Allusions of Grandeur: Thee Silver Mt. Zion

Photo by Mark Slutsky
THE MEMBERS OF Thee Silver Mt. Zion are identified as anarchists, avant-garde experimentalists and post-rock heroes, but singer-guitarist Efrim Menuck says at least one of those characterizations is false.

“None of us are anarchists,” said Menuck. “That’s lazy journalism. I don’t know where this started. We try to address it every time it comes up. Hopefully, someday it’ll stick.”

Thee Silver Mt. Zion features two violins, cello, standup bass, electric guitars and drums ,and will play the Black Cat on Friday. The band’s long, beautiful songs build from extreme simplicity to avalanches of sound.

Menuck, like violinist Sophie Trudeau and bassist Thierry Amar, played in the beloved Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band credited with helping trailblaze a genre — post-rock — it wants no part of.

“We see what we’re doing as being grounded in rock,” Menuck said. “We see ourselves as a punk band or as a rock band. That’s our frame of reference.”

OK, but the band sounds more like orchestral prog-alt than The Ramones. It may seem that the strings have been pushed to the back on Thee Mt. Zion‘s latest album, “13 Blues for Thirteen Moons,” but Menuck says the mix is the same.

And just to clear up one more misconception: The band’s name is actually Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band.

» EXPRESS: What does your lyric and song title “1,000,000 Died to Make this Sound” mean?
» MENUCK: The simple explanation would be that part of what the song is about is: It’s a love song for any musician who ever performed a song in front of people. It’s about the idea that music belongs to everybody, but first and foremost, it belongs to musicians.

There’s a long, deep heritage there of people making music and passing melodies to each other and passing tunings to each other, like folk melodies. And at the end of the day, one million musicians have died — generally in obscurity and generally in poverty — to contribute to the creation of whatever the now sound happens to be. So, that’s the simple explanation: It’s a love song for musicians. It’s an assertion that one million musicians died to make whatever record you happen to be holding in your hands at a given moment.

Photo by Mark Slutsky

» EXPRESS: Are there political or ideological issues you guys disagree about? I’ve seen you identified as anarchists. Are you all anarchists?
» MENUCK: None of us are anarchists. That’s an example of lazy journalism. If you wanna talk about that Pitchfork review, you know, it doesn’t bother me very much if someone doesn’t like what we’re doing or doesn’t like our record or all the rest of it, but to read a description of the liner notes on one of our records as like “terrorist scrawl” and that’s contextualized by we’re anarchists — that stuff is offensive to us.

Especially as a Canadian band and especially having to hear that from an American writer. “Terrorist,” in the year 2008, is not a word that should be bandied around without thinking about it for longer than 30 seconds as an adjective to describe an aesthetic quality.

Nonetheless, we’re not anarchists, we’ve never identified ourselves as anarchists; I don’t know where this started.

» EXPRESS: That’s so interesting. I was hesitant to ask that question because I’d seen you identified that way so often that I was like, “Well, that’s obvious; that would be stupid to ask.” But now I’m so glad that I asked about that.
» MENUCK: Yeah, we try to address it when the question comes up, and hopefully someday, it’ll stick. … We’re like most other people in this world: There is no ideology that seems to make any true and clear sense, so we’re just trying to hack our own way through this jungle of collapsing geopolitics and find our own way. We’re like everybody else on that level. We’re like everybody else, and our politics are, for real, the stuff of the kind of conversations you have with people sitting at a bar, including conversations you have with strangers.

There’s no political point that we’ve made that’s not speaking to some self-evident truth. There’s nothing so controversial about any assertions we make in our songs or in interviews or in stage banter, and that’s a conscious decision. We choose to write songs about the world that we live in, so I can understand at the point that we make that decision a lot of people get turned off, but it’s not like we’re singing “We Shall Overcome.”

It’s a frustrating topic for us, especially because identifying us as anarchists or political or activists or whatever is generally used in the cause of either dismissing what we’re doing, or pointing out some hypocrisy, like, “How can you be an anarchist and make records, because then you’re selling your records, and this and that person is selling …” and all that boring stuff. And it’s like, “Yeah, well, OK, but we’re not anarchists.”

There was a review in a Washington newspaper of this record, and this is standard — the lyrics on this record were handwritten, and he misread that I misspelled the word “coffin” with a “y”. He misread it, he thought that’s what I did, and in the review he asserts that I spelled it with a “y”, and it’s presumably because proper spelling is a tool of the man.

How are you supposed to respond to that?

In the beginning of this band, I exerted a lot of energy. I would read stuff like that and e-mail people and try to correct them, or email them and be like, well, if you think our politics are dubious, we’d be happy to sit down and have a conversation with you about exactly what our politics are. I just don’t expend that energy anymore because it never ended up turning into anything good. For now, we try to keep our heads down and ignore it.

There’s really nothing simple about what we’re trying to express. It’s conflicted. We’re not coming at it like we have answers, or like anybody has answers. We’re coming at it conflicted and confused like everybody else in this world, except for sociopaths. For us, that’s the human quality.

So it’s incredibly disheartening to be reacted to as if we’re somehow standing atop some sort of mountain, hurtling proclamations like lightning bolts into the internet. It’s like, “Well, no, that’s not what we’re doing.”

And I need to contextualize this all by saying I think the people who continue to buy our records, who continue to come to our shows, I think they get all that. This is not a real world problem here; it’s a problem on Web sites and in blogs and in magazines and occasionally in newspapers.

Photo by Mark Slutsky» EXPRESS: In the interview you did with Drowned in Sound, there were a lot of interesting quotes and I’d like to ask you to expound on one of them. You said that all the best bands have a very pure and clearly articulated thesis. What is the thesis behind a Silver Mt. Zion?
» MENUCK: If I had to say, a big part of our thesis is a group of musicians always trying to play things that are just a bit too hard for us to play. There’s sort of an endemic tension in the music we make because we’re always writing stuff that’s just a bit out of our reach. We’re always trying to play parts that we really can’t play that well. There’s always this tension in what we do because of that. So that’s our thesis.

But in the context of that interview, I was suggesting that perhaps some moments come where our thesis has evaporated. I was talking about how it’s very difficult for a band to sustain itself beyond the first five years of its life. So there’s my long, convoluted answer to your very simple question.

But what I was trying to articulate was not that bands are coming out of the gate knowing what their thesis is, but that there are constraints, desires and visions there that add up to a coherent thesis for all the best bands, but that thesis isn’t necessarily something that the bands would be able to articulate, and in fact, bands that come out of the gate with a thesis that can be articulated are generally the duller bands.

» EXPRESS: It seems to me your music expresses a pessimistic view of the world. Do you think that’s true? Martin Luther King said that the arch of history is long, but it bends towards justice. What do you say to people who believe that that’s the case?
» MENUCK: I believe that to be the case. I hope our music is not overly pessimistic. I don’t feel like a pessimistic person; I don’t feel like the people in this band are pessimistic.

I know that what we do together when we play together lends itself towards articulating upset and pain sadness and confusion and anger. That’s the type of music that we make. But that’s not the entirety of our lives.

And we definitely, lyrically, presentation-wise, all of it, work very hard to communicate ideas like people are basically good, and that in the worst circumstances people do incredibly amazing things, and that human qualities are important qualities.

So I refute the idea that we’re a pessimistic band. The world is a mess, and I guess the first step, especially given the level of necessary self-denial you need just to get by, just to get through the day, just to keep engaging with an economy that’s bloody and on the verge of collapse and makes no sense at all — given the base level of self-denial you need just to get through a working week, the first step towards things getting better is acknowledging that things are in the toilet. And that calls for trying to grab people by the shoulders. And that’s a lot of what we do, but again, we try to balance it.

I could sit here — it would be very boring — I could sit here and cite lyrical decisions and musical decisions that we’ve made precisely to hammer home the point that in spite of these ridiculous circumstances, people are basically good and things will get better.

They’re gonna get worse before they get better, but…we believe in human beings. We’re the opposite of pessimists on that level. We’re optimists. But again, at the same time, the world’s a scary place.

» Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; with Vic Chesnutt, Fri., 9 p.m., $14; 800-551-7328. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express contributor Tim Follos

Photos by Mark Slutsky

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