Peter Bate meets some of the real musicians behind the enigmatic noise sculpture that is GYBE!
Godspeed You Black Emperor! are a Canadian nine-piece whose eerie blend of the rural and the post-industrial - elegiacal strings with spaced-out guitars - and bleak and lyrical images (sample: "We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death") have produced a recent frenzy of 'apocalyptic' and 'pre-Millennial' references in the press.
Their latest release, the clumsy-yet-aptly-titled 'Slow Riot For A New Zero Kanada EP', is indeed an ideal Doomsday-chasing soundtrack, with its brooding tom toms, and the hiss and fizz of the background drone...All electrical potential - the calm before the storm.
I caught up with GYBE! in London's most beautiful venue - the exquisite Union Chapel in Islington. Complete with pulpit, pews and stained glass windows, where better to tune into the chime of their cathedralesque beauty and brave their Book Of Revelations rock.
Dual drummers Ozzie and Bruce, and founder member guitarist Efrim, take time out from the middle of a gruelling European tour to scupper the soothsayer theory and warn against nothing more ominous than the dangers of sleep deprivation:
Efrim: "We formed about five years ago with two guitars, a bass and tape loops. We didn't have much of a vision at the time. The original idea was to play one note for one hour. That was the first brick, and we've built on that, but we still have that first brick buried somewhere in the wall as the cornerstone.
"If we've developed an apocalyptic streak then it's an unconscious thing, just a product of the time we're living in. A friend of ours said we sounded like the end of the world was coming - but there's also a kernel of hope in there too.
"I think right now my only vision would be a good night's sleep; but with nine members of the band we can't afford to take a day off..."
From its minimalist beginnings the band quickly expanded, till the musical logistics of a 15-piece proved too much and they trimmed themselves down to a manageable nine. So what prompted three guitarists to become a semi-orchestral nonet? An aural attempt to echo the expanding entropy of the big bang? No such luck.
"I think it was based more on who was around at the time," says drummer/percussionist Ozzie. "We knew a cellist and a violinist so they joined us."
"We get an orchestral sound because we have so many people playing together, interacting," says second drummer Bruce. "When you're trying to allow space for each other it makes for an organic growth, a kinda parallel evolution - it's almost like a jazz big band.
"There are nine people in this band with nine different influences. No one likes New Country, but I think that's the only common ground."
If GYBE are reluctant to theorise about their sound, or even shed any light on their influences, it fits with the genuinely arcane anonymity they've generated around themselves.
On-stage no one utters a word, and it's left to the tape loops, both audio and video, to add a narrative thread to the instrumental proceedings.
In diabolical Robert Johnson fashion, very few pictures of the band exist. Those that do generally show distant monochrome figures walking along converging railway tracks. They inhabit the shadowy world where their individual imaginations merge into a collective consciousness.
Efrim: "There was a wish to go beyond the conventional format of rock bands - that two-guitars-bass and drums verse/chorus/verse/chorus thing. There's no one leader of the band. Different people contribute different things; different flavours, which make it more complicated.
"When we started out it was very improvisational, but after a while we'd played together so much that we knew each others cues - it's like jazz, when you can be waiting for the snare to come in before a tempo change."
Did they set out with the express objective of creating compositions of such epic proportions?
"It's definitely a huge sound, and I feel privileged to be part of a band of so many people who can create such a sound and have managed to keep it together for this long."
Bruce: "Once it gets going all you can do is hold on and keep playing - it's like a racing mob."
Efrim: "Sometimes when we're onstage it feels like I have this huge hose which we're squirting all around. Sometimes it can be directed with more precision, and others it's too powerful to control."
Bruce: "Now it's kinda semi-structured, but we're starting to take it back to how was in the early days - more improvisational, because that's when it's exciting, when you're more creative and come up with new ideas."
I investigate further for clues in and around their record collections - they do admit to liking Mogwai, and Efrim says he listened to jazz when he woke up that morning...
Ozzie: "Some of us do listen to jazz and several members have been classically trained. A few of us read music, but not enough to be able to hand out scores.
"Lately we've been writing scores in our own form of code, and when we're onstage we're communicating with nods and raised eyebrows...and we're getting better at lip-reading."
There are reference points, but they're ultimately blown away, consumed by the band's twister like intensity. Considering their multi-layered line-up and the crescendos of sonic density, it seems almost paradoxical how they wield silence as an equally powerful weapon. Their evocative wide open spaces have been compared to the western twang of Ennio Morricone.
I suggest their soundscapes might owe a debt to Ry Cooder's Paris Texas, albeit the charred and toxic wastelands of a post-nuclear equivalent, and they give nods of approval for that movie's influence.
Efrim: "Yeah, it's amazing how that movie soundtrack came to represent American landscapes in so many minds - that slide guitar sound."
Ozzie: "We get that landscape thing quite a lot, but Montreal is really squished in, some of us have never been to the desert. I've seen them in cowboy films, and they look pretty cool. We do drive through a lot of open spaces when travelling between gigs, but I don't think that influences our music very much."
If not sand-scapes, then perhaps ice-scapes exert a subtle, maybe even masochistic, influence.
"There was an ice storm in Montreal a couple of winters ago," says Ozzie - "it was raining ice for several days and it was like the Arctic. We didn't have power for five weeks. Everyone was freaking out - but we thought it was great. OK, it was cold when you woke up in the morning, and you couldn't have a hot shower, but that wasn't such a hardship. To us and our friends, it was an adventure."
GYBE's plans for the foreseeable future don't stretch far beyond finishing the rest of the European tour, and then surviving a similarly extensive tour of the States.
"We're in a state of war for the next few months," Ozzie jokes. "We're looking forward to peace time, and hoping to stay alive till then."
For most of us, pre-Millennium tension amounts to little more than the pressure to enjoy ourselves on that fateful night; but for Godspeed You Black Emperor!, there's also the mad rush of encroaching fame, which will hangover long into the Millennium - and mean lots more sleepless nights.
(huge thanks to stuart low for sending me this article).
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