Zeus

Zeus

Zeus is juiced. Juiced about their debut album, Say Us. Juiced about taking it out of the incubatory state of the studio and on to the road. Juiced about sharing with audiences what they call “the thick bro-zone layer” going
on between them.

In conversation, Zeus might sound like a bunch of keener teenagers eager to break out of the garage. But Say Us shows that they’re far from amateurs. Lots of young bands can conjure memories of the four B’s—the Beatles, the Band, the Beach Boys and Big Star—with the help of vintage gear and an ear for
melody; very few can write songs that have a fighting chance of taking on the canon the way Zeus does here.

It helps that they not only know their songcraft, but they’re a seasoned touring band that arranges their songs in the studio. Which means they sound entirely relaxed as they shift tempos, surround themselves with sugary harmonies, write countermelodies for dual guitar leads, and run honky-tonk pianos through sub-aquatic sonic effects.

Founding members Mike O’Brien and Carlin Nicholson met in high school in Barrie, Ontario, a city an hour north of Toronto whose only claim to rock’n’roll fame is hosting large summer rock festivals. They bonded over ’90s punk like Nirvana, Lagwagon and NOFX, before discovering Canada’s Halifax Pop
Explosion and bands like Sloan, Superfriendz and Thrush Hermit. Those bands led them back to ’60s and ’70s rock and a love of analog aesthetics. They formed separate bands but remained close; O’Brien’s band, Paso Mino, found work as Jason Collett’s backing band.

Paso Mino dissolved when the band’s guitarist, Afie Jurvanen, was plucked for Feist’s touring band. O’Brien, not sure what exactly his next move was, called Nicholson to help him out with some home recordings, including a song called “How Does It Feel” (now the lead-off track on Say Us). Some friends
from fellow power-pop enthusiasts the Golden Dogs were called in to flesh out that song and others that followed, including some of Nicholson’s. Golden Dogs guitarist Neil Quin stuck around and also contributed songs; Paso Mino drummer Rob Drake was summoned, and Zeus was born in September 2008.

Like their early influence Sloan—or even The Band, for that matter—the songwriters all exchange instruments depending on who’s taking the lead. And one of the many things they learned from working with Jason Collett was that no song should be set in stone: every possibility should always be on the
table, every tempo tested, every genre mined—eventually you’ll strike gold. That said, being the selfassured pros they are, the final arrangements of many Zeus songs are obvious from the beginning.

A demo got them signed to Arts and Crafts in February 2009, and it’s not hard to see what parts of Zeus’s story appealed to the label best known for Broken Social Scene: young Toronto musicians regroup after their other projects dissemble; they craft a basement recording with no expectations about the end
product; friends in other bands drop by to lend a hand; a third songwriter, another old friend, is brought into the fold; the studio becomes a hub for other associated projects; a production aesthetic results, combining their cumulative influences into a bright and fresh new sound.

It would take another year after signing to Arts and Crafts for Zeus to deliver Say Us to the label. A teaser EP (Sounds Like) was released in late ’08, featuring a fuzzed-up and much-buzzed cover of “That’s All”
by Genesis. The delay was partially because they wanted to include some of Quin’s songs, but the larger truth is that they wanted a debut that was all-killer-no-filler.

That’s why Say Us was remastered no less than three times before the members of Zeus figured they could afford to stop waking up in a cold sweat,
worrying about whether the album sounded like it should. Says O’Brien, in a modest understatement: “We put a lot of stock into the recordings. We have to be 100-per-cent inspired and into every arrangement on the record.”

Those arrangements pay obvious debts to the ’60s and ’70s, which is not any kind of nostalgic necrophilia on the part of these gentlemen, who weren’t even born when the ’70s ended.

“To me those sounds and those recordings that we’re influenced by are just as fresh-sounding as anything,” says O’Brien. “Maybe that’s a weak argument, but they sound alive to me, whether they were recorded yesterday or tomorrow.

It’s not a vintage sound or a modern sound; it’s a good recording. And who knows what our next album will sound like? I don’t feel locked into this sound. We’re just following our instincts.”

“We’re filling an area that people haven’t gone for in a long time,” adds Nicholson. “It’s not by intention, or us feeling like it’s missing and we think people need it. It’s just the sound we love and we’ll keep pursuing
and we’ll continue recording in our own place and our own way.”

That approach has brought others to them. Not only have they recorded albums by Jason Collett, Bahamas and the Golden Dogs at their east-end Toronto studio, Ill Eagle, but they appeared on the latest albums by Hayden and Jamie Lidell and have been sought out by younger artists to play the role of an
old-school producer, pulling apart songs and re-arranging them.

Now that Say Us is about to see the daylight beyond the studio doors, Zeus is ready to strip everything down and be a four-man rock’n’roll machine on stage. “The recording and the live show I see as different entities,” says O’Brien, “and I’m equally excited about both. The recording is more of a collective of people floating through.

The live show is the band, these four people making music together. It’s unlike
any other band I’ve played in. I get so juiced up playing with this band, and the songs just take off live. I love the recordings, but live is a whole other thing.”