Interview by Jason Williams
Canadian avant-garde/technical death metal group Gorguts released and EP called ‘Pleiades’ Dust’ in May 2016 via Season Of Mist, a concept-based 33-minute single composition with seven lyrical segments, created in a manner only Gorguts could, led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Luc Lemay. The band was formed in 2009 and with each album, helped inspire an innovative and forward-thinking approach to death metal. Gorguts recently concluded a North American headline tour with support from Intronaut and Brain Tentacles, and played a show at the Roxy as part of the run. Our writer Jason Williams caught up with Lemay for a detailed interview about all things Gorguts. Enjoy the conversation below, along with tastes of the new EP.
How has the tour been coming along?
Awesome! The tour has been great! I cannot complain. I mean, I’m with a bunch of friends, playing music every night. What more do you want, you know? (laughs) We’re all passionate people together, and we’ve played shows together, and have been buddies for many, many years. On this tour, what’s fun is that everybody knew someone at some point, maybe have toured together, so it’s a bunch of friends getting together and it’s great. And the fans have been super generous. The audiences themselves have been just great.
This is your third tour in over four years, and your last tour was two years ago, touring with Carcass and The Black Dahlia Murder, and I felt it was great to reintroduce yourself to the fans considering the long hiatus Gorguts had previously. Of course, the band received wonderful responses throughout that tour. Did that special tour help the band reach new audiences and also even strengthen the solid fan base Gorguts already has?
I mean, the Decibel tour, first things first, having a magazine like Decibel bringing a window for music, you couldn’t ask for better frame to put that music in. It was amazing, and many people that never heard about us or never seen us live back in the ’90s or early 2000s, it was the first time for those particular audiences seeing the band, a win-win thing. It was great, great, great (laughs). And I was so honored to be on this magazine’s tour, which I love, and have been receiving the magazine as a fan for several years beforehand.
And speaking of special tours, we were mentioning shortly before the interview about the very first Death To All tour in 2012, in which Gorguts was the only band supporting the DTA group. Very first tour for the band in several years…
Yes, our last first in ten years!
Right! And it was a very personal tour for everyone involved, honoring the memory of Chuck Schuldiner and bringing everyone together one last time, to those unable to witness Death live before his passing. Talk about how the process was for Gorguts to be asked to open the tour, and how you were approached?
I just got an email! As simple as that. Because we played Maryland Death Fest, like a year or two before that, and we also just done a European tour as well, so people were aware that we were back and running about. ‘Scream Bloody Gore’ was a life changing record for me, that’s when I made the decision and said, “Okay. I want to form a death metal band, sing like this guy, sing like Chuck.” I even got a custom guitar made for the Death to All tour, in the Stealth shape. To be asked to open for this amazing, special occasion and pay a tribute to him, I couldn’t be happier to be in a place to open for this tour, and to meet all of these guys, who are my idols. Been listening to (Gene) Hoglan since the Dark Angel days, and I was a huge Dark Angel fan, so to share stories and see him everyday was really special. Also the same with (Steve) DiGiorgio, and just about everybody else. I feel very lucky (laughs).
Speaking of those early days and albums mentioned, Gorguts’ first two records, ‘Considered Dead’ and ‘The Erosion of Sanity’, I feel a very strong influence of the early death metal scene, Death and Suffocation in particular, very similar in regards to the drumming and the riffing style. And then, you completely changed the metal world years later recording and releasing ‘Obscura’, which I believe broke the barrier for the extreme avant-garde metal that modern bands today, such as Ulcerate, Deathspell Omega and several others have incorporated. It’s a simple but loaded question to ask, in that as fans we ask ourselves how did Black Sabbath come up with the opening riff to the song ‘Black Sabbath’, and how Iron Maiden created their legendary melodic harmonies, so for what you helped create, how did you come up with the late Steve Hurdle as your guitar player for that record, with those kind of unusual sounds, chords, dissonant harmonics? Fans I’m sure at the time said to themselves hearing it, “This doesn’t sound normal. You’re not supposed to play like this!”
That came about because we made a very clear decision, everybody together. The three writers in the band, of course the drummer included, Steve MacDonald, was writing with us in the arrangement department and everything. But the thing is, we did some kind of manifest together. This was right after ‘Erosion’, so we said okay, writing a new record: no fast-picking riff is going to be accepted in the music, no scat beat, which ‘Erosion’ is all about. So none of those mentioned were going to be allowed, everything else, but none of those other ones. And then we’ll start from there, and see what happens. The band also decided to do both vocals as well, so those were the main lines.
I believe no tremolo picking as well, as you mentioned in an interview a long time ago.
Exactly! Good point, that was another one.
Why were those ‘limits’ set in place?
Because, if you stay in your comfort zone, it takes forever just to incorporate a new thing in your sound. But if you force yourself not to use everything that you’re comfortable with, then you have to create yourself a new language that you’re happy with. So it forces you to explore, to touch the instrument differently, and approach the music differently as well, to get new sounds out of it. And the thing also is, when we played each other’s riffs at the next rehearsal, we would take a week off, everybody would write, and the next Monday we would get together. Everybody brings their riff to the table, we choose which ‘character’ to pick and then we make a song with it. But the thing was, we weren’t allowed to look into how the riff was played. Because for example, if you have this fast-picking, super like, “Dude! This looks super impressive playing it.” But when you heard it for like ten minutes, you’re like, “Nah!” So we didn’t want to be distracted by the execution of playing the actual riff. So everybody, eyes closed, and just listening, and then we were like, “Holy shit! This is fucking great!” And then when you look at the riff, it’s like, two open strings and with a cluster or something added (laughs). Even with all that, it helped us develop more of the listening aspect, instead of just technical guitar point of view or something, which ‘Erosion’ was all about. So with all of those ingredients, that’s how ‘Obscura’ came to be.
I believe it to be a true “musical” experience, and I remember long ago in an interview, you said discussing the making of ‘Obscura’, that if you can sing/hum the whole song, you can play the whole song.
That’s another thing too! When we would show riffs to each other, instead of saying, “First finger, fourth fret, etc”, okay, we’ll get there, but first things first, I got back from working with a choir, singing with them, and what did we do first? You have to sing what you hear. That’s the best way to incorporate and integrate the the musical idea in your mind. So if you can sing it from start to finish easily, then when you sit down, learning the fingering and progression, you already know where you are in the idea, instead of connecting 25 dots together, and you don’t know if you’re at the 12th or the 13th one. Do you get that image here? So by working with that, it brings another way as well.
Was percussion a very important part of the process? Were there other influences, or non-metal influences at that time, that were a part of your life to help influence ‘Obscura’?
No, I believe for the drumming, that’s all MacDonald. And as far as ‘Obscura’, he just wrote what he was feeling at the time.
Robert Patrick didn’t drum on the record?
Yes he did, but he didn’t write the record. That was Steve MacDonald who played on ‘From Wisdom to Hate’, and he happened to leave the band for about two years, and we happened to get a record deal while he left the band. So instead of calling him back, we had Patrick to learn the record. But MacDonald wrote every song, wrote the whole record with us.
How was the new sound perceived, not only in your community as far as other bands and peers, but by fans as well? The record was released in 1998, and some may not know, but Gorguts had material for ‘Obscura’ before the release year, around 1993-1995.
By November 1994, we had ten songs of ‘Obscura’ done, finished in the can. And then we couldn’t get a deal, so we just wrote some more. Then we came up with ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Obscura’. But we’re talking like March ’94 was when ‘Obscura’ was written. We recorded it like four, five years later, because we couldn’t find a record deal with this music, nobody wanted to sign this.
With that being the record label’s point of view at the time, and with bands like Morbid Angel, Suffocation and Vader coming through, what did people feel about the musical change? Was it well received?
It was well received, but it was a very small audience. It took a while. And people were like, “What the fuck is this?” Now, when I say ‘Obscura’, everybody has their fist in the air, it’s like, “Yeah, bring it on!” (laughs). It’s time, you know? It just happens with time. Thesound was able to find its right place.
I’d like to discuss your most recent progression, going from your latest full album ‘Colored Sands’, into your most recent release and EP, Pleiades’ Dust. The EP is one song at 33 minutes long, broken up lyrically into seven different “parts.” Was there a reason you didn’t make it a seven song EP? Or did you believe the meaning and concept of it would be taken away if you did so?
No, because first things first, I really wanted to do one long composition, and the thing is, it’s very easy with the lyrics to see where the parts start and finish. If you take those parts alone, by themselves, they don’t really work as single songs. They’re segments. And also, it was really written in the way of a long breath, a long composition. It doesn’t sound like three or four songs put together either. And that was important for me to really work on the structure, on the phrasing, on the pacing, so it doesn’t sound something just put together so suddenly. I’m very, very happy with the way it came out, especially with everyone’s input and the arrangements by Kevin (Hufnagel, guitarist), Colin (Marston, bassist) arrangement, and Patrice (Hamelin, drummer). It’s really cool to have Patrice on the drums here. It’s his first record with us too, and just amazing performances by everybody.
How much was everyone in the band involved in writing this EP?
The way we work is that I wrote the whole Pleiades’ Dust from start to finish. I programmed all the drums, but everybody’s free to input. Colin brought a lot of odd ideas into the phrasing, and for me, it was the first time I ever programmed drums. To me, it was easier instead of being in a room one on one with Patrice, and him drumming and singing him drum fills, which is like what we used to do back in the day. But now with technology, it’s like, “Hey buddy! That’s the best drum idea I can imagine of right now. Start with this, or you can propose or suggest anything you want!” Best idea wins, that’s how it works. So I play my guitar with all of those drums, send them to Colin, Kevin and Patrice. Kevin and Colin both write their voice over what I wrote. That’s why it becomes very contrapuntal, you know? It’s three voices dialogue-ing together.
I believe as an elite guitarist, musician and songwriter as you are, you’re surrounded by a group of wonderful musicians, especially Kevin. I can see he’s very young and quite gifted, noble and cerebral guitar player with all the detail I see him putting into each note live. How do you feel as a fellow musician, having such a grand supporting cast? Does it make your job easier running the band as well?
I mean, they’re amazing! I’d like to say that I’ve always been super happy with any lineup that I’ve had, because we make great music and did the best that we could when we wrote it. And with these guys, it’s the same thing. But I’d like to say that I’m the worst player in the band, being surrounded by these people (laughs). They got their chops, to say the very least.
It’s also the one who writes the material most of the time, I believe, should be given more credit than the ones who just play it.
Oh, they’re great writers too (laughs). You know what they’re doing also. They don’t need me to … (laughs) they know how to write music too. But it’s great because we connect very, very well. And they know what I like, aesthetically. It doesn’t sound like a Gorguts/Dysrhythmia song or whatever. They can really grab the fingerprint of the band and truly make it their own style also. You hear everybody’s individual voice in the writing, which is great.
In terms of breaking these barriers, with music evolving so much, bands playing much faster, using new kinds of chords, instruments, etc., it’s amazing to see it being tested to the limits and more, and I believe as you being responsible for making that type of change for the extreme metal side, in creating ‘Obscura’ and making something so iconic and full of change. How has your passion differed and grown with these new bands continuing to evolve and change the scene every moment possible?
It’s great that those doors have been. That’s how I feel. I’m the first one to run to the music store and buy a record, and I like to be challenged. I’m a fan first, but I couldn’t be happier. A lot of people were saying back in the mid ’90s that death metal is over, it’s stagnating and all of that. But every art is like that at some point. You need to challenge it, and it takes time to bring in a new style, which doesn’t happen overnight. You need to have artists that question themselves about it, and I believe those styles, with all of those said bands, it doesn’t lack heaviness, and I think it’s one of the types of death metal that’s the most open and creative. It has the widest spectrum of experimentation. When it’s made with taste, it’s remains fucking heavy, and it is very enjoyable and challenging to listen to. It’s not stuck in cliche as much as the other styles, I think.
As involved as you have been in the metal scene for nearly 30 years with Gorguts, what was it like back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and what can this new generation learn in terms of what was done right before?
I think it’s always the best it can be at the time that it happens. I don’t feel, “Oh, it was way better back in the days! Because back in the days, we thought everything was the shit!” I never had the impression. Never ever had that. It’s a matter of being in a creative mood and writing the music that you want to hear, and as an artist, you can be happy. I never felt one time was better than another. Never. And now with the technology, it’s great, because you don’t have to rely on tape trading. Everything goes at a faster pace, and you have a better window to show your craft to the worldwide scene and get your art spread around.
In terms of extreme metal music, many groups of people associate it with hate, anger, and troublesome situations. Sometimes it’s correct, depending on who is venting, but surely it’s circumstantial. With yourself, I consider you to be a real joyful, positive individual. And going back to the ‘Obscura’ days and how the music was made, heard and thought of at the time, I believe there has to be a real reach and digging into a psychological and emotional look at yourself when composing true extreme music. To be what it is, can you tell me how it’s possible for someone to find that extra self within, within a pure positive outlook?
(Laughs) I mean, for instance, do you think that the people who write horror films and script, that they go on the street and kill people?
Of course not.
It’s the same thing, I think. I don’t think, like Stephen King, is a negative person or whatever. I mean, I don’t know, but it’s the first example that comes to mind. Metal is a canvas to tell stories. The same thing with film. Film is another medium to tell another story. Painting, it’s the same thing, you know? I often said, we have enough artists doing love songs and everything, and it’s great. Why not this medium for darker subject and everything? Same thing in film. I really see this as a medium, like film, or painting, you name it. Classical music as well. You have composers which are super dark, like (Ralph) Benatzky, and (Arcangelo) Califano who’s a new Norwegian composer. And I’m very well sure he’s a joyful person. You can be negative and be always bummed, and write stuff like that, being prolific, if you’re not in a good mind state or something. So it’s all about storytelling with sound. And even with ‘Colored Sands’, it’s not a negative record. It doesn’t lack heaviness because of the topic, you know? We’re not stuck in corpses and blood and any of that in order to play death metal. You see the last record? I tell the story of a library… hello? (laughs) And it’s fucking great.
I feel like ‘Obscura’ is really ahead of its time in terms of the musical arrangements, the dissonance, songwriting, structures, unique form of clarity involved, and I feel there’s a very special aspect to it. Not exactly ‘dark’, per se, but you have to have a very open-minded special place within your heart to dig very deep, and to obtain something, in this case musically, that is just… so different.
I really see this with Pleiades’ Dust, long phrase like this, it’s really taking the listener by the hand, and telling them, “Hey. Let’s go there, and I’ll tell you a story.” And it’s a beautiful story, about building a library, the books involved, and then the invasion. It’s super epic, really. And what a vehicle we have! Blastbeats, fucking dark riffs (smiles). It’s like when you see those historic epic movies with the big orchestra blasting in the background. This is the same thing. It’s all electric but it’s the same spirit, I think. It’s a vehicle to express ideas and make art. That’s how I see it. I don’t specially see the process of making records as a ‘music business’ thing. Yeah, we make records, but I really see this as a craft. As painting is a craft, carving as a craft, that’s how I see it. When I sit down with my guitar, it’s like… I’ll paint a background and i’ll put some words on it to tell the story that matches the ambiance of what we have.
What is next for Gorguts? The EP has just been released and this tour is in progress, so will there be any material that is to be written right after this? Any future tours, or even supporting tours to continue to grow Gorguts further?
We know that in March we’re going to play in Australia and then in New Zealand. But, let’s say before or after Christmas, I’m going to start writing a new record. I feel like Pleiades’ Dust is kind of out of my system, and it usually takes me a long time. Because if I start to try to write new music, I don’t want it to be a bad B-Side of Pleiades’ Dust, you know? It always takes me a while for it to get out of my system, because that’s all I think about when I make a record: The lyrics, the music, and I’m so submerged by it, it takes me a long time to really get it out of the system and start new music on a clean slate for new ideas. But now I feel in that mood. Touring with great bands like Brain Tentacles, and Intronaut, it’s very inspiring. It’s a ‘geeky’ tour, I think. Let’s say a youngster who is really geeky on guitar or compositions, I think they get their fix on this tour (laughs).
Any more North American touring plans coming up after this? Possibly summer time?
Not that I can say. We’ll do a festival in Montreal in the spring. But other than that, it’ll be writing, and right now we don’t have any offers. And you know, Colin’s really busy with the studio, so it’s not like we’re touring machines, so it’ll be the right tours at the right times. So we’ll see.
Anything you’d like to say to the fans who despite Opeth and Ghost playing separate shows within miles of here, that want to really be here and support Gorguts through and through?
I want to say, thank you to every fan for coming to the show. As you know, I’m at the merch booth, and first thing I say to anyone coming by, “Thanks for coming out tonight, we’re going to have a great evening.” That’s my thing, and without the people, for all of these years, we wouldn’t be here tonight, talking together. So it’s all their fault, if I’m here tonight (laughs).