Interview: Luc Lemay (Gorguts)
There’s death metal musicians, and then there’s Luc Lemay, the guitarist, vocalist and composer behind Quebec’s long-running technical death metal quartet, Gorguts. Through ebbs and flows of popularity, changing labels and the passing of band members, he’s stayed the course of pushing metal into new and unexplored territories. Gorguts played technical death metal when that style was in its infancy, and while Lemay and company still practice it, their approach is refined. Instead of gore and mysticism, he mines history and art for inspiration. The approach suits his music: Lemay’s songs, are encapsulated, intimately detailed and uncanny in the same manner as an ornate artifact dug out of sand, the product of human hands but hands belonging to a person nobody would ever expect to meet. The world, it seems, does not produce such pristine intellects and craftsmen very often.
These practices all show through on his newest, and maybe best, piece of music, Pleiades’ Dust. Loosely based on a number of books, including S. Frederick Starr’s “Lost Enlightenment”, the half-hour long song that recounts the history of The House of Wisdom, the ancient library in Baghdad which sheltered much of the western world’s knowledge during the dark ages until it was destroyed during the Mongol siege in 1258CE.
The rise and fall of civilizations, and the inevitability of destruction, color the work of many modern musicians, but none in recent memory capture these themes with such rich sonic and lyrical detail as Lemay. He was kind enough to speak with us about how he went about bending death metal to the whims of his whimsy and imagination, both on Pleiades’ Dust and the works which precede it
I'm sure this wasn't your intention, but being an American in 2016, I sort of found the EP a little bit prescient because I think, in America at least, we're sort of hitting the head of an anti-intellectual movement. Do you think there's any hope for the ongoing enlightenment of mankind or is the life of thought going to be run over by carnage again?
That's a good question. I even question myself, but it's very tough to answer. I don't know if I can answer this one. I'm not very educated as far as politics. In the song, I talk about Rome falling in the 500s and then I talk about knowledge as a wandering person, like if it would walk around and disappear, and then it was last seen in the near East, in a figurative way. I was questioning myself from that point of view, where that knowledge person would be today? Where did it wander? Where is the golden age of man geographically speaking? Where is it happening now? I couldn't really answer that question for myself because we know that before Baghdad it was mostly in Rome, in all that place. But when everything fell, Rome was pretty much like the center of the world. I could be wrong. I'm not that good at history. I know what I know from the books I read when I write my lyrics, but that's the deduction I made. The epicenter was Baghdad after that. But then from what I understood, it moved to Italy with Renaissance and after that, where was it? And even today where is it? It is an interesting question to go to.
Yeah. I mean, this is a natural thought to have when one has an interest not only in the life of the mind, but also in death metal because the music that I'm interested in is preoccupied with downfalls. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if there's something unique to the human species that we're predisposed to creating our own downfall.
Yeah, but those are cycles. Maybe we're more preoccupied by the tail of it than of the head of it, you know? Those are cycles in the lyrics. I say scornful dogmas at the start, and I repeat it at the very end, because we went full-circle on the pattern of destroying beautiful things for no reason. So the more we progress, the more it's the same. Even in the second World War, a lot of books were burned just because of different thinking, not even thinking about the content. We're just destroying for the fact of destroying and that's it. Imagine all the beautiful works that were lost.
I like everything that is ancient. Ancient history, before the Renaissance, I find it very fascinating. I like the Renaissance too. I love those artists, like Caravaggio, Leonardo, and all these wonderful people. But when I discovered the House of Wisdom topic, it was like, "Wow, this is where this knowledge comes from." And especially like you were talking before . . . you're not gonna find many books or many articles in the newspaper that are paying a note to the near East. I thought it was a beautiful story. It's kind of refreshing to remind ourselves where those beautiful things come from. The numbers we use, that’s where it's from. Algebra, that’s where it's from. Of course, we are not waking up in the morning and getting a fix of algebra. That's not what I'm saying. But we take those things for granted. I think it's very interesting and beautiful to discover and understand where those things are from. They had better things to do than taking a picture on their iPhones back then. Imagine how seriously those people worked. That's what fascinates me.
With this record, I didn't want to talk about the destruction of a library. I wanted to pay homage to those curious, wonderful, beautiful minds. Because somebody that wakes up in the morning and is fascinated with stars, and he doesn't wait for a paycheck, but just looking for answers and understand the world that surrounds them—that's fucking amazing. That's what drops my jaw on the floor. So in the lyrics, when the translation movements come around and in the building of the library and everything, that's what I want to put focus on. I want to show the listeners that again, in history, men destroy beautiful things for no reason. But first things first, I wanted to talk about curiosity.
While that topic is exemplified by Pleiades’ Dust, this is not the first time that topic has come up in your work. Prior to this, you talked about similar topics in From Wisdom to Hate.
Oh, yeah, From Wisdom to Hate. That was maybe one of my first times taking an interest in ancient history.
It's interesting that that summation of the plot line repeats again in Pleiades' Dust. Baghdad went from wisdom to bloodshed. So it's the same theme you've repeated, from wisdom and then to hate.
Yeah, totally. But again, on "Pleiades'," it's a note to those wonderful minds. And also, I like to put the focus on the appearance of books, discovering the paper making craft from the Chinese and everything. That's why I take the time to quote all those things before I wrote my own lyrics because those things are so wonderful and fascinating. Now, we are happy to read a book on the tablet. I'm sorry. I'm not ready for that. I love my books. I love the smell of pages when I open the book. I love the objects.
I feel the same way. This is an ongoing problem I have with my family. I received a tablet for Christmas a few years ago. Whenever I come home, my suitcase is full of usually hardback books. My mother always asks "Why don't you read this on your tablet?"
I don't like it.
No. I tried to write my lyrics sitting down with my laptop and I can't do it. I need a pencil, I need paper, I like to scribe, I like to cross words. You know what I'm saying? I like to write my ideas down because you have a different pace of thinking also. You don't have to think about, “okay, lowercase here, copy paste this and that”. It's a different way of thinking. I think that my reflection process is different facing a screen than sitting down on the table with no noise, very quiet place, and thinking about words and writing down poetry, because those lyrics to me are the closest to poetry. I don't consider myself much of a poet at all. I'm totally proud once they are finished but I have no problem procrastinating working on lyrics.
But, I have so much admiration for people that choose to be a writer as a profession, to sit down with a sheet of paper and ideas, and tell stories and write down ideas. That's an amazing choice in life to devote yourself to, and I have a lot of admiration for that.
It's rare to hear that. I have had some conversations with some very intelligent intellectual people who say, "Well, the reason that writers are not paid well and are neglected by society is because it's a selfish pursuit."
Yeah, that's something that I entertained just a few days ago. I didn't have a prepared response to that.
A selfish pursuit? Music could be a selfish pursuit? It's the same thing.
I don't think of your music as selfish.
Not at all. I do that because I'm curious, and I like to share it with people after, and I like to express myself first in person. I like to write the music that I would love to hear. That's the main thing that drives me. A lot of people say, "Hey, what's up. What are you doing?" "I just decided to become a poet, but very seriously, and devote myself to it.” Do you know a lot of people that do that?
No, I don't as a matter of fact.
I don't know any. I like to listen to a show here that we have in Quebec on the French CBC, every afternoon, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. It's a radio program on books. So they interview writers. They do book reviews. There's a poet with the host of the show and he writes poems every Friday about something. This is amazing, that people devote a show to talk about books, to talk about words, talk about writing style. Those are all things that I don't really understand, but I find that amazing and very fascinating, as much as when I did not understand [Russian composer Dimitri] Shostakovich’s music the first time I heard it.
That's what art is all about. It brings something, a "Wow." You open Pandora’s box and you can't really explain what's going on, but there's something going inside of you because of the phrase or a melody. That's not pretentious. Is that a selfish thing, like you were saying before? That's not what it's all about. It's to make people feel that way, .
I had a conversation with one of the other writers on this website and we got into this conversation of “what is it that we do really, at the very core of it?” The best thing that I could come up with is that we reorient listening.
My goal is, hopefully, after someone reads this interview, they'll listen to Pleiades' Dust and it will affect them differently, not necessarily better but perhaps in some sort of more evocative way. That's my goal.
Totally, you like to share with people the works that touched you as an individual. So it's nice to sit down and reflect on it and write down the words on this. You kinda push yourself a little further: “What are the effects that this art form had on you as a person?” That's what art is for also. It needs to be shared. It needs to be looked [at]. It needs to provoke, evoke any kind of thing. “I like it, I don't like it, it makes me feel this, it makes me feel that.”.
I consider very much what we're doing as a death metal band. The composition, the way we do it, I see it like sonic paintings. When we’re gonna work on arrangement, I'm going to refer very often to images just to create ambiance with my colleagues, and it works very well. A music canvas, I say that very often. Before I write the lyrics, I'm sure that I get the music canvas all working together and not say, "Oh, like the lyrics are there, now it's gonna work." No. It has to work as a music composition by itself, and then we gonna dress it up with a story after.
But do you have the story in mind before you begin composing? Because I think ideally, it would be a synthesis.
No. I hear a lot of interviews with writers and there’s a quote that I hear very often from different editors. "You don't choose your topic. The topic chooses you".
I think that is correct.
I didn't really understand what they meant by that before. So when I had all the music ready for maybe two months, and I was still reading here and there, and I didn't really know what I was gonna talk about because my main, main, main idea was I wanted to do a reflection on dogma, why certain people give a sense to their life through the action created by a dogma.
Of course, religious but maybe there's other philosophical dogmas but of course usually, religion is the main reason. And then [I thought] "Nah, maybe that's too ambitious". I couldn't see clearly at all with this idea. So, with that being said, I was reading a lot of magazines with book reviews on the Arabic world. Some were like beautiful stories, some were more philosophical and so on for every aspect of Arabic culture.
And then there was this book from Jonathan Lyons called "The House of Wisdom." Jim Al-Khalili had a book as well, named "House of Wisdom." He had a first edition which was called "Pathfinders," but it's the same book and he changed the title to "House of Wisdom." I don't know who wrote which book before whom. I got the Jonathan Lyons book version. In the review, they were talking about the library and I said, "Wow, this is beautiful."
And I was really fascinated with the object of the astrolabe, which you can see on the record, because that's what you see on the Jonathan Lyon books. I had never seen that object before. I craft objects myself. I carve. I draw. I paint. So when I saw those things, I was like, "Wow, that's a beautiful object. I want to understand where it's from. I want to know what it's used for".
When I started reading the Jonathan Lyons book, it was more of a fiction told through real history. So it was like this guy leaving France, I believe, with the First Crusade and finding himself in Baghdad and then he discovers the library. But I wasn't comfortable with the way the story was told. And then I saw the BBC, Jim Al-Khalili series Science & Islam, and then I heard about his book “The House of Wisdom.” In that book he just hit the nail on the head. It's exactly what I wanted to read because it's kind of documentary-ish and it's very historical and he had a lot of anecdotes as well. That was perfect for me to feed myself, to write the lyrics.
So then I started a dissertation, when you take a topic and you organize how you are going to talk about your ideas: intro, development, et cetera. I started with the fall of Rome, and then the loss of knowledge, then foundation of Baghdad. “Within the Rounded Walls,” that's where Baghdad is. Then “Pearls of Translations,” and then “Compendiums.” That's when they just add books and books and books. And then there was a decline starting with the thinkers kind of being pushed away by religion at a certain point because the more curious caliphs were no longer in power. And then you get the Mongol invasion.
When I put the story down on paper and I was picturing the music the way it was written in my head, it was like the song was exactly perfectly written for that structure. You know those funny poems from [German composer] Richard Strauss, like Also sprach Zarathustra? They are not just music for the sake of music. There's very specific things happening in the music because it tells a story, like soundtracks so to speak. So with the composition that we have, it suited that story perfectly. I didn't have to change one note.
If that's the case, did that also happen on "Colored Sands?" That album also has this sort of narrative, historical narrative quality to it.
No. "Colored Sands," I knew after I had, like, the first three songs. I was kind of searching for a topic and then my girlfriend came home one day with coloring books for children. She went to visit a friend and she brought a little goldfish for the little girl or little boy of that friend. The child was so happy to get the little fish as a gift so he went in his coloring book and he colored a mandala and gave it to my girlfriend. So when my girlfriend showed it to me, she said, "Oh, isn't that cute? That kid made a mandala in his coloring book for me." I said, "A mandala? What is a mandala?" Then I started doing research on mandalas and said, "Wow, I want to talk about this." So that's how Colored Sands came into the picture.
That's still serendipitous. I think that's something that shows through in Gorguts—that I like about your project—is that it's not bound down by the dogma of death metal. You're willing to take these ideas that come into your life organically and you make them death metal. You don't make death metal to be death metal. You take this external thing and you render it into the art form. I think that's what I love about your music.
It's true. Take the song for instance, "An Ocean of Wisdom." Ocean of Wisdom means Dalai Lama. That's the English translation for the Dalai Lama, that’s what it means. And the song talks about how they discovered Dalai Lama and it's fucking crushing and brutal. The low vocals are there. It's not lacking any aggression because I'm talking about how they discovered the Dalai Lama as a kid. It's all about the angle that you use to approach it and bring it together. I don't feel myself limited at all, topic-wise, since I did Colored Sands, and have now sung about the library without compromising the death metal aesthetic at all. Now, I feel I can sing pretty much about everything that I find myself curious about.
This is one of the things that drew me to the music in the first place. One of the first death metal bands I loved was Nile. And one of the things I loved about them was being able to open the discs and read Karl Sanders' liner notes while listening to the music. It really added something. I find things like that and the topics behind Colored Sands and behind Pleiades' Dust so much more stimulating than any of this sort of violent satanic imagery which has now become quite trite to me.
We went pretty much full circle on those. I mean, nothing wrong, it's fine. That's a topic like any other topic. But for me, the liner notes are not there just to make myself look smart. I want to take the listener somewhere when he pushes play, like a soundtrack. Since we don't have images like a film, those liner notes are bringing images while you listen to the music and you're really in a specific place. And then the music has a different impact, listening to it, having those places in your imagination, that each listener can picture it the way he wants.
The experience of being able to absorb the artwork and listen to the sound at the same time and have that be a completely engrossing experience is unlike anything else that I've encountered in life. That is something you only get from a really well-crafted and immersive album experience.
Totally. That's why all those things are important. Layout is as important as the lyrics and as the music. It's not just, "Ah, we need a cover. Ah, we need whatever." No. Every step of the way is very important. Come on, you're crafting a record. It's not fucking hot dogs. You know what I'm saying?
Yeah, I do.
People take music so much for granted. Me and a buddy of mine were having fun the other day. I said, "Yeah, I think my album leaked already." He said, "Oh, yeah? Isn't that bad?" And I'm like, "Nah, dude. It's just music." Whatever. My friend, he used to work in the film industry. He was director of photography. And I said, "Yeah, even people leak films, like bad. It's just a movie." "But, dude, you know the amount of work that goes in a fucking film." "Same thing with a record."
But that was me being very sarcastic by, "It's just a record." I just spent two years working on that thing, so it's like, "Whatever, yeah, right." But that's how people really picture music, some of those who don't buy records and they don't care. They don't really see it as a work of art. And work of art is not being pretentious. That's what it is. You sit down. You write down ideas. You have the poetry craft in there. You have the composition craft in there. You have the imagery making craft in there. That's not a small thing to me.
It shouldn't be.
No. But nowadays, it's like, "Bah, it's just music, whatever." People are complaining, I have seen on the internet, people are complaining about the song being long and not divided in chapters. "It sucks. I couldn't put it on shuffle in my iPad" with all the other music you downloaded.
I hate that.
Fuck that, because, dude, you don't know what's the experience of sitting down and listening a record. It's for those people that I did it. I do this music for the experience of really listening to a record. When I called the shots for the artwork and all that stuff, I was really picturing people sitting down with the headphones, opening the booklet and really focusing on the sound, and reading the liner notes. There is enough room in between the singing moments so that people have to have enough time to read the liners with all those instrumental sections. So, yeah, anyways.
I am curious as to why you even broke it into chapters in the first place. If the song is a half-hour long, it's a half-hour long song. Some bands will do that. They will say, "Oh, it's one long song. No, it's actually a bunch of little ones strung together."
No, no, no, you know why? Because if the song would have been cut in sections like chapters in the lyrics, it doesn't mean that when those sections start and finish, if you isolate them and you listen to those parts from start to finish, they work. Let's say chapter number three. If you listen to it by itself, it doesn't work as a song by itself.
Right. That's exactly right.
It's like opening a book at page 48 and you're trying to figure out, "Oh, I don't really understand the beginning." You got to start it from the fucking beginning.
If you ever read like a novel and then say, "I'm not really liking this point in the story," someone might say, "Oh, well, skip a few chapters ahead. It will pick up." Fuck that. If you can do that, then what came between should have been cut out. If you can do that and the book makes sense, then it's a badly made book.
Totally. So I was really clear about challenging myself in the composition. I did not want this piece to sound like four songs put together or five songs put together. And I think it works because that's where the challenge was. The rest is not complicated to play. The hard work went really into the structure. And I think in writing, it's the same. You can imagine a character, like he's going to be this way for his personality, this and that. But in what context is he gonna evolve, the form? To me, the structure and the form, that's where I roll up my sleeves. I'm not saying that coming out with riffs is easy either, no. But you can have the best characters in the world down on paper and if they don't interact well together, it's not gonna work. It's not gonna be interesting.
That's exactly right. It's so funny for me to hear you say that the riffs are hard to play because I've seen you live twice and every time, during, say, the end of “Obscura,” I think, "What the fuck is he doing?"
Dude, it's way more simple than "Erosion" which we wrote in our 20s. I mean, we had everything to prove and to show, because we thought that technicality was within guitars playing difficult things. But at some point, virtuosity can be in structures and in the form, and that's something you can have. I’d rather put my energy there because I don't wanna sit down with the metronome and practice scales, but sitting down and putting a sound story together? I love that. And that's where you get more complexity within the structure. You have A, B, "Oh, B, half of B here, but we expose like quicker here and there."
So that's what Pleiades' Dust is all about: micro detail within the structure. As far as playing it on the instrument, it's not very complicated. I always say this in interviews: I'm the worst player in the band. I got Patrice [Hamelin, drums], Colin [Marston, bassist], and Kevin [Hufnagel, guitarist]. I mean, these guys, they can fucking play. Me, my plate is full with singing and playing my riffs, but it sounds complex because they dress it up with their own ideas and own language on top of it. That's where the polyphonic layers come into action.
Well, I think you've just touched on, I think, the big problem with this idea of technical death metal. I remember when I was in college it was a big part of my listening rotation, but I realized that one of the things I liked about it was it gave me this argument to level at people who didn't like metal, to try and levy technicality with artistic merit. Now that I'm older, I realize that's folly. It's dumb. I don't need to justify its artistic merit: that it's a work of art justifies itself. And the fault wasn't in my taste. It was in other people's prejudices. But the problem with technical death metal is that so much of the modern players are so fixated on doing mind-boggling things with their hands that they lose creative songs.
Yeah, that the songwriting is not within riff technicality playing. When we wrote "Obscura" we did a little manifesto amongst ourselves. We said, "Okay, no more fast picking riffing, it’s not allowed in the music. No more skank beats, the Slayer beat, not at all. There's plenty of bands doing that. We don't need an extra band doing that." And also, we said it's gonna be either slow, heavy riffs or blast beats, but it doesn't mean because you have a blast beat, you need to have 200 notes a second. Also—this was something important—when we are gonna play each others' riffs in the rehearsing room before we start writing another song, we're not allowed to look at the musician to see how the riff is played.
So we are not gonna be judging the music ideas on, "Oh, wow, it's very impressive. It looks very technical." I want when you can hear this riff once and say "Holy fucking shit, that's massive." It's like two fucking chords but very dissonant. The way it's put together is like holy shit, but it could be the most simple riff to play. So we really wanted to have our ears be the only judge with the composition of material. So it's the same thing like in classical music auditions. They're always playing behind a curtain or something so you don't see the player, so people need to be really focused on the phrasing and musicality. That's the kind of approach we wanted with fresh musical ideas. So we weren't focused at all on if it's a fucking technical riff to play or if it's not. It didn't matter. So the energy in the songwriting went in a different department. It was really into the effort to make it dark, to create something special. It's like a very experimental drawing. You don't need to do a million lines to have something. "Wow, he just fucking nailed it with a minimum of a pencil stroke." That's when a craft, after many, many, many, many years, like painter, carver, whatever, that's where it comes together. But that takes a lot of time. So I was seeing the death metal writing the same way, make it efficient, going somewhere.You don't have to overdo it, but that is where the difficulty comes in the picture.