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There are a few themes that seem to stay consistent throughout the work of the Zolas. There’s a bend towards themes like environmentalism and the sins of capitalism, while also trying to navigate the highs and lows of being young and single and the proliferation of the internet and social media.
But there’s also a hefty focus on the city they’re from and live in. Sometimes those nods to Vancouver are more overt—others are much more subtle, to the point in which they could refer to anywhere but still feel very much as if frontman Zachary Gray and co. wrote them about their hometown.
The Zolas’ latest album (Come Back to Life) officially hits streaming services next week, though much of the record is available now as the band periodically released songs throughout the pandemic. Singles like the eponymous track and “Energy Czar” already have hundreds of thousands of streams on Spotify, for instance.
Instead of doing a straight up review (spoiler: it’s great), we thought it would be fun to look at some of the references to the city the band have thrown out in their songs (including ones on the new album), with the caveat that some of these are going to be a lot less obvious than others. Also: we almost definitely missed some, but hey, we did our best. Let us know what we didn’t get.
7. Song: Strange GirlAlbum: Ancient MarsQuote: “On my parents’ porch that night/ It was love”
This is apparently the Zolas’ most streamed song on Spotify, with over 5 million listens. It’s a definite jam—heavy on the guitar, but still featuring some catchy piano riffs. Still, I was a bit surprised to see it have the most listens. It’s an older song, and it certainly didn’t get some of the attention given to more recent tunes like “Swooner” and “Molotov Girls”.
And while the song could easily take place anywhere, Gray grew up in Kits, and you can just feel the Vancouverness throughout this song. Do they have “earth and oceans class” in other cities? Probably. But hey, it made me think about Vancouver, and that’s all we need here.
6. Song: Freida on the MountainAlbum: SwoonerQuote: “Gonna move to the blockade and divorce city sounds/ Gonna move to where the men are disembowelling the ground/ Draw a line up there in the oil instead of sucking it down”
On one of the more underrated songs on 2016’s Swooner, Gray sings about moving away from the city and fighting against big oil projects, like the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. It is called “Trans Mountain” after all, and you have to think that’s what the song’s title is alluding to.
THE ZOLAS – Marlaina Kamikaze from Southern Souls on Vimeo.
5. Song: Marlaina KamikazeAlbum: Tic Toc TicQuote: “All of those young men there to comfort you/ They work on film sets and message you online”
Like “Strange Girl,” this even earlier song absolutely bleeds Vancouver. Anyone who has spent enough time here can speak to the smallness of a relatively big city, and Gray hammers home the feeling of thinking that your ex is lurking behind every corner of it. The film sets line just proves that—while again this could be anywhere—it was conceived in and meant for Vancouver.
4. Song: ObservatoryAlbum: Ancient MarsQuote: “Oh we know we’re living in a tumour/ Or we know we’re living in a coral reef”
Again, Gray grew up in Kits, and one can’t help but think this one is inspired by the Gordon Southam Observatory. The line above certainly references Vancouver’s status as a coastal city, but there’s also one about leaving a concert on skid row. The Imperial, perhaps?
3. Song: Bombs AwayAlbum: Come Back to LifeQuote: “We’re killer whales speculating from a black yacht/ We’re killer whales, drink this city to the last drop”
The first of two songs from the new album on this list is essentially a goodbye letter to the city, with the chorus refraining “bombs away, we’ll leave today.” It’s pretty obvious with the references to real estate speculation, a woman being told she’ll always be a renter and even a line about a casino—which may or may not be a nod to money laundering—that the city in question is very much Vancouver.
2. Song: Wreck Beach/Totem ParkAlbum: Come Back to LifeQuote: “300 stairs back to civilization/ I’ll sit on the beach ‘til they put me in cuffs/ Cemetery city, the truth about where I grew up”
These last two are almost definitely the most obvious Vancouver nods in the band’s catalogue, and that’s a big part of why they’re ranked so high. This one, as the title makes clear, is very much about Vancouver. There are almost too many lines to point out, but the one above is the most poignant.
Police officers accosting people drinking on the beach is a Vancouver rite of passage, but “cemetery city” sure hits different with the news of unmarked graves being found at residential schools in the province.
1. Song: You’re Too CoolAlbum: Tic Toc TicQuote: “Love don’t live at home, oh no, it slithers in the wild/ I met her at the Biltmore, she was cold and over-styled.”
A tight, raucous two-line opening to the band’s first album, it’s also one of the rare specific callouts to a Vancouver establishment, as the Zolas seemed to take care to make things more universal as the band expanded its reach.
But it’s a callout to a classic Vancouver institution that at once places the listener in the wildly exciting and heartbreaking reality of singledom, with both feet firmly entrenched on the Biltmore’s sticky floor.