THE LAST GREAT BAND OF THE CENTURY
apocalypse wow! godspeed you black emperor!, the band who ride with the four horsemen at the end of the world, the noise nostradamus warned us about...let's get ready to rubble.
A SLOWER SORT OF EXPLODING
a photograph of four blurred figures standing on a railway line, no faces, no landmarks, no numerical accuracy. a band who isolate themselves from the taint of media and mainstream interest, communicating purely by e-mail. a collective who live together in montreal's mile end district, surrounded by sunflowers blooming in wastelands, crushing pennies on the railtracks as the trains rush by. and often, the word 'cinematic'.
this is the myth of godspeed you black emperor!, not so much the orchestral soundtrack to the last days as documentary footage. yet a thrillingly obscure name and an album sleeve of telegraph poles wouldn't be enough to send people rushing to reclaim their convictions from cold storage if it wasn't for the sound they make. any idea that these are people made up of smudged pixels and murky ideology soon collapses when they emerge to play live. the nine musicians onstage at glasgow's G2 are flesh and blood and viscera, sweating in the heat, wide-eyed at the noise. efrim and dave are folded tightly over their guitars, a sealed circle of sound; violinist sophie and cellist norsola unleash the pathos, while percussionists bruce and aidan provide the fear. glockenspiel, tape drones, projections, strings, all come together to lock out the rest of the world, create their own space. there's no sharp slogan, no easy call to arms - yet godspeed have quietly mobilised themselves, communicating on their own terms with a political rigour that belle & sebastian couldn't even daydream.
at the end of a century where the quest for entertainment has gradually eroded art, where fame has blitzed idealism and pleasure ousted integrity, godspeed are a band willing to treat music like it matters, like a battlefield instead of playground, one final emotional mercy dash at the end of a long struggle with bitter disappointment and broken promises. for anyone who claims music can be important, can amount to more than the same old ritualised movements bashed out repeatedly, this band lead the way to a vital evolution. even, perhaps, in the wildest and best dreams, a means of salvation. they may have no interest in revealing the specifics of their lives, but they open up the universal instead.
this much is known; they gathered together about five years ago in quebec, a shifting collective operating out of a loftspace called hotel2tango. named after the postcode and not, as excellent rumour has it, some apocalyptic call-sign, the place - part venue, part studio, part housing - has taken on legendary qualities. not least because of their sleevenote tributes to both space and the district: "outside there are distant birds circling in front of seven miles of heavy cloud falling down and from where you're lying one of those clouds looks like a hanged man leading a blind indifferent horse... THIS IS MILE END MY FRIEND..." before they recorded, they were playing shows there at odds with the city's fondness for tribute bands and widespread pay-to-play policy.
"they would put on these illegal boozecan shows where you would have to bring your own beer," remembers patti schmidt, host of montreal's alternative music radio show brave new waves. "word around town would be godspeed are going to play and do some films and people would trek up there with six-packs and sit on the floor in this airless, windowless space, watch bands on this cobbled together PA and be polite."
originally just efrim and bassist mauro, their first recording - calling 33 cassettes a release is slight overstatement - was called 'all lights fucked on the hairy amp drooling'. reportedly taking more abrasive sonic liberties than their present orchestral passion, titles included 'perfumed pink corpses from the lips of ms celine dion', 'revisionist alternatif wounds to the haircut-hit head' and 'loose the idiot dogs'. if they weren't so serious-minded - when they mention marilyn manson, it seems incongruous they know he exists - it would look suspiciously like a mischievious lie. yet their prevailing concerns lurk in those titles; respectively, hatred of commercialism, of fashion, and perhaps, of the press and music industry.
things they shared with their montreal-based label, constellation, which struggled into life at the same time as the band. they released godspeed's second album 'f#a#oo' last summer (on kranky in the states), an astonising trawl through disillusionment, touched with luminous compassion and pure defiance. their second release, the world's most inappropriate 'mini-album', was the horizon-chasing 'slow riot for new zero kanada', continuing their quest to pull the fiercest emotional triggers.
none of which is of interest, according to constellation. "the band would much rather ink be spilled delving into the content of their music than reporting on what their label has to say about them."
the nine people watchfully circling the G2's dressing rooms are living proof of that.
"we're from canada and we lived in houses."
"a few of us are, like, 29. ish."
"can we talk about the concept of the band?"
it seems like a good idea.
WAITING FOR A PURER KICK TO BLOOM
through electronic communication, they have agreed to this meeting to discuss the issue that their existance raises. no personal stuff, obviously, and no photos; they are keen to maintain a distance, as well as a democracy, and although the febrile, emphatic efrim does most of the talking, they all make their presence felt. dave, with occasional impatient outbursts; aidan with the muttered aside; norsola with a raised eyebrow. they don't appear to be about to chain anyone to the radiator until their demands are met, yet there's a feeling they might change their minds any minute. as far as they're concerned, anything written about them, irrespective or intent, is destructive.
"if i want to have an awkward conversation with people about things i hold to be self-evident, i'll go to my parents' place for the holidays," shrugs efrim. "it becomes difficult to feel you have to justify whatever life you're leading. if you're already looking at a fragile conception of who you are and what you're doing, with all the normal worries and self-doubts, that's actually kind of a scary process. whenever you have to explain in some anthropological way what you're doing, those things can easily become exaggerated, and that's when it becomes troubling. that's when it becomes an issue of self-preservation."
hasn't your silence just created an equally pernicious mythology?
"depends if it's some variation on the bogus star myth or a little more empowering," says efrim. "if it's just, 'here are these enigmatic freaks locked up in a studio questioning the music industry', just some scrappy post-rock version of prince, that would be terrible.
"we didn't consciously set out to create a myth but we've had conversations where we've consciously talked about keeping that aspect as abstract and as vague as we could. trying hard to make a sort of frame to give little clues here and there, codified versions of whatever it is that we're feeling in our lives in montreal. staticky projections. i remember veing really happy trying to decode records when i was a teenager - there wasn't this wealth of information, just a photo of the band on the back maybe, a lyric sheet insert, whatever was on the cover, and bing bang boom go! you're there yourself."
their horror at the cultural appropriation of hardcore largely informed their present ethos. "as soon as you find something you're into, it's fed back to you at double the price in a candy-coated distortion of what it is you've experienced in your life. this is even a media cliche now."
how likely is it that godspeed are going to be ravaged by a pack of roving A&R men? there's no fashion or lifestyle to package, no easy-access music.
"it's obvious - if you're not vocal about what you're critical of then you just end up contributing to what it is," says efrim.
but aren't you compromised the minute you release a record into the public domain, once it builds up accretions of interpretation?
"you can think yourself into a corner pretty easily, go back to not recording anything," admits dave. "it's all about levels and degrees."
efrim nods. "it's like the debate about consumption - the next thing you're saying you're not going to eat." they all laugh knowingly. "bands like black flag, they wanted people to come to their shows, they took out FM radio ads, they wanted to storm those institutions. that, at the time, was this big provocation - 'we want to be played on the fucking radio, fuck you' - never keeping in mind that this could possibly happen and that when it did there was going to be a whole other debate that would open up. a lot of that got cut off at the knees... that fucking sonic youth movie the year that punk broke..."
"that shit explodes and it doesn't mean a thing any more," efrim continues. there was a network that was starting to be built and a great tidal wave of fucking major label money and media scrutiny washed a lot of it away. you see independent distributors going under every day - there's a whole history that's falling apart and there needs to be some rebuilding. if that sort of exposure hadn't happened, these bands would have continued and dragged a lot of microcommunities along with them. these whole conversations stopped in mid-sentence and it would be nice to start them again because they haven't been completed.