Are you there <b>Godspeed</b>? It's me, Roman

BY Roman SokalPublished Jan 1, 2006

Franz Kafka once wrote a rather profound existential parable entitled "Before The Law." The short story involves a man who wishes access to "the law," only to be intercepted by a gatekeeper who says that access is indeed possible, but not at that particular moment. Instead of leaving, the man chooses to wait until he can gain entry and is given permission to do so.

A practical application of this parable can be applied to interviewing "mysterious" Montreal-based musical collective Godspeed You Black Emperor! The instrumental group has achieved international acclaim over the past few years by steering clear of the conventions of current mainstream commercial music. In a combination of classical structures along with passive atmospheric rock, their lengthy pieces lack an instant coffee catchiness. Instead, their music engulfs you – beginning in a minimalist greyscale psychedelia, an oppressive, brooding mood slowly evolves into an eventual faster-paced colourful zoetrope (complete with glockenspiel) of a hope-filled release of seismic cascading proportions.

This month sees the release of their third widely-available release, Yanqui U.X.O. Of course, the musical content of the album remains a mystery – their now-exclusive label, Constellation Records, says that music will not be released unless the band agrees to be interviewed, a "privilege" apparently not that easy to obtain. I know it was recorded by Steve Albini, an engineer widely known for his excellent skill in capturing a band live to tape in a non-produced manner, and who is also renowned for publicly attacking corporate practices and ideals. My interview pitch involved wanting to delve further into the messages in the new album's packaging, which features cover art of bombs being deployed from the sky and a schematic linking major record labels to non-entertainment companies that fund weapons developers. Furthermore, the album comes with an insert that reads: "Though Godspeed is guilty of profiting from hateful chain store sales, we encourage you to avoid giving money to predatory retailers and superstores."

It's an approach that serves GYBE! well. It makes their non-commercial stance easy to identify. It saves time and effort (not to mention postage costs) in promoting the album. It helps maintain the image of "mystery" they've worked so hard for. It forces keen music journalists to buy the album in order to write about them, which discourages negative press, since non-fans are unlikely to bother, and lines the band's pockets at the same time. And it allows them an ivory tower stance from which to respond to any criticism that might come their way – and in the past, they have retaliated like vipers to those who've written about the band without "permission."

All of these elements, of course, make them an intriguing subject, ripe for discussion. A request for an interview was made; the band would be meeting soon, I was told, and the request would be dealt with then. So I wait. And with waiting comes boredom. To amuse myself, I conjure all the GYBE! mythology in an epic control-the-universe meeting akin to the Stonecutters from The Simpsons.


Finally, I am told, my request has been approved and I should expect to hear from a band member at any time.

Still waiting. Suspiciously.

I begin to contact a few Montreal-area associates of the band. Surprisingly, no one wants to speak on the record. The Stonecutters vibe has me believing that the band's dominance has created a fear of backlash that blankets the Montreal music community. In reality, most people just don't care. My investigations do yield that the band didn't like Albini's work on the record and remixed it at their own Hotel 2 Tango studio. I also discover that the band severed their long-standing relationship with Kranky (the stalwart – and tiny – American indie label that handled CD issues of their previous work) because Kranky was apparently a "cog" in the corporate machine. Of course, going through Constellation will increase their profit margin, but that couldn't be a motivator right? No, of course not.

No one ever did call.

Back to Kafka's parable. The waiting man eventually reaches old age. The gatekeeper comes to him at his death and reveals the truth: "Since this gate was made only for you, I am now going to shut it."

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