Zeal and Ardor is the musical brainchild of Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux who has created a unique, dark and brutal musical palette with broad brushstrokes of gospel music, black metal, birdsong, church organs, savage guitars and the voice of a shadow-hewn bluesman from another time.
Zeal and Ardor’s brand new second album, “Stranger Fruit” – a reference to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” – feels cinematic. It immediately conjures an epic journey across the ocean, which struck a match in my mind and took me down a rabbit hole of discovery. What is the connection between this deep sonic pain, this ancient soul music, this screeching black metal darkness and the sea? Where is the echo of Billie Holiday’s subject matter in this record?
Upon delving deeper, I learned that an estimated 100 million lives were lost in the Middle Passage on the journey from Africa to the British-led United States during the era of slavery. As a white Australian with our own bloody history of oppression of Indigenous Australians, custodians of one of the most exceptionally well-developed, deep and complex cultures on the planet, learning about another horrible, waterlogged, brutal chapter of history I was completely unaware of was confronting. Whilst he is not being so literal on this record, it is hard not to feel the weight of this untold story behind the music.
The connection between the reactionary intensity of Norwegian black metal against mono-theistic religion, and the “clandestine” religious meetings that took place during this era of oppression, may be “tinfoil hat” connections, but they are resonant here. “What I wanted to do was give a vague scenario,” Manuel Gagneux explains. “And not as much do storytelling as I would do set dressing, so everyone can have their own narrative there. I think it would spoil the whole thing to say “actually, that’s what happened there” and blah blah blah. I think half of the joy in music is having your own world there, so I would never dare to correct you on anything you said.”
Beyond any kind of hidden meanings I arbitrarily place on this experience as a listener, this is really fucking interesting music. It is very clear why artists like guitar legend Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Prophets of Rage extol the virtues of this exceptional and unexpected cross-cultural musical combustion.
The below are excerpts from “The Void with Christina” podcast interview with Zeal and Ardour’s Manuel Gagneux, hosted by Christina Rowatt. Listen to the full conversation on iTunes, Stitcher or via Soundcloud below.
Christina: How did you get into the subject matter? The sea is such a character? What about in emotional terms, what do you want people to feel?
Manuel: To me it is about departure, and the knowledge that you can’t go back. It is irreparably done. Be it good or bad. And there is this anxiety of leaving something behind and coming to terms with it.
Christina: What I think is really interesting is there’s this use of gospel sounds and blues and church organs and black metal. To me they’re all really primal emotional sounds. Weapons that defy the brain and go straight to the heart and body. Do you see these as weapons?
Manuel: Yeah, they both have this emotional force to them. The emotions are very different but they hit home in very similar ways. So they marry well, I think. Maybe they are weapons, that’s a nice view of things. Well, nice?! [laughs].
Christina: Black metal has this history with religious oppression and it also has a pretty weird history in terms of being very whitewashed, with some fucked up nationalistic threads [within this]. I think its really funny to mix it with gospel, which also has elements of defiance. I got into reading about the slaves [during my research] … they used to run away and sneak to listen to their own preachers, when they were enslaved. They’d have secret religious meetings. It is like going to black metal shows.
Manuel: Exactly. There is all these weird connections. So there is this whole tribal thing. Black metal is really protective of their scene and their music for a reason. It is like this secret club. And there are these similarities to what you’re talking about, these secret, clandestine religious events. So there is fun little tinfoil hat connections you can draw if you’re into it. Its good fun to me, at least.
Christina: How did you learn to sing?
Manuel: The best teacher is recording yourself and hating your voice and trying to figure out how you can hate it less [laughs].
Christina: The voice in this thing is so fucking cool. It’s hard and intense and bright in the foreground, you’ve got this swaggering outlaw vibe. It’s screaming and impassioned. And then with all the choir shit it’s not a single person and you turn it into a collective thing. How do you make decisions about how you use the voice?
Manuel: The thing that I wanted to do with the voice is like if you listen to harsh music, black metal in particular, it can hit you in two ways. It can be like this opposing force thrashing into you or this really big gale wind kind of pushing you forward. But if you precede it like something like a gospel choir, it has this inherent thing where you want to be part of it. It is very inviting and alluding. So once the metal part hits you it is going to be that gale wind immediately, and never the opposing thing.
Christina: How did you get into gospel music?
Manuel: My mum – being African American – introduced me to that. She’s also a jazz singer, I have to say. But I got into metal on my own terms as a teenager, and actually only rediscovered this stuff for this project a couple of years ago.
Christina: It is really original, and I appreciate that you brought it into the world. Did you read anything about this deaths at sea stuff? [NOTE: Incredible books like “Sowande’ Mustakeem’s “Slavery At Sea” explore this horrific untold story at length]
Manuel: Yes, because this isn’t like easy subject matter and if you approach it ham-handedly you can get into big trouble. I think I owe it to, not historical accuracy, but a modicum of respect and taste … I mean, I do add a lot of Satan in there … [laughs]
Christina: You’re [Rage Against The Machine & Prophets of Rage legend] Tom Morello’s favourite band.
Manuel: We opened for them in Luxembourg, in London and in Berlin. I thought I had seen a backstage, but I have never seen a backstage like that. It was like this heaven/spa situation [laughs]. The best food I’ve ever eaten was there. I can’t even describe it. It is impossible.
Christina: What did moving from Switzerland to America do to change your perspective of the American experience?
Manuel: I’ve always had this healthy distance … I’ve always been an observer rather than a member of society in both places. I grew up in Switzerland being half black, which works but there is still like a distance between me and normal society. And the same thing happened in America where I was this guy that grew up in Switzerland. There’s a lot of colloquial language I didn’t know or had to read up on … But you know, outsiders have the best view.
The title is a reference to the Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit”, where she sings about the strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees, but she is actually talking about the bodies that have been hanged from those trees.
Christina: In terms of your mother sharing her experience, what did she relay to you, especially as another musician? You’ve got so many artists like Nina Simone who have been so provocative …
Manuel: She fought a similar uphill battle here in Switzerland, where she raised us. Being a singer from New York and Switzerland. Not being presented as this exotic thing that basically is like, has this weird kind of freak show connotation to it. And actually moving from that to being taken seriously as an artist has been what I have observed in her life, when I was able to witness it. Thats what I took away from her.
Christina: There’s an interesting long tradition going back to artists like Josephine Baker as a black American artist in Europe and how she was treated. A lot of people have a limited perspective. What do you think the limitation in perspective is based on?
Manuel: It is based on presentation, I think. She was presented as this exotic oddity, and I think people now are being presented more as products, in a way? Now you see a black artist or an asian artist, and its not as much the race thing anymore but there is this dehumanisation … it’s a product, its something unreal. I don’t know if I am talking out my arse here … I’m fairly hypocritical here because I’m trying to live off music.
Christina: When are you going to come out and play this? It needs a choir!
Manuel: I have two backing singers, I love them to bits. Maybe we’ll be inexplicably flush with money and I will be able to afford a choir. Who knows?
Christina: A gold bathtub full of money and cocaine [laughs]. That’s what happens with artists, right? Do you find the whole glorification of wealth in the most unequal country in the world sometimes a bit gross?
Manuel: Sometimes? [Laughs] It is so bizarre …
Christina: I think having black voices in black metal [is important] because it isn’t often the case. Referencing these kind of musical traditions — I don’t know what it is like living in America but what has happened over the last few years, with racism being legitimised in a really disgusting way and rather than people being angry about corporate interests, they want to blame something else. Has it felt like that to you? Seeing that happen around the world?
Manuel: There’s a definite and palpable shift in terms of how people perceive and choose to blame things. It has become more easy to look for a scapegoat and blame it … but that is just a scapegoat, it is not processing the issues at hand. There needs to be some kind of wake up call or shaking up … [but] I’m just a silly musician. Even that is debatable.
Christina: What does it feel like to unleash this on the world?
Manuel: It’s weird. I try not to think about it too much. In a way its really personal, and in a way its just something I did. I’m not in the studio anymore, so it is distant. I don’t know, it always hits me as a surprise. Especially when we play live shows. I can’t believe people are into it. Because it is something I just did for myself, and thought maybe my friends would like it, or my mum. Out of pity, or whatever. But yeah, it’s just kind of baffling.
Zeal and Ardor’s “Stranger Fruit” is out now. Listen below.
Host of The Void with Christina podcast Christina Rowatt also creates an interview-based YouTube channel featuring Australian and international rock artists and documentary-style features, with more than 100 episodes to date. Watch: youtube.com/thevoidwithchristina