A Conversation with Zeal and Ardor (Manuel Gagneux)

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Back in April, Ron Deuce shared some Blackened Blues with Zeal and Ardor‘s Devil Is Fine and reviewed it with a strong 4 out of 5 flaming Toilets ov Hell. There was a hint of controversy as to the authenticity of the samples used in the music, so I reached out to Manuel Gagneux, the man behind Zeal and Ardor, and it turns out he is nice as can be. I wasn’t overly familiar with his body of work, so I approached this interview as more of an informal conversation. He was happy to oblige! Mr. Deuce also joined in for additional conversation.

Hi there, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! I like these things to be rather informal… so how are you doing today? I want to commend you on how you handled the accusation that certain Zeal and Ardor vocal sections were actually samples taken from public domain. Do you want to share your thoughts again here for everybody?

I’m fine, thanks for asking. Concerning the vocals I’m more flattered than anything else. If people think these are old Lomax-esque recordings it seems I’m doing something right. I actually agree that flat out stealing other people’s work and using it as a central part of one’s music (like in my case) isn’t exactly a great accomplishment. I actually was hesitant to intervene, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Since I’d be all but discredited with what I’ve done and marked as a filthy, sampling scoundrel. Thanks for reaching out about this!

No problem, guy! Things are always better handled as a discussion, rather than mud-slinging. Let’s start at the beginning. Since I would consider myself a new fan of Zeal and Ardor, and perhaps lots of other folks are too, can you tell us how Zeal and Ardor started? Should I call it a band or a project?

I’d call it a project. It would be pretty douchey of me to call it a band, since it’s just me. I was in a couple of metal bands in my teens and went on to do more commercial stuff. It felt like I was missing a creative output and well, I missed making metal. It started more as a thought about how funny it would be to hear satanic gospel music. But the thought took me to the similarities between Norway’s imposed Christianity and that of American slaves. So there was more of a thematic coherence than a musical one at first. I kind of just tried out what works from there.

Well color me impressed, as Zeal and Ardor sounds great! Kudos for starting such a bizarre project, but one that succeeds so well. Back to the early days, which bands heavily influenced a younger Manuel? Specifically metal, but also the *regular* bands.

Thanks, man! I listened to a lot of the early black metal stuff like Burzum and Darkthrone but later I got more into speed metal and bands like Naglfar, Mephistopheles, Illnath and Golem (fuck I should listen to Golem again! That Dreamweaver album is nigh on perfect). It’s hard to say what really influenced me most. I probably have elements of song I hate in my music, just because I heard it somewhere.

Okay, we now know some of your metal influences from early on. How about influences for the bluesy/chanty stuff? Can you tell us a little about your entry point into that style of music?

Haha! Actually there’s not much there. There was never a time in my life when I listened to blues or spiritual music (being a super satanic black metal teen and all…) I did listen to Lomax recordings for this project though. He was a guy who was interested in documenting all kinds of folk music and archiving it. Some might say you can get it on PBS or at the Smithsonian. There is a guttural pain, anger and energy in those recordings I try to recreate somehow.

You also run the Birdmask project, and I probably don’t have to tell you that a fan of Zeal and Ardor [may] also enjoy Birdmask. How long have you been doing Birdmask? If somebody were to ask you to quantify, how much of your involvement goes to Birdmask and how much goes to Zeal and Ardor?

I’ve been doing Birdmask for about 3 years now. The time I spend on the projects depends on how much I feel like it. If I’m not in the mood for Birdmask I’ll make shit music; same goes for Z&A. But all in all it’s about 60% Birdmask 40% Z&A. The Sacrilegium songs don’t have anything to do with that though.

Okay dude, let’s tackle ethnicity. You pull off a fantastic “black guy” voice: it’s strong, it’s soulful, it’s convincing. Let’s presume I know nothing about you. What is your ethnicity? (I cheated and read from where you came, but want to tell the readers?)

Haha! My dad’s from Switzerland and my mom’s from the US. She’s black, he’s white. I’m a daywalker.

kitty

*** This is where Ron Deuce took over ***

Zeal And Arbor had a live performance on May 21. What can people expect to see in a live setting? Are you performing solo or will you have some people backing you up?

It was me performing alone. I’m currently working on the show as and including more people in it. There’s a branding iron for people who want to remember the show forever, a ritualistic table, visuals and all manner of elements being incorporated.

What’s the significance of the branding iron? Did some people get branded that evening?

Well branding irons were to mark slaves to their particular owners. The audience can be branded by me during concerts. I didn’t brand anyone that night, since I wasn’t prepared (and I doubt anyone present would’ve taken me up on the offer), I’m practising the handling of it and I’m getting quite good. It’s not acute pain like a tattoo and since it’s about the size of a hand it would be quite shitty to have a botched wound. I’m quite serious about this. If people want it, it is red hot and ready.

When we reviewed Devil Is Fine, a few of us thought the vocals the were sampled. The reason that came to mind was because the way the vocals were recorded. The raspy vocal lines conjure images of the old blues passages that are routinely used in hip hop songs. Was the intent to capture the essence of music from that time?

It’s done by giving too much signal and have the vocals basically sounding like they have an overdrive on them. Singing loudly into a shit microphone helps also.

Your songs have a variety of influences in them that go beyond just blues and black metal. Is the combination of styles premeditated or does it just come out naturally? Take us through the song writing process.

It mainly begins with the chants, as the songs are arranged around them, so I’d drink unhealthy amounts of coffee and start chanting like a maniac until my neighbours hate me. Eventually, if I’m happy with it, I add guitars and what-have-you.

As far as predetermination, it all happens quite organically. Things tend to sound like shit when I try to make it sound like something specific I’ve heard before

What can people expect from Zeal and Ardor’s next output? Any ideas on where things might lead?

The next release will be larger and more coherent. A big factor for me right now is to see what works best live. I’d really like it to be somewhere between a concert and a seriously fucked up play. Not just something people haven’t heard before, but something people have never seen before leaving them frightened, weak and loving it. That is the thing I’m currently striving for.

It was a pleasure speaking with Manuel.  You can check out all of Zeal and Ardor‘s work on Bandcamp, as well as Birdmask‘s.

(The header image is a screenshot from Birdmask – Live at Suite 268, and the cool cat pic was provided by Manuel himself.)

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