Robin Perkins converses with the voice of Thee Silver Mt Zion, Efrim Menuck
I first discovered Efrim Menuck courtesy of John Peel. At the time he was a guitarist in the Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose legend has surpassed their reality. The eight-piece group were dubbed by the music press as “the Canadian anarchist collective” and became renowned for their supposedly fierce anti-commercial stance. Reviews of their albums and shows were peppered with the words “apocalyptic”, “anarchistic” and “post-rock”. In reality they were a group of young musicians who talked politics and made hauntingly beautiful instrumental music, the soundtrack to urban decay at the end of the twentieth century. In 1999 Efrim founded A Silver Mt Zion as a side project to GY!BE but as the Godspeed collective went on an indefinite hiatus, A Silver Mt. Zion became Efrim’s sole focus. Joined by former collaborators Thierry Amar and Sophie Trudeau and later violinist Jessica Moss the band began to craft their own sound: a distortion-soaked mix of blues rock, punk, folk and classical accompanied by Efrim’s fragile vocals. Some ten years since the release of their debut album, the band returns with their sixth LP, Kollaps Tradixionales.
“The Kollaps is a reference to last year’s economic collapse and Tradixionales because we still see ourselves as operating in some sort of hope tradition. I think all our records are hopeful statements, at least we try to make sure that they are hopeful.” The album opens with the epic There is A Light, an unashamedly “hopeful statement”, before plunging into walls of noise moulded by blues and folk. It ends on Piphany Rambler, a hauntingly precious track typical of earlier A Silver Mt Zion. Three years since their last release, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, Kollaps Tradixionales sees the band reinvent itself once more under the Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra moniker. It also signals a change in the line-up from a seven-piece band to a five piece: the original four members joined by drummer David Payant.
Efrim remains the somewhat reluctant spokesman of the group, maintaining that the band has always worked as a collective, uncomfortable with the lead singer-cult of the rock tradition: “We still write songs the way we always have: we write them together. We come up with a riff and then people will make suggestions or come up with counterlines. We have a slow writing process but that is what works for us.” The three-year recording hiatus is not only explained by the band’s lengthy creative process. Last year Efrim and fellow band member Moss had their first child together: “When Jessica got pregnant we mostly took a year off and the last couple of months have been about getting back into A Silver Mt Zion. Functionally, it has changed things a lot. For example on this Europe tour we will be using a tour bus for the first time.”
Throughout their career A Silver Mt. Zion have always enshrined their independence spirit, adopting the anti-corporate punk ethos and releasing all their albums through Constellation Records, the Montreal based label who share the band’s outlook. Another of Constellation’s central principals is the physical quality of its releases — each album is packaged in a cardboard case and accompanied by detailed artwork, the antithesis of the mass produced jewel case and uninspiring artwork. This physicality is something Efrim is passionate about, even contributing to the artwork of the latest LP alongside Jem Cohen: “We love records and we love LP artwork, it is one of the good things about music: the actual physical object. I think it is sad that we have entered this bold new era where the emotional value of objects is so degraded. I mean, it’s not just music; it is everything. Books are going to disappear soon; we will just stare at these little digital pads instead. Who would have thought you would ever be able to replace actually physically recorded music? You don’t hold anything in your hands anymore; you just stare at it through a screen. It is like going into the zoo as a kid and wishing you could pet the tiger. That is how we are expected to live our lives, with that kind of unfulfilled longing. Maybe I’m a fool, but it just seems unsustainable to me.”
The death of the record shop and the decline of independent labels has added to the woes of bands such as A Silver Mt. Zion who prefer to distribute their albums through independent shops in the face of the globalised industry: “I think it all started to go downhill with the big chain stores. Once local record stores started to go under then that led the way. Things have been going downhill for so long. Personally, I didn’t feel a big lack in my life prior to the Internet. There were not many moments when I felt this world would be so much better if people could instantly access any song, anywhere in the world at any time. It has destroyed regionalism, everything has become globalised and that is a tragedy. The awful thing about this brave new world we are living in is that it gets institutionalised, it’s not like we have any say in it.”
Towards the end of last year Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suspended parliament, delaying a no-confidence vote for the increasingly unpopular Conservative leader. I venture to ask Efrim about the current climate: “It doesn’t seem much different from what is happening in Britain, we are facing a crisis in democracy. Nobody here likes any of the options on the table so you end up with this barely governing government. We have this tedious conservative Primer Minister who is from an academic background and he has this whole thing of controlling the message and freezing out the press. They suspended parliament because there is an enquiry into the abuse of Afghan detainees and things weren’t looking good for them so they just suspended parliament. It is on the books so they can just do it.”
Meanwhile on the other side of the country from Efrim’s native Montreal, Vancouver’s hosting of the Winter Olympics has taken place amidst claims of huge overspending and a government crackdown against open criticism: “The Olympics are such a sham and more and more people are beginning to realise it. I think you guys have one coming up right? The big joke over here is that they are having this big ‘Cultural Olympiad’, a bunch of rock shows and art exhibitions around Vancouver at the same time as the actual Winter Olympics. They have hired all these musicians to play this ‘Olympic festival’, bands like Broken Social Scene and Feist, sort of A-list indie rockers. In the contract they signed, it says that they are not allowed to say anything negative about the Olympics! It is like all these pretty little ponies saying: ‘I wont say anything bad…I wont say anything bad.’”
Unsurprisingly A Silver Mt. Zion were not asked to participate in the Cultural Olympiad. They will instead be heading out on the road for a full length tour of Europe, stopping off at Glasgow’s School of Art on March 19. Efrim recalls the band’s 2004 gig at Òran Mór when they were forced to flee after a fire scare: “Yeah, we played this church with Little Wings and I remember that it caught on fire after the show and we had to leave quickly because the police and fire inspector turned up. I think Kyle from Little Wings was making out with his girlfriend and he flicked a cigarette butt or something. It was a good show but all I remember is that we had to pack up and leave really quickly!”
On the cusp of their tenth anniversary, I ponder what the future holds for the band. “We keep on doing what we are doing and following the independent spirit to the best of our abilities. Getting older is the mystery potion in all of this. There are not that many footsteps for us to follow in but we are going to keep trying.”