By Alex HudsonJust like the title indicates, Ancient Mars finds the Zolas looking up at the stars. Throughout the course of their sophomore album, the Vancouver duo ruminate on the once-lush landscape of the Red Planet ("Ancient Mars"), bathe in silvery moonlight ("Cold Moon"), and imagine a lover walking across an alien landscape ("In Heaven"). Adding to the cosmic mood is the music itself, which pairs pillowy synths with icy reverb and hard-hitting beats. While the group's knack for writing pop hooks remains unspoiled, the atmospheric production touches mean that this is far removed from the band's cabaret-influenced debut, 2009's Tic Toc Tic. Despite the outer space theme, however, singer Zachary Gray keeps things relatable thanks to confessional lyrics that touch on everything from a girl in his Earth and Ocean Sciences class ("Strange Girl") to cyber-stalking on Facebook (the aforementioned "Cold Moon"). Nearly every one of these songs discusses lost intimacy, failed relationships and unattainable women, meaning that Ancient Mars is, at its core, an album about romantic longing. What could be more earthly than that? In a previous interview with Exclaim!, you said that you were going into the studio with the songs written, but you didn't yet know how they were going to be arranged. How did they take shape? We had decided from the beginning, just like the last album, that we were going to pick our dream team, pick the people that we wanted to be in the band, and then let everybody do what they were strong at. Build with the right materials. What we kind of wanted to do was to make a Grizzly Bear record if Grizzly Bear really sold out. Looking back, that's sort of how it feels. I don't think that we had that in mind at the time, but that's sort of what I wanted. I love pop music and I love making as many catchy songs as possible, but what has always been missing in our music, previous to this, was a sonic sophistication, or the kind of atmosphere that feels good on long walks through a city. I wanted music that sounded really good in your headphones and thick, soft synths that would fill your ear canal, and also stark contrast with minimalism. We worked with Chuck Brody, who has so much experience with the hype-est, sugariest pop music you could possibly do ― he used to work at Sony studios, so he was assistant engineering all of the J. Lo smash hits, and Puff Daddy, and Marc Anthony. I guess all three of those people slept together. Actually, I guess Puff Daddy and Marc Antony haven't slept together, as far as we know. That's breaking news, I guess. He's worked on Wu-Tang records, and Phantogram, which is a really cool, mostly electronic group. We hadn't had a lot of experience with that, but that was the kind of music that we'd been listening to, so he added that element, in general. He forced us to take songs that we thought were going to be brooders, and to let them still be brooders, but to punch them up with bouncing percussion and beats and stuff like that ― which I think worked out so well. I just love the contrast between broodiness and head-bobbing. We were sick of making music that didn't immediately make your head bob. We listened to something that the Neptunes produced, and you have no control of it. You can even not be paying attention. You can be at a bus stop and a car can go by and you hear a Neptunes song and immediately some part of you starts bobbing your head with it. We wanted to do that.
How much direction did you give the people you were working with, or did you rely on their influence? Tom and I and Chuck did a lot of pre-production before we brought the guys in, but once we were in the room ― it's so nice to get into the position where you can choose to work with people who you know will make better choices than you. There were a lot of times where our drummer (Michael Jordan of the Liptonians) would want to do something that I wasn't feeling yet, but I just had to go on faith. I've always thought of him as the most talented guy out there, so I'm just going to let him lead. Invariably, I always liked the results way more than if I had gotten my way.
Tom is a producer in his own right, so why did you decide to work with an outsider producer? Tom doesn't always want to be a producer. Every single other record he does, he's the producer. We have historically gone with a third party producer, because to be a musician on a recording is different than being a producer. I don't know how Warren Beatty does it, but it's hard to act and direct at the same time.