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From video games to toy drums, local musician dwi explores an arcade of childhood influences on his upcoming album slated to be released this summer.
Ready player one? You’re about to enter a world where childhood memories blend with video game analogies, and a local musician’s introspection dances to the beat of vulnerability and experimentation. dwi, A.K.A. Dwight Abell (you might already know him as the bassist for Vancouver indie darlings The Zolas), takes us on an introspective sonic adventure with his sophomore album, Zoo Life (the 11-track LP is slated to be released July 7th on Light Organ Records so mark your calendars!).
With two hot fire singles out already—“Markers” (featuring The Zolas frontman Zach Gray) and most recently “PHONY”—the third hits the airwaves today (May 12th, 2023). To celebrate all this new music, I recently sat down with the local alt-rock artist (by “sat down” I mean I was sitting in my apartment as we talked over the phone but suspend your disbelief that we were at some cool cafe or better yet, barcade) on a quest to find out everything I could about this upcoming album. And we get into it: his childhood, his obsession with black video game-inspired T-shirts, his first foray into the rap world and the unfiltered creativity and honesty that shaped this highly anticipated release.
At the height of the global pandemic, dwi crafted his debut solo album, Mild Fantasy Violence. Now, with Zoo Life (coincidentally set to be released on his birthday), he embraces a more upbeat and daring approach to songwriting. Reflecting on his creative process, dwi shares, “I wanted it to be my instincts, but coded in a way that was digestible for — I feel gross saying this but — more of a mainstream audience.”
Balancing introspection and danceability, this album promises a unique blend of influences from bands like The Cure, Damon Albarn, and even the legendary Beatles. We talk about his influences on this second album, from Britpop to the hugely underrated Magical Mystery Tour album as lyrical inspiration. “I just feel like that record specifically has just really stuck with me in my songwriting‚— very nostalgic, dreamy is how I would describe that record—so I guess I’m as good as The Beatles now.”
A recurring joke we make throughout the interview is how he has now surpassed musical greats like John Lennon and even Thom Yorke. It’s clear Abell does not take his fame or notoriety too seriously, favouring authenticity over manufactured cool. It’s this same genuineness that I picked up on when I first listened to a few tracks off the new album. You get what you see (or I guess, hear).
Another influence? Danny Brown and modern hip-hop. Similar to legendary artists like Blondie’s Debbie Harry in “Rapture” and John Lennon in “I Am the Walrus”, Abell pays homage to the rap that he loves. “I love modern hip-hop and one of my favourite songs is “Ain’t It Funny” by Danny Brown. So The Beatles and Danny Brown —I feel like some of this record is kind of me blending those two inspirations together and making like weird hip-hop for the first time.”
The new album serves as a love letter to childhood and a vessel for dwi to explore his personal journey. Drawing inspiration from his past and the impact of growing up in foster care, dwi explains, “the word ‘zoo’ appears all over the record… as a metaphor for the hectic lives we all live, but also as a kind of metaphor for having grown up in foster care.” Through introspective lyrics and captivating melodies, dwi unearths the significance of his past experiences and their influence on his present self. “A lot of this project is just about looking back and trying to figure out what made me who I am,” says Abell.
For dwi, music has become like therapy for him to process his past traumas. The album delves into the darker aspects of his childhood, and provides an outlet to express emotions that might otherwise go unspoken. On the recording process, he states, “I use art to kind of filter it out because I don’t know what to do with it, so I just feel like writing songs about it is just the best thing for me.”
Taking it almost literally, dwi’s musical experimentation takes centre stage with the inclusion of his son’s toy drum kit on the track “Overrated,” embracing imperfections and adding a unique charm to his sound. It also grounds the song and surrounding album firmly in the world of nostalgia and childhood whimsy.
It’s also a bit darker and moodier than he would normally write, a fact Abell attributes to the way we deal with trauma. “The way trauma works is it tends to make you think that the things you look back on seem a lot worse than they actually were, and I think that’s to protect you from it ever happening again. Or something like that. And so a lot of these songs are, you know, a bit darker and getting all that kind of dark crap out,” says Abell. You wouldn’t know from the melody though—the album is as suited for a dance club as it is for a solo walk with headphones.
Abell shared with me a particular trauma where he had witnessed a car accident involving his eldest son and how that impacted the way he views memory and trauma. “If something’s bad, you try to make it go away but memories don’t necessarily do that. And you got to chalk it off as, ‘that was a close one’ or ‘what happened to me sucked.’ But also, ‘I’m still here and let’s make the best of it,’ I guess.” Making the best of trauma could be a tag line for this album.
Video games have played a significant role in dwi’s life, becoming a source of inspiration for his music. Addressing his own experiences with screen addiction, dwi masterfully weaves video game themes into his lyrics and music. He admits, “I just got back into video games when COVID hit… It was one of my first loves.” This connection between childhood nostalgia, personal experiences, and video game symbolism intertwines throughout Zoo Life, creating a rich and captivating sonic landscape.
Another addiction Abell grapples with: video game inspired black T-shirts. “I just wear them every day now and in my mind I’m just trying my persona— half me in the past and half new me now.”
On video games, I asked him this hypothetical question: If this album were the soundtrack to a video game, what kind of video game would it be? “OK, so the game is called Zoo Life and it’s kind of like that book, “Are You My Mother?” he says, referring to the children’s book by P.D. Eastman, “and you are a monkey and you’re looking for your parents in different cages.” Abell’s pitch and the parallels to his own life in foster care seems obvious. “The main character’s named… Monkey? Because he doesn’t know his name. No one named him. His name’s a question.”
Abell’s honest answer (and also, really great video game concept… Nintendo, where you at?) is what you can expect in this album. Aren’t we all just animals born in captivity trying to figure out our purpose? It makes me think of one particular lyric in the dance-y pop, “PHONY“, I’m an animal cursed by its own instincts. I never wanted purpose. I only wanted you. The discomfort of existing and not knowing why while resenting the need to know is such a deeply human experience—and a theme Abell demands we at the very least dance to.
“Go open those cages. Go figure out what your name is,” Abell says.
The single “Zoo Life” is available now on Spotify and wherever you get your music.
The album Zoo Life drops July 7th (and don’t forget to wish Dwight Abell a happy birthday!)