“You have to keep banging on that door,” says Efrim Menuck, sitting backstage at the Brixton Academy in London.
In a couple of hours, his band, the mighty Godspeed You! Black Emperor, will be on stage, blasting the 5,000-strong crowd with drones, noise and orchestrated crescendos.
Having announced an indefinite hiatus in 2003, Godspeed have been back to the UK several times since reforming in December 2010 and also released a new album, the Polaris Prize-winning ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’, in October 2012. The band’s current set includes a big chunk of new music: a hopeful sign there might be more to come from the band.
But it’s Efrim’s other project, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (whose name changes from album to album), also from Montreal, that we’re holed up in a sparsely furnished ‘production room’ to talk about.
They’re releasing a new album, their seventh, ‘F*ck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything’, ahead of a UK tour in February – dates somewhere down there. The new batch of songs – which, unlike Godspeed’s music, feature Efrim singing – return to ideas that have run right through the music of both bands: economic collapse, the greed of bankers and corporations, the heart of communities being ripped out…
Now, many of the disasters they warned of have hit with the global recession. Still, Efrim’s singing “Thieves and liars rule everything we know,” on ‘Austerity Blues’, the raging, 14-minute track at the heart of ‘F*ck Off Get Free…’, and, it seems, still pounding a righteous fist against the door…
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A trailer for the album ‘F*ck Off Get Free…’
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So are you, like most of the world, feeling the effects of hard times?
Yeah, for sure. Since the economic collapse, it’s just a generalised feeling of insecurity and class frustration. It’s like a tension. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. The imbalance is so obscene between the wealthy and the poor. You say that and it sounds like such a cliché. But it’s the truth. It’s getting worse all the time. Nothing’s changing.
Do you see your music as political?
Not really. I feel like protest music was more about specific issues or incidents. That’s not really what we do. The stuff we do is more generalised. For the most part, you write songs about stuff you talk about, or, at least, we do. In some ways, it’s like trying to keeping up your end of a conversation. It’s not like there’s a shit-tonne of songs out there writing about austerity.
There seems a shift with each Mt. Zion album, including, around album three (2003’s ‘“This Is Our Punk-Rock”…’), your decision to sing, rather than stay as a mainly instrumental project.
For sure. After the third record, there was definitely a decision to become this sort of bar band. We wanted to be able to play any stage any day of the week and win over at least some of the people in the room.
Where does the ‘F*ck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything’ title come from?
This record, roughly, is about the city we’re from and the idea of all of us getting older in the city. The city we’re from has a contentious relationship with the province, and the province we’re from has an antagonistic relationship with the country we’re from. So we kind of get shit on from two different directions, provincially and federally.
Both in Godspeed and Mt. Zion, so much of what we’re concerned with is transmitting the culture we’re from. A bunch of us in both those bands are not from there. I’m originally from Toronto. I moved to Montreal when I was 22. There’s stuff from Montreal that still blows me away, the shared beliefs… There’s something wilfully antagonistic about Montreal, how public protests manifest themselves in Montreal. Montreal has a reputation as this downer city in Canada.
So it’s, like, ‘F*ck off, get free, we pour light on everything’. Mt. Zion, too, definitely get this rap of being thought of as this bummer band or whatever. In some ways, too, it’s like: ‘F*ck you, that’s not how we see it.’ And I don’t think we’re crazy. I think we’re pretty positive-minded.
Does that perception bother you?
It bothered me. It’s slowly gotten better. Mt. Zion couldn’t do more, especially in the live context, to disengage people from the conception that we’re humourless and depressed all the time. It’s a slow process.
Montreal’s famous as a musical city, especially since Arcade Fire came out of there. Do people overplay the city’s importance for Godspeed and Mt. Zion?
It’s weird. Both Godspeed and Mt. Zion pre-date a lot of the Montreal buzz. I think it was that a certain kind of person moved to Montreal from the rest of Canada. Right away you knew, unless you were fluent in French, you weren’t going to be able to get a job, so it attracted a certain kind of person, someone who was happy living on the cheap, someone who wasn’t looking for a career, wasn’t trying to make it into middle management. I hate the word ‘bohemians’, but there was an aspect of that.
But that was the old Montreal. That Montreal feels dead and gone. The city’s really expensive now compared to what it once was. But what I think Godspeed and Mt. Zion did do is maybe speak to kids in the rest of Canada who thought, ‘It’s okay to live in Montreal’. That might have happened. But in terms of bands getting attention, all the stuff that came after, with Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, a long list… that has nothing to do with what we did.
When Godspeed got big, there must have been a whole load of offers from major record labels, advertising, film soundtracks… but it looked like you deliberately steered clear of all that.
There was a lot of it. But the one thing I realise now, in hindsight, you only have to say ‘No’ a couple of times before the word goes out.
Why not take all the other stuff that was on offer, like a lot of bands do?
It felt like we were representing our town and we didn’t want to shit on that. Jesus, man, when we first started playing regular rock clubs, that was a stress for us as a band. Our first exposure to professional rock music infrastructure… We were appalled and horrified. We were worried about ending up in situation that we didn’t want to be in it.
Godspeed went on ‘indefinite hiatus’ in 2003. What made you come back?
I don’t know. We’d get these offers to play and we’d check in with each other, and everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it’. It could have been the weather that day. You’d have to poll everyone in the band for what their reasons were. But we were all on the same page.
Is ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ the final Godspeed album?
I don’t know. We’re just finishing up this last handful of shows and then taking a few months off, and we’ll see where we’re at.
But are you talking about making another record?
We only talk about it informally. You have to write new stuff to keep playing, and we have. We have a piece of music that’s not recorded that we play pretty much every night. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point, but at the same time, I’m not so sure.
Are you open to bribes?
That’s good. I’m pretty skint.
Honestly, we have these last shows. We’re not thinking of anything until next year.
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Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, ‘Austerity Blues’ (excerpt)
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Words: Graeme Green
Efrim portrait: Timothy Herzog
‘F*ck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything’ is released through Constellation on January 21st.
See Thee Silver Mt. Zion memorial Orchestra live as follows…
23rd – KOKO, London
25th – Oran Mor, Glasgow
26th – Brudenell, Leeds