Talking a lot 'bout pop music lately. As a band do you follow or lead? Do you make music for the chart or for the art? Who is the target audience? You, Me, Us or Them?
When asked if they make music for anyone in particular Toronto-based rock act Zeus say us.
“First and foremost when we are making records we are trying to please ourselves,” says Mike O’Brien, one of the band’s three singer/songwriters, “That’s the name of the game and because there are three songwriters, each brings his best to the table. The other guys are the judge and jury so in that way the cream rises to the top, from each guy’s material at the time. It’s really just a matter of us pleasing ourselves, something we are all excited about and hopefully that translates.”
The other guys he speaks of are Neil Quinn and Carlin Nicholson. Together they bring a certain class as well as a deep affection for Classic Rock to the rock ‘n roll of the Six, a bit of the old to the now. The latest album, their third, on Arts & Crafts is even titled Classic Zeus. They are unmitigated pop song enthusiasts, something they’ve been working at and enjoying together since they met.
“Carlin and I grew up together, went to highschool together,” says O’Brien, “so he and I and his brother used to spend our Friday nights in a cabin at his house, listening to the radio. We played a game called Red Radio where we surf up and down the dial and we would score an artist on how many plays they got and it was always Phil Collins and Elton John. They were the big two, they were the most played artists and then at the time it was it was U2 and then maybe Aerosmith behind them. I used to hate U2 but recently I have been thinking their songs are amazing. There is something about those early hits. They are fantastic arrangements and super moving pieces of music.”
Zeus are by no means a retro-act living off others’ early glories, they are modern lovers but they have an appreciation for a riff regardless of how uncool it may have been. The aforementioned Phil Collins is a case in point. When the ‘80s megastar announced recently he was touring again, an online petition was launched to encourage him to rethink his plan. But no signing that for Zeus, pretty sure you will see Zeus first in line for those Phil Collins tickets. For it was Zeus who released an album of covers including The Phil’s former band Genesis’ track “That’s All”, (it was also on their debut EP Sounds Like Zeus). They also cover R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, Stone Temple Pilots; you figure it out, they will just say they’re great songs, period.
Writing great songs is the goal and purpose for Zeus. On Classic Zeus the three, plus drummer Rob Drake, have channeled a lot of the emotions of being in a band, the highs and lows of their relationships into the tracks, hanging them on hooks Wings-era Paul McCarthy would hanker after. And it’s not just the cute Beatle whose influence shows up on the album. If Zeus are Beatlesque it’s in the parts not the sum of. On “You Could Have A Lover” they sway from George’s gentle guitar weeping to John’s endearing sneer back to McCarthy’s harmonizing peacekeeping.
The Classic moniker applies to some CanCon too as well as acts from across the pond. The Band and Neil Young show up on “Throw It On The Fire” but it is mostly the Anglo-hitmakers that get the shout-out. The Bee Gees get a nod, a flourish of keys, on “27 Is The New 17” and Elvis Costello hovers just below “Straight Through The Light”.
With such an amalgamation of songs Zeus could lay claim to a new Toronto Sound, not the Ronnie Hawkins/Robbie Robertson guitar based blues sound but one versed in the Anglo-sensibility of Pulp, the Kinks, Pink Floyd, Squeeze as well as a myriad Brit one hit wonders who scaled the pop charts before disappearing leaving only their wounded licks and earworms. Toronto folks such as Ron Sexsmith, Bahamas, Jason Collett as well as Collett’s Broken Social Scene buddies share this melody-centric approach. Sexsmith could have penned “One Line Written In” as could have Collett who had chosen Zeus (then Paso Mino) as his backing band. Zeus may well be Toronto’s band, the new Hawks, a gathering of players ready to enjoy everything available in the most culturally diverse city in the world. They may not have a choice. They eat, play, love pop, it’s what they do. As Nicholson sings on "Everyone’s Got One", “Rock and Roll is everywhere/ Stick to what you know/ I believe in what I feel and what I want is real.”
O’Brien echoes the sentiment of the tune. “I think we are all very emotional guys, very sensitive and emotional dudes,” he says. "Classic Zeus" was a struggle for the band as they were exploring their relationship, the ups and downs, and the feelings brought forth he says.
“You spend a lot of time together and the songs end up being a melting pot of ideas and emotions and then you veer away to something that holds it together. But sometimes those relationships in the band inform what you are writing and what you are thinking,” he says, “You spend a lot of time together and your fortunes are tied to each other so it can be a very serious matter but the trick is to not make it serious and just make it fun.”
And they have. Zeus make pop fun for themselves and cool for kats again.
Zeus will be playing the Moustache Club in Oshawa Dec. 3. TUNS and Viva Mars will open.