A fun fact about phone interviews: it’s really easy to call the wrong number. That is how, on my first several attempts to speak with Efrim Menuck, I ended up calling a man named Juan. The first two times we surprised one another, partially because of the garbled nature of the signal. By the third, it was clear he was getting annoyed. Thankfully, there wasn’t a fourth.
Naturally, I was a little nervous by the time I heard that final “Hello?” That it was Menuck on the other end did not necessarily lessen the feeling. He has been involved in some of the most transcendent music of the last twenty years, providing guitar and noise for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and becoming the de-facto public face of Silver Mt. Zion (a.k.a. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra La La Band). Begun as a composition project, Silver Mt. Zion contorted into drone and ambient before emerging in the latter-aughts as a serious, honest-to-goddamn rock band. The band’s newest, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, is full of hard-chargers and high flights and some dire pronouncements, but also love and joy and hope ever present.
But Juan or no Juan, I need not have worried. Menuck was a gracious interview subject and we spoke extensively about music journalism, writing grooves, and the fears of being a new parent in a terrifying world.
The Rumpus: I saw in the press release that the new album was described as protest music. Why choose that as a description?
Efrim Menuck: To be honest, that’s the label’s angle on it, and I guess I don’t disagree with that statement, but it’s not really how we look at what we do. It’s not really a term we throw around. I guess “protest music” for me is such a narrow thing historically—it just makes me think of stuff related to the Civil Rights Movement or early Phil Ochs, just very specific issue-driven songs, you know? And I love that stuff, but we’re not writing songs about the Glass-Steagall Act or whatever. It’s a little more abstract than that. But the tunes are certainly complain-y—maybe it can be complain-y music.
Rumpus: Beyond complain-y music, then, how would you describe it?
Menuck: For me, it’s always just punk rock. Which is maybe just a way to avoid getting into specific descriptions, but it’s definitely just punk rock to us. It’s music whose beginning point is that everything is fucked, and the end point is, yeah, everything’s fucked, but what you do about it—you either cry harder or things are actually going to be okay in the end. They’re really simple songs in that way. But the starting point of every tune is that everything is fucked.
Rumpus: Maybe this is just a U.S.-focused thing, but especially from about 2000-2008, a lot of punk rock became the marketing wing for the Democratic Party. I remember the “Rock Against Bush” compilations that were explicitly devoted to getting people to vote for the Democratic Party. A lot of that stuff becomes establishment music. And that’s not really true for you, but why do you think that’s true for a lot of other people?
Menuck: That’s a good question. In some ways, as a band, we’re hobbled in that we’re really, really, really stubborn, and we’re coming from personal histories where we’ve been part of communities that have been on the margins. There’s no reflection of what we do in any aspect of broad culture, so we’re really protective about that fact. It’s endlessly inspiring to us that we can carve out a humble living on the margins without engaging with MSNBC or whatever. So we’re sort of hobbled by that, but I think most people aren’t.
We’re all pretty cynical about Western democracy at this point, so we’d never throw our weight behind a political party, but it’s hard for me to begrudge people doing that. Although, it’s weird, because I know there was this big anti-Bush sentiment in the States—of course there was—and so all these people got in line and all these people got excited about Obama. But what are all these people doing now that we’re into the second term and it’s the same pile of shit? I don’t think you can throw your weight behind something unless you’re willing to throw an equal amount of weight when things end up being the same pile of shit.
Rumpus: Do you think people being willing to throw their weight behind more mainstream political causes has to do with their being, in a sense, more mainstream? By being more popular, I think a lot of bands get this idea that they have to motivate people to go do something, and it’s a lot easier to motivate people to go vote than it is to motivate them to, I don’t know, think critically about the basis of economic systems, for instance. I guess what I’m asking you: by the fact of your marginality, do you feel that same obligation to encourage people to go do certain things?
Menuck: No. Music’s weird because music’s—for the most part, I’m speaking broadly here—when we say “music” we mean “popular music,” whether it’s weird noise music or whatever. Things are so atomized now that know one knows what the fuck is popular. But music’s aim is supposed to be to reach people—if you ask anyone, they’ll say “a song is supposed to reach as many people as possible,” so when I say we feel on the “margins,” I mean this industry we work in. Outside of those sorts of conversations we don’t feel marginalized at all. Talking to people in your everyday life, there’s more commonality than there ever has been in my life, there’s more understanding about how deeply [thing are messed-up] now—you know what I mean? But music has this baggage that it’s supposed to reach people and change people and all that sort of shit, and that’s just baggage.
And then you add that there are a lot of musicians who write songs, and that’s their whole thing: “I want to reach as many people as possible with my art,” or whatever. So you end up with a culture that has a hard time saying no to stuff, and you also end up with a culture that has a hard time talking about complicated issues. And more than that, you end up with a culture that has a hard time being conflicted. And I think those are all important things to add to whatever public debate there is going on in the world now. It has to involve conflict, it has to involve confusion, it has to involve some withdrawal, you know? I think it’s always been hard for music to accomplish that. And I think it’s especially hard right now, because people aren’t coming to music looking for those kinds of conversations. They probably feel knee-deep in it already, and it’s like, Fuck no, that’s the last thing I want to hear about or think about.
Rumpus: I remember reading a while back that Silver Mt. Zion wouldn’t really be a touring band anymore. Is that still the case?
Menuck: No, we’re doing a shit ton of touring this coming year. We slowed down a bit for several reasons, one of which being that me and Jessica [Moss]—who is one of the violin players—we had a kid. So when Jessica was pregnant, we didn’t do a lot of touring, and then when our son was born, we stopped touring for a bit, but as soon as he was nine-months-old, we started touring again with him. And then we took some time off because the Godspeed band started playing together again. But even in the middle of all that, Mt. Zion was touring. Now we’re at the point where we’re doing long tours again. We still see ourselves as primarily a live band—that’s sort of our bread and butter.
Rumpus: So when you write songs, you intend to play them in front of other people?
Menuck: For sure, and a lot of the times we write songs before we go on tour and then only record them after. That wasn’t so true for this record, but in the history of this band, that’s usually been how it’s worked: we write songs and bring them on the road, and then after we play them on the road, we record them. So our focus: we’re mostly concerned with playing live.
Rumpus: Are you writing things you feel will connect with an audience?
Menuck: With a lot of people who do anything with words, you start out addressing your friends or your neighbors or people who are close to you, and it makes sense to them, and [you’re] hoping that it makes sense to people beyond that.
Rumpus: Listening to the new album, I noticed that the longer songs seem to be all of a piece, whereas before, it seemed like songs had direct intros and codas and whatnot. Is that a conscious choice, or a factor of the process of paring down the whole band into a quintet?
Menuck: It’s a little bit of both, I think. It used to be that we’d get together in the jam space and then we’d have five different chunks of music and we’d try to put them together, and maybe we’d have to change the key on a part or something, but it was kind of like taking apart a car and then putting it back together again. And then since we’ve been a quintet, we’ve been writing stuff more based out of these long jams, taking one theme and trying to stretch as many melodies out of it as we can, and then going back and turning that into parts. So stuff has become more modal in the last few years, whereas before it felt like blocks being put together. I think it’s a combination that we became interested in playing stuff that was modal in that way, but also we were able to do that once the band became smaller.
Rumpus: So now the songs could be described as variations on a theme, sort of?
Menuck: Sort of. Depends on the tune, I guess. They’re kind of variations on a groove most of the time, like variations on a holding pattern.
Rumpus: I assume you don’t read a lot of the press about your stuff, but it seems like a lot of writers tend to focus on one or two primary influences in terms of how music sounds, and they miss a lot of other things. It seems to me that stuff like country music informs a lot of your music, but why do you think it is that people—maybe writers, maybe fans—focus on some aspects but miss others?
Menuck: Because most of the writing about our band is done by people whose beat is writing about indie rock, and indie rock is kind of ahistorical. So unless you’re writing country tunes writ large, or blues tunes writ large, or soul tunes writ large, those sorts of references are just not going to be recognized or acknowledged. So I think it’s like kind of a shortcoming when it comes to modern rock criticism. And we try to react to that. We say in interviews that we see ourselves within a long tradition: we’re not like an old-timey band, but our interest isn’t in the avant-garde; we’re not under the misconception that we’re making something new, so we try to shoot our mouths off about that fact. I think it’s, for the most part, that indie rock music criticism is ahistorical—it concerns itself with the present unless it’s forced to acknowledge that there was once a past.
Rumpus: There’s always a sense of “newness,” of being obsessed with brand-new things, which then get discarded in favor of other brand-new things—which maybe is just part of the process of getting promos and having to go through things, so you don’t have time to reflect a lot. So like you said, it’s largely ahistorical, because people start with the music they listened to as teenagers and then never look back.
Menuck: I think a lot of that is true. Part of it is that a lot of the work is done by freelancers who are bombarded with stuff they have to write about for very little pay, and I think there’s market pressures to make everything new all the time. Certainly with the Internet, half the gig is churning endless amounts of content into this furnace, which is not a process that leads to longform pieces that have a lot of cohesion. I’m speaking generally here; I’m not denying that there are pieces on the internet that are cohesive and longform. So yeah, you put those things together, and you end up with a lot of “new now, now new.” Are you’re familiar with this whole “rockist thing,” this whole debate?
Menuck: For people who write about music that come from a more theoretical place, a lot of that not wanting to carry a lot of rockist baggage meant that a lot of shit just got thrown out the window. It’s a whole bunch of things combined.
Rumpus: It also seems to me that a lot of people approach music criticism from a theoretical perspective. Like you said about the rockist thing, instead of looking at music itself, the writing looks at “how does it appear?” or that sort of thing, which doesn’t really lead to very good music criticism, in my opinion.
Menuck: For sure, and I’m always bummed out too, because…when I came of age, the big tyranny was Rolling Stone Magazine and Spin Magazine, which were just two different piles of the same shit, and were both definitely oppressive. You never read about bands you cared about in those magazines—bands who were actually making a living on the road. It was some alternate universe where only bullshit mattered. And so I remember at the time, when we were kids, when that Lester Bangs anthology came out, the Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung book—just reading stuff that was coming from a subjective place, and an engaged place, someone who was engaged with the music and with the scene or whatever, was such a “Holy fuck, that’s what missing!” [moment].
But now we’re at a place where there’s all sorts of subjective writing about music all over the place, but it’s not any better than what it used to be. It’s frustrating, and I know I’m coming across as shitting on rock criticism, and there’s good stuff out there, so my intent is not to be like an old fogey, shitting on young-un’s or whatever.
Rumpus: Definitely. I don’t know if you read it, but there was an interview with Jim DeRogatis in The Village Voice recently.
Menuck: That Jessica Hopper did there?
Rumpus: Yeah, and he made a very good point that now, not only in music criticism but in other things, writers don’t have any “hard journalism training”—they don’t have experience looking up and doing research into things, it’s more about “this is how I feel, this is how it stands based on the theory I know,” critical theory, that sort of thing. But there’s a real lack of—I don’t want to say objectivity, because I’m trained as a historian and while we’re supposed to research we’re also trained to interpret, that sort of thing—but I guess instead of that foundation level of looking into whether things have merit as claims, it’s more a matter of whether I think it sounds good.
Menuck: It’s absolutely true. And it’s disheartening. I read that same interview and then you read what people had to say about that interview and it’s just endless, knee-jerk fuck you’s all over the place. I don’t know, man, I could talk for three hours about all this stuff. It’s just that there’s something inherent—not in the Internet itself, but where the Internet and market forces intersect is an inherently reactionary space. And it’s either going to get better or it’s not. It doesn’t seem like it’s getting better. But it’s a public square where objective reality doesn’t exist. It’s kind of like the Republican echo chamber: you just repeat the same thing as many times as you have to until becomes fact. It’s a hot mess, man. It’s not a good scene, whether you’re talking about history, about politics, about any of it. It’s a sad space and a sad thing to witness. I don’t think people are any more ignorant today than they were twenty years ago, thirty years ago, forty years ago, fifty years ago. We’re all armed with so much information. But there’s this denial mechanism that sort of infiltrates everything.
Rumpus: You talked about the atomization of media before, but I think much more so than thirty or forty years ago, you have the ability to go to media—whether you’re talking mainstream things, or alternately websites that are very niche-specified, that basically tell you exactly what you want to hear—and you don’t ever have to leave that world, essentially. And I think that a lot of media now, and a lot of organizations too, work by telling people that they’re moral and they’re smart without requiring them to do anything, and I think people really gravitate toward that sort of thing. There’s the old, tired philosophical debate that if you do charity and you feel good then you’re being selfish, but at least there’s a positive endpoint there. For this, you just click a link and feel good. It’s like a mouse clicking a button in a maze and getting cheese—you don’t accomplish anything, but you get the same positive feedback.
Menuck: For sure. There are people in my family who are exactly the kind of comment box trolls, right-wing trolls—they have all these sort of knee-jerk, right-wing opinions that they tweet and do all this bullshit with, but then when you actually talk to them it’s a whole other conversation. Do you know what I mean? So I know it’s a cliché—you can get away with that shit on the Internet because you’re anonymous—but at the same time that’s the saving grace of people, because somehow we’re still talking to each other in the real world. It’s like two parallel worlds: in one world it’s completely stratified, and there’s another world where we have to be in the same streets together, we have to work together, we have to drink in bars together, we have to talk to each other. And when people are actually talking, it becomes a lot harder to pull off that same one-way bullshit.
But yeah, I always wonder about that—everything’s atomized, everyone’s being rewarded. But like you said, nothing’s being demanded of people other than to have the same opinions, and not just in the American political system but up here in Canada, too, you see the influence in terms of what the degradation of contemporary political debate is, and the fact that there’s no bipartisanship and nothing gets done. But in the real world it’s not actually like that. In my experience of the real world, it’s not that polarized, it’s not that stratified.
I’m curious what you think. I can only talk about the world I live in. But it’s a weird thing. I don’t think I’m being Pollyanna-ish.
Rumpus: I grew up in a pretty small town, a fairly conservative place even in Upstate New York, but like you said, you get that sort of bi-polarized thing where people would write into the paper that I knew, who had very blustery conservative opinions about things, but you knew these people in real life and they’re not blustery in real life. And I agree with you. And I know a lot of people—though I can only speak for more liberal communities, because that’s where I’m coming from—but they have this idea of conservatism that’s based on what they see in their own communities or alternately, what they see in the news or online or whatever, because they never actually have to interact with anyone that actually believes anything like that.
Menuck: For sure. It’s a debate I had in my community—no so much anymore—it was when we were all younger, there were always people who were so hardcore anti-Christian, because their understanding of people who had faith was this sort of caricature: nothing but intolerance, nothing but two-facedness and greed. And I always felt weird about that. I’m not a Christian, I don’t believe in God, but clearly there are some people who believe in God, who go to church, who are not pure evil. So it’s always a problem when people are addressing a place where they’ve never interacted with the people they’re criticizing.
Rumpus: You’d call them straw men arguments.
Menuck: Yes, well, it can be a straw man argument, but I was talking about people, like gay friends with heartfelt “fuck the church and fuck anyone who believes in it” beliefs. And I understand where it’s coming from, but at the same time, I’m not losing sleep over the rise of evangelical Christians, because I don’t think all evangelical Christians are as stupid as we’re all supposed to believe. So that’s not a straw man argument—that’s coming from a fearful place.
Rumpus: I understand what you’re saying. In my experience, the people I’ve interacted with who are anti-religious across the board, for the most part are coming from that sort of place, which I guess I disagree with. Growing up in a Christian family and in a small town, you interact with parts of it other people just don’t.
Menuck: For me, I’m Jewish. I grew up with a father who did not believe in God but sent me to Hebrew day school anyway, so my first nine years of school I was in this little ghetto, so my understanding of the world—I’m dumbing it down a little—but it was, I understand Jews and everyone else is fucking insane to me, because that was my experience as a kid. So coming from that point of view, the moment I hit my teens I realized that was all bullshit. But it means I have a hard time actually being blindly critical about people in general. Specific situations piss me off, and I’ll shoot my mouth off about specifics, but it weirds me out when it’s anything bigger than that. So a lot of this new Dawkins-style stuff, I don’t actually get it. I don’t believe in God, I’m an atheist, but I don’t feel oppressed as an atheist. But maybe it’s because I’m not living or working in the straight world.
Rumpus: That sort of stuff always bothers me because, in a sense, it condemns pretty much everyone who lives on the planet outside of certain intellectual Western communities. Obviously you have atheists around the world, but most of the people in the world believe in religion and act it out in their daily lives very intimately or personally, I guess I would say, because that’s how people interact with religious faiths, whether you’re talking about Buddhism or Judaism or whatever, so it feels weird to condemn how pretty much everyone on the planet lives their life.
Menuck: For sure, and to deny that there’s degrees of faith, and that there is a fluidity in faith. At the end of the day I’m an anarchist—I believe that people actually can take care of themselves and that we don’t need leaders, that’s what I believe. I know for a lot of people, their understanding of what an anarchist is is completely fucking ridiculous, like lecture-some, and naïve, and overly idealistic, and I’m not any of those things. The degree to which my beliefs are strong or small varies day by day, week by week by week—I’m not a dogmatic anarchist. And there are lot of people with faiths and different religions who are not dogmatic, whose faith oscillates and vacillates.
At the end of the day we have to live in this world together, and definitely the starting point of any conversation has to be about finding commonality, or else what’s the point in the conversation? I don’t want to live in a ghetto, I don’t want to live in a place where only people who share my beliefs live. I don’t want to live in a commune; I want to live in a city, I want to live in the world, and we all somehow do manage to live together without tearing each others heads off. That’s the beautiful thing about cities: you have to understand and learn to live with other people, regardless of where they’re coming from.
Rumpus: Where does the song “Fuck Off Get Free” come from?
Menuck: We had these huge student protests years ago that turned, overnight, into broad, popular protests against pretty much everything. It started with the students, but it was one of these weird moments of history where it felt like everyone was in the streets every night, and it was like that for a week. But leading up to that popular movement, when the student protests were happening, the sort of coverage of Montreal that you’d read from a provincial viewpoint or a Federal viewpoint—basically, Canada hates Quebec, Quebec hates Montreal, so Montreal is shat on twice, we have two levels of disdain that we suffer beneath. So “Fuck Off Get Free” feels like it should be the Montreal civic motto.
There’s a tradition of complaining here and shooting our mouths off that’s beautiful to me. And at the same time, there is not a city in Canada that is more disdained than Montreal. For most Canadians, Montreal is Quebec, and within Quebec, Montreal is not Quebec, so it’s a very strange situation. And it’s always been that way.
Rumpus: In relation to that—and we were talking earlier about country music and the blues—I find when I’m listening that this music has a sort of an amorphous political consciousness, it has this acknowledgement that the singer, or who the singer represents, commits crimes but it’s fairly low-level and fairly small, whereas people on a much higher level, whether that be politicians or a general government or, I guess in more recent times, corporate figures, commit these really severe crimes, but the smaller people are going to get punished much more severely. I’d say I see similar things popping up in your music and your lyrics. Do you agree with that?
Menuck: Absolutely, and it’s conscious. That’s the aim of the songs: to occupy exactly that space. Going back to what I said, we see ourselves operating in a fairly long tradition. Like, country music started with weird Scottish highland music about corrupt kings and noble lasses who fell by the wayside, but they were all class-conscious. There were people, and then there were kings, and the kings were all corrupt and fucked, and the people were fucked in a different way. And that tradition came to the Southern states and turned into rural music, including blues, but also white rural music that became country and western. There’s a long tradition of writing songs from that sort of perspective. I wish there was a better word for it than “class-consciousness,” like a critical class-consciousness, but that’s what it is at the end of the day. The idea that we’re all fucked, that there’s a small minority of people who aren’t, and the rest of us who are. And yeah, that seems like a good starting point to write a song. So it’s totally conscious on our part.
Rumpus: This might seem fairly self-explanatory, but what drew you to interacting with that lineage or writing in that style when you first started writing lyrics?
Menuck: I don’t know. It just made sense to me, I guess. I had a very traumatic adolescence and early adulthood that involved bouts of homelessness—definitely temporary poverty. I’m not going to paint myself as disadvantaged in any profound way, but it was a rough bunch of years. So my awareness of class issues was all born then. So I think anything that’s looking at the world from that point of view is something that rings for me. And it’s strange that there’s so little of that, not just now but throughout the history of music. And I think that comes back to the sort of baggage that popular music carries, that it needs to constantly compromise to be popular. Though it’s weird: you listen to what the hits were not just in the ‘60s but into the ‘70s and even the pop songs were sort of badass, lyrically. So there was a little window where popular music got pretty gnarly. But before that and definitely after that it’s hard to find a song that will even acknowledge that the world is divided between workers and bosses. And you don’t have to be a Communist to agree with that sentiment; you just have to be alive.
Rumpus: I noticed in the lyrics for the new one, there are lots of catastrophic images—cities burning, the world being sick, mountains being torn down—and they’re presented in positive and negative contexts. In focusing on more destructive images, did you have specific reasons, and do you see a creative potential in destruction?
Menuck: No, it’s weird. The tune with the cities burning, “What We Loved Was Not Enough,” that’s a heavy tune, and I feel a little uncomfortable about it. That tune—really all it’s about is being a new father and looking at the world and being fucking horrified. You think you’re horrified, and then you have a kid, and then you’re triply horrified, because you have this innocent little creature that in a few years, you’re going to say “Yeah, go, good luck with that.” So that song is written in the past tense because that song is a sort of lament about, Yeah, things are really fucked. And the song is ultimately concerning itself with this really complicated idea that the West is done, the West is over, and the only way the West is going to find ascendancy is to acknowledge that it’s over, and that’s going to be a fucking mess. And that’s a complicated idea.
So that song, it’s unlike other tunes we’ve written. I find it viscerally ugly, lyrically. And the line, “Lord let my son live to one day see that mountain torn down,” I see that as positive. The mountain is supposed to be the obstacle, this thing we have to tear down together. But on the whole, I’m not so interested in visualizing the apocalypse or whatever. I think we all share similar nightmares, you know? I don’t think we have to draw those nightmares out into the open to examine their veracity. I think we all share similar nightmares and I don’t think there’s a need to add to that sketch. For the most part I’m against apocalyptic imagery, but in that one song I thought it was called for.
Rumpus: “What We Loved Was Not Enough” has been out for awhile, and that one always interested me because it seemed resigned to the destruction of things. Is that off-base?
Menuck: Oh, it’s written from that viewpoint. That was how I was feeling when I wrote those words. I wrestled with that, I was like, Oh, what’s with the bummer tune? But I think there’s just that sentiment, “what we loved was not enough,” that’s important. You can put that into the present tense and say “what we love isn’t enough”—a whole different meaning, but it’s still true. If you’re in the future and you’re going to look back and say “what we loved isn’t enough,” then maybe the point right now is to find how what we love is actually enough to change things. That sounds hopelessly idealistic, but maybe there’s some truth in that.
Rumpus: You mentioned “apocalyptic” before, and that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot with your music and with Godspeed’s music, because a lot of people look at the images on a very surface level. This has certainly been true in American popular culture in the last ten or so years. But this kind of fetishizing of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic stuff, and the way a lot of people seem to look at it, is when American or Western society declines—or more dramatically, gets destroyed—that’s it, the world is over. What’s interesting to me is looking back on what geologists would call “deep history”—looking at when civilizations come apart, it’s not the end, people dissociate and they live in small groups or they come back together, but everything does not just fall apart because Rome is done, that sort of thing. But that fetishizing seems to come out of an unwillingness to acknowledge that our society will not, in fact, last forever.
Menuck: Yeah, I agree. There’s so much insecurity in the world, especially in the West. It would make sense that people would want depictions of what they feel insecure about, without actually challenging where that insecurity comes from. So it makes sense that you would end up with the worldview that you just described, that somehow Western civilization is the end-all and be-all, and once that ends, everything ends. At the same time, a civilization collapsing is a traumatic thing. It’s important to keep a longview, but it can be hard to keep that longview, too.
Featured image of Efrim Menuck © by Timothy Herzog.
Image of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra © by Yannick Grandmont.
All other images courtesy Efrim Menuck and Constellation Records.