I was first introduced to Zeus through my boyfriend’s old roommate from Toronto. He always had friends passing though town, playing shows, crashing on the couch, his brother, Mike O’Brien, being the most frequent one. While everyone’s got those friends who always talk up their friend’s bands and so on, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of them actually being any good. When I finally got the opportunity to see them play live this February, I was not prepared for the amount of talent they brought with them. But considering their history and standing in Canada, I should not have been surprised by the polished level of their sound.
Members Mike O’Brien, Carlin Nicholson and drummer Rob Drake played together as Jason Collett’s (of Broken Social Scene) backing band Paso Mino. While touring members shuffled around, they picked up Neil Quin from another Toronto based band, the Golden Dogs, and it finally clicked. All three, O’Brien, Nicholson, and Quinn share song writing duties on their newest album, Say Us, which dropped last month. They kindly squeezed (literally) some time in for me in their tour van before heading off to play SXSW. You can catch their show at CafÃ© du Nord in San Francisco tomorrow night, fresh from their Texas travels.
Laura S: What’s the story behind the name, are you guys just that confident?
Carlin Nicholson: It was just a silly play on words, where it was something sounded like Zeus, sounds like Zeus’s juices, sounds like juice, and all that stuff. So then Pete Elkas asked us to play a show, he’s a Canadian guy, and he said, “What’s your band name?” And then Mike said the first thing that came to his mind was Zeus. So there it is. I understand there’s another Zeus out there, so if you’re reading this blogâ€¦. back off.
Neil Quin: Back off our freakin name!
LS: I know you guys tour in Canada a lot, is this one of your biggest US based tours, or this old hat?
CN: This is like a couple warning shots before the tour when we come back through in April. The album just came out so we’re just doing a couple opening slots, we’re still building it, because America’s a big place. And it costs a lot to play here, but it’s super necessary. We prioritize that pretty high.
LS: You guys were Jason Colett’s backing band (of Broken Social Scene) for awhile, and toured with Amy Millan from the Stars, it seems like all the big Toronto based bands know each other and collaborate a lot, is that just how the music scene works there?
CN: There’s a pretty wicked music community of bands in the city and we have a lot of good friends in a lot of good bands. Most of the people that I really respect and admire are people that I know, which is really cool.
LS: So your Genesis, “That’s All” cover last night sort of caught the crowd by surprise and was amazing, do you guys have a soft spot for Phil Collins?
NQ: We all do in a way. I was in the womb for a Phil Collins concert. And then was also in the womb for a Huey Lewis and The News concert the same season. I love the Power of Love, by Huey and his News. So look out for the exclusive. He’s the alpha male of the 80′s.
CN: Who Huey?
NQ: Yeah! He’s got that deep deep voice, and cool demeanor. It sounds like someone put out a cigar in it, in a good way.
LS: I love how you guys rotate instruments and switch around lead vocals, did you guys start off doing that from the start or was it an idea that developed over time?
NQ: It’s usually to accommodate the songwriter, which ever instrument you write on, you’ll probably play the song on that instrument and everybody else will shuffle around that.
LS: So are you all full-time musicians, or do any of you have any odd jobs on the side?
CN: Mike and I make records on the side. We recorded Golden Dogs, Jason Colett and Danielle Duvall. Sort of our bread and butter for this year. And I still work as a sound guy too.
NQ: I do whatever labor jobs come my way. I wash dishes and Robby teaches drums. I didn’t have to wash dashes all season which is nice. I don’t mind doing it, I get into it and I’ve been doing it for years. So if you have a restaurant, I’m a great fucking dishwasher. Hire me.
LS: Besides camping out at Best Western’s in Queens, do you guys have any other tips for saving money on the road?
CN: Hmm saving money? Yeah don’t smoke. There go all your per diems. You just have to pick your moments, sometimes you think you got all this money and you don’t even have close to that amount, and then you go and buy all this vinyl â€¦
NQ: This all sounds very like today.
LS: You guys have played New York before, do you have any favorite haunts you’ve discovered or make a point of stopping by?
Mike O’Brien: In a city like New York , there’s just so much cool shit to check out, you can always go and look for something new. I always try to get to CafÃ© Habana. I love that corn.
LS: Have any favorite dives you’ve hung out at while touring?
MO: To be honest no, because we’re always IN dive bars playing shows.
LS: If you guys weren’t full-time musicians, what other jobs could you picture yourself doing?
NQ: Neuro Scientist.
MO: Actually I wanna be the guy, where you’re cross country skiing and you get to shoot the gun too. Someone asked me if I was in the winter Olympics what would I do, and it would definitely be that.
CN: I’ll give you a real answer, probably produce music. It’s always been about that. I cut off ties to basically anything else I was good at when I was 12 and sunk all my chips into music, so there’s nothing else I can do really and be happy doing it. If I wasn’t actually making music, I’d be making it, in a different way.
LS: And our last go-to question, what’s your advice for working musicians who are trying to make things happen?
NQ: Don’t suck!
MO: I think love the people who you’re playing with, is a big one. And make sure you’re in a band with the right kind of people. Just enjoy what you’re doing more than anything.
CN: Brotherly bond is the top of the rung. People say oh well if he’s really good at this, then that makes up for it, but at the end of the day when you’re touring, it’s hard enough having to deal with someone who’s being selfish. You just kind of have to be of the right mind, it’s not for everybody, it’s something that really pushes you to your own personal limits. You always find out what you need to know about somebody when you go on tour with them.