- "All I want to do is laugh": Zeus
Other than being a cover-band singer asked to join the original act -- current Journey singer Arnel Pineda comes to mind -- what could beat joining a band you already love? That's what happened to Neil Quin two years ago, when he got the call to join new Toronto-based indie-pop band Zeus.
At the time, Quin had "unofficially resigned as a professional musician," leaving his post as guitarist for Golden Dogs, says Quin via phone from Toronto, a Northern lilt to his voice. He kept writing the occasional song, and found work at a worm farm. "We were actually harvesting worm castings -- so it was pure worm shit, is what we were dealing with," he recalls. "It was actually a really good job."
"Carlin [Nicholson] from Zeus called me up -- he said that he had a room for me to stay in for $300 a month, and that he had a band for me to play in," Quin says. "It was great, because I loved Zeus. They'd only done two shows so far."
The initial lineup consisted of founders Mike O'Brien and Carlin Nicholson, along with other members of Golden Dogs, before picking up Quin and drummer Rob Drake. Like influences Sloan and The Band, the members' musical roles shift from song to song, with three songwriters taking turns at the mic.
"This is gonna be your main indicator: Whoever's singing the main vocal for the song wrote the song," Quin says, and "the instrument they're playing it on, they most likely wrote the song on that instrument." Only drummer Drake remains stationary, but Quin is "slowly but surely working to change that -- he's a multi-instrumentalist and he can sing as well."
"There's no qualms about consistency or one guy being weaker than the other guy and having it show on stage," he adds.
After listening to Say Us, the band's full-speed-ahead debut album, it's easy to understand why Quin seems so excited to join the band -- and so confident in the lineup. Say Us came out in February on Arts and Crafts, the Toronto label that's home to some of indie pop's finest -- Feist, Broken Social Scene, Phoenix, Ra Ra Riot, The Stills, to name a few.
The opener, "How Does It Feel?" has a slightly Supertramp quality, with glammy vocal harmonies and chord changes; on songs like "Fever of the Time," the band's British Invasion roots become more apparent. "Kindergarten," the first of Quin's songs, features a raw, overdriven electric piano and his bemused lyrics: "All those people / What they don't know might kill 'em," he sings. "They say I'm unhappy / Why can't I sleep at night? They say all I want to do is laugh."
Because Quin joined the band after recordings were well underway, he does not appear on several of the songs -- including his favorite, "The Renegade." "That song always rocks me," he says. "It's a great big cacophony of horns, and really great drums," he says. The song ends with some terrific classic-rock guitar interplay.
His first recording credit with the band was "At the Risk of Repeating," the last song on the record; rather than a slow, cool-down track, it's a deep groove with dense, rhythmic lyrics. "If you listen really closely in the breakdown bridge part, where it kinda turns into hip hop, you can hear dirty little breathin' like, 'hahh hahh hahh hahh,'" says Quin. "So that was my little rhythmic contribution."
Part of what makes Say Us memorable is the tough, roomy sound of the recording -- a product of the band's studio, Ill Eagle. It's essentially a garage, Quin says, partitioned into two rooms. "It looks like an old basement, and it smells like one too -- it smells like the basement that I learned how to rock 'n' roll in with my best friends," he says. "That is such an incredible smell [...] every time you're going in there to record or rehearse, to remind you what that smells like and what it means to you and that kind of excitement."
Zeus makes its Pittsburgh debut this weekend at Liquid Sundays, a multimedia art and music showcase; the series' most recent installment, on June 6, featured Joseph Arthur. In addition to Zeus, locals Colonizing the Cosmos and Lohio will also perform, alongside live graffiti, photography, ceramics and more.
Zeus at Liquid Sundays, with Colonizing the Cosmos and Lohio. 6-10 p.m. Sun., Sept. 12. Jay Verno Studios, 3030 Jane St., South Side. $10 (includes beer and wine). 21 and over. www.liquidsundays.com