Orchestral Manoeuvres

Montreal post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor believe in collective action, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 3:56pm

Godspeed You! Black Emperor don't often give interviews. (They declined to do so for this article.) The Montreal post-rockers don't have a frontman or leader. Recently, they conducted an e-mail Q&A with The Guardian, in which they issued answers as a collective, and made it clear why they rarely speak to the press.

"We started making this noise together when we were young and broke - the only thing we knew for sure was that professional music writers seemed hopelessly out of touch and nobody gave a s*** about the s*** we loved except for us. Talking about punk rock with freelancers, then as now, was like farting at a fundraiser - a thing that got you kicked out of the party.

"We knew that there were other people out there who felt the same way, and we wanted to bypass what we saw as unnecessary hurdles, and find those people on our own. We were proud and shy motherf***ers, and we engaged with the world thusly. Means we decided no singer, no leader, no interviews, no press photos. We played sitting down and projected movies on top of us. No rock poses."

Godspeed - who will be performing at the Vine Centre 2 in Wan Chai on April 15 - are committed to making music, rather than treating music as an image or a lifestyle. Their lack of posturing has given them the freedom to make records on their own terms, and develop as artists.

Last year, Godspeed released their fourth studio album Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! on their longtime Canadian label, the Montreal-based Constellation. Their previous record, Yanqui U.X.O, came out a decade ago.

Allelujah! begins with Mladic, a track that lasts nearly 20 minutes. The song contains all of the Godspeed trademarks: first, a few notes drift in and repeat. Other instruments are added, building the sound to a crescendo. Then the spell is broken by an onslaught of virtuosic guitar riffs. The music demands attention, and achieves it without a hook or technological gimmicks. It is the result of collaboration, of musicians coming together and uniting their talents.

We decided no singer, no leader, no interviews ... We played sitting down and projected movies on top of us. No rock poses
Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed were formed in 1994, and took their name from a 1976 Japanese documentary by Mitsuo Yanagimachi about a biker gang. The band put out four records before going on hiatus in 2003.

They reunited in 2010 for the British festival, All Tomorrow's Parties. For Allelujah!, Godspeed comprised Thierry Amar (bass), David Bryant (guitar), Bruce Cawdron (drums), Aidan Girt (drums), Efrim Manuel Menuck (guitar), Michael Moya (guitar), Mauro Pezzente (bass), Sophie Trudeau (violin), and Karl Lemieux (film projection). Cawdron has since quit to spend more time with his family and Tim Herzog has joined in his place.

"We never doubted that … the band would remain active musicians - and since the hiatus we've released many records by other projects of Godspeed's members - but we really didn't have any idea whether the band would assemble again," Graham Latham of Constellation writes in an e-mail. "When they decided to give it a shot, we were thrilled."

There is a classical music structure and restraint underpinning most Godspeed compositions, but the final result is undeniably rock. For years, this orchestral style permeated the Montreal scene; acts such as Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra, Fly Pan Am, and Do Make Say Think share the Godspeed ethos.

"We're not sure we're qualified to speculate about the band's influence on music, broadly speaking, but certainly we can see that the band has been able to generate a dedicated following of people all over the world, who seem to connect with their music in a deep and sincere way," says Latham. "I can't imagine it gets much better than that."

The history of Godspeed You! Black Emperor is closely intertwined with Constellation. "In the mid-'90s, when Montreal was by all accounts a wasteland for independent culture - no affordable venues or scene infrastructure of any kind - Ian [Ilavsky] and Don [Wilkie], the co-owners of Constellation, started looking into the possibilities for opening a venue for live music," says Latham.

"Through this they met folks who were running the Hotel2Tango jam space and studio in Mile End, from which Godspeed would eventually emerge, and realised some common purpose. Ian and Don's venue project never quite materialised, but along the way they decided to release some recorded material from Ian's band Sofa, the label was born, and it seemed natural that, when Godspeed decided to release an album, they would work with Constellation to get it out. F#A# Infinity, Godspeed's proper debut, became the third release in the Constellation catalogue."

Though the music industry has changed over the past two decades, the relationship between label and band has continued to flourish despite challenges. "We've always had a relationship with the members of Godspeed that feels bigger than the standard label-band arrangement: we're friends, collaborators, members of a shared community," Latham says.

"Over time we've all had to struggle together to make sense of the world we're in, and to figure out how to deal with the monster of the music industry in which we've implicated ourselves. Of course we understand that the early commercial success of Godspeed gave us all some room to make decisions that stuck fairly close to our ideals, and the bottom falling out of the record industry has certainly presented some challenges to that.

"Thus far, though, it feels like we're managing to keep moving without making many compromises that feel too egregious. When it comes to bands like Godspeed, who do maintain some particular stances on the way they operate vis-à-vis the music industry, we've always been proud to stand behind them on whatever decisions they make, and that hasn't changed."

Godspeed's concerts are a visceral combination of euphoric rock and unrelenting classical precision. During one of their shows, it's hard to pinpoint any one single moment that elevates it to greatness. There isn't a specific hit that will animate the crowd, nor are there costumes so over the top that they generate more conversation than the music.

"A Godspeed show is akin to going to the symphony - it is the complete experience that makes the performance compelling.

"We've seen them play countless times, of course, most recently in Bern, Switzerland, when they opened Constellation's 15th-anniversary celebration festival at Reitschule [centre]," says Latham. "As always, their live show is an awesome, exhausting thing, and we truly feel it's unparalleled by anyone else out there right now, to the best of our knowledge."

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Apr 15, 10pm, Vine Centre 2, 29 Burrows St, Wan Chai, HK$450 Tel: 2573 0793