Interview | Zach Gray of The Zolas
Holy Smokes caught up with Zach Gray of The Zolas to discuss the future of the band and where music is going.
Interview by Zane Coppard
HOLY SMOKES: Hey Zach, let’s jump right to it. Five albums on a desert island, what are they?
ZAC: Ambulance Limited - Ambulance Limited, Kanye West - Yeezus, this is not in order. The Cure - Disintegration, Smashing Pumpkins - Melon Collie and the Infinite sadness, this is a really big album so it’s kind of almost cheating. Tame Impala - Currents.
HS: Kanye gets a lot of flack. Do you think he consciously leverages himself? What do you think of playing up your pop persona a bit?
ZAC: I think he is one of those people who is testing the saying that, “there is no such thing as bad press”. I think him and Trump have something in common, where they both realize that in today’s media landscape, he who manages to be in the most press wins the PR award just by saturation. Kanye’s really good at finding ways to be in press the same way that Trump does.
HS: When you write songs are you very specific in mind for what you are going to write about? Does it start with chords? How do you approach it, are you very methodical? For instance, “this is the time I wake up, I do this”.
ZAC: No I don’t have a good system, every time I think I have a good system it doesn’t work the next time. I write music separately from lyrics usually. The songs I like the most I write the lyrics independently and then music comes to them.
HS: How does your partnership with Tom work?
ZAC: A lot of the time I’ll write a full skeleton of a song and then bring it to him, or I’ll bring it to the other guys depending on what the song needs. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a bit or a piece of a song and we’ll jam that and see what happens. Sometimes we’ll start with nothing and we’ll jam something that will turn into a section of a song later that I’ll record on my phone. And then six months later dig up and think this is cool, this would fit with something else.
HS: Do you ever end up compromising ideas or inhibiting yourself in terms of trying to fit into something specific genre wise?
ZAC: No, I think I know what our band is. When we’re writing for our band I know how I want to come across. Especially these days we know exactly what we want to sound like and we’ve never had that kind of clarity before.
HS: Do you think that will be harder to find when Tom’s gone? Is his absence an opening of a door?
ZACH: Yeah there’s some positive things about Tom leaving, and they’re pretty small. But no, I still want piano and keys to be a big part of the band and there’s a lot of good players out there. I’m not worried about that at all. Especially for Swooner, Cody, Dwight, and I really know what we want to sound like and so it will make it really easy to fit that other person in. Also for this stuff I am pretty sure Tom’s going to be writing with us anyway. He’s just switching away from being in a band, we’re still recording at his studio and I think we’ll still be writing with him. It’s a pretty soft landing.
HS: From recording to your live show... Your live shows are a little more raw, is that purposeful? Do you want it to sound a little different?
ZAC: Maybe there was a point where I was trying to go for something as crisp as our recordings, but it’s really hard to do that. When you’re coming up with something that’s really really clean and really deliberate you have to think of every fucking element and every detail. It’s nice to think of most of the details but then leave a lot of the randomness in there. So that’s why we’ve never even considered playing to tracks. We have lots of samples and triggers but we want to be able to mess around, and we want to be able to make mistakes, and we want to be able to be heavier or softer throughout a night. The better we know the songs and the more experience we have with each show the more plastic it is.
HS: You can make an album at home really well. Where is music going? Guitar and computer based music?
ZAC: Well we still don’t have good midi guitar. We have really good midi bass guitar now. The new Omnisphere bass guitar sounds pretty great. I wouldn’t have thought that guitar based music is coming back if I wasn’t friends with so many people younger than me who are so into guitar music. I remember it being in and then leaving. Leaving really clearly. Guitar music was so out, we were all sick of guitars and we wanted nothing to do with it. Electronics will always be a part of music from now on, in the same way that when the electric guitar came in we are not going back to only acoustic. Electric guitars are here to stay, and so is electronic music, and so is Ableton. But I think guitars are getting reintegrated and I am really excited for the next wave of bands. I think our band had a choice to make in recording new stuff, I wrote a bunch of songs and sometimes I write pop songs for people...
HS: Who do you write for? Can you say?
ZAC: No one you would know, the only one that you’d know is I wrote an album track off Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album.
HS: How do those kind of gigs happen? Is it the person you are? Is it mainly finding your way into these rooms at the right time? Does it have to do with your overall outlook? Friendliness?
ZAC: Yeah, you have to know people. That song wouldn’t have been on her album if I wasn’t friends with her. Even then it took so much lobbying. For that album there were two hundred and fifty songs literally that she wrote with people. It took so much work on my part of just being around and not being forgotten. I actually hated it, I hated it. Cause her and I are friends. It sort of made me feel like any other of those LA douchebags who want something from her. Her and I have been buddies for a while. I needed to remind myself that it’s not really that important if my song’s on the album. But I would way rather just be friends and stay friends.
HS: I cut you off earlier...
ZAC: I think The Zolas had a choice where we had a couple songs that were really pop bangers and I feel like we could have kept on going on the same trajectory from Ancient Mars to Swooner. Which is like, catchier, cleaner, bigger, more hi-fi and more electronic.
HS: Do you think you found a good common ground?
ZACH: No, I want nothing to do with that. To me I felt like my passions kind of gone for that type of music. I can’t stand it anymore, I just fell out of love with it. There’s still interest in it, mainstream music is still in that gear. There’s a temptation to write and release something that follows that. But then you also have to think that one day really soon, it could happen tomorrow, there’s going to be a band that comes out that makes that music sound so fucking obsolete. That pop bubble is about to burst really hard and I want to be a part of THAT wave because that’s how I actually feel about music. I don’t want to be going against my own tastes just to try to be successful. I think really soon there’s going to be a wave of music that’s going to completely turn everything around. It’s going to make that type of generic R&B infused electro/pop music obsolete.
HS: Do you think that’s important? Having a genre become so oversaturated that it forces music to move towards something new that’s inspiring and cool?
ZAC: Yeah of course. A younger generation of musicians only knows this landscape which I feel makes them more interested in the next wave, which is how I feel too. I remember watching this Nirvana documentary and when Smells Like Teen Spirit was a #1 hit the next three songs were: some bullshit U2 song, Whitney Houston from the Bodyguard Soundtrack, and Michael Bolton. Schmaltzy music was at a fever pitch at that moment. Overly saccharine, sweet poppy ballads about love, that was what was selling so heavily at the time.
HS: And then this band came along and changed everything...
ZAC: Well yeah, I guess enough people were already sick of it and didn’t realize, and then this band came and offered them a completely different portal to music and different feelings, and people jumped on that. And that’s going to happen again. It won’t happen with the same saturation because there are just too many media outlets now.
HS: Music is a more and more streamlined, oversaturated, media driven industry. It is easier than ever to have a powerful image and bad music and still resonate with people. How do you keep up with that? How do you stick out? I know you hate your phone.
ZAC: The most important thing is to not try and do that. Definitely don’t make music that you don’t think is the best music possible at that moment. Don’t do that. Even though I am talking about trends ebbing and flowing. Everything is cool and uncool at the same time. Anything that you are interested in on the broad spectrum of music, even if it’s a super niche thing like proto-noise folk music, people can search for that stuff on the internet. Yes that proto-noise folk music is a really tiny band in the spectrum and you only know one or two people who like that kind of music, but behind those people you know personally there’s maybe one hundred thousand people on the internet where that’s the shit for them. It doesn’t matter how cool or uncool that music is. Especially on a global scale, I was just in Indonesia and Simple Plan and Scorpions are really popular there right now. And there’s one hundred and thirty million Indonesians in the world.
HS: In regards to traveling, what’s your ideal lifestyle?
ZAC: I don’t know how viable it is but I like the idea of being in Vancouver four months of the year, tour for three or so, and then for the rest of it find a city some place in the world to live and write and exist. Somewhere I’ve never been before, see what it’s like to live there. Do that for three months and then start the cycle again.
HS: Was being a musician what you thought it would be like? There is a lot of glamorization around touring and all this kind of stuff. Even for a band at your level you’re still spending a lot of tour time loading gear, sound-checking and driving etc. Is it what you thought it was going to be?
ZAC: When you’re a kid dreaming about music you don’t dream about being at this level, even though this level is pretty amazing. You’re thinking about being U2. So obviously I thought that was in the cards for sure, and that’s a healthy attitude. At the end of the day there’s things about touring that I don’t like, but I always remember that this is my job. And I am thinking of all the other jobs that I’ve ever had and all the jobs that friends of my have and I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.