To be completely honest, I went into my interview with Zeal & Ardor‘s Manuel Gagneux feeling a little awestruck. I’d previously immersed myself in the band’s Stranger Fruit album and resurfaced to recognise the sheer creative mastery that was at play.
If you’re not familiar with Zeal & Ardor, I implore you to be soon. The collective are the brainchild of Swiss-American Manuel Gagneux. Where all the writing is done by Manuel, there’s five other members with him in their live show: Mia Rafaela Dieu (bass), Marco von Allmen (drums), Tiziano “Plays guitar like a young god” Volante (guitar), Denis Wagner, and Marc Obrist (vocals). Manuel’s creative challenge to blend African American spirituals with death metal paid off. The result of the challenge is two albums now under their belt: Devil Is Fine (2017) and Stranger Fruit (released today).
The genre-blending challenge originated from 4Chan. Manuel shared “It was a game I would play, where I’d just ask them for different musical genres and I’d combine them. But this one stuck, for some reason.” When I asked him as to why he began the game, Manuel said “Good music is all about accidents and happy coincidences, and it’s just kind of a way to force them, I guess [laughs]. I was mooching off other peoples’ ideas at the end of the day.”
Genre-blending two sounds that seem as opposite as you can get seemed like a significant challenge. I asked Manuel if the musical marriage worked from the beginning? He laughed a lot when he answered, saying “Oh no no. The first seven songs or so were absolutely abysmal. I will take those to my grave. It took some iterations to say the least.”
So Devil Is Fine were the songs fit for public consumption, and the album where Manuel says he started ‘finding his groove’, but added “I’m still honing in on what I want to do. I think the process isn’t quite done yet. We’re getting there, I think.”
With a follow up, there’s obviously still something more being explored, and seeing what could be done. Manuel affirmed this by saying: “Having some time between Devil Is Fine and Stranger Fruit gave me the opportunity to be a little more deliberate about what I wanted to do. So it’s not just a collection of songs I had at the time, but actually a coherent thing. That was important to me.”
I may have put my foot in it at this point, attempting to clarify what Manuel was saying about the interconnectedness of songs by questioning if they’re indeed part of the one thread. Manuel ended up saying “In the end it’s up to the listeners. And if they see them as disparate excursions, then I guess I’ve failed. But to me they kind of fit together, yeah.”
I attempted to reassure Manuel about the music by admitting that I wasn’t versed at all in ‘satanic belief’ that seemed to come into the album, so it was likely that I didn’t fully understand that side of things. I shared that I could hear the chants and music and feel the force, determination, and emotion throughout the album, but that I couldn’t personally take that and align it with an established ethos of any kind.
“That’s just the thing. I’ve come to terms with that. I don’t know what a listener is going to think, so if I have an intention with a song, there’s zero percent chance that the listener will have exactly the same experience. And I think that’s also the beauty of it, because if you listen to a song you kind of an idea of scenarios to it that’s never going to be the same one that the musician who wrote it had. And I think that’s actually a beautiful thing.”
Feeling soothed myself, I shared with Manuel my overarching impression of Stranger Fruit with the songs inspiring courage to rise up against oppressive forces that hold you down, and take your own power and not surrender it to anyone else, with the idea to talk about these things more.
Manuel laughed and said: “That’s the satanic message that you said went over your head, cause that’s one of the biggest MO’s in modern philosophical satanism. Sooo I don’t think you missed anything.”
So with all of my (perhaps stereotypical) ideas about satanism now thrown at the window, I asked Manuel to enlighten me a little on that: “In modern day satanism, the non-occult one, there’s a belief that anything you do is for your own good in a way. Even if you help out a stranger, you do it because it makes you feel good. Accepting that, you just kind of want to follow your ego as far as possible and as far as it allows you to without harming others or getting in others’ way. It also means if someone was oppressing you; standing against that. That would be the satanic connotation to it.”
I laughed at myself in the face of this, given that it’s completely different to the occultist perspective I had assumed, relating to channeling dark spirits and doing curses. I learned from Manuel that there’s Church Of Satan but also The Satanic Temple, and Manuel’s music is inspired by the latter. Their tenets relate to compassion, justice, the right to one’s own body, resolving a situation if you make a mistake which causes harm, and more that actually seem like just reasonable ways of living and nothing close to the assumed devil worship.
Manuel: “It’s actually pretty lax. [laughs] A pretty chill version. [laughs a lot]”.
Kel: “I would hear the heavier sections and screaming and be like “Oh this sounds pretty scary, this must be the part where he’s summoning the devil.”
Manuel: “[laughs] Well there’s a little bit of that also..”
I wondered whether there was an ‘anti-God’ approach being expressed in Zeal & Ardor, whether that was something relative to those born into slavery, literally asking if it was Manuel’s intention that they’d worship a dark lord in response to that life and abandoning God?
“It wasn’t exactly that. It was that the religion was being imposed upon them, because they were in captivity. Maybe their defiance would be a spiritual one rather than a violent or another one. Instead of rebelling with fists and knives, they would rebel in spirit and in song. That was the thought. Not that they would choose the dark lord because it’s dark. [laughs]. But it’s simply because they’re opposing their captors.”
Understanding more with each question, Manuel confirmed for me that within the rejection of God it was more like, “you can trust in yourself and save yourself”, as opposed to “Here, take your worship from this thing and turn it toward something else”.
Many of the songs on Stranger Fruit unfold like stories being told. I asked Manuel if this was his intention. “Yeah. But I’m really fascinated by musicians who kind of paint a world, and kind of let you have your own story to it. Like Tom Waits is kind of a master of this. So what I tried to do was not too much tell a story but more to do some set-dressing for the audience to kind of fill in the blanks. Have their own little story.”
I acknowledged that this worked really well to my ears, from “Intro” alone even. I lost myself in the scene and followed it along as intensity grew, and was able to fill in the blanks imagery wise, which Manuel seemed relieved to hear.
Relatively new to Zeal & Ardor as a band and recognising the spectrum of sounds that show up within the enclosure of an album, I couldn’t get a clear mental image in terms of what a typical Zeal & Ardor fan would be like. Manuel seemed to appreciate the way in which this couldn’t be calculated: “It’s such a disparate group of people. We do live shows and we can kind of see who listens to it. The thing that makes me so happy is that it’s such a unique crowd. There’s age groups ranging from 17 to 60 and all shapes and forms, ethnically, and I don’t know.. It’s such a mixed group that it would be a nightmare for any marketing guy to make out a demographic for us. [laughs] I love that.”
I wondered out loud what might drive this breadth of person and also unique individuals into this music, whether it took a certain outlook on music or a particular creative mind? Manuel said “I probably wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say that, but I think it’s because we use elements that those disparate groups enjoy, and you know maybe some people want to come for one element and hate the rest of it and only show up because they like that element so much”.
It was then that I admitted that I’m not personally into the black metal side of things:
Manuel: “There you go!”
Kel: “..But I feel more open to it now! The album has had me enjoy it.”
Manuel: “Yes. It’s a gateway drug I think. [laughs] Who knows.”
I moved on to questioning Manuel about the Stranger Fruit concept and the apple imagery. In hindsight I probably should have realised how loaded this topic was and if I had, I wouldn’t have posed it as casually as I did. However Manuel replied honestly and respectfully: “It’s in reference to the Billie Holiday song ‘Strange Fruit’ where she sings of ‘Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ but she’s actually referring to the lynched people that are also hanging from the tree. And I just wanted to expand on that idea and bring it to current day, which is not the best political climate at the moment. Also I think making the music that I do, it would be cowardice to not address the orange elephant in the room, or the state of the world as it is.”
I asked Manuel for the current-day reference specifically.
Manuel: “Because: ‘Strange fruit hanging from the tree’, but now I think the strange fruit is laying lifelessly on the floor with bullet holes.”
Kel: “I see.”
Manuel: “Yeah. [laughs]”
By way of the apple artwork for Zeal & Ardor’s singles for the album, Manuel shared simply: “We had one apple that we had moulding and getting ugly and we used a different half of it for a different song. It’s not actually by design, it just happened.”
Winding down the interview, I gushed about the amazingness of the album and asked if the final track “Built On Ashes” was intended as the resolution of the entire album. “Yeah. I put it on the end of the album because it feels like a summary of everything prior to it. Also it’s strangely hopeful [laughs] which is something else I wanted to put in the album. Because it’s not a joyride all in all. There’s something to be said about experiencing something terrible but being better for it in the end. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with that track.”
Given that I had my review of the album in front of me, I had a moment of amusement seeing the words that I used aligning almost sentence-for-sentence with what Manuel was saying. Reviewers don’t necessarily have special insider information; we’re all winging it. Reviewers creatively go out on a limb and just hope for the best in terms of interpreting the music in the way that feels right to us. But there was my text, which I couldn’t help share with Manuel:
“It feels like a resolution here, where delicate piano, raw vocals, and evolving intensity encapsulates what has been shared earlier in the album. Despite the darkness of the lyrics and aching riffs, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope somewhere here buried under the static and distortion. Where there’s freedom in unwantedness, and there’s possibility in losing everything.”
We ended our conversation with Manuel talking about being very much open to visiting Australia, and sharing that their live show is “a little more intense” than the album. It was a pleasure talking with the ever-humble, ever-amused, and clearly ever-creative Manuel Gagneux.
Image credit: Matthias Willi