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Zeal & Ardor: The Devil is Refined

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The tale has become legend: Manuel Gagneux, a musician of mixed race and Swiss-American citizenship, asks a nefarious message board denizens what kind of genre mashup he should do. When told black metal and “black music” he took them up on it.

The result was The Devil is Fine, a self-released album under the self-contained name of Zeal & Ardor. Finding an unlikely kinship between the defiant spirituals that American slaves sang in the early 1800s and the Scandinavian black metal musicians who rebelled at their own Pagan culture lost a thousand years before, Gagneux made the even more implausible connection of those two musical forms sound like they were made for each other.

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Zeal & Ardor became an internet sensation, growing far beyond nefarious message boards into mainstream consciousness. Gagneux had to recruit musicians for live shows at the likes of England’s Download Festival and Roadburn in The Netherlands. The album was reissued by MVKA Records who just released the follow-up Stranger Fruit.

The name was taken from “Strange Fruit,” a song that became iconic when recorded by jazz great Billie Holiday in 1939. The track, a somber and powerful reminder of lynching that was then commonplace in the American south (“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”) inspired the multicultural musician to take things to even more extremes emotionally.

Although a far more diverse record, there’s still more than enough metallic meat on the follow-up. “Servants” has power metal’s sense of bombast, blast beats, and a familiar atmosphere that straddles black metal and black culture. “Don’t You Dare” has shredding guitars and vocals whose intensity matches them whether soulfully imploring “don’t you dare look away, boy,” or leaving vocal chords in tatters from screams. “Row Row” combines everything so perfectly, it’s difficult to ascertain whether metalheads or bluesmen are the target audience, though it scarcely matters.

With Stranger Fruit just released, Gagneux will be hitting the European festival circuit for the summer before doing a month of American dates, kicking off in Philadelphia on September 20th. He called in to Invisible Oranges to discuss Zeal & Ardor’s place in metal, his place in the world, and how he reconciles all of it just as seamlessly as he does to musical forms separated by centuries and continents.

Since you released the last album, you attracted the interest of MVKA Records. Although they reissued The Devil is Fine, this was the first album you did with a label behind you. Did that change the process at all?

Not really. The only thing that was different is that someone who actually knows how to do it recorded all the instruments with me. But as far as creative input goes, there was nothing external involved. It’s still just an uncut version of my wankage, I guess [laughs], but I guess with a budget it doesn’t sound as horrible as the first one.

It was Zebo Adam, an awesome dude. The thing is I’m really impatient and when something sounds vaguely like a guitar, I’m already happy with it and at peace with that. He had the foresight to be a little more of a perfectionist about that. I think the record really actually benefited from that.

You did everything yourself on the debut, but it sounds like you didn’t have any control issues with the new one.

Everything except for the drums is played by me still. The sounds of the instruments have a little more attention to it, an attention that I wouldn’t have given. So that creativity, I’m happy to give away.

The album seems to have less of the black metal elements that stood out on the debut. Would you agree with that or am I missing something?

I think I would. I thought doing the same thing twice would be kind of lazy on my part. So I took the liberty of exploring both the metal side of things further – some thrash and even some elements from death metal in there – as well as the black music part which includes some soul and different kinds of blues now. It’s not just strictly black metal and work songs, there’s a little bit more variety I think.

Another contrast – and maybe the more diverse influences are the reason – is that the rage seems more contemporary. I feel like The Devil is Fine dealt with historical racism with period music, whereas the anger on the new album is directed at modern issues. Would you agree with that?

I wholeheartedly would. The thing is, making the music that I do not addressing the matters at hand would just be cowardice and just wrong. I really like the idea of having something ambiguously there. So if you want to read it as like a slave thing, that’s highly possible. But if you want to think more about it with tenets that apply the narrative to contemporary times, that’s also possible. The last thing I want to do is tell people what to think.

You mentioned doing it all yourself again except for drums. You incorporated musicians into the live show. How come they weren’t involved in the creation of the album?

Actually that’s the band as it is with six musicians altogether on the stage. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But it was just kind of a time constraint, actually. If I brought them all into the studio I’d have to tell the guitarist what to play, then play it to him and then he plays it on the record and it would be bizarre. [It would be] the same thing for the vocals. It was just quicker that way and also cheaper! We’re not exactly flush with money so I can’t afford to pay them studio fees for a month. I would be broker than I am now.

Wait, so you’re telling me that attention from the first record hasn’t made you rich yet?

Yeah, that pretty much what I’m getting at! [Laughs] I’m not bitter about it. The thing is we get to tour and stuff. In the end if I don’t make any money off this, but I got this world playing music, I’m heartily happy. I’m not moaning or anything.

There was a moment there when you were an internet sensation and exploding. Now that you have had time to reflect, was that period cool or are you more cynical about the whole thing?

I’m pretty cynical from the get go because it’s such a bizarre thing. Attention is such an unpredictable and luck-dependent thing. As a musician that’s pretty much what you’re trying to get at, you know, popularity or attention. I came to learn that if it hadn’t been for journalists or if they had a bad day, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. It’s just, it hinges on such small things that you can’t help but laugh at it.

For this album you have released two videos posted online. They are in order, the first two songs, and there seems to be a story being told. Are they precursors to doing something very ambitious with more videos?

That depends on if anyone wants to give me money for that! At the moment they should stand on their own. As it turns out, it’s super expensive to make a movie! [Laughs] We have a story at least; we just don’t know how far we can go with it.

Devil is Fine was a studio creation that you morphed into live performances. Did that experience inform Stranger Fruit at all?

Not too much. How it happened was we got asked to play some gigs, some pretty neat festivals, and we had to scramble for new songs because I didn’t have more than 20 minutes at the time with Devil is Fine. I immediately wrote a couple of songs in order to perform a set of an hour or so. Those songs were all pre-band in a weird way and that’s about 60 percent of what makes up Stranger Fruit.

The other 40 percent of the songs maybe were hinted or influenced by having played live a couple of times, but I didn’t really even regard that consciously to put that into the equation.

Meanwhile, you’re set to do your first expansive US tour this fall. In the past you spoke of how you wanted to do a “Ghost-like production.” How much of a spectacle can we expect?

Not too much. Now having gathered some experience with being playing live, we’ve noticed that people tend to listen more than go apeshit. In a weird way sometimes the visual component can distract and we don’t want to be a sad bunch of people on the stage thrashing away on their instruments. There will be a middle ground thing. Also I think to have a show of Ghost’s scale takes multiple professionals, which we don’t have!

I saw how Zeal & Ardor was treated by those in the metallic subculture. I assume there’s also a niche group of people interested in the Alan Lomax, Negro Spirituals, and period black music side of you. What kind of reaction did you get from them? Did they get it?

That’s been the most surprising thing: they do get it. Our crowd is so mixed. Our first big gig was last week in London and the age range was from 17 to 60 years old and even the genders were kind of mixed. I was talking to a couple of them, it turns out a healthy dosage of them were actually more invested in the bluesy softer side of things and were persuaded through that to actually enjoy the harsher parts. So, I guess we’re kind of a gateway to metal for those people, which I am happy to be!

I think that’s great that you can be metal ambassadors, but there are metal purists who don’t feel the same way. Groups such as Myrkur and Deafheaven create a lot of controversy and have received death threats for being outsiders. Even though you grew up listening to metal, the project still has an outsider status, but it seems you receive far less venom.

Well, we haven’t gotten any threats, but of course there are people who aren’t too stoked about it. I’m very aware that I’m never going to be true or cult or whatever. At the end of the day, those people don’t have to listen to my music! There’s literally no incentive for them to go on the Internet, type in my name, and subject themselves to what I’ve recorded. So it’s in their hands. If they really want to have a bad day, they can listen to it and be angry, but I’m not going to pay them any mind.

I’m glad you’re avoiding the stuff that crosses the line.

I think it’s the fact that they’ve been through it already; there have been interlopers before me. I’m not even as novel as they are and maybe they’re just bored. Maybe I’m just another one of those posers, which I’m fine with.

In 2014, Zeal & Ardor was famously born due to some politically incorrect communication on the 4chan boards. Back then it harbored controversial views but was a niche internet community. Now, a lot of those controversial views are in the mainstream.

Yeah, very much so. That’s a very sad, sad fact but I guess that’s just the times we live in. I mean, it’s weird because so much of 4chan has deeply embedded themselves into zeitgeist right now. It’s like Creepypasta being produced into a Hollywood film or even the presidency being dictated by some troll on the Random board. It’s really palpable and it’s off this bizarre clusterfuck of a website. It boggles the mind.

I keep on thinking as much I find that whole mindset repulsive at least we got something positive out of it with Zeal & Ardor! I’m trying to picture a positive end-game to what we’re dealing with now on the larger scale and I’m a little less optimistic.

[Laughs] If this was the silver lining, we’re fucked, man!

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