Interview in The Wire, May 2000, by David Keenan
godspeed you black emperor!
Montreal group Godspeed You Black Emperor! are the reluctant heroes of avant rock, whose electric elegies and vaulting idealism seem perpetually at odds with the world. David Keenan meets them on their European tour for an unprecedented face to face interview.
Listen... we all stop paying rent tomorrow and have a meeting somewhere, all the millions of us who lose everyday and know that things are fucked and know that we're fucked and that mostly we're powerless to change it. We stop paying rent tomorrow and sit down and figure out what the fuck a little. Let's do that - let's not talk about rock music anymore, let's ease up on the careless adjectives a little bit, let's fuck the rent and have ourselves a little meeting about the state of things finally ... and let's stop talking about the millenium. THE END OF THE WORLD WILL NEVER FUCKING COME...
Love, Godspeed You Maudlin Emperor! 21/6/99
Nine months after the above missive landed on my desktop, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and I finally get to hold our first meeting in a grim bunker beneath the Garage, the Glasgow rock venue where they are due to perform as part of the British leg of their spring European tour. Seven of the group's nine members sprawl over couches in various stages of exhaustion as I fidget with my recorder, very much aware that tonight, I'm the asshole, the latest in a line of media representatives ready (somehow, God knows) to birth a whole new movement or scene with a deft flick of the wrist, here to reduce the many voices of Godspeed You Black Emperor! to a series of glib soundbites. In the space of a year the Godspeed orchestra - nine players in all, combining epic, weeping strings, rugged guitar trekking propulsive dynamics and eschatological tape loops - has been dragged kicking and screaming from their Montreal commune into the pages of any magazine desperate to weave the world-weary loom of Godspeed's debut long player, f#a#oo, into its own gloomy, attention-grabbing pre-millennial predictions.
Meanwhile, the artists' reluctance to play the media game has only served to heighten the mystery shrouding this group of disenfranchised Canadian outsiders, who have since gone forth and multiplied into an indeterminate number of similarly militant Montreal groups, many of them sharing the same vision and often the same personnel as Godspeed. Their names - A Silver Mount Zion, Fly Pan Am, Do Make Say Think - and titles ("Blown Out Joy From Heaven's Mercied Hole", "Dead Flag Blues") read like hermetic codes, and discovering them feels like an initiation into the mysteries. For all the group's press exposure, however, the doomed Lee Marvin-like drawl opening f#a#oo has lost none of its emotive power: "The car's on fire and there's no dnver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. . . "
I first made contact with Godspeed back in August 1998, and since then I've received intermittent mails, rants and manifestos, most of which, while uniformly articulate and poetic, rarely touched on music. Instead they were filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, obsessing over the repercussions of their inexplicable rise to prominence (from small rock toilets to a sold-out Royal Festival Hall show in 18 months). They're genuinely baffled about all the media fuss they've generated, especially as they feel that almost all of it has left them burned and bummed by several journalists and publications. Consequently they're ultra-guarded in interviews - when they give them at all. Tonight's Glasgow visit affords us our first face-to-face meeting. With seven members present it makes for a tough conversation. The hydra-headed Godspeed represents such a wide variety of opinion and political persuasion that virtually every statement is echoed or prefaced with the rejoinder that it's only "one person's opinion". While their commitment to running Godspeed as a co-operative is certainly admirable, it also serves occasionally to paralyse them. Every question is greeted with a thick wall of silent thought before being passed around the group, dissected and thrown limp back into my lap. At times I feel like I'm an extra in a scene from Ken Loach's wordy Spanish Civil War drama Land And Freedom, such is the level of debate over the slightest of semantics. Ultimately, however, it's totally endearing to witness a group wrestling with their conscience, completely unimpressed by the myriad 'options' opened up to them by their newfound fame.
"I think the glory days are over," guitarist David Bryant asserts. "When we first started out, we pretty much knew everyone in the room. We knew why we were there and why they were there - you could talk to them afterwards and they told you why. Now we play in front of 700 people - they leave, you don't talk to anyone. It's more and more fucking alienating every time we come over here and it's less satisfying on a certain level. Not musically: obviously we would have stopped doing it if we weren't interested in doing the music we do, but on the level of having communication with the people you're playing to - this presence in front of you that doesn't respond other then 'Wooh!'"
"There's barricades in front of the stage tonight - that's a fine example of lack of contact," interrupts cellist Norsola. "That's really like 'rock show'." "Well, it's not too late," cuts in guitarist Efrim, rounding on them both. "I always thought that if we got to that stage we were going to find out ways to fuck with the space we play in. If this is the reality that we're in right now - we're playing to 700 people and 75 per cent of them don't know why they're here, miss the context completely, just getting off on some other level - there must be some way to fuck with that. Call it a power or whatever, there must be something you can do to fuck with that and I'm hoping that if we're going to continue to play shows on this level - which I don't know, I'm not into doing that - I think that we've got to figure out a way to change what we're doing. These places are completely rigid - the dynamic is just stuccoed into every surface of the room, into everything... the walls are angled and everything is laid out so that there's a smooth flow of people to the bar. It's like scientists map it out - a little room for people to consume in and then to get the fuck out of as quickly as possible. The economics are set up so that everybody gets fleeced, meanwhile the band is in this little picture frame with the speakers and everything..." he trails off. "With the breweries above us pulling our strings," deadpans percussionist Aidan.
"But the point is, we don't have to do this," Efrim retorts. "We could play somewhere else to, like, 200 people - the point is, again, we do a shitty-assed job. Sure, we can make excuses. Yeah, we want a place with a big stage, a PA that's loud enough to handle what we do; yeah, you don't find that stuff regularly in some idealised, glorious place that we're talking about playing in. Those spaces have to be built, but they're not going to be built. So we fuck up - it's our fault, it's our fault, we fuck up... we came over here, we're here, we're dealing with it but nobody made us do this... it's all our fault... I don't think we have a fucking clue I mean, it's a real simple story. It's a bunch of people in Montreal who started playing in a band and then all of a sudden they had to deal with some things which they didn't know how to deal with and maybe that story's got some value - I don't think it's got enormous value. I don't think it'll have much value in ten years time but right now maybe it's vaguely interesting."
It went like this: in 1994 Efrim and his friends Mauro and Moya were offered a gig supporting another local group, Steak 72. Rehearsals only began a week before the show. "We figured the easiest thing to do would be to play one note for half an hour," Efrim explains "I think that's how the long thing started, the idea of having long pieces and also the thing of playing in the dark and sitting down - some of the more superficial elements." As a duo, Efrim and Mauro had already recorded All Lights Fucked On The Hairy Amp Drooling, a cassette album in a ridiculous run of 33, when they heard a rumour that some people were looking to start up a new performance space. "We called up these guys, Don and Ian, about the possibility of playing at this space they were setting up but it ended up that they didn't get the space they started a label instead."
'These guys', Don Wilkie and lan Ilavsky, inaugurated their new Constellation label with the appropriately titled "New Era Building" 7" and the "Grey" CD, both by Montreal quartet Sofa. As an opening statement of intent, it's beautifully precise - Sofa take the physical punch, the mainline jamming and divebomb pirouettes of SST-era hardcore and explode it with melancholic moodswings. In the meantime Godspeed had started work on their towering vinyl debut, f#a#oo, which they originally planned to release themselves as a double 7" set. Invited in to help ride the faders during the recording session, Ilavsky and Wilkie offered to put it out as the third Constellation release.
By now Montreal's music community was on the upsurge. A bizarre quintet called Sackville, who marry fairly generic post-rock moves with a disturbed folk sensibility on their Constellation disc The Principles Of Science, had already been playing out before Godspeed's inception, but after 94 the floodgates really opened. Aidan was playing in Exhaust, a unit fuelled by motorik klang and spliced tapes, before Godspeed stole him and Roger, of Fly Pan Am (who in turn intermittently played host to Godspeed cellist Norsola and notorious sound sculptor Alexandre St-Onge). "I think that in the last three years there's been three or four different groups of people making spaces for people to play what they want to play," Efrim explains. "I think that plays some part in it you end up with a real supportive, small... uh, that's a cliche," he trails off. "What l'm trying to say is that there's a lot of stuff going on that got people listening to what everyone else was doing... it's about as difficult to get gigs in Montreal as it is in a lot of medium to large size cities in North America and Europe . There's a few shitty rock clubs - not as many as other large cities, but at the same time rent is cheap - it's cheap to live there. There's a drifting population of people who only stick around for two or three years and a lot of people who are there to try to involve themselves in building something, so you end up with a lot of people willing to put energy into putting on smaller shows in smaller spaces that aren't rock clubs."
"The fact that there's a lot of disused industrial space helps too," continues Aidan. "A lot of lofts you can rent for pretty cheap people can rent a loft and live there and have parties and have their friends' bands play there." Bruce talks of a "quiet revolution" that has taken place in Montreal over the last decade, caused by an exodus of many English-speaking residents, unhappy with the increasing dominance of French-Canadian culture, where an inability to speak French has become a definite handicap to your employment prospects. But then, Montreal has developed from a small 17th century French colony into one of the largest French speaking cities in tne world. As its downtown industrial areas became rundown and abandoned, musicians, artists and film makers moved into their large, cheap spaces. "Montreal is a weird city," says Efrim. "It's really liberal about some things and really not about others... the police, for instance, are completely out of control." "I mean you won't get hassled for jaywalking," Aidan adds. "But if you're a black man you're more likely to get shot in the back."
"As more people got involved in Godspeed, it became a bit more interesting," says Efrim, picking up the trail of the group's genesis. "We're at a hard point in trying to figure out what we're doing next because we don't want to be one-trick ponies, and I think that the moment you start questioning what you're going to do next, things get confusing. We're certainly at a confusing place right now. At the beginning it was more conscious... in terms of it being a collective, of being kind of loose, of writing long pieces. In terms of having this sort of instrumentation, in terms of not having a singer, in terms of using tape loops, in terms of backing films - in terms of utilising a certain visual aesthetic there was consciousness there, but I think what's good about Godspeed doesn't have very much to do with any of those elements... everyone in this band has done a good job of working within it. Before Godspeed a lot of us had been interested in hardcore... well, that weird period between hardcore and what's now called indie rock... that period of five years where those two things met. I don't know what you would call that, but there was tons of shit going on all the time. Black Flag is certainly part of it but that's been sort of tainted by Henry Rollins and what he's gotten up to since then..."
Godspeed's self-image is a world away from the press perception of them. Though they're often depicted as spearheading some vague, anti-rock avant consortium, they see themselves as resolutely 'in the tradition'. From groups like Black Flag and The Minutemen they've taken the whole work ethic, the 'serious as your life' drive that sent Henry Rollins and co across the States in the back of a van, rehearsing on their nights off and sleeping on floors. They also share their forefathers' fiercely independent spirit - the feeling that this music belongs to 'us' and should be protected from corrupting, diluting, undeserving influences at all costs. Of course Godspeed rock (note for English readers: this is nothing to be scared of) - three loud guitars, two loud basses, two drummers - they understand the beauty of volume and power, that rock is most powerful when its trajectory isn't fixed, when it simply GOES. All that matters is the amount of revs you give it and the size of your runway. On a good night, when Godspeed are wound up, their peaks are at once stellar and primitively satisfying on a real gutsy level. However, as with all real-time group efforts, they have as many off-nights as on, and when they fail to achieve lift-off they come over bored, like they're just ploughing through the same routine one more time. Their debut London gig at the Garage in 98 was a case in point but even by that time, the buzz was such that they only had to show up to send the attendant sheep into paroxysms of puzzled ecstasy.
... Sometimes the shows are overwhelming, with the six-foot stage and the alienated/alienating audiences. You start this whole rock music process with a healthy distrust of the context and you get hypersensitive to your own role in the awful, ridiculous pigpen but we are always in the process of figuring out what the fuck and sometimes it is a good thing to fork over yr money to witness it maybe? Other nights you are just some minor version of U fucking 2 with the squat black wedge monitors glaring at you like an accusation or a barrier and you'd rather be at home petting yr cat and feeling sorry for yourself. And sometimes the venues are like death-camps and you picture yourself stuck there in the audience, feeling only half-drunk, ripped off and hateful; and you can't stop fixating on bad memoried of rip-off evenings spent watching some jaded wanker poseurs screaming me! ME! ME! And the pisswater in the plastic cup going warm between your fingers. What do you do to change that? What can we do not to contribute to that? What can you do not to contribute to this whole state of affairs? Musicians, critics, bar owners, bookers, etc, we're all gui1ty, we're all cowards, weaklings, liars mostly. We got excuses and rationalisations and justifications but we're all basically lame... 21/6/99
"Sometimes we have shows where I think the only good thing you could get out of it is seeing a bunch of people who are unhappy being in a cage," Efrim sighs. "Like a bunch of sick monkeys sometimes it's like that and maybe at the very best it's all we can do it's just an example of people trying to deal with this shit - maybe there's something else but I don't think we've figured out that something else."
"The thing is, the more we go along, the more we compromise," blurts David "I think we just completely change the rules as this shit keeps getting bigger." "It's all part of the way this system works," Aidan agrees. "There are things that are nice about it - I got to go to the dentist for the first time in ten years. I got to buy a new pair of shoes, I can pay off some of my student loan."
I make the inevitable point that they are all far too hard on themselves, whipping themselves for the slightest infringement of their ultra-strict code of ethics. I mean, isn't it important and exciting that a group like Godspeed are in the limelight at all? A group that can actually initiate some debate, promote views that aren't often heard in the mainstream? A chance encounter with their music could alter the direction of someone's life.
Efrim nods, then shrugs his shoulders. "I swear to God there was some point maybe two years ago before all this shit started there would be shows in spaces we liked in Montreal where it wasn't great it wasn't like everything had come true, but there was, like, a glimmer. A little window would open a millimetre, you know? And it was enough you'd lie in bed and you'd be hammered and you'd think that little window is going to open a bit more and a bit more some thing that you can't define. You can't name it - something that would mean that life wasn't shit - I don't even see that glimmer in the space between the window and the window frame anymore - you don't get that glimpse. I don't know if that makes any sense. It's important to question these things and if you question them then you end up bringing up all the down points, right? So then you end up... Jeez! And you feel like you're in high school again going, 'Life stinks, man!' Do you understand what I'm saying? If you're actually asking these things, trying to figure this shit out, then these are the points you're going to bring up - what's wrong - you're not going to bring up what's good. We know what's good about where we're at - it's just not enough and the next stop is scary 'cause it's like - what is the next thing?"
"The next thing is to stop fighting so much," Aidan cracks. But Efrim continues, unfazed: "It's like screaming through traffic, like there's someone across the street and all these cars going by and all you're trying to scream is 'What the fuck?' There are nine people in this band, so if you end up with seven of them in a room everything gets reduced. No one can say anything because there's a lot of difference of opinion here and between ourselves we're too chicken-shit to hammer out that shit - right? Maybe that would be valuable - to hammer out that shit between ourselves and let someone document that - maybe that would make sense... here you're just scratching the surface."
"We've yet to elect our minister of culture," Aidan quips. "What should come out of this is that we're a bunch of... uh... just trying our best..." "You see now we're talking about the process instead of just letting it happen," despairs Efrim, shaking his head. "There's no good way to get anything across or to walk away with anything good from 99 per cent of the magazines that are out there - it's impossible, like getting across to people who believe that Budweiser commercials can have some kind of value as art. You can't do it, so it doesn't happen - especially if you're just this little weird-ass page in the middle of one of these magazines and we're like, 'We don't know what we're doing and this is all fucked', and you're between an ad and an interview with I don't know who - some other fuckin' band who are talking about how they got a record coming out in the spring and they're just 'doing it for the kids' or some variation of that..."
But surely their suspicious attitude towards the media, their mysterious photos and reluctance to talk make it easier to cast the group as a gimmick or to caricature them as 'that weird group'. You get the drift: they're so awkward, just grumpy guys playing music. Efrim laughs "Yeah - it's just like being in high school again and everything that's going on all around you is all fuck-wads who think that you're a complete fucking jerk-off or whatever, that you and all your friends are freaks. Why would you worry? Do you know what l'm saying? Maybe every now and then you'll corner someone like the prom queen when she's drunk and she'll confess some dark secrets to you and you'll think that that makes some kind of sense, but the next day everything's back to normal - it just never ends. You never leave high school - we're still there."
"Do you know what I really think?" he blurts, "my own opinion? I think time is running short. I think time is running short. I think there are forces of evil in the world. I think that global capitalism is just, like, one inch away from being everywhere. I think now is not the time to be frittering away playing in a silly-assed post-rock band. I think everything you do in the face of this is inadequate." Everything? "Yeah!" he exclaims. "Which is good, it's all good, it's good to make feeble attempts, right? I think that's what they are. It's like throwing yourself up against a big fucking wall and the wall is just getting bigger and bigger..." You really think it's as hopeless as that? "That's not hopeless!" he shouts. "It's beautiful. It's beautiful that people try to do it. It's beautiful that people exist..." Such romantic pessimism haunts the works of Godspeed. Their art is essentially tragic in the sense that Schopenhauer described in The World As Will And Representation: "What gives all that is tragic, whatever its form, a characteristic of the sublime, is the first inkling of the knowledge that the world and life can give no satisfaction, and are not worth our investment in them. The tragic spirit consists in this. Accordingly it leads to resignation." Or to quote Efrim's other group A Silver Mount Zion: "The world is sickSICK, so kiss me quick." They may be elegising a dead flag, but essentially they're still singing the blues.
I ask Efrim if he thinks creating art in the face of the inevitable is a conceit, some sort of indulgence? He nods: "I think believing that the creation of art alone is going to lead to any sort of solution is a conceit, yes. Placing that as some kind of resistance in the year 2000 in the Western world is a conceit, yes." But don't people need access to alternative sources of information? "Sure they do," Bruce agrees, "but what sort of alternative information are we offering?" Well, now's your chance. You tell me. "Well, we can't talk about actual issues, no one agrees on anything. We can't perform that task... we couldn't. That's part of the problem, you see?"
"Can I just say something?" pleads Efrim, eager to clarify his point just as the final drones of Fly Pan Am's set signals the end of the interview. "I wasn't describing a hopeless situation at all. I think it's good that people do that. When l'm saying that these are feeble acts, I'm not saying thot we're all gonna fucking die tomorrow. I'm just saying... I know there's stuff like direct action but that's not what we're doing. We're on a six-foot stage going 'Wah wah wah'."
Thanks to David Keenan and The Wire for permission to reproduce this article.
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