It has been three dark years since Montreal collective Thee Silver Mt Zion delivered their last audio broadside. Now they’re back, and recounting how the world is an even scarier, more threatening proposition.
Getintothis caught up with their creative tour de force Efrim Menuck ahead of the release of their sixth record 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons to talk about Chinese astrology, US political circuses, loud guitars and how the music industry wants to turn musicians into comic book characters.
Getintothis: Thanks for devoting a little time to us, how’s it going, I believe you’re touring with Vic Chestnutt, over in Europe?
Efrim Menuck: Yeah, no problem, it’s going ok. I’m a little jet-lagged, we came over a couple of days ago. Everything’s good.
Getintothis: So, exciting times – you’ve a new record out, 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, what’s it all about?
EM: Umm, what’s its all about… It’s the first record we’ve made where all the songs on it are… These are songs we’ve been playing live for the last couple of years so its louder, and I guess, more direct than other records we’ve made in the past, its a very different sounding record.
Getintothis: There’s certainly an urgency and even more brooding malevolence than before. I suppose Black Waters Blowed/ Engine Broke Blues, is emblematic of that – in comparison to your catalogue it’s more riff-based…
EM: Yep. It was mostly recorded live, so yep, it was done in Hotel2Tango (by Howard Bilerman and Radwan Moumneh)…
We just moved, I guess, 15 metres down the road into a new building, a whole new studio. We’ve had pretty much the same line-up for I guess seven years now but our drummer left the band and we’ve got Eric (Haven) in now and that’s made a big difference as Eric is a monster of a drummer and our last drummer (Scott Gilmore) had a bit of a lighter touch.
Getintothis: Scott’s approach on the older material is more subtle and restrained…
EM: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Eric’s the opposite of that – which is great, and lends itself to the more live, louder, sound.
Getintothis: I take it Jessica (Moss) and Sophie (Trudeau) are still on violin duties?
Getintothis: There’s certainly more emphasis on the vocal element than ever before, with your vocals appearing more confident and prominent. This directness I suppose lends itself to a more lyrical affair…
EM: It’s a strange history this band has had and especially after the last record came out Sophie broke her collar bone (in 2004 Trudeau was injured in a bike crash subsequently having to have a metal plate inserted) so there was two years there when we couldn’t play live and we ended up in a situation were we’re doing tons and tons of recording.
And as a result we started playing differently and we came into our own as a live band and with that came more singing and more confidence – it was all a product of playing live in the studio so much.
Getintothis: What was the influence of lyrical material this time round?
EM: The record is about two kind of things. One of those things is the sorry state of music in the year 2007, and I guess 2008 now. And the other thing was, I’m not a believer in astrology, but in Chinese astrology a year that has 13 new moons in it is a difficult year for people who are already having a difficult time emotionally or physically, and the year 2007 was a year of 13 moons and I really felt for most of the year like everyone around us was falling apart a little bit.
Getintothis: While you touch on that a band I have got into recently is Yeasayer from Brooklyn, whose track 2080 lyrically touches on emotions you maybe able to empathise with.
The first two lines are, ‘I can’t sleep when I think about the times we’re living in. I can’t sleep when I think of the future I was born into‘ They appear to cover a similar terrain to yourselves. On Black Waters Blowed you elude to ‘No homeland for the gentle-hearted‘ can you elaborate on the themes you were thinking about.
EM: You look around at the little communities – parts of Montreal – and having a lot of people in my life, who are dear to me and I love dearly, going through this really difficult time and feeling like there is a cumulative stress that adds up and adds up and adds up the older you get and at a certain point people around you just start buckling under the pressure and part of that stress is living in a society that doesn’t value you at all.
Getintothis: And yet, there’s always been a great contrast between the bleakness of the subjects you approach and yet your music is so uplifting – so even though it’s desolate at times you provide a great source of hope for many people.
EM: Right, I mean that’s what our punk rock is about. It’s the starting point. That life is bleak and in MontrÃÂ©al a bunch of us have found each other, you know what I mean? And I guess that is where the hope comes in.
Getintothis: Are you aware of the expectations that surrounding Silver Mt Zion and the many projects you’re involved in?
EM: What do you mean?
Getintothis: Well, dating way back to the Godspeed You! Black Emperor days and all the different projects you’ve been involved in and up to TSMZ there’s always such a weight of expectation concerning your music. Speaking from a British perspective, there’s such an avid following – if you were to reform Godspeed you could play to ridiculous masses…
EM: Yeah, Godspeed is at the point now where we get a couple of times a year, we get some ridiculous offer to do a little jaunt down the nostalgia circuit. I think if you take what you’re doing seriously, and if you’re a musician and you take the idea that you’re not going to fleece anybody you try to take care of your business as honestly as you can – I feel responsibility in those quarters…
Getintothis: What about responsibility with regard to the internet? I’ve barely downloaded music at all for 18 months now, as I felt that I was consuming vast quantities of music for the sake of it while investing less time in it – so I’ve chosen to wait for much of the music I want to hear as the artist intends it while devoting more time to serious listening, where do you stand to the whole issue?
EM: I think, um, yeah, its a complicated issue. I think the internet is a problem and it has changed the way people understand music and I think it definitely lends itself to a kind of… *pauses*
Before the internet there was a certain type of record collector who owned everything, and those were always the most miserable anti-music people because they didn’t listen to everything.
They had an avid hunger – they didn’t listen. And now everybody is like that. Everybody’s got these iTunes playlists with every record that’s come out in the last four years and all those records are completely decontextualised, there’s no cover, no album artwork, there’s no…
And it’s made it difficult. Or easier for the dismissive attitude that the industry has towards most bands to become the norm – and has turned musicians into comic book characters.
I think its a problem and I am tired of hearing people claim the internet is some sort of new, egalitarian utopia for musicians and fans alike for as far as I can tell its the same old, same old were a bunch of really huge companies are getting rich and musicians are not.
Getintothis: Music does seem to be increasingly treated as a commodity, what with Prince being able to give his record away for free to promote a tour, while Radiohead could afford to throw In Rainbows online for whatever price and feed their huge fanbase while guaranteeing huge sales when the physical format was released also – so both were in a win-win situation from the off.
EM: Absolutely! I mean the other people who are getting rich are Apple computers – and every global telecommunications giant in the world – I don’t know how much you are paying in Britain, but back home its like $60 a month, for a high-speed internet connection – and the only reason you need a high-speed connection is to download stuff for free off the internet!
I have to say though, I know that musicians are losing money – but it’s not as dire as people suggest. There are still enough people who believe enough to buy a copy of the record, but what it has changed is the way music is understood and talked about, and written about – and I think that’s the problem.
Getintothis: You can understand when youngsters pick up on this new way of working with the internet – you can understand them ‘feeding’ on this endless source of music.
EM: Absolutely, I don’t fault anybody – I just… I am a self-interested party in this so it is hard for me to look at it objectively. But I know that human beings – what music used to provide – people are going to find it somewhere else if this situation continues – and that would be a shame as music is well suited towards a really profound social experience. You know?
Getintothis: Sure, where do you think kids will look to?
EM: I really don’t know. There’s going to be whole new forms of the same old thing. There’s always periods of transition, but basic human needs and basic social needs always end up manifesting – I don’t know how they will, but they will.
Getintothis: Speaking of transition, I had a disheartening experience at an Explosions in the Sky gig last week in Manchester were I was watching the band simply surrounded by people yabbering away etc…
EM: Yep, although the bigger the net you cast, the more strange – or loud fish you end up trawling – that’s always been the situation.
There’s always been kids who are more concerned with their insecurities, than with getting beyond their insecurities – I totally hear what you’re saying.
Getintothis: Going back to the record, I spoke to Kevin Laing of Besnard Lakes during their last tour and he spoke of how incredible, and how rocking the new material was when he heard you guys playing in Breakglass studios. Can we expect even heavier stuff in the future?
EM: We’re working on a couple of new songs right now, and one of them is pretty heavy and the other one is not.
But I think we’ve written so much new stuff in the last couple of years and I think we’re all kind of feeling like we need to take a one-year break from writing new stuff as you always run the risk of repeating yourself.
Getintothis: What has influenced you in the last couple of years? Its been four years since the last record…
EM: It’s four years since its inception, there’s the lifetime between recording a record and then coming out – its getting longer and longer and longer, you know. It’s been four years since we recorded it.
I don’t know, it’s like as usual we’re a strange band in that we are mostly influenced by trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing – it’s such a stubborn crew of characters that our basic influences are compromised by whatever we can eek out.
Touchstone-wise its always the handful of contemporary bands, and a pile of older bands we refer to either positively or negatively, when we’re writing stuff together.
Getintothis: Who would that include?
EM: Negative – well you always have to avoid the sense of U2 – which I think every band ends up committing every now and then – which is sort of a manipulative emotionalism, you know what I mean? And positively, we’re all big fans of Deerhoof, there’s a way they unpeel a melody so its the oddest sounding thing in the world that we’re always excited whenever we can even hint at that.
And then we’re Canadian – so we’re huge Zeppelin fans! In a very straight up for real way.
Getintothis: What did you make of the big palaver of the reunion?
EM: I don’t know, from all accounts it seemed like they played well, I think it would be a shame if they go and do this tour now.
Getintothis: It seemed like a great set for the uber-fans and the usual blaggers…
EM: Totally. I hope they don’t (tour) – they’re one of the only ones that haven’t fucked up their heritage and it would be a shame if they ended up (touring) – it’s not like they need the money.
Getintothis: What do you make of the political climate in America as the whole world’s media focuses on the Barack Obama v Hilary Clinton circus?
EM: Its curious as I’ve never… Even the slim chance that Obama is going to win the leadership and then maybe the Presidency is kind of a big deal, in the context of America. So that’s interesting.
I remain cynical – that entire political process, down there, is completely from top to bottom like, rigged. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but it definitely privileges a certain type of millionaire, I remain cynical about the possibility of real change happening. But I think its interesting as a drama.
Getintothis: I suppose it shows some wind of change in the political climate in America?
EM: Definitely. I mean there’s a lot of bureaucratic, union forces in the States that have always picked Democrat party insiders – and it’s interesting that they’re so frustrated with the state of affairs that they’re willing to bet on an outside shot.
Getintothis: I take it the current political activity in the States kicked off way after the writing process of the new record?
EM: The bleakness of the last, not just Bush, but Blair too and our own prime minister, all the way back to September 11 – the terrible bleakness of world affairs of the last eight years, last year it definitely felt like everyone… You reach this point were you couldn’t air it anymore, it was unceasingly hopeless.
Getintothis: I suppose being Canadian its even more in your face over there?
EM: To a degree, yeah, I mean it’s more… I don’t know if its more in your face UP here, it’s more in your face when you’re DOWN there. I don’t think it’s anymore in our face than it is in your face.
Getintothis: So, outside of music, how does Efrim relax?
EM: That’s a good question. I don’t do a lot of relaxing. I walk my dog; have dinner with my girlfriend. Normal stuff.
Getintothis: There’s still quiet a lot of enigma wrapped up in yourself and your band – which is a rarity in contemporary music. We know what every band’s had for breakfast these days. Do you think it’s still important to retain that enigma in pop music?
EM: I’ve never been interested in that idea. It’s like somehow a need that I think, for the most part, music magazines have. They need to create these strange mythologies around bands and there are different categories and one of those categories is the ‘mysterious outsider’ and with Godspeed we hated that.
We were always more interested in… *long pause*
EM: Yeah! And not buying into any variation on the star myth, you know, and so part of that is being up there warts and all. And so with Mt Zion, we’ve also like… That’s part of the reason why everyone in the band sings – whether everyone in the band can sing in tune or not – we don’t want to infuse any aspect of what we do with any type of glamour.
Getintothis: It’s a contradictory situation. I remember when NME ran the front cover feature on Godspeed (July 24, 1999) – and there was an intention on the magazine’s part to build up this enigmatic strange spiritual presence…
EM: Yeah, we had this strange engagement with the media because we didn’t want band photos.
Getintothis: That’s because you didn’t want the generic band photos?
EM: That’s it! I mean we didn’t want… We had an understanding distrust of the music media. We had all seen what it had done to bands and the kind of bands they privileged and the kind of bands they didn’t. And we just had no interest with engaging with it at all. Mt Zion continues to have mostly no interest in engaging with it (the media) all, but because it is a different group of people we’re a little more pragmatic about it.
And also if you don’t have band photos then it lends itself to that type of mythologizing we’re trying to avoid. So… *pauses*
Getintothis: …We can expect fold out Silver Mt Zion posters popping out of record sleeves to shortly be decorating teenagers bedrooms across the world!
EM: *Laughs* Exactly!
Getintothis: I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to Liverpool, what does it conjour up, the Fab Four?
EM: No! I wasn’t going to say that! Nooo, we’ve never been, it’s an industrial town right?
Getintothis: Yeah, lovely waterfront, great people – you should come! Are you due to tour? You’ve played Manchester a few times…
EM: I would rather play Liverpool then Manchester.
Britain is becoming a harder and harder place to tour – I think.
Promoters are becoming more and more fickle – and promoters are becoming more and more out of touch.
It’s a more and more common thing that promoters literally first look to see if you have a myspace page and then see how many myspace friends you have and then decide what kind of gamble they wanna take based on that.
And obviously for a band like us we’ve got no official myspace – our internet presence is a bunch of wrong stuff on Wikipedia or a handful of misquotes that will come up when you Google.
Getintothis: Does that bother you?
EM: The internet bothers me, yeah, what bothers me is there’s a lot of wrong information out there that you end up having to respond to or address – it just takes up a huge chunk of your life trying to correct.
Getintothis: Well, I can’t recommend enough the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall – it would lend itself to your style of music…
EM: It’s a sit down place?
Getintothis: Yeah. Great acoustics etc.. So if you wanna let your booking guys know!
EM: *Laughs* Yeah, yeah, will do!
Getintothis: I’ve got the most ridiculous, silly question to end on. It was posed by a friend of mine who’s a super-fan of both Godspeed and Silver Mt Zion, so brace yourself. Did Silver really mount zion? Or was it just a cruel rumour circulated by the Committee of the 300?
EM: *Laughs* What the hell does that mean?!? Wow – Silver absolutely mounted zion.
Getintothis: He did! Oh really, from behind?
EM: *Takes a drink* Uhuhuh…No, from the front!
Getintothis: Ah, a good catholic boy. On that note, I’ll be off – it was great speaking to you Efrim, and hopefully I’ll see you in the Philharmonic Hall sometime…
E: I hope so. Thanks.
13 Blues For Thirteen Moons is released on March 10 in Europe and March 25 worldwide.
Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
Constellation Records: A Silver Mt Zion
Unofficial Silver Mt Zion fansite w/ music