Published Jan 15, 2014Montreal rock experimentalists Godspeed You! Black Emperor have remained mum since their accepting the Polaris Music Prize after they won the prestigious Canadian award last September. Now, Godspeed co-founder Efrim Menuck has spoken out in an Exclaim! interview about the group's surprise at winning the award and shed some light on their controversial response.
While discussing Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra's new album Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light (due out January 21 via Constellation), Menuck took time out to discuss his other band. Despite GYBE typically only ever communicating via collective statements, he addressed the band's much-discussed open letter, which Godspeed released the day after winning the $30,000 award for their 2012 album 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
"As a band, we said everything we had to say honestly. The only thing I'd add to it is, it was the strangest thing to go into the day of the award show hoping that we would not win," he says. "I don't know. We knew what we were going to say if we won."
The win and the band's reaction — whereby they called music industry entities like Polaris into question and announced a plan to donate their $30,000 prize to start music programs in the Quebec prison system — was controversial, to say the least. Critics also seemed befuddled by the finality of the message, which was clear and left no indication that anything further might be said about the matter by the media-averse band.
"With Godspeed, it's always like, the amount of years between us shooting our mouths off and getting into arguments — the more years that pass between those arguments, the better for us. It always feels like a losing proposition," Menuck explains. "But at the same time, you have to do it; you have to speak your mind. Contrary to what people might think about us, we're not argumentative by nature. That Polaris thing felt like being at someone's parents' house for dinner and the friends of someone's parents says something inappropriate and then you're like, 'Oh shit, now I have to say, hey, what do you mean?' That's what it felt like to us."
Among the critiques hurled at GYBE in the aftermath of winning was that they were being ungrateful — that if they didn't want the prize, they should've withdrew their nomination. Menuck couldn't agree more; however, the situation snowballed before the band felt compelled to react.
"The deal was, to anyone who puts out a new record in a year, Polaris approaches the record label and says, 'Would you like to put these records up for nomination?' Then the label can say yes or no. So Constellation said yes to this and didn't ask Godspeed what they thought about it because they were like, 'Oh, this will be a nice thing.'
"And so it was really late in the game when we realized, 'Oh shit, we could've just pulled out.' But we were convinced that we were not going to make it onto the short list. When we did make it onto the short list, the band was convinced we weren't going to win this thing. It was really towards the end when were like, 'Oh shit, we might and I guess we need to prepare ourselves for that possibility.' It was a really strange process."
Part of the reason why Godspeed assumed the band wouldn't win was that, according to Menuck, they have never previously been embraced by the Canadian music industry.
He explains, "You have to remember that Godspeed's relationship with the Canadian music industry has been terrible from the beginning. It's been antagonistic from the beginning so it wasn't unreasonable for us to be like, 'We're not going to get this thing. Why would they give us this thing?' We said it in our press release: we feel like orphans in our own country. We feel fairly invisible here."
He further talked about his hatred of award shows in general, plus the band's plans to use the money to provide Quebec prisons with music programs. The prison bureaucracy has apparently made this difficult, but they're still pursuing their plan.
"Now, we're going to enter the nightmare of how we're going to do that," Menuck says. "All prison bureaucracies are difficult to deal with but in Quebec, they're particularly difficult. Ideally what we'd like to do is find someone to make it happen and make it happen. So we're going to give ourselves a set amount of time to set up this program. We're reaching out to people in the States who've done work like this and see if they have any insights on just how to deal with bureaucracies like this. It's a good headache to have. It'll work out."
He also reminds fans that Godspeed's reaction to the Polaris victory wasn't entirely negative. According to Menuck, "We said what we had to say and tried to say it as graciously as we could and I feel like some people got that and other people chose not to acknowledge that there was some attempt at graciousness there. It's not like we wrote a letter like, 'Fuck you man! Stupid squares!' We tried to acknowledge, y'know?"
Listen to the full interview over on the Kreative Kontrol podcast.