Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Biography

Few bands—if any—can claim the FBI has arrested them as suspected terrorists. The nine or more members of the post-rock orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor can, and they don’t exactly wear the arrest as a mark of shame but rather as a badge of honor. As self-described anarchists with a strong penchant towards anti-corporatization, the loose collective from Montreal, Quebec weave instrumental pieces of dense repetition, found sounds, traditional rock instrumentation and cobbled bytes covering everything from homeless street preachers to obscure transistor radio broadcasts into their music. If there was a psychedelic post-apocalyptic Halloween party with arsenic spiked Kool-Aid, chances are GYBE would be the house band.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor imbue their neo-classical pieces with a sinister litheness that creeps along like a fog from a midnight moor. The band’s reluctance to grant interviews or pose in photo shoots only serves to further enshroud their mythology. Although they have been on extended hiatus since 2003, their torch has been picked up by like minded-artists like Explosions in the Sky and Mono.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor formed in 1994, taking their name from an obscure Japanese documentary about a biker gang, called The Black Emperors. As a collective with no clear front person or mission statement, that utilized traditional rock instrumentation to achieve classical aims, the band was classified as “post-rock” since their roots were grounded in high-concept progressive rock, but labels have always been slippery with the band.

Originally comprised of Efrim Menuck (guitars/keyboards), Roger-Tellier Craig (guitars), Mike Moya (guitars), Mauro Pezzente (bass), Thierry Amar (bass), Aidan Girt (drums/percussion), Bruce Cawdron (drums/keyboards), Sophie Trudeau (violin), Norsola Johnson (cello), and David Bryant (guitars), GYBE became a revolving door of players whose membership number has swelled as high as 20 or more participants. Menuck fills in as the public mouthpiece for the band, although interviews with him are few and far between (and he adamantly denies frontman status).

The group self-released their debut full-length All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling as a cassette limited to 33 copies in 1994. They returned four years later with F# A# [Infinity] (1998 Constellation) as a limited vinyl pressing of 550 copies, comprised of only three tracks—“The Dead Flag Blues,” “East Hastings,” “Providence”—ranging from 16 to 29 minutes in length. The precedent was set—obscenely long instrumental pieces would become the foundation for the group’s ways on future releases. Very few songs in their career output are shorter than 10 minutes in length, though some exist.

Later that year F# A# [Infinity] was released on CD bt Kranky Records. During this time the band began to garner underground notoriety for intense live performances that often featured avant-garde film pieces projected over the players throughout the show. After releasing the EP, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada (1999 Constellation), GYBE recorded their only Peel session followed by a renowned appearance at the FIMAV festival in Quebec. They also achieved a significant career boost by appearing on the cover of NME in 1999. It wasn’t a band photo, however, it was an ominous cloud that said “The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddled with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows . . . ”

The band released their third full-length, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky) in 2000 as a two-disc set of four tracks—“Storm,” “Static,” “Sleep” and “Antennas to Heaven,” each consisting of multiple parts. Where previous material was based on endless repetition, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven found Godspeed breaking this formula by never adhering to specific structures or tones. It was long stream of consciousness narratives, and it resulted in a compulsively engaging album that oscillated between nimble grace and volcanic violence. Many consider the album to be the group’s crowning achievement.

GYBE continued to tour sporadically with an ever-evolving roster over the next several years. Their final full-length, Yanqui U.X.O. (2002 Constellation), was recorded with renowned indie producer Steve Albini and allegedly took the group nearly four years to write, with much of the material predating Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Although GYBE has never shied away from their anarchistic political views, Yanqui U.X.O.—the title is the moniker given to unexploded landmines in Cambodia—is their most overtly political album. The cover art foretells enough with obtuse rants against corporate fascism and religious violence. Musically, Yanqui U.X.O. takes a turn from past material into the realm of something like quiet beauty. Gone are all the multitudes of found sounds and in their place emerge sharper melodies, with soft tones replacing bombastic crescendos.

While gigging across the US in 2003 the band was arrested in Ardmore, Oklahoma, when a gas station attendant mistook them for terrorist suspects. After finding no incriminating evidence by local law enforcements, the members were released. The band has claimed race—many of the members are of Indian or Middle Eastern descent—was the sole reason for their arrest.

GYBE entered a prolonged hiatus to pursue solo projects that same year, which include Silver Mt. Zion, Set Fire to Flames, Fly Pan Am, and Hrsta amongst numerous others. The band’s music has appeared in films like 28 Days Later and Bombhunters.

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