A flexible band whose name has changed as often as its lineup, the Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra got started in 1999. This year, the unpredictable clan released their seventh full-length album, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, a dense, urgent and furiously dishevelled opus (just listen to “Austerity Blues”) partly dedicated to the City of Montreal and containing some serious sonic assaults: listener discretion is advised.
As creator of the (sometimes highly politicized) lyrics of the Mt. Zion squad, Efrim Menuck (on guitar, piano and vocals) believes he knows why this is. “We’ve been a quintet for the past six years now,” he explains. “This was the first time we were writing an album in this format. It was different for the other albums. I believe that the fact that we were writing songs for a restricted number of people made for a more concentrated, more vital energy on this album. Also, we performed a lot of live concerts in the last few years, and the fact that we were constantly on the road had an effect on the final result.”
“In 2014, the barriers between compositional styles have been broken. Now, every musician on the planet has access to an amazing palette. You can make music freely.”
With blues, metal and garage music influences, the new album is a calculated departure from the band’s post-rock (a term Menuck hates) early influences. “In actual fact, our roots are in punk rock! We cultivate a healthy distrust of everything that isn’t local. The moment there’s doubt in our minds, we say no. It’s that simple. If we can seem rude to some people, it’s just that we’re shy and suspicious,” Menuck explains wryly.
Completed by Thierry Amar (bass, vocals), Sophie Trudeau (violin, vocals), Jessica Moss (violin, vocals) and David Payant (drums, vocals), the quintet goes about developing its repertoire in a strictly democratic manner. “That’s the main thing,” Menuck explains. “We begin with a riff, a melodic line or just a handful of chords from a jam session, and we take it from there. These can be contributed by anyone in the band. Then we spend a considerable amount of time finding a simple music segment and building as many variations as we can around that initial core until we reach the point where we have a song that can be as long as forty minutes or so. We then shorten this to a more reasonable duration.
“We discuss all arrangements together. Sometimes one of us will have a stronger opinion and try to impose that vision. Then the three string players [Amar, Trudeau and Moss] sometimes bring a more ‘chamber music’ feel to the end product. The music always comes first. That’s not negotiable. When we reach the point where the instrumental piece is roadworthy, I can sit down and try to come up with lyrics that bring all this together.”
With three musicians (Menuck, Amar and Trudeau) also performing on a regular basis as part of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, all five Mt. Zion members are full-time musicians. Are they living depraved rock-star lives? Well, not exactly.
“We’ve been very lucky in the fact that we’ve been working with people who believed in us from the very start, and have remained our friends to this day,” says Menuck. “Essentially, we make our living on the road, but everyone’s on the road these days, and the competition is fierce. We love what we do, and I believe it’s important to think small. We don’t have a manager. We don’t undertake excessive tours. We do everything ourselves. We take a homespun approach, keep expenses low and split our small pie in a reasonable number of pieces. All we’re trying to do is make an honest living. And it’s not easy. It’s becoming harder all the time. Sometimes I think I should get out of the music business and do something else, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. At this stage of my life, I don’t know what else I could do. My C.V. says ‘Musician,’ period.”
Mt. Zion is planning to keep busy until the fall. Incisive guitar and booming violin aficionados were pleased to hear the news of the release of a Mt. Zion EP in May, and of another one later in the year, always without compromises, no matter what. “In 2014,” Efrim Menuck says, “the barriers between compositional styles have been taken down. Now, every musician on the planet has access to an amazing palette. You can make music freely without feeling you’re making a deep or formal statement. This is one of the great things about making music today. You can do whatever you like. After being around for a number of years in this business, you kind of need to find a track that can motivate you to keep going.”