a silver mount zion
INTERVIEW BY Rachel Clegg
To many ASMZ not only have a unique style of name, they're also their version of the worlds best supergroup. Led Zep fans to the core, ASMZ combine sacred harp singing with a concern about political violence and the escalation of racist wars. Not just your straight forward rock band by any means..
Do you find it difficult combining a string quartet, two guitarists and a drummer?
ASMZ- we are all really familiar with each other and speak a common vocabulary (musical).
Do you have a dominant musical influence?
ASMZ– There isn’t one dominant musical influence, classical and chamber music find their way into ASMZ in terms of orchestration. Jewish/Eastern European folk music plays a part and there are definite American folk influences such as religious Sacred Harp Singing. From the folk aspect it’s a real blend fusing Jewish sensibilities with American sensibilities.
What particular aspect of the music did Sacred Harp Singing inspire?
ASMZ- Sacred Harp singing brings an interesting approach to harmonising, [participants] sing in perfect fifths. It is just intonation singing so it doesn’t quite sound in tune to our ears but in actual fact it is. It is the natural voice so it can sound incredibly harsh and abrasive but that’s beautiful.
When you talk about these religious traditions that come through the music, is there any element of religion that comes through or is it strictly just the aesthetic of the music?
ASMZ- When we are drawing on these things its not necessarily that we are inspired by the religiosity, we are not really a religious band but at the same time musically there is so much great music that has been sacred music and there’s also the sacred state that’s produced by music, the meditative state that you find in psychedelic music also. You can hear a similar type of trance that comes through Puritan colonial [Sacred Harp] singing that can sometimes have the same type of trance psychedelic element of the best sixties psych rock… At the same time there is an interest in the liberatory message of some elements of Judaism where is a concern for speaking out against injustice. There is something really subversive about it when they are talking about Lords and Kings making war and the suffering of the peasants and it translates into some sort of code and sometimes we can decode a politically radical message.
Interesting that you say that because it seemed that as the gig progressed the last two songs struck me as being political and apocalyptic, for example Horses in the Sky…
ASMZ-This term ‘apocalyptic’ has been associated with a lot of Montreal bands definitely God Speed. Not sure if the music is really apocalyptic, there is a lot of hope although politically we are going through the beginnings of what is a political apocalypse of sorts. Songs like ‘Horses in the Sky’ or ‘God Bless Our Dead Marines’ – it’s like what else can we do? All our suspicions have been confirmed by political violence and the escalation of racist wars over the past few years. It’s in our faces. There’s machines flying through the sky raining death on people and we have to say something about it.
Is it difficult to tear away from this context?
ASMZ- [politics] is not encumbered on artists; you should be able to maintain a sense of detachment.
It seems that you use spaces in the music as a powerful mechanism, is this true?
ASMZ- Part of it is with some of the instruments there’s always this special denseness and how do you deal with having so much noise at the same time? This also opens up a lot of play with dynamics so in a sense gaps let the music breathe. We do a lot of arrangements with multiple parts that produces a very different feeling, one part sinks into another but we tend not to a lot of stop-gap-lurch-into something-else so we use gaps as a [means] of letting the audience and music breathe.
How about dynamics?
ASMZ- we can get brutally loud, we might have punished some people. We were going to do an encore but we thought we [already] hurt some people [‘s eardrums]. We all the love the huge sweep, being able to go from delicate quiet music [to the big crescendos].
What do you think this asks of the audience?
ASMZ- a lot, to be quiet it demands a quiet audience which is not always easy to get.
It seems that ASMZ require a different kind of listening to your average two guitars, bass and drums band. Do you think the audience need to adjust the way they listen?
ASMZ- there are moments of rock-out-relief but it’s true, [we] are a very demanding band to listen to.
How do you feel your stage performances compare to the writing and rehearsing?
ASMZ- we work really hard and we put so much work into it but it’s not exactly polished music, we are always on our toes on stage. It requires us to completely listen like we [are] the exposed and accept our weaknesses and accommodate them. That’s what we want to do- show that, the more vulnerable it is, the more powerful it is.
Listening to ASMZ reminded me of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ by Fairport Convention, not so much in music but in power.
ASMZ- Fairport is another band that are working in all these different elements of music.
In that sense I associated you with Led Zeppelin as well, particularly Led Zep III with all its different influences.
ASMZ- we are all huge Led Zep fans. As for fusing influences we all share the same interests, it’s not like we have a ‘jazz person’ or a ‘classical person’.
ASMZ- we spent the summer recording a number of the songs we played tonight. There are a few songs that we started working on in the spring [whilst] on the road in Europe and a few fairly new ones that we worked on over the summer. So that [album] should be coming out in March. After that we’re still [working on] our plans for touring in spring, summer and fall. We are definitely hoping to do an extended European tour and hopefully a North American tour.
How does the material of your latest project compare with previous albums?
ASMZ- in some ways this new record is more raw and acoustic. There’s more of a harrowed strings feel to it [than in previous ASMZ albums]. We’ve thrown [ourselves] into something as a ‘live’ band so it felt like in the studio we were just playing and that translates on the record, it’s more of a live-sounding record.
Rachael Clegg Dec 2004
pictures: (c) ASMZ & ASMZ / Label Website
(c)(p) dec04 / 05 - mbm