Some musical partnerships are simply meant to be.
Take Chris Von Szombathy and Tyler Greentree, for example. It was only by chance that the two of them met at Ms. T’s Cabaret, an old venue on Pender Street, back in 2003. Von Szombathy was playing bass as part of an improvisational performance; Greentree, who was in the audience, immediately fell in love with the band playing onstage. But it was the bass player in particular who caught Greentree’s eye.
“I remember that night meeting [Von Szombathy] and his then girlfriend and really loving the show,” explains Greentree. “I ended up getting a gig at [the same venue] a few months later, and it burned down just a few days before I was supposed to play the show.” Through the ashes of Ms. T’s Cabaret, a musical partnership between Von Szombathy and Greentree was born. Three years later, the duo released their first album, Atlantis, under the name Tour de Fours.
Fast forward eight years to a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Vancouver. I’m walking along Main Street to meet Zoo Age, Von Szombathy and Greentree’s new musical alias. Spotting the pair of black jackets I was told they’d be wearing, I introduce myself; after walking a few blocks, we settle on a bench nearby before diving into the interview.
Zoo Age are a rarity: they do not play live shows and they do not tour, a conscious decision made primarily by Von Szombathy due to a mental disorder called agoraphobia.
“What is Agoraphobia?” I ask.
“The literal translation is ‘fear of the marketplace’… for me at least, agoraphobia is more like a behavioural symptom of intense paranoia.” The condition limits, among other things, Von Szombathy’s ability to travel and play shows. Although he’s performed many times before, an event several years ago led him to stop playing live shows and touring.
“At the time, I was in a band and we were gigging three to five nights a week. We went on our first trans-Canada trip and when we got to Toronto, I lost it. I had a mental breakdown that was unlike anything I’d had in eight years. It was a disaster; I immediately had to quit the band.”
Von Szombathy’s mental condition and breakdown resulted in two things: it led him to discover writing as a way to cope with his mental illness and he began working alongside Greentree more. The event in Toronto that forced Von Szombathy to quit the band led to a new chapter in his life; coping with agoraphobia has, paradoxically, aided him in his creative process as a writer and musician.
Zoo Age, the pair’s self-titled debut, is more than just music. Listeners experience the degree of mental calm that Von Szombathy himself achieves through his writing. It is an interesting blend of two different realms of music. On the one hand, we have electronic production that features unconventional, futuristic sounds matched with more conventional instrumentation. On the other hand, we have the vocals of Greentree, delicate, complex, and uncomparable to any singer in recent memory. Her vocals—coupled with the organic and, at times, whimsical production—allow Zoo Age to break barriers between genres and craft a sound that is totally unique.
The process of making an album can sometimes bring out moments of frustration and disagreement. When I ask how Von Szombathy and Greentree deal with creative differences and how they’ve maintained a partnership for such a long period of time, Greentree’s answer is simple: “The disagreements we have are never about power. Any disagreements we have are situational and specific… They are discussions about how to best serve our ideas.” The ability to work alongside someone in this way is nothing short of a luxury and the creative bond is represented on the album.
But are we doomed to only be able to experience Zoo Age either through computer speakers and headphones? I ask if Von Szombathy is completely ruling out any future live performances from Zoo Age and he says his ability to cope with Agoraphobia has greatly improved—though nothing is definite, he’s optimistic about a return to the stage. While you simmer and wait for a show announcment from the duo, you can still listen to and download their music from their website at zooagemusic.com