With the much-acclaimed Godspeed You! Black Emperor on what seems increasingly like a permanent hiatus, the band’s lynchpin Efrim Menuck now has A Silver Mt Zion as his priority musical pursuit. The Montreal post-rock band – who use a variety of twists on their name when it suits them – are about to release their fifth full-length, 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, via Constellation. It’s released under the name Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band. Look out for a review of the record – officially released March 25 – next week.
In the meantime, settle down and enjoy the conversation DiS had with Menuck some weeks ago, when he agreed to some very rare promotional time.
Video: ‘Stumble then rise on some awkward morning’
Your new record is four tracks long, but on CD it’s got 12 short tracks before ‘1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound’, the opener ‘proper’. What was the thinking behind that?
Yeah, we still think, when making records, in terms of LPs; we think in terms of vinyl. So the vinyl is just four tracks. We have no affinity towards CDs so you might as well have fun with it. It started with the idea that we wanted to start the record on track 13, and then we figured out that if you make very short tracks, if people tried to play it on their iPods, on shuffle mode, it’d blitz their iPod. And that is what sealed the deal for us. (Smiles) We thought that was brilliant, so we thought we’d run with that.
So I guess you don’t own an iPod then?
Well, I own an iPod, it’s just not my primary listening device. They have their function.
*Are you still a vinyl man, then? *
You played the four tracks live before you recorded them – was it a case of writing the songs to tour with, or that you’d come back from tour with the songs, so you figured you may as well record them?
It was more the latter – Sophie our violin player broke her collarbone, so we ended up doing a bunch of touring a year and a half after our last record came out, and because it was so long since, we ended up writing a bunch of new songs. This was the first time ever we’d made a record where everything we recorded we already knew backwards and forwards and had been passed through the crucible of loud, drunken audiences. So yeah, when it came time to record, usually we’d have been writing stuff right before we go into the studio and half your time is taken up trying to figure out how to make the songs sink or swim. [Therefore] it was nice being able to pay more attention to the recordings.
Do the songs on the record deviate from how you play them live?
These ones, no. The ones on the record are pretty much how we play them live. They sound better than the bootlegs – not bootlegs, the live recordings – that are out there.
Are you happy with the results? It’s a different way of working for you.
Yeah. We’re happy. It’d be nice if this record was the one where people stopped affiliating us with post-rock and all that stuff, which is a tag we’ve hated since it started being applied to what we do.
I’ve heard of that genre…
Yeah, yeah, me too.
The LP was leaked ahead of release – does that concern you in terms of people listening to music for free, or that they get a lower quality version?
No, it doesn’t concern me greatly. There’s something nice about people being able to hear the record and react to the record before it gets its inevitable lukewarm reaction on Pitchfork.
So that’s a nice quality – people can judge it for themselves without any preconceptions. I’ve issues with the entire new downloading culture; I think it’s changing the way people understand music. I think the lack of a physical object in play and the fact that it’s decontextualised and it’s all just a bunch of free-floating signifiers is not a healthy medium for complicated ideas and I think that complicated ideas are where the… that’s where the honey is, y’know?
I hope this is just a transitional state of affairs, I do. It might go in some new direction soon enough, and some human quality is overturned, but right now, it’s kinda bleak times. I also don’t like the fact that the internet, downloading, is being presented as some bold new era, like a utopic [sic] thing where any band can get signed and have a MySpace page. There’s some truth to that, but the fact is that it’s just a different set of companies that are getting rich. We’re still getting fucked.
So Apple’s profits are going up and up, and every internet service provider in the world is making their… I don’t know how much it costs in Britain, but in Canada a high speed internet connection is like 50 bucks a month, which can only be to download music.
It’s the same over here. On the same lines, I think the majority of bands aren’t getting deals because they’re not good enough, it’s encouraging people to think: “Hey, I can hit a guitar so I deserve to be on MySpace”. Secondly the money made – the record companies like Universal work with MySpace. I agree, but at the same time, I would guess the majority of your fans still go out and buy the record.
Yeah, and we’re lucky that way. We continue to do alright, we fill the rooms that we’re booked in… [Though] we’re really invisible, we don’t get written about that much. When they do, it’s usually dismissive or derisive and that we’re obsessive, political Canadians.
That might be so in the wider media, but I’d say in the specialist or niche media there’s still a lot of reverence and respect for you. I’m not sure that lack of coverage in the glossy magazines is actually a problem for you guys.
It’s not a problem, I’m saying in spite of that we still continue to do okay, outside of the public eye, we do alright.
Do you think that the culture of downloading single tracks has de-commodified music, or the reverse?
It’s commodified it in a different way. It’s commodified and fetish-ised. It’s a different set of economics. In a way it’s worse. It’s harder to be a grain of sand in the middle of that process.
Video: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Rockets Fall…’
Musically, do you think a lot about your position in it all? Being a grain of sand?
I think our overriding principal always is… there’s a better world we want to live in. We’re just a bunch of sloppy musicians; we don’t have any aspirations to be like Bono or whatever. We’re completely cynical about the ability for music to affect any sort of political change. We’re not naïve idealists or anything. But, if this is the task at hand, if this is what we labour at, the least we can do is conduct ourselves with integrity, intelligence and thought. We take any decision we make really, really seriously. And so for doing that, yeah, we think a lot about the music, not just in a narrow sense, but about all industries that surround the music, the promotion of live music, the venues, all of that. We could write a masters thesis on all the structures that exist.
Does it frustrate you that other people don’t do things in a similar way? Or are you resigned to that fact that…
(Cuts in) I get frustrated when it seems that there are a lot of people who act like they are the caretakers of music, when they have no love for the music; they have love for aspects of the industry, but no love for the music. But that’s always been the case, even more so now. There’s been an a-historisation of what’s been going on, that’s alarming you know, and definitely makes us feel isolated from whatever the dominant conversations that are going on.
When you say ‘a-historisation’ – care to expand?
I can bring up my own specific examples, but they’re objective… nobody knows their history. It’s like a new band comes along every month and it’s meant to be the big, new exciting thing, and then they’re history a year later. Right? That’s always been the case in, like, _NME-level music journalism, and now we have this thing called indie rock, and it’s a much huger industry, and it presents itself as something idealistic, and it’s just those same values repeated again. Whoever, this week it’s Vampire Weekend, last week it was Black Kids, the week before… I don’t even know who the fuck it was.
The industry is built up around these types of bands. There’s a reason why they play this type of music. It’s mostly a risk-free endeavour. This is a big cliché, but I don’t get the sense that anyone is putting anything on the line, I know that’s a loaded term and all the rest of it, but that’s important. It’s important to me. Any valuable endeavour puts some element of your comfort at risk, and now it seems the opposite of that, like you’d be a sucker to do that.
And if you do, you’re chastised for it. If you try to do something different, people want to know why, and think you’re ridiculous for doing it.
Going back to the record – you always refer to ‘we’ or ‘us’, not a singular person. Is collaboration a big thing to you?
Yeah, I hope so. It’s the only thing I really understand; how to work with other people, it’s the only thing I’ve ever had any interest in. Part of me would really like to do something on my own, but I don’t have any faith that that would be anything good or valuable. There’s something about the endeavour of being in a band that I still think is incredibly moving and is a worthwhile thing to attempt to do – that level of compromise and the good endeavour. I believe in bands, I believe in people working together.
You really haven’t done much press over the years – do you feel uncomfortable, talking for yourself and others?
I’m sorta used to it by now. It’s a fine line you have to balance yourself on. I worry sometimes about talking in the royal ‘we’, and I try not to do that. Anything I’m saying, it’s something representative of what we feel as a group.
I don’t think you’ve said anything particularly radical or outrageous. People seem to gravitate towards yourself – possibly relying on you as a mouth piece – sharing your values and ideals. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? That people who like your music might agree with what you say, and maybe your political views?
Like you said, no stand that I’ve ever taken has seemed that controversial to me. As a group, we try to write songs that address broad issues. We’re not writing songs about the individuals. We’re trying to broaden the idea of writing songs about groups of people.
The problem with groups of people, the moment you start talking about people in groups that broad you get to universal concerns, which I think is what people label as ‘politics’. For us it, like, if you’re not an investment banker or a CEO or a corporate lawyer, these are all things that if we sat down and had a beer, we’d come to an agreement about. Everyone knows what the state of the world is, everyone knows what’s wrong, it’s not competitive it’s not left wing-right wing, it’s this world is broken, our economic systems are broken, our societies are broken, the inequalities in the world are appalling, this is all.. y’know.
Do you feel it odd or worrying that people look to people like you rather than those who govern the world for their ideas and mouthpieces? You’re a musician, primarily, but people listen to what you say. Is it wrong that people have to hear common sense or intellectual dialect from someone like you?
They don’t have to go to a musician, and I would encourage people not to go to a musician to look for any of that. Anything that we mouth off about… I don’t know. Our main hope is that people listen to our records, and follow what we’re doing and they’re our contemporaries. We’re more interested in that idea, in having peers. Having people that we’ve engaged with. People who are aware.
Do you believe in music as lifestyle, and as something that can inform the way people live their life?
Not on its own. I don’t think that’s ever been the case. I think it’s music that puts things in sharp relief, and music is a social activity. Music is still mostly a live thing, that makes sense in live performances. It gets harder and harder in the type of venues people are being subjected to as audience members. It gets harder to keep it as a social activity. Music on its own, though, doesn’t have the ability to change much.
It seemed to be able to do more so about 30 or 40 years ago –perhaps where it acted as a social or gathering point.
I think there was a point there… there was a lot of baby boomers, there was a lot of them. That was more the point. There was a lot of people…
A group of people developing a social conscience together at one point?
Yeah, but I don’t think it was the music that created that. It was a sociological hiccup that closed its own door on itself very quickly. I’m not so interested in being nostalgic. I don’t think it’s been any better or worse in terms of what we’re talking about.
Music is the tip of things. If you really want to affect change, then get a degree in social work.
With Silver Mt Zion, this is your fifth full record – I always think that people have a notion of you as quite slow-working, reclusive individuals. Is there a compulsion to keep making records, not having that two- or four-year gap?
We’re the opposite of that. We believe in music as labour, is what it comes down to. In a good way, y’know? Labour as, like, the opposite of work. We’re musicians as our trade and we take that seriously.
I was going to ask; currently there’re seven members of ASMZ. Can they all earn a living in this set-up?
Not a comfortable living. Everyone in this band has some other line of work… when I first started playing music there was this idea that the best bands were those who had day jobs. I always hated that idea. Godspeed started because we wanted to find people who wanted to leave their jobs, tour and be the real thing. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing anymore, the prideful part of me – the labour thing, I’m like, “OK an honest day’s labour for an honest day’s work”, but it’s getting harder and harder.
I could probably chide you and say,_ “Well, write some three-minute songs”_, but that’s probably not the point…
Yeah yeah, and other than the Minutemen, Minor Threat, early Black Flag, there aren’t any other good three-minute songs. The best songs are about six minutes. Most of the three-minute songs have a fade out at the end.
You chose to do ASMZ, and put Godspeed on hold. What in your mind distinguishes them? To my mind, you’ve moved musically closer to those first records you’ve made.
Yeah in some ways, I think the big difference, the obvious thing is the singing. The last American tour that Godspeed did was in the run up to the current war in Iraq. When Operation Shock and Awe began. For what Godspeed did, it was very difficult for us to work out a way for us to communicate directly with the audience about what was going on. We could talk to people after the shows, we made an effort to do that, or we could make announcements from the stage, but so much what Godspeed was, was one-way communication. And I had an existential freak out about that. That it seemed like, that those tactics aren’t valid anymore.
So much of what Godspeed was engaged with was that the ‘economy was good, we’ve got a new form of liberal government in all the wealthy countries that’s like, gonna point a bold way forward and everything is great’. And so much of what Godspeed was engaged with is that, ‘that’s a complete lie’, y’know. All the doom-laden grief of the previous decade still applies. The way our economic systems were set up, everyone knew what the ends were gonna be. Now everyone really knows what the end’s gonna be, you can’t deny it, it’s all on the table. If there’s one thing that the new conservatives in America did, that they were honest about, is what the endgame is. Which is something that Tony Blair didn’t do, something that if Bill Clinton was still at the reins, presiding over the same mess, he wouldn’t be doing it. So I think everyone knows what the deal is now. You don’t need an instrumental rock band pointing the direction. So maybe what they needed is some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human and a little more purpose.
So on the face of it, it would be very hard to go back to playing and performing with Godspeed because the notion or purpose of that role is maybe not outdated, but…
On a personal level I find to be inappropriate. I mean, whatever; there’s a complicated back-story. I reached a point whereby I was no longer willing to contribute to the steering of the ship, it was like, “Okay now, someone else point the direction, I love all of you, I’d like to keep working but I want to ride shotgun for a while”.
Video: ‘Ring Them Bells’
*Do you think that bands or acts have a natural period of time? Is there a point where you think with ASMV that it’ll be, _“Hey let’s do something else”_? *
Absolutely. I think that bands do have a short shelf life. I think musicians should be able to ply their trade ‘til they no longer want to. Bands in a way are built around a very simple thesis. There’s only so much you can do with one thesis. All the best bands have a very pure and clearly articulated thesis.
Do you count yourself amongst that?
Absolutely, with both ASMZ and Godspeed. Um, but there’s only so much you can do with that, you know. At some point it runs its course and you have to figure out what the next variation of the thesis is going to be, or write a totally new thesis.
*Does there come a point whereby you think, _“Okay I need to come up with something new”_? Is there a gradual build up? *
I think it’s a gradual build up, although you know, I’ve only been through this process three times, so it’s not like I’m an expert at knowing when it’s time to move along... But it’s like anything in life, it takes you a while to figure it out, you have a nagging sense of unease, and you reach a point where it’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s why, and this is what I can do about it”.
*You seem to be a fairly calm person, someone with a lot clarity – is that a fair comment? *
I’ve had a lot of years thinking about this, and yeah, it’s one realm of my life where I know completely what’s going on. The other realms, I’m a fucking, hot-head mess, a total… asshole, you know. Music is one thing I know… pretty well.
Is this your constant? Could you do this forever, or do you think this is going to get hard at some point?
All the time. There are no happy endings in music. Name me one. It will end either poorly or corrupted or sad. I defy you to name me one…
So you know, ‘course I think about it all the time. Sometimes I wake up and think – what am I really going to do with my life?
NB: featured videos are fan made