Interview: Efrim Menuck of A Silver Mt. Zion
There are few bands in the world like Silver Mt. Zion. They defy categorization in every possible way, and I have eagerly followed them for the last seven years (although theyâve been around for ten. I was a latecomer, ok?) through every line-up and name change, every progression and evolution in sound, every crescendo and every giddy yell to where they are now: their sixth full length album, Kollaps Tradixionales. The chance to talk to the bandâs key figure, guitaris... (continued)
There are few bands in the world like Silver Mt. Zion. They defy categorization in every possible way, and I have eagerly followed them for the last seven years (although theyâve been around for ten. I was a latecomer, ok?) through every line-up and name change, every progression and evolution in sound, every crescendo and every giddy yell to where they are now: their sixth full length album, Kollaps Tradixionales. The chance to talk to the bandâs key figure, guitarist and singer Efrim Menuck, is one that canât be passed up. Not just to shed light on the new album or touring plans, either: Efrim is excitingly opinionated on just about any musical subject. Though, with Kollaps Tradixionales due to drop through my letterbox in all its splendour the day after my phone call to Canada, the intention behind the album was naturally one of the first things to come up in our long conversation. âItâs referring to the economic collapse thatâs happened in the last yearâ Efrim says, as I probably quite noticeably try to hide my fear in talking to a man whoâs music has been closer to me than most. âAnd the âtraditionalâ part is because we really see these little songs we write as being traditionals. Weâre trying to operate within a long tradition of people making music. All our songs, even when theyâre big loud dumb rock songs are traditionals.â I comment that Mt. Zion are always getting further and further away from their own traditions. Their first album, 2000âs He Has Left Us Alone, But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corners Of Our Rooms is as close to sounding like the founding membersâ old band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as anyone will ever get, but they quickly established and re-established themselves with their own sound and own characteristics. âYou mean weâre changing?â Efrim asks. âYeah, we try.â This change is often obvious before the record even starts playing, thanks to the bandâs habit of modifying their name every time they undergo a significant lineup change. To date, only two of their albums have had the same name, and this time they have cut back from âThee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Bandâ to âThee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestraâ, easily the biggest change since they added all the Orchestra and Band stuff for their second album. So was there a big change in personnel this time? âThree members of the band left. Weâre a different band with different people. What we do, we do together, so the name changing is out of respect for that.â Itâs a philosophy that few bands share. Napalm Death have no original members left these days, though their sound has never changed quite as radically as Mt. Zion. These changes cannot be due purely to different members, though. I remember reading on their website that Efrim recently had his first son with fellow Mt. Zion member and violinist Jessica Moss, something that has influenced the music of quite a few of my favourite musicians. Has it been the same for him? âIt probably has, but not consciously. Any change in your life is gonna influence the things you write, and this has been a pretty big change, so Iâm sure it has influenced me, but I couldnât pinpoint it.â As with the bandâs last four albums, Kollaps Tradixionales features vocals on every track, with the bandâs singing remaining one of their most powerful elements. However, it is also unfortunately the aspect of the band that most often seems to come under fire, even from from fans of the band who have been around since Mt. Zionâs instrumental beginnings. âItâs become a more intense criticism the last few years,â admits Efrim. âI donât know how to respond to it. I appreciate I donât have a technically perfect voice, but if I thought my voice was so terrible, I wouldnât be singing, and I donât think Iâm delusional. Everythingâs punk rock to me, you know? I donât think I sing any more out of tune than a lot of singers I love. We write songs with singing and long instrumental parts, but I donât think weâll go back to be an instrumental band, ever.â As a fan of the combination of his unashamed, wailing style and the more gentle chorusing of the rest of the band, it seems to me that a lot of people seem to fear change in a band, but Efrim seems to see his critics in a different light: âThe internet has spread a certain type of lazy bitchiness, people download records for free then impart these unnecessarily harsh and not thought out criticisims really easily. I think thatâs trickled up in to mainstream criticism as well. Iâm not a gentile person, but thoughtlessness is thoughtlessness. Itâs really easy to âslagâ people, and itâs harder to figure out whatâs bothering you about what someone does. Though for us, that sort of criticism has never been too much of a problem.â There seems to be a general lack of respect for the artist as a person, I suggest, particularly in internet criticism, with certain websites firmly in mind. âThe cycle has become so fast now, itâs like a teenybopper culture, and youâre supposed to rise quickly, not stick around long and then just disappear. Iâm a fan of the hit parade,â he laughs, âyâknow, like, I can get down with that, some of my favourite music is old music that was totally part of a pop culture like that, but if thatâs all you have going on in music then itâs not a good thing. You want a diverse musical culture. So ultimately that version of indie rock is something I find pretty boring.â Fortunately, Mt. Zion have always seemed as impervious to trends as they are to criticism. âI donât think we could follow trends, even if we wanted to. We just try to put our heads down and earn an honest living. Weâve been lucky that weâre somewhat successful but thereâs always bands that exist outside of popular culture.â And who do they see as similar to themselves in those respects? âThereâs tons of bands that operate on the same level, trying to put out thoughtful work, and being seriously committed to not fucking their fans over and not being greedy, thereâs tons of bands. We donât feel alone in that way at all.â To me, a lot of these bands seem to be punk bands, with too many other genres succumbing to apathy, so I ask if Efrim sees it the same way. âTotally. Well, apathy and greed, greed is a problem. Thereâs a lot of poster boys for indie rock presenting themselves as idealistic, caring, empathetic people who are actually just toally greedy nasty self involved douches, so yeah, itâs weird to us.â I mention Fugazi, a band I certainly hold in the same regard as Mt. Zion, a band with strong principles and morals. âI donât know, itâs different contexts. Weâre as ethical as we can be, and we definitely have an opinion on the state of the world. Ian MacKaye is a unique personality, and we donât have an Ian MacKaye figure in the band so thatâs kind of the big difference. But we definitely feel some kind of kinship with Fugazi.â Mt. Zion are often labelled as a political band, is this a view that they share? âNo, cause politics is for politicians,â as Efrim bluntly puts it. âI mean, we have opinions about the world, but what is a political band? Name me a political band. I canât even think of one.â I suggest Billy Bragg. âYeah, thatâs true,â he admits. âWe donât have anything in common with Billy Bragg. Youâre right, he is a political musician, and weâre not. Heâs in to politics and legislation, which is valid, but weâre not like that at all.â So protest isnât something theyâre interested in? âWell, thatâs not so true. Weâve definitely done our time at protests and marches, but thatâs as individuals, not as a band. Just because I fried two eggs this morning doesnât mean weâre an egg-frying band.â I decide not to let him get away with a weak analogy and argue that political views and food preferences are completely different. âWell, yeah, but I guess the difference is that I feel that if you believe in something, you should act on that belief, and I donât necessarily expect that youâll share my belief. So thatâs where the difference lies.â So because you donât think people will share your beliefs, you donât put them in your music? âNo, no, no, thatâs not what Iâm saying! Iâm saying Iâm under no illusion that our music will convince someone to share our beliefs and I donât think any music can do that. Thatâs not the function of music.â Weâre clearly on to a subject that Efrim feels passionately about, because he continues in a much more urgent tone: âWe get criticised sometimes for preaching to the converted and that drives me crazy! Because A) weâre not preaching and B) most of the people who come to our shows are not converted. If the question is âare we a political band?â, then the answer is no, we have opinions about the world we live in, and we write songs about the world we live in, and when we shoot our mouths off, itâs about the world we live in. And the world we live in is a mess. The world we live in is broken. Itâs a horrible state of affairs. And if anythings gonna change it, itâs people doing something about it. Thatâs about the depth of our political critique.â Then shouldnât Mt. Zion be urging people to do something about it? âWe do! Over and over and over again, in capital letters. But weâre not urging people to do something specific because we have no idea. I donât know what the specific thing is people should do. We try to leave signposts on our records, nudge people in the right direction, but weâre not hitting people over the head with a hammer. I really believe people have to be a little more thoughtful in life and get informed, thatâs the first thing.â So does that mean theyâre a step away from being directly political, encouraging people to think, rather than telling them what to think about? âAgain, I kind of reject this term âpolitical band,ââ he says, stubbornly. âI donât know, man. Itâs a slippery slope. I mean, other than Billy Bragg, who would you call a political band? I can name you bands that have been politicised around a certain issue, or a certain polarising moment, and one of the terrible things about the era weâre living in is that those moments donât exist anymore. Instead, thereâs just this widespread cynicism. We just lived through eight years of Bush just south of us, and itâs like none of that happened! There was no reflection in musical culture that there were three wars going on simultaneously. So what else can you point people towards other than hey, think about this, have a look, thereâs wars going on! Which is different from saying, hey we need to end apartheid, or we need to stop Hitler. Those are two bad examples, but Iâm trying to think of galvanising moments. Weâre just not at that moment of history right now. Like the first thing you have to do is convince people just to give a shit. And itâs not sexy and itâs not romantic, but itâs a start.â War reporting just seems so commonplace to me, just a fact of life. âPeople ignore them completely! Thereâs no urgency in the way theyâre explained or covered. Name me more than four records that got put out in the last decade that reference the war overtly in any way, shape or form. Throughout the decade there was almost no reflection in popular culture that these wars were even happening. Weâve just entered a new century where it becomes clear that ecosystems around the world are on the verge of collapsing, yet somehow thereâs no urgency. Itâs a terrible situation.â But if you feel so strongly about it, I ask, then why donât you address it directly? âBut we do address it!â he almost shouts. âWe do! We address it in every sing we write, in every moment of stage banter at every show we play. We address it the best that we can. But how exactly are we supposed to address it? I wish I could name you an organisation that I thought was doing really great work on behalf of climate change. I canât! You know? I canât! All I can urge people to do is figure out how do you even begin? Like babysteps, you know.â
At this point, I remember an interview I read a year or so ago, in which Efrim was apparently quoted as saying Godspeed You! Black Emperor broke up because of the Iraq war, and this seems as good a moment as any to mention it.
âI was talking about how on the last US tour Godspeed played, while we were on tour, America invaded Iraq. On that tour, I got frustrated with the way we had no words. We were going out there night after night and bombarding people with this instrumental monologue, and it was all we could do. Like trying to manoeuvre a cruise ship in a small harbour. We couldnât turn that quickly. We couldnât adjust that quickly, and I got tired of doing that. I wanted to be part of something that involved words.â
So does that make Mt. Zion more directly expressive of what Menuck personally feels?
âWell, yeah,â he says. âIt has words.â
Is that true in all music, though? Are lyrics essential to communicate with people?
âNo, I donât think that. For myself, I need words to communicate. Iâm not insisting that everyone feel the same way, but for me, iâm a word man more than a music man.â
I think of Godspeed You! Black Emperorâs instrumental beginnings and find his answer curious as a result, so I ask why his early music had no words if they are so important to him now.
âI donât know.â He thinks for a while. âThat was many many years ago, and it did seem like every prior musical movement had painted itself in to a corner. So when we started playing, we knew we didnât want choruses or verses or a front person. We didnât want any of that, we wanted to tear everything down and build something out of nothing. When Godspeed started, we played shows where it was a single note for ten minutes straight, then that single note turned in to three notes, then four, it grew slowly from there. We felt like we were living in year zero, we were trying to make our own year zero.â
Although I had told myself I wouldnât spend too much time asking about a band that has been on hiatus for around seven years, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask about something that I have wanted to know more about for so many years. The âAll Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Droolingâ cassette tape was the first recording to bear the name âGodspeed You Black Emperor!â in 1994, and only 33 copies of the tape were ever made.
Not a great deal is known about the tape, but I once heard a (probably completely unsubstantiated) rumour that it sounded like Black Flag, so I ask if this is true.
âNo, it doesnât sound like Black Flag!â replies Efrim, seemingly a little surprised at the suggestion. So what does it sound like?
âI donât know man, I havenât listened to it in a long time. Thereâs not much to say about it, it was recorded before there were 9 people in Godspeed, and itâs only really related by name. We made that cassette and out of that came the bigger band. I donât know why it hasnât turned up on the internet yet.â
Iâve been looking. I thought Iâd found it once, and after a maddeningly exciting wait for the thing to download, it turned out to be the bandâs Peel Session hidden in a misleading zip file.
âThatâs funny,â he says, and clearly he hasnât read his own Wikipedia pages. âI keep expecting itâs gonna pop up but it never does.â
I decide to be annoying and push the issue, commenting that it really is something thereâs an interest in.
âItâs tricky. Because it doesnât bear any relation to what Godspeed did, it would be hard to put it out without people feeling ripped off. I wouldnât want someone buying it thinking they were getting a Godspeed record only to find out itâs something completely different.â
Thatâs only going to add to the already existing mythology around the thing, in my eyes.
âI think itâs interesting, but I donât think itâs that great!â he says, laughing. âItâs pretty good, but itâs not great! I think itâs mostly interesting because itâs a product of its time, and that was a weird time for music back then. There was nothing going on. So itâs interesting on that level. But musically, I donât know how much value it has. I mean, thereâs singing on it!â He starts laughing again. âThereâs tons of singing on it! So there you go.â
I suggest that he leaks it himself and gets it over with, but he says he doesnât have a copy. When I tell him I was kind of expecting him to say that, he mentions that he does have the master copy, just not a playable copy. So who knows if it will ever appear again? Releasing things online doesnât seem to be something Efrim holds much store in. Although the band are perfectly fine with people taping their shows â âJust cause it seems a silly thing to stop people from doing,â Efrim explains. âItâs nice that people tape shows, why stop it?â â downloading music seems to be something they are less comfortable with.
âWell. What are you gonna do about it? I donât understand how things are gonna continue the way things are going. It seems clear that people are earning less and less money from the work they do musically, and I donât understand how the new model is going to sustain any kind of culture in the upcoming years. But I understand why people illegally download. Itâs like home taping, so what can you do about it?â
Revenue through touring and merchandise sales seems to be the answer offered by many, although Mt. Zion are far from a heavily merchandised band when compared to some bands with endless t-shirt and hoodie designs.
âWe sell records and tshirts but, I mean, itâs nonsense! This idea that people are gonna replace lost royalties with touring and selling 50 dollar hooded sweatshirts, itâs nonsense, the economics canât sustain it. If you have every band on the road all the time earning a living... people donât wanna go to shows seven days a week. Itâs not gonna replace lost revenue.â
But what about donation based records? Bands such as the UKâs Canterbury and Americaâs Bomb The Music Industry! have shown how a donation based model can work, though it doesnât seem like something Mt. Zion would do themselves.
âI think thatâs a fine idea. For sure, thatâs one way to approach things. I donât know if the Radiohead model will work for everyone, but bands are trying it on a smaller level and it seems to be working out for them. Weâll see how it all goes, itâs strange times. But weâre committed to records as objects, weâre fans of LPs, so as long as there are enough people still buying them, weâll keep doing what we do.â
The physical presentation of the record as an object is a huge part of Mt. Zion, as it was with Godspeed You! Black Emperor too. Kollaps Tradixionales comes with a poster and a book of collages made by Menuck himself, as well as a lyric sheet for only the second time in their ten year, six album and one EP career, with the first appearing in their last album, 2008âs 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons. But why did it take so long for them to include one if the lyrics are such an important aspect of the band?
âCause the record label, Constellation, there are two guys who run the label, Don and Ian,â Efrim explains, â And Don has always had this aversion to lyric sheets, so itâs not like he vetoâd them, but every time the subject came up, heâd strongly say we shouldnât have one. We just overcame his stubbornness and just said this time weâre having one. Weâve talked about doing the poster and book before, but this was the first time we got our shit together and did it. It comes back to really loving LPs with stuff in them. Objects.â
So what will be the next object to come out from Mt. Zion?
âWeâre finally going to record this live record when weâre done with the upcoming tours. It was in the works and then it fell by the wayside but now I think weâll finally do it.â
I remember the live album first being intended for release in 2007, with the supposedly tentative title âFuck You Drakulasâ floating around the internet. But what will appear on it?
âThe idea behind it is just, thereâs so much weâve recorded but changed the arrangements of to play it live. The songs have really changed, so there was the idea to get the newer versions of the songs out. I think what weâre gonna do after the tours is set up in the studio the same way we do when we play live, set up some monitors and a small PA and just record the entirety of our set.â
So there wonât actually be any proper live recordings from Mt. Zion shows?
âThere will be some, we do have recordings from years ago, so that will be part of it. The thing is though, almost all of the live recordings we have are on the internet already. I mean, theyâd sound better than the Internet Archive stuff, but it would still be stuff people can get for free.â
Ah, of course. The bandâs aforementioned open taping policy means that the Internet Archive, Archive.org, contains a large amount of Mt. Zion bootlegs. There are less bootlegs, however, of the bandâs War Radio project, a collaboration with Constellation labelmates Hangedup in 2005. The songs sound amazing, and they were rumoured for a proper studio release, but it never materialised.
âWe never get it together to mix it, we recorded it but i donât know why every time we schedule a mix day everything falls through. Someday weâll get around to mixing it.â
One of the weirdest things about the bootlegs was the spontaneous appearance of Patti Smith on one of them, reading poetry as the band improvised behind her.
âYeah weâve played a few shows with Patti,â says Efrim. âWe have mutual friends, so he got us together. The last show we played with her was a little strange, though, because I guess sheâs friends with [Chili Peppers bassist] Flea as well, so Flea was part of the band, which was a little odd to say the least.â
So thereâs a live album in the pipeline, a collaboration album ready to go whenever thereâs time for it, how about new Mt. Zion songs?
âWeâve got a couple of things,â Efrim says. âTheyâre not really ready yet, but hopefully theyâll be ready by the time we get on the airplane.â
Mt. Zionâs European tour begins on the 16th of March in the UK, and spreads across the continent until the end of April. The dates are available on their website along with the most beautifully written press release imaginable. Truly, they are a band like no other, in everything they do.
Silver Mt. ZionEfrim MenuckInterview