For the first time in Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra's 15-year, seven-album run, the band came up with the latest album title before finishing the songs.
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything is a mouthful, and cryptic, but comes with an air of defiance and pride, both a mission statement and apt description of the Montreal quintet's singular sound.
"It felt like rallying behind the flag or something. The title definitely informs everything that's on the record," says Efrim Manuel Menuck, guitarist and vocalist for Thee Silver Mt. Zion.
It's a provocative statement that reflects both the band's hometown and the band itself.
"Montreal has a very contentious relationship with the rest of Canada. There's a caricature of Montreal, of people who complain too much, are never happy, make unreasonable demands on the rest of the country. But we know that where we live is a joyous place," Menuck says. "But at the same time it became a statement about the band itself. For years we labored under people's conceptions of us as being overly serious or pretentious or unable to take a joke. But we know who we are and we're a joyous band."
With album titles that include He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms ... and Kollaps Tradixionales, and songs that frequently top 10 minutes, Thee Silver Mt. Zion play an expansive style of music, but approach their work with a punk rock ethos. The music, Menuck says, is essentially how band members relate with the world, how they see things and what they can make better.
"We just try to write songs that are representative of the kind of conversations we have with people all over the world, in our community, outside our community, people you meet in a bar. How the world's going and the shit that we're all born into and how despairing that can be," Menuck says. "We're of the opinion that culture in general needs to concern itself at least partially with the current state of affairs. We don't write topical tunes because those get dated fast, but we write songs about the state of the world now. Hopefully that has a role in leading to some conversations that lead to a brighter future than we're looking at now."
The songs on Fuck Off Get Free include "Austerity Blues" and "Take Away These Early Grave Blues," back-to-back tunes that fit with the concept, if not the anticipated sound, of the blues.
"In the traditional sense it's the blues; it's moaning about a particular state of affairs. It fits with the kind of songs we write. There's something that's really lovely about that form, so we like using it," Menuck says. "There are elements of blues in what we play. It's not 12-bar Chicago blues or blues-rock, but we play with those elements. There are particular tunes that have blues so it's something that makes sense for us."
The album begins with a small, innocent voice, the son of Menuck and Jessica Moss, one of the band's two violinists. "We live on the island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise," the boy says, "because we love each other!"
The boy was talking about his family being goofy and silly, but the words seemed to fit the record so much that Menuck got him to repeat them into a recorder.
"There's something nice about having a small little voice open a record. It fit and it felt like the statue of the maiden that you hang on the front of your ship. The ship can't go out to sea until you do that," he says.
Fatherhood in general informs Menuck's songwriting on the record, particularly the song "What We Loved Was Not Enough." He thought parenthood was going to be mellowing, but protectionist instincts are anything but.
"Fatherhood tilts the perspective. On one hand it refines the way you view the world and on the other hand it refracts it," he says. "For me, I've never felt more rage since my son is born. He's an innocent creature and I feel powerless to change some things about the world."
Even after 15 years, the band maintains its egalitarian structure, writing songs collaboratively, incorporating everybody's input.
"It's a lot of laborious jamming. Someone will come in with a riff or a handful of chords or a melody and we'll spend a few days playing out every possible iteration of what it is we're working on and we'll end up with something that's 12 parts and 40 minutes long, and we'll ruthlessly hack away trying to figure out what the core of the song is," Menuck says. "Then we have to come up with some words. And then we take the song on the road and start hammering out arrangements onstage, seeing what sinks or swims. It's kind of like a slow-roasted chicken or something. It's cooked in its own juices for a while."
The intense Fuck Off Get Free marks a period of relative stability for the band, which started as a mostly instrumental trio that spun out of the similarly experimental Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then expanded to seven members (appending & Tra-La-La Band to the name) before settling on a quintet of Menuck, Moss, bassist Thierry Amar, violinist Sophie Trudeau and drummer David Payant.
"I think we're in a good place, an interesting place," Menuck says. "We've changed so much from where we started. It's been a long road. Sometimes I feel like people come to the shows and just know the first couple records and they can be confused about what the fuck we're doing now. But on the whole, I feel endlessly lucky to be playing and still making music with this band. I'm stoked."