Published Feb 20, 2010After spending the entire day playing music with some of his closest pals, Carlin Nicholson has a well-worn grin on his face when he opens the main door to Ill Eagle studio as widely as he can. It's unseasonably misty for a Canadian winter night and Toronto's east side is damp and cool, making Nicholson's offer to enter the recording facility he co-owns all the more welcoming. Inside, he and his band mates in Zeus are running through songs with their close collaborator/occasional bandleader Jason Collett, in preparation for their upcoming Bonfire Ball Revue tour across North America. Collett and Zeus (Nicholson, Mike O'Brien, Neil Quin, and Rob Drake) each have stunning new records to unveil and, after playing countless shows together around the world over the past few years, their fates are intertwined.
With Nicholson and O'Brien handling production, Collett's sessions at Ill Eagle conjured his best solo album in Rat a Tat Tat ― a dynamic marriage of his folk gravitas and hooky pop finesse. The latter, in particular, has been bolstered by members of Zeus and their extended family of musical friends, including former band-mate Afie Jurvanen of Bahamas. With no pretence or cautious hesitation, the boys in Zeus are unabashed proponents of timeless pop and rock'n'roll and they're sticklers about it, executing the styles brilliantly on their self-realized, full-length debut, Say Us.
As a member of Broken Social Scene and a savvy social convener in Toronto's arts community, Collett convinced his label Arts & Crafts to take a chance on Zeus and get behind their work. A loyalist and peer booster, he's been embraced by strong communities before and sees a new one blossoming among Zeus and their contemporaries. Best of all, the chemical reaction so necessary to making musical ventures thrive appears off the charts here; on an aesthetic and interpersonal level, Collett and Zeus are locked into something grand together. Still, with the unique Revue tour looming, there's some work to be done.
"Let's run through that one again and then take a break," Collett instructs, after a reasonable stab at one of his new songs, "Long May You Love." Even six hours into this rehearsal, Zeus simply nod jovially before playing the infectious, shuffling march of a tune that much better. Until quite recently, these young men have been best known as Collett's backing band, a role they still relish for its challenges and recognition. But after a decade of different monikers and configurations, something special's been brewing for Zeus lately. Nicholson and O'Brien are suddenly in-demand producers; Ill Eagle's been a hub for bold sounds by friends like the Golden Dogs, Danielle Duval, and Collett. And thanks to extensive touring, Zeus are now one of Canada's best live bands, tapping into the textures and tones of the Beatles or Wings or ELO to get at something all their own.
With "Long May You Love" completed, Collett takes a seat in the live room with an air of satisfaction about the day's accomplishments. "It was good," he says of the practice, "but I'm a little rusty. These guys are all top-notch but we haven't rehearsed in... it feels like a year. Now you have to figure out how to play the record you made, the nightmare you made. It's a lot of fun and we're all really excited. You hear people whining about what a tough life this is. I always wonder if any of them have ever sanded drywall before. Now that's a hard day's job; this is never a hard day's job."
After operating in the relative obscurity of Toronto's underground singer-songwriter scene throughout the '90s, Collett became an auxiliary member of Broken Social Scene, witnessing the power of galvanizing visionaries toward a common purpose. As such, he's been a uniter many times over, spearheading unique Toronto meet'n'greets like the annual Basement Revue at the Dakota Tavern, which brings disparate artists together for rare collaborations. Even the Bonfire Ball revue is designed to offer fans a unique experience, as Collett, Zeus, and Bahamas join forces to play intermingling sets, popping up to perform songs together all night, as opposed to just ploughing through their respective material and then waiting for the show to end. "It'll be three hours of raw madness, so go to the bathroom before the show starts," Nicholson warns fans.
"Yeah, we're all now in bladder training ourselves," Collett adds, chuckling.
Physiological peril notwithstanding, the Ball promises to be an endearing demonstration of how musical camaraderie can lead to something strong that still hangs loose. That same mentality drew BSS and its label Arts & Crafts into existence and brought Collett into Zeus's circle of friends. "When you're working in some kind of informal collective or community or family of musicians, you really are encouraged to grow more and stretch further in your own work, because you're inspired by others around you," he says. "It struck me then and it continues to be an important lesson for me ― to be engaged in a community of musicians who become your best critics. They challenge you in a good way and it's a healthy environment."
Back in Ill Eagle's control room, the members of Zeus are partaking in just such an academic exercise by listening to the 68s, an early band featuring Nicholson and O'Brien. It's not just a trip down memory lane; they're studying the songs. "Mike and I are still honing our style," Nicholson explains. "With every new band we record we learn the fastest way to get the best out of them. It's taken years to figure this out. The first studio we had was built in '95 and we've built them in every place we've lived. If you do it for long enough, you just get better and better."
When they discuss their chemistry together, Zeus and Collett use words like "charged up," "sparked," and "juiced." Energy is a huge thing for them, a force that has propelled them to this point. For Collett, the experience is meaningful but echoes others in his musical life.
In the early part of the last decade, as Toronto experienced an underground cultural renaissance, Collett launched a songwriter series called Radio Mondays. Future members of BSS were simultaneously starting to mingle and feed off the work of their contemporaries. Collett befriended Kevin Drew and the two began working on songs informally. Drew invited Collett to join the Social Scene, which he eventually did, and his life changed forever when the band took off, jolting his own solo career in the process. "The biggest impact on me was that there was a certain spirit with which things were done that resonated around the world at the very beginning," Collett says. "I feel really lucky to have been a part of something that does that. It doesn't happen very often in one's life."
In a smaller but really exciting way, Collett feels the same intangible bond with the boys in Zeus, who seem more than ready for their close-up. Hailing from the Big Bay Point area of Barrie, Ontario, Nicholson and O'Brien played in a couple of bands with a fellow named Afie Jurvanen beginning in the late '90s. O'Brien and Jurvanen eventually left to form Paso Mino, who caught the ear of Toronto musician and producer Howie Beck. When Collett was looking for a guitarist, Beck recommended Jurvanen. "Afie kinda pulled a Robbie Robertson," O'Brien recalls. "He said 'You can have me but you have to take the rest of my band.'"
"He pitched it more like, 'Have I got the band for you,'" Collett recalls. "And that was very ballsy and presumptuous but I thought, 'Well, what the fuck; let's check 'em out.' So when I went to the rehearsal space, they'd not only learned [my] whole record but they'd rehearsed it without me and had all the finesse down. So, it was done, bang ― I just walked into a band I'd been playing with for ten years."
After Jurvanen left to play guitar with Feist (and eventually perform as Bahamas), Paso Mino endured some line-up juggling before finally consisting of O'Brien, Nicholson, Quin, and Drake. The quartet felt something particularly powerful about their dynamic. "The name came from us saying that everything sounded like 'Zeus juice' in the studio," O'Brien explains. "Someone would lay down a bass part and someone else would be like, "Aw man, the bass sounds like Zeus.' Carlin and I put together a band for a show that [songwriter] Peter Elkas asked us to play. He was like, 'I'm making the poster. What's your band's name?' The first thing that came to mind was Zeus and it stuck."
The band cite East coast icons like Sloan and Thrush Hermit as early influences but eventually explored old school, '60s templates to hone their own timeless sound on Say Us. "Jay said it best in that Zeus songs are in a zone that nobody's tapped for a long time," Nicholson says. "Like, the very intentional back-up 'ooh-wa-wahs' with no fear of doing it on stage, y'know? There are a lot of angular bands that don't do that but I find that even those guys are into this stuff; even the hardest rocking dude will say 'I like the Band, I like Neil Young.' So how come no one sounds like that any more? I mean everybody I know listens to that old stuff. So where is it? Why am I not hearing any new stuff like that?"
With their critical eye and reverence for music, Zeus exhibit a passion that even surprises a vet like Collett. "These guys don't stop playing, like in a playful way. They finish a gig and the guitars are still going in the dressing room, the hotel rooms ― they're going in the fucking lobby at 8:30 in the morning when we're heading out with hangovers. They're going in the van. It's non-stop; it's relentless. For these guys, music is just fun and it should be expressed all the time."
Collaborating has led to a creative explosion for both Zeus and Collett. With a bold achievement like Say Us under their belt, Zeus find themselves savouring the long-hoped for moment with one eye towards their next move. "I'm just excited to have it come out and hear it on vinyl," Nicholson says of Say Us. "It's such a huge triumph for us to have it out properly."
"But we're all excited about recording another album," O'Brien adds. "All of us write a lot. Carlin alone probably has 100 songs in his back catalogue and right now, we probably could record all of our albums for our entire career. But it might never happen," he exclaims with a chuckle. "No, we are excited about making another record but I'm most excited about playing live. Having your record out and having people know the songs brings a whole other element to the live show. When people are familiar are with the material, it's gonna get them just as charged as us and have a nice flow of energy for the live shows."
While the young band is understandably wide-eyed about impending opportunities, for Collett, the union with Zeus and the vision of Nicholson and O'Brien has led him to a great record in Rat a Tat Tat. "I firmly believe that this is my best work," he says. "I feel because I've been plugged into this scene that's hitting its stride, it's charged me to hit a whole other stride. It comes back to that notion that we're sparking off of one another and there's really good friction going on in this scene. I think it's really healthy to be plugged into."