Zeal & Ardor are currently one of the most challenging, unique and brain melting prospects in heavy music. Featuring a completely original and intricate take on black metal that also pulls in many folk and blues elements that were inspired by spiritualist slave music. To say that the outcome is unlike anything you have ever heard would be an understatement. I was lucky enough to chat with Manuel Gagneux the man behind Zeal & Ardor recently before a show in London. We talked about playing Festivals in the UK, his influences, the sustainability of the band and how far he thinks he will be able to take to take things, We also touched upon the bands sophomore album Stranger Fruit which is out now and is well worth your time.
Welcome back to the UK. It’s good to have you back here with us
Manuel: Thank you.
Last time you were here you played a couple of club shows and then the Reading & Leeds Festival. This time you are returning for another small headline show and then the Download Festival. So how does it feel to be back playing another Festival
Manuel: We’re super excited. Download is a festival that I’ve personally never been to, but it’s iconic so it’s huge to be able to play there.
You have a new album out called Stranger Fruit. So firstly I have to ask about the title, was that designed to invoke the memory of the Billie Holiday song or was it something that felt appropriate to the music on the album
Manuel: That was a direct reference to the Billie Holiday song because I think making the music I make and not commenting on the political situation is just cowardice, so at least I’m alluding to it. For me, it’s not like shoving it down people’s throats or anything, but I’m least acknowledging the orange elephant in the room (laughs)
I think it works very well. The minute you hear the album title then listen to the album it gives you a sense of the past but also fits the musical path you are treading today. So I think the two go hand in hand very well.
Manuel: I’m very glad to hear that.
Zeal & Ardor started life as a one-man project, but now it’s become a full band. Was it hard for you to have to explain your vision to other or were the people you recruited onboard and into it from the offset
Manuel: Luckily it was just my friends, they got immediately what it was about and vastly improved the actual sound. For the record, it was actually just me playing everything save for the drums which were kicked in by Marco (Obrist) who plays live with us.
Stranger Fruit is an album that no matter how many times I listen to it, I still can’t wrap my head around it. There seems to be a much more expansive sound on this record. When you sat down to write it were you looking to push yourself and expand the sound out even further or is that just the direction it took
Manuel: I just wanted to wiggle around in the two elements that I had, In the spiritual corner and the metal corner, there were all sorts of influences on there that I was listening to at the moment or where I felt like I could take more liberties, because to do the same thing twice would just seem like a lazy move on my part. It’s also not that fun, so I kind of experimented a little more with what I can get away with this time around.
I was trying to explain to someone what you sounded like the other day and the closest thing I could come to it was saying that it was like watching an episode of Roots and then watching the Wicker Man straight after
There are those moments on the album where it’s really calm and serene, but the black metal elements kick in and it just completely knocks you for a loop. It can be a really jarring somewhat uncomfortable experience the first time you hear it. So I have to ask when you are writing music are you trying to challenge your audience, not only musically but ideologically as well in terms of changing the way they think about things and perhaps the way they listen to different types of music as well
Manuel: I mean juxtaposing different elements kind of forces the listener to either come to terms with or leave and turn the music off. I don’t think I’m trying to change the way people are thinking as much as I’m nudging them. It would be kind of arrogant of me to say that would be my mission statement or anything, but if it did happen that would be great, but it’s not the prime objective.
Looking at what the music is and where it comes from, it’s been well documented how you reached the place you have musically. Are there are any other outside influences that you pull from, things like the news, the world around us, other mediums like films and tv, are those things a factor when you write music
Manuel: I would love to say something smart like I was reading Marquis de Sade when I wrote this, but it’s more likely that I heard a jingle in the supermarket and that stuck with me (laughs) because it’s an elusive thing this inspiration thing it really can come from anywhere and it’s hard to trace back also, but if anyone asks, I was reading Marquis de Sade and sipping expensive Cognac whilst pondering some depressing French philosophy (laughs)
For you how has your life changed since the band come about.18 Months very few people had heard of Zeal & Ardor, now there is a buzz around the band and yourself. There seems to be expectations on you and on the new album, so how has that affected you
Manuel: I figured what made the first record gel with people was that I didn’t think of an audience so I just made music for myself and that’s what I try to do the best I can. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine an entire audience I tried to get into that head space I was in earlier where it was just me and no expectations.
That makes sense, especially when you start to think about outside forces then ultimately you will end up putting some sort of pressure on yourself and you start to forget about the reasons why you did it in the first place and becomes solely about writing for an audience.
Manuel: Exactly. As soon as you dilute your intent and your music with expectations from other people then it seems like a weaker thing or a watered down delivery of something or at least that’s what I tell myself.
With the music that you make and the scene it exists within, what are your thoughts on the sustainability of Zeal & Ardor. Is this something that could be taken into arenas or that could potentially headline festivals one day. How far do you see this going?
Manuel: It’s succeeded any imaginations for it that I could have had, I think there is still something to be explored with the music, but I don’t know what scale it would take. I have to be honest with myself, it’s a finite thing I believe it’s not something that I can love for ages, so I may have to move on to something different one day and I’m at peace with that.
With that in mind, do you think there would come a time where you would consider taking out one of the elements and releasing an album that was purely spiritualistic or one that was purely black metal or do you find that you write best when both styles are in the mix
Manuel: That would be an interesting concept, I could call it Segregation and it could be a split lp (laughs) I don’t know, maybe. I have grown to like both elements as they stand alone now that I’ve been mixing them for all these months, so who knows.
I have to say, that I like both of the styles in your music separately and I think it’s in the combination of the two that I get a little lost at times. So for people out there that may like one of the other what other artists would you suggest from either genre as a follow-on listen from Zeal & Ardor
Manuel: I would recommend Naglfar who are Swedish death metal band from the metal side, and any old Alan Lomax recordings you can get your grubby hands on will serve you just right
Taking into account all we have just spoken about what is the one thing you would like to accomplish with Zeal & Ardor within the next few years
Manuel: I think just to go around the world playing music, I don’t think there is any elevation for me there (laughs) And if I’ve learnt anything over the last couple of months it’s that I suck at imagining what will come so now is probably not the best moment to make projections (laughs)
Do you have any closing comments out there for everyone
Manuel: We’ve been working on our new set which is new stuff as well as old stuff, and we’ve been honing our craft. I think we haven’t been as vicious and deadly, as well as soothing and endearing as we can be yet, so please come to our shows and see us.
Stranger Fruit is out now on MVKA Records. Zeal & Ardor will be returning to the UK in December, more information can be found at https://www.zealandardor.com/