like. So we already made the art and I’m having an awesome time on this tour.”
There is one other point that goes along with being in The Zolas; don’t take it too seriously. As such, Gray shuns any questions about ambitions and setting goals for the future. “If we did that we’d have to end the band because that’s the one rule. We just do what’s fun right now.”
It’s hard to argue with that.