By Kyle Mullin
You may think there’s nothing mystical about Zeus. The band’s choruses are straight ahead sing-alongs, and its guitar riffs seem lifted from Paul McCartney and Wings. But deeper down, this 70s’ inspired, Toronto-based foursome is spirited by something far stranger.
The first hint lies in the title of its latest album, Busting Visions.
“I was on a street car, in a sort of a melancholy mood I guess, staring out the window,” says Zeus member Mike O’Brien of the inspiration. “Then I saw this fortune teller place called Crystal Visions as we drove by it. I liked the sound of that.”
Since then he’s been back on the street a few times, looking for that sign and its palm-reading creator. But they are nowhere to be found.
“It seems to have disappeared, so I don’t even know if it was actually there,” he says with a chuckle. “Maybe it was just imaginary, something I channelled though my subconscious.”
Being such a deeply intuitive songwriter, it’s easy to believe that could very well be how he dreamt up the title.
“You want to get out of the way of the idea that’s coming to you and not inhibit it,” O’Brien says of his creative process. “Otherwise it’s easy to be self critical.”
Zeus shuns such cynicism, offering a free spirited support network of sorts. O’Brien splits the song writing credits equally with bandmates Carlin Nicholson and Neil Quin. The trio swap instruments and positions onstage with fellow Zeus member Rob Drake, so that there’s no clear frontman, only equal share of the spotlight.
“We help each other not be self-critical,” O’Brien says. “It’s helpful to have two other songwriters in the band that you can bounce ideas off of. Trusting each other’s instincts is a big part of it as well.”
It’s not a mere comfort zone — those instincts lead O’Brien to his lyrics. He’s stifled the moment things get analytical. And yet, every once in awhile, they love getting bogged down in the details. Take the cover art of their debut, Say Us. It’s a colourful drawing of two griffins. But the sketch wasn’t penned by some famed artist who did meticulous background research. Instead, those lines were drawn and shaded in by a young boy who lost one of his parents to the penal system.
“The artwork comes from a file folder of documents that we found in our rehearsal space when it was just an old garage before we turned it into a studio,” O’Brien says. “There’s a man’s name on the folder, Cloutier, and there are several drawings, poems, articles clippings as well as medical records in there.”
“What we used on the cover of Say Us was drawn by his son and sent to him in prison,” says O’Brien. “It’s a fascinating thing to look at and it’s something that we’ve been inspired by. Also, we hope to find someone who knows this person so that we can return it to its owner.”
For their next album, bandmate Quin wanted to use another sketch from the old file folder — one of a cell’s broken bars dubbed Busting Loose.
“We just threw around several different title ideas, and narrowed it down to two — Busting Loose and Crystal Visions,” O’Brien says. “Those were the ones that stuck, so we combined them.”
Busting Visions has drawn raves from CBC’s Q to Rolling Stone magazine since its release in late March (the cover uses a fan photo instead of another drawing.) Zeus is gigging behind it now on its first tour as headliner. With those shows. the bandmates are hoping to instill the same kind of subliminal inspiration that’s stuck with them since before they were born — literally.
“When Neil’s mom was pregnant with him she went to a Phil Collins’ concert,” O’Brien says with a laugh. “Maybe subconsciously that has something to do with the Genesis cover on the first EP (2009’s Sounds Like Zeus.)”
“I think she was pretty proud to bring her baby to a rock ’n’ roll concert,” he says of his prenatal experience. “I would definitely credit my natural rhythmic sense to the drums of ‘In the Air Tonight’ being banged out on that night. She also went to see Huey Lewis and the News that same summer of ’85. Zeus also does a mean cover of ‘The Power of Love.’ I’m thinking this is all fated, and we’re going to have a major collabo with these heavy hitters sooner than later.” M
Zeus plays the Lucky Bar, Friday, May 25 at 8 p.m. $14