Interview: Zeal & Ardor – “Swiss metal is rearing its ugly head again.”

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Zeal & Ardor took metal by storm last year with his extraordinary one-man album Devil Is Fine, blending American spirituals with black metal to unique effect. The twenty-five minute experimental album received universal acclaim and quickly established Manuel Gagneux as one of the most exciting new prospects in music. I was lucky enough to chat to him before his Rock Altitude festival performance last week [report here].

The central concept of Devil Is Fine imagines American slaves rejecting the Christianity imposed upon them, and instead embracing Satanism as a form of rebellion. Two forms of music are seamlessly blended and impeccably researched, creating a sort of ‘Satanic gospel metal’ in which any suggestion of gimmick is forgotten on first listen. However Zeal & Ardor came about by chance, when Manuel was challenged by a rather unpleasant character on the chat forum 4chan to combine ‘nigger music’ with black metal. He was working on a very different musical project at the time, so I wonder if he feels that he fell into the world of metal by accident? “Definitely, to a certain degree, I mean I’m really happy to be here. Nothing’s really planned, we have no influence over how people will react to the music, so I guess this is just where we ended up, and we’re happy to be here.

Devil Is Fine was not originally designed to be performed live, but the demand was huge and Zeal & Ardor had to very quickly become a touring band. Manuel put together a group of musician friends from his home town near Basel, and I saw them perform early into their first tour, with remarkable youthful energy and cohesiveness. The album was brought to life better than I could have imagined, the lo-fi effects and chants all achieved along with a certain extra heaviness. I ask if he now feels that Zeal & Ardor is a band and not just a one-man project? “I definitely do now, yes. The guys, and the girl, bring a great energy to it. But listening to the record it now sounds a little tam [compared to the live performance]. It’s also been a healthy transition – it’s their fault, they bring so much to the table.

Now the ‘difficult second album’ looms, and as someone who has invented his own veritable subgenre of metal, Manuel must be feeling the pressure to come up with something equally surprising next time around. Does he feel swayed by public/press opinion either to continue down the very specific route he has created, or to do something different? “I think we’ll try to do like a split thing, a continuation of what we’ve tried to establish, but I think I’d be painting myself into a corner if I just tried to play it safe and so, I try to think not about people’s expectations, because that’s what made the first record so intriguing. I didn’t really do it for anyone, I just did it because it was interesting… so I think having those expectations in your head, you can’t not have those, but it’s detrimental.

Manuel appears relaxed in the understanding that whatever he does next is not going to please everybody, and so he will focus on making the music he wants to make. “I have to accept the fact that I’m probably going to disappoint a couple of people, and just go from there. It can’t be pandering, because I think that’s exactly what people don’t expect of me.. but you know if they expect me not to be pandering and I pander.. it’s kind of a Catch-22 situation.

Zeal & Ardor’s live performance introduces several new tracks, in order to flesh out the album into a full-length show. They are in keeping with the rest of the album, both musically (black metal with electronica and industrial sounds) and lyrically (themes of childhood, sacrifice, satanic ritual and the deep South). However there are also hints of blues and slightly softer rock, showing that while there is still scope for Manuel to explore this new genre he has created, he may move in other directions too. It is unclear whether these tracks will appear on the new album, which Manuel expects to be released around June next year.

Zeal and Ardor Geneva Doom Days

Slavery, cultural appropriation, Satanism; Zeal & Ardor has certainly laid Gagneux open to criticism with his potentially controversial subject matter, but he takes a fairly light-heated attitude. His fans are referred to on social media as ‘Servants’, and his merchandise stands are decorated with guillotines, stocks, and shackles, as well as satanic candles. At the concert I attended I watched a fan being branded with the Zeal & Ardor logo. I ask Manuel how he feels about all this.

That was an artist called Luca Piazzalonga, actually he comes from the same town we all hail from, and he is a fellow with a lot of energy, a lot of ideas, and actual capabilities to realise it. Off the cuff, he said I might do a little something for you,.. and I think I was drunk I just said ‘yeah great idea’, and a week later he calls me up and says ‘how about a guillotine?’, and so we were kind of ambushed by it all, in the best sense of the word.

Manuel has obviously had some internal struggles with the band’s imagery, but has come to the conclusion that it has to be kept light – the notion of Satanic gospel being an inherent contradiction. “At the end of the day, music is about entertainment, and if you take it too seriously then you lose the levity, and it’s not entertainment anymore. And also I’m a musician, I make pretty sounds – and even that’s debatable – so for me to tell people what to think about certain things is just going to…” he trails off.

Zeal & Ardor is about to tour the US, and I ask what the reaction to his music has been in the States, given the provocative subject matter. In fact, it is already extremely popular: “Actually it’s about half… by all the social media measurements, Facebook and so on, it’s about half.. so half our crowd is there already.” Disappointingly for Manuel and his band, they will not be joining him on the US leg of the tour. “Here’s the thing – the band here didn’t get the visas to play, so it’s 4 shows that we have to do, with hired guns from over there.. there’s this weird rule that you can’t get visas unless you’ve been playing together for a year, so…we have to do it though, because it’s promotion for the next leg of the tour. I’ve had ample time to rehearse with (the hired musicians), so… otherwise that would have been dangerous! I’m happy with them they’re great musicians, but they’re not the people that I’ve been doing this with…

Over the past few months Zeal & Ardor has played some of the biggest festivals in Europe with some of the biggest names, so I ask Manuel who his dream touring partners would be. “There’s so many. Schammasch? Other guys from our home town.. Yeah, Schammasch would be great, or Björk, if she’s down. Or, actually, Death Grips.

Although Manuel hasn’t made much of his Swiss heritage, and credits New York with much of his musical inspiration, he is clearly loyal to his home territory, supporting other local artists. And he has noticed some new stirrings on the Swiss metal scene. “It’s rearing its ugly head again now. It’s weird, because even five years ago, it was all techno, and what’s it called, trap. But now, there’s so many rock shows, even in our small town. And, it’s not only that there’s rock shows, but there’s also people attending them, which is important obviously!

I’m fascinated to know about Manuel’s musical background, since his production techniques are so advanced and he no doubt plays multiple instruments. He says he has no formal training, his only explanation being that ‘Boredom will do magical things!’. “I think New York was like a fertile playground,” he adds, “because I met a lot of people, including a lot of classical people.. I actually got to turn the pages for Martha Argerich. Which was just one of the best experiences of my life.. she is basically like a magical being at this point.

Manuel Gagneux is genuinely nice and friendly. Chatting to him it’s easy to forget that this is the person who came up with the darkest, most powerful sounds of last year. Music that is brave, that sparks debate, that drives black metal forward, that drives music forward. Often the greatest artists are those least willing or able to describe their creative process, and I realised after this interview that we had not really delved into his compositional techniques. These he keeps close to his chest, and it’s impossible to guess where he will go next. Metal hopes that he will stay metal, but one thing is for sure- with his talent and attitude, the musical world is Manuel Gagneux’s oyster.

Thanks to Manuel for his time, and Rock Altitude for the opportunity. You can check out Zeal & Ardor on Facebook, Twitter and their website.

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