The Evolution Of 'A Silver Mt. Zion'
"I've never really understand why, if you're interested in having serious conversations with people in a public forum, the serious part of what you talk about somehow gets blown up and characterized as pretentious, or overbearing, or preachy," offers Efrim Menuck, the founding father of Québeçois combo Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose cinematic and apocalyptic instrumentalism, when coupled with their political content, has found them oft categorized as angry and belligerent and dogmatic and didactic.
Menuck's on the phone from Montreal to talk about his side-project, A Silver Mt. Zion, but he's not afraid of opening up and talking about wider issues that lie closer to his heart. It's just this tendency that has found him often labeled the mouthpiece of a political vehicle.
"I came out of punk rock," he says, heading back to a starting point to explain the thing about modern musical culture that disappoints him most. "When I was a kid that's all I knew. And, y'know, that was a really informal community that existed internationally with its own little fanzines and record labels. And people really took seriously what they were engaged in as an actual culture.
"As the years have gone by, and punk rock turned into something else, and then it turned into something that some idiot named 'indie rock', and then it turned into something that some idiot named 'post-rock', throughout that process I've seen that, somehow, the idea of looking at what you're engaged in as an attempt to contribute to some kind of independent culture, somehow that idea has become incredibly demeaned and degraded and undervalued. I don't understand that, and that's the thing that makes me feel endlessly sad, and endlessly dismayed when I read even small fanzines, now. I don't know why this is such a square idea in 2003, because it seems to me that this is an important idea, and it's all that I've ever truly believed in, that I've ever known, when it comes to making music or any kind of art."
He continues, now shifting to how his voicing of such an idea has become what his main band is best known for. "From the moment that Godspeed started being interviewed, this myth about us refusing to do interviews came about because when we put out our first record, we were freaked out that all of a sudden there were all these people that wanted to ask us questions. We were seriously interested in the idea of talking to people, but we realized we couldn't talk all the time because that's all we'd do. So we decided to pick and choose when we would talk.
"And at the beginning of Godspeed as a band whose records people were buying, a lot of what we had to talk about was this confusion about being this strange little band from Montreal made up of people who'd spent years playing in other strange little bands who felt this incredible strangeness in trying to convey these ideas we had to people who didn't really have the slightest idea what we were talking about. All the first interviews we ever did were about that, and so that somehow set the tone for everything that happened after that, and all of a sudden that became the conception of what Godspeed is, even now. Which is this, y'know, hugely moody, political, vegan collective, or something."
He continues: "Because Godspeed is a straight-up collective with nine very hard-headed personalities, our public voice has always been very rigid. We really believe in the idea that we don't want to make any statement unless everyone in the band agrees on it. So, if you remove all the words that people don't agree on, whatever words are left in the collective lexicon can be rigid. But, as individuals, as a group of people talking, we're all for the most part drunken fools. We're all smart-asses, and we're giddy a lot of the time. It's not such a heavy band to hang out with. There's a big difference between the perception that a lot of people have of us and the way we actually are as individuals."
In recent years, it has been through their side-projects that the members of Godspeed! get to have such "other" aspects of their personalities revealed. Aidan Girt's various electro/drumming orgies as 1-Speed Bike and Bottleskup Flenkenkenmike are the most obvious example of such drunken and/or smart-ass desires; his most recent Bottleskup disc coming with a song called "Canada Post-Rock Machine Gullible Sucker (Godspeed Remix)." In his recording venture Set Fire to Flames, David Bryant has looked at producing music from a social circumstance, his two double albums born from getting a bunch of musicians together in isolated locations, getting them drunk, then recording the improv'd results. With A Silver Mt. Zion, Menuck has revealed more of a personal side than what comes through the GY!BE collective. Still, whilst ASMZ was conceived as a place for making quiet, sensitive music, it's not hard to notice their most recent record, "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather +Sing, that they're sounding rather Godspeed!-ish in their newfound grandeur.
"The only way I really truly understand music is playing it live, and the only way I really truly understand playing music live is not like this thing of a quiet little chamber concert, yeah, y'know?," Menuck says, when talk turns to the growth and growth of his former little side-project, which has now blown out into a band every bit as grand as his main digs. "If it's just piano, bass, and violin, I can't imagine how we'd ever perform that in front of anyone in any way that'd make any sort of sense to me. So it's gradually gotten bigger in hoping that we'd make a bigger, louder din each step of the way, so that we could go and present this in a live way. It's been this slow, strange process of turning into a band that can play live."
To chart the growth in grandness as charted by the band Menuck always calls "Mt. Zion," you need only look at the nomenclature that's successively graced each elaborately titled record. On their first album He Has Left Us Alone, But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms..., Menuck's side-project were introduced to the world as A Silver Mt. Zion. On their second album, Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, they grew to being The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band. And, now, on their third album "This Is Our Punk-Rock," Thee Rusted Satellites Gather +Sing, they're The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band With Choir.
So, does all this exponential epic-ness just mean that Mt. Zion are just gradually drawing closer to Godspeed!, it being now not some deliberately-different side-project but just a differing variation on Menuck's particular aesthetic? "I think there are superficial elements that you could point out and see similarities in," he says. "But, to my ears at least, they sound very different. Just because we're getting louder doesn't mean that. Louder doesn't equal Godspeed!."
The initial idea with A Silver Mt. Zion was that they weren't going to be loud. They were a place for Menuck to explore more straight "songwriting" modes than he's able to in GY!BE's grand orchestral collective, it initially a project primed to play sorrowful songs. If a pall of sadness hangs over the first ASMZ album, Efrim soon spells it out straight. "It all started because my dog was sick, and it took a really long time to die, so in the middle of that process of coming to terms with that I started writing this music, and I knew I wanted to work in a smaller group because it sounded like a fairly self-indulgent project. And that's how Mt. Zion started. I just asked Thierry and Sophie if they'd help me write the stuff and record it, and so we started working that way," he explains.
He and his two cohorts both also members of GY!BE had no ideas, on beginning, of doing anything more than making an album out of these time-and-place type songs that Menuck was making; mostly with just piano, bass and violin. But after Shafts of Light... had been out a year, the band agreed to go on a European tour. So, to fit Menuck's live aesthetic, they expanded to a six-piece lineup, and the resulting tour he calls "a bit of a disaster." Still, when they first put that incarnation of the band together, they wrote a lot of songs on starting to play together, so when they got back home they recorded them. This became Born Into Trouble....
Still, even after expanding to a six-piece, Mt. Zion didn't really exist as anything more than a recording project to return to in the downtime between Godspeed! endeavors. It was only this year, when they set out working on "This Is Our Punk-Rock"... that they felt the band start to come together. "For the first two records we did, it was about this thing of people sitting in a room together trying to play stuff that was a bit out of their reach. Then we'd record it and try and figure out how we'd make a record out of it," Menuck says. "We're only really just starting to find our feet right now. It's only been recently that we've been playing together a lot as a band, and not just existing in the empty spaces, because initially Mt. Zion only got together when Godspeed took a break."
The newly-cemented lineup has now produced an epic record whose four-song-suites/double-album sprawl is concerned with the kind of things that concern their parent band, much of it about the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods. Such said, this only became clear to the band once the recordings had started; Menuck says, "Things usually make a lot more sense when you look back at them than they do when you're actually putting them together."
And, not planning this out in advance is kind of a recurring theme for his "smaller" project. "Mt. Zion's always been about not making so many future plans, because it's a sketchy little creature. It's only been in this process of the last few months, of sitting in a room and working a lot harder at being an actual band, that we've been able to start thinking more than a couple of weeks in advance." Anthony Carew [Tuesday, December 16, 2003]