The guitarguitar Interview: Zeal & Ardor
Published on 14 September 2018
Zeal & Ardor are a stunning new band from New York with a sound that is as inspiring as it is confrontational. Mixing Blues, Gospel, African American Spirituals and chain gang chants with full bore blast beats and Death Metal, Zeal & Ardor are a band with depth but who are also thrilling to listen to with a sound that is as gut punching as it is melodic and emotional.
After hearing the newly released second album Stranger Fruit, we became captivated and just had to talk to mastermind Manuel Gagneux about how this incredible concept came about, how they do it live and what they'll do next.
(Photo: Stian Foss)
Manuel, your band Zeal & Ardor have just released your 2nd Album, Stranger Fruit, and it is absolutely incredible: I’ve never heard such an effective and exhilarating blend of sounds, dynamics and execution. This is a record that both metalheads and blues purists can get behind without either camp feeling compromised: that’s pretty special. We’ll get to the content of the record soon but before that, can we hear a little of how Zeal & Ardor came into being?
It began pretty much out of boredom. As I was working on another project I was kind of bored with at the time, I’d play a game online.
I would ask people to name two different musical genres I and try to make a song of it in 20 minutes or less. One day someone said black metal and another voted for “black music”.
The idea stuck with me and I’ve been working on it since.
When you first began gigging these songs, am I right in saying it was a solo affair? How did that work live? (please go into as much detail as you like about laptop, triggers, software, whatever it took: people will be really interested!)
I actually only performed solo once. I was running my guitar through an instance of guitar rig in live, where the click and the rest of the “band” was also coming from. The interface was a motu 828 mkII. I still use that thing for recording.
(Photo: Mehdi Benkler)
The band now has quite a few members: how many are in the band currently and what are they all doing on stage?
We’re six people on stage. Drums, Bass guitar, two pure vocalists and me playing guitar and singing.
You are half Swiss and half American: where did you spend the majority of your youth and adolescence? How do you think this informed your musical preferences?
I grew up in Basel, Switzerland. There is a thriving punk and alternative scene here and going to live shows played a huge role in what I listened to early on. There’s also a lot of weird bold projects which is always a plus in my book.
Was it difficult to get your music noticed in the Swiss music scene?
Well it didn’t really get noticed in Switzerland early on. I moved to New York for a couple of years and by that point I was already working on Zeal & Ardor. It blew up after Noisey did a piece on the bandcamp release and then Rolling Stone followed suit.
(Photo: Stian Foss)
Although the beginning of Zeal & Ardor’s sound was the result of a flippant comment on ‘iffy’ website 4chan, is it fair to say that once the idea struck, the music itself took on its own gravity? There is certainly a lot of attitude in the recordings!
Although the place the idea came from might have had its levity, the project always needed to have some sincerity in it to work. Both of the prominent elements aren’t exactly believable when they aren’t tackled with some gravity so it kind of happened automatically.
Much of your music is recorded at home, is that right? What kind of vocal mic do you use? Do you have preferred plugins to get that great distorted vocal tone?
I use a busted up MXL 990 (those $20 mics off ebay). Due to it having some history there’s a nice distortion to it. For the second record I tried using a Neumann, but it immediately felt too clear and transparent. So we went back to the crappy one. Pretty funny I think.
Talking of vocals, lots of what people have taken to be Alan Lomax-style samples are actually your own vocal performances, aren’t they?
Yeah, I don’t think we could afford lawyers who could clear that sort of thing for a commercial release, haha.
Zeal & Ardor have obviously a real Black Metal influence but your music is arguably more adventurous and widescreen than that: how important was it for you to have extra context in the form of the backing vocals, chants, synths etc?
Very. It would be immensely frustrating for me to have painted myself into a corner too much. Although the music is serious, music needs to be playful to work. For me at least. Having that creative freedom really grants access to bolder ideas. Also it’s simply more fun.
Okay, let’s talk guitars! I see from googling you that you are often seen playing a Charvel guitar, is that correct? Are you known to indulge in a little shredding? What model is it and what do you tend to look for in an electric guitar?
I play a Charvel and have a Jackson as a backup. I don’t really shred too much on stage and kept “masturbatory” parts to an absolute minimum.
Are you tuned to standard tuning?
Yes, I started playing with a classical guitar and everything else seems weird to me.
What string gauge do you prefer? And what about plectrums?
I play 10 gauge strings, I think. And the picks that happen to be around. I’m the opposite of loyal.
What kind of amps are you using live? Are these the same as what’s on the records?
The amps we use live are called AxeFx (Fractal rack mounted digital amps - gg). We fly a lot and it allows us to have the same sound everywhere. The first record used amp modelling also, while the second one features a marshall head ran through an old soviet cabinet we found in a ditch.
When writing, do you do it the old-fashioned way, i.e. sitting with a guitar, or is it more a case of building up music on the laptop?
I write most of my stuff on piano, but sometimes I start with a riff also. I try to switch it up in order to not be too comfortable.
(Photo: Mehdi Benkler)
The drums on the first record, ‘Devil is Fine’ were programmed, is that right? Are the drum performances of Stranger Fruit ‘real’ or programmed? Either way they sound fantastic.
Marco von Almen, who plays with us live, also recorded the drums for Stranger Fruit. We also had the fortune of having Kurt Ballou mixing it. That certainly helped.
In terms of lyrical content, are you projecting a sort of creative licence onto dramatic events (implied or otherwise) that are highly evocative? Or are these lyrics based on things you’ve personally experienced, perhaps filtered through layers of metaphor?
I’m quite adamant about not giving too much away about the lyrics. It’s there if people want to dig in, but I’m not going to do the digging after burying it for the better part of a year.
Let’s take an example of, say, the title track to Stranger Fruit. This is a particulary haunting piece and has lots of interesting instrumentation including female vocals and quite textured synths. Can you take us briefly through how that song came about?
Haha those are my vocals. It’s an expansion of the old poem, Strange Fruit, and what it could stand for in present day America. We wanted to make a song that is as abrasive as possible while still being listenable. That song is the one that we spent the most time on for that record.
The amazing video for ‘The Gravedigger’s Chant’ suggests lots and is very dramatic. Are implication and suggestion both big parts of the aesthetic of Zeal & Ardor?
That’s the intention. We don’t want to tell people what to think, but if we can get them to think that’s enough. No one will ever interpret the meaning of a song exactly as intended. Accepting that fact can be quite liberating and we lean heavily into that.
You are currently in the middle of a rather massive tour, with something like 77 dates in all(!): what kind of things do you do to keep yourself sane on the road? Do you write?
Yeah, writing is a big part. There’s also a lot of reading. Since we’re in a bus that drives while we sleep we actually get to see the cities we play in for a while. Checking out museums, dive bars and squats is always a good time.
Do you think the next record will continue this ‘Lomax-Metal’ sound or will you go elsewhere with it next?
At this point we’re not certain that we will make another record.
Finally, what advice do you have for bands wanting to make their own mark and embark on their own massive worldwide tours?
Having learned how much luck is involved in having success I can only say that making music you think would succeed instead of the music you actually want to create is a horrible idea. The best case scenario is ending up in a situation where you have to make music you don’t honestly enjoy. I say make the sounds you actually love. The world will be a better place for it. Bring us the honest, the weird, the bold and the odd. Those are the things we remember and love.
(Photo: Mehdi Benkler)
Zeal & Ardor continue their mammoth tour with festival and headline dates across the world until the end of the year. 'Stranger Fruit' is available now. Please check out the official site here https://www.zealandardor.com/ and keep up with Manuel and his band on their Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/zealandardor/.
We would like to thank Manuel for sharing his time and giving us some gracious answers. We'd also like to thank David Burger for all of his help in making this interview happen.
Interview by Ray McClelland.