Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band - a new CD, an old interview
That’s all I have to say about the band at the moment; I’m told they should be touring this way in late spring or summer. Reprinted, below - because I don’t think it ever got published in full - is my interview with Efrim Menuck, guitarist and lead singer, from 2006, recorded around the same week that I talked to Carla.
Funny: for some dumb reason, I was convinced Gerry Hannah would dig these guys, and when I got my tax refund last year, I sent him some Silver Mt. Zion stuff (mostly because it amused me to do so). I don’t think it stuck with him, though. I mean, he listens to Stereolab...
I’m surprised to hear you guys singing now - when I saw Godspeed in Tokyo, you seemed to be a very self-conscious person; it’s good to be hearing your voice.
I mean, self-conscious would be, I mean, yeah… It feels good singing because there’s words involved, and it feels good to be able to use words to try to express stuff after playing in a band for so many years that didn’t use any words. In some ways it’s a great feeling, y’know?
Do you use images during your live performances with Silver Mt. Zion, as you did with Godspeed You! Black Emperor...?
No, we don’t. It’s just us on the stage with Silver Mt Zion, there’s no sort of film projections or anything like that.
The ticket prices seem low given that there are two full bands on the lineup. Is that an attempt to make show accessible for people with less income?
Well, I mean, for sure, we sort of charge the smallest amount of money that we’re able to charge and not lose money on tour. There are a lot of people involved, except the onus is on us for that. We’re the ones that decided to be in a band that has this many members in it, so I mean, we keep the ticket prices as low as we can. Most of us in the band got raised with very little money and we’re not comfortable fleecing people, at the end of the day, I guess. It doesn’t seem like such a profound statement. We mostly just try to I guess act responsibly in that way, we try to keep things as cheap as we can.
Yeah, but frankly, I’d be willing to pay more, to feel like I was supporting the band – I feel like I’m fleecing you.
I mean, that’s genuinely kind of you and that’s genuinely a rare attitude in this world and I don’t expect that to be a prevalent attitude and I… there’s no reason why people should be feeling that way. We earn an honest living, I cannot complain. I thank, you know, my miserable luck every day that I earn a living playing music, you know? In Mt. Zion, at least, we feel very fortunate for the fact that we’re able to earn a living. We’re lucky that way. It is hard to earn a living as a musician. We’re fortunate enough that we do, that it allows us to be able to make decisions like, ‘let’s keep the ticket prices as low as possible, so that we don’t lose money touring,’ y'know?
Do you all have straight jobs, side jobs?
For the most part we all make a living off Mt. Zion and other bands that we’ve been in or are currently in. Me and Thierry, who’s the bass player in Mt. Zion, also operate a recording studio here in Montreal?
Yeah, exactly – which is not a money-making venture but does earn us, like, a small income when we engineer people’s records. Becky who plays cello is in school… I mean, we all do sorta different things, but yeah, we all earn our living playing in Mt. Zion. I guess the only person who doesn’t is Scott, whose the newest member of the band and has only played on the last record with us.
Was there a point when you were all doing straight jobs?
Yeah, absolutely, the first many many years with Godspeed You! Black Emperor being a band with records out and touring, we were all working a variety of jobs and, and doing what we could to make ends meet. I remember between maybe the second and third Godspeed tour I got cut off welfare because I was out of country, yeah? And so I came back and made an appointment with my welfare worker, and assured her even though I was in this band and hopefully, y’know, someday we would earn some sort of living, right now the band wasn’t earning enough money for me to pay my rent, and she actually made me sign this declaration and get it signed by a justice of the peace, saying that my name was Efrim Menuck and I play in a musical group called Godspeed You! Black Emperor and that as far as I can tell I will never ever ever earn a living playing music.
So, y’know, I mean, it took awhile. We’re lucky. I dunno, I have sort of a skewed perspective on the whole thing. I will say for sure that most musicians – the bulk of musicians out there pleading poverty or talking about the difficult life of the artist – the bulk of musicians, especially in this thing that popularly gets called Indy Rock or whatever, are mostly either whining or lying or just have a real, sort of, luxurious understanding of what it is to earn a living in this world. Ever since CDs came out, the economics of record sales are completely, completely abhorrent. A CD costs almost nothing to manufacture but sells for what, you know? It’s all a big racket. Yeah.
I’ve been under the impression that you’re not comfortable with selling CDs through corporate chain stores.
Yeah. I should rephrase that. We do everything we can to encourage people to support smaller record stores, and that’s not a big political thing. We just really like small local record stores and see them drying up all over the place.
And of course, at HMV, Horses in the Sky costs $20, and at Scratch it costs $13.
Yeah, of course.
When I talked to Carla, she talked about how she got really good publicity from a photo of her with a butcher knife that ran in Spin. She said that for a lot of people - especially before the internet - there just weren’t that many ways to find out about bands.
Absolutely, I mean, there’s all sorts of different ways to engage in this world and anyone who makes any sort of imperial argument is being disingenuous about a million things in this world. I know, for us… I don’t like talking about myself so much but for me personally, given what happened with Godspeed and with what’s been the history of Mt Zion, I have reason to be distrustful of the entire industry that exists around the promotion of music, typically in North America, also in Europe... It breaks my heart a little how degraded the idea of y’know, rock journalism is in the year 2006. It broke my heart in the year 1998, it broke my heart in the year 1987, it breaks my heart even more today.
It’s all advertising…
And it always has been, and… whoo. It’s like 33 degrees here and my brain is like maple syrup right now, so I’m not feeling super articulate, but absolutely... There’s validity (in what Carla said). Our record label doesn’t send records to Spin because Spin Magazine generally doesn’t review our records. A more complicated issue is that our record label doesn’t send records to Pitchfork media for an entirely different set of reasons which have to do with, uh… I don’t know. Let’s keep talking about this, but you ask me questions…
Well, in a way, this article too is advertising. I’m advertising you… There are things I like about the marketplace. I mean, I love buying CDs and music, finding cool stuff.
Yeah, I hear you, I mean, uh… (sighs) I mean, there are couple of things to say. The first thing I have to say is that Mt Zion in what we do and in the way we do it, the words we choose to sing, the way we peddle songs, the way present the music, the ethic of the record label we’re on, all those things can’t be simplified as, we absolutely disdain the marketplace. I… We are not comfortable issuing huge pronouncements like that. I mean, I’ve bought records at HMV, y’know? None of us are presenting ourselves as ascetic monks who somehow spend every second of our day fighting the man and not engaging, at all in the marketplace or anything like that. The fact is the world is a bleak place, we find it – (sighs) -- the one thing we all have in common is that the world seems to be in a steaming pile of shit and that the forces that overlap that create this thing that we’re sort of lazily right now calling the marketplace and all the rest of it are part of the problem, so as responsible, grown up, thoughtful human beings we do what we can to limit our engagement with market forces, for lack of a better term (it sounds like Dr. Death or something!) -- with market forces that we feel are contributing to a global state of affairs that we find to be horrendous. And that’s basically, like, humanism, it’s not anything deeper than that, and through Godspeed and with Mt. Zion, it’s been frustrating because we don’t fancy ourselves and we’ve never sort of described ourselves or presented ourselves as some sort of radical force or something. Mostly we’ve presented ourselves as clumsy, drunken Canadians, most of whom have like, university degrees, grew up fuckin’ lovin’ punk rock, who, when we reached a point when we decided we were gonna start playing music together, had a sort of ideal. We started to do that and we continue to do it now, just some ideals that we stagger towards kind of blindly, and we feel common cause with other people who shares those ideals. I mean, we’re just a fuckin’ band, you know, we’re not a… but we take the fact of being in a band quite seriously, and I’m endlessly discouraged at how generally what people take seriously is their own careers. There’s no consideration of anything other than that, and further than that, I mean, if you want to site a really easy example, you know, I wake up in the morning and turn on CBC radio, yeah? And I have to hear Gian fucking Gomeshi, right, gushing about what he’s terming as the newest independent genius thing, right, and then he plays some band that’s just released a record on either a major label or a so called independent label that’s owned by a major label. Now, I don’t think it’s like, splitting hairs to sort of wonder what the hell the word independent mean in thats context. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request that other sort of intelligent or semi-intelligent grown up human beings think twice before they describe something lazily, y’know. Does that sound ridiculous?
No, not at all. Let me ask briefly about other aspects of your beliefs. I was reading a Wikipedia article that said you practice Judaism...
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve read that Wikipedia entry. If you tell me what the Jewish faith is, I’ll tell you whether I practice it. I don’t go to synagogue, I don’t believe that there’s a God in heaven, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, you know, I mean, so, no.
Would you say that there’s a spiritual aspect of A Silver Mt. Zion’s music, though - especially through a connection with roots music or early gospel, say, from the 20’s and 30s, pre-record industry days?
I mean, not gospel as it relates to God, but for sure, we listen to stuff like that, and we listen to tons of stuff in that spirit and we have conversations amongst ourselves about, you know, those sorts of ideas. I mean, even tho’ it’s mostly an impossibility, especially in the type of venues you’re relegated to playing, it comes down to the idea of performance as like a purely social and transcendent event, yeah? Which sounds huge and pompous and ridiculous, I know, but it’s this fancy word for a really simple idea, which is just a bunch of people in a room sort of working together, the band on the stage and the people in the audience, and now I feel like I’m talking like Bryan Adams and doing it for the kids and all the rest, but it’s not that… it’s like, it’s something I feel like we’ve all felt being at shows before. It’s rare that shows feel that way but when you do you know you’re in one, y’know, and you remember it… It’s ideas like that that interest us.
What was the evolution of the choral thing?
Um. When we did… we did a tour, I can’t remember how many years now, but after the first Mt Zion record came out we did a European tour where we tried to present that record live, so we ended up playing quietly, with a digital piano, and it was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I didn’t understand it at all. By the third show I realized that every time I go to shows like this, I hate shows like this, and, y’ know, why the fuck are we doing this? So then two years later while we thinking of touring again, the only thing we could agree on was that the music should be louder and that we should aspire to be able to win any audience in any bar anywhere; that we would come together and come up with a set that would win over, like, drunks and cynics and sceptics alike. So when we were gearing up and sort of reworking all the arrangements of all the songs to sort of fit that idea, we booked a week of practice shows in Ontario: let’s go see how all this plays out, yeah? When we were gearing up for those shows we wrote one song in particular, and, just trying it out in the jam space, we tried the idea of all of us singing together, and sort of like amongst ourselves we were like, well, holy fuck, that’s great! If that doesn’t melt your heart even a little, then fuck you, you know? So it all sort of came out of that feeling at first, because we scared shitless of this venture we were engaging in, that maybe if we just put our hearts right on our sleeves and just embrace our ridiculous awkward lack of slickness, then there’s value in that. It also just feels real good singing with a bunch of your friends! It’s just a good fucking feeling, it fulfills basic human needs. We enjoy singing together. I guess it all just comes down to that.
It sounds great. So how would you chart the change, from Godspeed to A Silver Mt. Zion? Is A Silver Mt. Zion still a side-project, with the intent of returning to Godspeed You! Black Emperor at some point, or...?
I mean, I enjoy Silver Mt. Zion, and I love what we do together and it’s not a small thing for me that… I mean, the last, the second last Godspeed tour was in America in the lead up to Operation Shock and Awe, yeah? The war started when we rolled into Minneapolis, and in the lead up to that war, and just talking to people... I mean, Godspeed mostly hardly ever spoke from the stage… We were sort of…
Withdrawn. A bit shy, separated.
Yeah, for sure, I mean, that was our approach, and so, I mean, on that last American tour, it was sort of like, “Okay, how the fuck are we keeping our mouths shut now? How are we not saying anything, how are we not engaging with the audiences, what the hell does it mean if we’re just presenting this huge sort of massive instrumental sort of onslaught?” And so we started talking from the stage, and for me it didn’t feel like enough, it sort of felt like for the most part people in the audience felt like this was some sort of unwanted intrusion, that what they just wanted that big sort of massive wall of sound to hit them and go home content. Which is fair and valid, but I mean… uggh, I feel like I could be speaking more articulately about this… I mean, when Godspeed started playing together, you gotta keep in mind that Clinton was president and fuckin’ Chrétien was prime minister, you know what I mean? The economy, the fuckin’dotcom revolution was gonna save us all, the Berlin Wall had come down, and the lives we were living were not optimistic and hopeful and the lives our friends were not optimistic and hopeful and it didn’t seem like the edge of a brave new century or anything like that. So a lot of what Godspeed was engaged in at the start was like, really, projections of what everyone knew what was going on anyways but wasn’t being talked about. But those things are talked about now. I don’t see what need there is to sort of project, I hate the word apocalyptic, you know, but to project, you know, the… It’s not necessary. You need pretty thick blinders on right now to not be able to...
Not see how screwed up everything is.
That’s simplifying it, y’know? The violence of our society that was like, really pretty buried isn’t buried anymore. It’s on the surface always now. So, I dunno, it just comes down to feeling that now’s the time where you need words, you need ideas, you need talking, you need at least something like that to communicate anything.
Is there more a concern with trying to engage people emotionally and personally, rather than through political argument?
Yeah, maybe. I mean, I know the other big shift that’s happened since Mt. Zion started, even, is the fact that like what was once was a pretty large activist community, specifically around sort of issues of globalism and free trade and all that stuff, since the sky fell in on Sept. 11, has sort of gone into a period of retreat. The most we ever sloganeered had to do with those causes, and we didn’t sloganeer so loud. So, yeah, I dunno – the word political is a loaded one. I don’t feel like we’re shying away from any sort of politics, I think we’re just, uh, I don’t know - if we had to make a banner and hoist it over our head, and put a slogan on it, I don’t know what that slogan would be.
So is there any intent to get Godspeed going again in the future, or is A Silver Mt. Zion the main focus now?
No, there’s no plan. I’m sure that Godspeed will play again. And it’s not just Mt. Zion; everyone in Godspeed is engaged in other things right now.
I liked the production on the Carla Bozulich album. That seems like a really fruitful collaboration.
Yeah, I mean, it was great, I felt – it was a complicated and difficult but really good process and I feel touched and honoured to have been a part of it.
If I can ask, I’m kind of curious about your film intake. I’m a bit of a movie buff.
It’s hard for me, because I went to film school and since then I haven’t been so engaged in that sort of stuff. I mean, I don’t own a DVD player or anything like that. Documentaries, years ago, were the things that excited me the most
Any particular filmmakers?
I mean, that was a lot of years ago. DeAntonio, yeah?
I don’t know DeAntonio (Allan’s note: I do now!).
The last movie I saw that I keep trying to get everyone to watch, and it’s a total b-movie but I really believe it’s awesome, is Silent Running. I love that movie to death and I don’t care what anybody says.
(Chuckles). Yeah, the, uh, cute little robots put me off a bit.
I love the cute little robots. That’s exactly why I love that movie. Those are the saddest cute little robots in the world.
Have you seen Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park yet?
No, never had the opportunity to see that movie. I’m super curious, I mean, my friend Gem (sp?) is one person who’s crazy about that movie. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.
Okay. One last thing - there are references in your lyrics and album art to Phil Ochs, to Nina Simone – people destroyed or damaged by the music industry.
Absolutely. It comes again to the idea that we’re musicians by trade, yeah? I can’t think of any happy endings in music. In the personal lives of people who are engaged in this thing of making music, there are no happy endings. There are plenty of like cautionary tales, tragically short lives, it’s just…It’s a train wreck. The history of like, modern popular music is a train wreck. It’s got all these sort of like utopian ideas bubbling everywhere, like a song can make you feel like you’re not alone in the world, that there’s purpose to your life, music has that power... but at the same time, if you did deep and you look at the story behind it, it’ll just break your heart in 20 million places. It’s like a sucker’s game. It’s like the last thing in the world that anyone should believe in or engage in, y’know? So, out of love of music and out of making music, you end up making your own sort of hall of saints and you write your own little, what’s the word, catechisms, the Catholic thing there... those little books that teach you how to pray proper? You write your own little catechisms, if you’re a certain type of personality.
Anyone else on your list? Albert Ayler is one of mine.
Absolutely, I mean, Mingus too, what the hell, there’s so many. I mean, just because it’s on my mind because of this thing I read today about the peculiar last chapter, or what seems to be the last chapter, of Bob Dylan’s life. It’s interesting on that level, for sure. I have no idea what the fuck goes through that man’s brain, but, like, he’s like…ah, I don’t know if I have the words for it. I mean, there’s a lot of them, but I would have to think for a bit…
He seems a bit lost, but at the same time, he’s celebrated and praised. Like success itself has damaged him - almost an Elvis story.
He seems different to me from Elvis on that front; I mean, it seems to me he’s acutely self-aware of how far he’s fallen…
You think he’s self aware?
Even in Masked and Anonymous, I mean, uh, I do think he’s self aware. I don’t know what he’s self-aware about. I think he has an awareness that he’s not what he once was. Absolutely. I dunno, he’s like a ghost to me. I member, when he came back again into the public eye, I was at a friend’s house and we were watching the Academy fuckin’ Awards, and he won best song for some movie that I don’t know what that movie was, and he sort of appeared on satellite with this under-rehearsed band, and it was really like seeing this ghost with some sort of weird conscience, you know? It was like the oddest thing I’ve seen on television that and since then that’s what he’s transmitting all over the place, and it’s very odd… And I’m not saying anything interesting about it.
No, it’s good. Anyhow, I'm looking forward to the show. I’ll forward you this article before it sees print.
That’ll be great. I hope we do good. Talk to you later.