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Come Back To Life: A chat with Zach Gray of The Zolas | c-heads
The Zolas are as real as it gets.
Forming in 2008, the Canadian indie pop outfit is closing in on 15 years of being. Still thriving in an era where many artist projects last less than 15 months, that’s quite impressive. “When I chose this job it was literally write music, record it, tour it, and do interviews… That was it,” says frontman Zach Gray, reflecting on how things have changed. Yet, while they find themselves far from their proggy piano rock beginnings, their flame still burns bright, and it shows on their most recent full-length, Come Back To Life.
The album – thank God someone’s still making them – is a 13-track affair that thumps with Brit Pop force as monstrous as that of Oasis, but beams with studio brilliance as well, in a way that Liam Gallagher himself would likely refer to as “proper wizardry”. More novel yet, there’s a bold hip-hop attitude that shines particularly bright on numbers like the stomping rocker “Yung Dicaprio” or the six-and-a-half-minute opener “Violence On This Planet”. However there’s value beyond the sonics.
“Wreck Beach/Totem Park” is a modern day ode to colonizational guilt in the Americas, while the aforementioned “Violence” tackles the bizarre duality of soft imperialism. Then there’s “Bombs Away” a glimpse into gentrification through the lens of the group’s native Vancouver. “I think there’s something going on in a lot of cities where we don’t get to live out the natural cycle of living somewhere,” says Gray, “making friends, growing up, and going through life together, because decisions are so expensive.”
But perhaps his greatest gift as a songwriter is he doesn’t propose fixes to society’s problems. Come Back To Life is a social commentary, on often political issues, but with paramount emphasis on the human condition. By focusing on the emotions we all feel, not the “truths” we all see, The Zolas move the ball forward through song, and with that, there is a great sense of unity in their works.
Andy: You’ve been doing this for a long time. I read you and the other founding member of The Zolas, Tom Dobrzanski, had been in a different band together since 2003. Is that accurate?
Zach: Yeah, so Tom and I started a band together in 2003. In 2008 that broke up, and we decided to start The Zolas. We weren’t even intending to start a band, but weirdly, this label in Vancouver was interested in signing us, and helping pay to make this album. We were like “Well that means we can pay our friends to play drums and bass, and make an album. We don’t even have to be real band.”
“We’re just gonna get the bag for our homies.”
Yeah exactly, like, “This guy running the label, what a naive dude.” The idea was just to have a good time. Then that led to us actually releasing the album. I remember looking it up, like if we don’t release the album… there’s nothing. Nothing happens. So that’s how it started, and then Tom stayed in the band for a long time. He left in 2017.
So the first album, Tic Toc Tic, it’s definitely a unique album. The only album I can think of that sounds remotely like it is the first Jukebox the Ghost album, Let Live & Let Ghosts. Where did those songs and that sound come from?
You know where it came from? It came from trying to find a sliver of common ground between Tom and I, because Tom and I had such different tastes in music. I had come from a more normal, grunge-loving, angsty, pop and alternative rock kind of world. Tom, was kind of an alien. He’s still an alien. I’m not really sure what Tom loves, but he knows it when he hears it. He’s a bit of a savant. He’s good at music despite himself, because he doesn’t really doesn’t seem like a musician in any other way. He was just given this gift. But he loved to create interesting puzzles.
Is he a math brain?
He’s a bit of a math brain. He’s an organizational brain. But this was almost like an autistic impulse to create a puzzle and solve it. So he wasn’t that into, just four chord, bedroom songs.
It’s a crazy album, like some of the chord changes, and harmonies.
Exactly, and time signatures. The harmonies came from being in choir together. So we were into harmonies from the very beginning. It was just a really weird combination of stuff. I wanted to make catchy four-chord songs that I loved, and Tom wanted to create a labyrinth that people have to get in and get out of. So the band was like that sliver of common ground on whatever our Venn diagram was. I honestly can’t even listen to it with any objectivity to know what it sounds like, because it just sounds like him and I. I guess I can’t think of anything that sounds like it. You would think that if nothing sounded like it, then people would freak for it, or the right people would freak for it, but it just didn’t do like anything. (laughs)
Do you still like it? What’s your disposition on it?
A song here or there.
Yeah, cause that one’s actually of the simpler songs. It’s just the bridge that is weird. The song is really just four chords.
Have you ever thought of re-doing it? Like Taylor’s version… (laughs).
Ooo, that’s a good idea. Try to cash in. Try to get some money, yeah. I’ll definitely do that. If I ever get desperate for money. I’ll release it independent.
Cause it was such a big hit before.
Exactly. (laughs) People are just waiting. The masses are waiting for “Marlaina Kamikaze” two.
So Ancient Mars, a bit of a departure from Tic Toc Tic. What happened in those three years?
To us, it didn’t seem like a departure. It was just less organic. It reflected the kind of music that we were listening to. There are so many infinitely cooler bands than us, that we were into, like Radiohead or Muse. There are a lot of bands that have come and gone that I was really influenced by that were making a very sweeping style of indie rock. Like even Coldplay. Old Coldplay is underrated.
“I wanted to make catchy four-chord songs that I loved, and Tom wanted to create a labyrinth that people have to get in and get out of. So the band was like that sliver of common ground on whatever our Venn diagram was.”
How do you feel about “Strange Girl”? That song was the gateway for me back in I think 2013. It’s your most streamed song, so we could call it a hit. But sometimes that does weird things to the song in the brain of the artist.
It is our most streamed song, but it was not a big hit. It wasn’t a radio hit or even a fan hit. It just got on a playlist. That’s the only reason that it’s streamed more than anything else. We can’t really play that song the way it’s recorded anymore. It’s so dependent on Tom’s weird style of piano, and he’s not in the band anymore. We had someone playing before, who was great, but it’s impossible to play the guitar riff without the piano to offset because the guitar riff is too unbalanced. It doesn’t work as a three-piece, we’ve tried.
That rhythm guitar part is one of my favorite guitar parts ever.
There’s a song by a Canadian band called Hollerado, called “Juliette”. I basically just dismantled that riff, and put it back together.
Woah! Yes, I hear it! I love that band.
Great band. We toured with them a bunch of times. We really like those guys. But yeah, now we just play it live in like a John Mayer style.
“Escape Artist”. That’s an important song for you guys.
For sure. That’s probably our most beloved song. And it was never a successful song at all, in any tangible way. It’s just all people who like our band really like that song.
What makes you close every set with it?
I think from that era, if you were distilling everything away, that’s the song that would be left. Because the people who know our music from then, that’s the song I get the most DMs about.
Yeah, and even now, because I’ve been writing personal songs about less general things. That song is so relatable. I get a lot of DMs from people saying like, “Thank you, this song was really there for me at a time when I really needed it.” It’s a really meaningful song to a lot of people.
Do people share their interpretations of it?
I think it’s pretty clear. It’s just like wanting to not be yourself, or feeling like there are two of you. Maybe that’s what’s accidentally genius about that song, the first line is the thesis statement.
It’s like an essay in fifth grade. The simplicity and the brilliance.
I should do that more. I’ve never thought about that.
Yeah, we had just recorded it and wanted to put it out. We thought it could maybe do well on Canadian radio, and it did. It was our little toe into Canadian radio. At the time, Raina was working for a radio station called Indie 88 in Toronto, which was the closest thing to KEXP that Canada had. Not nearly the same, but they both just played music they stood behind, and weren’t very corporate. That song got a ton of play, which led to Swooner becoming a success on Canadian radio.
Is that why you guys included it on the record?
Yeah, exactly, because it was already a hit. It was our first legitimate hit. It charted.
Were they siblings or no?
Yeah, a little bit for sure. I didn’t think that I could pull off “LA Hallucinations” when I wrote it, so it sat for a bit.
But it’s a similar song.
Really similar song.
How’d it get placed?
Mostly just lobbying on my part. I’m friends with Carly because she’s from Vancouver, and at the time she was dating my best friend basically. I just pitched her the song, and she liked it. That’s pretty much it. The real struggle was the fact that, like a lot of legit pop stars do, she was recording and writing hundreds of songs with people who had massive CVs. People who had written loads of hit songs in LA and all over the world. Like she was flying to Sweden to record with Robyn’s people, and so on. She could do anything she wanted, and literally had a pool of like 250 songs they were trying to pick. I had no clout at all. A lot of it’s very political. Unless the artist is really in charge. Like Carly probably had full control. So if she was the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted, she could get it, but sometimes people don’t know, or they need guidance. In that case there’s all sorts of industry people saying like, “Carly if we put a song by Jim on, then Jim’s management will use a song by one of our people.” There’s a lot of quid pro quo. I had none of that, but somehow the song got put on the record, and I really like it. Every now and then I hear from people being like “‘LA hallucinations’ is the shit”.
“We’ve been desperately trying to get a tour in the states for years. It seems like a really long time because you have to factor in COVID. We haven’t been here in a long time, but with this new album, which we were recording before COVID, we knew we just wanted to do the states.”
Yeah man. We all run into these situations or stories. I remember hearing one time, I believe it was Gwen Stefani. She had done a handful of songs for an album with I think Max Martin’s team. They wanted to pick the lead single for the album, one of their songs. Well, Gwen had a different lead single in mind, so Max’s team said if that was the case they were pulling all their cuts. They ended up pulling like four or five songs. Think of all the writers and producers who just lost a huge cut because of that one scenario. That really is a great accomplishment that your song made it, and a testament to how good it is.
Yeah, I’d like to do more of it.
Was it supposed to be a Zolas song first?
I really didn’t think it was a Zolas song, even from the very beginning. It started off as kind of a joke song. It’s not from my perspective. I wrote it for Carly. She was the only pop star that I knew, and I was like, “I wanna write from her perspective.” It’s funny, I had some people who didn’t know that I was involved message me and be like, “This is gonna sound crazy but is there any way that you were involved in this?” Because I guess there’s something about that song that sounds like me. So I really like the idea of that.
The Zolas in America. It’s a rarity. How’s the tour been so far?
It’s been great. We’ve had an awesome time.
Any undeniably American shenanigans so far?
Oh yeah, Atlanta was incredible. On the way out we went to this chicken wing institution called J.R. Cricket’s and one of the owners started starting chatting with us because he recognized Cody’s accent. I want to go back to Atlanta. It just seems like a special city.
I was there for the first time in June, and I got that feeling too. It feels like a mix of Nashville and LA.
Yeah, I would agree with that. I’ve heard there are some beautiful parts of it that we didn’t see. I’d like to see more.
What made you guys and Hotel Mira decide to come tour here?
We’ve been desperately trying to get a tour in the states for years. It seems like a really long time because you have to factor in COVID. We haven’t been here in a long time, but with this new album, which we were recording before COVID, we knew we just wanted to do the states. Even just the west coast of the states, and if we can do Europe that’d be great too. Just like anywhere but Canada, because in Canada things are going fine. Any groundwork you do in other territories automatically translates to Canadian renown.
Yeah, my advice to a young band in Canada would be never play Canada. If you only do well in Canada, then you’re stuck at a certain level. But any progress that you make outside of Canada, Canadians will pay more attention. Your first show in Canada can be a sellout to a thousand people.
That’s crazy. That’s like the opposite of America.
Yeah, so don’t play in Canada if you’re already good. If you’re not good yet, you gotta play it. But if you’re already good, do not play in Canada at all. Just go to the states and then your first gig back in Canada will be a sellout.
Your last show here in Philly was in 2015. I remember it because I just moved here to start college and it was 21+ so I couldn’t go. There’s been minimal touring of the US since, right?
Yeah, we played a few US shows in 2018 or 2019 too I think.
Were there any moments you had more tour support, to be sent here, or Europe?
It’s not about tour support. Our label is super supportive and will drop anything for us to tour. It’s just we don’t have a booking agent.
Really? Not even in Canada?
No, we have a great booking agent in Canada. We don’t have a US one which makes all the difference. There are a lot of bands who are from Canada doing awesome, and they don’t even have a Canadian agent, just a US one.
Yeah. For whatever reason, our band just never attracted one.
You’re saying they do awesome in both countries but only have a US agent.
Yeah. Canada is pretty small, you can just do it. Hotel Mira has a US agent, so that’s why this tour happened.
Just having the contacts at venues to get holds on dates and get down here. Simple as that?
I guess that’s what it is? I don’t know why that matters.
Well, especially right now. Think of how many artists are trying to book gigs.
Touring and being an artist in Canada. This is something I’ve thought about a lot. It seems Canada is very nationalist with its music. Smaller cities love Canadian acts too. Like this past fall I saw you guys play Hamilton, but there was also a Toronto show, and even a London show. Even more extreme, this year Tom Cochrane is playing Burlington and Oakville back-to-back nights, among like five other GTA shows. Their town centers are like 10 miles away from each other, and he’s gonna sell both of them out I’m sure.
Atta boy Tom!
(Laughs) I love that.
Do you feel Canada’s more communal in that regard? And it’s not just a legacy act type thing. I don’t know any artist in the states who’s gonna route a tour like that, playing small cities and have a ton of people show up.
Maybe it is? I don’t know if I have a good answer. I’ve just never seen the other side of it. I’ve never been to that small city in the states where no one comes.
Do you think Canada is more like a European country? In comparison to The United States.
Yea a little bit, for sure. I mean, just because we’re almost all socialist countries.
“People are going to be listening to bullshit pop music on the radio anyway. The money might as well stay in Canada.”
Way less population too. Which is a key element, in my opinion, of a successful socialist system.
Yeah, I mean Germany does well and they have a pretty high population. But yeah, you’re right. I think you’re right. That’s probably what it is. Canada has a lot of space per capita. But socialist countries all have something in common culturally. And there actually aren’t that many non-socialist countries in the developed world. The US is almost alone in that.
The USA is definitely alone.
The US is the only country where you’re… you’re not supposed to care about your neighbor (laughs).
In many ways yeah, which is a shame. However the United States was never a socialist system, and I think people used to care a lot more about their neighbor. But we have devolved away from that over the past few generations which I think is a major issue. How do you feel that affects the artist lifestyle, being part of a socialist system?
Well, the grant system is obviously better in Canada than it is in the states. We have access to lots of public money, and we can afford to take a loss on certain things because the government is supporting us.
One thing I find interesting is that 35% of what Canadian radio plays has to be by Canadian artists.
Yeah, that’s huge.
I think it leads to more national pride. There’s a reason Tom Cochrane plays Burlington and Oakville, right?
Well that’s it. Just that one rule creates a lot of industry within Canada. Without that rule, we would just listen to the same things that people in the states listen to. But because of that rule, we have a Canadian music industry.
What’s interesting to me personally, there’s a good case for being against economic regulation within reason. But on the same token, when you look at something like art, an industry that is so open-ended, I think regulation is interesting. Like you said it’s creating something different, but not at the expense of quality. There will always be a surplus of great artists due to the nature of the job.
Yeah, and then you could be the kind of whimsical about it like “Canadian stories and Canadian perspectives are being forced to be shared with me”, but you also can say, people are going to be listening to bullshit pop music on the radio anyway. The money might as well stay in Canada and like and you might as well make those pop stars, you know, half Canadian.
Have you always lived in Vancouver? Born and raised?
Ok so let’s talk about the new album, Come Back To Life. The song “Bombs away” it’s been out for a while, but it feels more relevant than ever. We’re seeing the working and middle classes be priced out of things. Was there a physical situation that inspired that song?
As far away from everything as Vancouver is – like it is in a lot of ways a distant fishing outpost. But one thing that Vancouver has been for as long as I’ve been alive, is a really incredible microcosm of bigger currents happening in the rest of the world. So when you see housing markets and gentrification going insane, or the Fentanyl crisis… Vancouver is like the bellwether for all that. It always happens in Vancouver if not first, then in a more crystallized way. It’s very obvious what’s happening in Vancouver, and then the rest of the world ends up doing it. Maybe there are other cities like that too. Vancouver has been struggling with lack of affordability for like the 15-20 years.
It is Canada’s moderate climate.
It is. It’s just a very nice place to be. It’s also a good place to store money, like if you have a lot of money and don’t trust the markets, Vancouver is safe. It’s a little safety deposit box for rich people. I think there’s something going on in a lot of cities where we don’t get to live out the natural cycle of living somewhere, making friends, growing up, and going through life together, because decisions are so expensive. Everyone has to scatter in order to take the next step in their lives. You end up with a lot of ex-friends. To me it was just always that picture of walking through the city and seeing like, “Oh that was an apartment where my friend used to live until they couldn’t afford it anymore”, or “Oh, that was a venue that was really amazing, that somebody burned down for insurance money so that they could develop it.” That happens in Vancouver all the time, as I’m sure it does elsewhere.I just wanted to write a song about those things that felt emotional to me.
We talked about Tom a bit who actually has a production credit on “Bombs Away”. Why did he end up leaving, was he just ready to move on?
Yeah, he was having a baby, and never really liked touring anyway. It was kind of crazy he was in the band as long as he was, because he didn’t like most things about it. He liked the studio stuff, writing songs, and hanging out with us, but as a job it didn’t suit him. He runs a recording studio now. He lives very well.https://www.youtube.com/embed/snnEkfZ4y5w?feature=oembed
“I think there’s something going on in a lot of cities where we don’t get to live out the natural cycle of living somewhere, making friends, growing up, and going through life together, because decisions are so expensive. Everyone has to scatter in order to take the next step in their lives.”
There are a lot of music brains who – like the rest of the gig besides the music isn’t for them. He worked on a few other songs right? How long were you working on this album?
One of the songs was almost on Swooner. “Ultramarine” was a really old song. There were other songs we were developing together when he was still in the band. After he left, the three of us just wanted to get together as a trio to see what our musical overlap was. To just see what happens when we make whatever the hell we want to make. So some of those songs got repurposed completely.
Was “Ultramarine” a bit different for Swooner?
No. It always sounded like that.
I remember Collective Soul. It’s just a Chorus. It sounds like Air. The first Air album Moon Safari has that effect all the time. But honestly, I just wanted to sound like Beck or like Bran Van 3000. I wanted it to sound like a slacker anthem.
Talk to me about the character in the song.
It’s actually about hustle culture. The people who would have been slackers 15-20 years ago are now self-styled entrepreneurs, starting their own online store, or a drop shipping business… or sometimes being an artist or creative.
The album is very Britpop, very Manchester. What do you feel was driving those sensibilities?
After Tom left the band, it was just me, Dwight, and Cody. We were just in a rehearsal space together. And without doing it overtly, we just were asking ourselves, “What’s the kind of music that the three of us have always wanted to make, but never gotten to?” The genesis of all three of our love for music was being little kids in that era. That was the kind of music that would have been our first CD or something.
You said you were big on grunge and alternative. Any specific artists?
I mean, I loved Nirvana. I really liked Everclear actually. They’re not the coolest band to reference anymore but I was crazy about them.
First song on my first mixed disc, which I made on my 4th birthday, was “Wonderful”. Last year my band was covering “Father of Mine” for a minute too.
See, those are songs I wasn’t as into. I wanted the heavier stuff.
So like stuff off Sparkle and Fade.
Yeah, he wrote good lyrics. He told good stories.
Switching gears a little bit. I remember seeing this summer you went on vacation to Montenegro?
Are you a big traveler?
What was Montenegro like?
Montenegro is like a greatest hits album of a country. It’s got the same coastline and architecture as Croatia, really beautiful. It’s got incredible rivers and really tall mountains, like insane mountains. And it’s cheap. It’s got kind of good food and really friendly people.
Have you been to more of Eastern Europe?
Yeah, a little bit but not very much.
My first trip was this year, I went to Budapest. It was amazing. I want to go back, and also Georgia high is on my list.
Yes! That’s where I want to go. I was supposed to go to Georgia, but didn’t make it. I really want to go there.
That part of the world, the Eastern European people are so nice.
They’re really, really nice.
High concentration of many cultures. That’s cool you really wanna go to Georgia too.
Oh I’ve been meaning to go to Georgia for years. I’ve had tickets twice that I’ve had to cancel.
What’s driven that desire?
It’s just one of those countries that you have to go see. It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s got all that old Soviet stuff, but they’re really proud of how they’ve grown out of it. There’s really, really, insanely good food. And it’s beautiful there, the architecture. I really love brutalist architecture which there’s a lot of in Tbilisi and all over Georgia.
“When I chose this job it was literally write music, record it, tour it, and do interviews. Maybe be creative around the artwork too if you want to. Now, being a musician is really similar to just being the Social Media Manager for a brand, and that’s a completely different job.”
There are Soviet allusions in two Zolas singles, “Molotov Girls” and “Energy Czar”. Have you ever felt inspiration from that part of the world for music?
I’m super interested in that stuff, but I can’t say it has anything to do with those songs. “Molotov Girls” is just a catchy name that I thought made sense for all the girls that I know who are hardcore activists, who want to see the structures that are out there burn down as quickly as possible. “Energy Czar” is about our misplaced idea that we can harm Mother Earth, when really all we can do is make the planet really uncomfortable for us. Mother Earth will be fine. If we get too annoying, which is coming very soon, she’s just gonna run a fever for a bit, let us die off, and let other things grow.
In “Molotov Girls”, what’s that sample in the bridge? The girl speaking Russian.
What’s her first name… her last name’s Tolokonnikova.
Yeah, Nadya! It was a speech that she gave during her trial when she was sentenced to prison.
How do you think you’ve seen things change in the industry, and how have The Zolas remained consistent?
One thing that I think about lately, is I haven’t been doing a very good job of maintaining an adequate social media presence. And it’s easy to get down on yourself. I think a lot of people feel like they’re not doing enough. For me, while in a period of feeling like that, I just remember, “Shit when I chose this job, it didn’t resemble the job that I have now at all.” When I chose this job it was literally write music, record it, tour it, and do interviews. Maybe be creative around the artwork too if you want to. That was it. Now, being a musician is really similar to just being the Social Media Manager for a brand, and that’s a completely different job.
Totally. And that’s why ex-music people do great in roles like that at startups or companies. One of my best friends from here in Philly is in a band called Courier Club, and we’ve talked about this exact thing many times. We’re 25 years old, and we feel the ground has shifted from under our feet so many times already. He explained it the best way. Let’s say from 2012, like ten years ago when him and I decided we wanted to pursue being musicians and artists. We had Plan A which was similar to what you’ve just mentioned, but now we’re on like Plan F. It’s changed so much in the past decade alone.
Exactly. So it’s important for us to remember, especially if you’re still doing this, things have changed so much. Don’t be bummed out if the job you have right now isn’t your ideal job. Because it’s not the one you thought you were getting into.
Did you ever, or do you ever, want to pursue something else? You seem like a pretty interested guy.
Yeah, I thought about that, especially over COVID. I think everybody thought about what else they could be doing. When it’s going well, this is the best job. But also, it’s also a job in an industry that doesn’t have any money in it, and therefore there aren’t a lot of exciting things that can happen to you in music. At least, not the way that someone who’s into animation, or design. You can get a message that says like, “Hey, we want to hire someone can you move to Kuala Lumpur for for six months and help us with this?” Like, that’s an exciting industry with money. Like there are non music companies who put on music shows, and they’re shocked by how little the bands will negotiate their fee. They’ll be like, “Okay, we’re a chain of restaurants. We’ve got an entertainment company, let’s do a little festival. Let’s see who we can get.” So they offer them ten grand the band goes like, “Yes, yes, yes.” And they’re like, “Ten grand is what we make in like two hours at our restaurant.” The band could probably ask for fifty grand, and they would have been like, “Oooh, okay!” But in our world there are so few streams of income that there’s not a lot of exciting stuff that can happen.
“I would love to pursue other things. But also there’s an ego part of me. It doesn’t make sense to me that the entire world doesn’t get how good my fucking music is. And so, I probably will always continue to do this for that reason.”
So yeah, I would love to pursue other things. But also there’s an ego part of me, I feel like you have it too. It doesn’t make sense to me that the entire world doesn’t get how good my fucking music is. And so, I probably will always continue to do this for that reason. Maybe I’ll do other stuff on the side. I’m not the best at everything but there’s like a couple slivers of the music process that I think I’m the absolute best at. Not literally, but one of the best at.
No, but I know exactly what you’re saying. There’s a threshold.
Yeah, and I want to take that as far as I can.
That’s a great answer. I love that you say the lack of excitement in the industry, because that’s a real thing.
And it is ego, but ego’s not always a negative word.
I was reading a book, have you ever read Meet Me In The Bathroom?
Yeah, I’ve read that. I have it.
So one of the things that really stuck with me was towards the beginning of the book, the person was describing the climate in music in New York, but also maybe just the culture in general, in the early 2000s, and late 90s. She was saying people were just really excited about music. Like when you had a new band they were excited about music, the way that people are excited about food, podcasts, and TV now. These days, if you have a show that’s on Netflix, that’s exciting. People want to support that. Same with like food and restaurants. Music is just not the zeitgeist right now.