Arts & Culture

Silver Mt. Zion on Protest Music, Montreal, and Being the Only Jew in the Room

Efrim Menuck fronts the band currently named Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band—a band whose appellation, along with its sound, changes and grows with each new release. Currently, the band is a seven-piece composed of (among other … Read More

By / May 8, 2008

Efrim Menuck fronts the band currently named Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band—a band whose appellation, along with its sound, changes and grows with each new release. Currently, the band is a seven-piece composed of (among other instruments) violins, guitars, and a cello—and group choral chanting. Their newest release, Thirteen Blues for Thirteen Moons, finds the band in a more aggressive, rock-edged mood than usual, supplanting their experimental punk backgrounds (Menuck, along with the band’s violinist and bassist, also play in the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor). Just landed from their European tour, Menuck graciously filled us in on the band’s philosophy, writing habits, and the Facebook invasion of Canada.

I can't make up my mind whether your music and the imagery of your lyrics and albums reminds me more of old Baptist church spirituals, or old Jewish ones. Is that intentional?

We grab water from both of those rivers, because faith is a lovely thing, even if you don't believe in God. It's partly why the band is named after Mt. Zion—it's the holy mountain in the awful desert that illuminates the choruses of Baptist hymns, dusty klezmer tunes, and 6-minute dubplates. Also, I spent grades one through nine at Hebrew day school, and came home every night to my atheist father, who would try to undo any little thing I’d happened to learn that day.

This means that, somewhere in my little pea-brain, there's a knotted scar where the secular and the godly have fused; means that I tend to see things in terms of good and evil, write large, and means that I believe in congregations, hymns and prayers but not in God, so when I try to put words together to sing on top of this music that we all write together, that jumble just pours out of me, worried and conflicted and messy as hell.

Critics keep talking about your music as protest music, but it seems less like specific issue-oriented protests than protesting the system in general—a nonspecific cry to start over, build anew.

Yeah, for us it's all a raucous blues or joyful punk-rock implosion, but if we had to semaphore our primary complaints and concerns, it'd probably go something like this: The world's a mess, and we're led by murderous thieves who keep dragging us unwillingly ever closer to the gaping precipice.

What's your writing process like? Does one person come up with an idea for a song, or do you all start jamming and then run with it?

Our writing process is slow and backwards. We start with a handful of riffs, and hammer at them for hours on end, until some sort of rough counterpoints start to bloom. Then we break it all into little pieces, strew ’em all over the floor of our jamspace and then put them back together again as best we can. When the whole teetering pile is almost structurally sound, I'll start throwing words at it, and tangles of melody too, to harmonize with us all singing at once.

Then we bring these songs with us on the road and dump them into the laps of whatever audience has blessed us with their kindness and grace on any given night, and repeat that narrative, like long laps on a dimly-lit track, until the song itself is weathered, dented and true.

Is the music scene in Montreal going through a real golden age, or is it just attracting more attention? What's it like up there?

No, it's no golden age in Montreal right now. Skyrocketing rents, an overabundance of Facebook-obsessed university students, and an oversaturation of self-promotional A&R types has led to a state of affairs whereby most gigs glow with the impermanence of a flash-mob instead of any sort of self-sustaining community.

There's still a bunch of tiny, crucial glimmering flames though, and, like in any large city, there's a constant surplus of good people doing good work in the lovely shadows.

Are there a lot of Jews involved in the scene? Is it a coincidence, or did you grow up with other people who were into the same influences as you were?

No more Jews than any other scene, I guess; Mt. Zion's got four Jews and three goys, but most of Montreal's Jews took off when the FLQ [the extremist Front de liberation du Québec] started planting mailbox bombs in the early seventies. I spent most of my punk-rock adolescence being the only Jew in the room, so it's nice to feel a little less isolated these days, especially ’round the high holidays.

In "Blindblindblind," you sing, "My the light of our striving still shine." It almost feels like a prayer for something beyond—beyond the album, beyond the band, a kind of creative immortality. How do you want your music to be remembered?

Bad endings can ruin even the best story, so the only thing I know for sure is how I don't want things to end—the world is not a kind place for musicians, and there are very few happy endings in the grand historia de la rock, means that I don't want die poor and alone, nor do I want to be the vain jerk in the diaper stinking up the stage at the retro-festival, and while I hope that our band's stubborn little discography still glimmers with its own hard-won internal logic 30 years from now, I’m more concerned with a more achievable type of permanence. Good friends, a healthy family, and a couple of crucial smudges and footprints across our collective histories sounds more than pretty good to me.