Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Carla Bozulich and Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band, August 16th at Richards on Richards

Efrim and Thierry - weird colour distortions are entirely accidental, but kinda cool

A Silver Mount Zion Collage, 2006

Carla and the band relax.

Note: This is intended as a follow up to the cover story in the August Discorder (in which I also have a Nomeansno interview).

I interviewed Carla Bozulich by cell phone in July, just before she was going onstage at a
Philadelphia church. I asked her how she came to record with members of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band with Choir (henceforth to be rendered as “A Silver Mount Zion” or perhaps something even briefer). The CD, Evangelista, recorded at Efrim and Thierry’s studio in Montreal, Hotel2Tango, is undoubtedly the strongest album that she’s done, something she herself acknowledges. It sounds like it was rather easily accomplished, though. She explained:

“Jessica, who plays violin in A Silver Mount Zion, was in the Geraldine Fibbers for a short time and that’s how I met all of them, and you know, we just hit it off. The last time I played in
Montreal I played just a little bit of the material that ended up being on the new album, and Efrim said he would like to record it at Hotel2Tango, and I was just totally blown away; then the people who played on it said they would like to play on it, and… I just followed the direction that it took to make it happen. It’s really the easiest thing I ever did, and it’s a good thing that it was, because I was sort of not that organized in my mind at that time… but really, Efrim and Shazad Ismaily and everybody that played on it just kind of made it happen and all I really had to do was just show up and bring the songs and sing and share some of my ideas, and everybody produced the album. It was really a phenomenal experience and Efrim, I dunno, he was just so tuned into it – he was just sort of on fire with the project. It could never be the album it is without what he did. He was tireless, he was working on other things at the same time and he just, he spent every minute that he had to spare on it and just made it into this incredible thing and mixed all these cuts without anybody else even being there, which has like, never happened to me, I’ve never not been there for that, but they ended up being perfect, and I dunno… and Shazad, too, didn’t ask any money, came all the way up from NY, cancelled a bunch of shit, and just… everybody just worked really hard at it. I think they just liked the music.

(Efrim Menuck offers, on the experience of working with Bozulich, that “it was great. It was a complicated and difficult but really good process and I feel touched and honoured to have been a part of it.” More from him below.)

Though Thierry, Sophie, and Efrim (along with multi-instrumentalist and Marc Ribot collaborator Ismaily) were her band on Evangelista, Carla Bozulich’s backup band for the August 16th Vancouver show
will consist primarily of the members of the Seattle based group, Dead Science. Carla says of them, “They’re so fucking good… It’s just a trio, they play this really intense and really beautiful rock music that’s very unusual... it’s just very pretty, it’s kind of almost like Antony from Antony and the Johnsons meets like, something a lot more intense, I don’t know how exactly to explain. There’s also (viola player) Anni Rossi and a woman named Tara Barnes – she’s from a band called Business Lady and a band called Dutchesses – she’s a phenomenal bassist and singer and, um, she’s my right hand man. Actually, she’s with me all the time, all the tours that are coming up, which is quite a lot, we’re going to be touring through the year and into next year. "

Carla describes Evangelista as “the most raw, kind of heart on your sleeve sort of thing” she’s done, but many people are finding it a bit darker than she intended it to be.

“It’s funny because I’ve read a few reviews of the record where they listen to the record, they listen to the title track, the first track, Evangelista, and they
say it’s, you know, torment and like, really, an attack on the senses, and all this, and it’s kinda funny… I mean, I don’t deny that that’s the way it comes off if that’s the way it comes off, but what I MEANT by it was more of like a thing to sort of like appeal to people’s sense of desperation and maybe loneliness and offer this alternative which is like this exaltation achieved through sound and love… but I guess it comes off as witchy…” She talks at greater length in Discorder about sound, love, and her intentions with the new album – which is one of the most emotionally truthful recordings I’ve heard in recent years.

Though it was p
robably unthinkable at the time of her more accessible Willie Nelson project, Red Headed Stranger, with Evangelista, some reviewers are comparing Bozulich with Diamanda Galas. As I mention in Discorder, I also think of NicoThe Marble Index, in particular – and Patti Smith (particularly the texture of some of the “churchier” moments on Easter) when listening to the new disc. Bozulich has written about Patti Smith before; I don’t know how she feels about Nico, but I did get to ask her if she feels any affinity for Galas’ music.

“Yeah, I do, I feel a power inside of myself that’s immense in that I have gift for throwing out of my body into the atmosphere and into the audience and I recognize that in her, too, and I feel really lucky that I can manifest that.”

Since the new album does acknowledge the painfulness of life, in its pursuit of healing, I asked her if she had any political intentions in making it (these seem to be dark times, where there is much in the world that needs to be healed).

“Well, certainly it was meant to reach out in a way… I mean, the voice of the person that is singing the first cut, or preaching, or whatever you want to call it, it’s almost a sermon… it was certainly meant to reach out, it’s like, reaching out to people the way you do in church, the way the preacher does, and there’s no limit to who you’re reaching out to. I mean, only a finite number of people are going to hear it, but there really isn’t any limit to who you’re calling out to, you know…? The album to me is something that is very personal to me, but I don’t think I’m unique in my feelings – do you understand what I mean? … I try to kind of find common ground, I do find common ground all the time… and I like to nurture that in my writing in general, because my writing’s very very very personal, and really, you know… I respond directly to what’s happening in my life, but I also am keenly aware of the fact that I’m not the only person that has these feelings, these are the feelings of human beings and, um, I feel a little bit lucky that maybe I can put some of them into words, maybe in ways that some people haven’t been able to formulate before for themselves, and so I think it’s nice for them to have that, you know, as a present… I like to try to give my music away as a present.”

The next night, I had a slightly longer conver
sation with Efrim Menuck of A Silver Mount Zion, who follow Bozulich on August 16th. You get the feeling that Efrim is a little weary of being jerked around by interviewers (read this rather interesting note from the Godspeed You! Black Emperor days); it took a little while to get him talking. His earlier answers on the phone were brief – asked about the fact that PEOPLE ARE SINGING on their recent albums – a rarity with GY!BE – he responded, “It feels good singing because there’s words involved, y’know, um, 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 uh didn’t use any words.” Which is straightforward enough, but compare it to the answer he gives about choral singing in the Discorder piece (from later in that phone call). Part of the problem may have been me, and it may be a problem that other people encounter with the band: they seem more idealistic than your average folks, and it’s hard to feel entirely on an equal footing with them (especially when you go to Starbucks as often as I do; “Forgive me, Efrim, I have had three soy chais since my last confession…”). He started to open up a bit more when we discussed the deliberately cheap ticket prices for the show; the band are charging only $14 to see them (and Carla) play, and this seems outrageously inexpensive to me, given the number of people involved. He says in the Discorder piece that they don’t feel comfortable “fleecing” people, but at $14 a head, I feel almost like I’m fleecing them. This got us talking about whether they earn a living off their music, which they currently do, particularly with Hotel2Tango proceeds added to the pot. It wasn’t always this way.

“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 is signed by a justice of the peace,
saying that my name was Efrim Menuck and I play in a musical group called GY!BE 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, I mean, 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. The economics of -- 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.”

This frustrates Efrim, since A Silver Mount Zion ARE doing things independently; the abuse of the term in our current indy-crazed milieu pisses him off. “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 like, sort of wonder why, music, like what the hell does the word independent mean in that context, y’know, like, 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?”

Toward the end of our talk, I asked him about the references to Phil Ochs and Nina Simone in the work of GY!BE and A Silver Mount
Zion. Was the intent to pay respects to people who were destroyed or damaged by the music industry?

“Absolutely. It comes again to the idea that we’re, like, y’know, musicians by trade and so that means that… I can’t think of any happy endings in music, in sort of like the personal lives of people who are engaged in this thing of making music, there are no happy endings; there are plenty of cautionary tales and tragically short lives. It’s a train wreck. The history of modern popular music is a train wreck. It’s got all these utopian ideas bubbling everywhere you know, 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, you know, making your own, sort of like, 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....”

I mention that Ochs was one of my
saints, and Albert Ayler.

“Absolutely, I mean, Mingus too, what the hell, there’s so many.”

We went on to talk somewhat inconclusively about “what seems to be the last chapter of Bob Dylan’s life;” Efrim has “no idea what the fuck goes through that man’s brain,” but thinks that Dylan is “acutely aware of how far he’s fallen… I don’t know what he’s self-aware about, but I think he has an awareness that he’s not what he once was. I dunno, he’s like a ghost to me, a ghost with some sort of weird conscience.”)

Efrim really doesn’t give himself credit for how intelligent and articulate he is; he’s certainly one of the most interesting people I’ve interviewed, and the person most comfortable exploring the meaning of what he does. Yet he commented more than once during the interview that he didn’t feel particularly articulate. The contradiction fits, in a way, with his stage presence. Seeing GY!BE at the Liquid Room in Tokyo some years ago, I was shocked how on the one hand Efrim managed to seem extremely self-conscious, hiding behind a vast wad of hair, and on the other, an amazingly charismatic and attractive figure. (I mean, how does that work, exactly?). I’m singularly glad that he’s singing now, and I love the choral aspects of Horses in the Sky, A Silver Mount Zion’s most recent studio venture. We talked about that at some length, most of which made it into Discorder. Here’s a quote that didn’t: “I mean, when Godspeed started playing together, 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.”

Finally, I asked him about the future of GY!BE, officially on hiatus. Did they have plans to regroup?

“Yeah, there’s no plan, I mean, no, there’s no plan. I’m sure that Godspeed
will play again, but everyone in Godspeed is engaged in other things right now…”

There was a lot more, but the best of it made it into Discorder (I mean, surely more people read Discorder than my blog, right?). As I write, there are still tickets available around town for the show. I haven’t been so excited about seeing a band play in… well, since the jazz festival. Yeah, okay, that was only a month ago. Shut up.


lisa_emily said...

Bravo! Great article, I look forward to seeing their show in Mid-August when they are down here!

Allan MacInnis said...

Heck, that ain't nothing, check the real article at -- this was just an appetizer, a tease, a remnant.

Should be a great show...


Rgscarter said...

great stuff. I have been conspiring to get to see SMZ in Cleveland (i just happened to plan a visit there when they were in town, a coincidence, honest) or, failing that, in Toronto. Your interviews/articles have firmed my resolve. I MUST get to at least one show.