For 16 years now, Efrim Menuck has been both internationally adored and universally unknown.
The Montreal-born musician and producer is – along with Slint’s David Pajo – responsible for the mass deconstruction of rock music. His extension of form and broad instrumentation with the bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra were the beginnings of what is now largely pigeon-holed as ‘Post-Rock’, with bands like Explosions in the Sky, Iceland’s Sigur Rós, and even the expansive metal riffage of Pelican dipping their pens in the inkwell.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra began circa 2000, as an outlet for Efrim to learn how to score music and an antithesis to the GY!BE method of writing through feeling. After two years, Efrim still couldn’t score music, but SMZ had overtaken GY!BE as the serious project. The band also includes luminaries from the Montreal scene: David Payant, Jessica Moss, Sophie Trudeau and Thierry Amar.
In the past, Efrim has voiced discomfort over disproportional attribution of praise to him for Silver Mt. Zion songs, and being the focal point of the band in the eyes of punters and journalists. Has he become more attuned to this?
‘We all have different jobs in our band, so when we play live I’m comfortable with the fact that the microphone is in front of me and I’m the one shooting my mouth off in between songs and trying to keep people engaged, and most of all trying to balance the idea that a lot of people have that we’re this serious, doom laden gang of pretentious ‘apocalyptors’ or something.
‘Where I get uncomfortable is when I get credit for stuff that we do together, I’m one tiny part of this band. But in terms of being the “front man” on stage I’m comfortable with that.’
Efrim speaks with a clipped Canuck accent that oozes a laidback and friendly vibe. It also makes me think of ‘Due South’ for a bit, but I don’t bring this up.
Over the past decade, Montreal has been the Valhalla of Canada’s musical Diaspora. Just as English bands flock to London in search of a sympathetic A&R man’s ear, Canadian bands head east to Quebec’s capital city. I asked what Montreal means to him.
‘What does it mean to me? Oh that’s a good question. It means less to me all the time. I mean, because my French is poor I feel always like a bit outside of things in this city because it’s a French city. Sometimes it just feels very disengaged and other times when I’m feeling super-involved with the people around me it feels like the best place in the world to live. Montreal is not the town it once was. It’s sort of been, like a lot of good cities, it’s been fucked up by a lot of development and a lot of ugly money in the last few years but it’s still a good town.’
And what of the Montreal music scene? I listed the few bands that I knew well – Besnard Lakes, Arcade Fire, The Dears. To me, their music seems to have a similar theme, an aura of sorts coupled with epic arrangements. Is this, I ask, a reflection of the city, or a scene within it?
‘Of the bands you just listed, I think the Dears are the most Montreal, as the people in that band are actually from Montreal, know what I mean? I mean, most of Mt. Zion are from here too, but it’s a tough question.’
I instantly fear I have revealed a gaping chasm of ignorance on my part, and mentally slap myself. ‘For me, I see huge differences between those bands’. Oh crap. ‘I see why you could make broad comparisons between those bands’. Phew.
‘We’re definitely not all part of the same scene, that’s for sure. I mean, we travel in the same circles I guess with Besnard Lakes but not so much the others. But Montreal is a small town so we all know each other’ he muses.
‘I’m sorry; I’m dodging your question. I don’t know what role Montreal itself plays in the music that bands from Montreal play. I know the little scene we’re part of has been informed by a small community of musicians who have been playing here together for over a decade now, and I know that the scene we’re part of is of Montreal. Like, some of us came from other cities, some of us are from here and we came together in this town, and there’s a reason why we all picked this town to stay in.’
This February saw the release of Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s sixth long player, ‘Kollaps Tradixionals’ (read my review here). The new album brought with it a new inflection on the name and a subtle line up change. I ask if any of these are connected.
‘The name changes are for a really mundane reason; we change it every time there’s a line up change of note. The band changes when people leave or join, so out of respect for that we change the band name very slightly every time the line up changes. But even so, there was a good seven years there where the line up hardly changed at all’
And what of the band’s evolution, sonically?
‘We try to keep things fluid, we try to grow, and I think we’re lucky too in that we exist on a pretty casual plane. We don’t have a lot of external pressure hoisted on us, we’re pretty much free to just plough our own little fields here, we’re out of the spotlight for the most part, and we earn kind of, a humble, honest living, so we kind of get to do what we want record by record. So, I think that means like the Petri dish we live in allows us to grow like mould.’
The sound of a happy toddler giggling in the background seems to me to be a metaphor for where both Efrim, and the band, are right now – doing what they love at their own pace, free of the constraints and worries that mar most bands. I’m wonder if any kind of game plan led to this, or merely sweet serendipity, and do they look to the future?
‘Yeah, we don’t – we probably should – but we don’t look down the road a lot, we’re always just focused with the task at hand. Being in a band, you follow cycles as regular as the seasons. We’re always focused on the task at hand, we probably should do some more forward thinking but we never really have’ he laughs.
‘Our ambitions are pretty humble; we don’t have any broad ideas. We just try to do what we do. We leave the big ambitions to the other bands.’
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra are playing 11 dates nationwide this month. See them here.