A Joyful Noise: An Interview with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
PopMatters talks with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion (symbolic) front-man about why the apocalypse might not necessarily be all bad.
"To me, punk is about making something out of nothing with whatever you have at hand -- analyzing any potential obstacles in a clear light, and then allowing yourself to question whether it's actually an obstacle at all," says founder and longtime band spokesman Efrim Menuck. "Philosophically, it gives you the freedom to go around the wall, or even to kick it down, if you see what I mean. It's a terrible cliché, but either you get it or you don't. I still feel like a kid when I talk about punk rock."
Right from the band's beginning, there's always been a sense that Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra was probably going to end up being a more approachable proposition than Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It's been evident in their music, which, while not exactly Motley Crue, has -- starting with the first album's positively balladic "Movie (Never Made)" -- often reflected more traditional song structures than the band's rarefied, monolithic sister. It's also apparent in their ongoing relationship with the press, which tends to be based around proper interviews rather than communiques; dialogue rather than pronouncement.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra's new record is called Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything. And, sure enough, with its release comes the opportunity to talk to the closest thing that both bands have got to a frontman, the afore-quoted Efrim -- a prospect that only the terminally incurious would turn down.
Efrim is an unusual rock star assignment in that talking to him you often detect a faint embarrassment on his part that he's being interviewed. It's an endearing quality, particularly in light of the -- awe is the only word -- with which a certain section of music fans approach at least one of his bands. It's can also be a little frustrating, given his occasional tendency to let you know in advance that what he's about to say probably isn't going to be that interesting. (You keep wanting to tell him 'I'll be the judge of that'.)
He's also as close to the living spirit of punk as I imagine I'm ever going to get, like interviewing a 40-something Canadian D. Boon. At one point, referencing a monumental Godspeed interview in The Guardian, I ask him if he's still 'terminally disenfranchised ', which he pleasingly confirms that he is. This is something which is apparent in Godspeed's recent dissing of the Toyota-supported Polaris Canadian music award, as well as their donating of the $30,000 prize money to fund education in Quebec prisons. It also comes across in Fuck Off Get Free itself, which is as engaged -- and often flat-out ecstatic -- a rock 'n' roll record as I've heard in a long time.
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What's the significance of the first moments on Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything? [A sample of a child's voice saying: "We live on the island called Montreal and we make a lot of noise because we love each other."]
One of the themes of the record is that it's an articulation of civic pride, which is also what "Fuck Off Get Free" the song is about. Montreal is a chronically neglected town -- our municipal government is notoriously corrupt. I feel that the people that live there are all heroes. The city is important to the music that we make, and was certainly important to this album.
How central is 'culture' to life and particularly to resistance in Montreal?
The role of culture in Montreal is probably not that different from in any large western city. In terms of resistance on the other hand, it's has always been somewhere where people have found it easy to voice displeasure at the way things are going. It's historically been that way, and it's another reason why I love it.
Quebec has always enjoyed a tense relationship with the rest of Canada, and Montreal has in turn always enjoyed a tense relationship with Quebec. It strives beneath the weight of two-levels of piss-poor governance and is twice-disdained.
Who's voice is it at the beginning of the record?
It's mine and Jessica's son. It was a spontaneous outburst. The words have a double meaning, which is why we got him to repeat it, and why it's where it is on the album.
Without wanting to state the obvious, there are some heavy -- apocalyptic, even -- themes on the record. Do you think the end of the world is coming?
I don't think so, or if it is it's as close -- or as far away -- as it ever has been. I think that there are hard times coming certainly, and that those hard times are probably necessary to get us out of the fix that were currently in. Climate change -- just to take one thing -- is terrifying, and it might mean the end of people, but it won't mean the end of the end of the world.
There's a sense on the record that a broader breakdown in kindness has already signaled a kind of cultural apocalypse ...
Culturally, I think you could argue that end of the world has already happened certainly -- that we were born into it, even. That's just late capitalism though. The most horrid thing to me about the way we seem to live now -- it's most evil trait -- is the degree to which we've all been convinced that there's no point in even thinking of an alternative. We all endeavor and try our best, while all the time continuing to stagnate internally. That's the saddest thing about contemporary living I think.
In "What We Loved Was Not Enough", you say that The West will rise again. Are there any narratives that are going to save us?
I think certain narratives are going to be inflicted on us. The idea that 'The West' will rise again ... for that to happen, society is going to have to collapse and be built back up. Our children are going to have to die. I think a coming-to-terms is called for, although ultimately what we'll be coming to terms with, I've no idea.
I'm not cynical, I just feel we're in the back seat of a car that's heading down the hill really fast. The pragmatic argument is that you can't shoot the driver in the head because then the car's going to flip off the road. The other point of view is that it's going to go off the road anyway ...
Your records are often shot-through with religious imagery. Is your Jewish upbringing still an influence on the way you see the world?
I don't believe in God, but as you say that's my background, and it's certainly still in me. You can't go to Hebrew day school from six to 14 and not have it colour your world view -- it's a very powerful lexicon to have available.
Thinking specifically of redemption as an idea, you could argue that in the west, those that that have written our history have been all coming from a Biblical place. We're all born into the Biblical narrative because the overarching view of the arc of history is that it's heading to a certain point and that it's all going to end with a big explosion. It's a very male story as well, if you see what I mean.
That can become self-fulfilling ...
Of course. If the people that control the levers believe that the end of the world will hasten the arrival of Jesus, they're going to engage in practices that hasten that process. I'm not suggesting consciously, but unconsciously for sure.
Has the birth of your son four years ago changed your world view, and if so how is it coming out in your work?
It has, but it's complicated. Before I had a kid, I found it fairly easy to be fatalistic, but that despair has now mostly been replaced with rage. "What We Loved Was Not Enough" was written from that place -- as a father.
There are a lot of 'young' voices on the record as well as your son's, such as Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex on Take Away These Early Grave Blues ...
There are. There's also "Rains Thru the Roof at the Grande Ballroom", which is about musicians dying young. It's dedicated to Capital Steez -- who I'm a fan of -- but it could just as easily be for Poly Styrene.
Changing the subject, why did you decide to record somewhere other than Hotel2Tango?
We decided that we wanted to record somewhere outside of the city, so that there'd be less distraction. Through Sophie's sister we found this strange house in the countryside just outside of Montreal -- like a '60s mansion with a conversation pit in the basement. White-on-white and cubical, with a beautiful-sounding living room. It was lovely.
I'm getting visions of the Stones recording in the south of France ...
It wasn't quite that posh. It changed how we worked, and how the record sounds. It was longer days than we've ever done before because it was much more difficult to be casual than in our own recording studio. It's easy to let whole days slip away without getting a lot of work done if you're in your own place.
Is there becoming less of a perception that Mt. Zion is a Godspeed side project?
I don't know, but if that's what people are going to think then that's what they're going to think. Obviously, it bothers me a bit because there are people in Mt. Zion who have nothing to do with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and it feels a little insulting to their contribution. It also bothers me because Mt. Zion has now existed as a functioning band longer than Godspeed has in years, at least in terms of miles logged. They really are two separate beasts.
What can you do with one that you can't do with the other?
I would say that Godspeed often feels like a very large, very impressive sea freighter, whereas Mt. Zion is more like a little motor boat. It has much less internal inertia so it can move much more easily. If the ship named Godspeed sees an iceberg ahead, more often than not, it can't stop in time.
I know ... that was a really tortured analogy. There are fewer people involved in Mt. Zion than Godspeed, which often makes it easier. Godspeed's also even more of a democracy than Mt. Zion as well, so there are a lot more opinions. It can be hard.
What differences are there artistically between the two?
I think Mt. Zion's more like a rock band. That's certainly how we see ourselves -- even though for a lot of people 'rock' is a signifier for conservatism or some kind of retro outlook on the world.
Fuck Off ... does sound positively ecstatic in places, and the drumming's fantastic ...
Yeah. There's been this slow staggering towards some sort of distorted joyful noise, and I feel like we've arrived at a good place as far as that's concerned. We've been chasing that kind of sound for a lot of years, and it's only lately that I feel like we're coming close to finding it. The drumming's Dave [Payant]. He's a force of nature.
The recording of this one was different because most of the songs were written in the month leading up to going into the studio, with the title track already done and the name of the record decided on. It's the first time that's happened and it became like a mission statement.
A lot of times you record a handful of songs, and it feels like you're spreading old photos out on a table in order to form some sort of sense. This is the first record where we were consciously writing the story as we went along rather than retro-actively applying one.
Has post-rock ever been meaningful as an idea?
Not to me -- it's a journalists' term. With both Godspeed and Mt. Zion, we've never felt like we were engaging in something avant-garde, which I think is what the idea of 'post-rock' implies. One nice thing about contemporary art and music is that all the boundaries have already all been torn down when it comes to form, so to self-consciously pursue something like that would just be silly.
If Mt. Zion has a central idea it's that unless we can find words to describe what our common fears are, then there's no way to start thinking about what our common hope could be. I think most of us in this world share similar nightmares.