An Interview With Carlin Nicholson of Zeus
    • WEDNESDAY, APRIL 04, 2012

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    What feels like many moons ago (especially in terms of the media's attention span), we caught Canadian rock group Zeus at the Mercury Lounge as part of an Arts and Crafts Records showcase. Despite not being familiar with the band before the night (they headlined the showcase), their deliciously old-school classic rock sound resonated almost instantly, and we've spent the ensuing weeks acquainting ourselves with their power-pop chops. We had the chance to chat with one of Zeus's three lead vocalists, Carlin Nicholson, over the phone, and even though intermittent cell-phone reception problems threatened to derail the whole process, our chat with Nicholson was still a fun look at a band whose music comes from another age, yet functions perfectly in this one.

    Zeus recently released their second full-length album, Busting Visions, which finds the band exploring every recess of the visceral energy of 1970s rock and roll while still inserting their own unique, modern look at what made the classics so much fun. That's a fine line to straddle though because with such an obviously retro mode, it is easy for critics to lob charges of "derivative" and "outdated" at your music. Anyone who's had the chance to hear Busting Visions knows though that Zeus certainly have their own distinct sound. Carlin Nicholson believes they were able to avoid that common pitfall because they didn't go into the studio trying to make a classic rock album. It's just the type of music they ended up playing. So, if you're wanting rock without all of the frills and electronics of the last fifteen years, Zeus has what you need.

    In 2010, Zeus made the long list for the Polaris Music Prize (Canada's equivalent of the Grammys) for the first album Say Us. According to Nicholson, being chosen for that honor was a very special moment. "It was great. There was a lot going on that time. It just felt like everything was really clicking together and that's obviously a super prestigious honor. We were just taken aback by everything that was going on at that time." Busting Visions is bursting with even more energy and classic rock hooks than Say Us so it should be interesting to see how the Canadian music press react to their newest efforts.

    As Nicholson told us, Zeus have been a band for three years now. "There's a lot of history with the dudes in the band. Mike and I have been playing together since high school." Just a couple of years ago, Carlin Nicholson and Zeus bandmate Mike O'Brien were playing a band called the Golden Dogs. Nicholson went on, "Mr. Rob Drake played in a band with Mike for about four years. I think it was just a coming together of the right bros at the right time who were in a circle of many, many more." As someone who has seen Zeus play live and the camaraderie they display on stage , "bros" seems like the perfect word for Nicholson to use to describe the band's relationship, and we mean this in the non-gentrified, non-pejorative sense that the term "bro" has gained over the last several years.

    One of the most unique aspects of Zeus as a band is the way in which there are three lead vocalists and three lead song-writers. When we saw them at Mercury Lounge, the band regularly switched back and forth between singers while the other two singers/guitarists would provide the harmonies. It gave their whole presentation a sort of Beatles-feel, a feeling that was ironically confirmed when Nicholson told us that they used many of the same types of microphones on Busting Visions as the Beatles used on Rubber Soul after we had mentioned noticing a stylistic similarity between the albums that we couldn't quite put our finger on.

    As Nicholson puts it, "It's kind of complicated, but we don't think about it that much. There's three writers, and the one who writes generally sings, hence why there's multiple singers. And if the guy happened to write it on piano, he tends to stay on piano. If not, an instrument comes up for grabs. We just kind of move around. We weren't trying to be one of the bands who did that. It's the way we have to play. People have to be on the instrument they want to play when they're singing. It's not that complicated. It just looks flashy from the crowds."

    With so many people intimately involved in the song-writing process, it's shocking that the album's songs are so consistent and thematically whole. Even when people are switching off between lead vocals and backup duties, there are never moments when the band doesn't feel like Zeus. That makes statements like this from Nicholson even more interesting, "We all have our own stuff and the way that we've been writing. It's like, I feel like if I was looking at this band from another perspective I would see three distinct songwriters who have a commonality between each other and the things they add to specific songs."

    When pressed to name what it is he added to the group's dynamic, Nicholson said: "If I have to guess, the parts that end up coming to the harmony and stuff like that... and sometimes I think about that a lot and I'll really run with something. It just becomes a product of us three. I feel like like if those same songs by the three of us were taken by us individually they wouldn't sound anything like when we all recorded it." So, while they all take turns writing the songs, at the end of the day, it's still a collaboration of the whole band that comes up with the distinct Zeus aesthetic.

    We don't feel like we're making too much of a gamble when we say that Zeus should be all over the Canadian music scene for a while to come, and if there's ever going to be a moment for them to break into the American conscious, it's now. They've got so much energy and charisma in a live setting that it really makes you embarrassed for all of the more famous American acts who seem to think they're performing shoegaze. If you haven't had a chance yet, listen to either Say Us or Busting Visions which are both out now via Arts & Crafts Records.

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