Get used to the limelight
Reclusive, mysterious and highly political, Godspeed You! Black Emperor will have to adjust to fame now that huge fan Danny Boyle has brought their music to the cinema in 28 Days Later
Sunday November 10, 2002
Their name does not trip lightly off the tongue: Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It is not intended to. As brooding and complex as their byline implies, Godspeed (for short) are an obscure, neo-classical rock nine-piece from Montreal who operate as a law unto themselves. Reclusive, mysterious and uninterested in traditional notions of success or fame, Godspeed You! Black Emperor don't do many interviews. Until recently, what little press contact they consented to was mostly by email.
Chances are, you won't have heard their work. It totals three and a half albums on a tiny Canadian imprint called Constellation. This could be set to change now, however. Danny Boyle, the director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and The Beach, needed a band to score his new post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. And so a track by Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'East Hastings', from their first album - appears in the score. It will bring their expansive and troubling music to an audience much wider than even their biggest gigs - they played the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 2000.
'Somebody told me about that first album,' reveals Boyle. 'And I bought it. If you bump into someone in the street, and they tell you about an album, I'm a great believer in getting that album, following those kind of leads. I couldn't believe it when I played it. It was compulsive , this compulsive crescendo of music. Everybody goes on about The Polyphonic Spree, but these guys are the real thing, in terms of primal orchestral drive, really connecting modern culture with orchestral principles, building, leaving you in places you hadn't been before. I was convinced straight away. And then we started doing the film. I always try to have a soundtrack in my mind. 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.'
Godspeed You! Black Emperor's appeal is two-fold, a double helix of heady myth and headier music. For such skilful harbingers of doom, they play beautiful, string-tinged instrumentals rather than a more abrasive style like death metal. They are a band with much to express, but no words to their songs.
When they made the cover of the NME in 2000, they did not actually appear. The background image was of a cloudy sky, broiling with portent. In place of the traditional sucked-in-cheek band photograph, a quote appeared, from the opening monologue on Godspeed's debut album, the snappily-titled f#a#OO: 'the car's on fire and there's no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows'. It was a sentiment that summed up Godspeed's penumbral aesthetic, their sense of urgency, and their allure to music fans tired of indie rock, but unimpressed with the bellyaching of nu metal.
Although line-up coalesced as long ago as 1996, Godspeed first appeared on the radar in 1998, with the release of their three-track debut album (on which 'East Hastings' appears). GY!BE numbered anywhere between 10 and 15 members then, although this has now settled at nine: two drummers, Aidan and Bruce; three guitarists, Efrim, Roger and Dave; Norsola and Sophie on strings; and Mauro and Thierry on bass. Their surnames, they feel, are irrelevant. They have no leader or spokesperson, but make decisions collectively. This can have implications. They require 14 days' notice of an interview, for instance, so they can decide whether to do it and who will speak.
Godspeed came out of Montreal's squats and warehouse spaces, playing mainly to their friends, soundtracking art films and bring-your-own beer parties. In contrast to the thriving metropolis of today, Montreal was a depressed city, riven by linguistic conflict, economically compromised by the flight of the monied anglophone community. Lofts were cheap. And so Montreal's most troubled sons and daughters - who bridged the city's two language communities - were able to articulate a despair and sense of grievance that chimed with the decay and suspicion around them.
In truth, it remains difficult to sum up what Godspeed stand for and against, since they operate as a collective and sometimes their individual ideas about what Godspeed is, and what Godspeed is for, vary. Broadly, though, certain strands have emerged. Godspeed despair of the capacity of the entertainment industry to say anything important about people's lives.
They don't approve of landlords, either, or of the gentrification of Montreal. The all-pervading influence of global capitalism is not to their liking. They have no manifesto, however; no slogans, no flag (and indeed, a handwritten poster on an amplifier at one of their recent shows read 'NO FLAGS'). All this makes them one of the most compelling and intriguing rock bands today - a much more hardline version of the right-on, privacy-seeking, avant-garde Radiohead of Kid A, a distant, infinitely more romantic variation on anarcho-irritants Chumbawamba. They play beautiful music, too, rather than the tired, shouty agit-pop long associated with refuseniks. And although it's often hard to spot, GY!BE possess a sly sense of humour. They are named for a Japanese biker film and recently moved the exclamation mark in their name, provoking - one suspects, consciously - all manner of internet fan speculation about what it meant .
The cult success of f#a#OO was followed in 1999 by a two-track mini-album, the more helpfully titled Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada.
Godspeed's emergence could not have been timed more serendipitously. Their febrile, anguished instrumental pieces - sometimes using field recordings of old men ranting about the end of the world - provided a perfect pre-millennial soundtrack, the accompaniment to Y2K's imminent digital meltdown, the sound of impending doom. But Godspeed themselves proposed nothing less than a new rock, one that united the disgust and uncompromising spirit of hardcore punk and a sense of tragedy best expressed by strings. They borrowed heavily from the cinematic sweep of Ennio Morricone. Their refusal to give anything away was at once intriguing, heroic and infuriating. Slow Riot began to reveal more of Godspeed's purpose, however. The sleeve was embossed with Hebrew writing on the front; on the rear, there was a diagram (in Italian) showing the composition of a Molotov cocktail.
Inside, a verse from Jeremiah that begins 'I beheld the earth/And lo, it was waste and void'. The sleevenotes signed off thus: 'Let's build fallen cathedrals and make impractical plans.'
Its successor, Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas To Heaven in 2000, was a relatively calmer, more reconciled affair, after the churning bleakness of the first two records. But again, world events provided a hellish backdrop for Godspeed's indignant ache. On 11 September 2001, I was at the NME watching with my colleagues as the news broke on TV and we were soon sent home lest the skyscraper housing the paper should be next in line; the muttered talk between Godspeed fans was that they had been terrifyingly prescient all along.
The world did not end, of course. But Godspeed's knack for refracting a universal sense of ill-ease has made their music persistently relevant. At an emotional Godspeed gig last April, as one especially traumatic surge of strings, guitars and percussion faded back into a haunted calm, a member of the audience shouted: 'For the people of Jenin!' Godspeed's fourth release, Yanqui UXO, out this week, is their most coherent statement thus far. The commentary that accompanies the album reads: 'u.x.o. is unexploded ordinance is landmines is cluster bombs. Yanqui is post-colonial imperialism is international police state is multinational corporate oligarchy. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is complicit is guilty is resisting. The new album is just music. Stubborn tiny lights vs clustering darkness forever ok?' The first two movements on the album, both titled '09-15-00' refer to the date that Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in east Jerusalem and ignited the latest Palestinian intifada. The album's artwork, meanwhile, maps the relationships between major record labels and arms manufacturers.
It is curious that a band like Godspeed should choose to contribute to the soundtrack of a commercial film. They are, after all, a group who have rebuffed the advances of most of the major labels, whose stance against the entertainment industry has remained consistently hostile.
How did Boyle persuade them?
'We got in touch with them through the internet,' he laughs. 'I don't think under normal circumstances you'd ever get to speak to them. But they were fantastic. They were helpful, and very clear about how unlikely it was that they would give us permission to use it. But we kept at them. We went up to Newcastle to meet them when they were on tour [last spring]. We took them out to dinner - well, it was scampi and chips, or vegetarian scampi and chips - anyway, they were lovely people. They asked to see the whole film, we showed them the whole film, and they gave us permission. I couldn't believe it, really!'
Godspeed will not, however, be on the CD soundtrack for 28 Days Later: the deal covers only the film score. Then there's the Danny Boyle Effect. The last time he showcased the music of a moderately known group, it dramatically changed their fortune. Trainspotting in 1996 would not have been the Zeitgeist-seizing film it was without the emblematic Underworld track, 'Born Slippy (Nuxx)'. The single made the film. And the success of the film, in turn, made the single inescapable and turned Underworld into stars. Now, it could be Godspeed's turn. Will they be embraced by the audiences flocking to 28 Days Later? More to the point, are they ready to be?
'I think they're so secure in themselves in the way they do things, that I don't think it's a danger,' laughs Boyle. 'They'd never let ['East Hastings'] be released as a single, but if it was, and it got to number one, I really believe it wouldn't affect them at all.'