Only rock ‘n’ roll

“I think they’re surprisingly receptive,” says Silver Mt. Zion’s Efrim Menuck when asked how live audiences have been responding to the lengthy songs on the band’s fifth and latest album, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons. With four pieces of moody—even dreary—orchestral rock that run upward of 13 minutes each, the material certainly takes its time to develop. But the singer/guitarist stresses that the band (whose full name keeps changing and, for the time being, is now officially Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band) never loses sight of the audience.

Godspeed you! Rock-oriented side project turned headlining act: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La band.

“We’re conscious all the time that it’s a big chunk of meat to ask people to chew on,” Menuck says. “So we do the best we can to not be overly taxing. And it’s not like we get a lot of complaints after shows that the songs are too long.”

Of course, fans familiar with the now-defunct Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the group that spawned Silver Mt. Zion, wouldn’t complain. With its mostly instrumental wash of slow-simmering apocalyptic dread, Godspeed (which included SMZ members Menuck, Thierry Amar, and Sophie Trudeau) certainly paved the way for listeners to develop a tolerance for music that demands attentiveness and patience. Godspeed, which formed in the mid-‘90s (and, like SMZ, was based in Montreal) is generally categorized as “post-rock,” a stylistic label also tagged on SMZ and which, Menuck says, both bands have “always derided.”

Characterized by an anti-commercial attitude, arty sensibilities, high-minded concepts, the liberal use of chamber instruments, drawn-out compositions, quiet dynamics and an emphasis on atmosphere over the more traditional rock foundation of riffs and beats, the post-rock mindset quickly took root with the indie-music crowd and continues to proliferate today. And it must be said that bands working within these parameters—such as Sigur Rós, The American Analog Set, Rachel’s, Trail Of Dead, etc.—often veer dangerously close to pretense.

Menuck wants nothing to do with the association.

“I have to say,” he insists, “there’s not so much that’s atmospheric about what we do. At the end of the day, it’s just rock music. Through Godspeed and Mt. Zion, we’ve always characterized what we do as rock music from the very beginning. I grew up in Southern Ontario. Punk rock was everything to me, but so was Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. We’ve always rejected the idea of—and have had no interest in—experimentalism for the sake of experimentalism.”

Rest assured, Menuck has no intention of asking you to keep it down at a Silver Mt. Zion show.

Menuck explains that when Silver Mt. Zion made its first record in 2000, the group was still very much in the mindset of Godspeed, using mostly piano, violin and upright bass. A year-and-a-half later, the group began touring, and as Menuck puts it, “We ended up doing this tour playing quiet stuff. And I hated it.

“I’m personally not a fan of quiet music,” he adds. “People go to bars to socialize. There’s nothing wrong with people talking at shows. I’ve never been down with the quiet performance thing. So finding myself all of a sudden in that boat, of playing music that was so quiet that it needed a hushed audience or would totally sink if you played in a bar where people were a bit drunk, I found to be really disheartening.”

Believe it or not, Menuck considers SMZ a bar band.

“We consciously set out after that tour to become, in essence, a bar band,” he says. “For us, that’s what we are, regardless of whether the songs are long. We set out to be a band that could win a third of the crowd over on any given night, even if the entire crowd was hostile. And I think, on a live level, we’ve succeeded in doing that.”

He also doesn’t shy away from characterizing SMZ as punk. But, while SMZ certainly may not fulfill punk and bar-band stereotypes, its gospel-tinged group vocals and guitar noise are intended to pull you in, not alienate you. If you don’t see it at first, give it time.

As Menuck explains, “There’s a lot of great music in the world that you need to listen to more than once to really wrap your head around it.”

who: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Vic Chesnutt
what: The most atmospheric “bar band” you’ll ever hear
where: Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, May 24. 9 p.m. ($16. or 232-5800)

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