Music News

Coming Down the Mountain

We're living in a time where if you believe what you read in certain places, then right now is supposed to be the flowering of something called 'indie rock,'" muses Efrim Menuck, one of the seven members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band. "I don't even know what that term means. And never mind reviews of Mt. Zion, but I read reviews of bands all the time, and I cannot believe that someone is getting paid to put these lazy little words together.

"Every single band that's been called an indie-rock band -- which is a heinous term to begin with -- all those bands are on major labels, or on smaller labels that are either owned by major labels or distributed by major labels," he goes on. "It's stuff like that that gets under my skin."

Menuck should have been a rock critic; Lester Bangs would have hired him in a cough-syrup-induced hiccupped heartbeat. But as it is, Bangs is dead and Menuck is busy filling his role as the untouchable golden boy of the Montreal scene -- being doubly instrumental as a founding member of both Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mt. Zion. His perceived Midas touch, however, seems to be a hyped-up status built around stories of a Pearl Jam-like ego and a few denied interview requests.

"It was more a thing that got written about Godspeed, but people still ask me about it with Mt. Zion," he explains. "There's this idea that we refuse to do interviews, and that's never been the case with either band. We've always been interested in talking. It's just that sometimes we really don't have anything to say. But the normal rule with magazines -- especially larger ones -- is that no matter whether you feel like talking or not, when you get the knock on the door, you're supposed to answer. You're supposed to feel privileged somehow that someone has decided that you're worthy of being interviewed. We've never really believed any of that."

So take that, rock media. Menuck and company don't need us -- but they'll still talk. Most of the time. And while pleasantries remain, Menuck seems to carry more than a few grains of salt to every interview.

"We have nothing but disdain for the industry as it functions. It's an entire rip-off scheme, and we hate it," he points out. "We hate it, we hate it, we hate it. We engage with it as little as we can. At this point, we write songs and we make records and we go on tour, and that's what we do. We're not getting any bigger, and we're happy with that. I'm pretty proud that we continue to function as a band without anything but the sweat of our own brows."

Menuck is an honest man. Or maybe he's just an asshole using honesty as an excuse. It's a fine line, but it's one that Mt. Zion somehow treads without losing its integrity. Unlike certain unnamed rock jerks with delusions of grandeur, Mt. Zion is a group that stays grounded by rooting itself in simple punk-rock principles. The outfit -- currently comprising Menuck, fellow Godspeeders Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar, and Becky Foon, Jessica Moss, Scott Levine Gilmore and Ian Ilavsky -- is like a DIY collective that just happened to end up as a band. Menuck affirms that Mt. Zion books its own tours, does its own artwork, loads its own gear and works with promoters to keep ticket prices as low as possible. And the seven of them do it together.

"We don't have a leader," Menuck notes. "Any serious decision that we have to make, we sit down and talk it through. We're a democracy with all its shortcomings, even."

Musically, the band has built its reputation on extended instrumental epics and group vocals that call to mind a polished middle-school choir tripping hard on psychedelics. Mt. Zion albums are usually thematic concentrations of emotions and dreamy paradigms. The first record, 2000's He Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms... , was partly motivated by the death of Menuck's dog and his desire to pay musical tribute to her. Back then the band was known as A Silver Mt. Zion, but by the time 2001's Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward was released, it had moved on to its current, extended moniker.

Nowadays the act is riding high with Horses in the Sky, its latest on Constellation, which professes some social and political overtones. From the first track, "God Bless Our Dead Marines," to the final, fourteen-minute-long opus "Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone)," it's obvious that Menuck's lyrics have grown beyond the dog days of yore.

Mt. Zion certainly weighs heavy on the rock scale, and if the players acted out as ultra-bent stick-in-the-butts, it wouldn't be unusual. But the wonderful irony here is that while the music may be serious, the bandmembers themselves are lighthearted and fun. On stage, Menuck will often banter and initiate interaction with the crowd. Of course, not every theater of spectators is willing to play along.

"We always try to talk to the audience," he explains, "but it's sort of important for us that people talk back, also. If we're just talking and people are just sort of laughing nervously or just kind of staring at us, we'll generally shut up pretty quick and figure that people just want us to play the songs."

"I can be kind of a loudmouth, and sometimes that has the effect of making people shut up," Menuck admits. "So I've been working kind of hard on not being quite as aggressively loudmouthed."

Then again, there's something rather charming -- a word he detests -- about an opinionated frontman. Menuck keeps his speech sharp and repeats phrases to enunciate strong feelings, and he often sighs in exasperation between rants. There are a few hot topics, and the ever-evil axis of the music industry is one that he will gladly rail about.

"It shocks me how easily people lie," he says. "It shocks me how easily musicians lie. It shocks me how rock journalists overlook their lies. It's like the entire thing is founded on lies."

"Musicians, for the most part, are vain, insecure creatures, and they lie," Menuck continues. "I think a part of that is for entertainment or whatever. It's about personas and things like that, so in a lot of ways, you have carte blanche to call yourself something that you're not. As long as the presentation seems valid, then no one is going to call you on it. Musicians lie easily and often; it's a fact."

Is this one of those jumbo-shrimp-type contradictions where Menuck, clearly a musician, should be so honest about the untruths of his own vocation? Or is it something that a hired critic might read as a juicy rant from the demigod ego of a hipper-than-thou rock star? Truth is, Menuck doesn't really embody either ideal. He would gladly trade status for studio time, and irony doesn't seem to apply.

Even so, the effervescent multi-instrumentalist doesn't claim to have any better ideas on how an ideal rock world would function, either. As for the state of rock journalism, there is only one thing that he can fully embrace: the utter stupidity of calling Mt. Zion a "post-rock" band.

"Post-rock has nothing to do with what we are doing," he says. "I don't know how it is that we would term what it is that we are doing. I just know that post-rock has no resonance with the task at hand."

His solution?

"If things could just be talked about in an honest way," he concludes, "then that would be a step in the right direction."

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Tuyet Nguyen