The Zolas' Zach Gray on Bowie's Imposter Syndrome, Dinner with Jane Fonda and Indonesian Scooter Crashes

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Photo: Alexi Johnson

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Jul 14, 2021

Past and future tenses collide in the Zolas' aptly-titled fourth LP, Come Back to Life, which arrives July 16 via Light Organ Records. The fulfillment of the Vancouver band's artistic vision comes over a decade after their debut. Evoking both resurrection and apocalypse, the album's sweeping sonic universe was inspired by the soundtracks for seminal '90s movies Trainspotting and Romeo + Juliet

"I never really thought I was allowed to make that kind of music until this record," says lead singer Zach Gray. "This is exactly the thing I wanted to put out when we first started conceiving of this, and that almost never happens."

What are your current fixations?

Given that we're about to get something like a proper summer, which we were denied last year, I've been just really obsessed with music that makes me feel like summer and makes me feel like I'm in a car full of my best friends with the sunroof open. And that's sort of all there is to do in Vancouver half the time, so I'm obsessed with making the most of these warm months.

Why do you live where you live?

It's kind of hard to say sometimes, other than momentum. Vancouver is not an easy place to live anymore, if it ever was. I think it's because there's nowhere better to return to. No one comes here by accident on the way to somewhere else. There's nothing around us, so you can forget that and you can think it's the centre of the world, but it really isn't. But that said, much like maybe New Zealanders feel, when you come back from somewhere else, you really appreciate that this is a place like no other. Another question could be about all the things I despise! But for the sake of optimism...

What was the last book or movie that blew your mind?

A book of short stories by this science fiction writer named Ted Chiang. He lives in Seattle and he wrote the short story they based the movie Arrival on. He hasn't written that much and I'm very mad at him for it, because I devoured his two short story books (Exhalation and Stories of Your Life and Others) in two days and now I have to wait for him to get inspired again.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert — one you played or attended — and why?

I think it was probably Radiohead. They played at my university. I had just made the transition — Radiohead was, for anyone around my age, the gateway between radio and art music — so it was the first time I ever went to a concert that was about more than just pure fun or pure angst. It was the most nuanced, effervescent show I've ever seen. The sound was incredible and they played songs I didn't expect; in fact, they played a song that appears on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. Callback! 

Since then I've become much more picky about how a concert should sound and how musicians should present themselves. When it's your business, it's hard to appreciate it from the naive way it's meant to be appreciated; you start to break it down into shop-talk and then it loses its magic. So any show that can wrench me away from thinking about anything technical going on, that's going to be my favourite show of the year.

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

The greatest moment in my career was the first time we were on a plane heading overseas to play music on a flight we didn't buy, heading towards quite literally a brave new world of performing to people who'd never seen me before, different languages and topographies. The greatest moment was when we realized we could travel the world like this. We were definitely given at least a brief sortie.

What's been the worst moment of your career so far?

The worst moment of your career happens pretty much once a year. When you're trying to write music, there'll always be a time where you're dead-convinced you'll never come up with anything good again. Seriously, it's the most deadening feeling to really think you've said everything you care to say, and I've gone through that probably six times in my life. I've always ended up with something cooler and more interesting and more colourful than I've ever done before, but I can't remember that when I'm in the trough! I don't think there's any artist that doesn't. You could be David Bowie — I think I read an article saying he also had imposter syndrome, and you're thinking, "Man, if David Bowie had imposter syndrome, then we all have it."

Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?

I can think of a very true answer, but it's not a good one — which is Caribou. But Caribou is famous! I just think there are few people out of Canada that are literally the best at what they do in the whole world, in my opinion. And Caribou is one of those people.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?

I bought a Bitcoin because I was dating this girl who was really into crypto before anyone was even talking about crypto. I went to a talk that she was speaking at, and some guy was selling Bitcoin there to get people interested in it. So I bought a Bitcoin from him for a shamefully low price, then I just literally forgot about it: I broke up with that girl and I never thought about my Bitcoin again until someone called me seven or eight years later and was like, "Hey man, have you read the news? You have a Bitcoin, right? Because apparently it's just through the moon right now." Suddenly my Bitcoin that I paid 500 bucks for was like $30,000!

Now, I think Bitcoin's worth even more — I don't fucking know, I'm out of it now — but the bit of advice I had was from Tom [Dobrzanski], who founded the Zolas with me and used to be in our band until three years ago. We were in the studio and I was telling him about how I was sitting on this $30,000 Bitcoin and people were saying it could go up to $100,000. Tom said, "If you didn't have any Bitcoin but you had $30,000, would you spend $30,000 on Bitcoin right now?" And I was like, "Fuck no, that shit's volatile as hell! It's too stressful." And he's like, "Well there's your answer! Every day you hold onto it, you're buying that Bitcoin." And I was like, "Man, that's the most interesting and sensible answer I could ever imagine." But, of course, I didn't listen to him. Then, I watched it plummet to about half its value before I got out. The moral to that story is: listen to people you know are smarter than you.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

I can remember it pretty well — I can still sing it to you, if you want. I was 13 years old, and I had fallen in love with this 15-year-old Brazilian exchange student. I wrote a song about how I missed her and true love, and it'd probably do better than half the songs I wrote subsequently because it was just so simple. I was not blushing at the idea of saying incredibly simple things in incredibly earnest terms — and it was a pretty good song.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?

These days, that's changed a lot. I have a picture of myself at high school graduation walking across the stage with a Canada flag wrapped around my neck like a cape. There was a lot of pride to being a Canadian when I was younger. I think, young or not, that disillusionment is a process all of us are going through. Nowadays, when I think of Canada, I think about stolen land, mostly. I grew up on land that belonged to the Musqueam Nation. I spent my whole childhood knowing there was a reserve in one corner of it but never asking, "Hey, how did it happen that these people were here before us and now they have this tiny little corner by the river and I never see them anywhere else? What's up with that?" I think we're all coming to terms with realizing that we've grown up in something not too dissimilar from apartheid[-era] South Africa. That's how I feel about Canada now.

What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?

"Middle-of-the-road." I would love to hear something truly mean — to say that about someone is such a lukewarm thing. I'd be happy to generate strong feelings in any direction! But when someone says you're middle-of-the-road, you're truly not doing your job.

What was the first album you bought with your own money?

Alapalooza by Weird Al. 

What was your most memorable day job?

I had a day job showing Quebecois and Japanese exchange students around Vancouver. It was a part of something called the Explore Program, which is a Pierre Trudeau-era program designed to bring together Canada's two solitudes: Francophone and Anglophone. So, if you're a student, you can apply for this bursary and come to a part of Canada that doesn't speak your language. Then, you get to learn that language and hang out with people from the other side. My whole job was just to find fun things for us all to do! I had something called the Beach Sunset Club where we picked a different beach to watch a sunset at every single week. I would show them my favourite little secret corners of Vancouver. I grew up here, so as ambivalent as I am about this city, I know it really well and the sides of it I love, I really love. Being able to show people that was a real treat; I would love to do that again sometime.

If you weren't playing music, what would you be doing instead?

I think I'd be teaching high school or probably working for an NGO or something abroad. I hope I'd be teaching high school. Honestly, I think I'd make a better high school teacher than musician.

How do you spoil yourself?

Bubble tea and a spur-of-the-moment plane ticket.

What's the best way to listen to music?

I think it's driving in a car — at night. 

What do you fear most?

The breakdown of civilization?

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

Oh, mostly sensible stuff. But one thing I would do is make sure that every year I went on some adventure with a different friend, whether they can afford it or not.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?

I think it's probably having dinner in L.A. sitting beside Jane Fonda — rapt in conversation because she's incredible — and falling in love with her as if age ain't nothing but a number.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?

I think my top person would be Naomi Klein. She's very alive, but I don't know anybody who's got a more cogent outlook on how we can improve our world. She's constantly writing books that completely shatter how I look at the world. If as a world and a country, we listened to Naomi Klein, things might just be okay. That said, I don't think I'd want to talk about that stuff. She just seems delightful! I'd cook her this vegetarian Korean spaghetti bolognese I think she'd really like.

What is the greatest song of all-time?

Well, I've got two or three on our upcoming record! What's funny is that's actually not a totally disingenuous answer: I'm constantly asking myself when I'm writing something, "Is this the song that would blow my mind if I was listening to it from the outside?" And the times when the answer's "yes," you truly do feel like there's nobody in this world that can write a better song. There's a couple songs on our record that genuinely make me feel that way.

But as far as others go, I think "Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan is probably one of the best ones; at least today — that's my answer today. That song is like hypnosis. I listened to that song when I got into a scooter crash in Indonesia.

And you still think it's the best of all-time?! That says a lot. 

Yeah, he almost took my life. It would've been an okay way to go out — a very Dylan way to go out. I've never put that together! It's like that thing where they say, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Me getting into a scooter accident in Indonesia while listening to Bob Dylan, who famously wasn't at Woodstock because he'd been in a motorcycle crash? That rhymes.

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