Published Feb 20, 2010Though often superficially associated with a contrary bleakness, Montreal's Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra exhibit outright joy in their stirring music. For some, SMZ remain an offshoot of the hugely influential collective, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, where Efrim Menuck, Thierry Amar, and Sophie Trudeau first gained recognition. Godspeed came to epitomize all that was free and unconventional about music making ― from the textured sprawl of the work itself to a vocal cynicism for the music industry, including the press.
Such signifiers dog Menuck and his peers with each new venture, including the decade-old SMZ, but they're cursory, barely scratching the surface of an entity with incredible depth. "People associate Efrim with darkness, and the fact that he, Thierry, and Sophie have worked together for thirty thousand years is absolutely part of our band's narrative," says Menuck's partner, SMZ violinist/vocalist Jessica Moss. "But if you don't spend the extra second to think about what Efrim's saying, you might hear 'The world is going to hell,' as opposed to 'The world's maybe going to shit, but what can we do to work towards a brighter place?' If you only stop at that first idea, it's easy to decide that it's not for you or is dark, worthless or whatever else."
SMZ's new album Kollaps Tradixionales finds the band down from seven to five members but at its most powerful. Songs (and their oddly spelled titles) stretch to almost comical lengths, a punk spirit propelling them with steadfast grace through deconstructed folk and rock idioms. Like its predecessors, the lyrics and artwork of Kollaps Tradixionales encourage the exploration of fresh perspectives and empowering action.
Delving further, there's an inherent playfulness to the band's manipulation of language and imagery (even the SMZ moniker is ever-shifting) that couldn't be less dour. "The people who come to our shows and actual fans of the band don't have any problem figuring out that we're actually pretty hopeful, light-hearted people with wicked senses of humour," Menuck explains. "But we've always had that tag ― that we're this apocalyptic, doom-y, bum out of a band. The subject matter of the songs is not light; that's part of it. It's not a simple presentation that we offer and that's intentional. It takes a bit of a commitment to engage with us, so I totally understand ― for a lot of people, that's not what they're looking for in band, and that's okay. But this is what we do and how we do it."
Of SMZ's many kindred spirits, few are missed more than collaborator Vic Chesnutt; one of America's most gifted songwriters (himself, an arbiter of dark humour) who committed suicide last December. "Definitely leading up to Christmas, it was clear that he was experiencing some heavy despair and people were rallying around him," Menuck recalls. "In the days before he took his own life, he was quite open about how blue he was. Prior to that, Vic was always straight up about his issues in life, emotional and otherwise. But he was always good-humoured about it. Like with a lot of things about Vic, you could never really tell what was just a line and what was real."
Happily Menuck and Moss recently became parents and, among other things, the experience has bolstered SMZ's future. "The baby was a curveball but we'll see," Moss chuckles. "Those of us who make up Mt. Zion, as long as the world will have us, we're in it for that long. And now we have a mini, sixth buddy to join us, which is totally unexpected and great."