godspeed you black emperor!

Interview in The Wire, September 1998, by David Keenan


"years ago, when we were younger, the bands we liked weren't written about in glossy magazines," despairs david bryant, the one member of the wilfully enigmatic montreal nonet godspeed you black emperor! prepared to reveal who he is. "the only information available was contained on record sleeves and inserts. every band seemed to have a mystique then."

bryant might tell you his name under pressure, but he holds back his rank and serial number. he is possibly one of the three guitarist responsible for the group's proto-minimalist mudflat marches, and the ringing morricone-like chords that open up the aural equivalent of a 70mm panoramic shot. follow their footsteps, however, and the trail soon runs cold, heightening their out-of-nowhere aura. lifted from a japanese motorcycle gang, their name gives nothing away, and the title of the debut lp f#a#oo fades into infinity. bryant asserts, "our desire to remain anonymous isn't a contrivance, it comes from a position of distrust, self-protection and shyness." but since the album was reissued on cd by the u.s. label kranky, north america's most OUT group risks being outed, despite their best endeavours. requested for an interview, the label passed on godspeed's e-mail addres and just said, "good luck".

do godspeed find it healthy, creating in a vacuum? "well, we don't know what it's like to create in a vacuum and we probably never will," bryant counters. "creating in a vacuum is a luxury we can't afford. for us and our friends, it's a struggle staying afloat, often broke, just getting by... for us, making music remains inseparable from this struggle. the decisions we make regarding interviews, photographs, press kits, etc, are built on a belief that writing about music often destroys mystery and the ability to create your own context and relate to records freely. we want to make music with a little interference as possible.

"lately," he admits, "we've been forced to make some compromises - we remain nervous about the effect these compromises will have on our understanding of ourselves."

f#a#oo was originally released in a limited vinyl run of 500 by the canadian constellation label. for the kranky cd, the group loosened up and extended the originals, and added some new tracks.

bryant says, "the vinyl only release is hand packaged, took forever to cut, fold, glue and stuff, and includes pennies flattened by trains passing out back of the hotel2tango [godspeed's home/workspace]. it also includes a blueprint, a silk-screened etching of a train and a crumpled handbill, and is much prettier and more tactile than the jewel-cased cd monstrosity."

they might be alarmed by their spreading notoriety, but their anonymity had a pretty good run. formed in 1994, godspeed's only other recording is a self-released cassette in an edition of 33 copies, called all lights fucked on the hairy amp drooling (1994).

the current line-up has remained steady through two years of regular live performances, during which the group work through the open improvisations that eventually become the basis for fiery, semi-structured pieces, like those featured on the album.

bryant is emphatic about godspeed's commitment to playing live. "we were a live band first and live performance continues to occupy most of our time. all of our music was written to be performed at a high volume and, in many ways, we're more comfortable playing live than we are in a recording studio. we're happiest crammed into a van, hungover and lost, 12 hour drives through five types of weather. we've always been more committed to being a touring band than being studio wizards.

"like our favourite north american hardcore recordings, we tried to catch the sound of nine of us sitting in a room together, playing at one, hoping for the best..."

the album opens with a post-apocalypse lee marvin-like drawl taken from the film incomplete movie about jail, made by an unnamed godspeed guitarist. otherwise, the 'found' spirit voices aside, the album is all instrumental. they pile chuffing chello and violin patterns onto intricate guitar repetitions, raising the music to even higher emotional peaks.

"swells and infinite repeats feel good when you play them loud," bryant enthuses. "while we're aware of the role that repetition and an economy of chords plays in the music we write, we only have a vague idea of what minimalism is and what its inherent qualities may or may not be. we try to make music that holds some sort of emotional power, without being maudlin or self-pitying, to make a record about hope and enduring in the face of real economic and existential uncertainty... no shit."

Thanks to David Keenan and The Wire for permission to reproduce this article.

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