Soulful Duality: A Conversation with Manuel Gagneux of Zeal & Ardor

Exploring the inner workings of one of metal's current trailblazing acts.


On February 11th, the musical marvel that is Zeal & Ardor will give way to their self-titled new record via MVKA. This third entry in the band's discography comes bursting at the seams as a melting pot of influence, history, and soul: all features that have driven the band's upwards trajectory to great lengths since their commanding debut, Devil Is Fine (2016). Though avant-garde black metal would be a broad definition of what Manuel Gagneux and co. achieve here, what truly lies within is boundless and bridges opposite ends of the musical spectrum in seamless fashion. It's vulnerable yet commanding, haunting yet exciting. Visually, Gagneux doesn't rely on overt imagery and instead believes that symbolism is the ideal path, allowing simplicity to serve as a beacon of curiosity for those keen on embarking upon their spellbinding musical endeavors.


To learn about what comprises the Zeal & Ardor creative process, we sat down with Manuel Gagneux and discussed their self-titled tour de force:

 

Before one even jumps into the record, they’re met by the simplicity of your visual approach through a cover illustration that establishes duality via the left hand path and right hand path hand symbols. Musically, that happens as well, but what inspired your visual approach for this record?


Manuel: Pretty much exactly that, and thanks for the kind words. I do a lot of 3D modeling and stuff. I had done a kick ass Baphomet statue for the record, but it felt a little too on the nose. I wanted to have something more subtle, something that was aesthetically pleasing but had meaning there if you looked for it. That was the aim. In essence, it’s just a yin yang symbol with cool sunglasses.


That’s important because listeners form their own interpretation as they explore the record and its intricacies through their own lens. You know, you’re not really one to depend on elaborate artwork or expansive physical packages. ‘Devil Is Fine’ and ‘Stranger Fruit’ (2018) both placed the band logo at the core and allowed that to speak for it. The ‘self-titled’ record doesn’t utilize the logo, but it follows that same symbolism. To what do you attribute that approach?


Manuel: First of all, I like things that you can recognize from afar. I like singular subjects. I do enjoy looking at elaborate and intricate things, but I prefer striking symbolism that sticks in your brain a little bit. Also, we’re from Switzerland and we have that whole elitist design school here. All of those cool and hip fonts, like Helvetica, are from here. I guess I just need to make my countrymen proud in that regard *laughs*.

zeal and ardor
'Devil Is Fine' (2016)

You definitely have, and you shine in your music videos as well. Max Karlo had an interesting video for ‘Golden Liar’, which of course speaks of your investment towards having the music breathe through the visual mediums. You’re a band first and foremost, but do you feel that this particular component of the release is as important in helping you expand upon an album’s messaging?


Manuel: It is to me personally. I can totally acknowledge that they’re maybe not as important for other people, but we’re getting a chance to make something interesting and intriguing. It would be a wasted opportunity for us to just go, “Let’s be in a room and be angry with floods, fire, and corpse paint.” I wouldn’t be happy with that.


That tends to be the norm, which is expected if you’re staying within a genre’s conventions. Talking about the music, you just wrapped up a tour with Opeth and Mastodon. Some of those new tracks got some shine and you’ve been able to see audiences respond and interact with the material. Is it cathartic in any way, to finally see what you’ve invested so much heart in via the live setting?


Manuel: It’s very cathartic, but I will also say it was very frightening in the beginning. There’s a safety to not playing it live because you haven’t seen the immediate reaction of people. When you’re opening for two bigger bands, a large part of the audience didn’t know us. It’s possible that they didn’t like it or cared about it, but luckily in this case, they were really into it. It was a very emboldening feeling. It was actually a last minute decision to play new songs and it kind of paid off. It makes me more confident in the record.


It’s human nature, I suppose. Opportunities like your participation in this tour can really be attributed to the upwards trajectory you and the band have been experiencing in recent years. One could attribute that to many things, but through it all, you’ve remained true to your craft. Despite this newfound acclaim, would you argue that you remain rooted in where this all began?


Manuel: Yeah, I think that’s also because I know if I tried to be more commercial, I would fail spectacularly. People can immediately pick up on bullshit. If there was some little inkling of dishonesty or pandering, people would know it. I learned this the hard way. I had a pop project where I attempted to do exactly that. If you as a creator don’t have any emotional involvement in it, no one’s going to care about it. That’s as frightening as it is emboldening, to me at least.


Audiences have an inherent bullshit meter, that’s for sure. Having listened through the record multiple times now, I have to say that the album’s heavier elements sound truly crisp and bombastic. Will Putney certainly has his hands on this. Does your work breathe differently when you’re allowing it to be received and worked on by different talents other than yourself?


Manuel: It does. At first, I was really hesitant to do it because it’s someone else’s fingers and opinions on my personal thing. When you establish some trust, like I did with Will Putney, there’s just much more to be created. I could never mix a record like Will did and I know that he cares and puts effort into this. It becomes something that I myself could never achieve alone. There’s merit in that, definitely, but it did take me a while to warm up to the idea.

zeal and ardor
'Stranger Fruit' (2018)

That’s a perfect segue into my following point. Was it difficult at all to let that happen? I’m sure it’s inevitable as you continue to grow.


Manuel: It’s not unlike jumping into a pool from an elevated point. At first, you’re really scared, but once you’re actually in the air, you feel the joy of it and you want to go again.


That’s a perfect way to put it. It’s scary at first, but then you start asking yourself who else you’d like to collaborate with.


Manuel: Exactly, like Rick Rubin!


Give it time and I’m sure it’ll happen! Going back into the duality of the symbolism, it happens musically. It’s pummeling, but not entirely as it provides gentle moments of introspection layered well throughout. How do you come about bridging distinct elements to where it all still feels very cohesive?


Manuel: They’re actually dependent on one another. You could have the most hard-hitting record ever, but if it consists of only harshness with nothing to contrast it with, it’ll become the new status quo. Having those little breathers provides pockets of levity and light, which amplifies the other things by mere contrast. Also, I just like to put pretty things in the album.


It feels very seamless and accessible, just like the predecessors. Your native Switzerland has a wealth of musical history and contributions to the world with regards to the audiovisual arts. Do you feel that the country’s persona has influenced you either directly or subconsciously?


Manuel: Definitely subconsciously. While I did listen to The Young Gods and Celtic Frost, what I grew up on was largely different. You can never really pinpoint where exactly your influences come from. It might just be something as silly as a song playing in a supermarket. You never know, so this is like a great opportunity to list really cool things that made me seem cool by proxy, but the truth of the matter is that I just don’t know. It could be something super embarrassing that influenced me in fact, and that’s actually more realistic than me claiming to be inspired by some really obscure record.


Let’s revisit that list question another time because it would be great to see what you listened to, and as we noted, it all makes its way to the music subconsciously. There are a lot of layers on the ‘self-titled’ record, there’s a lot waiting to unfold. Has your perspective on the record changed at all in going from a first-person point of view during the development process to a third person view in performing it?


Manuel: Yes, it’s cathartic and relieving. The record has been done for a while now and we’ve been drip feeding songs one by one because that’s the way the algorithm works. That’s just how we have to do it if I’m being honest about that. Even if there’s bad feedback, at least it’s feedback. It’s a boring secret to keep if you have something that you created to share and you don’t get to share it.


Would you say that you’re more of an insular song writer?


Manuel: Definitely, because that goes back to the bullshit detecting thing. I’ve learned that if I create music that pleases me or makes me feel a certain way, that’s the most relevant stuff I can do. So yeah, insular is apt in that regard.


There’s always the risk that this dynamic becomes compromised as the acclaim grows from album cycle to cycle. You’ve got more eyes on you and slowly people begin tagging you under a particular moniker or expect a particular sound. For you, that’s soulful or bluesy black metal. Do you feel as though that’s already happened?


Manuel: There’s always that danger of it happening, but I feel adamant in not painting myself into a corner. Obviously, it’s impossible to not think about the audience at all, but it’s important to make the effort and at least try. Like with the inspirations, you don’t know where what comes from. Maybe something that I did without me noticing was “fan service” to a certain degree. I don’t know. My intention is at least not to do that.


You approach the compositional process very boundlessly. There’s no direct intention, per say.


Manuel: Exactly. That being said, 90% of what I write is horrible trash. At least I got it out and at least I tried. Maybe I learned something there that I could apply somewhere else? For me, it’s about the volume and not about censoring myself. What’s that saying? Write drunk and edit sober? I mean don’t do it intoxicated, but write as if you’re drunk I guess. Don’t censor yourself prior to putting ink to paper.


Those are words to live by! How important was camaraderie in the development of this record? You’re the mastermind behind it all of course, but it takes a village to bring this to life in such a grand fashion.


Manuel: It’s integral. That being said, I played all of the instruments except for the drums. Marc (Obrist), who also sings in the band, engineered the recording process. It’s the same thing with opening the door to collaboration. It’s like, “Oh fuck, there’s a beautiful breeze coming in. Why didn’t I do this earlier?” That was the case and that’s the camaraderie that you were talking about. It’s great stuff.


Absolutely. You could simply go and hire a bunch of session musicians and call it a day, but it wouldn’t yield the ideal results.


Manuel: That could be possible, and the music might even sound okay, but you can tell if a meal is home cooked with love.


We’ll probably use that as a tag line for the article. While I’d argue that genre tagging is at times dismissive of what a band actually does, it opens doors and allows for folks of all kinds to immerse themselves in different musical backgrounds. Even if this isn’t by design, do you feel as though Zeal & Ardor is an entry point into a world they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have been intrigued in?


Manuel: Yeah! I get private messages all the time telling me that I was their gateway to enjoying harsh music, whether that be metal or noise. It makes me quite happy.


You now have that platform to do so.


Manuel: It’s a fun situation to be in. Hearing someone saying they got into grindcore because of me is brilliant.


I could imagine. In closing, Manuel, we mention your evolution and your constantly growing trajectory. You’ve grown plenty since ‘Devil Is Fine’ and this is a different Manuel as a result. Where does this new ‘self-titled’ record find you as a person compared to when this all began?


Manuel: It’s hard to say since I’m in the thick of it now. I’d say I’m more of a reflective person in more than one way, be it musically or maybe even philosophically. I might eat my words one day.

 

The self-titled record arrives on February 11th via MVKA. Pre-order it HERE.

Cover Artwork by Manuel Gagneux