Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band started as a modest three-piece spinoff of the dynamic avant-garde instrumental ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emporer. Since the late '90s, the band has gradually evolved through several lineup and name changes on its way to becoming an internationally recognized orchestral post-rock powerhouse with a fearless creative spirit and unwavering punk-rock ethos.
The Orchestra's willingness to push its own creative boundaries and its tendency to road-test new music while on tour always keeps fans on their toes. Its latest album, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, is made up of four epic orchestral numbers that build and sway, crest and fall though subtle layering of Old-World strings, reverberating guitar lines and a growling low end. Multiple male and female voices add to battle cries that build out of primary vocalist Efrim Menuck's intensely emotive and desperately forlorn growls and yelps. B-Sides spoke with Menuck about the current state of "indie rock" and his band's perceived politicism over the phone just before the band embarked on its latest American tour.
B-Sides: It seems like a lot of bands these days feel like they have to walk a very specific path and be recognized by specific tastemakers to find success. Do you feel like you guys have been lucky to be able to build your fan base slowly through years of touring and releasing records?
Efrim Menuck: It's a complicated issue. For the past few years, we've just made records and toured and managed to make a modest honest living doing it. I take music seriously, and it's work I enjoy, so I get a bit freaked out when my livelihood is threatened — because there's definitely a situation now where there are more and more flash-in-the-pan bands that are going on the road and it's getting a little bit crowded and removed from any actual reality.
Do you think some musicians are afraid to voice their opinions because of a fear of how they might be portrayed on a blog or something?
Well, yeah. I'm 37, and things now remind me more and more of how things were when I was 17 and it was all about Rolling Stone and Spin and bullshit like that. But at the same time, when we were kids, we had no problem understanding why those magazines didn't write about the bands that we liked and when they did they were incredibly dismissive and condescending. And it was because the bands that we liked were oppositional to what those publications were interested in, and they actually represented a threat because there were these bands just hopping in a van, touring and doing well outside of all of that. That's how it feels today. Bands today that exist without getting the mandatory Pitchfork hype or whatever are threatening in the same way.
A lot of people still identify Internet-based media as being "underground" since it's kind of a fairly new phenomenon.
We recently played this show in Europe, and I was talking about bands with this really sweet kid who books shows. We ended up talking about the bands and labels that are able to afford to take out, like, back-cover ads in every magazine you buy. I mean, how many tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars does it take to buy that sort of exposure? This is a huge industry and that's fine until it gets masqueraded as somehow being a grassroots or underground movement. That's the point that it starts getting on my nerves because then there's nothing liberating about it.— Shae Moseley
9 p.m. Tuesday, May 27. The Bluebird, 2706 Olive Street. $7 21-plus, $10 under 21. No phone. www.myspace.com/bluebirdstl.
From busking at train stops to scoring the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, from backing up burlesque shows to opening for Marilyn Manson, Denver Euro-folk rockers DeVotchKa have upped the ante on multicultural punk aesthetics. On the 2008 album A Mad & Faithful Telling, traditional Spanish, Greek, Slavic and Mexican rhythms and melodies collide and rise up anew in the band's libertine imaginations. B-Sides caught up with singer and songwriter Nick Urata as he and the group loaded in at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.
B-Sides: I wouldn't be first person to observe this, but there's something going on in "indie rock" with bands, especially Calexico or Gogol Bordello, turning to European folk music.
Nick Urata: Those bands would probably say, "Hey we've doing this for ten years." Same with DeVotchKa.
But you haven't been playing the Vic Theatre for ten years.
Well, I guess people are coming around. I thought when I started the band there would be an audience for this music, for our take on it. It's kinda like, if you're a first-generation American, your parents are kind of assimilated and your family has shed their European roots, we're left with a homogenized culture. But you get to a certain point in your life where you pine away for your roots.
People have always played folk music to make money, but originally it was pre-capitalist, pre-consumer culture. It wasn't a commodity, but now it has to be.
The other thing is that this has been going on for centuries. European composers have been borrowing from folk music, Eastern European and Spanish folk music, mixing it with classical styles and bringing it to the masses. It's not a new trend. It's a bottomless well of inspiration. There's something primordial and human in the music.
On the new record, even the most mournful songs sound festive and celebratory. That's a traditional mode.
Our approach has been to create a perverse joy, when the world comes crashing down around you, that's when you really realize you're alive. There's an undercurrent of sadness, but it's overwhelmed by the celebratory nature of it.
Do you pay attention to the lyrics of traditional songs?
When I can. Some of those lyrics don't translate very well. This past summer, I was working with some Russian artists, and there's this movement called the chanson, it was like an underground protest movement under Stalin. I got some direct translations. This is me paraphrasing, but that theme of being totally squashed and the writer is still trying woo a girl in the midst of all that. That's universal.
Where is your live show going at the moment?
I've always thought we were a better live band than on record. Only recently have we found a happy medium with that. That's been a part of our development. We would go to places like St. Louis all the time, playing little clubs. We wanted to be this quiet, melodic, symphonic band, but we realized that that shit doesn't fly in a crowded bar. We found that people gravitated towards us when were being more on the raucous side. We've tried to keep that spirit of being an immigrant, wedding dance party.
I'm keeping your number for when I get hitched.
We've played a ton of weddings. We've done all manner of crazy gigs.
— Roy Kasten
8 p.m. Friday, May 23. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $15. 314-726-6161.