The Montreal group—from the Godspeed You! Black Emperor family—once again deconstruct familiar genres in richly emotional ways that make Fuck Off Get Free… their most immediate work to date, says Daniel Jones.
I wasn’t a very musically diverse person at the beginning of the millennium. My love of hip-hop hadn’t progressed much beyond Biggie, Tupac, and Aaliyah, anarcho-punk was mainly inspiring me to take a bath, and it would be five years before I delved into electronic music outside of what goth, industrial, and new wave—the music of my nineties youth—had to offer. I was on the hunt for something different, something my ears had never experienced. That’s when a friend handed me a CD from a band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
I’d never heard the term post-rock before, so I had no context to tell me what to expect the first time I listened to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. It’s certainly a term that would have turned me off (and still does) as rock music in general held little interest for me. I left my comfort zone blind, unknowing… and returned in awe. Here was the shaped noise of industrial and musique concrète, the tribal drums of punk, the tear-inducing grace of classical, and a variety of other dissolved and reformatted genres I struggled to make sense of—an aural portmanteau unfurling in my head.
Separately, these genres were beloved and mind-snaring, yet never before had I been so truly and completely moved, so enraptured. For weeks after, Lift Your Skinny Fists played incessantly on my stereo as I laid on my bed with headphones on, turning the individual pieces and full movements of the album over and over in my head. It wasn’t long before I began to seek out more examples, and I soon laid hands on He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…, the debut LP of Godspeed offshoot A Silver Mount Zion. Expanding upon the textures and moods of Lift Your Skinny Fists, it replaced incessant heaviness with sparse minimalism, conjured melancholy rather than menace. While I would go on to discover other musicians working in similar territories, few albums since these first two have ever filled me with more wonder.
Five albums and an equal number of name changes later, the group have evolved into their own distinctive unit that currently operates under the name Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. Their gradual shift toward more conventional song structures is something that also shifted my interest in other directions around 2005. That’s why I was so surprised to recently find myself as I was fourteen years ago: lying in bed with headphones on, digesting the individual segments of their new album Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything with an ecstatic spirit. The passage of years and the experience that comes with them allows me a far greater amount of contextualization; it’s a sad yet natural fact of life that you’re often granted only a few occasions to discover music that feels truly new, and even more rare to be irrevocably moved by it. Yet Fuck Off still embodies the strange spirit I felt hearing that earlier work. A vibrant and churning album, it leaves behind almost every remnant of post-rock (a term the band themselves feel is inaccurate), instead fully embracing the punk ethos that SMZ creator Efrum Menuck often cites as influential to his work. Hardcore and metalesque riffs dive in and out amongst neo-classical violin, pounding percussion, and Menuck’s impassioned vocals.
Where He Has Left Us Alone evokes an atmosphere of stark alien somberness, here the mood is almost violently jubilant, even as Menuk condemns the injustices he sees in the world. Fuck Off presents another side to the cold emotional spiral that once help reshape my musical mind, conceived by one which has also been reshaped by the passage of time, by parenthood, and by a society that so often seems to be in a downward spiral itself. But there’s still an atmosphere of hope present throughout, be it in the hypnotically-charged repetition of the chorus, “Lord, let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down,” on “Austerity Blues”, the high-intensity shredding that backs up the socio-political lyrics of “Take Away These Early Grave Blues”, and even in the haunting “What We Loved Was Not Enough”, formed with organ and ethereal strings and fading with the words, “And the day has come when we no longer feel.”
In a musical landscape that can occasionally seem over-saturated by a try-hard, post-genre mentality, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything feels entirely organic. As uncommercial as it is, it’s also the group’s most immediately accessible album to date, with even the most experimental and monolithic movements packed with catchy hooks and choruses. More than that, it feels truthful, and it never seeks to falsely evoke emotion. At the album’s beginning, a child says, “We make a lot of noise because we love each other.” Whatever means they use to get there, that most sought-after of emotional highs is the ultimate destination Silver Mount Zion strive for—a love that fills you with light, even if it’s only a memory.~
Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything is out January 24th via Constellation Records.
This May saw the release of Montreal duo Majical Cloudz‘s second album Impersonator which perfects their template of melancholic, electronic pop, following up on the promise of Debut II and the recent Turns Turns Turns EP.
Vocalist and guiding force of the band Devon Welsh and his production partner Matthew Otto have always demonstrated a healthy work-in-progress attitude, which has led them to a cleverly designed combination of elaborate digital production sounds and Welsh’s murky and intense ruminations. The ten tracks, mid-tempo and minimal, are as focused as they are remarkably sung. Time to subject Majical Cloudz to a Perfect Ten, then? Devon kindly stepped up.
Your most memorable show, and why?
The second show we ever played in Montreal. A promoter put us on a struggling bill at the last minute thinking we would have a good draw, which at the time we did not. Nobody came to see the headliner, and only our two friends came to see us play. The show was in a pretty large venue, and it turned out to be an amazing experience. We played for our two friends and the venue staff, and sold all our tapes to the employees. It confirmed for me the idea that you don’t need a big audience to have a good time at a show. If you love the music you’re making, and at least one person is there to hear it, then it’s a performance, and it can be as good or even better than a show to 1,000 people.
An album or artist that changed the way you thought? And how did that happen?
I discovered Radiohead when I was 17. Until that point I had listened mostly to screamo, contemporary hardcore, pop music on the radio, and anything else that people listened to in my hometown. At the time Radiohead was unapproachably artistic and interesting to me. Their music opened many doors in my head and it led me to take an active interest in contemporary music.
What does underground and mainstream mean to you?
This could be a long conversation. I think the distinction between these two concepts is changing rapidly. In music, “underground” and “mainstream” used to refer to two different sides of the industry. These days the lines are less defined; the internet and the development of music software have created accessibility and freedom for many people to make the music they want and get it heard. “Mainstream” in some sense still refers to a real boundary between major label institutions and the rest of the industry, but I think more than ever musicians can gain access to massive audiences without recourse to the “mainstream” institutions.
Should music be free?
Music is currently free if you want it. A person can download almost any music they want—through the Pirate Bay, what.cd and many other websites. I think musicians who are dedicating their lives to their craft deserve to be paid for it, just like any other career. There are many costs associated with the process of recording records and touring. I think music is an invaluable aspect of our 21st century culture, and paying for a musician’s art ensures its survival.
What’s one important lesson you learned from your parents?
Both of my parents have pursued lives of art in one form or another. My father has been a professional actor his whole life; my mother has been a painter, a videographer, and has successfully lived an unconventional life of travel and discovery. It continues to be their example that gives me confidence to be doing what I’m doing, which is a thoroughly unconventional existence.
What defines your music-making process?
I don’t usually consider other music when I’m writing songs. It’s not really about hearing something I like and trying to replicate it. Instead it’s about trying to be forthright and clear in communicating a memory or a feeling. I make demos of songs at home alone, and then eventually Matt and myself will work on the song together. We add sounds and make subtle changes, and the song inevitably develops as we perform it live.
Describe your one indispensable outfit?
95% of the time I wear a tucked-in white t-shirt and black pants with black boots. Why I wear the same thing every day is a long story, but it has to do with the familiar comfort of a single outfit. When I wear something else I feel different in a way that is kind of uncomfortable.
A film, book, or artwork that greatly influenced your music and why?
The book American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush was mindblowing and inspiring to read. I appreciated the attention to detail in the coverage of a shockingly new phenomenon. The attitude of hardcore has been a major inspiration to me in life and music ever since I discovered it.
Do you have any predictions for the future?
The future is always unwritten, which I’m thankful but fearful for. The one certainty I can come up with right now is that the massive environmental crisis currently befalling the planet is going to start affecting all of our lives, maybe very soon. It makes me wonder if music is even going to matter in 50 years, or if we will look back on it as excessive, indulgent entertainment.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
To be totally honest, I would probably either be an actor, a professor of religion, or a police officer. ~
Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator is out now on Matador.
Yes, summer has finally arrived in Berlin and what’s better than hanging out on your balcony and watching non-stop music videos? Last night I did this until the Gesaffelstein vid played a bit too loud and my neighbors were screaming. Even in Neukölln this happens. I just continued with my headphones; nothing will stop me from bringing you the best music videos each week:
#1 No Age – “C’mon Stimmung”, directed by No Age
The cool dudes from No Age just released this funny, self-made collage for the first single of their anticipated new album An Object.
#2 Black Atlass – “Paris”, directed by Paul Labonté
Fools Gold signee Black Atlass drops his latest visual for “Paris”. Watch the nicely filmed black and white video and get an idea what happens when you merge Woodkid with James Blake…
#3 These New Puritans – “Fragment Two”, directed by Daniel Askill
TNP teamed up with Daniel Askill again for their infectious “Fragment Two” video, taken from the Field Of Reeds LP. If you ask me, they should never ever commission a vid with anybody else.
#4 Salvia Plath – “Bardo States”, directed by Sasha Desree & Renee Clark
Mike Collins is mah man. Formally working under the moniker of RunDMT, he recently transformed into Salvia Plath. His ’60s retro-pop full-length entitled The Bardo Story drops soon via Domino.
#5 Gesaffelstein — “Pursuit”, directed by Fleur & Manu
Man, this is full-on goofy French techno. Monsieur Gesaffelstein, who recently worked with Daft Punk and Kanye West, is about to release his next full-length later this year. Devour this as an appetizer.
#6 Young Galaxy – “New Summer”, directed by Ivan Grbovic
Summer vibes. What looks like a soft version of a Romain Gavras video actually turns out to be the new promo-clip for Canadian electro-poppers Young Galaxy. Heavily CGI-made.
#7 Marie Davidson – “Esthétique privée”, directed by Xander Robin
Delicious minimal electronic music from Montreal’s Marie Davidson. Watch the pretty dark video above and in the case of liking, check out the rest of her self-titled EP over on her bandcamp.
#8 Matias Aguayo – “Levantate Diegors”, directed by George Issakidis
Enjoy this song from Matias Aguayo’s forthcoming album The Visitor out June 24th on Cómeme.
#9 Fat Tony – “Hood Party”
Not really familiar with Fat Tony but all this vid is kinda wicked. Anyone up for a Skype party?
#10 Telonius “Kiss Your Face”, directed by Bureau Mirko Borsche
Future disco funk from Telonius. Art direction, graphics and illustration by Mirko Borsche, track is out now on Gomma Dance Tracks.~
Read part 1 of the Interview here.
You said you sometimes invent fake bands—with real members other than yourself?
Certainly. Just like I invite the dancers onstage, I sometimes invite musicians to perform with me live. But I always take care not to tell them what to do. I try to make sure that there is a basis for everyone involved so that a live show can be built on the concept of improvisation. I encourage them to contribute something unexpected. I want them to do whatever they want. That’s why I picked them. I want to see what happens, not know in advance.
In another interview you’ve mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog as influences. How does that fit into the equation?
Film is probably my favorite medium. If I had more time and money, I probably would work more with film because emotionally it’s so much more effective than music. In a good film music is just a part of the whole. Music is an aspect. I regard film as a total medium that incorporates all other art forms in essential ways. Tarkovsky is probably my favorite filmmaker, because sinister things in his movies are always so subtle. Take Solaris—or even better, Stalker. Stalker to me is just such a cool movie. It’s almost like a horror movie in the traditional sense because it’s so goddamn scary. It’s fascinating to see that Tarkovsky doesn’t need a mon- ster or a bloody zombie to create that atmosphere of horror. It’s a totally intellectual kind of horror, but it affects you emotionally. It’s extremely thought-out. But it’s also astoundingly simple.
What about Solaris?
It’s so scary how Kris Kelvin is confronted with his most traumatic memories at the space station. That’s true horror. I don’t see how it can be taken any further. I discovered Tarkovsky because I studied Russian in college and had this intense desire to watch Russian films. I like his total approach to film as art, especially when it comes to music.
And how does that relate to what you do?
When I compose I consciously try not to overly reference the pop world. You can evoke a spiritual level within your music when you allow yourself to be inspired by other things—Hildegard von Bingen for instance. All the layering of vocals in my music comes from the experience of listening to her liturgical songs. When I pile up twenty vocal layers it’s reminiscent, at least for me, of medieval or Renaissance chorales. I try to incorporate these elements into the concept of pop music to find some kind of new middle ground.
In terms of method it’s a kind of copy-and-paste, no?
I’m not sure I’d call it that. Listening to a choir or devotional music is extremely emotional for me, and I try to figure out why it touches me the way it does. If I can see a pattern in the music, I try to make it work for me too. But I want to get back to Tarkovsky briefly. I know lots of people my age who say that his films are too long, too slow and too intense. They don’t want to be lulled into his contemplative pace, and it’s hard to accept a movie that’s three- and-a-half hours long these days. But I can absolutely imagine taking abstract elements from Tarkovsky and implanting them into my music.
Nobody objects to the time commitment when it comes to The Lord of the Rings.
[laughing] That’s true. I actually watched all three parts again pretty recently.
On the big screen or your iPhone? Alec Empire recently told me how fascinating it’s been for him to watch the trilogy on the tiny iPhone screen with earplugs.
Actually, I don’t have an iPhone. My friend has a big TV. It’s a twelve-hour endeavor. But for me it’s not a contradiction to con- sume both high culture and Harry Potter or some Japanese mangas. Pop art still appeals to me the most. I guess it has to do with the way I grew up in the 2000s. I like to see a film like Kill Bill as much as I do like watching Solaris. Both experiences are potentially inspiring. Or take dancing: lots of people say that dancing is just a waste of time, but to me it marks a key difference between animals and human beings. It takes a high level of intelligence to interpret music, especially as something you can dance to. It’s spiritual. It’s liberating. If someone can make you dance to their music, it’s a pretty amazing skill. Same goes for all the pop art that touches you emotionally in a split second. I can’t see anything negative in that. I sometimes get the impression that people mistrust their feelings. I try not to do that, just like I try and trust simple ideas and things that are stripped down to the bare essentials. I think it’s a sign of having mastered something.
Are you referring to your own music?
Actually, I would say it’s true of the last Katy Perry record. There are so many people who call her songs easy and so cheap, but to use elements of pop that so many people have used before and still make such an amazing record—that’s awesome. I mean, her songwriting is really on parade, as is the production. A million people are trying to make pop songs all the time, and you’ll listen to all sorts of failed attempts on the radio every day. To succeed in a medium that everyone is working in is a huge achievement, if you ask me. It takes a lot of intelligence and talent for sure.
Did you always dance to your own music on stage?
That’s a damn good question. Let me think. I used to dance for another group when they were giving concerts, so dancing onstage was already natural for me when I started doing my own shit. But I think that for the first few gigs I had to focus so much more on my musical performance that I probably didn’t feel laid-back enough to do it. But this changed and nowadays it feels totally natural for me.
You studied ballet for a couple of years. Did that make a difference for you at all?
More off stage than anywhere else. I love to dance socially. A lot of my friends make dance music and whenever they play, I dance. Before I had my ear problem I spent a lot of time in studios where they were recording, I’d be dancing to the monitor sound from around the mixing desk. At the DIY venues and in Montreal in general we used to dance all the time. Dancing with friends should not be underestimated.
You’re staying in Vancouver at the moment, far away from Montreal and its big music scene. How has being away from that affected you?
I will be spending the afternoon looking for a house, a cabin in the woods to seclude myself from the civilized world for a little while. I’m going back to recording soon, so it’s time to get away from people again. As I said before, making music is a solitary act for me. Other people just become intruders. That’s why I’m looking for a really remote place to spend the winter. I am really looking forward to staying far away, deep in the woods, snowed in. The more time you spend away from people the less you hear them commenting. It’s as simple as that. When I’m alone I can refocus. I haven’t really been alone in the past year, and I’m just not made to work on new music after a show in my hotel room. I’m fully aware of the fact that you can go crazy when you’re all alone. I like to think of it as crazy in a good way, though. More manic, really.
Is it at all typically Canadian to need to escape to the woods?
Actually, most of my friends think that I’m crazy. My parents are pretty concerned, too. So, no, it’s not very typical I’d say. But it’s interesting here because Canada is just a big white wasteland in winter.
Dan Snaith said that Canada’s icy winters are inspiring.
My grandparents lived in the mountains of British Columbia. I spent a lot of my childhood there, but the last six years I lived in Montreal. Now, being back in Vancouver, I’ve only started to realize what I’ve been missing in Montreal. I totally forgot how big an emotional impact the woods must have made on me. Ancient forests were, like, my natural surroundings until I turned eighteen and left B.C. for the big city. Being back here, everything feels so calming. I’m much more relaxed these days.
The way you talk about the woods reminds me of Twin Peaks.
The northern landscape is just so big and violent. Of course, Twin Peaks took place just south of the border. B.C. is the perfect environment to shoot films like that or the Twilight series because it’s so scary here with the dark forests and thick fog and shadowy mountains . . . so sinister and beautiful at the same time. When you walk in the forest at night it’s an almost spiritual scariness. It feels haunted. I think the woods are haunted.
Yeah, and movies exploit that really well. Space too. It’s just like the tagline from Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream.” When I go to New York and end up in the Bronx at night, it can be scary too. But it’s different if you’re afraid of getting mugged or if you’re afraid of mass murderers. It’s Silence of the Lambs scary. A friend of mine lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, right on the Mexican border. That’s what you’d call a dangerous town because of all the random drug murders. But I find the psychological threat of Twin Peaks so much scarier than the real, physical one. It’s not a coincidence that Vancouver had a massive industrial Goth scene in the eighties—the most prominent band being Skinny Puppy. The intense, emotional music from B.C. derives from a very specific temperament. ~
A slightly edited version of this interview appears in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Photo: Luci Lux
After the constant hype of 2012, the nonstop touring and the progressively larger shows, things have finally settled down again for Claire Boucher and her musical alter-ego Grimes. The sudden spotlight thrust upon her following her 4AD debut Visions has shone brightly, but also—from her perspective—glaringly. Now in the process of rediscovering her solitude in the dark forests of British Columbia, Boucher has managed to shrug off the creative restraints that have accompanied her unexpected indie popstar dasein and reenter the introverted world of production and songwriting to which she’s accustomed. Whether the result will be branching out further into the realm of ethereal, wallflower-pop or a percussive noise album (rumors abound), depends on what she finds in the woods. Or what finds her.
Claire, I heard you are seriously ill and had to cancel your European tour in November and December?
No, I am not seriously ill. But yes, I have problems with my ears. My doctor says if I’d be doing concerts right now, I’d risk serious and lasting hearing problems. Taking a break was an obvious decision.
Glad to hear it’s nothing too serious. We met once in the lobby of the Prague Hilton prior to your show at the Electronic Beats Festival. You seemed a bit like a fish out of water. The whole building felt like a fortress to protect the wealthy tourists or arms dealers or whoever was staying there from the people outside. And there you were with your punk haircut and tattoos.
I remember. Actually, I think that my Prague show was one of the best performances of that tour.
Don’t you sometimes wonder, “How the hell did I get here?” Not too long ago you were giving free concerts for your friends at La Brique or the Torn Curtain in Montreal—both simple, DIY venues.
Well, one thing’s for sure: at the moment, it’s hard for me to write songs for my new album. It’s not easy for me when I get to thinking about other people’s opinions and how they might comment on what I do. I have trouble thinking about fulfilling expectations. I’ve even started fake bands with no specific intention of doing anything with the result. But at least it’s allowed me to work somehow. The situation in Montreal at La Brique was different to how my life is now. For almost a year now, I’ve been on tour non-stop. There were people around me twenty-four-seven. Being able to write again requires me to really be detached from social life, I guess.
Did you write Visions in seclusion?
Yes. I often do my best work when I can be completely absorbed by it. It was the same thing in high school with math. It’s always been about losing myself and losing track of time. I remember meditating on a math problem for over four hours, and only snapping out of it when I had to go to the bathroom. Those were the times when I could really feel the progress. It’s always a good sign to realize that six hours just disappeared. To see how time dissolves can be a powerful experience, and it’s one I miss. Because it’s one thing to talk about stuff and it’s another to actually commit to doing it; to solve a math problem or make music. Not being too self-aware in the process is also really important.
So it’s in a trance-like state that you get your best results?
In a recent interview with The Guardian you mentioned that you didn’t sleep, eat or meet people for nine days in order to gain a more intense connection to your subconscious, which made it easier for you to write the lyrics for your last album Visions. Would you call that a spiritual experience?
I don’t know if I would call it spiritual. I’m not religious, even though I was raised in a religious household. I know a lot of younger people who just take some of the ceremonial aspects of religion and use them like some kind of backdrop. Especially when you look at the Canadian noise music scenes these days. They are very ceremonial, almost cult-like. You mentioned La Brique and the Torn Curtain in Montreal. In these places, when people would gather for a noise show, it would be for, like, seven hours. That can get pretty intense, you know? I guess these happenings serve as a substitute for a kind of religious experience they were missing otherwise.
A seven-hour show? That’s intense.
And don’t forget the temperatures in Montreal. It can get very, very cold in winter. Once you meet somewhere, you tend to stay there. Knowing that, musicians relate to it in a special way. It’s funny though, because the more successful I get, the less I find myself in places like that. There are a lot of spaces in Berlin like that too, right?
Absolutely. There are still some spaces that aren’t spoiled yet. But a lot of former artist-run spaces have become pretty commercial. Things have become more difficult in Berlin.
Berlin reminds me a lot of Montreal in a positive sense. Montreal is a pretty poor city, so its art and music scenes aren’t that big. Although with music it’s getting a lot bigger. I mean, Berlin isn’t rich, but its creative scene is so much bigger than Montreal’s. Both cities look back at a certain kind of DIY past that was formative in music history. We don’t have a club like the Berghain in Montreal, though. I mean, the Berghain seems so well organized behind the scenes. It’s pretty mind-blowing. I guess you could call it German efficiency.
How big a step is it from the small experimental set-up to the skillfully staged concerts this year?
It’s a bold statement performing your live shows as a one-woman band together with dancers. Without a band to handle you were in total control of the music, whereas the dancers got the crowds going. It’s a simple but very effective set-up.
First of all, there wasn’t much “staging” involved. I just contacted my friends in any given city and convinced them to dance live during my performance. The dancers weren’t choreographed—they were drunk. In Prague I had three dancers, at the Berghain maybe ten. It seemed like everybody wanted to come and dance. It sort of got out of hand but I think it was a good show nonetheless.
Apart from the fact that your dancers animate the crowd and provoke a reaction, they also come across as a kind of protection: you’re not alone on stage. Do you find that more comforting?
I improvise a lot on stage. For instance, I record my voice while I sing and layer one voice recording on top of the other until I have a choir of sorts. And I do it on the spot. I sing, I sample, I arrange, I play. Having the dancers working the crowd relieves a lot of the pressure. It gives me the freedom to breathe and focus and dance. Having dancers onstage is good for my mental health. So, yes—they do help me feel comfortable. I mean, theoretically, I could perform the same music without them. But I doubt I could do it as easily. I probably couldn’t improvise that much if I felt uncomfortable.
Are the avant-garde or European improv scenes at all on your radar? People like Peter Brötzmann or Oren Ambarchi?
Less so, but I’m aware of the history of improvisational music, and I have spent time listening to music like that in the past. Because what I play is improvised, it’s actually easier for me to perform somehow. It makes it harder for me to “screw up”, because I’m never destroying a carefully planned and rehearsed set. Nobody notices mistakes but me. Audiences assume it’s part of the show. But also the songs I perform live aren’t perfect replicas of the ones on record. All of my shows are different, to a certain extent. I mean, that should be the nature of any live performance by any performer, be it Madonna or be it some improvisational free jazz thing, no?
At a Madonna concert nothing is improvised.
Because she depends on a lot of other people, musical and otherwise. For me, playing alone is a luxury. If there were other musicians, it would certainly be much harder to keep that improvisational level up. With six people performing together on stage I couldn’t just change the set list just because I think it would make sense. But changing a set list could be essential when it comes to the dynamics of a live show if you ask me.
A slightly edited version of this interview appears in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Read part two of the interview tomorrow.
Photo: Luci Lux