Black Soul: An Interview with Zeal and Ardor

And now, for something (really different). Despite the fact that I’m a very important, busy man, and model family man I still find the time to snoop around Bandcamp, looking for the next best thing. Admittedly, it has taken me a while before I succumbed to the idea that I will no longer be finding new bands via the infinite flipping of CD’s in music stores and/or through encyclopedic music websites (sayonara Allmusic), and embrace the band that is camp. But, that time has long arrived, and here I am, wandering the corridors of obscure heavy music. So much so, in fact, that if the internet was a real place I’d be arrested for harassment and loitering. But it isn’t, so chill. Don’t be a snitch.

And the reason why I bring up my harassing ways is Zeal and Ardor, easily one of the most wonderful things that have happened to my ears in quite some time. At first I didn’t believe it: What is it that I hear? Gospel and black metal? But, slowly the shock wore off and I just couldn’t stop listening to Z&A’s new album, Devil is Fine. Next, I tried to find out who the hell this was. The band’s Facebook page, who at the time had 216 likes, wasn’t very helpful. Interviews were hard to come by. All I had was a name. Manuel Gagneuax.

My first stepping stone was Birdmask, the other-other alter-ego used by the aforementioned Gagneuax, a poppy-yet-weird musical project that felt like it was nine million light years from what Z&A was about. With my confusion still intact, a passing through Gagneuax’s previous attempt as Zeal and Ardor in 2014, I contacted the mysterious man of…mystery, and had a very nice short conversation about black metal, slavery, branding people in live shows, and, obviously, the devil.

Cover of Devil is Fine, complete with the image of slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner and the sigil of Lucifer

Cover of Devil is Fine, complete with the image of slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner and the sigil of Lucifer

Gagneuax, 27, the son of a Swiss father and an African-American mother, was raised in barren planes of Switzerland (yeah, I know, it’s not barren and it’s mountainous, but shut up) until the ripe age of 22, at which point he transplanted to Harlem and began life as a full-time musician. Since our conversation, about a month ago, somehow, Zeal and Ardor have been, relatively speaking, blowing up, with coverage in Vice and Cvlt Nation, among other places, and a Facebook presence that has managed to multiply itself by the 10th degree. So, no longer the daring trailblazer, I take comfort in the fact that something as great as this is getting that much attention. Enoy. 

Were you making music before you arrived in New York?

Yes, a little bit, but when I moved to New York I decided to distance myself and dedicate myself to music solely.

Distance from family and friends?

Pretty much. If you're in a social construct you tend to play the role you've always played, you can't really move. So, that was the idea.

Ok, so I have a question I like to ask, and it's stupid, so if you don't feel like answering it, don't. But, I like it, so if you choose not to I would be very offended. 

[Laughs] OK.

Is there a album or song that you remember really changed the way you feel about music, maybe even made you want to be a musician?

Ah, well my parents were musicians, so I was always kind of hungry to make music. But, I think when I was like 14 or something I listened to The Trooper by Iron Maiden for the first time, and I just wanted to do that.

To do what, play metal?

Exactly. To go get a guitar and everything an annoy my neighbors. It was great [laughs].

So you were a metalhead as a kid? 

Totally, yes. I was into stuff like Wintersun, Naglfar, Cannibal Corpse, Nile. Everything. Anything exciting and new.

That's interesting to me because, since I stumbled upon your album, I kind of backtracked and saw some of the things that you made also as Birdmask, and I was really struck by the fact that Birdmask…. I mean, all your music sounds strange, in a good way, but I guess you could say Birdmask sounds a lot more electro-pop. Kind of very conventional song structures. It was very soulful and beautiful, and maybe poppy. 

That's appropriate, I think.

So when you describe yourself as this metalhead teen, what made you move from that metalhead teen to that, and then what made you move from that to Zeal and Ardor.

I guess it was kind of honesty. Like, if you're a metalhead kid you have to hate certain things. And at some point I just had to admit to myself that I really enjoy really cheesy songs. Like, a lot of metal records have that one acoustic song, that's super sentimental, and they can do it because the rest is metal, but actually you know they really want to do that [laughs].

[Laughs] I think that's true.

And Zeal and Ardor. So, I just wanted to do something new and exciting, even if it's poppy…. I guess "strange" is an appropriate word. And it was too poppy, so I made Zeal and Ardor to even it out.

So, moving from the metal thing to the Birdmask thing you have to get in touch with your inner cheese, the orchestral pop guy that resides within everyone, and once you let that out of your system, or once you express that, you needed to counterbalance that with something else?

Yeah. I mean, even when writing these cheesy things I would still write down "hard" ideas here and there. But yeah, it was a good outlet.

I mean, it seems to me…. I mean, I'm an adult now, I have a child, which is very much an adult experience, but metal is 99 percent of what I listen to. And I always like telling people that metal is the kind of music you listen to that gives you no illusions as to the perfection of human existence.  

[Laughs] That's actually quite nice.

Because it's cheesy. I mean, you don't have to go to the acoustic number, I mean, granted, that's the cheesiest moment, because metal as a genre is super cheesy. The idea that someone can take it super seriously is hilarious to me, because there's a fault in the system. There's too much of it.

Yeah, exactly. It's that pathos, that gravitas, it's a show. And you know, you need to appreciate as that, and you're delusional if you really take it at face value.

But, let me go back. The firs Zeal and Ardor album from a couple of years ago, that felt a lot more like a logical extension of Birdmask. Because it was still pretty poppy, and just taking that sentiment and mixing it with a lot of crazy metal moments.

But the new Zeal and Ardor felt much different. It feels a lot grittier. There's thins ethos in black metal of kind of "keeping it real." And it feels like, whether ironically or not, Devil is Fine is really working that angle, much more explicitly than before.

I know what you mean, but it came from a different thing. The first album, like you said, was like an extension. Those were the melodies that were lying around. The new one, I think, is conceptionally more coherent. It's explicitly, vaguely, anti-Christian and satanic, combined with slave melodies and black metal. It goes that route, exclusively.

So the grittiness is coming from the slave part, of the black metal part, or just a combination of the two?

Just a combination of the two. Actually, the grit, that wasn't really planned, that just kind of happened, because I think I'm still zoning in on the sound I want to have for it, but I just think it's more refined there.

The combination of the slave and black metal, both, quite ironically, "black music," what was it that made you concoct this combination, that really is, I think, kind of unprecedented. Bringing together African-American spirituals and a very specific strain of extreme metal.

Well, conceptually, Christianity was imposed on both groups, both Norwegians and black people. And as a kind of thought experiment I thought: "What would happen if they would both revolt in a similar fashion?" But, the way it actually happened was that I used to go to 4Chan. It's just a strange image board where people post shit, and they're really rude to each other, so the feedback you get there is very honest. So I would go on that site and I would start a thread and I would ask people for genres. One person would post punk, and another would post fusion jazz, and then I would make a song in 30 minutes combining the two.

Just kind of as an exercise for you?

Yeah. Half a hour, pop out a song. And one day someone said…. Because they're really racist on the board, I have to just say that, so one guy said "nigger music" and the other guy said "black metal" [Laughs]. And I was like, "that's terrible! How dare you?" And then next thing I was like, "Maybe he could on to something" [laughs]. So that's how that happened.

So, having done the song for that, that led to the conceptual side?

I actually didn't do the song then. It was posted by two different individuals in that thread, but it kind of stood out to me.

Because it seems very interesting to me. The idea of forced Christianity is very interesting. But the reason I find this so fascinating is that I have this ongoing discussion with myself and anyone who wants to hear, which is usually just myself, about certain genres or modes of music that require a kind of biographical authenticity. There aren't a lot of those, but it seems like the "roots" type of music really requires you to fit the mold.

For instance, there's a huge a backlash against American black metal for being hipster and shallow, not kind of conveying the authentic pagan, tribal, whatever values of Scandinavian black metal. And you can imagine that kind of argument about the blues, about punk. That there's certain kinds of music that seem to require this authenticity. And it's really interesting that Zeal and Ardor combines two types of this kind of folk music. That's on top of the fact that both genres have an interesting relationship with the devil as well. Is that something you thought about? 

Yeah, well I think it kind of fueled the whole idea. But about that exclusivity of creativity part, I think it's utter and complete bullshit. I mean, I can see how the Scandinavian black metal crowd wouldn't really appreciate the Brooklyn brand of black metal. I mean, it's not always as good, but to say that "only this creed of people may produce something in this fashion" is stupid.

I agree. I would even say that the good Brooklyn bands are the ones that aren't even trying to get into some kind of authentic mode. There are American bands that are trying, like Wolves in the Throne Room maybe, or Panopticon…

Like, they're the emulating bands.

Not maybe even emulating, but they're trying to find the authentic Norwegian forest, just in Minnesota, or Portland. But there's another strand, which I also like, that is intentionally fucking with this idea for the sake of their own art. I think that's beautiful.  

Me too, I wholeheartedly agree.

Do you feel at all as part of a metal scene?

No. I think as soon as you band together and form a movement then that's already regressive. You can't make something new anymore, because you're already established. And I think it's a compromise of one's vision. I mean, that sounds very fucking arrogant, but…

That's OK. Everyone's arrogant. But you would say that your idea of creativity entails a separation from a kind of scene?

Yeah, I think once you band together then you begin to adapt of what's demanded of you. I think artists or art are kind of solipsistic, or very self-driven and isolated, to a certain degree.

So you could see yourself potentially exhausting this investigation of black metal and spirituals?

Maybe. I don’t know.

Yeah. Not Yet. Am I right that you recoded all those old-sounding spirituals? That's all you right? Breaking bottles and shit?

[Laughs] Yeah.

Why did you do that as opposed to sampling? Because that even adds another layer of performance. I mean, that's almost a sacred text. Religiously, politically, historically, to even stick you feet into the whole slave music thing. Why do it yourself?

Well, you can't find satanistic gospels.

Good point. Did it feel strange at all to do that?

Not really. I think in terms of maybe aggravating people, I think that to really get over a problem, like slavery, you just have to make fun of it. And I don't think that this is harmful in any way, and honestly it's just super fun to sing Satan shit in a gospel voice.

It's kind of like a Tranatino-y approach to music, like maybe "Ingolorious Bastards" or "Django Unchained," taking very sensitive subjects and just fucking it in the head.

Yeah. As soon as you approach an issue really delicately, it's going to stay. It's going to stay forever, because people have this sacred approach to it, and it will never be digested by society.

Do you feel you have the ability to do that because you were born somewhere else?

I know what you mean, but I don't think this has to play a role. I think that it goes back to the exclusivity of making art, this, how do they call it, "cultural appropriation." I have an extreme issue with that term. If someone can't, say, make a dreidel because they're not Jewish, that’s just silly. I mean, I don't see myself as the guy who ends the slavery discussion [laughs] 

But you are participating in that discussion, in a way. It began as a cool idea, but you are kind of in that conversation. 

Kind of. I'm participating in the discussion by not participating in the discussion.

And you plan to tour with this now? 

Yeah, I'm trying to get a good show going. It's a very performative kind of music, and it is entertainment and I want to entertain people well.

And it's going to be just you?

That's actually what I'm working on. I'm looking for a very good drummer…. And we're actually building a lot of shit. There's going to be an altar, and I have a branding iron, so if people want to get branded during the concert [laughs]. It's a stupid idea, but if they want to.

You suspect people would want that? Actually I saw that iron, it looks pretty cool. 

It's huge man, it's the size of your hand.

That's an explicit reference to slavery, with the branding iron.

Yes, definitely. It's in the shape of the sigil of Lucifer, with a "Z" and an "A" in it.

Lucifer always has the best shit.

[Laughs] Yeah. Go big or go home, right? He's like the top dog.

So, a lot of ceremonial stuff?

Yeah, perfomative ceremonial thing. I'm not going to kill people, I think.

Actually that would draw huge crowds. Good for publicity.

You are so right.