Thursday, 11 October 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: the fanzine version

The Utopian dreams of social justice in which many contemporary socialists and anarchists indulge are, in spite of their impracticality and nonadaptation to present environmental conditions, analogous to the saint's belief in an existent kingdom of heaven. They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.
[William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted by Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell]


I first found out on September 19. A new album from Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I hadn't thought about them for years, but you don't drown yourself in a band and live on unscathed. Like most fans, I hear the words “the car's on fire” and am submerged again: every note of The Dead Flag Blues seems to flood from somewhere within me. I am F#A#oo and Slow Riot For a New Zero Kanada, because those were my lost years, my years of struggling to figure out what to do with myself and leaving home and always the not knowing and a feeling of irrelevance. By the time they released Levez Vos Skinny Fists in 2000, stars had aligned: I had a good job, my own flat. But even in that daffodil-yellow bedroom, there would be days when I returned to Godspeed inexorably, with a darkness of heart that needed hope. Always hope.

And now I write about music as part of my work and here was this offer: to interview Godspeed, the only mainstream-press interview for 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!. On September 20, to get us started, I sat down to write some questions, and couldn't do it. I listened to F#A# and Slow Riot and was dragged back in time: to the night at All Tomorrow's Parties when I was actually in the same room as them, willing myself to overcome all shyness and just say hello, but failing; to the strange weeks when a shadowy stranger with electric hair haunted my dreams; to the NME interviews with them that I read even though I'm sure I'd stopped buying it by then. Too much memory, too much weird obsession. So I didn't write questions. I wrote a love letter. The middle of it went like this:

this afternoon when I got the call from the guardian about doing this with you I was really excited, but now I just feel tongue-tied. It's not that i'm worried about coming across all fan-girl – that is inevitable – more that you belong to another time in my life, almost, and encountering you again is making me encounter that person again... maybe...
so tonight I have mostly been listening again to f#a# and slow riot and trying to remember the rooms in which I used to listen to them, except somehow I can't, because mostly I would listen with the lights out, and maybe it's useful to know that I have always been afraid of the dark, yet with this music I could be in the dark and feel safe. And i've been rediscovering actually how bleak some of that music sounds, something i'd forgotten in the passage of time. And how beautiful and resilient and gentle and sad some of it is. And how angry and militant and desperate for change. And how it is all of these things within single pieces of music, swelling and subsiding, one thought scratching away at another. And thinking that maybe these contradictions are not solely a condition of being a collective, but reflect internal contradiction within individuals, a living within paradox, so that life is one long argument with the self. Maybe.
There's a reason I haven't listened to these records in a long time. Six years ago I married, I have two kids now. It's not that music no longer defines and maps my existence, it absolutely does, but the existence has changed. Or rather, the external conditions of it have. As it happens, this is a week of confusion and possibly transition, a week of – as a theatre-maker i've just been working with beautifully phrased it – living in the space between the failure and the recovery. I'm not sure why i'm telling you that, except it seems to me something of what godspeed do exists in that space too. I live in this incredibly conventional, societally, space, and constantly pull against it, look for ways to subvert it. Not surprisingly, the possibilities of subversion feel a lot narrower when you have kids, because you spend a lot of time scared that whatever you do will fuck up their lives. And I think i'm telling you that because I was one of those people – i'm sure there were heaps of us, and i'm sure, ok no I assume, and assumptions are dangerous I know, that we kind of fucking annoyed you – people who existed within privilege of whatever description, who found the framing of godspeed desperately romantic. By framing I mean the hotel2tango and the rejection of capitalism/consumerism/media/everything I enjoyed or at least took advantage of without proper question. I bet I thought I was questioning it. I know I wasn't when I look back, because I wasn't doing any of the things I do now.
Is it useful to tell you what I do now? Apart from writing for the guardian about music, I write about theatre, for the guardian too, but mostly in my own blog, where I think about theatre as a place where we create the world we want to live in. although I don't make theatre myself, i'm part of a community of makers who operate to greater or lesser extent outside the mainstream, quiet subversives who know they can't make A Difference on a grand scale, but also know that they can radically affect people individually and find achievement and meaning in that. One of them wrote a poem for a thing i'm working on that ended with the words:
political theatre never really changed anything
but we still breathe together
and that's been very much in my head tonight as i've been reading through old interviews with you and listening to the albums and rewinding time by a decade, back to a time when – is it just me? Has my memory warped? - when we had no fucking idea how bad things would get. But maybe it was always this bad? I grew up under thatcher but had no real sense of politics then. Even now, I'm never sure I know the difference (in me, I mean) between revolutionary fervour and sheer naivety.
And maybe this is why I feel tongue-tied. I'm not the same person I was 10 years ago. But also I am. And maybe the individuals who now make up godspeed are and aren't, and maybe it makes no difference, because maybe godspeed has its own identity, a morass of contradictions sure but an identity none the less, one that whatever particular group of people you are now has decided to step back into, for whatever reason.

*
 
There's another bit, but that will come later; and there was an attempt at actual questions, but – as I said to them – everything I tried to ask felt so prosaic, so cheap. Sunday 23, I tried again. The letter I wrote was a mess, inchoate and overexcitable, because I was listening to 'Allelujah! for the first, second and third times, and it was brilliant, vivid and furious and alive, and because my own life was in brittle confusion that very night and here, once again, was the soundtrack. I knew it was a big ask: 3000 words across two letters for them to untangle and respond to. Even so, I was disappointed when the call came a couple of days later, to say that they were busy rehearsing for their tour, and could they have a more conventional list of questions. This is what I sent:

To me, Godspeed is more than just a band, it's an idea. Is that true for you? What if you don't all agree with the idea?

Who are Godspeed now? Who has stayed, who has left, who has joined, and why have they joined?

More metaphorically, who are Godspeed now: in what ways have the people in the band from the beginning changed in the time of hiatus?

What is it that makes this a Godspeed album, as opposed to any of the other bands you've been involved in since Yanqui? Is it just a matter or personnel, or attitude?

Does political music change anything? Do you want it to?

And is that intention for change external, or internal: a changing of hearts, not of social structures?

Do you still think in terms of, to quote Efrim, “a meaningful dialogue about how people cope”?

To what extent does Montreal/its politics make you the people you are and the band you are?

Do you have narratives in your heads for your music? How problematic is it if people listening hear a different narrative?

What was the process for making this album? How was it similar/different to how earlier albums were made? How Yanqui was made?

What prompted you to make a new album after all this time?

Was there a time when you stopped appreciating the opportunity to communicate with people through music? Earlier interviews suggest it's something you've had misgivings around; is that a misreading, and if not, do you still feel that?

As a member of a dance group – 10 women, democratically run – I know full well how hard it is to agree on anything. How does Godspeed operate as a community?

Do people like me just take you too seriously?

*


I wrote them hurriedly, in a fit of pique, and the answers that came a few days later betray hints of frustration at having to talk to another clueless music journalist. It's what I deserved, although I didn't think that straight away. Instead, I got snagged on a line, about life on tour: “[we] got heartbroken out there the way only true believers can.” That's what I thought had happened to me. I had met my heroes, albeit only on email, and been let down. I felt like the enemy in the equation, and sent another letter, asking, among other things, whether it's inconceivable to them that someone who writes about music as part of their living could also be a kid in the front row. To which I've had no response. Again, deservedly.

It wasn't until I started writing the piece for the Guardian that I began to appreciate properly the answers they had sent me. The poetry. The honesty. The quiet moments of personal revelation. I had felt too shy to ask anything private; in any case, the collective face acts against that. And so I didn't notice at first the intimacy of the response. Editing these streams of text down and chopping them around for a 1600-word feature felt like an act of craven appropriation. It's my job. But it felt wrong.

What follows is an attempt at the same Q&A that's been published on the Guardian, but with more of the thinking behind the questions. The fanzine version, if you like. It's pure vanity, of course: I wish I'd been more careful with the questions, and this allows me to rewrite them. Not a word, not a punctuation mark, in what Godspeed sent me has been changed.

*

The first set grew from the first letter: “maybe godspeed has its own identity, a morass of contradictions sure but an identity none the less, one that whatever particular group of people you are now has decided to step back into, for whatever reason.” I so wish I hadn't used the phrase “just a band”.

To me, Godspeed is more than just a band, it's an idea. Is that true for you? What if you don't all agree with the idea?
More metaphorically, who are Godspeed now: in what ways have the people in the band from the beginning changed in the time of hiatus?


we're a band. we're not "just a band", we're a band. us against the world, yeah? like so many other poor suckers before us. bands get chewed up in the gears before the rest of the world does. and then bands sing pretty songs while they they get chewed up that way.

the dull fact is, we spend most of our time engaged with the task at hand= rehearsing, writing, booking tours. we do our best to get along, to stay engaged with each other and with the shared labour. we feel like most of the stuff we have to muddle through is the same sort of stuff that countless other bands have to muddle through. nothing special, nothing interesting. it's just that we make decisions based on a particular stubborn calculus. it's just that there's a certain sort of ringing that we chase when we rattle our bones in our tiny practice-room. it's just that we like the sound of things a little out of tune. it's just that we know that music is just a thing that people make in between bigger struggles. and all along we've been tilting at windmills, worried that we're about to get bucked from the saddle.

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 shit about the shit 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 motherfuckers, 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. we wrote songs as long or as short as we wanted. basement feedback recordings with cigarette butts stuffed in our ears. meanwhile our personal lives were a mess.

and so we hit the road as soon as we could. and got heartbroken out there the way only true believers can. you string a kite too long upon its string, sooner or later it ends up stranded on the moon.

whatever politics we had were born out of always being broke and living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine and always would be fine forever. clearly this was a lie. but clinton was president, the berlin wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. the gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. meanwhile so many of us were locked out staring at all that gold from the outside in.

so when we started earning rent from this racket, we felt a lot of internal pressure to stay true to our adolescent dissatisfactions (not adolescent like immature or naive, adolescent like terminally disenfranchised and pure). and so we made decisions that irritated a lot of people. we were barely articulate. we didn't deal with outsiders well. we were used to speaking with our own kind. we'd all of us spent our formative years outcast and a little lost. we had no religion to shout at the rafters but all of us all together all the time. and we shouted that religion at a time when that kind of earnest noise was tagged as earnest, naive and square. and we were earnest and naive and square. and still are.

a thing a lot of people got wrong about us- when we did it the first time, a whole lot of what we were about was joy. we tried to make heavy music, joyously. times were heavy but the party line was everything was okay. there were a lot of bands that reacted to that by making moaning 'heavy' music that rang false. we hated that music, we hated that privileging of individual angst, we wanted to make music like ornette's 'friends and neighbours', a joyous difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. a music about all of us together or not at all. we hated that we got characterized as a bummer thing. but we knew that was other people's baggage, for us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?

but now we all live in harder times, now a whole lot of bands react to the current heaviness by privileging the party-times, like some weird scientology will to power bullshit, hit that hi-hat with a square's fist until we all make it to heaven until sunday morning's bringdown. self-conscious good-vibes like love-handles poking through some 22 year-old's american apparel t-shirt at some joint where you can only dance once you pay a ten dollar cover charge just to listen to some internet king's iPod.

and so now we thrum our joyous tension in opposition to all of that. things are not okay. music should be about things are not okay, or else shouldn't exist at all. the best songs ever are the songs that ride that line. we just try to get close to that perfection. us we drive all night just to get closer to that perfect joyous noise, just to kiss the hem of that garment. we love music we love people we love the noise we make.

Who are Godspeed now? Who has stayed, who has left, who has joined, and why have they joined?

godspeed's been the same lineup since 1954. small changes= cello norsola's no longer playing with us. and drummer bruce quit last year so's he could spend more time with his kid. timothy's the new second drummer. we are stoked.

*

The next batch came from the second letter, although Godspeed yoked them together in an unexpected way:

I looked up la loi 78 and fucking hell. And now i'm trying to read up about the plan nord and that's made me start looking at charest and i'm reading it all too quickly to take it in properly but it all... looks symptomatic of a lack of genuinely left politics in the 21st century, the apparent non-viability of opposition to capitalist systems... What is your alternative? For the past few months i've been reading a book called Crack Capitalism by John Holloway, have you come across it?... He gives me such faith in the small, seemingly insignificant acts of defiance. Everything about this album – the sleeves notes, the songs titles, every fucking note – feels like a massive act of defiance. That's become my alternative.
...This thought is not consecutive, or even a question exactly, but thinking about we drift like worried fire, something about that music... feels straightforwardly/conventionally joyful in a way I don't think i've heard from you before, it sounds to me – this is quite late on in the song now – as though a running away is happening from some malevolent force and in the moment of escape every bit of music just beams. All the more so because of the journey taken to get there, an apprehensive search that leads to a sharing, a communal place, some romance too... that's the question, isn't it: about the imposing of narrative, and the extent to which you have a narrative or maybe multiple narratives in your heads for these songs, and how much it troubles you when the narratives imposed don't match your own...?


and the narrative I keep coming back to is this one of the romantic outsiders/defiers, and how with you maybe it's purely a matter of geography, because montreal is canadian not american, and earlier I was reading something godspeed-related online, in pitchfork I think, making a deal out of you being non-american, and the way he did it really irritated me, yet I know i'm seduced by something within it, like it's a defiance to the american belief system that strangles us all that you had the bravery/temerity NOT EVEN TO BE FUCKING BORN THERE! HA! But again, I should be asking questions so: tell me how montreal makes you.

Does political music change anything? Do you want it to?
And is that intention for change external, or internal: a changing of hearts, not of social structures?
To what extent does Montreal/its politics make you the people you are and the band you are?
Do you have narratives in your heads for your music? How problematic is it if people listening hear a different narrative?


what's political music? all music is political, right? you either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls. it's what music (and culture) is for, right? to distract or confront, or both at the same time? so many of us know already that shit is fucked.

in a lot of crucial ways, its easier to find common cause than it was ten or twenty years ago. you talk to strangers in bars or on the street, and you realize that we're all up to our eyeballs in it, right? so that right now, there's more of us than ever. it's a true fact. everyday it gets a little harder to pretend that everything's okay. the rich keep getting more and we keep getting less. post 9/11 post 7/7 there's a police state that tightens more every day, and in our day-to-days, we're all witnesses to the demeaning outcomes of debauched governance= random traffic stops, collapsing infrastructure, corrupt bureaucrats and milk-fed police with their petty intrusions. our cities are broke, they lay patches on top of patches of concrete, our forests cut down and sold to make newspapers just to tell us about traffic that we get stuck in. you get a parking ticket and you waste a day in line. cop shoots kid, kid shoots kid, homeless man dies waiting to see a doctor, old men lay in hospital beds while a broken bureaucracy steals aways whats left of their dignity. folks flee to our shores, running from the messes we've made in their countries, and we treat them like thieves. mostly it feels like whatever you love is just going to get torn away. turn on the radio, and it's a fucking horrorshow, the things our governments do in our name, just to fatten themselves on our steady decline. meanwhile most of us are hammering away at a terrible self-alienation, mistreated, lied to and blamed. burning fields and a sky filled with drones. the fruit rots on the vine while millions starve.

so we're at a particular junction in history now where it's clear that something has to give- problem is that things could tip any which way. we're excited and terrified, we sit down and try to make a joyous noise. but fuck us, we make instrumental music, means that we have to work hard at creating a context that fucks with the document and points in the general direction of resistance and freedom. otherwise it's just pretty noise saddled to whatever horse comes along. a lot of the time alls we know is that we won't play the stupid game. someone tells us we're special we say "fuck no we aren't special". someone asks us what the thing we made means, we say figure it out for yourself, the clues are all there. we think that stubornness is a virtue. we know that this can be frustrating. it's fine. we don't think in terms of narrative so much. we try to play arrangements that are little out of our reach. we try to make sure the songs ring true or not at all.

montreal's a place that's always losing its charm. it's a corrupt city in a corrupt province, where somehow the light rings loudly anyhow. so many crazy plans hatched in spite of, so many minor miracles. the dust of this place is caked into our scalps and beneath our nails- there would be no band if it weren't for this lovely rotten town.

meantime this town exploded recently, but there's no victory yet. this province is still corrupt. this city is still corrupt, and our broken country earns its gold hauling dirty oil. the rich get richer from that, and the rest of us die slowly.

we're all of us born beneath the weight of piss-poor governance. it's a miracle that so many of us make it through our teens. politics is for politicians and all our politicians have the whiff of death to them, it's why they wear so much perfume and cologne, it's why they wear brightly coloured scarves and ties, just to distract from the pallor of their skin. so many of us just want to live away from that stench- we stagger towards the light awkwardly, astonished that so many of us are staggering together thusly, amen

*

Back to the second letter: ...the other really heart-crushingly obvious question: what prompted this? I want to think it's more than just “we got invited to do atp and then we did some gigs and then we just started playing together again”. I want to think it's more than “we learned how to be in the studio together again”. I want to think there was a burning in your hearts that hurt more and more with every passing day, with every dismal act in the world outside that made existence within mainstream society/culture that little bit less possible, that made the desire to reach out to a community of others, not just local but global, a challenge to the grim inhumanity of globalisation, that much more forceful and demanding. I want to think there was an imperative to make music, inchoate – because there are bits of mladic... that lurch almost clumsily, and I love that, it feels very deliberate to me, a chosen unmannered refusal to conform, even if it's to your own sense of rhythm – and furious music as a strike against, as the making of a crack, for us to listen to, to pick at and widen...

What was the process for making this album? How was it similar/different to how earlier albums were made? How Yanqui was made?
What prompted you to make a new album after all this time?


we got back together after ten years apart, re-learned the old songs, played a few joints. we weren't going to stay stuck on that retro circuit like sha-na-na at the windsor autoshow. so at some point we decided to record- it's what bands do. also, we felt like getting this shit down in case it disappeared again. we set up in montreal, rolled tape and hoped for the best. last time 'round that track, we argued like twin sisters, this time we just let it roll.

*

The next was an amalgam of thoughts from the first and second letters. From the first:
I go to edinburgh once a year for the theatre festival, and there's a church there that I can't walk past without quietly saluting godspeed. The reason is this: about a decade ago, they had a banner strung across the front of the church with just the single word HOPE printed on it, in huge black letters... The two words, godspeed and hope, have always been synonymous in my head. But I think my sense of hope has changed in that 10 years. I think before it was hope for me, for my future, for what I might achieve. Now i'm much more interested in what I can do for other people. Reading back on old interviews with you, the same altruism/idealism shines out – but with a corresponding anxiety that playing in a rock band is a pretty fucking pointless way to achieve it. I hope you don't feel that anxiety so much any more. But as someone who exists in a maelstrom of anxiety at almost any given time, part of me would be mildly astonished if you don't.
...Something I noted down from an interview dating from 2000, attributed to efrim: “All we want to do is to try and contribute to a meaningful dialogue. Ideally, there would be dialogues happening all over, about how people cope, about what we're doing with ourselves.”

From the second: Over the past 18 months, i've come to appreciate writing, having writing as a medium through which to engage people in a dialogue with me not about how the world is but how the world could be. I wonder if there was a moment when you didn't appreciate music in this way. And if maybe now you do.

Was there a time when you stopped appreciating the opportunity to communicate with people through music? Earlier interviews suggest it's something you've had misgivings around; is that a misreading, and if not, do you still feel that?

hell no, we never got tired of playing for folks, we always felt lucky that we could. it's just that rock-biz, then as now, is a miserable pigpen. pennies flushed, damaged ships a-sailing just to sink, while somewhere in the corner lazy demons chuckle and count their stacks. it's like watching millionaires piss on cherubs. the money-makers hate the fucking kids and treat them like chattel, milk them like cows, and lead them from waypoint to waypoint like frantic shoppers on dollar days. for the most part, you deal with privileged fools who are entirely insecure. they hate their jobs, love the money and want more. somehow a whole lot of starving heifers keep coming back to that trough for more. somewhere inside they know that the milk is poison but they can't stop drinking.

beating against that wall tires you out- at a certain point you gots to stop lest you break. also, while that battle's important (because all battles against this normalized decline are important), most of the world, justifiably, could give a fuck, there's more important work being done out there, greater class-injustices than music industry greed. and most of us in this broken world are barely getting by, so you dive into this horrid music business mess determined to do you your part to make it change, but then nothing changes. you have victories that feel enormous but mostly nobody notices but the kids in the front row. you worry over it until after a while you start feeling like the annoying friend who can't stop complaining about their ex. it gets so you don't want to think about that babylon system no more. so we stopped. and then we started again.

these days we're lucky old-timers, we throw our amps on stage, put our heads down and play. after this many years of saying no, those carpetbaggers don't bother with us much anymore. we work with people we trust and hope that they trust us in return. we don't fleece we don't slack we don't privilege our worries above the worries of the kids in the front row. we play to the kids in the front row because we used to be the kids in the front row. everything else is just static, everything else is just dancing specks of white and black skating on dead tv screens.

*

This is where I can really hear myself sulking, even if they can't. For a moment I was contorted by suspicion: that the whole “collective” thing is a lie. Hurt pride can be so stupid. As this open letter on the Godspeed website shows, they've faced this before. Maybe all music journalists are the fucking same after all. I later apologised.

As a member of a dance group – 10 women, democratically run – I know full well how hard it is to agree on anything. How does Godspeed operate as a community?

your car breaks and you take it to the garage, dirty room, 5 mechanics maybe, car keys hung on nails next to the front counter. two cars on lifts, one car in the corner, all the other cars parked in the back. everything and everybody is covered in grease, everyone's smoking like crazy. they have to fix twenty cars before 5 PM, or else the backlog will fucking break everybody's back until christmas. the parts suppliers roll in every half-hour or so, mostly bringing new brake pads and flex-hoses, but bumpers sometimes, oil-pans, headlight assemblies or timing belts.

in a good garage, the whole mess of it almost collapses all day long. dudes yell and argue, everything's going wrong and why are we doing this anyways. the hose won't fucking fit, or the screwdriver slips and you lose the hose-clamp somewhere beneath the undercarriage. the sun starts to set and the floor gets littered with burnt bulbs, spent gaskets, oil, and sweat, and brake fluid. someone's hungover, someone's heartbroken, someone couldn't sleep last night, someone feels unappreciated, but all that matters is making it through the pile, the labor is shared and there's a perfect broken poetry to the hammering and yelling, the whine of the air compressor kicking to life every 5 minutes or so.

it all seems impossible. but somehow we make it through the pile. the cars run again. the cars drive away. rough day but now it's done, and everything's fine everything's better than fine. tomorrow we'll do it all over again. you deal with the volvo, i'll deal with the toyota. heat and noise. all day everyday until it's quiet again. we fix cars until we die. we love fixing cars.

*

And in all my favourite bits of the interview – the kite stranded on the moon, the staggering together thusly amen, the dust of Montreal, we love music we love people we love the noise we make, the absurdly detailed love of fixing cars – this might actually be my favourite. It's simple. It's funny. It's true.

Do people like me just take you too seriously?

probably.

*

I've said it to them privately, but wanted to say it publicly, too. Thank you. Thank you for the communication, for the intensity of thought, for the trust. Thank you for being as earnest and naive and square with me as I feel always, and as I feel around you. I understand why they are wary of me: I represent what they reject. But my outsider heart loves them, and I hope they know that's true.

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