Thee Silver Mt Zion: Setting the World to Rights

With Godspeed You! Black Emperor, <b>Efrim Menuck</b> provided the soundtrack to our pre-millennial paranoia. Now that all our worst fears have come true, he's giving voice to our 21st-century blues with <b>Thee Silver Mt. Zion</b> and lamenting the tragic loss of late musician and good friend Vic Chesnutt.

Feature by Barry Nicolson | 08 Feb 2010

In the immortal words of the prophet, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. As a member of seminal Montreal post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, however, Efrim Menuck was a pretty damn effective early-warning system.

The apocalyptic soundscapes he helped to create with that band from 1994 until the commencement of their ‘Indefinite hiatus’ in 2003 seem now to key into the undercurrents of fear and foreboding we never knew were there until the renegade Boeing 767s came gliding out of a clear blue September sky. Nowadays, as the main creative force (he balks at the word ‘frontman’) behind A Silver Mt. Zion, it’s safe to say that the rest of the world has since come around to his way of seeing things.

“It’s funny,” an under-the-weather Efrim tells us. “When Godspeed started, definitely a lot of what we were interested in was the mood towards the end of the last century, the feeling that terrible things were just around the corner, that whole disciplinarian freak-out vibe. We were especially interested in obscure short-wave radio broadcasts and the American militia movement. I mean, we were super interested in all that stuff. But since then, I’m not really into those post-apocalyptic scenes. Generally nothing I do anymore comes from that viewpoint. In fact, everything we do is trying to address what’s occurring right now, not some psychic projection of a terrible future. I mean, right now it’s pretty fucking terrible! There’s an environmental collapse right around the corner. There are species going extinct. There’s a garbage patch in the middle of the ocean that’s just growing and growing. The news is horrible! But if we’re sitting around waiting for some visionary leader who’s going to inspire people to rally to the cause, we’re going to be waiting until it’s too late because the quality of our democracy is so degraded and dysfunctional, it’s never gonna happen. It’s up to individuals to look this stuff in the face and make decisions about their lives. But I’m going off the rails now...”

Well, not entirely. By Efrim’s own admission, Kollaps Tradixionales, ASMZ’s sixth full-length LP, “Is about how everyone is trying to wrap their heads around what it means now that the global economy has finally collapsed, and how there’s an enormous disconnect between what normal people are experiencing and the world percieved through newspapers and television. There’s an air of unreality about it all, like everybody’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

That theme drips from every crevice of Kollaps, an album that is neither pre-nor-post anything, least of all apocalyptic. Instead it’s much more concerned with the unreality of the here and now. From the fifteen soulful, near-ethereal minutes that make up opener There Is A Light through the three-song cycle that makes up 'the title track', it’s an album that addresses things as they were and as they are, without playing on fears of what they could be. It’s an epic, joyous, and occasionally harrowing journey, but one well worth the making.

The key to Kollaps lies in that aforementioned three-song cycle, each one a variation on an old musical trope (the American hymnal of Thee Old Dirty Flag, the European folk of For Darling and the electrified sea shanty rhythms of Bury 3 Dynamos) given a 21st-century spin.

“Those songs were a reaction to the theme of the record,” explains Menuck. “They’re something that can be broadly categorised as folk or indigenous music, and the task of that music was always to articulate feelings of despair or loss and to somehow, through the playing of the music or the writing of the song, turn those feelings into something universal and positive. That’s why we wanted to have a big chunk of the record that references those old, sort of old-timey themes.”

Would he describe himself as a hopeful person in general? “Absolutely. Like anybody else I go through broad periods of straight-up self-delusion to get through life and then there are other moments when I’m less successful at convincing myself that everything is going to be OK. But I have a son now, and after he was born I felt like I had to stare into the abyss to make sure I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. I have a strong belief in people, I believe we’re basically good.”

One thing Efrim is less than hopeful about, however, is the fate of the music industry.

“I don’t understand what this new utopia we’re all supposed to be entering into is, or how it’s supposed to work,” he sighs resignedly. “I don’t understand how you’re supposed to monetise what you do in this new future. I guess you’re supposed to license more songs to movies and advertisements, and there’s also this myth that you can earn an enormous living by being on the road, which is becoming harder and harder because more bands are doing it and the pie is getting sliced into smaller and smaller pieces. We're entering into a teenybopper musical culture where bands become popular very quickly and then are expected to get out of the way to make room for the next band. Ideally you want a musical culture that’s rich and varied and is capable of sustaining everyone. And things seem to be headed in the exact opposite direction.”

That culture is, of course, a little less rich and a little less varied since the tragic death of Vic Chesnutt, a longtime friend, collaborator and Constellation Records labelmate of Efrim’s, whose death from an overdose of muscle relaxants on Christmas day shocked and saddened music fans all over the world. When we bring it up today, Menuck – for the first time during our conversation – seems genuinely lost for words: ‘Heartbreak...” is all he can say when we ask him what went through his head when he heard the news.

He opens up a little more, however, when we ask him about what Chesnutt was like as a person, and what kind of legacy he thinks his friend will leave behind.

“He was just incredibly gracious and giving and good humored almost all of the time. He was an entirely charming motherfucker. His charisma was boundless and it was a joy to be anywhere near him, even in those moments when he wasn’t necessarily being the best person in the world.

“For better or worse, Vic was stubborn and uncompromising, and I hope that’s part of whatever legacy he leaves behind. You have to come out swinging in this world, you know? You can’t just be a passenger, you have to wrestle your way through life if it’s going to be of any value.”

That seems a fitting summaton not just of Vic Chesnutt, but of Kollaps Tradixionales also, a record as difficult as it is rewarding, as strange as it is beautiful. It’s an album for these strange and twisted times, where we don’t have the luxury of worrying about the future because there’s so much shit to wade through in the present. But, as Menuck himself maintains in song, “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Kollaps Tradixionales is released via Constellation on 8 Feb.

Listen to our exclusive Constellation Records podcast, including songs from the album and more from Vic Chesnutt, Do Make Say Think and several other talents from their roster here.

Thee Silver Mt Zion play Glasgow School of Art on 19 Mar.