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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001

Where do we go from here?

beyond rock beyond ego beyond words

Almost 20 minutes into my interview with Aidan and David, two members of the Montreal-based band Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Aidan said that he didn't think my questions were very good and that the interview was a waste of time. He expressed himself not angrily but with genuine frustration at my transparently awkward attempt to make them feel comfortable about discussing their music and at the same time elicit something that would read well on the page.

News photo

I should have seen it coming. At the outset, David had asked why The Japan Times was interested in GYBE. He apparently felt that, since it is an English-language newspaper published in a non-English-language-speaking country, The Japan Times is an organ for globalist interests. "Who's going to read this article?" he asked. "A businessman on an airplane?"

Aidan was even more direct. He said it wasn't my fault and that, in fact, they almost never granted interviews "and shouldn't have done this one," because the idea of sitting down to hammer out "an introduction to Godspeed You Black Emperor!" was "just so f**king boring. Who cares? Why can't we have a conversation that goes somewhere?"

So we talked about the war.

Though stung, I could see his point. Interviews that aren't carried out purely for promotional reasons are often difficult to justify from a journalistic or even a critical standpoint. Talking about one's own music can be futile, since art, by definition, is supposed to speak for itself. The only other thing musicians can talk about is themselves, and there you get into the realm of ego, not art.

There's nothing wrong with ego, but, as Aidan so bluntly put it, it isn't significant. Aidan and David are just two guys in a rock band whose members submerge their selves in a collective sound. GYBE's image is amorphous and anonymous: no band photos, no last names, no solos, no vocals. They favor weird song titles and ambivalent or indistinct graphics.

The evening before the Oct. 30 interview, the nine-piece group had played to a packed house at the Shinjuku Liquid Room, in dim blue light in front of 8mm films. "The movies give the audience something to look at other than us," Aidan told me. They also focus the music in ways that can only be appreciated in concert. You can't look at films and listen to instrumental music at the same time without making connections between the two, and while most of the images were grainy shots of buildings and streets, they did intensify the music's drama. GYBE's pieces, while functional in form (their first album was titled "F#A#[infinity]," which sounds like a song outline), do not lend themselves to background listening, a point that Aidan concurred with, though mainly from the standpoint of convenience. "You always have to turn your stereo up when it's quiet," he said with regard to listening to their records at home, "and then turn it down when it gets loud."

The most common complaint about GYBE is that their songs are repetitious. Every piece starts out low, with one pattern or several patterns, and then builds with excruciating slowness to a huge, often melodyless crescendo in which no single instrumental element (guitar, bass, percussion, violin, cello, tape loop) is distinct. And then it decays into sonic effluvia.

What's striking is that music so purposely impersonal can be so emotionally affecting. The audience at the Liquid Room seemed stunned by the drone, and, even when a piece finished, they waited a beat or two before applauding, as if they were at a classical concert. It took a few seconds for them to realign themselves.

Though they can be considered descendents of noise bands like pre-Geffen Sonic Youth and Savage Republic, GYBE don't come across as provocateurs. They perform their symphonic noise-music as if it were something we should all be used to by now. In the summer of 2000, NME called them "the last great band of the century," but considering the emotional landscape left in the wake of Sept. 11, they might actually be the first appropriate band for the new one.

In his opening remarks for a seminar titled "What is the role of entertainment in time of national tragedy?" at last month's CMJ music festival in New York, esteemed rock critic Robert Christgau admitted that his "ears have been slow to right themselves" since the terrorist attacks, and that, to his dismay, he now finds a lot of music he normally would enjoy "too ego-driven, rooted in its own reality." Party music can actually be depressing if you're preoccupied with the end of the world as we know it, and while people outside of New York may, as Christgau says, look on the tragedy with more "abstraction" than New Yorkers do, everyone within earshot of a TV or stereo has at least had the opportunity to ponder just how trivial contemporary pop culture can be.

However you feel about the quality of GYBE's music, it isn't rooted in a reality that most of us are familiar with -- which isn't to say it doesn't express recognizable ideas. The final piece of the evening ended with a tape of a George W. Bush speech manipulated into pure gibberish, an aural comment that was not only pertinent but prescient, considering that, according to David, the band had been on the road since before Sept. 11. Nevertheless, GYBE's music doesn't contain anything meaningfully concrete to remind you of the world you're living in.

It was in this frame of mind that I went to see Tortoise Nov. 7 at Club Quattro. Tortoise is another instrumental band whose anonymity is reinforced by music lacking in ego. Older and mellower, the five-member ensemble is less militant about its reticence. (From all accounts, they're not averse to talking about their music but having learned my lesson the hard way, I didn't attempt to find out.) But what mainly separates Tortoise from GYBE is attention to style.

Style goes hand-in-hand with technique, another aspect that GYBE prefers to downplay. Tortoise's members are very good at what they do, but you aren't likely to acknowledge just how good they are because they don't do anything outward to alert you to their technique. Like GYBE, their sound is geared toward the ensemble effect -- no solos, no vocals, no structures that draw attention to one element at the expense of another. But at the same time, each element is distinct.

Tortoise is a supergroup of Chicago underground scenesters who have hovered around the peripheries of rock and jazz for more than a decade. They were full-fledged musicians when they formed the group, while the members of GYBE essentially turned into musicians together. John McEntire, Tortoise's creative focus, is a drummer who has played for every experimental rock band that has mattered in the past 10 years, from Red Krayola to Gastr del Sol to The Sea and Cake. Surrounded by other rhythm-section veterans who can double and triple on a variety of instruments, Tortoise instinctively favors beat over any other musical consideration.

In contrast, the opening act, another Chicago offshoot band called Brokeback, offered an instrumental sound that's all soft tissue -- Tortoise without the shell. At the end of a set of mostly free-form doodling, they performed a straight instrumental version of Roy Orbison's "Running Scared," probably the only Top 40 song that does not contain a chorus, the backbone of all pop.

Like GYBE, Tortoise plays in front of moving images, but the more striking visual component is the way the members kept shifting about on stage, moving from one instrument to another, seemingly at random but without any noticeable change in the quality of the presentation.

Despite a refined, almost avant-garde reputation, Tortoise plays real rock, even, occasionally, rock 'n' roll. "Monica," a bizarre comment on late '60s soul, was performed for maximum funk effect, whereas the recorded version is filtered and treated and turned inside-out. The recorded version of "Eden 2" is all dub histrionics, but in concert it was played as an almost danceable drum 'n' bass song. The entirety of "Seneca" was like the coda of a hard-rock track from the '70s, all bombast and filler, from which the band progressed into more familiar territory, ending the evening with everyone onstage clapping in syncopation.

Tortoise still sees itself as a vessel for entertainment, a purpose that can't help but include an element of ego. In the brave new world of post-rock -- a label that finally makes historical sense in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- Tortoise represents the pioneers and GYBE the vanguard.

I don't know if GYBE would consider such a theory worthy of discussion, but at one point, while talking about the antiwar movement in Montreal, David tried to relate the movement to the way he approaches music. I wasn't sure what he was getting at and assumed he somehow felt obligated to give me something I could use for the article. I felt bad. Why put yourself through that?

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