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Instrumental Logic

Mauro Pezzente of Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Certain media expectations come with international fame and praise. There seems to be a certain code of conduct for lauded bands. Fawning and "defiant" groups alike play it safe with stock quotes and mental notes, lest they face slanted critical scrutiny. Journalists snoop through the personal political convictions of those in noteworthy bands for little reason other than to make good copy. After all, satiating sensationalist fans can pay off— for the writer and the magazine. Consequently, publications expect bands to slaver for coverage, despite the fact that any anti-press remarks, sly criticism of other bands, or the opinionated politics of any single band member are often held against a whole group as hypocritical, smarmy and arrogant.

Happily, this usual mess does not apply to Godspeed You Black Emperor!, whose popularity hasn’t been a result of playing along with the drecky aspects of media. Rather, the sheer beauty of the Canadian nine-piece band's incongruously epic, elegiac paeans is accountable. It hardly matters if GYBE!'s songs seem strewn with woe and rue, or ephemeral hope and relief — the band unquestionably makes moving music.

The nine Québécois started as a musical think-tank, not one to supply pop-sensationalism. Of course each member has opinions, but they are neither peripheral nor central to the band. How their predominately 3/4 and 8/12 time signatures, glockenspiel, guitar drones, patient drumming, vocal field recordings and pell-mell crescendos are interpreted isn't of great importance. Their songs are evocative, not directive. They aren't preachers of modish irony or pretentious, pawky gunk. Perhaps they want listeners to develop their own opinions, serving as a catalyst for arbitrary responses. They probably won't even have it out with that occasional listener who accuses them of radicalism.

Having been limned out by many crafty publications as humorless, elusive and depressed, GYBE! has every right to reject interviews. But perhaps their shyness has been mistaken for misanthropy, mistrust for cockiness, thoughtfulness for brooding. Godspeed does appreciate your interest. After all, maybe catharsis takes two, or even nine.

I caught up with Mauro Pezzente, co-founder of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, at a greasy spoon when he was in Chicago for six days last October to record GYBE!'s next record. The band ends a four-month-long tour this April.

Why was Godspeed You Black Emperor! formed?

To play music. There weren't reasons to start the band other than to be in a band and play music together, just like with any other band. I want to make sure that you may be asking Godspeed [the whole band], or may want to get answers to your questions from Godspeed, but you won't be getting any answers from Godspeed today. You'll be getting answers from me. If you were to ask someone else [in the band], that would be his answer, and if you were to ask somebody else, that would be somebody else's answer. I don't think we really have one answer to any question; we would have four or five or six answers because there are nine people in the band, and each one has a different view on things.

But has the band always had a collective emphasis?

We play music together. We are nine people playing music together, that's for sure.

Well, for instance, in interviews, I understand the band sometimes speaks only as a collective.

I don't think we've ever spoken truly as a collective. We may have done interviews together ... but I don't think we've ever seen ourselves as nine people with the exact same views.

What is your view on Godspeed's use of recordings of unknown personalities? Why are they used?

I don't really have much part in that area. I think most of the tape loops or sounds that we have of people speaking that we've found and interviewed over the years are great. Some other people in the band would probably be better at [answering] that.

Can Godspeed's songs be described as projections of neglected lives? Of those who feel duped, used and cheated by society?

See, I don't see them at all like that. I don't see anything in the songs other than the songs themselves. That's me, though.

Godspeed never uses recordings of preachers with sacrilegious irony. Obviously nothing [in the music] is a parody, but is sympathy or empathy at play at all?

Well, there is a crazy woman on a [street] corner speaking about Jesus. She's not necessarily a preacher, she's more of a ...

A religious fanatic maybe?

Yeah, but is there empathy? I think to a certain extent probably.

So you're not necessarily agreeing with them.

No, we're not necessarily agreeing, that's right. But at the same time, we're not necessarily disagreeing. I think there are some [statements] that we agree with and some we disagree with. There are also some things that I don't think are really a question of agreeing or disagreeing, but there are people who see life this way.

So the songs can be seen as a projection of neglected lives?

They could be, if that's how you see them, but I don't see our songs like that. We write our songs based on the music. It starts with the music and I feel like it ends with the music. It's not about trying to describe some part of life or anything like that.

Godspeed has proven that instrumental elegies can be far more politically compelling than agitprop or any kind of crass radicalism ...

I don't know if ...

You don't know if Godspeed's songs can be described as elegies?

Well, I wouldn't! call them elegies. How can songs that are instrumental, without any vocals, be political? We often talk about politics, but we very rarely say anything on stage, so how do our songs imply politics? A lot of us are very political, not in the traditional sense. But I don't think our songs themselves are political. We have ideas, in the same way that everyone does ... but we don't sit around and always talk about world events. We're a rock band, basically.

On the inside cover of the album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven there is a person whose hands are getting cut off by a George Washington-like figure. That's somewhat of a loaded image isn't it?

Yeah, probably.

But you don't think it's natural for fans to perceive Godspeed as political?

I think it's probably natural and definitely something that people are curious about. At the same time though, it gets frustrating that that is the [usual] strain of questions , that those are the ideas that people are trying to get out of us. There's this idea that we're all negative and pessimistic and morose ... and this idea that the "end of the world is coming." I don't quite understand where that comes from.

Does Godspeed follow a kind of triumph-through-tragedy aesthetic? Making its songs as paeanistic as they are elegiac?

I personally don't think that there is any actual thought to write a song a certain way before it's written. We don't sit around talking about what a song is going to mean. We write it in the way that we think is the best way. We're not trying to get across an image or an idea; it just happens to be the way things work out.

I've always thought they sound more celebratory than elegiac. Do you think accusations that Godspeed is needlessly dour and dramatic, sour and sentimental, are made by people who think of elegies not as healing, but rather as whining?

Yes, you could see it that way. I find a lot of our songs have climactic [moments] to them, which bring about exciting and joyous feelings. It's not just sad sad sad sad sad sad. There may be sad aspects to our songs, but not always. For the most part there are always big, climactic endings which fill me with excitement.

So that's why Godspeed has a knack for swelling crescendos?

No, I think the whole thing of swelling and crescendos has to do with the way we write our music and [the fact] that when you get nine people in a room to play music together, a lot of the time it's hard for us not to get loud. It's hard to control. ... Some of us feel like we should maybe stay away from doing that, but sometimes that's hard to do. And it's fun to do.

From your viewpoint, how can songs with next to no words except for vocal recordings of evidently right-wing characters seemingly have an overwhelmingly left-wing message?

Left-wing? I don't think they really have a left-wing message at all, myself. Like I said, I don't really think I'm the person to be talking to about these things, out of all the people in the band.

[Then] is it open to interpretation as far as what is being conveyed in the albums?

When we recorded our first record, we were an instrumental band. There was a small debate as to whether or not we should use any words or any people speaking at all. We ended up deciding that we would use the thing that we had at the beginning of the record F# A# ∞. I think it was a good thing. But it's interesting to think that what some of the people were talking about has slightly come through that. There are no words; it's just vocals, you're not saying anything,it's just music. You as a listener can decide what you're seeing, you can close your eyes and imagine whatever it is that you're imagining. But once there are words, people might think that there is a message.

An agenda?

Yeah. People have asked me that several times. We have views on certain things, just like everyone else in this world, but I don't think our music has ever had a message.

This could be an outlandish question but I'm sure that it has been asked many times. Is Godspeed anti-American? Or is this a confused notion?

I think some of us are maybe anti-American; some of us may not be. I think the people who are anti-American definitely aren't just anti-American,they are anti- all of the negative things in the world, which aren't necessarily just American.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven's cover depicts a cartoon. Have considerations been made for screening animated work at performances?

We've never had the chance to use moving animation. We may in the future. It's not something that any of us have access to or are able to do, it's a lot easier getting a camera and filming things.

But isn't animation more of a direct, reflexive mode of art-making, since it requires physical tinkering within each frame shot to film? Could this be why grainy, scratched films are screened at shows?

No. We do sometimes scratch our films. [But] I think all kinds of art-making are direct.

Is Godspeed's stripped-down orchestration and "minimal" style a result of aesthetics or convenience?

Aesthetics. [It's not like] someone says, "Let's write a minimal song." It's more like, "I think it would sound nicer if not everyone is playing." I don't think a lot of our songs are very minimal though. There are parts that could be minimal, but a lot of bands are much more minimal than we are.

Do all of you come from different musical backgrounds?

Yes, we have [members] from punk backgrounds, [members] who are trained classically and those who aren't.

Is reaching a balance among styles hard?

No, I think it's great. It's fun. I think it actually is a positive thing. There are people who can play our songs as if they were punk songs, and people who can play them in a musically trained way.

I understand that Godspeed received a grant from the Canadian government. Could you explain how that came about and how it works?

The Canadian government has a grant program set up for musicians, not only for touring but also for recording, making videos and that kind of stuff. We received a touring grant to go to Europe for the first time ... which helped us out a lot. It also helped us go the second time. It's something that, as far as I know, doesn't really exist in the States. The Canadian government is a little more socialistic in that way than the U.S. government.

I've heard about the loft parties Godspeed has held.

When we first started, I lived at the Hotel [2 Tango],basically a large, open loft with a couple of small closed bedrooms. We decided to have parties there and sell beer in order to make a little money to help pay our rent. We would do some shows, and that's how it started. ... It just kind of happened. We did a few shows, some very large when we started to become popular. It stopped being a party and became more of a concert or a show.

Was it overwhelming?

I don't find it overwhelming. I know some people in the band sometimes do. I think we are starting to come to accept and come to grips with our popularity. I find it strange though that a band like us has so much popularity. You would never think that 15-minute-long instrumental songs would be that popular in the world, but they are.

Photographs by Emily Evans

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