“Did I ever think that I’d have a spinach moustache and Neil would have a guitar made of dog bones and Doritos?…Sure, why not?” Carlin Nicholson muses about the video for Zeus’s latest single ‘Are You Gonna Waste My Time’, in which puppets of the band get eaten mid performance by dogs belonging to his manager and label boss. It’s a humorous moment in the long journey the band has taken to get to the point they are today, preparing to release sophomore record Busting Visions in the UK at the start of August via So Recordings. “Things like that are a dream, y’know,” he continues, “after a certain point to get past the pain of rejection over and over you have to have blind faith. And now I have a spinach moustache.”
While the band released their debut EP Sounds Like Zeus through Arts and Crafts in mid 2009, the history between the members goes back way further, as Nicholson explains; “I grew up in the country. ‘Til you turn 16 that leaves you plenty of time. Some people get caught up in drugs. Some people get caught up in video games, Mike [O’Brien] and I got caught up in music”. A few years down the line, having been in other bands (some of which, by Nicholson’s own admission, were “stinking”), the old friends started recording again. Then they got offered a show with Peter Elkas, and put together the rest of the band, including O’Brien’s Paso Mino band mate Rob Drake on drums, and long time friend and ex-Golden Dog Neil Quin. Before long the band were asked by Jason Collett to tour and back him, something Nicholson feels had a positive impact on the band, touring around and honing their playing and songwriting skills.
With Quin, O’Brien and Nicholson all accomplished songwriters, it wasn’t long before debut album Say Us came together, featuring partly new material, but also mining the respective writers back catalogues. “Some of the songs on Say Us dated from way back, but just hadn’t met the public eye. It sometimes seems people don’t want to admit to using old material, but even if it’s an old song, it can still be fresh and good if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. So there was some really old stuff, and then a spontaneous pulse of new material too. That record was really a revolving door of our friends, whoever happened to be in the studio might add something.” The album ended up being longlisted for that year’s Polaris prize, gaining radio support across the Canadian Broadcast Coorporation and saw the band touring Europe. All the while they continued to work on new material, releasing a couple of 7”s before the Canadian release of Busting Visions earlier this year. “The whole two years between records thing is tiresome. There was a time when the norm was two records a year, but I know things are different now and there’s more competition. But from a creative point of view I feel like we, as a band, could do more. We record our own stuff, in our own studio so we have that freedom. As we speak I’ve got two new 7”s slated to go.”
The band’s studio, the fantastically named Ill Eagle, has become something of a hub for the band and the wider Zeus circle, including hosting recoding sessions with Jason Collett, former band-mate and long-term friend Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas, Dan Mangan and The Golden Dogs amongst others. Nicholson believes that Zeus would be a different band without it: “All these dudes rolling around had this influence over the way we do things. In essence, Zeus is just a snapshot of some members of a much bigger musical family.”
The studio also acts as a place for the band’s songwriters to come together, with each bringing different approaches, Nicholson suggests: Quin often coming in with complete songs including arrangements, O’Brien leaving more room for development, and Nicholson himself often leaving things unfinished to see what his bandmates make of things, plugging through new ideas to see what fits. “With me, they act as my selection committee – what they like the most and have ideas for is what works. Looking around and being inspired by writers that I admire so much is ultimately what pushes me to bring my best. Then we put everything through the Zeus rinse.”
While much of Busting Visions was recorded at Ill Eagle, the band mixed up the approach a bit, heading up to Leslie Feist’s Ranch to record with her producer Robbie Lackrtiz. Rather than piecing things together, the band set themselves a period of two months in which to record, then hone the recordings until they were happy, trying to make it “as sugar sweet as possible”. The result is an unabashedly joyful record, with riffs and choruses that get stuck in your head for months on end, and an instant and comfortable familiarity. Sweet harmonies rub alongside tender moments with no song overstaying its welcome.
The band have been called almost of every combination of Rock and Pop imaginable, Nicholson says, listing some of the more inappropriate styles. “Hillbilly-pop, punk-pop, classic rock, blues rock…..who knows, man. To us it’s Zeus. It’s the letter Z. It’ll probably be at the end of your iPod or whatever, and you can find us near the back of the record store. We hope you like the songs. We aren’t working any magic tricks, just recording songs we’ve written with guys we love playing with. We make no apologies for anything we do. Yeah, we say oh ahh. Maybe we say oh la la. Maybe it reminds you of a time or place. So what? You borrow from here, you nick from there, and you pay back somewhere else. That’s what its all about. If it makes you feel good then follow it. We’ll be there too.”
The feel good attitude also pervades the band’s live performances, honed over three years of playing to new audiences. Swapping instruments, throwing poses and knowing looks at the audience are a common occurrence at a Zeus show. It’s an energy that transmits itself to the audience, and can sometimes lead to unusual places. “We can’t fake it. If it looks like we are having a good time, it’s because we are. We’re telling our deepest, darkest secrets to a room full of people we’ve never met before at the top of our lungs. It’s massively cathartic. And as soon as the crowd see you having a good time, it’s like you are letting them know it’s OK to have a good time too. I’ve seen the ice melt. We aren’t just stern Canadians with moustaches. When people know the songs and are jacked, it makes you do things, you know, all of a sudden your standing on some pole, holding on to a light and you don’t know how you got there.”
As for what the future holds, the short answer, Nicholson suggests, is hard work. “There’s people in the UK and Europe who have decided to take a chance on us, and we want to thank them for taking that chance. I mean, we went to Erfurt, in Germany… I’d never heard of the darn place, but we showed up and there were like 200 people there. It’s just a cool thing that someone works hard to make it work and those people took the chance.”
It’s a chance you can take for yourself when the band release Busting Visions in the UK on 13 August, and follow it with a tour later in the year.