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ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT Summon Visions Of A New Dawn

Efrim Menuck and Ariel Engle invite us into the legendary Montreal recording studio Hotel2Tango to chat about their new experimental art rock project.

by Stephan Boissonneault 

Photos by Stacy Lee

The wind seems resentful on this Sunday afternoon as I approach the back door of Hotel2Tango, the mighty Montreal Mile End recording studio that has been host to hundreds of bands and a hub for the city’s alternative music scene, including of course the orchestral alt-rock progenitors Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. As the dirty sunlight shines on the metal door, I extend my arm out to knock, but it swings open before I get the chance. Standing in the doorway is a grey-bearded man dressed in black, holding a coffee and a cigarette. 

“Who are you looking for?” he asks in a vexing tone. 

The man is one of the owners of Hotel2Tango and founding member of GY!BE, Efrim Menuck, who no doubt thinks I’m some fan looking for hidden information about one of his storied band’s mysterious recording sessions, wanting to snap his photo or catch a glimpse of the space. Which is fair, as I learn later that this occurrence still happens frequently. But no, I’m here to speak with him and his bandmate Ariel Engle about their still relatively new droney experimental art rock project, ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT (AH_ML), and the debut album, Darling The Dawn, out on Constellation Records — another mighty stalwart in the Montreal music scene.

Menuck invites me into the studio space. It’s vast and spaced out, full of natural light and legions of music gear; a gorgeous Baldwin piano, an 1800s pump organ, guitars that were likely used on a few Godspeed albums. Behind, in the control room, is a colossal mixing board. I picture Menuck giving notes to an up-and-coming band as he takes the role of engineer.

We sit across from each other on a faded pink vintage Victorian couch making small talk as we await Ariel’s arrival. Menuck looks tired, like he’s been up for days, as he sips his second or third cup of coffee. He just got back from a tour with “the band,”—GY!BE—and had to deal with being stuck in a Denver motel after a delayed flight. “We were waiting to figure out what the hell was going on for hours and no one was telling us anything,” he says begrudgingly. “Eventually we ended up hauling all of our gear to this little motel, so I’m quite dead.” I suppose just because you’ve been on the road since 1996, you never really get used to it. 

Efrim Menuck of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.

We talk about places—and Menuck’s been to and lived in many—touching on the politics of industry, people, the pandemic, the rising price of rent and how everywhere in Canada is quickly becoming unlivable. “There’s this new generation that has come from places of power and privilege and though they say they want to help, more people are being displaced,” he tells me. “It’s becoming harder to make an honest living by making things in a landscape ceded by people who have means.”

Menuck’s thoughts on how the world works are lengthy, but never come off as pretentious. I feel that he’s a man that constantly fears what could be coming next for him and his son, Ezra. Perhaps this looming uncertainty is the ‘Dawn’ referenced in AH_ML’s new album title. 

Ariel Engle arrives, and her presence seems to have made Menuck calmer—though he chooses to stand during the next half of the conversation, saying he’s “too caffeinated.” Engle and Menuck have been longtime friends, since the late 90s, meeting at the old Hotel2Tango when the location used to host underground shows.

“That place was a glorious mess. To make the rent, we would let outside people play in the space for shows and stuff. When there was a DJ or whatever it would get pretty big [around 600 people] and terrible,” Menuck says.

“I told you it was courageous to host a party in your house or something,” Engle says to Menuck. “It was fun to attend but I remember thinking, ‘I’m glad I don’t live here.’” 

Efrim Menuck of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.
Efrim Menuck of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.
Ariel Engle of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.
Ariel Engle of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.

Years later, Engle (who has her own solo project as La Force, and also performs with Broken Social Scene) did guest vocals on a disco remix of Silver Mt. Zion’s “Hang On To Each Other,” which turned out to be their last release. She recalls being “obscenely pregnant.” “When your body has just given over to this act,” she laughs. 

“I remember going in the booth and giving you this complicated note for the vocals and you just looked at me and said, ‘Oh, like house music?’” Menuck chuckles. “The chords of that song were like house music, and to be honest, we didn’t even know what we were doing, but it turned out great.”

It wasn’t until just before the pandemic at a Jennifer Castle show that Menuck broached the idea to collaborate again. He wanted a change from the heavy cinematic soundtrack stuff and make music with someone who could “actually sing.” They released a self-titled cassette in August 2021, but knew there was going to be another record on the way, eventually. The project was meant to be low stress, a space for Menuck to experiment with noise pedals and synthesizer drones while Engle shapeshifted her vocals and lyrics. And there would be absolutely no guitar.

“I’ve always really hated the guitar”

“I’ve always really hated the guitar,” Menuck says. “It’s the truth. I think it’s a disgusting instrument. It doesn’t stay tuned, it hurts to play, it has so much fucking baggage at this point as a gesture. With the band that takes up most of my time, I sit in a chair with my head down, playing through a pile of pedals. And it’s always been that way. But I love the guitar, too, you know what I mean?”

Engle laughs right as Menuck says the phrase “disgusting instrument.” In fact, we all do. She also brings up that during the first two AH_ML shows, Menuck was still sitting, playing synths. “Yeah, and it still feels weird live, but now I’m this guy,” he says, tilting down his head and playing an invisible keyboard with both hands.

Darling The Dawn is filled with mantra-like vocals from Engle and humming, electronic noise ragas from Menuck. It feels ominous, as if it’s trying to warn the listener about something coming. Something obscure, but cardinal.

“It’s very heavy, drone-based music, so it kind of asks for that vocal repetition that is kind of inviting you into this world,” Engle says. “And then the theme of the dawn really works because it’s a very universal thing that we all experience.”

Ariel Engle of ALL HANDS_MAKE LIGHT at Hotel2Tango.

“I like doing a record about the dawn because it’s so cliche,” Menuck adds. “It depends whether you’ve been up all night, or whether you’re waking up early. There are heavy dawns and light dawns, but lots of the record is about the heavy dawn. The idea of trying to make it home after being up all night or not having a home and being up all night.”

On the record, the dawn feels like an impending entity coming for us all, hiding behind walls of drone. It seems like we’re coming to the end of an era, whether that’s the beginning of a technological age or an environmental disaster—either way, the dawn is coming, for us and the next generation. “You talked about the Dawn in relation to the younger generation a lot when we were discussing this album,” Engle says to Menuck. “I think because we’re both parents, we have to think that way.”

Menuck stares at the studio’s windowed wall for half a minute, silent. It’s not an uncomfortably long pause, but we all stay silent, waiting for his response. 

“We’re at this crossroads,” Menuck says in a tone like he’s predicting a cataclysmic storm. “I think today’s kids are awesome, but it’s either going to get a whole lot darker or a whole lot brighter for them. We just don’t know yet.”

It’s not every day you get to speak with two influential musicians who have helped shape different genres in music, in a studio that is essentially already a piece of music history. I suppose if you work here, like Menuck, you can’t let that go to your head, falling into the trap of mythologizing a place. But it’s hard, as an outsider, to not take in the overall atmosphere of Hotel2Tango, a breeding ground for musical experimentation and albums that push the bounds of alternative music.

Darling The Dawn, though sometimes foreboding as hell, is one such album. Made by people who are, yes, pros at their craft, but still have something to say. In this musical age of instant gratification, you can’t ask for more.