Efrim Menuck On… Fatherhood, Tape Trading, Punk Rock Politicking and the Paralyzing Power of Fear

Efrim Menuck

The following story is taken from the spring issue of our iPad magazine, which is now available via the App Store

Photography by Richmond Lam
Words by Andrew Parks

Efrim Menuck and Jessica Moss didn’t plan on having a kid. Life just kinda…happened. Which isn’t to say that the Montreal musician and Moss (a violinist and Menuck’s longtime bandmate/partner) don’t love their son Ezra dearly. They do. But it can be difficult to embrace fatherhood—initially, at least—when your worldview is bleak at best. (See: just about every record by his bands, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, since the Clinton administration.)

“From when Jessica got pregnant leading up to a little while after was some of the worst I’ve felt in my life,” says Menuck, “like, ‘How are we bringing a person into this world? This is the most selfish thing.’ But some chemical floods your brain when you have a kid that erases all that…. And once you’ve kissed their forehead for the first time, it doesn’t go away.”

The instinct to protect one’s family left Menuck scrambling for books on how to survive when everything’s gone to shit and all we have is one another. Or as he explains from his home in Montreal, “I was mostly trying to wrap my head around the horrors of the world. I remember talking to Jessica, being like, ‘We need to teach him how to farm!’ Because he’s basically going to grow up in Road Warrior times, you know?”

That moment’s already arrived on Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s recently released Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, which packs 24 minutes of chaos into its first two tracks, then spends the rest of its time waging a war against human nature and the bed we’ve made. Never mind the fact that it’s on fire. Menuck would rather pour gallons of gasoline on it all and start over anyway. As he puts it at the peak of “Austerity Blues,” “Lord, let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down.” Here’s how he sees it…

“I was homeless, broke and fucked up, and everyone I knew was homeless, broke and fucked up. That was when everything clicked in my head. I realized the world was unjust, that the game was rigged.”

self-titled: Your first Silver Mt. Zion record was gentle compared to how you sound now. What changed?
It’s not like our tastes have changed. All of us have always had broad tastes as individuals. This process started a long time ago for us, and it feels like we’re in a good place now in terms of heaviness. It’s an interesting balance. There are people in the band who want everything to be full-on blown-out, distorted and midrange-y, with tons of delay. And then other people in the band have more conservative tastes. At the end of the day, we have a shared idea of what musicianship means, which is a new thing for us. For years, this idea of musicianship was something you shy away from because it implies a level of professionalism. But at some point, there’s this shared love of music, this idea that we’re working within this tradition. It’s not about chops; it’s about respecting music, about respecting the idea of getting in a room and playing together.

Did working on your solo record show you some of your own strengths and limitations?
That was a weird process. It’s all kind of a blur. I carved out a tiny chunk of time before some heavy touring, right after my son was born. It was a lot of working from 10 until 2 in the morning, wondering, “Why am I doing this?” I don’t know what I learned from that. It was right before Godspeed got back together, so I knew what the next couple years was going to look like. It felt like my last chance to do something where there was no element of compromise. When you work with other people, you have to compromise. But yeah, it was an exercise in self-indulgence…. Sometimes you just need to sit in a room by yourself. The record was also about friends dying and kids being born; it wasn’t stuff I felt comfortable bringing other people into the room with me.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Slow Riot For New Zerø Kanada (Constellation/Kranky, 1999)

“The Slow Riot EP felt like it came out of nowhere. That was recorded in the middle of a tour, really quickly, when neither of those tunes were even written, really. It was a real marathon to record and mix it, like a 48-hour crazy session with this angelic engineer, Dale Morningstar. I remember not understanding how we accomplished it at the time.”

Your music has always had a political undercurrent. When did you start seeing the world differently?
I grew up in the ’70s. I got indoctrinated with this post-hippie ideal, where the world’s gonna be a better place. Then I hit adolescence, and that was clearly not the case. I had a rough period from about the age of 17 to 23…. I was homeless, broke and fucked up, and everyone I knew was homeless, broke and fucked up. That was when everything clicked in my head. I realized the world was unjust, that the game was rigged. At the same time, I was going to these Wednesday night punk rock shows that were the best thing ever. I feel like I’ve been on the same road since I was 17.

When I was 15 and in biology class, the teacher told us about climate change and I was physically incapacitated for a week. I couldn’t fathom that this was happening. I was a pre-teen in the ’80s, so there were a lot of phobias about the atomic bomb and stuff.

Did you have drills like they did in the states?
No, it just kinda hung in the air. You’re a kid; you can’t fathom that someone’s going to push a button across the ocean and the world is going to explode.

Did you feel sheltered as a child?
Like any kid, I felt sheltered from the world until I wasn’t. My childhood was an apocalypse, but it had nothing to do with the world outside.

Did you have siblings?
No, it was just me and my dad. I had friends who had older brothers or sisters—people who would pass down records and joint-rolling techniques…. Kids with siblings get used to having other people in their space. I was in my own head a lot.

At 13 or 14, the idea of punk rock—the fact that anyone can do it—stuck with me. I was in a ton of going-nowhere punk bands [laughs]. But I came of age when hardcore had already become this jock thing. It was starting to slow down, and shit was becoming heavier; everyone was getting into the Stooges at the same time as Minor Threat.

What did you listen to?
If you were a kid back then, you smoked hash and listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. We did that, too, but we were also listening to white noise, punk rock and hardcore. Then maybe there was a Coltrane cassette. This was all pre–compact disc. This was shit you couldn’t hear even if you wanted to. You’d see a record on the wall, and it’d be $300. People would pass cassettes like ancient runes. Like, “Holy shit, the first Hüsker Dü record!” There was a scarcity there that was cool. And in the scene I was part of, there wasn’t a lot of genre bullshit. People didn’t care; it was just like, “This sounds good. Let me make you a cassette of it.”

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Do you remember a tape that was dubbed to death back then?
Fucking Zen Arcade, the Hüsker Dü double album. No one had that record. I remember a friend saying he found it on vinyl, and six of us went over to his house to hear it. That was the Holy Grail when I was 15.

Did your father play music around the house?
Yeah, the Beatles and a shit ton of classical. And when that Graceland record came out, it was that over and over again. I can’t hear that record without feeling teen angst.

You must have loved all those young bands referencing it a few years ago.
It made me feel ancient. For me and everyone my age, that was the most uncool sound in the world. It was the sound of your father getting fat.

Did hearing classical have an effect on you?
It was a weird process; I stopped playing music for a bunch of years. I was a high school dropout, then moved to Montreal because there’s a university here that has a mature student program. When I got out of school, it was like this decision: “I’m going to play music again.” I remember me and Dave [Bryant], one of the guitarists in Godspeed, sitting at this bar and mapping out this thing. “We’ll start a band with everyone we know, a band of orphans.” That’s how Godspeed started. That’s why it was like 15 people and a drunken mess at its peak. It was this ridiculous idea—playing these songs that were way too long and didn’t have words, and taking it seriously.

Did you have to pick a major at that school?
Yeah. I did cinema.

Did you want to be a filmmaker?
I thought I was going to make weird films, and then I reached this crossroads where I wanted to make music instead. Experimental film is still a hard sell. So I thought I could do this, but I’d be speaking to this very tiny [audience]. I thought I could do the same thing with music but actually [reach] a lot more people.

When did Godspeed start to feel like a “real band”?
Bands reach a point on the road where someone quits, like, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” That was part of the process. It got whittled down to this group of nine people who were like, “Fuck it! Let’s buy a van and leave town.”

Was everyone on the same page politically?
Godspeed’s thing has always been democratic in the most severe sense. If a decision has to be made, you have to show up to the conversation. In some ways, it’s really good: “I trust you; go do that.” But on the other hand, with really contentious stuff, you end up with too many people in the room. I believe in the process, but it’s difficult.

What are you glad you stood your ground on?
We played this festival once where there was all sorts of drama from other bands about what we were getting paid. I didn’t really understand it; it was other people’s baggage, not ours…. Like, “Why are these American bands who license their songs to car commercials busting our balls about what we’re getting paid?” My reaction was, “We should just give the money back.” So we had this five-hour band meeting that was like 12 Angry Men. When we finally came to a consensus, we gave the money back. It was the proudest I’ve ever felt in this band.

Efrim Menuck at home

Your son, Ezra, is four now. Have you gotten the grasp of fatherhood yet?
Every day you’re worried you’re going to fuck up in some crucial way, and the light is suddenly going to go out in his eyes. Like, he has to start school next year. That’s terrifying to me. I don’t want him to go through a 10th of what me or Jessica went through in school, in terms of trauma and pain. But he’s gotta go.

What’s the theme of your new record?
It’s about the island of Montreal—the fact that we live in opposition to the nation we’re a part of simply because we’re Montrealers. That’s the stage, and each song is another little number on that same stage, describing the shared worries, fears and joys we all have as people. What keeps me here is the community I’m a part of. Every year I question it, though. The level of misgovernment in this city and province is appalling. It’s a broken city that’s dark for a quarter of the year. It’s a strange place to live. But I still love it here, and I feel this immense civic pride.

How have you felt about the reaction to Godspeed being back together?
The first time around we felt this defensiveness about where we were coming from. I think it’s good we went through that, but this second time around, we feel protective, but our scene is a weird scene. At the end of the day, all we do is throw our amps onstage, put our heads down and play. Hopefully everything will be okay. //