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Godspeed You Black Emperor!
by Wyndham Wallace / pictures by Paul Heartfield
And lo, GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! did arrive in London at the appointed time, and all the hipsters, and all the cognoscenti, and all the curious, and all the post-rockers, and all the media, did gather together at the appointed place and did wail and stroke their chins at the spectacle. And GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! did rock in most aggressive fashion, and laid aside their cerebral tendencies in order to fulfil the prophecy of those who had testified to their epic talent. And the people did talk and chatter throughout. And GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! did weep and gnash their teeth in frustration.
What is it about the world of music that makes us demand so much more than music of musicians? Isn't it enough that they write and record great albums for us to listen to whenever we want in the privacy of our homes? Obviously many bands love to play the games that the industry offers - recording endlessly, playing any place that invites them, talking until the cashcows come home about what makes them do it, the state of the nation, the meaning of life. But what about those for whom this is anathema? Why does the industry insist that they head out onto the road when this does so much to harm their creativity in the long term? Bands like Built To Spill, Talk Talk, Plush - all acts unhappy with the games they were forced to play, so much so that it nearly drove them from the pursuit that made us all so happy. These are bedroom artists, artists that we should learn to enjoy in privacy. This music isn't about the beer-fuelled bonding to which guitars more often lend themselves. It's about intimacy and our love of their talent. Why should we want them to perform these songs in public if they don't want to? Is it that we need reassurance that we are not alone in our passion?.
GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR!'s debut album knocked me sideways the first times I heard it. It was their sheer bravado and their lack of respect for conventional rock forms, their willingness to go to places that most would discard as pretentious just because they could. The feeling that when they made this music they probably surprised themselves as much as they were now surprising me. But then they took it on the road. They started doing the interviews. And they killed the spirit. Don't take my word for it. This is what they told me..
If GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! never make another record it will be our fault. What were we thinking? How could nine people head out for a prolonged period of time, on a small budget, and expect to maintain the spirit of adventure that made their record so exciting? These are hardcore egos, with hugely disparate influences, forced to share confined spaces and perform the same music over and over again to please a crowd buzzing on the novelty. These are quiet, reserved people, forced to answer the same questions over and over again in an attempt to define what exactly it is they do, when it is precisely the fact that it all happens by accident that makes it so memorable..
The two members of GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! who join me for an hour or so in a noisy Islington pub are clearly uncomfortable with the whole concept of promotion. They shift awkwardly when asked about influences, band history, motivation, thematic and musical concerns. In fact, the only time they seem to relax is when they start to concede that the trip has been hard and extremely frustrating for them. They speak quietly, and try to not compromise the seven members of the band who are not around by answering on their behalf. They complain about the photographers at the show the night before, and bemoan the fact that they were forced to drop the more subtle aspects of their performance in order to win the audience's attention. And they explain how, when they started, they thought they had found the answer to the frustration that comes from playing the same songs over and over again, night after night. Now they're not so sure..
And as we disperse, it occurs to me that the hour of their time that I have taken up, and the weeks that they have spent on the road, were useless. What matters to me about GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! is that they go back to their studio by the rail tracks in Montreal, and that they rediscover what it was that made the whole thing so exciting in the first place. And that I go back to the album and rediscover what made them so exciting in the first place. What matters is their music. And when other stuff starts mattering when they don't want it to, then the music can only suffer..
And the nine prophets did lay down their instruments, and did look upon the assembled crowd, and did raise their voices in frustration. And some did cry that they were false prophets, and that GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! wore no clothes. And yet others did salute the Second Coming and did proclaim the EMPEROR! to be the future of civilisation. And GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR! did shake their heads, and did retire to whence they had come. For they had found what they had looked for, but lost it again amidst the gifts and offerings of the people.
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue