Manuel Gagneux Enjoys 'Blasphemizing the Blasphemy' With Zeal & Ardor

Stian Foss
Zeal & Ardor

If Zeal & Ardor’s combination of Scandinavian black metal and black American slave spirituals seems contrived, that’s because it is -- or at least, it was.

Back in 2014, multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux was actively fielding suggestions from 4chan users on unusual musical combinations he should try. When one suggested that he blend black metal and “n---er” music," Gagneux, who is biracial, was hardly ruffled. Instead, he was intrigued by the musical possibilities, and Zeal & Ardor was born. Gagneux started this unprecedented fusion as a purely sonic exercise that was never meant to be serious. But by the time of his 2016 official debut, Devil is Fine, the emotional parallels he hadn’t expected to find in these seemingly disparate musical worlds had captivated him.

Gagneux spoke to Billboard from his Basel, Switzerland, home base shortly before the release of Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit, out June 8 via MVKA/Radicalis. Titled in reference to the stark depictions of lynching in the iconic song “Strange Fruit,” the album continues Zeal & Ardor’s descent into American racism’s unresolved legacy of malevolence and despair. This time, though, Gagneux broadened his musical reach. By focusing less on the contrast between blues and metal, Stranger Fruit finds a more fluid -- even soulful -- middle ground between the two.

The grave tone of Devil Is Fine made it clear that Zeal & Ardor was no longer a joke by that point. What prompted the change of heart?

At first, it was this levity-heavy, jokey thing. But as I grew fond of the actual sound of the combination, I thought about what it could imply. One of the things was that we’ve come full circle from with this classically black music that was reimagined by people of European descent [in the form of rock] and this very exclusive Scandinavian group [that created black metal]. And now, as a semi-black person, I’m reappropriating [Laughs] the perversion -- or evolution -- of the very idea and mixing it with its own inception.

How long did it take for you to take the idea seriously?

About 10 minutes. [Laughs] No, about three months, I would say.

So from your early demos to Devil Is Fine, it was two years.

I put something up on Bandcamp that I’m not happy with anymore, and I was actually semi-successful in scrubbing it off the internet, which is probably one of my crowning achievements. [Laughs] But, yeah, I honed in on the essence of this sound so I could figure out the connotations the two musical styles share, which, to me, is a certain kind of darkness. That took me the better part of two years.

Listen to "Built on Ashes" from Stranger Fruit below:

I feel like in the United States, we tend to look at spirituals, blues and gospel as evidence of the joyful resilience of the black American spirit. But you’re pointing to something quite different.

Yeah. Of course, the music was an escape and it was cathartic, but it came from a viciously, grotesquely dark place. And maybe I’m just projecting here, but I really think that that’s palpable when I listen to these old recordings. There might be an upbeat melody, but there’s this immense sadness that’s being conveyed. Like that Blind Willie Johnson song [“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”] that’s on that golden disc that they sent into space [in 1977 as part of the Voyager Golden Record].

The most obvious associations with black metal are antisocial rebellion, Satanism, burning churches and the campy side with the face paint. There’s an intent to be threatening. Black American music has a different basis.

The big difference is that one form of darkness is fabricated -- or at least, magnified -- whereas the other one is trying to be hidden, which makes it more horrifying to me. If someone is singing a happy song and you can tell that they’re actually suffering, it’s more intense than if someone is trying to be sad or angry.

So they’re like inverse mirror images of each other, a yin-yang that you’re pointing to.

Yeah.

How much did you have to steep yourself in either style to feel fluent in them?

I’ve been listening to black metal since I was 14 years old. As a teenage boy, something really aggressive and harsh and fast is the best thing in the world. But the bluesy side of things was the bigger challenge, and I don’t actually know if I even feel fluent yet. I listened to a lot of old recordings, and at first, I tried to emulate what I was hearing without trying to sound like me. That was actually pretty horrible. [Laughs] Slowly, I’m kind of learning how I would’ve sang if I were in a similar situation. But the blues part was far more work.

How familiar were you with any traditional black music before you took this leap?

Peripherally. My mom is African-American, and she gently nudged me in that direction. But right after that 4chan post is when I flocked to some old Alan Lomax recordings.

With a lot of black metal, the music seems to scream to be taken seriously, but there’s also a side where it begs not to be taken too seriously.

[Laughs] Yeah. The whole occult aspect of it was very enticing for a trying-to-be-edgy teenager, as I was. I read a lot of books on the subject [that I took] semi-seriously. I treated it as I would treat fiction. It was just a very interesting world that I had a window into. But the more you listen to it and let yourself be engulfed by it, you realize there are these very tender, subtle melodies that are entwined or hidden in this harshness -- the polar opposite of what I discovered in these old recordings that were very tender and soft with this incredible harshness hidden behind that.

What has been the reaction from black metal fans?

There are two camps: the purists -- the spikey, face-painted people -- who felt that I was appropriating [Laughs] and ruining the music. There have also been some racially loaded comments. But there’s another camp of people who liked it. Philosophically, black metal was about eschewing all these traditions and saying, “Fuck you, we’re going to do exactly what we want.” But by now, black metal has so many rules that you need to conform to that it’s almost classical in a sense. So bastardizing the music is actually the most “black metal” thing you can do. [Laughs] But I might be biased.

Well, there are people who get up in arms about adding keyboards or increasing the music’s production values. If that’s considered blasphemous, then what you’re doing would make those people’s heads spin.

Exactly. I find an odd beauty and satisfaction blasphemizing the blasphemy.

We’ve seen black metal throughout the Middle East and Asia for decades now. Clearly, there are people who don’t have the same Nordic cultural orientation who still respond to it -- bands like Melechesh and Chthonic.

Well, my take isn’t very romantic, and it kind of takes away a lot of the magic, but if you think about the first Scandinavian people to make this music -- like Burzum, for instance -- these were just bored, well-off teenagers in bumfuck nowhere that had all this adolescent rage that they needed to efficiently and aggressively project somewhere. I think that group of people is to be found everywhere on this planet. And I think that’s also why people are so defensive about this music. People discover it mostly in a phase of their lives where it’s really important to belong somewhere. And if this is the place where you belong and it’s changed or attacked, of course you’re going to be defensive. That’s what black metal means to some people: a secret club. And, of course, people all around the world want to be in the club.

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