Interview with Efrim from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra- 26 March 2010

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Over nearly twenty years of music journalism, few interviews have had a truly personal and profound effect on me. I add my interview with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra to that elite list of unique moments. I arranged the interview through Efrim himself, which in itself is a testament to the man’s humility. I met Efrim before their concert at the Oxford Regal. He came to greet me in the foyer. We made our way to the back of the venue and eventually ended up in the car park behind the venue. Efrim lit a cigarette. He was ready.

At this point I’m torn between pasting the interview transcript verbatim, thus letting you read Efrim’s words, and writing a piece about my interviewing Efrim. You see, Efrim makes it so easy. He is very well spoken… having written these five last words I abort an incredulous smile…. I’m sure you already know he is! All I’m trying to say is that not all artists have this talent to be able to string a few sentences together in a coherent manner and many resort to the use of comforting interjections every couple of words. So when the opportunity arises there is a good rationale to report the interview verbatim.

The advantage of a raw transcript is that you get to read almost every single word that Efrim said. I say ‘almost’ because it was particularly windy on the day and the mic picked up as much of the wind noise as Efrim’s words. The disadvantage of a raw transcript, however, is that I would not have the chance to describe in full detail the experience of meeting a man who speaks gently and clearly, who listens, pauses and thinks before answering rather than offering clichéd, formulaic and re-used answers. I would also miss the chance of writing about the most moving part of the interview: A humble Efrim talking briefly about his participation in the benefit gig in aid of Vic Chesnutt’s family (proceeds to help them deal with Vic’s large medical bills): Efrim’s voice suddenly lowered and his speech slowed when answering my question about this gig, before wrapping up the topic with the deliberately meek and understated, “so we did those three songs”. A silence followed and as we say in France: “Un ange passe” (An angel passes by). None of my prose could describe the genuine respect and sense of loss that emanated from Efrim’s silence in this desolate, gasoline leaded and dirty car park.

I think I’ve actually said everything I wanted to so I will now reproduce the transcript. But before I do so: If you have not been to a Silver Mt. Zion concert before, try and do so next time they tour. Efrim is great at communicating with the audience, he is witty, funny and very sharp. His comments, for example on how students once almost started a revolution or Prince Charles pompousness and inadequacy in Afghanistan, made me both laugh and think. A band taking the time to have an honest two-way discussion with its audience is a very rare occurrence nowadays, reflecting how much respect Thee Silver Mt. Zion have for their fans. As for the music… The band performed ‘Kollaps Tradixionales’ so honestly and beautifully that I felt enchanted, transported and had tears in my eyes by the end of ‘Piphany Rambler’.

I nearly forgot to mention the reason why my encounter with Efrim was such a unique one: Beside the humbling experience, Efrim’s words enabled me to give consideration to a different aspect of the politics of popular music which I had not considered before. No other artist had managed this before.

So here goes:

The band’s biography on the Constellation website has a sense of honesty and openness that is very refreshing: no frills, no spin. Instead you go straight to the point. There’s also a humane touch to it and I’d say that in my mind it is the humane touch that encapsulates your music… would you say it’s a fair comment?

Efrim: It’s a flattering comment and I hope it’s a fair comment. We’re not under any external pressure of any sort to operate in any other way than the way that we do operate. We’re on a very understanding label that leaves us alone. We work with people that understand what it is that we do and we’re not very interested in becoming huge stars or anything. So we have more freedom to be as casual or humane as we want to be. That’s a conscious choice that we’ve made to keep our ambitions low and humble and to keep our expectations realistic because I think it helps ensure the longevity of the band.

You also talk about your entourage, your dog, your baby, how important is it for you to surround yourself with friendly faces, with people you know while on tour?

Efrim: I think it’s the same as anybody in this life. The things that are important to people generally are family and friends. It’s the same for us

There is a light: Towards the end the crescendo reminds me a bit of Bowie’s Five Years...

Efrim: Yeah, for sure...

It also reminds me of its central theme whereby earth is doomed to destruction. You have talked in the past about trying to put hope in your music. I feel there’s a good element of ‘doomed’ tucked in your songs. How do the two (doom and hope) cohabit?

Efrim: I think we have a fairly realistic view of the world, and the world is in a terrible state. So when we do comment on the world that we live in we’re not willfully naïve, we try not to be in denial about the seriousness of the current situation. So most of our songs start out with a sort of a broad description of the current state of affairs and then try to hammer out some sort of personal reactions in the face of general despair. So I don’t think it’s us issuing doom-laden proclamations, we’re just reflecting the world that we see around us.

But mankind has become a cancer to earth...

Efrim: Of course.

You have a more hopeful view on the world. I’ve also read an interview where you say that you have faith in people.

Efrim: I do.

... and still the world is, in places, desolate.

Efrim: Yes, the world is being destroyed. The natural world is being destroyed and the decisions made by our leaders and the decisions made by the companies that back our leaders are appalling decisions. We are led by small-minded greedy men and we have been for generations. And the state of the world is a reflection of that fact. But still, yeah, I believe that people are good. There are abominations and people who aren’t good and a disproportionate number of truly evil people who hold the reins of power. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, that’s really the state of affairs. Nonetheless I have faith in people. I think people are good. I think people accomplish extraordinary things under terrible circumstances. I think the worst situations reveal the best of humanity.

Imagery seems to be important to the band… in the sense that there’s not much of it (setting aside your record artwork)…

Efrim: We do have some press photos. It comes back to my answer a few questions ago, we have very few external commercial pressures. At this point there are so many terrible photos of us on the internet but photos nonetheless that people are free to grab. So it’s just not a priority for us. Crafting a media image is not something that interests us. We’re happy doing what we do without those pressures.

I was reading about Francis Bacon that he subverted artistic convention to show the evils of man. Do you think that the sleeve of Kollaps Tradixionales is trying to show the evils of man in its own way… and perhaps to show people a different way of thinking?

Efrim: To a fault we like difficult presentations. We like things that you need to look at for a bit or listen to a bit before you really understand what you’re looking at or hearing. In some ways that’s just a purely aesthetic choice. Like it’s not political. It’s just an idea that interests us to give the texts themselves, the music and visuals more depth. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. We’ve had some artwork on previous records that have been willfully too confusing. But in terms of the artwork on the records itself, all we’re trying to do is guide a little bit of creek water in a certain direction.

Is it to compliment the music or perhaps to say to people ‘this is not going to be the kind of music that…”

Efrim: No, only to compliment the music. Sometimes we’re surprised that there are things we do that we think are very kind of normal statements to make or normal presentations that we then find out that many people find it very alienating or confusing or upsetting. For us they seem like pretty mundane presentations. There’s nothing that we do that are willfully or intentionally obscuring or self isolating in any way. We’re just trying to present something true. asked you about Noam Chomsky… How do you feel about being asked about politically charged questions?

Efrim: It’s difficult because I don’t have a lot of coherent political thoughts that I can sum up in two sentences. It’s not really where my head resides. So it’s hard sometimes because people ask you these huge political questions and you’re expected to provide some sort of cogent answers. And like everybody else in this world I’m mostly confused about the societies we live in and by other people’s societies. As a band, our politics are complicated on one hand but simple on the other hand. We’re just trying to be intelligent caring people in this world. We’re trying to do as little harm as we can in the world and that’s like most people. What’s appalling to us is that it’s not what most musicians are engaging with. Musicians somehow have this free licence to be totally disengaged from the world and they’re not often held responsible for their actions. And that’s true even for smaller bands. Obviously now it’s a cliché that celebrities have carte blanche to do whatever they want but it’s also in this realm of indie rock, with quotes around it, that I have witnessed appalling behaviours on the part of individual musicians and on the part of bands.

Such as social behaviour?

Efrim: Social behaviour and some thoughtlessness. I mean there are politics around the presentation of music that you can’t avoid. There are also economics. These are all things that we take very seriously not because we are any under assumptions that we are on any divine path or anything but because this is our labour and we don’t want people who like what we do to be mistreated in a venue or a record store. So we give these things thoughts. Most musicians don’t give these things thoughts. Most musicians are just happy going wherever, wherever the biggest pay cheque is. There’s a sort of juvenile behaviour in the realm of music that’s boring to us at the end of the day. So a lot of the political baggage we have as a band actually comes from speaking out about our fellow musicians more than speaking about the world at large. We’ve always foregrounded our experiences as musicians ahead of anything else because that’s what we know the best, that’s what we’ve spent the last decade doing. That’s the lens through which we see the world. We’ve always been forth read about that stuff.

Talking about ‘the Best ever gone’… There was a benefit gig that you took part in. What songs did you play?

Efrim: We did a song by Abner Jay called ‘I’m so Depressed’ and we did a song by Randy Newman called ‘I Think He’s Hiding’ and we did a song by Vic that never got released. So we did those three songs.

Shall we talk about the Montreal scene?

Efrim: Sure.

I was once having a chat with Mark from Woodpigeon and the gist of our conversation was wondering whether when a band from Montreal goes out and tours the world, then do they still qualify for the Montreal sound? Do you think that even though you go out and are inspired by other parts of the world your music is still rooted within the community you originally come from?

Efrim: Absolutely. We’re still very rooted in the community of musicians that we’ve known now for so many years and we’re still engaged in that community outside of this band. I get the point. We’re no longer a local band. But there are many things that we do outside of this band for example producing records for other people, engineering records for other people, playing smaller combos with other musicians in town. We’re still very engaged with the community in Montreal. That’s what we do, which means we are home sick all the time when we are on the road.

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For more details, visit… Thee Silver Mt. Zion's website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2010