Music: No autographs, please
A nine-piece from Montreal who write the soundtrack to urban decay? Doesn't sound a lot of fun. But godspeedyoublackemperor! do give you a free gift with every purchase.
Friday 07 May 1999
As they launch into the same stately instrumental segment for the umpteenth time, the expressions on the face of the musicians - three guitarists, two bass-players, a two-woman string section and a brace of drummers - veer between stoical and disconsolate. For the observer, it is strange and slightly disorienting to witness the giant, melancholic wash of sound created by this unique Montreal mini-orchestra being broken down into its constituent elements. But perhaps it is no bad thing, given the almost mystical levels of reverence currently generated by their music's awesome, tsunami-like crests and troughs, to know that they are activated by a drummer saying something as mundane as "Let's do the speed-up from the solo part".
Finally, thanks to the soundman's subterfuge, the whole thing comes together. Crystalline shards of cello and violin rip through the venue's speakers as "Moya" (the first track on their current Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP) attains its full glacial majesty. Moments later, three of godspeed's nine members - Efrim, Nardola, and Aidan - convene stiffly on the floor outside the toilets. The band rarely speak to journalists, and the atmosphere of the meeting is more akin to an encounter with a clandestine political cadre than a regular pop interview.
The sense of mission they carry with them is delightfully infectious. Lean, paranoid, hair shaved, shaggy or in messianic top-knots, if godspeedyoublackemperor! were unable to find a place to stay after a gig, you can imagine them getting together to put up a barn. There is nothing wilfully masochistic about an austere and largely foodless touring regimen - Nardola speaks wistfully of "looking for a middle ground between being treated like superstars and being treated like a lump of shit". That's just the way things have to be if you want to take this many musicians (and their glockenspiel) round Europe on a shoestring.
It's down to the momentum of their music and the excitement of being part of something that is bigger than themselves to carry them through. "I realised when I first started drumming with this band that I can't change the tempo," Aidan explains. "Once it gets going all you can do is hold on."
Godspeed's music has an extraordinarily acute sense of place. Elegiac album sleeve-notes and the haunting back-projections of deserted factory landscapes they employ in concert seem to confirm that the band's roots lie in the economic decline of Mile End, the run-down Montreal neighbourhood all but one of them call home.
"We're not representing Mile End as a whole," Efrim says, "but an idealised notion of certain aspects of the place, like the fact that there's a railway track which runs right through it, and next to the railway track there's a lot of abandoned industrial space." Abandoned industrial space may not sound like everyone's idea of a good time, but there is pleasure as well as pain in godspeed's apocalyptic pop aesthetic. The vinyl edition of last year's compelling debut, f#a#, came with a free gift worthy of their fellow devotees of the nomenclatural exclamation mark, Wham! Each sleeve contained coins crushed by trains on the railway track which ran behind the studio where its music was recorded.
The album's unexpected success has turned this touching gesture into a full-time job. "We did the first 1,000 for ourselves, but the record company is crushing pennies now," Aidan admits. When f#a# first came out, he thought it would be like all his friend's band's records - "with 200 copies each in every one of our closets". Efrim was more optimistic, albeit guardedly so: "I had a belief that if we toured North America and played well live, we could sell records from the stage."
Such a return to the pilgrim spirit of early hardcore punk is long overdue in what might be termed American rock's post-alternative era. Efrim recounts the disillusionment of "being into hardcore, and then hardcore becoming this thing called grunge, and suddenly anything interesting that had grown out of it getting recuperated at a really rapid rate, so you would come across something new, and four months later you'd see a rock video with some horrible band of posers doing exactly what you'd been doing in your basement, and you'd feel like an idiot".
Why? "Because real communities only form outside the glare of the spotlight... the moment something's named by an organ of the media, it's over."
Given this imposingly rigorous mindset, it's small wonder that the huge buzz which currently surrounds them is making godspeedyoublackemperor! uneasy. When a barman asks them to sign a CD for him, they have to go and fetch the only member of the band (inevitably, a drummer) who is willing to do it. The autograph-hunter tries to come to terms with the fact that the rest of them have refused as a mark of respect.
The heights of eloquence to which this awkward encounter subsequently spurs Efrim suggests that the glare of the spotlight might bring out the best in him. "We're just trying to do the best we can without pulling a Bono or a Michael Stipe and going `Look at us, we have these special intricate thoughts that are actually just weird variations of liberal humanism'," he almost snarls. "Forget it! We're just fumbling to try to explain what seems obvious to us." A thoughtful pause. "Then again, there are eight million deluded rock and pop musicians who think that they're `keeping it real', and, at the end of the day, there's a good chance that we're as full of shit as the next people."
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