Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier on activism, metal purists and sweating the small stuff
We chat to the singer and guitarist about the recording of Fortitude, Project Amazonia and embracing guitar solos.
Image: Gabrielle Duplantier
Fortitude, the new album from metal quartet Gojira, was written and recorded before March 2020. Not that you’d know, listening to it – between lyrics pining for Another World, the invigorating riffs and the sense of unity communicated, it seems tailor-made as an antidote to pandemic exhaustion.
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A year ago, it was already a little trite to begin an interview with COVID-19-based scene-setting. Heading into May 2021, it feels redundant, like establishing the interview took place on Earth. But Gojira’s music has always been about cultivating inner strength in the face of a seemingly doomed state of affairs. The band have spent their discography articulating a response to the destruction of our planet’s environment and wildlife, the consumerism that feeds it and the authorities that aren’t doing enough to stop it. It’s a frustration that we’ve become all too familiar with over the last year, compounded by the isolation of pandemic travel restrictions.
Musicians, in particular, are of course, massively affected by the latter. Fortitude marks the first time Gojira aren’t celebrating an album release while the band is on the road. “That’s how albums come alive,” Joe Duplantier tells us, as we catch up with him at the tail end of Fortitude’s press cycle. He’s clearly a little tired of working remotely: gearing up for an album release over phone calls and Zoom meetings places a huge gulf in between the hard work and its results.
“Normally, we’re somewhere in Europe between two gigs and the album comes out. The band and crew are on the bus, we’re celebrating together.” But for Fortitude, the mixed-up schedule means seeing fan reactions through a screen, rather than through the faces of the front row. “When that’s not happening, it’s just like we’re dropping an album and… that’s it.”
Across Gojira albums old and new, all four members stay completely locked together as they traverse ever-shifting time signatures and lightning-paced riffs. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that a familial connection forms their sound’s central pillar – Joe Duplantier is joined by his brother Mario on drums, alongside guitarist Christian Andreu and bassist Jean-Michel Labadie. Following the pandemic hitting the US, the Duplantier brothers returned to their family home in south-west France.
“Not touring is a major pain, but it’s a great opportunity for us to be home with our families and you know, find out what it is to have… not a normal life, but a little more normal,” Joe says. “If it was a normal life, I guess we would go to work every morning and do something other than, you know, do interviews…”
The family presence in Gojira was put in a new light on their previous album, Magma. Its writing and recording was overshadowed by the death of the Duplantier brothers’ mother early into its making. While the resulting album allowed an expression of grief, the songs within became tied to a particularly painful moment for the pair. They wanted to move on. In deliberate contrast, as the band started writing Fortitude in 2018, they committed to one thing: to have fun this time. It sounds like they did, as Gojira’s signature sound is bolstered by some surprising additions: There’s more clean singing, some massive, triumphant group vocals, and even some bona-fide rock guitar solos.
“I had a blast!” Joe exclaims, before recalling: “Back in 2000, we [the Duplantier brothers] had a band with high school friends, we were doing a mix of a lot of things. A bit of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, System Of A Down, Death, even pop. I was doing solos at the time, but I was almost pretending to do them – I never had the inclination to be a shredder.”
If there are ‘solos’ in Gojira, they’ve been mainly textural up until Fortitude – doing a similar job as a new riff or an effects-laden ambient passage. “But if you put a few notes together, you immediately have that feeling of playing a solo,” Joe says. “I’m discovering now that I enjoy doing this, actually. I take it seriously – but I’m aware that my language and my skills are very limited. I play with what I have, there’s a few tricks I can do with the high notes and I’m enjoying doing them!” he says, and air-guitars away on an invisible 22nd fret.
Really, the expanded tonal palette of Fortitude shouldn’t be too surprising, even if some moments make you check you’re still listening to the same band. Gojira have introduced at least one curveball on every album. Synthesizers, samples, strange vocal processing, raw acoustic recording – a tendency to curve away from typical metal production has always been there, but never in such sharp focus as on Fortitude.
“What you see of Gojira on an album is just the tip of the iceberg: our musical realm is much, much larger than just death metal,” Joe explains. “And we sprinkle every album with a little bit of it, you know, a bit of tribal music, or some weird singing in a transition.
“Even on 2005’s From Mars To Sirius, there are drums that sound almost like hip hop, and then there’s whales on top. It’s been always present in our discography. But for the first time, I think we embraced that. Instead of limiting it to just little transitions, we started to put these things into more epic songs. More melodic. We’re exploring a little bit of our secret realm that we have.” Joe laughs and says: “It’s like we have tools and weapons hidden, and we’re going to start pulling them out one by one as we record albums.”
Intense music can attract intense people, and so watching a metal band embrace the melodic and joyous side of things can be like watching someone play pinata with a wasps’ nest. But death metal purists have never gotten under Duplantier’s skin: he references Carcass’ Swansong, a blisteringly fun record that embraces rock ‘n’ roll alongside melodic death metal. It was a change in sound which stirred up controversy even before online comments sections made that easy. “Many people didn’t understand it, because it was full of rock. All of a sudden, they went from these dissonant sounds and gory lyrics to something that sounded more like an anthem”
“And I really loved that album. I was a bit intrigued. A bit disturbed, even. But it was a good thing for my development as a person to hear Carcass playing rock. It’s fun!
“People take themselves too seriously. They take the whole metal thing too seriously. I think we’re here to have fun, you know. We’re born. And then we do a few things. And then we die. Why not have fun? Instead of trying to fit in little boxes.”
Joe brushes the purists off once more: “I like to think the album is going to make a lot of people happy. But of course we have the haters, you know. Zero haters on an album means your album has gone completely unnoticed”
Mix as you go
The typical process of tracking guitar for a metal album normally involves recording a direct signal alongside a placeholder guitar tone. After editing together a perfect performance and beginning the mixing process, “you can throw that in a different amp and re-record it,” Duplantier explains. “It’s magic. It was absolutely incredible when that happened in the music industry.”
“It was a big thing for guitarists to know that if they’re not satisfied with their sound when they mix, it can change it. But what I learned with years of experience is there’s a moment for everything. When it comes to mixing, there’s a world of problems to tackle.
“You’re doing very specific work to balance volumes and frequencies. They’re battling each other. It’s very complicated. It’s usually towards the end of the process, there’s a deadline coming. So the momentum is not great to reamp. It’s time-consuming. And it’s nerve-wracking, especially closer to a deadline.”
Instead, the band mixed as they went – first establishing a drum sound, and obsessing over the details as they recorded. “That allowed us to see where the guitars would need to stand in the mix. If we had some very messy drums with all the frequencies, it would be a world of low end, you know, like a soup. When you mix as you record, then you know a little more what you want from every instrument.”
One benefit of this approach was the absence of a ‘we’ll fix it later’ attitude – the connection to the songs was much more immediate, closer to playing live. “When I track a guitar with drums that sound already super roomy and punchy, it makes me want to play a certain way, it gives me more energy while I track. It’s a pretty horrible feeling when you track an album and everything sounds terrible. But you have to imagine that it’s going to sound good at mixing, I didn’t have to do that this time. It was very inspiring to see the songs building with already good sounds, the sounds that we wanted, pretty much.”
It also made the mixing process much easier on legendary recording engineer Andy Wallacem who took on mixing duties for Fortitude. “We only had to fine tune a little bit, each one at mixing. I was on the phone with him – because the pandemic was happening when the mix started – and he said, ‘oh my god, it looks like it’s already mixed.’ We almost reversed the way we did things before. And I cannot go back now.”
Change yourself, change the world
While most Gojira’s albums grapple heavily with spiritual and environmental themes, there was never really an explicit decision to make that the case. “When I start singing, I have little control over what’s going to come out of my mouth,” Joe explains. “I’m a very emotional person.”
“When I’m singing, there’s something in me so strong that when it comes out I have little time to control it. And I like to keep it this way. Since day one, when we started to jam, it was immediately about things that were fascinating me, or things that I felt like there was an emergency about or my views on the world.”
As we try to probe deeper into the background of Fortitude’s themes, Joe deflects and instead hopes that the album can stand on its own. “Talking about songs it’s like talking about a painting. When you do a painting it’s because you have no words. So you do it, you make a painting, and then people need to put words on it. But the person who’s done it doesn’t necessarily have the words.
“The whole interview exercise is very interesting, because it’s sort of forcing me to put words on what we do. Of course, sometimes there’s nothing to add, I’m just filling the blanks, and I end up saying bullshit.”
One thing that Joe does add is that for him, rock acts are intrinsically linked to themes of activism. “Rock is the music of rebellion, it has all the components. It’s got to have something that will make you think, something that will activate you. If it doesn’t, the words that come out, the music that comes out, it’s just a noise.”
“And we are a product of this society. We are a product of the images we saw on TV when we were kids or we see all around us we travel the world. We played in India, we played in South America, we played in Japan, we go everywhere, and we see how people live and how people think and how people are. It creates a feeling, it grows and then it comes out when we make a song in a certain way.”
We ask if we shouldn’t overthink these things. Joe says: “Sometimes. It’s good to think too, you know. Sometimes I consider myself an activist because I really want to participate in this world and be part of a solution, instead of being part of the problem.”
A standout in this regard is of course Amazonia, which doesn’t stop at lyrics condemning the fact that “The greatest miracle / Is burning to the ground.” The single was launched alongside Project Amazonia, a fundraising campaign in aid of the Articulation Of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. So far, over a quarter of a million dollars has been raised for the charity, which advocates for the rights of those most affected by the Amazon’s destruction, with fans bidding on instruments and memorabilia donated from around the world of heavy music.
“It enlightened me a little bit,” Joe says. “I realised that it is possible. It’s something that I’m preaching, you know, in Magma and Silvera: ‘When you change yourself / You change the world’ – it’s something like a mantra.”
“I’m trying to educate myself with this thought, this mantra, to not despair. It’s also a conclusion. A spiritual journey brought me to this conclusion that yes, we have power over this world.”
“We can have a beautiful outlook on life because we decide to, You could wake up one morning and decide that today you’re going to do good around you. We have so much power, and we tend to forget about it because we feel overwhelmed by governments and establishments.”
That was all that was behind Project Amazonia. “I just gave a few phone calls. And next thing you know, I was talking to leaders of tribes in the Amazon. Then after that I started to call people that could help, and it all came together.”
“This is one of the highlights of my life, this project. I would like to add that this operation is not over. And help is needed, money is needed. The situation with the Amazon forest deserves to be understood in and taken care of, by the world.”
Joe acknowledges that not everyone can pull strings to get instruments donated by a host of high-profile musicians: “Of course, I’m in a position where I can do this, but it doesn’t need to be that special. It could be within your community, you can make a tremendous difference around you.”
Duplantier gives another example of this mantra, a more personal one, and one that’s a little more accessible than starting a massive charity auction. “The number one thing we can do to help the planet is to go vegan,” he says. “Because the meat industry is – on top of being a really really, really cruel business based on suffering, pain and killing – also incredibly demanding for our environment. It needs a lot of resources. The Amazon forest is directly linked to the meat industry, maybe 80 per cent of the problem is the meat – the cattle, the soybeans to feed the cattle, and so on.”
Duplantier clearly has conviction in the belief that “If you change yourself, you change the world.” Project Amazonia is just Gojira’s latest link to an activism cause, as anyone who’s noticed the Sea Shepherd stand at a Gojira gig will know, but at the same time: “We’re just a freaking rock band,” Joe says. “We want people to smile and bang their heads and be happy. You’ve got to think of that too.”
Fortitude is out now.
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