Manuel Gagneaux accidentally struck a nerve when he released Devil is Fine, his debut album as Zeal and Ardor, a mix of black metal, industrial and ad-hoc negro spirituals, the album was a slap in the face to metal’s more racist past, but a shot in the arm for those in the genre looking for something genuinely unique, yourself included. Proving that the first record was no mere novelty, Gagneaux has returned with a second album, Stranger Fruit, this one more polished than its predecessor, and with catchier songs. Beneath its fun exterior lies a bevy of social commentary, and I picked Gagneaux’s brain in advance of an Up& Front feature in Decibel (now on stands) which barely held a quarter of his insight. Here is that interview, in full.
The title Stranger Fruit is a reference to Billie Holiday’s classic song “Strange Fruit” – its title refers to the corpses of lynched black men hanging from trees. It was also famously sampled by Kanye West on the album Yeezus. By choosing this title you’re entering Zeal and Ardor not just into the history of metal music, but of African American popular music with an anti-authoritarian streak—righteously so. Why did you select this title, and what does Holiday’s song mean to you?
Well, it was first a poem by Abel Meeropol before Billie Holiday’s iconic rendition. I think after Devil is Fine has found an audience it would be reckless not to give a little bit of context. I’ve made use of negro spirituals and to some people, they’re just strange-sounding hollers. There are a frightening amount of parallels to current America and back then. The stranger fruit isn’t hanging from a tree, but rather sports bullet holes. Today, these aren’t issues unique to African-Americans but apply to a whole slew of classes and ethnicities. It’s important to draw attention to these things but to not tell people what to think. That’s why I avoid being too on the nose with it .. with varying success
In a musical landscape relatively devoid of ideas, Devil is Fine seemed like the first genuinely original take on heavy metal I’ve heard in years, and people responded to that in a real way. What’s your take on the metal zeitgeist right now outside of Zeal and Ardor, and how would you like to see metal progress in the future? How would you like to see popular music change in the future?
Metal is unique in that it boasts some of the most loyal fans in the music world. A band can span a 40-year long career, and without changing or evolving their sound still make their fans happy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but may lead new bands to be comfortable in making similar music, since they might alienate an almost purist audience. There is, however, another side. Bands that actually try new stuff and have a more playful approach. I think to say my album is the first original metal in years is as false as it may be flattering.
Bands like Ex Eye, Pryapisme, and even Death Grips by some extent could fill that mold pretty spectacularly. As for popular music, I think that curated playlists are what people are tending towards. This kind of kills being surprised by a song actually changing your mood. But what do I know?
Zeal and Ardor is blasphemous music, which puts it at odds with much black popular music in America right now – Kanye, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, they’re all openly devout Christians. You need to go down the totem pole to find an artist like Tyler, the Creator to find a popular black American musician who is not Christian. Zeal and Ardor posits an ‘alternate history’ where Christianity and African American culture did not entwine. What are your personal spiritual beliefs, and what is the place you think religion and spirituality have in modern society, and modern music?
I’m an atheist and I can’t fault people for incorporating their beliefs into their music since they believe in it. I really wish they didn’t though. Religion is a silly thing. There are smarter and more intelligent people than me who can tell you that much. But going by the ring parable religions have a tendency to kill, suppress, and discriminate. Atheism, as a cause, doesn’t have that kink. To me, that speaks volumes.
I wanted to specifically mention the song “Servants” which comes across as a call to revolution or uprising. One could interpret this song historically, as a slave rebellion, religiously as a theistic Satanist or Luciferian call to prayer, or even as a political call that is very much of our time. Much of Stranger Fruit occupies these three spaces at once. How did you find that common ground as a writer, and to what extent do you recommend that we interpret Stranger Fruit as a politically charged record?
That’s the sad beauty of it. Since it applies to all three meanings, I chose to omit specifications. If a listener can’t quite decide if something refers to slavery or our current political climate, I don’t think I need to say anything more.
The song “Coagula” could be a reference to the film Get Out. That film was a piece of very intelligent, subversive art hidden inside of a slick, independent horror film container. It seems to me that Stranger Fruit could be interpreted the same way. Is there a connection between Get Out and Stranger Fruit, to you?
Solve and Coagula, as I used them, are two staples of alchemy, meaning separating, breaking, dissolving and congealing, coagulating, binding. It’s also found on Baphomet’s arms signifying equilibrium. I think in the movie Get Out “Coagula” refers to the stage of a cocooned insect in which the completely dissolved caterpillar coagulates into its winged sphynx stage. It’s actually a fascinating process since it’s still debated how this can actually happen. All the DNA information elusive if you cut open a cocoon. We still don’t know how this liquid can rearrange into the sexually active stage of an insect’s life.
Stranger Fruit is pretty obviously a record with some pop sensibility – the songs are all vocally centric, relatively brief, and have discernable choruses, except for the interludes of course – but it also seems a little more ‘metal’ to me than Devil is Fine. You’re certainly screaming more! How do you balance the extreme music elements with the more accessible parts of the music?
Balancing those two elements is extremely fun to me. Both because pop listeners are offended at the harsher parts and because metal purists might contort their faces at the more melodic bits. In the end, though it’s music I like to make, not me trying to displease people. I do think there is something for both parties on the record and maybe I can warm up some people to the other side. Who knows.
Devil is Fine was also, more or less, a small experiment that was released as a commercial album after gaining a large following rapidly. How did the success of that album inform the creation of Stranger Fruit? What steps did you take to make a more ‘finished’ piece of art this time around?
Focusing on what I liked about the old record and on what I wanted to do better was the only guideline. The production on Devil is Fine was what distinguished YouYube commenters referred to as trash and they’re not all that wrong. This time, I had the means to properly record and mix things. If I had just done the same thing alone, I think that would’ve been arrogant. I can happily admit that Kurt Ballou is a far more capable mixer than I am and that I haven’t the foggiest how to properly mic a drum set, so I got people who are bloody stellar at it. I kept the playfulness and weirdness of the songwriting. I’m really glad I got help with the recording and mixing though. It shows.
Zeal and Ardor has its origins as an internet forum project. Internet forums brought me to extreme metal, including black metal, and I know among my age group that is hardly unique! It was easy to feel safe or moral while listening to that music only a few years ago since the genre’s white supremacist-and-terrorist past was largely a piece of historical mythmaking. Recently, however, it’s coming to like that many bands who informed the genre’s roots and escaped scrutiny early on have continued to harbor virulent racists in their midst. Zeal and Ardor is making records, receiving good press and playing live at the same time as black metal’s less savory actors are being brought into the light of day. How do you as an artist navigate the tricky territory of being associated with such hateful music?
I simply fail to care. If someone is dumb, I’m not going to be their audience. It’s as simple as that. Seems like the most sensible thing to do is steal their spotlight, right? In the end what I’m doing is cultural appropriation. I’m taking this exclusive Scandinavian music and ruining it with black music influences. Influences that in turn were appropriated by them to make their music. We’ve come full circle. I love it.