Previously creating as a one-man solo effort, the immense interest and critical acclaim Zeal &Ardor attracted upon release of debut album Devil Is Fine, has led to the project becoming a fully-fledged, internationally-touring band.
After months hidden away, crafting the new songs for Stranger Fruit, Gagneux entered the studio with producer Zebo Adam and mixer Kurt Ballou (Converge, Kvelertak, Nails). While the finished sound is larger and heavier, it is still unmistakably Zeal &Ardor.
The diverse yet cohesive nature of the sixteen tracks on Stranger Fruit is designed to encourage the listener to dig a little deeper and find their own meaning in its words. In contrast to the first LP, Devil Is Fine, these songs are deliberately intended to play off each other both lyrically and musically.
While the record seethes with a justifiable rage, its wider-reaching aim is to unify, not divide, and to inspire action, not inertia. Elements of a bleak melancholy are tempered by hope. Superficially, the album tells small isolated stories, but there are also references to the Goetia, Yoruba, and obscure occult literature and history within.
OD – Let’s talk about this new album and first the title, “Stranger Fruit” talk me through the decision process for this?
MANUEL – It’s an illusion to that Billy Holiday track ‘Strange Fruit‘ where she describes the fruit dangling from the trees, referring to the dead bodies of lynched black people hanging from the trees and it’s an expansion of that in the current climate of things globally. That was the direct intention of the title ‘Stranger Fruit‘.
OD – Having had the unexpected success from the first album, did you feel any pressure when putting the material together for this one?
MANUEL – Initially at first, yes a lot. But the more I thought about it and what made the first album special to me personally was that I didn’t have an audience in mind that I was catering to. I was just was making music that I myself, really enjoyed.
This time around, I wanted to continue to preserve that honesty to the approach of the writing and the general feeling between me personally and the music. I guess it’s a form of levity or playfulness with the second record. To be honest, I just didn’t think about it and did what I felt was right for me.
OD – Did you keep the writing process the same, as you told me that you were writing the previous material in your basement/kitchen?
MANUEL – Yes, very much so. I was very conscious not to fuck this album up, so I just did exactly the same with the writing and recording process as I did on the debut album (laughing). It was all created in exactly the same kitchen (laughing).
OD – That’s a very superstitious approach to things.
MANUEL – I guess it can be interpreted as ‘superstitious’ but it’s also a very lazy thing too (laughing) My neighbours have since moved, I’m not gonna say that it had anything to do with the crazy guy who screams in his kitchen, but at the end of the day, who knows!
OD – There are a hefty 16 tracks on this album, how much material did you have initially prior to recording?
MANUEL – The entire album was pretty much done when I came to the studio. I had about 40 tracks and we whittled it down to the 16 that are on the album. I think the only thing that I composed in the studio was ‘Solve‘, the rest of the album was already written and arranged.
OD – You worked with Zebo Adam and mixer Kurt Ballou for “Stranger Fruit’ seeing as this is a very different kind of project to what they normally are used to, was there a lot of experimentation happening in the studio with regards to sound?
MANUEL – Not we just had a forum about what was going to fit and what was not. The structure of the songs remained very much the same as to how they were written. When we started in the studio, it was more about figuring out what could convey the intent of the album as a group of songs, so the arrangements and completed tracks remained untouched when entering the studio.
OD – When the first album started getting the global exposure that it did, was it a bit daunting for you as you seemed to be kind of caught off guard when I last spoke to you?
MANUEL – Yeah. Luckily, I live in Switzerland where the attention just doesn’t reach, so I was just in the same head-space when all of the exposure began to take hold. Of course, it’s ridiculous when the album started getting some media attention, but it just goes to show how everything is related to luck in the music industry. When I think of the fact that people around the world are buying my music and are interested in what I have to say, that’s just a weird feeling for me (laughs). I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.
OD – There are still many people that don’t know how to classify the music you do. Would you agree that you have kind of pioneered a whole new genre of heavy music?
MANUEL – I would agree with that in the sense that we are taking advantage of people in some environments that make absolutely no sense. Some of the festivals that we are playing this year are just bizarre for our kind of music but I really like that as a challenge. For instance, we are playing the Montreux Jazz Fest next month! The fact that people can’t really categorise what we do, kind of ends up with them throwing us at many walls to see which one sticks and I have to say, I’m really enjoying the experience.
OD – Do you think that you are still not completely there yet with the Zeal & Ardour sound, as most bands that create something new take a certain period of time to establish the boundaries and context of what they are doing?
MANUEL – I definitely feel that. If I felt that I ‘cracked the code‘, with writing music, there wouldn’t be any other reason for me to continue making music. I’m actually very happy about the fact that there is a lot of experimentation and exploration for me in the future.
OD – Did you delve into more of the Lead Belly and Spiritual style recordings for the inspiration to this album?
MANUEL – Yes, in fact, I gave my self a little more liberty to what I was inspired by for this album. I delved into some very early Soul stuff in there and found that I wanted to give a little more leeway into the history of black music. It just felt like a natural progression for me to follow the historical pathway, all the while keeping the essence of what Zeal & Ardor is about.
It was a great experience for me as I was able to experiment with many different sounds and genres, which was a lot of fun.
OD – Your touring on the last album was sporadic and limited. Are there plans to take on an intensive touring cycle for this album and if so, when does all begin?
MANUEL – That’s something that I’m not allowed to talk about (laughing). Does that make sense? Let me just say that there are busy times ahead.
OD – You opened for Prophets of Rage almost a year ago now in London’s Brixton Academy, how was that experience and how did it come about that you got that support slot?
MANUEL – That was actually all down to Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave/Prophets of Rage) who was stupid enough to let us open for Prophets of Rage three times.
OD – When you first got that news, were you totally surprised?
MANUAL – Totally! I lost my shit!! (laughing) I mean, it’s fucking TOM MORELLO!
OD – How did Zeal & Ardor go down with the audiences for those Prophets… shows?
MANUAL – We played the three shows, Berlin, London and Luxenberg. The Berlin and London shows went over pretty well, but the Luxenberg gig was a little strange. The audience was definitely there to see Prophets of Rage, that’s for sure! (laughing)
We had a fun time, I don’t know about the rest of the audience but in situations like that, you just have to say “fuck it” and try and have a good time.
OD – What will be your touring band line up be as I know you had the full band with backing singers in the past?
MANUEL – Yes, it’s all the very same people. They are my friends and they are not leaving any time soon, even if I have to lock them up!
OD – You’re playing a considerable amount of festivals this year, with regards to events like this, do you find that sometimes the music can be lost amongst all the other stages, bands and the nature of the quick turnover (rushed) nature of how those performances are run?
MANUEL – I do prefer the club shows, but there is something to be said about the festival audiences. The challenge is much more intense. It’s like we have a certain amount of time to convince the audience to stay and listen to us and not stray off to another stage, so that’s a huge factor when we perform at these type of events.
In some ways, playing festivals is kind of a huge reality check as to how good you are and can you hold the attention of predominant strangers to the music. There is no question that when doing these shows, it keeps me on my toes as I want them to stay with me and not go to see Marilyn Manson, or whoever is playing on another stage somewhere.
OD – Can you tell me one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned since the success of Zeal & Ardour?
MANUEL – Well, I guess what I’ve learned is something kind of beautiful. Some of the most famous people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet along the way, turn out to be very nice people and if that’s the criteria for success in this business then that’s really fucking nice! I got to meet some really influential people in this business and not one of them were unpleasant and that was a very humbling experience for me.
Zeal & Ardor ‘Stranger Fruit‘ was released on June 8th via MVKA Music & Earache Records. You can order your copy of the LP via this link.
Stream the album in full via the link below;
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