Get Loved Up To Survive: Thee Silver Mt. Zion's Efrim Menuck Interviewed
The Western world’s recognised narrative lies in peril; for Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Efrim Menuck, only embracing “hokey” values can save it
The human condition to create narratives within our own lives means that our greatest fears are those that threaten to end them. For Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s Efrim Menuck, focusing on these overwhelming dangers to our recognised existence, be it the west’s economic and social decay, or climate change, has been what’s pulled his creative current through the group’s 15 years together. Their albums alternate between states of despair and defiance, as Menuck grapples with issues that feel paradoxically ignored in the developed world, even as they stare us unflinchingly in the eyes.
“Sure, I find myself vacillating between despair and hope over the course of minutes,” Menuck tells The Skinny over Skype, “It is just the human condition. You can’t wrap your head around something like climate change and not end up feeling a healthy amount of helplessness.” His troupe’s latest record, the excellent Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything (reviewed here) revolves around several societal, technological and personal themes, reflecting the constantly malleable nature of its creators’ own thoughts. Menuck demonstrates his own restless nature in our chat today, flicking through his mind as though looking through a filing cabinet to discuss the austerity measures of the west, late-stage capitalism’s social restrictions and fatherhood, each at the draw of a breath.
“We live in fucking terrifying times,” he says simply at one point, backing up what we’ve always known of him; both in his work with ‘Zion and with the much-revered Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Menuck is someone prepared to face life’s bleakest realities face first. “But I think human beings all share these same primal fears anyway,” he reasons. “And so my songs are just about finding words for those fears because otherwise there’s no way forward. The beginning has to be finding words for that stuff. Otherwise we lose everything.”
“These moments we have where it’s like ‘oh wait, I have an idealistic idea!’ Well fucking voice it!" – Efrim Menuck
As a record, Fuck Off… recalls a lot of themes existent in previous Mt Zion material; the band recorded for 10 days solid, in a house Menuck describes as “like someone’s vision of the future circa 1966 or something,” outside of their native Montreal. So it is that this record’s first song, in its pounding drums and hacked at strings, is a part-tribute part-lament to a place Menuck feels a mixture of pride and pity for. Fuck Off Get Free (For The Island Of Montreal) references the Quebec student protests of 2012, in which an 150-strong stand against the potential of raising tuition fees became a full-scale movement against the provincial government as a whole. “It felt like being kissed for the first time!” Menuck exclaims, recalling the spring marches. “Montreal has a long tradition of shooting its mouth off,” he goes on, explaining the opening track’s title. “It’s something I love about this city. And this protest… it felt like 70% of the city was out on the streets some nights banging on pots and pans.”
In part, the protest worked, and the new leftist minority government, Parti Quebecois, halted tuition fee raises. Much like the combustion and silence of the London riots in 2011, however, they seemed gone in the blink of an eye. “The sad thing was it ended as quickly as it began,” Menuck recalls ruefully. “And it didn’t lead to any substantive changes. So the song’s specifically about that feeling of both pride and regret at the same time.”
Menuck also revisits the themes of austerity he voiced on 2010’s Kollaps Tradixionales. No less impassioned and raw sounding than they were then, with the global crash at the time just two years previous, the fever of his vehemence reaches a pitch on the 14-minute Austerity Blues, as he howls a refrain 'we hope we’re still alive to see the mountain torn down.'
“Possibly the most outraging thing about these austerity programmes that all the western liberal democracies have engaged in to various degrees over the last few years is how ineffective and unoriginal and transparent they’ve all been,” he fumes. “The insidious thing about late stage capitalism is that it has us all convinced that there’s nothing we can do to change things, that the system we’re born into is the system that always has been and always will be, and that any suggestion against that is suspect. Like, it feels impossible to even posit an alternative.”
The album ultimately takes this line of thinking to its most desolate on the swelling tumult of What We Loved Was Not Enough. A typical Thee Silver Mt. Zion track structurally, it builds from a place of solitude, strings and guitars gradually scaling up its walls before breaking forth into rumbustious crescendo. It includes the line, 'the west will rise again,' a sarcastic take of southern US confederates' 'the south will rise again;' its five words damn the spiral in which the developed world finds itself. “It became this question for me,” Menuck reveals. “’What will it take for the west to rise again? The obvious answer to that is total collapse. It will only rise again when it’s all fallen to shit. So, yeah, what we loved, these values we had, what we believed in hasn’t been enough.”
Before uttering that lyric, it’s notable that Menuck croakily asks 'are our children gonna die?' A new father at the release of their previous album, his and ‘Zion violinist Jessica Moss’s son is now four-years-old and has taken a grip on his public perceptions of the world. It is one thing to confront the despondency of our world head on when you are alone; when you’re suddenly responsible for another life that you hope dearly will extend decades beyond yours, that instinct to call out what seem to be the inevitabilities of our fate starts to jar. “It puts you in the position where you have to be on the side of love,” he ruminates from the other end of the internet. “Huge chunks of my day are occupied with being entranced and in love with this perfect creature who actually knows how to live in this world unlike us adults. It’s like being on a weird drug for a lot of the day and so I spend huge chunks of my days now being in total denial about how dire things look in the world, but those blinders are going to get tore off right fast at some point.”
As such, Menuck posits that, as humans, we need to “get hokier” if we are to survive. “These moments we have where it’s like ‘oh wait I have an idealistic idea!’ Well fucking voice it! People are going to shoot you down but I think it’s important to do it because we’ve all internalised this idea that things aren’t going to change, so it takes very little for us to stick our heads back into our shells.”
As far as Fuck Off… goes, the moments of love and poignancy shown within it surface in a parallel theme that runs throughout, of paying heartfelt homage to musicians dying young. Apparent during Take Away These Early Grave Blues – a live staple as early as 2011 – it becomes truly visible during the emotive, piano-led closer Rains Thru the Roof At Thee Grande Ballroom (For Capital Steez). Though the title references the 19 year-old Brooklyn rapper who tragically took his own life last year, jumping from the top of the Cinematic Music HQ in Manhattan on Christmas Eve, Menuck points out “it’s about musicians dying young, so it could’ve also been dedicated to Jason Molina. But the Capital Steez thing was so ridiculously tragic given how young he was. It seemed like the dedication was deserved.”
The Grande Ballroom in Detroit is also referenced, famous as the venue where pioneering proto-punks The MC5 made their name in the late 60s. Like so much of Detroit, it now lies in disrepair, having been closed as a venue since 1972. The band themselves of course blazed a trail all-too-briefly before collapsing out the other side of the music industry within four years of their debut LP. Three of the 5’s founding members have since passed away. “There’s a way that narrative didn’t end how one would’ve wanted to. I mean it just ended. Tragically,” Menuck sighs. “So much of this trade that we’re in of playing music is built up of narratives that don’t end well and specifically stories that end with musicians dying young.” How long until other, greater narratives fall?