Interview: Manuel Gagneux Of Zeal & Ardor Talks New Album

Zeal & Ardor, which are the brainchild of Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux, just released their third album, simply titled Zeal & Ardor.

The new, self-titled album continues down the left-hand path that Gagneux set for himself in 2013, when he took up the challenge laid down by an anonymous person on the internet to form a band from two disparate forms of music  (in this case combining black metal with African American spirituals and blues), which lead to the creation of Zeal Ardor’s debut album, Devil Is Fine.

That first album, which he produced as a solo project, became an internet sensation. This eventually led Gagneux to get signed to MVKA, who re-released Devil Is Fine in 2016, expand the band to a full lineup, and release  a sophomore record, Stranger Fruit in 2018 and an EP, Wake Of A Nation in 2020.

So, we thought it would be the perfect to chat with Gagneux about the new album and all things Zeal & Ardor.

Did you ever think that Zeal & Ardor would reach three albums, given the origin of the band’s creation? Originally it started out as a solo project and just continued to grow. Were you surprised by the band’s popularity? It just seems with each album, it gets bigger, and you reach more people. Was this a surprise to you?
It all came as an immense surprise. Having started this project alone in a basement basically just for myself and now getting to play in front of ridiculous amounts of people is surreal. Of course, I never thought we’d reach this scale, but I think it is because and not in spite of our origins. Zeal & Ardor is the music I like to make for myself, so there’s no pandering to an audience.
Maybe people pick up on that emotionality of it. Maybe that’s the reason we got to exist this long.

After releasing your sophomore full-length Stranger Fruit and the Wake Of A Nation EP, what were you looking to do for your third album?
For the first time, we had ample time to think about what we wanted to sound like. The songs on the first two albums were all written fairly close to another. I think we got to the point where I imagined the project being sonically here. That’s why it’s self- titled. It’s still eclectic, but maintains a coherent atmosphere. Basically, the Zeal & Ardor mood throughout.

The new album sounds like a natural evolution for the sound you’ve established on previous albums. It’s like Devil Is Fine was the first shot of combining two disparate forms of music, while Stranger Fruit further refined this approach, and Zeal & Ardor sounds like it has achieved its final form. Was this your plan all along? And do you think the new album points the direction for the way future albums will sound?
It might point in that direction. To say it was the plan all along would be a lie I think. I just got better at it with every iteration. Maybe in two years, I’ll eat my words and discover a far better way of conveying my sound; who knows?

What were you trying to achieve musically on the new album? And what were you trying to achieve through the lyrics?
I just wanted to dial in on what the project is all about. Cut away the fat and elaborate on what works. Lyrically, it’s a continuation of the alternate history narrative we have going on—what if American slaves hat turned to Satan instead of God?—Where Devil Is Fine was about life in captivity and Stranger Fruit was about the escape this record is about the many things that come after. Being on the run, clandestine ruminations and grand plans.

Zeal & Ardor has always dealt in subversion. Both musically and thematically. How do you think this spirit is alive on the new album?
I personally do, but it’s not easy to assess it while being so close to it. I will say that we’ve interwoven a lot of elements that used to be separate tracks. So there’s less interludes and more ‘genres per song’

I can imagine when you first started this project, you got some pushback, from certain segments of the black metal community. How did you deal with it? And do people still give you grief for the statement you are making with your music? Do you really care?
I don’t think that people who don’t like my music listen to my music. Consequently, I care about as little as they do. It’s funny how black metal has turned from the most free and radical music into a set of rules to strictly act by. Seems a bit counterproductive, but what do I know.

Have there been any black metal musicians who have come out in support of music and vision? I can imagine there being some renegades in that scene that dig what you do?
I’m certain there are, but they have yet to come forward publicly. And I’m not going to potentially libel their name in an attempt for self promotion.

What is next for Zeal & Ardor? Do you ever see an endpoint for the band?
As of now I do not. But seeing how this all came together so quickly, I have no illusions about it lasting forever either. We’re happy to do what we do, but we are also very aware that we are lucky to be here.

Check out the music video for “Run” here:

For more from Zeal & Ardor, find them on Facebook and Bandcamp.

Photo courtesy of Zeal & Ardor and Alan Snodgrass

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