Interview: Manuel Gagneux of Zeal & Ardor

Zeal & Ardor is the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux, a Swiss-American formerly based in New York City. His approach draws on an alternate history and stems from two thoughts: Christianity was imposed upon American slaves, just as it was imposed in Norway, and black metal in the '90s grew as a rebellion to monotheism. What would have happened if American slaves had rebelled in the same way? Or put bluntly: What would satanic spirituals sound like? First album Devil Is Fine was released globally in February 2017. Zeal & Ardor have been generating significant buzz ever since, with accolades piling up from both musical peers and international media, including Noisey, Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Kerrang!, The Independent, Metal Hammer, Upset, Brooklyn Vegan, and many more. Set to instill a universal and shared rage, new album Stranger Fruit will be released June 8th, 2018. We got to chat with Manuel about his second album, influences, coming to Australia and more.

Considering the origins of the band, a mix of extreme mix of styles, and the response you have had to your music so far, was there a defining point where you feel the band grew into a more “serious” project for you? Or a point where you noticed you begun to approach it with a different attitude?

Yeah, I think that as soon as we got wind that publications such as The Rolling Stone was writing about us and there was all of these articles, that was the point where we figured, I guess this isn't just a weird little hobby any longer. This is something that people actually take quite seriously and so should we. I guess it was a little more than a year ago that we realised that.

What was the recording process like for Stranger Fruit in comparison to Devil is Fine, and where did the name for Stranger Fruit come from?

In comparison to the first record that we did, Devil Is Fine, it was recorded solely by me alone. I kind of have to admit that I'm not really the best sound engineer on the planet and I may have had to get some help. Also on Stranger Fruit, there's Marco playing drums as opposed to the computer-like middy drums that you hear on the first record. I think sonically it's way better in terms of sound. The name comes from a Billy Holiday song called Strange Fruit. where she sings about strange fruit hanging from the trees, but she's actually alluding to hanging bodies of lynched black people.

Do you base the lyrical concepts in Zeal and Ardor on your own experience and knowledge? or is it something you find yourself researching and actively learning more about?

It's not exactly my day-to-day life, it is more about stuff that I research, so yeah you're right. I guess I could also call it altered history in fictional sort of way also, or something like that.

Prior to ever beginning work on Zeal and Ardor, did you have any stand out artists that were either soul/gospel/blues or black metal/extreme metal that were already an inspiration to either your musical endeavours or to your own musical tastes?

I've always been heavily into the more darker and gruesome style of extreme music, I'd have to say Cannibal Corpse would be the main band I can think of, when I started listening to them I was about 14 or 15 years old. I never really got into the bluesy side of things, it's strictly just something I learnt doing this project. I think the closest that I came to that sort of music would be Tom Waits, because I really like the weird aspect of his music.

What is the most bizarre description you have heard or read for Zeal and Ardor’s sound? and are there any descriptions or styles you prefer to hear people use when describing what you do?

Well considering that it's really fucking bizarre music, I don't really think I can be too picky about what people write about it or what people want to call this music that I make. Almost everyone I speak to describes my music differently to the other person, which I guess means I'm doing something different. But for now I guess people can make up their own minds about it.

Blues and Gospel music would be considered to be a complete polar opposite to the more extreme metal type elements you use in your music, especially from a cultural standpoint with very dedicated and traditional followers in both genres. To your knowledge has this resulted in causing any issues from religious or political type groups in regards to what you do with your music and the imagery you have created to go with it?

Not to my knowledge, I don't think we're exactly a world famous band or even on that level to get that sort of attention just yet. Maybe it's because people don't care about us yet? Let's not get arrogant right now, we may never reach that level. Could it happen? Actually I'm kind of happy it hasn't. I don't really want to be looking over my shoulder and looking at the current political climate of the world. I wouldn't exclude it from our near future, sadly.

What has been the most surprising for you in the last 2 years of Zeal And Ardor?

Basically that we get to do this, that we get to tour and that I get to talk to people like yourself who are on the other side of the planet about this silly project. It sounds super unreal and surreal to me that this is my life now, all of it.

How to do you go about constructing your songs? and does the sound you have crafted feel like it limits what you can do with a song at times? Like, have you had to consciously work on a song to make it more bluesy or more metal in order to fit your sound?

No not really, I kind of just write songs and see if they fit later on. I think if it's too conscious of an effort then people tend to notice after how remitting it is. I'm very aware that this is not an infinite pond of ideas and possibilities, I think once that limit is reached I might have to try something different and keep evolving as a musician. But I think there's still a little bit to be left unheard and more to discover for now.

Since there were songs recorded for Stranger Fruit that you had been already playing live for some time, does this mean you already have more material possibly ready for future releases? and can fans expect to hear more music that hasn’t made it to a release in your live shows?

There will definitely be unreleased music that we will play live, yeah there's a lot of songs that didn't make it on the record for whatever reason. But we will still be playing them live and people will still have a chance to hear something new and different usually if they attend a live show.

And speaking of live shows, is there any plans for an Australian leg of the Stranger Fruit tour at some point?

Not specific plans that I'm allowed to talk about, if that's any indication. But I would definitely love to play in Australia sometime soon. If Spotify plays and streams are anything to go by then it seems like there are some people there who perhaps would enjoy a show or two. We shall see. It's just awesome that Australia is one of the main countries listening to this music that we're making.

Written by Jackson Price

Pre-order Stranger Fruit HERE.

Check out the latest single taken from Stranger Fruit titled "Built On Ashes" below.

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