The Swarm

October 22, 2012

A Rational Conversation: Jessica Hopper Parses the Hallowed Return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

In December of 2010, Montreal’s epic instrumental punks Godspeed You! Black Emperor reformed to play and curate All Tomorrow’s Parties’ acclaimed annual Nightmare Before Christmas event. Since then, they’ve kept up with semi-regular live dates and tours, but last week they somewhat unexpectedly released a new album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, their first since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O.; needless to say, people are stoked. The only English-language press the band did for the album was a story for the Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian. Keeping with GY!BE’s generally anti-interview policy, they only answered emailed questions, answered them as a collective, and mandated the full exchange be published. While email interviews can often go terribly wrong, GY!BE’s responses were thoughtful, occasionally hilarious, and provocative. Between their album and their attitude, it’s become clear that it’s good to have the band around again. Here, Ducker and music writer Jessica Hopper discuss the impact that Godspeed You! Black Emperor has had, and should have.

Eric Ducker: What were your thoughts/feelings towards Godspeed You! Black Emperor before October of this year?

Jessica Hopper: I have always thought of them as an important band. I saw them at this year’s Pitchfork Festival in that sort of honorary headliner spot, and their stage show was a kind of colossal “fuck you” to the audience, which I can appreciate. But it also made me wonder if they were just crabby, or totally didn’t get how what they were doing might come off. Maybe it was a bit of both. I also did not know they were still a band.

ED: I think most people weren’t quite sure if they were still a band.

JH: I have always thought they were a great example – like a Canadian Fugazi.

ED: Do you think other musicians have followed the example of what you thought was great about them?

JH: Most bands look at a Fugazi/GY!BE-type band – a band that is more than a band, a band that has a label and real community involvement and uses their influence and power for collective good – and say, “Well, that’s admirable, but how can I make a living if I only play all-ages shows?” I think No Age is a contemporary example of a band like them, even though they do stuff that Fugazi never would have done, like have their own skate shoe.

ED: So you think other bands see Fugazi or GY!BE as uncompromisers who are exceptions to the rule of how you can exist as a band, rather than a blueprint to potentially follow?

JH: Yes. Most bands’ visions extend only as far as their band and getting paid. They are not interested in, or capable of, or behooved by shaking shit up; they don’t have a grandiose vision beyond getting groupied in the van loft. The artists that aren’t totally business as usual are by and large older, so I think it’s easy to dismiss their ability to say “no” as a special circumstance. But it’s also a lot of hard work to be band like that, and being in a band is oftentimes hard enough as it is. I also think that kind of giving-a-shit is unfashionable.

ED: That’s why that Godspeed You! Black Emperor Q&A in The Guardian is interesting and compelling. You can tell whoever is answering the questions was willing to go on at length about things he or she obviously gives a shit about, but wasn’t spouting off or copy-and-pasting from an impenetrable band manifesto.

JH: [Godspeed guitarist] Efrim Menuck sent a few letters to my blog and fanzine over the years – those answers read like him to me. I really miss those sorts of things – bands that are totally uncompromising about how they conduct themselves, with a solid rationale behind their actions. Writing a 4,000-word missive about how the state of the world and music affects how you feel and the art you make – or doesn’t – is totally appropriate. I think it’s way more appropriate than people calling each other out on Tumblr or whatever constitutes being personally political in the public sphere in 2012. I guess those two things are not that different, but I found the Godspeed screed meaningfully telling about how the band orients itself. The fact that they orient themselves at all makes them an anomaly.

ED: I was looking at the comments section to the story in The Guardian and someone wrote, “To occupy the exact same political position you did 10 years ago is sad.” Do you think that’s true?

JH: I don’t think that’s sad at all; that’s called conviction. Cultural convention is different now. People think GY!BE are curmudgeonly because they have not adapted their vision to suit the times. Are they supposed to have a Twitter account or something? Focus on some more fashionable causes? It’s not like they just sprayed 3,000 words saying Free Mumia! Their whole steez has always been uncompromising. I like that, in some regards, they seem even more hardcore, which makes total sense to me as we have a fuller knowledge of just how totally sketchy and bullshit so many things are now. Thanks, Internet!

ED: It’s been interesting to read the first reviews of the new record. This notion keeps coming up of it being important because nothing out there right now is like it. In Mark Richardson’s Pitchfork review, he wrote, ”[GY!BE] feel out of step in a very necessary way.” It is good to have a band or an artist come around every few years to make you take stock of what you’ve been listening to and why.

JH: Exactly. A band like Godspeed throws everyone else into high relief. You get a better sense of the moral topography of the underground.

ED: I wonder if there would be the same reaction if this was coming from a new band, or if Godspeed’s history plays a major part in it? Would a new band that was taking this approach and was making music like this – not in terms of sound, but in terms of trying something different than their contemporaries – have an impact? Or would people laugh them off?

JH: If there was a new band doing this, people would be even more excited and there would be less eye-rolling. The thing about No Age is that how they roll has some contemporary compromises, and they make what they do accessible and attractive: they do a lot of fun shows, concept shows, and make being a fan exciting and cool. As Hua Hsu put it in his review of Lupe Fiasco the other week, “Nobody likes a scold.” The contemporary idea of a polemic or politicized band is so neutered in comparison to the 1980s and 1990s, so that when bands come in now with a big idea about how they are going to roll, we really take notice. It galvanizes people. Fucked Up might be a good recent example. The tacit feminism of everything Grimes has done to date is another. Of course the other thing is that being about nothing is also a way to be popular, like Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective. Or believing in nothing discernable beyond guitar solos and pretty album covers and dancing.

ED: Do you think there is an element of 1990s nostalgia in this recent celebration of Godspeed for both the new album and the interview? I know you’ve spoken out against ‘90s revivalism in the past, so how is this different?

JH: If Godspeed were on some grunge cash-cow trip, they wouldn’t have played a no-lights nighttime headline slot at Pitchfork; they’d be doing something to line the coffers. Lord knows, putting out record isn’t really the way to do that. I think a lot of ‘90s nostalgia is really a longing for a kind of security, a sense of things mattering – for slower culture. The fin de si├Ęcle Bush era was just such a harsh toke: a lot of bands that valued polemics and meaning in their art broke up, which helped usher us towards the cold comforts of the post- 9/11 irony age (coke, death disco, selling out, et al). Nigh a decade later, we’re coming out the other side burnt on that cynicism and longing for some realness. And so we arrive at nostalgia for the last time music felt really good, and for a lot of people who are the editors/writers/runners of indie culture, that was the ‘90s. What I am getting at is that I understand that whole trip, especially given the pace and grim dictates of music culture in 2012. But all that is pretty antithetical to Godspeed’s whole aesthetic and political perch. I think GY!BE is just a vehicle they are returning to. It’s a proven vehicle to express their noise rage.

ED: It’s funny, the big “politicized” move for the past couple of years for bands has been to try to be secretive: no interviews, no photo sessions, no videos, few live shows, obscuring biographical details. I get the point that it’s a reaction against the oversharing culture and publicity frenzies, but it also gets you out of having anything to say.

JH: Totally. I think people are eager for meaning. I just wrote about Kendrick Lamar last week, and he said it himself: part of the reason people are so psyched about him is that there is not a lot of music that has some sort of meaning. I don’t think that being secretive is an unreasonable reaction, but it is a weird pose, and a little unproductive. At the same time, I respect people going, “Bullshit, I NEED to have a band Tumblr!”

ED: Do you think all bands should have something to say?

JH: No. Most bands are dumb. (Says the critic.)

ED: Are you cool with that?

JH: Yes. But if more bands had the mettle to do things differently, we might have some more workable models and viable scenes, rather than just thinking Dave Bazan and Ted Leo and whoever are special exceptions, rather than a viable model of building a career on your principles. There is a reason that so many people from Olympia’s DIY punk scene of the early 1990s are still making music and having bands: the norm there was to reinvest in your community and make records with your hometown label, so there is still that community to support them and put out their records and go to their shows. I know that’s not, like, the coolest example, but I think there are some other cities that would be, and sound totally different, if their music communities were focused on sustaining each other – if the big, cool bands out of those scenes were acting as the good examples, so to speak, as opposed to being self focused.

ED: What do you think will have more of an impact, Godspeed’s Q&A for The Guardian or Pitchfork‘s 9.3 “Best New Music” rating?

JH: Pitchfork is the final word, more so than anything a band could say.

ED: So for you, the best-case scenario is that a young band sees the 9.3 rating, wants to learn how to get that, does research into Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and decides, “Maybe we could do that, too”?

JH: Yes.

ED: I can live with that.

JH: It’s kind of the best you ask for.

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