Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Interview
“There is only so much that the human heart can bear.”

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra have changed a lot in the past two years. Losing three longtime members (and gaining one), as well as dropping the “Tra-La-La Band” from their name, the Montreal band is now a five-piece. Late last year, they lost a close friend in collaborator Vic Chesnutt. And to top it all off, the band welcomed a quasi-member of sorts in the form of a child born last year between two of its members.

Yet it cannot be said that these changes have made them any weaker. In fact, with the release of Kollaps Tradixionales, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra have all but officially ascended from their previously-labeled “side-project” status, outlasting the very band it was a side-project to. We recently chatted with front man Efrim Menuch on this development, the new record, as well as matters like punk aesthetics, addressing critics and fans, parenting, and how to write a lazy Silver Mt. Zion article.

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First, let me just clarify the name. It is Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, correct?

Yes it is.

How is this different from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band, which you have been using for five years prior? Is it the lineup?

Yeah, we change the band name every time there is a lineup change of significance. We were Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band for quite a while. A year and a half ago, our second guitarist and cellist left the band, and our drummer left the band. We got a new drummer, but we decided to stick as a 5-piece, so we changed the name out of respect for the changes made.

Let us talk a bit about Kollaps Tradixionales. What was different for you going into this than with 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons?

Every single song on 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons were songs that we performed live for quite a while, so we knew them backwards and forwards. Our only aim with that record was to approximate the way we sounded live, because we mostly still see ourselves as a live band more than a studio band. But on the most recent record, half the record we were still writing literally as we went into the studio. It’s a looser record in some ways for us than what we’ve done in the past.

The vocals in general are very prominent in this album, especially in comparison to the likes of, say, Born into Trouble as Sparks Fly Upward. Has that been a sort of natural evolution with you, or was there something pushing the band as a whole to sing?

A little bit of both. It was a gradual evolution, and then somewhere around 7 or 8 years ago, when we started touring, we made a conscious decision to make ourselves into a loud rock band. The aim was to be able to play in any bar or any corner of the world, and at least we’re annoying a couple of people in the room. That’s when we started setting up our amps in a semi-circle and started facing each other and doing a lot of group singing. That aspect was a conscious tactic. But until that point, the evolution — in terms of there being there being more singing and more words — was very gradual and natural. It feels good to use words, especially coming out of a band that had no words to it at all. There definitely are moments in life that call for words.

“If we really wanted to, we could spend our entire days being endlessly distracted to death. But somehow, I believe that people truly know that it’s not a sustainable way of living.”

You have said, in counteraction to claims that your band is post-rock, that you try to follow a punk ethos and aesthetic. Does that play into this album’s development?

Yeah. We see everything we do as punk rock first and foremost. For sure, we are using that term broadly, but I think a term like that works best when used broadly. This record, like all the other records, is just punk rock to us. That’s how we engage with each other musically, and how we engage with the world musically.

You run your own studio, Hotel2Tango, and engineer your records with minimal, if any interference. How does that affect the mindset you have with developing an album, especially on a compositional level?

The obvious answer is that we have the luxury of owning our own studio. It’s not true that we engineer the records ourselves. The studio has four engineers, and two of the engineers are me and Thierry [Amar, bassist]. But we don’t engineer our own records, because I think our heads would explode if we tried to play and engineer at the same time. So it is Howard Bilerman and Radwan Moumeh who have engineered our records.

But yeah, because it is our own studio and we know it well, we’re in a luxurious position. We’re comfortable, because it’s our studio. To be honest, Godspeed’s worked in outside studios with outside engineers, and it doesn’t feel all that different than what we have now. It’s just more comfortable.

On that related note, did you use the analog setup in recording? And I’m curious as to what you used in mic-ing the amps and strings.

We record everything in analog. The studio is primarily an analog studio. But because we have more and more people coming in who want to do stuff in ProTools and then head home and mix it themselves, we’re finding ourselves having to do more and more ProTools sessions, which we hate. All of the Silver Mt. Zion records have been recorded to analog tape, through an old Neotek Series II console, and most of our outboard gear is old. We record to a Studer 2-inch 24-track tape machine. There are a couple of tape splices on the record, but other than that there’s no digital crossfades or anything like that. In terms of mics, I can’t recall off the top of my head what Howard and Radwan used to mic the amps, though I do know that the cabinets were double-mic’d. But I think a lot of the sound quality, especially on the strings front, is that both Jessica [Moss] and Sophie [Trudeau], the two fiddle players, are geniuses with amplified violin. They are just really gifted musicians. The fiddle sound gets better in my ears with every record. I like that, at points, what you might take as a guitar is in fact one of the fiddles.

Wow, that’s cool.

Yeah, it’s great.

Vic Chestnutt, a close associate of yours, passed away at Christmas. How are you guys holding up with that event?

It hasn’t been easy. It’s still not easy. I don’t have much to say about it. It’s incredibly sad. It’s going to take us a long time to get over it.

Going through the reviews of your new album, a majority of them mention your previous project, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and often comparisons are made between the two. Does it bother you that, seven years on, people and press still go back to that?

No, it doesn’t really bother me. It bothers me when that’s the focus of the review. Lazy writing bothers me. I try not to read reviews anymore. But when I do read reviews, generally the stuff you see over and over again is like, “The Silver Mt. Zion blah-blah-blah or whatever they are calling themselves these days,” and then there’s something about Godspeed, and then often they’ll make reference that we’re a post-rock band and post-rock is so dead, “why are they still post-rocking?”

The internet is an echo chamber. Not just with us, but with a lot of other bands, when you read reviews, you’re reading the same factoids over and over and over again. That gets under my skin, not just with our band, but in regards to the state of criticism on the internet in general. It can be a bummer. But still, the Godspeed stuff is fair. Godspeed was a big deal to a lot of people. There are three people in the Mt. Zion band who were in Godspeed. It’s valid to make reference to it. It’s less valid to compare it, and it’s even less valid to write it off. It’s gotten better, but for years, it was like we were a side-project somehow, when in fact now we’ve made more records than Godspeed did and have been on the road longer than Godspeed was. It’s not something I lose sleep over, though, so it’s okay.

A message on your tour posters states, “Fight the good fight, and love something true.” What makes this statement important to you now?

Oooh, that’s a big question. I get alarmed by the fact that, here we are in 2010, the economy’s just collapsed, climate change is a real thing, a bunch of us are living in nations that are fighting multiple wars at the same time, water’s running out in big chunks of the world, the gap between rich and poor is growing, the physical world is degrading, a bunch of us are living big chunks of our day living virtual existences. In a lot of ways, music has, for the last few years, been functioning as if none of this is happening. And when it does get referenced…

Wait, let me rewind a bit. It just seems like we’re in a period of profound disengagement. As musicians, we just want to encourage people who come to our shows, and who either download our records for free or buy our records, to engage with the world and pick a side. We get ripped on a lot for being a political band or saying things too simplistically or being lecturesome [sic]. We’re not actually that lecturesome, and some things are simple. For us, they’re simple. Whether it’s in your day-to-day life or whether you’re actually going to engage in some form of activism, you have to manifest some sort of change. We all do. We all have to start picking whose side we’re on. The lines are drawn. It doesn’t matter how much you stick your head in the sand. There are some dark days coming.

We encourage people to fight the good fight, and to love your friends, love your family, love yourself, love something. It’s not so complicated. Does that make sense?

In general context, when you put it that way, it does make sense.

But are you saying in specific instances it does not, it makes less sense? I’m just curious.

To me, it’s a very interesting point to be making now, especially because a lot of people are just being, like you said, disengaged and disenchanted with the situation. In my case, I have been shying away from political blogs and stuff like that recently. I still read the news everyday, but I’m not being proactive as I was. It’s partly due to Lent, but partly due to refocus my mind on things to make myself better. I’ll admit, I am writing and recording this interview on a voluntary basis, and I don’t have a job. The phrase you put in mind is definitely something that varies from person to person. For me, it can be something meaningful, but for someone who is more disenchanted with the situation, it might come across as a little hollow.

Yeah, and it is a sentence on a tour poster. Obviously, you have to shorthand stuff in the things that you do. We’re not writing essays here. Sometimes a lot of what we’re doing is like this: I have some pretty fucked up friends, and so if I’m at a bar with a friend who I know is full of shit in that moment or is feeling sorry for himself, or he’s got himself into the same old mess he always gets himself into, then I’ll say to him something like, “Come on dude, it’s not that bad, and you’re just full of shit.” Of course the situation is more complicated than that, but in that moment, all you’re trying to say is, it’s going to be okay somehow.

A lot of what we do is like that. It’s not something like, “Come on dude, let’s hit the streets and tear this motherfucker down!” It is disillusionment and disenchantment and disengagement. I feel all those things too. I stick my head in the sand just as much as the next guy. There is only so much that the human heart can bear. There is only so much powerlessness that you can meditate on before you implode. I understand all that. But part of what we’re trying to do as a band is make statements that contradict all those day-to-day miseries. That’s what we do, and that’s a pretty good thing for music try to do. That’s something that music is good at: That kind of shorthand, that kind of vague sketching. I think that’s a valid thing to do in life. That’s why we do it, that’s why we’re drawn to it and make the records that we do. That’s how I feel about it, at least. Does that make sense?

“For example, the type of music we make primarily uses large breaststrokes, and then we go and do a little scribbling and scratching and little tiny pencil marks between those broad breaststrokes. But we swing a big hammer.”

Yeah it does. I mean, I’m just reminded of a poster I once saw back a few years ago. It was an old poster…I used to live outside Providence, Rhode Island, and there used to be Fort Thunder and its scene in the Olneyville neighborhood. The poster was for one of the last shows they did before they closed down. It had a lot of messages on there. Now, this was the very end of the Fort Thunder-era, and they were pushing everyone out, the building was to be torn down, and they were hinting at it on this poster. But they were trying to make sure that, “You know what? It’s still going to be fine, even without the building, even without the scene.” They were just trying to get that message out. And this was a time when blogs were still at their infancy. There wasn’t really someone out there who was preaching about this scene. That was all there was to it. I guess what I’m trying to say is how a simple message like that on a poster can be important.

In a lot of ways, it’s just like fuel. You’re just trying to give people fuel. If it sustains people for a couple of minutes, that’s fine too. That’s what music’s been for me all my life. More importantly, I don’t know what else we would do or how else we would go about do what we are doing. We try as much as possible to foreground the story of our band: The fact that it’s really five messed-up people like everyone else, doing their best to get through in this world without fucking people over. And we’re all prone to manic fits, fits of depression, periods of self-involvement, sometimes we drink too much… But we get together in our jam space and try to summon the best parts of us. So a lot of what we’re saying over and over again, and I know I’m repeating myself here, is that “Everything’s going to be okay.”

But you should look stuff in the face. You shouldn’t be living a life of total denial, because then you just sort of ricochet between different poles of self-denial. The emotional and logistical backflips that you have to do to convince yourself and others that things are good right now, that this is a golden age, it just means you fuck yourself up. Things are bad; we all know this! But you have to stare that reality in its face AND still manage to live your life. The alternative is fucking exhausting, sticking your fingers in your ears and going “LALALALA.”

I don’t know, it’s a start. We’re under no conception that what we’re doing is profound. We have some fans who will lay stuff like that on us, and we’re like, “No man, there’s nothing profound with what we’re doing.” We’re incredibly humble when we look at what we do. We don’t go, “Whoa, this is groundbreaking, super-important messages that we’re delivering.” No, we’re just doing the best we can. We believe in what we do, but…I don’t know. I’m starting to go off the rails a bit there, and I’m not sure I’m making a lot of sense.

I guess it works. What you’re saying makes sense, and there are a lot of people like that, and it is exhausting to be utterly ignorant. Though with that sort of thing, it’s a mindset. It’s not that people are thinking “the wrong way,” it’s just a complete different way of thinking. To give a specific example, there’s Sarah Palin, who we swear is completely detached from reality, but she still keeps going and it doesn’t look like it affects her. I guess to have that, you have to have your own mindset to that.

I’m not sure I’m following you. But, in the case of Sarah Palin, she has got to be a miserable person. Look at her actions: You can’t lie that much and not be miserable. She is obviously a deeply driven confabulator, and there’s no way she can be a happy person. You reap what you sow. I’m not sure I got your overall point there, though.

I think the reason why it doesn’t seem that exhausting to be utterly ignorant is because they’re born and raised with that state of mind, that intellectual thought process. As a result, you can’t win in a fight against them because they are already thinking differently, and you can’t get them to go around because they are already set.

That’s super general. I’m not sure who the “they” are there. I see a “we”; I see us all born into this situation. And we’re all surrounded by endless distractions: Our phones have 12 games on them, and our iPods are computers. If we really wanted to, we could spend our entire days being endlessly distracted to death. But somehow I believe that people truly know that it’s not a sustainable way of living. It’s not good for the heart, it’s not good for the head, and as we know by now, it’s not good for the planet. I believe that we all know this. I’m not naïve; I have a pragmatic view about the world. But I know that each and every one of us, except for the people who are getting filthy fucking rich from the state of affairs, and I’m talking about the rest of us in the First World that are getting by, I’m not even talking about the majority of the world that are not getting by. That’s another subject matter entirely: There are not people in Nairobi buying Silver Mt. Zion records, and we know this. So who are we speaking to? We’re basically speaking to First World kids.

We’re part of that too. We’re in the same soup. We’re struggling with the same stuff. So I don’t believe that it’s impossible for us to get across to people. I don’t think Sarah Palin would pick up Silver Mt. Zion record and see the light, but I don’t know what record would. She’s just completely focused on meeting Jesus in the Rapture, and along the way making as much money as possible, living a hypercompetitve life, and destroy as much that gets in her way as she can. I don’t have much to say to that personality type.

The rest of it, though, is that along with what we’re saying over and over again, “Everything’s going to be okay,” we’re also saying “You know what? The weather’s lovely today, you should go out for a walk and look at some stuff. Get your head off the computer; video games are kind of a waste.” It’s so boring what we have to say [laughs], but we say it anyway. Even though we make statements as a band sometimes that are confrontational, and there is part of what we do is confrontational, most of what we say is stuff that we say to each other or friends. It’s this writ large, because that’s the medium we work in.

For example, the type of music we make primarily uses large breaststrokes, and then we go and do a little scribbling and scratching and little tiny pencil marks between those broad breaststrokes. But we swing a big hammer, and we try to use it the best way we can. I’m not saying there’s subtlety in our music, but in terms of messages and what we’re trying to communicate, again we communicate in shorthand. That’s the thing we love about music, and why we do what we do. You know what I mean?

” There definitely are moments in life that call for words.”

As a matter of fact, I do know what you mean. [laughs]

We’ve not been good at addressing some of the criticisms that are leveled against our band, and we turn a lot of people off before we even open our mouths. We carry a lot of baggage around that’s not our own, that have to do with what people’s conceptions of politics are and the very idea that, yeah, I know life is shit, I don’t want to hear that right now. We haven’t done a good job at saying, “Oh, no, that’s not what we’re trying to communicate, we’re trying to communicate the opposite of that!” [laughs] But the starting point is “life is shit, the world is mess, BUT.” There’s always this huge BUT. Our songs are retarded in that way. A lot of times, they’re as if they were written by a sixth-grader. The thesis is so simple. It starts off with “this is the mess,” there is this big BUT, and then it goes off on a variation of “it’s going to be okay.” There’s nothing too doom and gloom about that; there’s nothing too “join the revolution, comrades” about that.

I believe if people get more engaged with the world around them, and do stuff and go outside for a walk or stare at a tree for a bit, that naturally out of that comes decisions that just might change the world. But the starting point has to be, “Get off the fucking computer, read a book, spend some time meditating on the physical world. Look at what’s happening in your neighborhood, your block, your cities, start there. Look at what’s happening to your friends, are they okay? Are they really okay? Are YOU okay?” That’s got to be the starting point because before that happens; we’re all stumbling in the dark, wondering why we’re so fucked up, wondering why we’re engaged at petty sniping at each other all the time. Why do we feel so alone, so afraid? Why do I feel so goddamn tired every day? Why do I spend half my time bitching about my friends? Why do my friends spend half their time bitching about me? That’s the state of affairs most of us live in. We’re like hamsters gnawing each others’ legs off in a too-small cage. So, all we’re trying to do is say “Well, let’s start stressing that!”

I would love to be living at a time in history where we could actually be like, “Yeah, to the barricades, brother!” But we’re not living in that time of history. We’re not fools. At the same time, we have a song from one of our early records that says “To the Barricades Again,” but that was a time where there were huge amounts of people getting out on the streets and storming barricades. That brief moment in recent history is long gone.

There’s definitely the loss of that. The closest moment we had to that in recent years is the Green Movement in Iran, and that’s faded a bit. You get a sense that there’s very little you can do now that is that traumatic in effect. So, it’s now going from that to living on a day-to-day basis. Daily survival. It’s generalizing everything you just said, but that’s the best I can think of at this moment.

I agree. At the same time, the history of the world turns. Now I’m not trying to be a doom-monger here, but all evidence suggests that there is some pretty heavy shit just around the corner. But I know that all the people that are in those situations can do amazing things. Human beings are capable of endless goodness. It’s precisely those moments of crisis where the very best of human qualities manifest themselves. So, we’ll see.

As depressed about the state of the world I am, I’m also endlessly optimistic. Yet I’m endlessly frustrated with it, I’m tired of the current state of affairs. I’ve been tired since I was 12 years old. It just feels like, most of us spend our entire lives waiting for the other shoe to drop; there’s a cataclysm just around the corner, and I don’t think those are just media constructions. Often they are, but there’s this sense of foreboding and imminent menace that we feel now. Part of it is in our DNA: We have to keep our eyes open, keep the lizard part of our brain alert for incoming predators. But part of it is the arc of history that has been is leading us toward a doomsday scenario. Ever since I was 18, I have been in this headspace of “Bring it on NOW, since I’m tired of waiting.” It’s a life of intermission. And that blows.

You recently had a child with Jessica Moss. How has that affected the band’s dynamic, as well as your overall outlook of being in a band, or even generally?

It’s changed the playing field, even on a boring day-to-day level. We’re leaving on tour in a little over a week, and doing a six-week European tour. This will be the first tour we’ve ever done in a tour bus. We hate tour buses, but we have to ride on a tour bus because we can’t do a nine-hour drive with our son buckled into a car seat. It’s changed things on that level.

In terms of band dynamics, if anything, just having a sweet, innocent, 7-month-old baby boy in the mix has cheered everyone up a little bit. It’s a nice reminder of the fact there’s a whole world outside the mess we make together.

In terms of personal outlook, right after my son was born, I went through a very dark period in my life for a few months. Even though I was ecstatically happy and full of love, staring at my son feeling awed by the whole thing, I was also spending hours just completely petrified about the state of the world. “What have Jessica and I done? We have brought a child into a terrible state of affairs. What does this mean?” I reacted to this situation by trying to read as much as possible, make a list in my head of the things in the world that I was scared of and didn’t know enough about and make myself a reading list. Then I immersed myself in a whole myriad of worst-case scenarios and just acclimatized myself to it. It certainly helped. But the first few months were incredibly heavy.

I think it’s weird with dads, too. I really think there’s this primal thing of when your son is born, some switch goes off in your head, and your primary mandate is to protect this child. Finding an outlet for that when we don’t live in caves anymore and mountain lions aren’t going to come and take my baby away is hard, and that part of your brain starts to feed on itself. It’s a type of neurosis in my life that I’ve never had before. It’s definitely a neurosis though [laughs], and I think it all had to with this switch going off saying “PROTECT THE BABY” when there’s not a whole lot of protecting you need to do when you live in a city.

So, what do you do? That whole thing becomes super abstract, and you start to get a little freaked out about stuff like the state of the world, which you can’t do a whole lot about on a day-to-day level. I mean, I can’t protect my son from climate change. What I can do and took me a while to figure out is commit myself to making sure that my son, unlike me, gets raised with some basic knowledge of how to grow food, build a shelter. They’re skills I wish I had, and maybe I can learn them with my son so that he can feel a little less afraid than his miserable old man does.

[Photo: andynew]