Zeal & Ardor
Photographs and Interview with Manuel Gagneux by Jeremy Saffer
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MIX THE MUSIC of slave spirituals with black metal and give it a satanic twist? Originally conceived as a challenge to combine two vastly different genres of music, Zeal & Ardor quickly went from an internet sensation to a critically acclaimed band atop countless best-of lists, performing at almost every major festival across the world. While their records certainly garner praise, the one-man project has become a six-piece band in order to bring its unique style of music from recording to the stage. We caught up with Zeal & Ardor mastermind Manuel Gagneux on the third date of the band’s first ever US headlining tour at The Sinclair in Boston. We talk about inspiration, unknowingly becoming a role model, and, of course, Zeal & Ardor’s new album Stranger Fruit.
How has your first US headlining tour been so far?
Pretty good actually, far beyond our expectations. We’ve never had crowds react that loudly to us, which we were taken aback by that, but it’s definitely a good thing.
What can fans expect from a live Zeal & Ardor performance?
It’s similar to the record, but the intensity is far more, since it’s not just two people like on the records. It’s six of us. It’s more aggressive.
What are your favorite songs to perform live?
I really like the cumbersome ones that are probably not as fun to sit through or stand through like “Stranger Fruit,” but “Don’t You Dare” and “Baphomet” are also lots of fun.
Is there anything you want to do during a live performance that you’re not able to do?
The weird thing is I kind of black out during it. I forget all of my needs. I remember having to pee really bad, then going on stage, and it just kind of dissipated (laughs). Not in that way, but the need just disappeared.
How do you select the songs you are going to perform for a show or tour?
That’s actually really easy since we barely have enough songs to make up a full set, so we just end up playing everything (laughs).
How did you choose the members of your live band?
They are actually just friends of mine from way back. We are all from the same town in Switzerland, and the scene there is pretty tight knit. Everyone who listens to rock or wants to make rock hangs out in the same spots.
The band is coming from playing massive European festivals, for some of your biggest crowds yet. What kind of impact did that have on Zeal & Ardor?
I think we learned a lesson or two, because we ended up playing pop oriented or indie festivals, and it’s not like a club tour where the audience already knows you. You have to convince them to stay, and I think that was valuable because we aren’t as spoiled anymore, because you have to work for the audience.
How did people react when they had never heard Zeal & Ardor before?
The festival crowds kind of stood in confusion, but eventually we got head nods until maybe some moshing happened. The weirdest thing was we played this hippie festival in the UK, and we were fucking scared shitless because I didn’t know how hippies would react to metal. They ended up doing like a wall of death, but as they collided they went in for hugs (laughs). It was super weird.
What are the major differences between the European and US metal scenes? Is Zeal & Ardor more accepted in one than the other?
It’s hard to tell because we haven’t played here so much, but from what I’ve gathered its that US metal crowds are just more out to have fun than to judge, where as if you play in Oslo, you need to convince the people. That’s very generalized, but that’s how I’ve felt so far.
When you first came up with the concept, did you ever think you would become a touring band and get award nominations?
Fuck no. This is so weird. I thought this was like a joke that I did, and it’s funny to me, but I never thought that I would ever tour with it. It’s bizarre.
Will we see more Zeal & Ardor tours in the US now that there is a full live band?
I hope so. We had to apply for visas, and we barely got them, so I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder to apply for one again.
Do you think Zeal & Ardor is a polarizing band? You either love it or hate it?
Well, the audience definitely puts it that way, so yes. I wholeheartedly understand if it’s not for someone, and there’s no reason to listen to music you don’t like, so I can’t blame them.
When Zeal & Ardor first started, there was backlash from metal purists. Is that fading a bit now that the band is becoming more prominent and accepted amongst your peers? I think it’s dissipated especially since purists aren’t offended by us that much anymore, because the blame got slashed onto other bands like Liturgy or Myrkur, who they say have bastardized black metal.
Why do you think some black metal fans are so aggressive about their specific vision of what black metal should or should not include?
I think it’s because it’s like this boy clubish thing, and black metal really as a scene identifies itself through the music. So, if anything has changed with the music, they change, and they aren’t comfortable with that, which I can understand, but cannot endorse.
Did you ever think Zeal & Ardor would play such an important role in bridging the divide for African Americans who didn’t feel accepted in the black metal culture?
No. This is actually pretty much news to me. I got approached yesterday by a bunch of people who said exactly that. I haven’t given it really that much thought since I just went to black metal shows in Switzerland, but I guess here it’s different. Also, there are more black people here (laughs). So, no I didn’t imagine that.
There are many people praising Zeal & Ardor, wishing the band was around when they were younger because they felt alienated by the color of their skin in the metal scene, and younger metal fans saying its amazing to see someone who looks like them performing metal. How do these comments affect you, and did you ever think you would become a role model?
No, but I think it’s weird that they felt that way in the first place because there’s been other bands. I mean, you could point to Sepultura or Bad Brains, who aren’t metal but it’s a similar vibe. I’m happy that they feel that way now, but I’m just surprised by it.
Black metal has always had that sort of seedy underbelly of racism, more so than any other genre of music. Intentional or not, Zeal & Ardor is standing up against that sect of NSBM. Is that what you imagined when the concept of the band was realized?
That was the funny part to me. That’s why I actually decided to pursue the music further. Because pissing those people off just makes me smile (laughs).
The concept of Zeal & Ardor came from a message board challenge of putting two vastly different genres together. Were there any other genre blends you tested out, or any you might try in the future?
There’s been a bunch. I tried all of them, and I want to say 90 to 95 percent sound horrible (laughs). There’s like gabber jazz or like trance salsa, stuff you just don’t want to listen to, but it’s funny to think about it.
What mix of genres would you like to see happen?
I don’t know. Everything has been gentrified. I mean, that’s the thing. If you have the idea, you’re already there.
There are a handful of amazing works in progress and demo songs you’ve posted over the years to Bandcamp and SoundCloud. Would you ever post more work like that?
I post and find music on SoundCloud a lot. My label heavily discourages me from doing that now (laughs)—the whole posting thing. I do have accounts where I post as some regular dude, because that way you just get honest feedback. And if people don’t give a shit about you, they are going to be harsh. I think that can be really constructive sometimes. So, I still do post, but not officially
Will the original Zeal & Ardor demo ever be re-released?
I don’t think so. That whole thing is a work in progress and not just the music itself but the idea and the concept. So, I don’t really think that it applies to the project anymore. Maybe when I’m 40 and broke as fuck I’ll do it (laughs).
What were some of the major changes between the albums Devil Is Fine and Stranger Fruit?
Songwriting-wise I just wanted it to be more harmonious, and I wanted to make an album, not just a couple songs grouped together. So, there’s more of an arc throughout the material.
Now that there’s a full band, will that have any future impact on the structure of the songwriting or recording?
It already did actually with Stranger Fruit, because with the first record I didn’t really think of instrumentation. I didn’t think I’d have to or get to perform it live (laughs). But now when I write, I think about my friends and how they could play it, so they definitely inspire it, too.
Being a talented multi-instrumentalist, are there any instruments you want to bring into the next writing or recording sessions?
I’m not sure. I’ve seen a lot of bands incorporating different instruments in metal, and it’s a fine line between really cool and dorky as fuck (laughs). So, if you see me put the saxophone in, just slap me in the face please (laughs).
There are a few electronic tracks on both Devil Is Fine and Stranger Fruit. Do you feel they will always play a part in Zeal & Ardor albums?
To me they will. Other people think they are pretty shit, but they work as a palate cleanser. And I just love it, so I won’t quit.
Do those get injected into your live shows as well?
A little bit. But, I mean, it’s not like a focal part. It’s not like we stand there and press play (laughs).
Devil Is Fine famously has Robert Smalls and the sigil of Lucifer for the cover art. Are there any other people similar to Robert Smalls that inspire you?
There’s this science fiction author Octavia Butler, and she’s like a bad ass for multiple reasons. First of all being a pulp fiction writer as a black woman, and her books are fucking dope.
What can you tell us about the artwork for Stranger Fruit?
We thought way too long about it, and then just thought, “What’s a fruit?” We just bought an apple and figured we needed to mess it up as a reference to The Beatles album and the forbidden fruit and also the poem from Billie Holiday. Actually, our drummer Marco took the picture because he’s a filmmaker and he has all this film gear, so it stayed in the family.
When someone listens to your songs, what visuals do you want to evoke in their mind?
That’s funny, because I used to be really specific about that. The more I talk to people, the more I realize that their vision of what its supposed to be is entirely different and I have no control over that. So, to be specific now is to just kind of ruin their idea of it, which is like a party pooping move I think (laughs). To me, it’s sad Southern slave tragedies with a satanic twist.
Are there any films that have had influence on Zeal & Ardor?
I’d like to be able to say cool shit like La Jetée or art films, but I guess it’s just basic stuff. You never really know what inspires you. With music, it might just be a jingle by some company.
If the concept of Zeal & Ardor ever becomes a film. What would that story be?
It probably starts with some plantation and an evil owner that gets overthrown by the slaves. To ward off the master’s back up, they have to turn to Satan, and then there’s a climax in the third act where dark evil forces help. That’s my pitch (laughs).
What do you do to prepare for writing? Is there any research or specific music you listen to before you go into a writing session?
No, you can try to influence what will influence you, but I always fail at that, so I’m pretty unromantic about writing. I try to write as much as I can, and sometimes there’s bad stuff and sometimes its not so bad if you collect those ideas.
Are there any bands or music that has had a big influence on Zeal & Ardor?
Tom Waits was huge, and I really like this Swedish not so black metal band called Naglfar. It’s more like melodic death meets black metal, but it’s just really good stuff. I listen to Björk a lot and Brian Eno.
Are there any newer bands you’ve been listening to lately?
Yeah, not too metal though. I listen to Iglooghost. He’s a really weird producer guy that makes stressful electronic music. Same goes for Sophie, kind of similar. Oh, and King Krule. It’s like new wave jazz. It’s really weird, but I like it.
How much metal do you listen to compared to non-metal?
I think it’s 50/50 actually. I definitely started listening to more metal now that I’ve started this than before. I listened to a lot of metal until I was 20, then I got into super esoteric weird shit, and now I’m back on the horse (laughs).
Are you working on any music outside of Zeal & Ardor? Is Birdmask still happening?
Yeah, I write for projects that don’t exist yet, so I have a lot of songs that just don’t fit anywhere. I have to figure out what to do with that. We’ll see, maybe its Birdmask.
If you could collaborate with any musicians, metal or not, who would you want to work with?
Tom Waits or Björk, and probably Mike Patton and Corey Taylor would be in that hat (laughs).
How do you see Zeal & Ardor evolving in the future, both musically and in terms of live performances?
I have no idea. I think a heavier focus on how the band collaborates would be nice, because now it’s just me writing all of the songs. It’s worked so far, but I feel like if they played what they want to play, they would play it with more vigor. I have no idea how to do that yet because I’m such a control freak (laughs).
What’s next for Zeal & Ardor?
(laughs) We’ll try to survive this tour first, then we’ll see. We have a month in January where we don’t have any gigs, and I think that’s when I’ll try to write something and ask them to help me out.
What are your favorite black metal songs and your favorite spiritual songs? I don’t even fucking know five spiritual songs, and I don’t know the names of black metal songs either (laughs). I guess it would just be the Darkthrone discography, and for spiritual, I would have to go with “Betty.” It’s like a prison song, and “Early Morning,” which is one that I haven’t stolen from per say, but (laughs) the others are just kind of obscure stuff. I don’t know too many spiritual songs.
Catch Zeal and Ardor on tour, check out their tour dates and pick up Stranger Fruit at https://www.zealandardor.com/
Check out a live gallery and the review of the Cambridge show here: Zeal and Ardor: 9.22.18 The Sinclair Cambridge, MA