The Cover Story

Zeal & Ardor: “I just want to take people by surprise”

Zeal & Ardor were only meant to be a one-time thing on the internet. Now, on the eve of their brilliant, self-titled third album, they’ve become celebrated as one of metal’s most forward-thinking bands. For mainman Manuel Gagneux, it’s a strange development to process. Here’s how he went from a teenage punk hanging out in Swiss squats, to the man lighting up heavy music…

Zeal & Ardor: “I just want to take people by surprise”
Nick Ruskell
Nat Wood

Manuel Gagneux doesn’t like to think too much. Or, rather, doesn’t like to over-think. A vastly intelligent man, an interest in how things work at one point did actually lead him to study physics for a bit. He is currently working on a VR program, which he simply describes as “really cool and interesting”.

But when it comes to Zeal & Ardor, the less analysing and prodding that gets done about how it all works, even by himself, the better. Otherwise, he worries, he’ll upset whatever applecart there is, and then “the jig is up”.

“Throughout our growth, the one thing I've never really done is acknowledge it, and never really looked back. I think it would just breed pride, or hubris,” he says. “The moment I ponder about it too much, the floor from under our feet will be gone.”

He says that he finds his band’s success “hilarious”, because it wasn’t something he was looking for. Wasn’t even trying to start a band. It came, after all, from call-outs on a web forum for ideas to mix up genres that shouldn’t work together. Zeal & Ardor was the result of a suggestion to mix old slave songs with black metal. But it was one of many experiments, the rough files of which he still has in high numbers on a hard drive somewhere, which will never be heard.

“Music is just a popularity thing, as far as ‘success’ is defined,” he continues. “And popularity is just not a permanent thing. That's the thing that I've come to grips with a long time ago. So I take it with a huge grain of salt. And I'm aware that this could come crashing down any second, or maybe fizzle out over a long time period. But still, it's not permanent. Either people like it or they don't. That's pretty much the whole story of it.”

Maybe. But it’s a success for which Manuel is also incredibly grateful. Treating it as something that just seems to happen on its own is artistically liberating and means it doesn’t become a weight – whatever happens, happens. But he needn’t worry. This week, Zeal & Ardor release their superb self-titled third album. In the diary are dates all over the place, including a run with Swedish tech-metal pioneers Meshuggah, and sharing space at the top of this year’s ArcTanGent festival. When we speak, he’s at home in Switzerland, still decompressing from a huge U.S. tour with Mastodon and Opeth.

As you’ll discover through even the shortest of encounters with him, as well as being an incredibly nice man, Manuel is almost bashful when looking at and speaking about all this. He’s not being hard on himself, and there’s certainly nothing false about his surplus of modesty. He giggles and smiles, and obviously thinks it’s all brilliant, just amusingly unbelievable that it’s happening to him.

“This project was started basically on a dare,” he says. “And now, to be high up on the bill of ArcTanGent is just bizarre. It's like, ‘Wait, there's great bands in the same row [of the poster]!’”

Don’t let him trick you. Zeal & Ardor, the band, are brilliant. Zeal & Ardor, the album, is a record rich in intelligence, creativity and depth. Manuel Gagneux, though he’d never say it himself, is among the sharpest metal musicians of his time. And despite his thoughts on the transience of popularity, a lot of people do love his work. He’s got his own way of saying it, though.

“So far, so good,” he grins. “We seem to have tricked enough people.”

For fuck’s sake…

While the roots of Zeal & Ardor are well known, those of Manuel himself have been less discussed. Born in Switzerland in 1989 to musical parents, the form was something of a feature around the Gagneux household. His mother was a soul and jazz singer. His father, meanwhile, was a percussionist. “Salsa percussion,” Manuel remembers. “Like this weird polyrhythm stuff, which is super-annoying if you don't want to listen to music.”

When he came to pick up an instrument of his own, “my parents forced me to play saxophone. I absolutely hated it. But that was when I was a kid.” As a teenager, Manuel plumped for percussion and then the guitar, around the same time he discovered punk rock. “I got myself the ugliest BC Rich you can imagine, a big old pointy bastard, locked myself in my room for the next few years.” Discovering that Basel had a huge and active punk scene, he became involved as a teen, and his ears quickly became opened to the more extreme sounds of metal and grindcore (“When I first saw it on a flyer I was like, ‘What the fuck is a grindcore?’”)

Nearby was a squat venue in the city, one of the classic features of underground music in Europe, cool places which all look like they’re held together by graffiti and load-bearing walls comprising 30 years of band stickers. It’s now gone, the victim of a fire, but as a kid, every weekend Manuel and his mates would go there to hang out and watch shows by bands like German grind outfit Japanische Kampfhörspiele. Even this, though, was at the more conventional end of the entertainment that would pass through the venue.

“One band who played there was tattoo-noise act, which was one of the most jarring experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “It was just this guy, and half of his body was blacked-out by tattoo. He was totally nude singing some songs, while he's been stabbed only on that side with tattoo needles. Half of his body was just one big old doodle. It was violent to see – he bled and shit. It was pretty fucking cool.”

It was around this time that Manuel formed his first band, a black metal outfit by the name of – and here he admits he can’t actually remember properly – “something like Ateraxie Austere Assumption”.

“One of the other guys was adamant about the name. I looked it up and it didn't mean bullshit,” he laughs. “We played no shows. It was just basically us drinking the cheapest beer imaginable in the [rehearsal] bunker and yelling into shitty mics. It was fantastic.”

Academically, Manuel says that he’s “not educated at all”. He was clever, with a huge appetite for literature, but at 16 he quit school. Despite this un-academic move, he had an ambition to study physics, which led him to eventually signing up for the military, through which was a path for getting into university. Or so he thought.

“When I signed up, I could say what I wanted to do, and that was in the nuclear defence laboratories, in the hope of getting into uni that way,” he says. “But you're just locked down and locked into doing… dubious things. Did I enjoy it? Fuck no – it's terrible! You get screamed at. I'm not really allowed to talk about what we did down there. I was eager to quit, let's put it that way.”

“If you try to construct something that people might like, they smell bullshit instantly…”

Hear Manuel explain why you can’t manufacture human connection

Eventually, he “kind of deserted, without saying my proper goodbyes to the fatherland,” and high-tailed it to New York. Here, he concentrated on music. Fortuitously, he struck up a living arrangement with an older blues musician, who allowed him to live rent-free in the house he owned in the city in return for his Swiss lodger doing mixing work for him. It was during this time that the internet call-outs for ideas started. Forty-seven got made – “tribal melodic hardcore, Gregorian post-rock, Nashville power electronics, Baroque bro-step” – but the one that stuck was Zeal & Ardor. It got picked up by Vice. Then Rolling Stone got in touch. Then he got invited to put a band together and play at Roadburn.

“I remember clearly, we had three gigs prior to that,” Manuel recalls. “The first one was in our hometown. Not only did we premiere this weird idea to the world, it was also to our friends and peers and parents, who were all eagerly awaiting us, but still silently judging us. That was one of the scariest experiences I've ever had.

“Before going onstage, I remember we got really angry. There was a lot of face slapping and punching walls, but then we went onstage and that intensity kind of dictated our live performances ever since. We were like, ‘Okay, we can get away with this.’”

As things picked up, and Zeal & Ardor became a proper band doing proper band things like touring and interviews, Manuel says his reaction was one of disbelief. Actually, the word he uses is “dumbfounded”.

“It was so silly, but at that point, I was kind of numb to these things because it was in the midst of a barrage of really out-there propositions,” he says, “I got to do interviews for the first time, and I just thought, ‘Why would I do this?’ And by the time the Roadburn question came in, I was just kind of giggling in disbelief, which I guess is the mood I'm still in.”

Which, with a bit of cutting to the chase, is where the new album comes in. The circumstances of its creation may be different to that of their Devil Is Fine debut, or even its follow up Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor are now a known quantity, the wheels are more firmly on the road, there is now expectation rather than curiosity – but it’s also not so far from the simplicity of the beginning.

Written quickly in Manuel’s home during an intense burst of creative activity, he says that his writing process is still very much about having a spark and following it. Or, as he puts it, “Just condensing my stupid ideas.” That is: get something, try it out, if it’s got legs it stays in, get it done, then try not to pick at it too much.

“I'm not too worried about the quality of what I do,” he says. “You should hear some of the demos – they’re horrid! But creatively, I'm just fascinated by going, ‘Oh my God, what if I did this? And what if I arranged it that way?’ I'm basically like a child fascinated by a dangling key or something. There's a glee to that, definitely.

“It can [come from] anything – a vocal line, a weird sound, a guitar thing. If it entices me enough, I just kind of build around it,” he continues. “For instance, on Death To The Holy, that weird, annoying sound, it was one of the first things that came out of the album. I thought, ‘This is so annoying and so obnoxious, I kind of have to build a song around it.’ And that's how that came to be. Things start granular, and then it's just seeing what Lego parts fit to this cool new spaceship that we're trying to build. And just that the mere thought that I get to build a song around one sound, and then thousands of people have to listen to something that annoying, I can't help but laugh. And you can't help but have fun with it. If I stubbornly tried to write a song that doesn't give me that giggling sensation, nine out of 10 times it ends up sounding bad.”

Keeping all of this together are two elements crucial to Zeal & Ardor. The first is a musical tree trunk from which all of these curious branches sprawl, which Manuel notes is “imperative above everything”. Otherwise the whole thing doesn’t work.

“To me, the atmosphere is the most important thing,” he says. “As long as the atmosphere is kind of semi-constant, I can get away with even obnoxious noises and genre changes. For this record, I wrote a fuck-ton of songs that didn't make the cut or just didn't fit. So it's kind of cherry picking what could actually be a part of it and what makes for an interesting listening experience without being grating. That's a tight rock.”

The other key part of the band is the narrative. Though the concepts of slavery and liberation are looser than they may appear, they nevertheless play an enormous part in making Zeal & Ardor come alive. Otherwise it would just be “a stream of consciousness”.

“I have a little notebook that I carry with me and sporadically write into,” says Manuel. “It's one of the few threads that hold this thing together. If I can weave even the vaguest narrative into it, it helps the whole thing. And I do that with far more care than the construction of the music.”

“I found this weird sound and thought, ‘This is so annoying and so obnoxious, I kind of have to build a song around it...’”

Hear Manuel discuss his love of discordance

Where the lyrics go this time continues the journey of the previous two albums. They speak not just of a theme, but also a philosophy: liberation.

“Devil Is Fine was life in slavery, and Stranger Fruit was the escape, the breaking out,” he explains. “This album is actually living on the run, or being free to a certain degree, and figuring out, ‘What the fuck are we going to do now?’ It’s the new frontier.”

There are here parallels to be drawn to black metal’s traditional Satanic leanings. But as Manuel points out, singing about Satan in that context in 2022 – rather than in the 1960s where Anton LaVey founded The Church Of Satan – isn’t actually that edgy. It is, he muses, if you’re Lil Nas X and lapdancing The Devil in a video, but otherwise, “You’re just singing to the choir.”

“I do subscribe to certain philosophically Satanist ideologies, but I'm a secular. I wouldn't slaughter a goat or anything,” he laughs. “But as far as some of it goes, the idea of fulfilling your ego as far as you can, as long as you're not stepping on any toes or not inhibiting others of doing the same, that's how far I'd go with it.”

One occasion where Zeal & Ardor have been more direct and completely unambiguous, though, was in 2020, when they released the Wake Of A Nation EP. Written and released in the wake of the anti-racist demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, the artwork was an inverted cross made of two police batons, while the six tracks were intentionally “a knee-jerk reaction to what has happened to my fellow people in the last months”. Though he says he didn’t want to appear to be capitalising on the events, and says he has no desire to repeat it in future, Manuel also says he felt a profound need to express his feelings through his music.

“Making the music that we do, I think it would be nothing short of cowardice to not do anything,” he says today. “And it felt kind like an egotistical thing that I needed to get this stuff off my chest. I don't have like the illusion that I'm going to change anybody's mind with my fucking music. That's never going to happen that so I guess it was more just therapy for myself.”

“I do subscribe to certain philosophically Satanist ideologies, but I’m a secular. I wouldn’t slaughter a goat or anything...”

Listen to Manuel on his relationship with Satanism

Manuel Gagneux might not like to talk himself up too much. But that’s partly what makes him the artist he is. Speaking to him, it’s plain that his motivations are pure, no matter how much humour he might wrap it up in. In doing things like this, it’s made his band’s music pure, too. And creative. And fearless. And that’s why people like it, and why the new album has the personality it does.

“I guess it comes from my manager, who’s as Swiss as I am,” he laughs. “He just has this [view] that, ‘Of course we need to make money, but like it's only fucking money. Let's just make great projects.’ He’s instilled in me like the idea of if you're happy with it, chances are other people are going to be happy with it too. And if you try to construct something that people might like, they smell bullshit instantly.”

Ask him what selling out would look like, and he searches for a moment before settling on “doing a dance record”. But even this, he immediately concedes, could actually be quite true to type. Rephrase the question about what would be the end, and it’s more revealing.

“I guess if I don't have fun with it anymore,” he says. “Because that for me is the real driving force behind it. If there's no fun for me in it, that'll be palpable in the music. That would spell the end of it.”

That isn’t coming any time soon. And if the object isn’t necessarily to be liked, but the artistic reward of knowing you’ve done something unexpected, he’s hit the bullseye with Zeal & Ardor.

“The thing about being known for being eclectic, people expect the unexpected or whatever,” he says. “For this new album, fuck it, I just want to take people by surprise. You know that feeling when you're listening to something that takes a left turn you like? That's the kind of response I'm hoping for.”

You wait for another self-deprecating comment. Instead, there’s a better one.

“Actually,” he smiles, “that will make me very happy.”

Zeal & Ardor is released on February 11 via MVKA.

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