Godspeed You! Black Emperor There's Only Hope
Published May 05, 2015Within a collective dispatch in 2012, Godspeed You! Black Emperor made mention of a possible band mandate: "No singer, no leader, no interviews, no press photos." It's the damnedest thing when you attempt to focus people's attention on your work instead of you as people or personalities. Invariably, this tactic becomes a tired talking point, tempting external observers to take an even closer look at you — the mysteriously guarded enigma.
Twenty years on, very little is really known about GY!BE beyond the fact that they are one of Montreal's most cherished and powerful instrumental bands, with a virtually flawless and majestic discography. They incorporate film abstractions in their music and, with its textual ruminations, diagrams and photographs, their album artwork has made bolder and more provocative political statements than some songwriters' hard-laboured lyrics. In simply going about their business, the band have been accused of terrorism by both the FBI and the Canadian music industry. And, while they're often perceived as gloomy and self-serious, they battle through all of that noise, stubbornly brandishing hope as their unshakeable emblem.
1993 to 1996
Toronto's Efrim Manuel Menuck returns to his Montreal birthplace during a recession in Canada. The economic downturn made it difficult for him to find even menial work in Toronto and, as a musician, he felt like he had no access to the city's artistic community. Montreal's Concordia University has a program where each year, it would accept a certain number of "mature students" without high school diplomas. At 21, Menuck enters Concordia to study film production and stops playing music while completing his degree. Upon graduating, Menuck decides that he won't actually pursue film work professionally and begins playing music again.
He chooses to live in Montreal along with his high school friends, Mauro Pezzente (who can play bass), and a guitarist named Mike Moya. The trio begin jamming, and having fun and Pezzente and Menuck purchase a Tascam four-track recording machine to document the noise they're making. Menuck, who is broke and emotionally devastated by the harsh conclusion of a relationship, decides he will never make music again except for one last thing. Menuck decides that whatever comes into his head will be captured by the four-track, to be pieced together in some more cohesive fashion later. He decides this final project will be a cassette called All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling and will be attributed to God Speed You Black Emperor!, after a 1976 Japanese black-and-white documentary by director Mitsuo Yanagimachi, which follows the exploits of a Japanese biker gang called the Black Emperors. Since he's really into the number three, only 33 copies of the cassette are manufactured, complete with a rather complicated booklet, and distributed to friends in December 1994.
Among the recipients is Marc Montanchez, who plays in a Montreal band called Steak 72. Upon hearing the tape, he asks Menuck if GYBE! can open for Steak 72 in two weeks. Menuck calls up Pezzente and Moya to try to figure something out for the show. They make a series of feedback drones with the four-track, which serve as a backing track for riff-oriented long-form instrumental pieces. Every riff from this show will eventually appear on the first proper GYBE! album.
Soon Menuck's friend David Bryant joins them on guitar, and this begins GYBE!'s fluid membership; Bryant's friend Norsola Johnson is added on cello, while Menuck recruits Thierry Amar to play bass along with Pezzente. They often ask people they know from bars to join the band, the only requirement being that they can't have steady work or a long-term relationship because they only want people who are ready and able to tour in the mix.
Despite the restrictions, at one point in 1997 the band swell to 15 members, which Menuck describes as "horrible" in an interview a year later. With their ever-changing line-up, the band periodically perform live in Montreal and then tour, playing unconventional places like a clothing store in Moncton. At shows, GYBE! incorporate 16mm film projections managed by a couple named Flux Lux into their musical performances, crafting a stirring and unique A/V experience for their audience.
1997 to 1999
GYBE! come of age when Montreal is something of a wasteland when it comes to live music venues and recording studios. People making underground or niche music feel locked out of the pay-to-play show bar culture and expensive, "professional" recording studios. Pezennte and (his now wife) Kiva Stimac rent a loft space called Gallery Qui Va and put shows on there for a period. Exhausted (on two levels; they were tired but also the auto shop below them stunk up their place), they pass the torch to Menuck and a fellow named John Arthur Tinholt, who take over the Qui Va space and rename it Hotel2Tango for its H2T postal code prefix. It becomes an unconventional music venue. They are so broke, even renting a P.A. is an ordeal.
They get word that a fellow named Ian Ilavsky, who plays in a local band called Sofa, and a guy from Toronto named Don Wilkie are plotting to start their own performance space. Menuck and Bryant meet them for a beer one afternoon to make sure no one gets their toes treaded on with all of this show business. Ilavsky and Wilkie put on a Dub Narcotic show at the Hotel, which marks their first professional collaboration with Menuck. Sensing something shifting in Montreal, Ilavsky and Wilkie start Constellation Records. At the same time, the Hotel becomes a multi-use space when GYBE! begin making their first record there.
Wilkie and Ilavsky "rode the faders," or hit "record" and "play" on the console for the sessions that yield F#A#∞ in May 1997. A quasi-orchestral rock band by this point, GYBE!'s debut LP features ten members: Aidan Girt (drums), Bruce Cawdron (drums), Christophe (violin), David Bryant (guitar), Efrim Menuck (guitar), Mauro Pezzente (bass), Mike Moya (guitar, banjo), Norsola Johnson (cello), Thea Pratt (French horn), and Thierry Amar (bass). Constellation releases F#A#∞ as a vinyl-only pressing of 500 copies in August 1997, with LP jackets hand made by the label, the band, and various local artisans. Inserts include a penny crushed on Montreal railroad tracks, blueprint album graphic and notes, a credit sheet and a reproduction of an early show handbill, all placed inside a plain manila envelope. Though it goes through dozens of re-presses over the years, virtually all of the original packaging elements are preserved.
Looking to book a show in Chicago on an American tour, the band contact the Lounge Ax venue, but locking down a date doesn't look promising. In an effort to book a different venue, they also send their album to Chicago label, Kranky. The imprint likes the record and asks GYBE! if they can re-release F#A#∞ on compact disc. With an agreement in place, the band revisit and reorganize the material and record more songs with Daryl Smith at Chemical Sound in Toronto. The result is a longer record on CD that's released in June 1998. Though ostensibly instrumental, GYBE! incorporate field recordings, samples, train sounds, and film and agitated interview snippets within this first record; the opening monologue ahead of "The Dead Flag Blues" is extracted from Incomplete Movie About Jail, an unfinished film by Menuck. "East Hastings" references a downtrodden street in Vancouver that is an infamous gathering place for impoverished and drug-addicted citizens who seem to be purposefully neglected by the municipal infrastructure. The two sides of vinyl are designated as "nervous, sad, poor…" and "bleak, uncertain, beautiful…" For all its opaque mystery, there is clearly socio-political discourse and criticism running through GYBE!'s first work, not to mention glimmers of joy and hope.
After the release of F#A#∞, GYBE!'s membership is stabilized around a nine-person lineup with Menuck, Moya and Bryant on guitars, Pezzente and Amar on bass guitars, Girt and Cawdron on drums, and Sophie Trudeau and Johnson on violin and cello respectively. Though initially a word-of-mouth release that receives limited critical attention, F#A#∞ gains momentum with the Kranky re-release and is acclaimed by critics who are taken aback by its enigmatic and uncommon force. British filmmaker Danny Boyle states that the record was a source of inspiration for him while making his 2002 box office hit, 28 Days Later. "I always try to have a soundtrack in my mind [when creating a film]," he tells The Guardian. "Like when we did Trainspotting, it was Underworld. For me, the soundtrack to 28 Days Later was Godspeed. The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head."
By 1998, members of the band describe GYBE! as a collective, revealing that many of their compositions begin as group improvisations. In fact, playing and touring together slightly muddles the original spirit of the band, which revelled in the chaos of the unexpected from each other as players. When longer musical pieces begin to have actual "parts" and members begin expecting certain flourishes or moves from each other, GYBE! take a few months off so everyone can clear their heads of "material" and start fresh. The Godspeed song "Sunshine + Gasoline" appears on a split single with Fly Pan Am for the aMAZEine publication. On November 22, 1998, GYBE! record a piece called "Hung Over as the Queen in Maida Vale" for a John Peel session that is broadcast by the BBC on January 19, 1999.
The band head to the Gas Station recording studio in Toronto for sessions with studio co-owner/engineer, Dale Morningstar. In the end, they leave with two songs that will make up a new EP called Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada, but not all goes smoothly. In the liner note credits, a point is made that the "1/4 inch mastering botched by Metalworks [in Toronto], repaired by Constellation + Godpseed after all-night drive thru frozen blizzard," which suggests that, if wronged or annoyed, GYBE! will let the world know about it and are, just maybe, unfuckwithable. Side A runs at 45 rpm and consists of the song "Moya," a stirring, building piece "dedicated to the disappeared cats of the Mile End" neighbourhood in Montreal. Side B runs at 33 rpm and features the song "BBF3," a near 18-minute piece named for Blaise Bailey Finnegan III whom the band encountered and interviewed in Providence, RI. They incorporate his spiel into the haunting song. He rants about screaming at a judge over a speeding ticket and recites a poem he claims to have written, which actually contains lifted lyrics from the song "Virus" by Iron Maiden, written by their then vocalist Blaze Bayley.
Menuck starts a new project in which he hopes to learn music theory so that he can write scores and "properly" communicate with musicians. He eventually abandons this idea, preferring to "fumble" as a composer and player instead, but the project develops its own momentum. Partly inspired by the death of his dog Wanda while he was touring with GYBE!, Menuck decides to record an album outside of Godspeed's collective, consensus-based parameters. He asks Trudeau and Amar to join him and A Silver Mt. Zion make their live debut on March 6, 1999 at Musique Fragile, a quiet live series curated by Constellation. When their debut record, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms..., is released in March 2000, it's notable that Menuck sings. Wary of rock star-ism though, he sheepishly suggests he employs vocals mostly as a stylistic tool. But he's a tremendous and distinctive singer and, as a lyricist, he finds an exciting new outlet to express himself. Like Godspeed, SMZ's membership swells and recedes over the years, but the band remain one of the world's most powerful and riveting rock bands.
Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada is co-released by Constellation and Kranky on March 8, 1999 and receives glowing reviews. Beyond the album spine, only the liner notes clearly identify this as a Godspeed record. According to the EP's Wikipedia entry, the front of the album contains Hebrew characters, in transliterated form, "Tohu va bohu" (formless and empty). This phrase is apparently used in both Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23, the former to describe the Earth before God separated light from dark and the latter to describe the Earth after the Lord's Day. The dots and dashes above the letters are called trope and dictate the tune and intonation and are found in the Torah as well as the rest of the Hebrew Bible. On the inside cover, this text is put into greater context, with Jer 4:23–27 provided in both Hebrew and English:
23 I beheld the earth,
And, lo, it was waste and void;
And the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled,
And all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I beheld, and, lo, there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens were fled.
26 I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,
And all the cities thereof were broken down
At the presence of the LORD,
And before His fierce anger.
27 For thus saith the LORD:
The whole land shall be desolate;
Yet will I not make a full end.
Of further significance, the cardboard album case is unusual in that it opens in the opposite direction of a conventional CD case, presumably due to the fact that Hebrew text is read from right to left. The back of the EP's artwork consists of a diagram with instructions, in Italian, for making a Molotov cocktail bomb.
With each new venture, the band's reputation and popularity grow. It begins organically enough, as Godspeed develop a connection with like-minded fans and some music critics, but there's always a protective layer of insulation between the band and those external to it. As GYBE! and Constellation begin building themselves up, by their own account, they receive little support or coverage from Montreal's arts media. That they garner attention in places like the U.S. and Britain, and achieve measures of success without conventional promotional efforts, emboldens them to begin challenging journalists and media outlets that opt to cover them. In fact, GYBE! eventually only communicate collectively, often via written statements and email interviews that are presumably informed and vetted by each member of the group.
"We started making this noise together when we were young and broke," they tell Maddy Costa of The Guardian in October 2012, reflecting about their origins via email. "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."
In 1999, a group of 13 Montreal musicians come together at the behest of Bryant to play a show. Among them are Trudeau, Moya, Cawdron, and others who orbit around GYBE! They call themselves Set Fire to Flames, and eventually make two eerie, minimalist albums — 2001's Sings Reign Rebuilder and 2003's double LP, Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static — both of which are released by Montreal's Alien8 Recordings.
After appearing on Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada, Moya leaves Godspeed to focus on his band HṚṢṬA and is replaced by Roger Tellier-Craig of Fly Pan Am. As they have for two years, the band tour Europe and North America extensively and relentlessly.
2000 to 2005
In January 2000, Menuck and Amar pool their resources with engineer Howard Bilerman and make Hotel2Tango a going concern as a proper recording studio (and not a practice space/ venue/ silkscreen workshop). H2T is housed in a commercial building with no rent control for some time and they begin actively searching for a home of their own in 2003.
In February 2000, Godspeed head back to Toronto's Chemical Sound to make a record with Daryl Smith over nine days. The result is Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, a double-album that, with its tape manipulations, field recordings, and mesmerizing shifts in tone, harkens back to F#A#∞'s epic sonic and narrative scope. The band distinguish themselves by expanding their sonic palette, incorporating a wider array of genre signifiers: there are folk turns, cinematic symphonic interludes, explosive rock, hints of reggae and jazz-inflected post-punk, noise, drones, and more.
Partly motivated by the fact that so many artists are bypassing Montreal on their tour routing, Pezzente and his wife Kiva Stimac take over a closing venue called Artishow and decide they'll turn it into a vegetarian café called Casa del Popolo. When they open in May 2000, they figure they'll put on shows Thursday to Saturday, but because it's one of the few venues not making artists pay-to-play, and otherwise strives to treat musicians respectfully, Pezzente and Stimac get so many booking requests that shows end up happening almost every night. With only a 100-person capacity, Casa is limited, so Pezzente and Stimac look to a Spanish social club venue across the street called Sala Rossa. As it happens, the President of the social club says the restaurant and ballroom are available for rent; thanks to his status as a member of GYBE!, Pezzente and Stimac book bigger shows at Sala Rosa starting in 2001, along with more intimate performances at Casa. The couple also start a month-long music festival called Suoni per il Popolo, which continues to take place annually in June.
Amar, who is an accomplished improvised musician, begins playing with Black Ox Orkestar, a quartet who specialize in European Jewish folk music. Along with Scott Levine Gilmore (Land of Kush, Silver Mt. Zion), Gabriel Levine (Sackville, Land of Kush) and Jessica Moss (Silver Mt. Zion), Amar hones the Black Ox Orkestar's all-acoustic sound, which is bolstered by lyrics sung exclusively in Yiddish. They release records via Constellation, including 2004's Ver Tanzt? and 2006's Nisht Azoy.
Released by Constellation and Kranky on October 9, 2000, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven features four tracks — "Storm," "Static," "Sleep," and "Antennas to Heaven" — that are comprised of 19 individually named internal movements. Via inner panels (on vinyl) and a paper insert (on compact disc) a diagram is provided to illustrate the relative lengths of movements within the four tracks; each movement is drawn by Menuck, as a rectangular block with its length determined by the proportion of the track it comprises. The inside cover drawings are taken from William Schaff's "Notes to a Friend; Silently Listening No. 2," and the cover is apparently a redrawn version of one of the pieces on "Notes to a Friend," by John Arthur Tinholt.
In the liner notes, the band state "this tape recording is the last stanza of a 3page chapter…" and, among other things, is "dedicated to every prisoner in the world." The band also jokingly refer to themselves as "god's pee" at one point. The movement "She Dreamt She Was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She Was Alone in an Empty Field" was originally named "John Hughes," presumably after the popular filmmaker. "Monheim" and "Chart #3" were initially recorded for John Peel's radio show in 1998, as the first two movements of a piece called "Hung Over as the Queen in Maida Vale." The closing movement, which has never been officially released, was named "Steve Reich" after the minimalist composer, and is loosely based on his piece "Violin Phase." Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven goes on to be included in many year-end and decade-end "best-of" music lists, including those compiled by Magnet, NME, Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes and LAS among others. The band continue to tour as though life is very, very short.
After collaborating in Set Fire to Flames, cellist Rebecca Foon (Silver Mt. Zion, Saltland) and Cawdron co-found the minimalist chamber music group Esmerine in 2001. They release two acclaimed albums, If Only A Sweet Surrender To The Nights To Come Be True (2003) and Aurora (2005) on their own Madrona Records, each drawing comparisons to Rachel's and also Godspeed itself. The band seek more collaborative musical ventures and Constellation releases their next and most recent records, La Lechuza (2011) and Dalmak (2013), the latter of which wins a Juno in 2014 for Instrumental Album of the Year. Esmerine's current lineup features Cawrdron, Foon, percussionist Jamie Thompson (The Unicorns, Islands), and multi-instrumentalist Brian Sanderson.
In late autumn 2001, Godspeed convene at Chicago's Electrical Audio studios to make their next album, this time with Steve Albini pointing microphones at things, pressing buttons, sliding sliders, and presumably saying things like "Ok, rolling" and, later, "You done?" The sessions include special guests from Chicago's jazz and improvised music community: Josh Abrams on double bass, Geof Bradfield on bass clarinet, Rob Mazurek on trumpet, and Matana Roberts on clarinet. With their Kranky contractual obligations fulfilled, on November 4, 2002, the band's third album, Yanqui U.X.O. is released exclusively by Constellation.
Up to this point, Yanqui U.X.O. is Godspeed's most controversial and divisive album. For some reason, a small firestorm among fans erupts when the band, who like to play around with typography, move an exclamation mark in their name so that, instead of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, they are now Godspeed You! Black Emperor. While "Yanqui" is the Spanish word for "Yankee," the album's liner notes suggest that "Yanqui is post-colonial imperialism is international police state is multinational corporate oligarchy," while "U.X.O." stands for "unexploded ordnance is landmines is cluster bombs."
The album cover is a film still of bombs falling from the sky and the rear album image contains an arrow diagram purporting to represent the links between four major record labels — AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Sony, Vivendi Universal — and various arms manufacturers. The band later admit that, due to flawed research, a particular extension of the chart (i.e., EMI appearing on the chart as a subsidiary of AOL Time-Warner) was incorrect and removes the label's name on subsequent pressings. The record sleeve features an illustration of a hammer with the word "HOPE" inscribed on its head.
The double vinyl edition of Yanqui U.X.O. differs from the compact disc in a few ways. The first piece, "09-15-00" is two parts on CD but a single piece on vinyl. Incidentally, in the liner notes, "09-15-00" is described as "ariel Sharon surrounded by 1,000 israeli soldiers marching on al-haram ash-sharif & provoking another intifada," when in fact, the second Palestinian intifada technically began on September 28, 2000. The vinyl edition also features a hidden track called "George W. Bush Cut Up While Talking," which consists of a sampled and cut-up Bush speech with applause added. This piece also appears on GY!BE member Aidan Girt's related project 1-Speed Bike's 2000 debut album Droopy Butt Begone! within the song, "The Day that Mauro Ran Over Elwy Yost," as well as on Museum Fire Records' compilation Azadi!, a 2003 benefit for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Lastly, the second section of the two-part track "Motherfucker=Redeemer" is roughly five minutes longer on the LP due to an extended ambient opening.
In 2002, Trudeau and Ilavsky, who are roommates, form the riff-oriented band Diebold, conjuring elements of Big Black, NoMeansNo, and Tortoise. Though they begin recording songs in 2002, their only album, Listen to my Heartbeast, isn't released until 2008 on Trudeau's own label, Bangor Records. The label also puts out records by the Mile End Ladies String Auxiliary and Strobes.
Yanqui U.X.O. receives uncharacteristically mixed reviews, with some critics saying it was the best Godspeed record yet, and others stating it was their most disappointing release. Undeterred, the band hit the road as per usual.
The surreal experience of living in the military madness of post-9/11 manifests for GY!BE in the harshest of ways when they are held for questioning as possible terrorists at an Oklahoma gas station in March 2003.
After the band pulled into a gas station in their two passenger vans, and a white panel truck transporting their equipment, in the town of Ardmore, OK, the station attendant believes the group of Canadians to be terrorists. She allegedly then passes a note to another customer to call the police. When the local police appear, the group are held at gunpoint until the FBI can question them. Although the police are suspicious of the band's anti-government documents, and some photos they have (of things like oil rigs), they find no incriminating evidence. After background checks are run, the ensemble are released from custody and continue to their next show in Columbia, MO.
Menuck would later speak to the crowd about what happened to them during their appearance in Missouri and speculates that their origin was a motive for being released quickly. "I just feel very lucky that we weren't Pakistani or Korean," Menuck purportedly tells Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork at the band's Chicago performance. "They detained 1,000 people in California, no one knows what happened to them. We're just lucky we're nice white kids from Canada. That's what I feel lucky about."
Menuck claims he never actually said this, instead yelling at Schreiber because he didn't wish to speak with him. Menuck says Schreiber gathered a handful of what was yelled at him and paraphrased it as though it was an actual quote. Nonetheless, in his 2003 book, Dude, Where's My Country?, filmmaker Michael Moore mentions the incident (ascribing the quote to Seattle Weekly) in a chapter called "The United States of BOO!"
Facing strange horseshit, enduring all sorts of unwanted media hype, and just being ground down by ceaseless touring, an uncomfortable and exhausted Godspeed You! Black Emperor quietly go on hiatus after spreading the word about Yanqui U.X.O. in 2003. They never discuss breaking up, but the engine gradually sputters while members pursue family life and other business and musical ventures. In 2004, long-time guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig officially leaves the dormant band on amicable terms to devote more time to Fly Pan Am.
In 2005, a large building is purchased by the H2T crew and Constellation in Mile End where they (and Harris Newman's Grey Market Mastering Studio) still operate today. In addition to Bilerman, Menuck and Amar, skilled live soundman Radwan Moumneh (of Jerusalem in my Heart) also serves as a house engineer at the Hotel, and renowned American engineer Steve Albini (Shellac) is consulted about some aspects of its construction. Many Constellation artists utilize the Hotel, as well as external clients like Arcade Fire, Vic Chesnutt, Carla Bozulich, Wolf Parade, Land of Talk, Basia Bulat, Owen Pallett, Howe Gelb, Barr Brothers, Mary Margaret O'Hara and hundreds more. Leonard Cohen shows up one day after emailing and befriending Bilerman and, unbeknownst to the band until they stop playing, he ends up casually observing a Silver Mt. Zion recording session.
2010 to 2015
On April 9, 2010, the All Tomorrows Parties Festival announces that GY!BE will curate and play December's Nightmare Before Christmas festival, as part of tenth anniversary celebrations for ATP. Godspeed release the following statement:
after a decade's retreat, god's pee has decided to roll again.
we are, as always, stoked, stubborn and petrified.
it's been awhile, and left in the rain, the brakes have rusted and seized- we'll have to go at it with hammers probably, with elbow grease and with fury, just like the old days all over again. we look forward to it. also, moya's back in the fold (hallelujah!)
what we've been up to since the last time= a handful of other bands, and solitary roadtrips and wanderings, a couple of recording studios built, and a restaurant and 3 live venues also. a film soundtrack and 4 new kids and 3 new dogs. dead-end jobs. some farming and vegetable gardens. a small record label. acupuncture as a livelihood. and three of us just stayed on the road.
current plans= a.t.p.u.k., a handful of british and european shows, and then 9 american towns.
until further introspection, WE WILL NOT BE FIELDING ANY OTHER OFFERS. nor will we be doing any interviews. inquiries directed to band, record label, or bookers will not be guaranteed a reply. alls we really want to do is the thing we do, heads down and leaned into the squall.
between now and the live-dates, there'll be rivers of noise and distraction. and the internet is a petty tyrannical monster. please remember that really all that matters is the keep on keeping on. and all that really matters is the shows. and physical engagement in the world. and folks like us and folks like you. thanks for understanding, and thank you for still listening.
see you next winter.
xoxoxox godspeed you! black emperor
Mike Moya returns to the band but cellist Norsola Johnson does not. Godspeed's amazing handpicked ATP line-up features Neurosis, Deerhoof, NoMeansNo, the Sadies, Mike Watt, Josephine Foster, Scout Niblett, Tim Hecker, Oneida, the Ex, and many others. Among the most fascinatingly odd additions is "Weird Al" Yankovic.
"I was very surprised myself," Yankovic tells Exclaim! discussing the invite in 2011. "I was completely honoured and flattered and I'm glad they allowed me to do that, because it was singularly because of Godspeed that I did my first European tour. We'd been trying to make that happen since I started and, for whatever reason, we'd never been able to book enough dates to justify a whole European tour. But with that as a confirmed anchor date, we were actually able to put a few around that and play Europe for the first time. And playing ATP itself was a huge honour for me. It's one of the hippest festivals you can play. I don't know if it was meant to be ironic? Even if it was, that's fine; irony is very hip." Though he sees their ATP set, Yankovic never has the chance to interact directly with members of the band, so he's unclear why he was invited. Menuck responds to an email inquiry about it, writing, "Nope, it wasn't ironic. Though it sounds strange maybe, the reason we asked him is complicated and personal. It was the request of one person in the band for a really beautiful and private reason."
On May 24, 2011, Constellation releases Menuck's solo album, Plays "High Gospel." Described by the label as "a powerful and personal album that serves as an ode to his adopted Montreal hometown (where he has now lived for two decades), the passing of great friends (Vic Chesnutt, Emma) and new fatherhood," the album was self-recorded in multiple locations and, with its mix of drones, guitar feedback, group and solo vocals, and impassioned songwriting, really encapsulates his GY!BE and SMZ impulses up to this point.
The band conduct a full North American and European tour in 2011, and plays even more dates in the UK including an appearance at the ATP "I'll Be Your Mirror" festival in London that July. That same year, Cawdron tells Voir that Godspeed are working on new material.
On February 28, 2012, it's revealed that the band will perform at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. The next month, an announcement states that Godspeed will also perform at the 2012 All Tomorrow's Parties "I'll Be Your Mirror" festival in New York. Drummer Tim Herzog begins touring with the band after Bruce Cawdron leaves GY!BE; Karl Lemieux handles 16 mm frames artwork, photography, and projection.
At a show in Boston on October 1, 2012, fans notice an unfamiliar record at the merch table. This is the band's sly way of soft releasing their new and fourth full-length album, 'ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND!, which is available worldwide via Constellation on October 15 (though some friends and music writers might have first encountered it before then in their mailboxes with no warning).
According to Constellation, the new double LP is the sound of GY!BE literally picking up right where they left off, "immediately recapturing the sound and material that had fallen dormant in 2003 and driving it forward with every show of their extensive touring over the last 18 months. The new album presents the fruits of that labour: evolved and definitive versions of two huge compositions previously known to fans as 'Albanian' and 'Gamelan,' now properly titled as 'MLADIC' and 'WE DRIFT LIKE WORRIED FIRE' respectively." The record also features two drones, "Their Helicopters Sing" and "Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable," which appear within the album sequence on compact disc but are separated on a seven-inch for the LP edition. The album is a motherfucking powerhouse and makes it onto to every "best-of" music list worth anything.
Filmmaker and frequent Godspeed collaborator Jem Cohen captures Cape Breton Island with We Have an Anchor, a hybrid concert/cinematic experience that is initially staged at the Experimental Media and Performance Arts Centre in upstate New York in early 2012 and then again over two nights, December 4 and 5, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The a/v nature of the event includes filmed images of landscapes and documentary-style interviews presented in a triptych while a live band plays the soundtrack. Cohen's We Are an Anchor musical ensemble features Godspeed's Menuck and Trudeau, Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, Dirty Three's Jim White, Silver Mt. Zion's Jessica Moss, the Quavers' T. Griffin and special guest Mary Margaret O'Hara.
On June 13, 2013, 'ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND is long-listed for Canada's Polaris Music Prize. On July 16, the album is voted onto the ten-album short list for the Prize. On September 23, the record wins the $30,000 Polaris Music Prize at a ceremony held in a ballroom at the Carlu in Toronto. No members of GY!BE are present, so Constellation's Ian Ilavsky goes on stage to accept the award (kinda) on their behalf and said the following: "I have known the band for almost 20 years — they've been at it for almost 20 years — and I do know that they want to strongly and unequivocally thank everybody involved in the voting and judging process of Polaris: writers, critics, bloggers, promoters, programmers, radio DJs, and music-makers, label people, industry people, who care about independent music and who think that independent music still has a promise to do something in terms of its choices and its structures and its methods that is counter to the mainstream, not only in the kind of music that we all support, but in the ways that we go about bringing it to people, how we bring it to the marketplace and so forth.
"So any of you that know about Godspeed know the choices that they have mostly made and have remained relatively silent about. So Godspeed thanks those people that keep caring about music and writing about it and championing it on those terms and hope that that continues to be part of the conversation and the cultural consciousness we're all trying to build, by being committed and devoted to independent music, and independent means of production."
Ilavsky states that the group will use the money to support music education and provide instruments in Quebec prisons. There is something of an outcry about Godspeed's victory by puzzled Canadian music industry people and music tourists. Things do not get better the next day after GY!BE releases a statement about the Prize on their own:
A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING
hello kanadian music-writers.
thanks for the nomination thanks for the prize- it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here. and much respect for all y'all who write about local bands, who blow that horn loudly- because that trumpeting is crucial and necessary and important.
and much respect to the freelancers especially, because freelancing is a hard fucking gig, and almost all of us are freelancers now, right? falling and scrambling and hustling through these difficult times?
so yes, we are grateful, and yes we are humble and we are shy to complain when we've been acknowledged thusly- BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we've been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and "this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show" is not a thought that's ever crossed our minds.
3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn't serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
these are hard times for everybody. and musicians' blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn't just lazy money patting itself on the back.
give the money to the kids let 'em put on their own goddamn parties, give the money to the olds and let them try to write opuses in spite of, but let the muchmusic videostars fight it out in the inconsequential middle, without gov't. culture-money in their pockets.
us we're gonna use the money to try to set up a program so that prisoners in quebec have musical instruments if they need them…
amen and amen.
apologies for being such bores,
we love you so much / our country is fucked,
godspeed you! black emperor
This statement is not generally well-received, with some critics calling the band ungrateful or, regressively, pretentious for calling out the Canadian music industry. Godspeed do not collectively wade back into the fray after releasing this statement.
Between September and November 2013, GY!BE and Explosions in the Sky open for Nine Inch Nails on their "Tension Tour" of arenas in the United States and Canada.
Pezzente joins Maica Mia, a two-piece band from Montreal featuring Maica Armata, and Jonny Paradise. Together they create a compelling, emotionally rich kind of contemporary folk music bolstered by heavy instrumentation and electronic flourishes that propel Armata's evocative and powerful vocals. They self-release their gorgeous second album, Des Era, in January 2014.
While discussing Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra's stellar new album Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light for an Exclaim! story (and Kreative Kontrol podcast episode) in January 2014, Menuck does address the band's much-discussed open letter about their Polaris Music Prize victory.
"As a band, we said everything we had to say honestly. The only thing I'd add to it is, it was the strangest thing to go into the day of the award show hoping that we would not win. I don't know. We knew what we were going to say if we won.
"With godspeed, it's always like, the amount of years between us shooting our mouths off and getting into arguments — the more years that pass between those arguments, the better for us. It always feels like a losing proposition," Menuck says, explaining the finality of their only statement. "But at the same time, you have to do it; you have to speak your mind. Contrary to what people might think about us, we're not argumentative by nature. That Polaris thing felt like being at someone's parents' house for dinner and the friend of someone's parents says something inappropriate and then you're like, 'Oh shit, now I have to say, "Hey, what do you mean?"' That's what it felt like to us."
Among the critiques hurled at GYIBE in the aftermath of winning was that, if they didn't want the prize, they should've withdrew their nomination. Menuck agrees, however, he says the situation snowballed before the band felt compelled to react.
"The deal was, to anyone who puts out a new record in a year, Polaris approaches the record label and says, 'Would you like to put these records up for nomination?' Then the label can say yes or no. So Constellation said yes to this and didn't ask Godspeed what they thought about it because they were like, 'Oh, this will be a nice thing.'
"And so it was really late in the game when we realized, 'Oh shit, we could've just pulled out.' But we were convinced that we were not going to make it onto the short list. When we did make it onto the short list, the band were convinced we weren't going to win this thing. It was really towards the end when were like, 'Oh shit, we might and I guess we need to prepare ourselves for that possibility.' It was a really strange process."
Upon hearing this, Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan responded via twitter:
"Epic 9 part tweet coming up re: the recent interview by Efrim Menuck of Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra & GY!BE... ' … to anyone who puts out a new record in a year, Polaris approaches the record label and says… Would you like to put these records up for nomination?' We don't do this. If wanted to we don't have the resources. Don't want to... When a jurist recommends a record for consideration via private discussion we ask the label for permission to upload the album... This procedure is designed to make the record freely available to all of our jury members so they can also consider the work... This does not mean a record is nominated at that time. It does confirm that it is being considered by at least one jury member... Should a label or artist decline this permission, a jurist could still vote for that title. It happens...
"Should the record then get nominated via jury vote, we ask for permission to use the album art in various ways, which was granted... We've never had anyone turn down a nomination but if they chose to we'd certainly honour the artist's wishes... We have no comment on anything else said before or recently except to say that if you haven't heard the record, you really should..."
In his own interview, Menuck explains that part of the reason why Godspeed assumed the band wouldn't win the Prize was that they have never previously been embraced by the Canadian music industry.
"You have to remember that Godspeed's relationship with the Canadian music industry has been terrible from the beginning. It's been antagonistic from the beginning, so it wasn't unreasonable for us to be like, 'We're not going to get this thing. Why would they give us this thing?' We said it in our press release: we feel like orphans in our own country. We feel fairly invisible here."
Menuck further discusses his hatred of award shows in general, plus the band's plans to use the money to provide Quebec prisons with music programs. The prison bureaucracy has apparently made this difficult, but they're still pursuing their plan.
"Now, we're going to enter the nightmare of how we're going to do that," Menuck says. "All prison bureaucracies are difficult to deal with, but in Quebec, they're particularly difficult. Ideally what we'd like to do is find someone to make it happen and make it happen. So we're going to give ourselves a set amount of time to set up this program. We're reaching out to people in the States who've done work like this and see if they have any insights on just how to deal with bureaucracies like this. It's a good headache to have. It'll work out."
Menuck also reminds fans that Godspeed's reaction to the Polaris victory wasn't entirely negative. "We said what we had to say and tried to say it as graciously as we could and I feel like some people got that and other people chose not to acknowledge that there was some attempt at graciousness there. It's not like we wrote a letter like, 'Fuck you man! Stupid squares!' We tried to acknowledge, y'know?"
Towards the end of 2013, GY!BE begin sessions for their next album at the Fidelitorium Recordings in North Carolina, Hotel2Tango and Bryant's Montreal studio, the Pines. This time they recruit engineer Greg Norman (who primarily works at Electrical Audio in Chicago) to oversee things, presumably after Menuck, Amar and Trudeau enjoyed working with him on the most recent Silver Mt. Zion LP. The band tend to recording in 2013 and 2014 in between touring, where they've been working out a new, multi-movement piece.
According to Constellation, fans collecting live show recordings would know the song as "Behemoth," which the band "distilled down to a fastidious and uncompromising essence in the studio, with the swing-time swagger of the opening unison riff in 'Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'' giving way to increasing microtonal divergences and an exhilarating immersion in the harmonic power of massed amplified instruments, before collapsing into some of the most visceral and unalloyed noise/drone the band have yet committed to tape on 'Lambs' Breath' and ''Asunder, Sweet.'' The album concludes with the 14-minute "Piss Crowns Are Trebled," which is a mighty rock waltz.
On May 13, 2014, Constellation releases Shortwave Nights, the debut album by Hiss Tracts, which features Bryant and Growing's Kevin Doria. The two met a decade earlier when Doria made three Growing records with Bryant at the Pines. Somewhere between post-industrial noise manipulation and music concrete, Shortwave Nights possesses a hypnotic and haunted ambiance.
On February 3, 2015, Canada's Sled Island Festival announces that GY!BE will curate their festival and play their first-ever shows in Calgary this coming June. Their personal artist selections include: Avec Le Soleil Sortant De Sa Bouche, Big Brave, Body/Head, Carla Bozulich, David Dondero, the Ex, Fred & Toody and Matana Roberts.
On March 31, All Tomorrow's Parties announces that Mogwai is curating a series of shows at the Roundhouse venue in London in the summer of 2015 and GY!BE are scheduled to play a show with Beak on June 29.
With little fanfare, Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress, Godspeed's first single LP release is released on March 31, 2015 to international acclaim and, as they are wont to do, the band hit the road hard across Europe and North America.
Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada (Constellation, 1999)
The band's debut LP, F#A#∞, was an accomplished but exploratory first blast with a tremendous amount of emotive power propelling it forward. Slow Riot is its more focused followup — an EP featuring two songs that move with ominous grace. It's sure-footed and weirdly festive while sounding tense and dangerous.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Constellation, 2000)
Reflecting a well-oiled touring unit, this double album touches upon a broader array of sounds and influences than GY!BE had accessed up to this point. While harkening back to early inclinations toward noise and collage, with familiar folk and rock flourishes, the band is also at its most musically communicative and dynamic.
'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation, 2012)
There's a strong temptation to suggest that, ten years since their previous record, GY!BE were just plain pent up. Maybe it's a facile observation, but this is the band's wildest, riff-iest record. There's maybe nothing as ferociously devastating as "Mladic" in their catalogue and, opening the album, it sets the tone; GY!BE are back and they're throwing down.