Published Nov 14, 2012Just like the title indicates, Ancient Mars finds the Zolas looking up at the stars. Throughout the course of their sophomore album, the Vancouver duo ruminate on the once-lush landscape of the Red Planet ("Ancient Mars"), bathe in silvery moonlight ("Cold Moon"), and imagine a lover walking across an alien landscape ("In Heaven"). Adding to the cosmic mood is the music itself, which pairs pillowy synths with icy reverb and hard-hitting beats. While the group's knack for writing pop hooks remains unspoiled, the atmospheric production touches mean that this is far removed from the band's cabaret-influenced debut, 2009's Tic Toc Tic. Despite the outer space theme, however, singer Zachary Gray keeps things relatable thanks to confessional lyrics that touch on everything from a girl in his Earth and Ocean Sciences class ("Strange Girl") to cyber-stalking on Facebook (the aforementioned "Cold Moon"). Nearly every one of these songs discusses lost intimacy, failed relationships and unattainable women, meaning that Ancient Mars is, at its core, an album about romantic longing. What could be more earthly than that?
In a previous interview with Exclaim!, you said that you were going into the studio with the songs written, but you didn't yet know how they were going to be arranged. How did they take shape?
We had decided from the beginning, just like the last album, that we were going to pick our dream team, pick the people that we wanted to be in the band, and then let everybody do what they were strong at. Build with the right materials. What we kind of wanted to do was to make a Grizzly Bear record if Grizzly Bear really sold out. Looking back, that's sort of how it feels. I don't think that we had that in mind at the time, but that's sort of what I wanted. I love pop music and I love making as many catchy songs as possible, but what has always been missing in our music, previous to this, was a sonic sophistication, or the kind of atmosphere that feels good on long walks through a city. I wanted music that sounded really good in your headphones and thick, soft synths that would fill your ear canal, and also stark contrast with minimalism. We worked with Chuck Brody, who has so much experience with the hype-est, sugariest pop music you could possibly do ― he used to work at Sony studios, so he was assistant engineering all of the J. Lo smash hits, and Puff Daddy, and Marc Anthony. I guess all three of those people slept together. Actually, I guess Puff Daddy and Marc Antony haven't slept together, as far as we know. That's breaking news, I guess. He's worked on Wu-Tang records, and Phantogram, which is a really cool, mostly electronic group. We hadn't had a lot of experience with that, but that was the kind of music that we'd been listening to, so he added that element, in general. He forced us to take songs that we thought were going to be brooders, and to let them still be brooders, but to punch them up with bouncing percussion and beats and stuff like that ― which I think worked out so well. I just love the contrast between broodiness and head-bobbing. We were sick of making music that didn't immediately make your head bob. We listened to something that the Neptunes produced, and you have no control of it. You can even not be paying attention. You can be at a bus stop and a car can go by and you hear a Neptunes song and immediately some part of you starts bobbing your head with it. We wanted to do that.
How much direction did you give the people you were working with, or did you rely on their influence?
Tom and I and Chuck did a lot of pre-production before we brought the guys in, but once we were in the room ― it's so nice to get into the position where you can choose to work with people who you know will make better choices than you. There were a lot of times where our drummer (Michael Jordan of the Liptonians) would want to do something that I wasn't feeling yet, but I just had to go on faith. I've always thought of him as the most talented guy out there, so I'm just going to let him lead. Invariably, I always liked the results way more than if I had gotten my way.
Tom is a producer in his own right, so why did you decide to work with an outsider producer?
Tom doesn't always want to be a producer. Every single other record he does, he's the producer. We have historically gone with a third party producer, because to be a musician on a recording is different than being a producer. I don't know how Warren Beatty does it, but it's hard to act and direct at the same time.
Were the synths on this record Tom's work?
Chuck knows synths better than we do. We rented a whole bunch of really rare and sexy synths from this guy in Vancouver who works in this completely analogue synth project called the Passenger. They released an album for free. He has like a hundred mint condition, beautiful analogue synths, and so we rented a bunch of those. And we also used a lot of software synths and stuff. Tom and I knew what we wanted to hear, but it was Chuck's job to choose what instruments were going to do that. And then Tom played everything. It sounds really simple, but he just comes up with the best inversions for his parts. He always finds a way to be the tastiest thing in the soundscape, but being well out of the way. Especially with this record, that was really important, because this record was way less about showing off what a piano freak he is and how good he is. We only have one virtuoso in the band, and that's Tom, who can play anything on piano. Our last record was about showcasing that, and this one had nothing to do with that.
There are almost no organic sounds on the album.
Yeah. Well, there's some guitar, but it never feels like just a band in a room, which is what I love about it.
There's maybe one song with an acoustic guitar, but there's not nearly as many acoustic instruments on this record as the last one.
No. We pull an acoustic out once or twice, but it's never featured.
In that way, the record is a lot more experimental than what you've done, but, as you've said, it's probably more pop-oriented as well.
Isn't that kind of the dream? To do something weirder than you've ever done before and make it catchier? That's always been my dream. Everyone makes music for different reasons, but for me, that's maybe the biggest compliment you could have ever told me.
The last song, "Cold Moon," is a bit of trip.
Yeah, that song was really interesting. We did that about four different ways. I was just never happy with it. We knew we wanted to close the album with it. That was actually a song that did have a whole lot of acoustic guitar originally, and it had a whole lot of normal drums. It was a way more straight-ahead song. I just didn't want to end the album that way. I wanted to end it a little more obliquely. In an 11th hour effort ― it really was the very last day that we could have made any changes ― I went in, and our friend Ajay [Bhattacharyya], who used to play in the band and now plays in Data Romance, he and I remixed it together. It changed completely. On a personal level, I'm really proud of it, because I've always been the dissatisfied singer who has problems with things and has to sit with it, because no one else thinks it's a problem. This was one of those cases, where it was just me who was like, "No, this isn't how it should be." Everyone else was like, "No, it's a good song, just relax, man, people are going to like it." Usually I just accept that I'm only one person and I'm outnumbered. But in this case, I guess I felt strongly enough that I wanted to try this last effort. And if it hadn't worked out, then we would have gone with the other version. It was so great working with Ajay. He's just the easiest guy to work with and he's so fun. That mix that he did is one of the most satisfying tracks on the album, sonically.
What inspired the title, Ancient Mars?
Ancient Mars is a nerdy little metaphor, I guess. There's all this evidence to suggest that Mars used to be this lush, vegetated place with life, and water, and canyons, and groves and stuff like that. It had this beautiful heyday, like Earth is in now, and then you fast forward two billion years and there's almost no evidence whatsoever at all. The Curiosity rover just found a smooth pebble in what looks like it could have been a riverbed, and that's the first real evidence that we have of any of that. In a way, to me, it sort of parallels the kind of relationships you have in your 20s, where at one point, they were the most optimistic, teeming part of your life, and there was no way to think about your life without that other person. Two years after breaking up, you run into each other at the grocery store and it's all gone. There's no evidence of that anymore. I tried to make this album about, not that being sad, but that being normal and a beautiful thing about life. To me, Ancient Mars is that beautiful place that you can never go back to once you've left.
A lot of the lyrics on the album are very concrete and everyday. It's hard to listen to the record without imagining that some things are autobiographical, like references Earth an Ocean Sciences class or Facebook.
That line is from everybody's life, I think. Both of those are. Most of it is really autobiographical, but I try not to tell stories that are just baldly true about one situation. Usually, I like to hem in different patches from different stories that will still let it feel as true as possible but will also give me the control to tell the actual story that I want to tell and illustrate the grander scheme of the album. Every single line of that record is about a person, or about a moment that I spent with a person, or thinking about them. But there's no one song like, "That's a Sandra song," or "That's a Kelly song." Those aren't real names. It's incredibly autobiographical, but it's more like a James Fry [A Million Little Pieces] autobiography.