Manuel Gagneux – the genius behind black-metal/blues/spiritual hybrid, Zeal & Ardor – discusses the details of the band’s incredible second LP, the delicious flavours of ‘Stranger Fruit’.
Manuel, I just love how much bigger ‘Stranger Fruit’ is in terms of instrumentals and production. A lot of that seems to be from your drummer Marco working with you directly on it. But what would you really attribute to the stronger development of Zeal’s sound on this new record?
Oh, a huge part is Marco playing the drums. We just had way more time to mull over what we wanted to do and how we wanted certain parts to sound. Another big part of it is that Kurt Ballou [of Converge] mixed it, and he’s the man when it comes to mixing – he’s incredible! He’s a third of this album’s sound, he’s the man.
I didn’t know that Kurt mixed the record, but now that you say it, that makes a lot of sense for this record’s sound. He also did that new album from The Armed and that thing fuckin’ rips! Another thing about ‘Stranger Fruit’ is how it grows your blues/black spirituals/black metal sound, as well as the length too. Yet there’s also a lot of instrumentals and interludes on the album too – ‘The Hermit’, ‘The Fool’, and so on.
Yeah, more time played a big factor in that as well. When I came back to the studio in January, we had 37 tracks and I whittled it down to the 16 songs that are on the album. They seemed to fit the mould of the record better.
With ‘Devil Is Fine’ and it’s setting of American slavery, I get some of that vibe here. But ‘Stranger Fruit’ seems far worldlier, for lack of a better term. What’s your intent for the theme of the record and it’s potential narrative?
We just wanted to broaden either side of our spectrum; not paint ourselves into a corner. We decided to experiment on the singular elements, so there are more varied aspects of the black music and the metal side of things. We’ve been wanting to play these songs for two years, so we better fucking like them, you know? [Laughs] That was a huge part of it.
Of course [laughs]. I guess that’s why it’s called ‘Stranger Fruit’; just you and the band getting weirder, more varied and stranger with your music.
Makes sense man! The album title is also a reference to a Billie Holiday song called ‘Strange Fruit’, and in that song, she talks about the “strange fruit hanging from the papa trees”, but she’s actually talking about the bodies of the lynch people hanging from those trees. So it’s us bringing that idea into current times with the record.
Ah, right! Very interesting – that lyrical imagery comes across so well in ‘Gravedigger’s Chant’.
Excuse my lack of terminology, but the church-like, monk chants that occur in ‘Coagula’ and ‘Ship On Fire’ here, how did those parts come about?
Oh, those are actually taken directly from a book of spells called The Grimoire. They’re a chant to summon either a demon or summon elements to help. The one in ‘Ship On Fire’ is actually one to summon a storm, which really suits the mood of the song I think.
Manuel, dude, I love how on both of these records you just go balls deep into the Satanic and occultism stuff.
Oh man, I have so much fun with it. I think I’m a little too deep into it now though [laughs].
Hey, it works well for the music! So with this new album, the first song that technically came out was that live recording of ‘Don’t You Dare’. And I love that eerie sample of how the “…opposite side would make for ideal human sacrifices”. Where or who was that sample pulled from?
So that’s actually from a guy called Anton La Vay, who was the founder of the Church Of Satan. What I believe he was talking about in that sample was how interchangeable humans and animals are for sacrifices – in a more metaphysical sense. I also just really liked the sample!
It suits the song really well, too. Not sure if you’re a fan of the band Ulver, but on their last record, ‘The Assassination Of Julius Caesar’, they leave a little easter egg about the address of what used to be the spot where the Church Of Satan once stood. And I notice that you and Zeal And Ardor do the same thing; just sprinkling the music with these great little references.
Yeah! I love putting little easter eggs, as it were, into the lyrics. Even into the music, as well. If you know what the “millennial whoop” is, I do that a lot. It’s something a lot of pop songs do, and I use that in the most disturbed songs here. Just to pervert it in even further. If no one notices it at all, I’m totally fine with that – I just love hiding shit in the music.
Man, I can’t not hear that now. Also, people will know because I’m including that in the interview.
Anyway, on one of the instrumental tracks, ‘Solve’, it’s this analogue synth track that goes for 90 seconds. Out of all the odd moments on this record, that’s up there as there’s nothing else quite like it on the album.
That song exists to serve two purposes. One is to just give the listener a breather, as they’ve been through a lot at that point. The other thing is that it’s built around a tritone interval, which in the ancient times was thought of as the interval of Satan or the devil. I just love the feel of it man. It’s not all conceptual; I just love the writing of it.
Well, do you think that because of the music you make, some people try to read too far and too hard into it?
…I’m not sure. There’s a lot of stuff you could take out of it, and some stuff that you couldn’t read from it. But it also gives you the opportunity to miss-read or over-read it. I guess it’s both columns at once. Some will put on their tin-foil hats and go all in, which is brilliant in my mind. Others won’t, and that’s fine too.
Well said, mate. ‘Devil Is Fine’ put such a big light upon you and Zeal, so does that make you nervous at all in making a solid follow-up or does it not bother you?
It doesn’t, no. The first record worked because I just made it for myself, and I bother too much about what other people might think of it. I tried to make this new record as close to that philosophy as possible. Which is making music that I personally like it. If people like it, that’s amazing, if they don’t, that’s totally understandable. I’m fine either way.
I think that’s the best mindset to have for this record, what with it being mere weeks away from release. So one final thing before we go, Manuel, I just wanted to say that that final song, ‘Built On Ashes’, is probably my favourite Zeal And Ardor track to date. It just gives me chills, capturing the same feeling that the song ‘Devil Is Fine’ gave me nearly two years ago. It’s fucking glorious!
[Laughs] dude, that’s amazing news for me! That’s going to be the last single before the full album drops. I had my doubts about that song but that’s great to hear, thank you!
Aw, no worries at all Manuel. Wishing you all the best for the album man, take care!
Thank you, man. Have a beautiful day!
‘Stranger Fruit’ is out this Friday, June 8th. You can read my review of it here.