Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Everything around Godspeed You! Black Emperor doesn’t follow the normal path of a rock band.
Probably doesn’t follow any path at all and, surely, they are happy with this, they control it.
if you approach GY!BE through writings, articles, magazines, essays you encounter a mythological creature, a band hostile to be understood a band that force you to listen to its music and forget any other approach.

The news of this comeback wasn’t expected only few weeks before it was announced. At a Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra gig in London I attended, Efrim Menuck was asked about a reunion by an audience member and he slashed the question saying it wasn’t happening, devaluating his former band saying “GY!BE are nothing more than 4 chords and a long highway.”

Few days later the news of Godspeed were coming back together caught me and everyone else by surprise. They accepted to curate the UK leg of the ATP festival. I bought tickets on the same day.
Efrim probably knew that the seven years wait was getting to an end at that show, but unpredictability is part of Godspeed, no one will ever know when and why they decided to comeback. Money is an issue but, for a band that has only made suicidal moves in terms of marketing, nothing is a surprise.

Radicalism is a manifesto they adhere. Call them anarchists, they give no concessions to any establishment. The only real thing GY!BE are is a musical collective, a group of people that exist in its entity and express through its music. They are rigid but can’t keep anything fixed, not even that exclamation mark in the name.

The few albums, recorded with different, yet strictly independent labels, retain obsessive control of any step of the process. A process that wants to be discovered only through repetitive listening. This is not an easy band to deal with, musically and as people. Album artwork and titles are obscure, it is hard even to find the title of the songs (or are they pieces, tunes, suites, compositions?) on the albums’ credits.

The ATP program book included with the festival ticket, a book full of biographies of the bands they selected to play, had a fake one, theirs. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are depicted as an imaginary band that never existed. They give no interview, the do not do promo shoots and there are no photographers allowed to shoot their shows, which I’ll discuss in the photo tip below. To be GY!BE PR must be a nightmare.

The only approach the band allows to disclose their world is to put one of the records on, stop everything else you’re doing, turn up the volume as loud as your neighbourhood laws allow and sit down listening. They call it post rock, half agree, “post” is fine, but “rock” is tight.
The musicscapes they build (there’s no other band to be better defined by this word) create a sound well beyond rock. Uselessness of genre definitions. They don’t sit next to Slint at all, they inspire loads, Mogwai just one, but nothing gets close. You can copy music, you can’t copy creativity.

Get lost in the corners designed by the strings, in the guitar crescendo and the fire explosion provided the two drums. It is not music, is the use of music to define emotions, is the use of music to define situations, is the use of music to bring your mind in outer dimensions. Real spaces, made of familiar sound, abruptly interrupted by unexpected noise.

In their ATP festival GY!BE played a gig a day. They opened on the Friday night, the first appearance in years, the expectation was so high the festival had to arrange a wristband system to split the people in two days to avoid overcrowd.
Show was set to start at 22:30 but the people lucky enough to have entered the concert hall early were treated by 30 minutes of pure drone, 30 minutes of relentless sound waves that the entire band played before the opening notes of Gathering Storm broke the wait and embraced the 2000 souls with a mixture of tension and relaxation.

40 hours later I realized I spent 7 of them listening to live Godspeed music, three of their gigs in a row are a life changing experience.

If the first show was mainly centred around Lift your Skinny Fists, the Saturday was more various with three unreleased pieces and music from their entire discography. The experience isn’t really changed by the setlist. It is the whole, as any collective should be, to bring you inside that world, which is complemented.
A constant part of the show is the projection of 16mm films through a set of vintage projectors which resemble a GY!BE gig a contemporary version of the mute films with live soundtrack. In reality a Godspeed performance is closer to a music installation than any other form of media, surely not a plain rock concert.

The band performs, giving no concession to the audience, no words are said, no interaction with anyone. There are no lights on stage beyond the one filtered through the film strips. There is music and images, eight people on a shadowy stage and a couple more selecting those acetate hanging from a rack in the darkness. It is much like a religious experiences, of an undiscovered cult. The Sunday morning midday show which closes their contribution to the ATP festival sounds more as a (post) mass that as a (post) rock concert.
Dead Flag Blues opens, a spoken word cameo containing one of the most brutal political texts ever written. They have not played it so far, making this show another unique experience.
There will be only one track played at all the shows and it is the fifteen minutes of the unreleased tune Albanian.

The rest is an ever changing flow of notes, loud and quiet, violins and guitars, drums and percussion, noise and melody that modify and are modified by the visions of fire and cats, letters and words, colour and black and white screened onto them and onto everything else.

Words are not useful to describe GY!BE live experience, they probably are right here, these stolen images don’t breath without the music.
You can’t imagine this, you have to live it.

Not a lot on the web… still enough, check Godspeed here [website] [constellation records]

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Photo tip

There are no photographer places in the pit for any Godspeed show. Band does not allow press photographers, no exceptions.
ATP is a cosy festival, so it is easy to meet musicians walking in the Butlins area and it is easy to spot Efrim Menuck long curly hair around.
One evening I approach him, I congratulate with him for the 2 wonderful gigs, he shyly thanks me with a sign of the head without saying a word and staring at my photopass sticker trying to understand if I am enemy.

I get the occasion to ask him the big question:

Valerio: “Can I ask why you don’t allow photographers to your gigs?”

Efrim: “Because it’s not our job to provide photos to photographers and they get in the way not allowing people to watch the show.”

With such an answer I am left without words, only thing I can think is that he had let photographers, including myself, to shoot Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra weeks before. So either those fans don’t deserve a similar treatment or I am in front of a split personality. But it was to late to point this out with someone that doesn’t release interviews he walked away avoiding me asking more. It would likely have rotated around some sort of conceptual argument about the difference between the bands philosophy that wouldn’t change the only point I want to make, here.

I have no problem to not shoot a band. It is their choice, fine.
Efrim answer, though, aimed to hit the open nerve of any gig photographer, the sensation of being a parasite. Photographers seen not as someone working, as the musicians on stage, but someone stealing from other people works.

I don’t have to say how important live music photography has been to history of music, I already complained how many key moments are missed since we are allowed to shoot only a small part of a live set. The world wouldn’t know about Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar or the Who smashing the stage, but GY!BE bring the point forward.

No professional photographers 15 years ago meant no images.
No photographers in 2010 means bad images.
It is a big difference.

They should realize the world changes, the media change and not adapting isn’t helpful.

Any Godspeed concert of this reunion tour, which is no different and has no different meaning ($) from any other reunion tour, is being reviewed online.
Not allowing press doesn’t mean no press, means bad press.
So what is the point to have such a solid control of the entire process to allow the representation of your performance by cameraphones pics?
They always favoured the fans tape-recording their shows, but they must have missed the news that cassettes and even the Walkmen has been discontinued.
That romantic analogic lo-fi-ness spread among friend, as their 33 copies first EP, today is all about electronic gadget and internet viral spreading.

Gigs recorded by silly cameras and phones 50 yards from the stage with crap sounds. The only one who is damaged by this choice, today, is the band. Selling less albums, being misrepresented, illegally downloaded by hundreds of thousands people worlwide, not few aficionados.

We, as concert photographers, can’t be damaged because you can’t lose money when you don’t earn money.

About the second part, “photographers get in the way”, true, probably for the small minority of the guys in the first row and for a limited time.
Efrim Menuck watched most of the concerts of the ATP festival from the backstage, comfortably.
I suggest him to try going to watch a show from the crowd, a show with photographers in the pit and fans with the phones. Then come back to me to tell if are the photographers in the pit the problems that gets in the way or the compulsive fans with the cameras raised in front of you to bloody videoing anything to the point of not enjoying their own concert.

It’s disappointing to realize how often avant-gardes are the most conservatives souls.
Think Twice

~ by Valerio on January 1, 2011.

6 Responses to “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”

  1. As a fellow photog, I’m glad you approached Efrim on the subject. I’m not entirely surprised that GYBE isn’t photog-friendly, but it’s a disappointment all the same. Great photos as always!

  2. They are not friendly tout-court, it is part of the image they want to keep, yes i said “image”.
    Thanks Matthew

  3. Brilliant pictures Valerio. Probably the best I’ve seen of GYBE. That said, I kind of like the fact that they have a certain mystery about them. Whilst I can understand your point I think there is a benefit to restricting access. Too many things are so freely available these days we forget their value. I think the brilliance of these photo’s backs up the bands policy.

    Keep up the good work though. I especially like the photos of the 35mm film. Went to the first show at the Troxy and was amazed to see those reels of film just hanging at the back of the mixing desk. I have no idea how they survive an entire tour!

  4. Thank You chopper68!
    I agree I don’t have anything about the no photo policy, I was just wondering if it makes sense today as it did 10 years ago. Scenario is different.

  5. Your points would be much stronger if your grammar was correct. Why not stop bashing the band’s personal choice and thought of their art and YOUR art, and work on making coherent sentences. Also, consider what your art means to you. I assume it is very serious, as it looks very serious and is, from my perspective, something worthwhile. If you need to be selfish enough to not respect the band’s philosophy of politics, life and art: why do you want to photograph them so DAMN badly?

  6. I just asked questions, Rohn.
    I was reflecting about GY!BE choice, which I have respected. I shot the band from the crowd as they prefer.
    I shoot hundreds of bands, I really don’t mind missing one, believe me.

    PS-About my grammar, I’m sorry I am italian, not an excuse I know, but a truth. After all I am not a journalist, not being paid or asking money to give you this post. I do my best. Thanks for reading.

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