“What do you say, boys? Three different kinds of wings, three different kinds of dudes.” Carlin Nicholson looks at the platter of chicken wings with only one of each flavor remaining for him and bandmates Rob Drake and Neil Quin. (Mike O’Brien is well into his own personal serving of fish and chips.) “See how easy we do this?” Carlin explains in a satisfied tone. “This is Zeus.”Of course, things haven’t always been this simple for the group, including the process of naming the band. As Nicholson recounts, “It started off with Juice, then Zeus’ Juices, then Zeused … It came from a joke.” Just like everything else about Zeus, the name developed through natural evolution, without a real plan. Just look at how the members came together: O’Brien and Nicholson bonded in high school over their common interests in music and mayonnaise on fries. With Nicholson’s brother and another friend, they formed their first band together, the 6ixty 8ights. After some time apart playing with different people, the two rejoined about two and a half years ago.In Zeus’s first incarnation, Nicholson and O’Brien opened for Peter Elkas with a couple guys from the Golden Dogs. Then local mainstay Jason Collett asked Zeus to tour with him. Nicholson and O’Brien recruited Paso Mino, Neil Quin, and Rob Drake (with whom Nicholson had always wanted to play).“In the same conversation I asked Neil to come and live with me and join the band,” Nicholson recalls, reacting to the spicy kick of his Bollywood-flavored chicken wings. “Musically and life-wise, it was very consistent for both of us.”Quin interjects, “And if he didn’t give me the place, I would have had to move in with my mom, which would have been cool, but not as cool.”O’Brien tries to explain the strength of the current lineup in a different way. “It’s kind of like we were building a rocket, and then when Quin joined the band, it was like adding that final rocket booster cylinder. And then—” Quin makes a child-like exploding sound using both his mouth and his body. With a chicken wing still in his mouth, he backtracks. “I have Soviet propulsion techniques.”
In addition to rockets, the guys of Zeus also know a thing or two about songwriting—and it shows. Their full-length debut, Say Us, released on Feb. 24, is getting deservedly solid reviews and acclaim; the 12-track album does not have a single weak spot. From first track “How Does it Feel?” to “The Renegade” (Nicholson’s favorite at the moment) through first single “Marching Through Your Head,” the album is an explosive mix of different musical styles.The band is clearly influenced by the likes of The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Beach Boys, as well as more recent music like Beck, The Flaming Lips, and Michael Jackson—and they readily admit to loving all of these. From the classic rock and roll sounds of The Beatles to new age and alt-rock, their sound combines a wild variety of genres and comes off sounding very fresh.O’Brien doesn’t necessarily find this diversity so surprising. “It’s rock and roll man,” he says confidently. “Rock and roll has always been about pulling from country, blues, soul, and jazz—and whatever else is around you.”The album is full of positive energy, and not by accident. As O’Brien explains, “We’re happy about the record—we really gruelled over it. We decided there was no better time to be ruthless in what we wanted to hear, and we knew we were going to fight until we got it to sound the way we wanted it to sound.”“It’s whatever gives you chills when you’re playing it, both musically and lyrically,” Quin says, in response to my question of what inspires the band. “It’s whatever makes you step back and go ‘whoa.’”Nicholson opts for another explanation. “For a lot of songwriters, it is an act of necessity. It’s sort of like if you can write songs, then you have to. You need to get it out. It sounds a bit cheesy, but when you sing a song, you’re telling a secret to a room full of people that you’ve never met, and that’s a really releasing way to get stuff off your mind. It’s exhilarating to do that.”“As far as the success of the band, who knows? You can always get bigger,” Nicholson says, and all four of them simultaneously look up to ponder. Then five seconds later he corrects himself, “Unless you’re Queen. Or, like, Josh Groban, or someone like that.”Zeus plays Lee’s Palace as part of Canadian Music Week on March 10. Look out for more CMW 2010 coverage in upcoming issues of The Varsity.