Descent of Samsara
An Interview with Luc Lemay (Gorguts)
Gorguts do not require a formal introduction. They have been the flag-bearers of “forward thinking” death metal since the early 90’s and have inspired countless bands with their boisterous, unorthodox cacophonies . The band recently released a comeback album entitled Colored Sands with a new line-up featuring prodigies from Dysrhythmia, Behold the Arctopus and Origin on Season of Mist. Ankit of Heathen Harvest interrogated the band’s spearhead Luc Lemay about their new album, art, Tibet and more. This conversation is presented below:
Heathen Harvest: Gorguts’ fifth full-length album, “Colored Sands,” was recently released on Season of Mist, and it has received a stellar response everywhere. After listening to the album devotedly since the last month and a half, I can dare say that it is the pinnacle of your musical career which has spawned almost 25 years now. Could you enlighten us about the musical journey that transpired in the creation of “Colored Sands”? How many years did it take to finally bring this album to fruition?
Luc Lemay: Well, it all started in the Summer of 2008 when Steeve Hurdle gave me the idea to do a special Gorguts record to celebrate the band’s twentieth anniversary. From square one I knew that I wanted to have Colin and John in the band. Steeve had asked me to be a part of this but since we were already doing Negativa together I wanted to have someone I had never worked with. Then Steeve informed me about Kevin. So we watched a few videos of Kevin playing on Youtube, and I was totally blown away by his style! From there I wrote to everybody asking if they wanted to be a part of this record and they all said ‘yes’ right away!
Then, I said, “we’ll wait until I have 3 songs written before getting together and we’ll see how it works and clicks between us,” and it worked out great! So the way it worked was that I would write and record a song, single guitar to a click track, then I would write the music down on paper as tablatures, and I also did — for a song or two — a structure map of the music. I would e-mail this to each of them, and a few weeks later I would get the song back with each guitar and bass part written and recorded over my track. It was very spontaneous, and from that we’ve barely changed anything.
Regarding the drums, John and I got a few jams one on one so I could explain to him my vision as far as the drum patterns are concerned. Afterwards, when we got together we could play a whole song right away and fine-tune the arrangements.
The music was completed in 2010 and we got in the studio in February of 2011 to record all the basic tracks. Then I started working on the lyrics. For the first time, I wanted to have all the music finished before working on the lyrics, this way I could only focus on the story-telling aspect. It took me a year and a half to write the lyrics. This may sound like a lot of time, but I had to go through a lot of reading to educate myself on the topic of Tibet. Also, during that time I was also shopping for a record deal.
So, in the beginning I wanted to write a whole record on the topic of sand mandalas, but after I did some reading, I thought it was a bit too ambitious. Then by taking a geographic, philosophic and historic angle, there was a lot to be said. So I wrote the last song in January of 2013 and recorded the last songs at Colin’s studio. He mixed the record around that time as well.
HH: Your previous label, Olympic Records, was taken over by Century Media, and this created some legal issues for Gorguts. What happened with the old Century Media contract and how did you get signed to Season of Mist eventually?
LL: My contract with Olympic Records was bought by Century Media in the early 2000s at a time when I was done with the band. Back then, I was no longer interested in making music anymore and had gotten into woodworking full-time. So when I was ready to write music for Gorguts again, this contract didn’t suit my needs and vision, so I left Century Media and signed with Season of Mist. I thought SoM was a better suit artistically for Gorguts and they have been doing wonderful work for the band since then.
HH: Gorguts’ line-up has constantly changed throughout the years, and now you are the only founding member left. However, it is a highly remarkable feat that the band has always evolved in its ideology and musical pursuits despite the numerous line-up changes. The latest line-up boasts of veterans like John Longstreth, Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel whose pivotal contributions have made “Colored Sands” such a successful venture. How did you come to work with these gentlemen for creating the new opus? Wasn’t it challenging to work with musicians living in a different country than yours?
LL: It was not a challenge to play together even if we’re living far from each other. Now, with the use of technology, if one is well rehearsed and does his homework before getting together as a band, there’s no use of jamming together 5 times a week. Colin, Kevin and John are all very busy and well-organized musicians. Like I said before — every time I had 3 new songs ready, we would get together for a weekend to practice, do a demo of it, and on my way back home I could listen to a well produced recording! These guys are very professional and that makes it easy to work with them.
HH: The most striking aspect of “Colored Sands” is that it is based on a concept which has never been explored in a metal album before. You have fiddled with spiritual and existential themes in “Obscura” (the album booklet had a picture of the band meditating in yogic asanas) and in “From Wisdom to Hate” where you questioned idolatry and blind faith. However, you embarked on the lyrical themes for “Colored Sands” after getting introduced to the grandiose art of sand Mandalas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. How did you happen to be inspired so much by an alien tradition and culture that you chose to dedicate an entire album to it?
LL: It’s a funny story. One day my girl friend came to me and told me that she had visited a friend, and that friend had a child who offered a mandala from a coloring book to her as a gift. So when she told me about this little story, the word mandala stuck in my mind. From there I got very curious about this word, so I did some research on the internet just for fun, and when I saw a real mandala for the first time I got totally fascinated by the act of drawing with sand. From there I knew I was going to devote my next record to this beautiful topic.
HH: “Colored Sands” is a musical odyssey that leads the listener to the mystical lands of the Himalayas and unveils a rapturous saga that makes him realize the frailty of life. Right from the first track “Le Toit du Monde” — which translates to “The Roof of the World” (an obvious allusion to the Himalayas) — to the album’s finale, “Reduced to Silence”, the listener is engaged in a story that encompasses tales of wisdom, compassion and sorrow. It was quite bold on your part to select such an unusual topic and portray it through the medium of music and art. Besides the song-writing process, how much time did you invest in crafting the lyrics to fit the “story-telling” aspect that this album demanded?
LL: It took me around a year and a half to write all the lyrics. I acquired a lot of books. Books are just amazing! I love them! You can travel where ever you want with them. I could never go to Tibet, but through books it’s not such a big problem. I got a few photo books from Matthieu Ricard, who is the French interpreter for the 14th Dalai Lama. He is also an amazing photographer. I could spend hours looking through his pictures and letting myself be absorbed by the landscapes, the peoples’ faces, looking to the expressions in their eyes, etc. I also got, as a gift, an amazing book by Matthieu Ricard which is the Anthology of the Most Beautiful Tibetan Texts. Ricard also writes introductions to many different topics such as: The precious gift of life and the Karma (which inspired the song “Forgotten Arrows”). This book is filled with beautiful poetry and philosophical thought on compassion and human nature.
Then I also got a few books on the Chinese invasion of Tibet during 1950, but that was very complex to read, and it was important to have a good political and historical background to understand every single detail in those books. So I did my best to understand what I could, and from there I mostly focused on how those situations made me feel as an individual. I had no pretension of writing an accurate political “resumé”, but I wanted to focus more on the feelings of injustice, intrusion, helplessness, desperation and compassion through the acts of war, invasion, self-immolation, exile and non-violence.
I also had no pretension of telling any kind of “truth” on events that had happened in Tibet. I just wanted to share my amazement towards their beautiful geography, philosophy and simple way of life, and I also wanted to share my sorrow toward their fate. From there, the listener can start his own journey and develop his own opinion on the aforementioned subjects. Throughout the lyrical process, I never felt the need to point out the Chinese infiltrators. Even on the illustration of “Enemies of Compassion”, I didn’t want to have a Chinese soldier killing a Tibetan monk with a gun; I wanted to use the emblematic animals or creatures that symbolized both nations and confront them in a painting like De Lafontaine used to do through his Fables. He would expose a situation proper to human nature but having virtues and behavioral traits incarnated by animals.
HH: You have raised an important rhetorical question in the lyrics of “Reduced to Silence” which contemplates on the efficacy of the method of non-violence. Perhaps this question defines the very essence of the album’s concept. The Chinese invasion had an adverse effect on Tibet, its people and its beautiful culture. They had to face torture and humiliation in their own land for several years and yet they stuck to their policy of non-violence and compassion towards such a grave enemy. To quote your own lyrics: “How shall we be remembered through the course of history? As strengthless beings…? Who chose submission as their way to be”. This question can stir a big debate, but I’d like to know your opinion on the subject nevertheless.
LL: I’m a strong believer that one’s freedom finishes where the freedom of others starts. I think what happened in 1950 is totally awful and I wonder why anybody would wish to oppress pacific people like the Tibetans. For example, being caught with a simple picture of the Dalai Lama can put one in jail! What do you do with this? There is no freedom of speech for them. Would you act non-violently in a context like that? I wouldn’t.
At some point, I think one needs to say enough! I don’t think the non-violence philosophy has served their cause, and at the end of the day, what do you think is going to happen when the 14th Dalai Lama dies? Tibetan people will continue to be assimilated, and, slowly, they’ll be forgotten, and their culture will be endangered. You know, it really made me think about my little comforts by trying to put myself in these people’s shoes for one minute. Here, a person can get angry because he just dropped his new iPhone on the side-walk, and because of that he won’t be able to take a picture of his hamburger to post it on Facebook. It is ridiculous!
Go take a look at this documentary film called What Remains of us on Youtube. I can assure you that your perspective will change and you won’t feel like complaining about the fact that you couldn’t wish “Good night!” to all of your “friends” on twitter.
HH: The Tibetan Government in Exile is currently residing in India, Bhutan, Nepal and other nations of the world. It is true that leading a life forced in exile is the most painful experience that a civilization can endure, but this has been a blessing in disguise for the rest of the world as the teachings of Tibet have now spread all across the globe. Many institutions are now operating in North America and Europe where Tibetan teachers are spreading their wisdom among the people without any distinction of caste, color and creed. This has given them a hope of salvaging their tradition and culture. What do you think about the global appreciation of Tibetan Buddhism and its teachings in the West?
LL: I think it’s amazing that westerners are interested in this culture and that they’re interested in spreading Tibet’s values and traditions. I went to the House of Tibet in NYC and it was a beautiful place!
HH: It is very important for a conceptual album to emphasize on the graphic presentation in order to leave a long-lasting impression upon the listeners. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to see the artwork of “Colored Sands” acting as a perfect portrayal of the album’s theme. The paintings in the album booklet provide strong allusions to the lyrics contained therein. Kindly elaborate on the creative process involved in the making of the cover art and the paintings in the album. Was Martin given the freedom to render the pieces in his own style or did he work strictly on your ideas? What do the Tibetan letters printed in the inlay signify?
LL: Martin Lacroix did a fantastic job on the artwork! We shared many discussions about the look and the “story-telling” feel of each illustration. From the beginning, I had a very clear vision about each painting for each song. The one that Martin surprised me the most with was the front cover. I knew for a long time that I wanted to put more focus on the position of the hands. Hands are very expressive and they’re able to get the message across very easily without the use of words. So I knew that I wanted to have the “praying hands” and the “tied hands” together in the same picture. I could never figure out a way to make them work efficiently. Then Martin came up with the idea of the two pairs of hands coming out of the same figure. I loved that idea! I think this was a very strong statement. There was no need to put more elements because everything which I required was there! We can easily see each aspect of the whole concept in one single picture.
The Tibetan scriptures are nothing but the titles! I was lucky enough to find someone in Montréal who could translate the titles for me. I think their calligraphy looks amazing and it adds a lot of poetry to the iconographic elements in the layout. I think that no details were neglected.
HH: Since these artworks are such an important aspect of the album, have you thought of using them as live projections for your prospective performances? Would you also like to work on a music video for further exploration of the album’s general theme?
LL: I would love to have projections someday, but that’s a lot of work to organize. We shall see if it is possible to use them in the future. A video would be cool as well, but I wouldn’t make a video with us playing and head-banging; I would rather use imagery that is related to Tibet, but in a story-telling way and make something epic.
HH: The orchestral track, “The Battle of Chamdo,” was a surprise for many Gorguts fans. Musically, it symbolizes the tension and the melancholy of the Tibetan people during the invasion of the Chinese forces. When did you start composing classical music? Some of your old compositions are still available on your Myspace page, but do you have any plans of recording a full-fledged album of classical pieces?
LL: I began writing classical music around 1994. I started taking violin lessons in 1993 and switched to viola in 1994. Being in contact with music partitions made me curious to know how so many stacked staves could work all together at once. So, I wrote a short piece for a string quartet in 1994, and when we moved the band to Montréal, I got admitted to a private college to study viola from 1995-96. I auditioned for the composition class at the music conservatory in the Spring of 1996, and there I studied composition, orchestration, harmony, analysis, counterpoint and choir singing from 1996 to 2000. Then I decided to leave, without finishing my diploma. I had to study electro-acoustic composition then, and since I was not interested in that medium, I decide to drop out. Those years were fantastic! It was amazing to work with all these Masters in each of the disciplines. Also, what I liked about the conservatory was that some of the disciplines had around 3 to 5 students per classes, so you got a closer relationship with the teacher and you could ask way more questions than an average class.
Someday I would love to release a CD with orchestral and chamber music, but it costs so much money to hire musicians, that doesn’t make things easier for me.
HH: The compositional prowess of Gorguts has always been the band’s most commanding aspect. Even after 16 years, “Obscura” continues to inspire contemporary artists, and there is no denying the fact that many bands in the modern era owe a lot to your visionary creations. “Colored Sands” is a perfect example of the aforementioned characteristic. It utilizes the trademark Gorguts sound and expands it into newer territories of progressive, avant-garde music and atmospheric textures. Enlighten us about the creative ethos of Gorguts and the band’s approach towards song-writing that usually goes beyond conventional norms.
LL: Rule number one: I always try to write the music I would love to hear from a listener’s point of view. I don’t let technicality for the sake of technicality to take the point of attention. I focus on creating dark ambiance (the need for surprise elements is important as well). When you write a story would you like the reader to foresee the twist within 2 pages of your book? Absolutely not! It’s the same with music. Also, beginnings are very important as well. Every song needs to have a very distinctive beginning. Again, it’s like writing a book. Would you like every chapter in your book to start exactly the same way? Absolutely not! So, when I think that I’ve found strong thematic material and strong riffs, I proceed to work on the structuring. Song structures are very important. I don’t write 3 to 4 minute songs with 15 riffs haphazardly thrown together. So if the music can get interesting enough with only one guitar and a click track then with the arrangements and other instruments it’s just going to sound more “big” and polished.
It’s the same with lyrics. I carefully spot the sections where I’m going to sing. Then I construct the counter rhythms for those singing interventions and from there I rigorously let the music lead in a way that I don’t use my comfort zone patterns win over what the music would command me to do. I always do my best to start most of the singing lines with a consonant. That’s a trick I got from the choir signing sessions. When I sang in the choirs, the maestro always insisted on having the consonants exaggerated. It sounds tighter and has more attack than a vowel. So even if I have a good word to express my idea in the lyrics but if it starts with a vowel, I will omit this word and search for another one that can express the same idea but which starts with a consonant.
HH: The triumph of “Colored Sands” is a healthy indicator of the fact that death metal can go beyond clichés and delve into deeper topics of existentialism, culture and spirituality. How crucial do you think is the role of art and symbolism in the realm of metal music? Do you feel that contemporary artists should think beyond the entertainment aspect of the music and create genuinely inspired albums?
LL: Yes, I have never been a fan of those bands who put more effort in the way they dress than focusing on the music. That being said, I still like Slipknot; I think Corey Taylor is a great artist, a poet and a very smart individual. I’ve always been more attracted to the act of composition than show business. I would be very happy just making records and not having to perform them live. Of course, image is important because it sells records — but for myself, I’m good with my jeans and t-shirts. I’ll put my energy into writing riffs instead.
HH: Canada has always been the hub of top-notch extreme music. The current scenario boasts of artists like Mitochondrion, Antediluvian, Adversarial, Paroxsihzem, Auroch, Gevurah, etc. What do you think about this new generation of musicians whom are keeping the flame alive in Canada?
LL: I think that it is great! I’ve always encouraged new talent. I’m not too familiar with all those names, but I’ve heard some of them and I think it’s great to see the ambition within this forward thinking aesthetic.
HH: What are the future plans for Gorguts? Since “Colored Sands” has received a favorable reception, do you wish to create another album soon?
LL: Of course! It’s been a long time since I wrote new music. I can’t wait to sit down and begin to sketch a new album. I would love to do an EP next. I’ve always liked this format because I see it like short films. It’s as powerful as a feature film but with a shorter canvas to express your story.
HH: With this we come to an end of this interview. On behalf of Heathen Harvest, I extend my gratitude towards you for taking out your precious time and answering the questionnaire. The final space is yours.
LL: Thank you very much for the interview. I really enjoyed sharing my views on the different topics about Colored Sands with you. Thanks to all the fans for their love and support.
Looking forward to meeting many of you on the road!