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ZEAL & ARDOR The X-Press Interview


It’s the double bill of the summer and the Perth Festival show we here at X-Press are looking forward to most. The black metal-cum-post rock-cum-shoegaze of Deafheaven teamed with the gospel-death metal-blues of Swiss-American band Zeal & Ardor. Last year the latter released X-Press Editor HARVEY RAE’s album of 2018 with their opus Stranger Fruit, and he speaks to the band’s resident genius and frontman Manuel Gagneux ahead of this showcase of arguably metal’s two most cutting edge acts right now, playing Friday, February 22 at Chevron Gardens.

Congratulations on the release of Stranger Fruit last year. What’s your feelings about the record now given six or seven months to think about it

Oh it’s so distant. I’m happy we did it, but we’ve played like a hundred shows since then, and it’s hard to keep track of time and relevance. I’m content, I guess (laughs). I mean, we’ve been to a lot of places and played a bunch.

My pathway to Zeal and Ardor involved going to the smaller of the Primavera Festivals in Porto, Portugal to see Fever Ray, and came across Zeal & Ardor quite by chance. But you blew us away live with some five singers and guitarists across the front of stage and now Stranger Fruit is my album of 2018 and I can’t wait to see you again in Perth – do you have any memories of that show because I think it coincided just about directly with the release date for the album?

Yeah, it was. I really remember that day well, because I think IDLES played on the other stage? That was a fucking great show. I think they were, I assume, very enthusiastic about their cocaine consumption that day (laughs) but it really made for a good show. That was a lovely festival, because we played Primavera in Spain the day before, and the vibe was a 180. Such a nice, obviously big, but heartfelt festival. How was Fever Ray by the way?

Incredible…

Yeah, Bjork didn’t play in Porto did she? Bjork and Nick Cave headlined the other one. Holy shit. I’ve never seen Bjork live, but holy shit man, that’s just, I nearly wanted to quit music after I saw that. OK, she’s just won. I mean the whole stage design, it’s so brilliant. It was magical. And to answer that question, yeah, it was a good day (laughs). And it just like bled into the audience, it was just music fans. I went and saw Superorganism there and it was just a good, nice festival.

With such an ominous live show, do you find you convert more disciples releasing records or with the show?

It’s hard to estimate how many people clandestinely listen to the record on Spotify, or whatever. But I think live, we certainly make more of an impression. Even if you hate us, it’s hard to not have an opinion of us if you see us live; whereas if you just listen to the music, it’s easier to dismiss. So I guess, the live thing has more of a higher ‘conversion rate’.

It’s quite brazen, really, mixing black metal with gospel and negro spirituals. How do you generally find the reaction to that side of it?

I think both styles have their attraction. There’s not going to be a total understanding of it, but in the stupid marketing-drive sense, you could say that it’s just a broader audience. But in another sense you could say that no one listens to just one musical genre. I don’t know one person who just has one genre of music on their iPod. Even like the hardest metal fans have some sneaky J-pop somewhere hidden away, and I think that’s the way in. People are happy to accept that musicians want to make more than just style of music, and maybe it also fits on one album. And not just speaking of us, generally in the music scene right now, there’s this embracing of this idea that there’s a more holistic way to go about music. I’m excited about it.

I’ve read the origin story about asking people online for two music choices to mash together, but what’s your relationship to the two obvious genres in question in Zeal and Ardor’s music, especially as it relates to some pretty intense lyrics?

I’ve always listened to black metal, since I was 14 years old. My mum, she’s a jazz singer, but I never really liked that music because as a kid you don’t want to listen to the music your parents listen to. Actually, specifically for this project I kind of engulfed myself in it, and it’s such an interesting contrast because both music styles are cathartic, but in different ways – they work really nicely off each other. That’s what intrigued me.

How about the negro spirituals side…

Well, I’m not oblivious to the history of it all. Since black metal kind of rebelled against the Christianity imposed upon them, albeit in a different time, and in a way, the negro spiritual dealt with Christianity imposed upon them in a wholly different way, there is something that coalesces. There was utter acceptance, or even submission to Christianity, with the slave songs, then there was the rebellion of the black metal. I think if you get over the rebellion to the spiritual, that’s kind of where we are right now. You get that weird, anti-theistic/nihilistic, chant material.

It’s kind of that altruistic history-fiction with this, granted weird, weird project. If you think about it, the slaves had Christianity forced upon them, right, and they had the music that they just sung to themselves, and even that music incorporated Jesus. Isn’t that absurd? Wouldn’t the rebellious, or the music that you sung to yourself, be your own belief? And I think it’s an extension of that question … and that sounds pretentious! (laughs). Here we are!

Is it something you can imagine the band expanding on?

Yeah but I think we have to take real time to figure out what we want to expand on, because it would be easy to make Stranger Fruit 2, but it would just be more of the same. I think even our audiences kind of demand of us that we evolve, and that we I guess, reflect and do the next step, and we – as arrogant as I want to be – we don’t know what it is, and we have to figure that out now.

There’s some particularly Satanic sounding language at end of Ship On Fire that I’ve been having trouble picking…

Oh, that’s actually from a spell book. It’s called The Grimoire of Abramelin (The Book of Abramelin). It was this French dude who actually transcribed Aramaic texts that described demons and how to summon them. But it’s not even Aramaic, it’s even older than that. So we simply do not know. I want to say (I found it) in an old Parisian library or gallery, but no, I found it on the internet.

Have you found the reaction to the first record when the idea was fresh to be more successful, or this time around when you’ve fleshed out the ideas more?

I think with the first album, it comes with a story, and I think it’s a very, I guess hype-able? I’m really realistic about that. And hypes are prone, if not bound, to die. I think that’s totally fine. It’s on us to make the best of it now. And I really enjoy that idea of losing the audience that’s just here for a good headline, and actually captivating people who are in for something interesting.

It seems at once obvious and then not, but tell us about the title, Stranger Fruit – why did you decide to go with that as the name for the record?

It’s an expansion on the poem, and later the song of Billie Holiday. Her singing about strange fruit, but she’s actually talking about the lynched people hanging from the poplar trees. And in, specifically in these times in America, it’s an apt time to draw these similarities, or these parallels. Making the music that we make, especially incorporating the elements that we use, and not giving context, would just be dumb.

It takes the first record Devil is Fine and really turns it up to 16 – tracks that is – how else do you see Stranger Fruit as a progression from Devil is Fine?

The first one I just did by myself, and I have to admit that perhaps I’m not the best mixing engineer on the planet. Sonically it’s an improvement. But I think also, thematically, it’s an improvement and I had time to think about what we actually wanted to say, or what, say, altered history novel we want to write. I think we’re far more specific on the second one. Because Devil is Fine, I just had a collection of songs I had ready at the time, and I put them on Bandcamp, and it bizarrely got attention. The second one was, ok now I have this attention, what do I actually want to do with it.

An obvious question perhaps, but what inspired the name Zeal and Ardor?

It’s two English words – the thing is they both have a heavy connotation to Christianity. Because you can actually find these words a lot in sermons and in the bible, and to me would be very, very funny if someone Christian would see these words in the bible, or in a sermon, and they would just Google them, and then they would see my shitty band and they would have to listen to it (laughs). It’s as infantile as that.

Perhaps they’ll have to listen to more satanic gospel black metal and you’ll convert more people…

I highly doubt it! (laughs) But, nonetheless…

Finally, for newcomers in Perth, what can they expect from the live show? I was fascinated by the fact that you bring two backing vocalists with you everywhere while playing this extreme style of music… so many people on stage must limit your touring some…

I think our music is vocal heavy. Honestly the band, they’re just my friends. Its not like hired guns.  Its friends from my hometown who happen to be really good musicians, and I don’t think the music would work differently. I’ll be the first to admit we’re kind of awkward on stage, like between songs, but when we’re actually playing something, we just lose ourselves into it, and as far as I can tell, it’s kind of infectious.

Are you a Deafheaven fan?

Yeah, very much. And I’m so happy that they got nominated for a fucking Grammy. Dude. They did! They’re fucking Grammy nominated artists. So you gotta pay your respects, kid!

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