There are not many acts who can honestly claim to be more vital than ever 25 years into their career, but the gradual ascendancy of Gojira (who started life as Godzilla in the French commune of Ondres in 1996) from underground death metal curiosities to arena rock icons seems to have been as slow and unstoppable as a deadly rampage from their big green namesake.
“It’s exciting for us to play arenas and get bigger, because we already experienced the smallest state of the band,” laughs guitarist and vocalist Joe Duplantier, whose interplay with his hard-hitting brother Mario on drums forms the backbone of Gojira’s signature sonic onslaught. “We played in caves, for years! We played in small clubs, for years! We played in medium clubs, for 10 years! Then we played in bigger clubs for five years, and now we’re in arenas? Holy shit! It’s exciting, like a journey.”
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The latest giant footprint left in their destructive wake is new album ‘Fortitude’, the politically and environmentally charged follow-up to 2016’s more contemplative ‘Magma’. While that record served as a real breakthrough for the band, thanks to huge singles ‘Stranded’ and ‘Silvera’, it was also a very personal meditation on grief influenced by the passing of the Duplantier brothers’ mother.
“Magma definitely had a sombre vibe, a little darker by nature because what was happening to us at the time,” Joe explains in a soft, calm voice that could not be further from the roar he employs on songs like ‘Born For One Thing’ and ‘Grind’. “Losing our mum was a big deal for sure, and it was unfolding while we were writing and recording and mixing so it was pretty intense.”
Since 2008’s spiritualistic ‘The Way Of All Flesh’, Gojira’s album themes seem to have oscillated from death, to life, to death and back to life again. “You put your left foot in front of you and then it’s going to be your right foot. You cannot put your left foot in front of you two times in a row, you know what I mean?” he reasons, “So naturally (after ‘Magma’) we wanted to do something a little more flamboyant, celebrating life but in our own special French way - by burning cars and creating a riot!”
‘Fortitude’ is, indeed, a real fist in the air, crack out the gilets jaunes kind of record. “We have a fascination with power in music,” Joe explains, “We try to create powerful sounds, find powerful notes and patterns.” Throughout the album he repeatedly uses the imagery of planet earth as a raft that shelters humanity, tossed by storms and floods yet remaining upright. “We also have a fascination with the apocalypse, the end of the world and all that. We’re mesmerised by society around us, and this is our response to human behaviour. We’re trying to make the rebel in us resonate as much as possible.”
Despite the fury he channels on a track like ‘Amazonia’, Joe is keen to acknowledge that he and the rest of Gojira do not see themselves as being somehow separate from or superior to the society they are raging against. “The part of us that is in the herd is kept at bay when we track a record, but of course when we’re done we get in our car and we drive home and we eat and drink a beer and go to bed and worry about our bank accounts and so on,” he admits, “We’re part of the problem, but we’re trying to also be part of the awakening of society and individuals. We take what we do very seriously, but it doesn’t mean we take ourselves too seriously, I hope!”
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By far the biggest source of contention on this album is ‘The Chant’, the hypnotic seven-minute centrepiece that Joe describes as ‘a ballad or sort of stoner, weird thing’. “For most metalheads it’s, like, blasphemy!” he laughs, obviously buoyed by the prospect of raising hackles in more conservative corners of the scene. “When this song came together it was sort of an accident. It was backing vocals that I was recording for something else, but then I soloed them and thought that they would be a great idea for a song, so we built it like that.”
As its name suggests, the song is largely just one absolute earworm of a chant repeated over and over again. “The first time we jammed it, Mario was singing along with me behind the drums and said to me, ‘I couldn’t help myself, I had to!’” he recalls, “Sure, for most of our fans it’s something different, but not for us. There’s a whole experimental side to us that we don’t necessarily show a lot, but we sprinkle our death metal with it. This time we wanted to include that dimension a little more in the record overall.”
Joe admits that live the band will have to approach the song a little differently to their usual cut-and-thrust ragers. “We’ll be relying on THE CROWD!” he bellows, sounding for one moment like the Joe Duplantier who regularly incites walls of death from the stage, “We’re just four dudes, so it’s difficult to reproduce that frigging chant all by myself”. He even raises the possibility of splitting the crowd into sections and getting each to sing back a different section (which could really enrage the old school headbangers). “Why not? It could be fun! And we’ve seen bands doing that before and it’s been great. Metallica (whom the band have supported on multiple tours over the years) had a song like that where the whole crowd was singing, and we thought that that was an incredible thing to witness.”
The final of seven singles to be released from the album (Thriller-style), ‘The Chant’ also recently received an incredibly striking music video written by Joe himself. The film unflinchingly draws attention to the cultural genocide China enacted in Tibet after its 1949 invasion, forcing many families to smuggle their children out of the country in boxes and shipping crates. It’s an often-forgotten piece of history that now seems terrifyingly prescient in light of China’s current treatment of its Uighur population, an issue much of the world find it simpler to ignore when dealing with the modern superpower.
“Being brutally invaded by a dictatorship with the entire world watching and not saying anything because China was the next big market was just disgusting,” Joe explains, recalling how, as kids, he and fellow guitarist Christian Andreu would try to raise awareness by protesting and distributing flyers on the issue. “I met this Tibetan guy when I was just a teenager. He was going to get kicked out by the French government because he didn’t have a visa and forced to return to China and go to jail. So I tried to find a chick in my class to marry him! I found one who said she’d marry him to save his life, but the parents were super against it. So I had to see that guy get kicked out of France. I don’t know what happened to him.”
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A very spiritual band since their inception, many of Gojira’s songs are directly inspired by Tibetan philosophies and Buddhism. “It’s something that’s very, very dear to our hearts,” he says, when talking about the decision to go to northern India (as close to Tibet as they could manage) to shoot the video. “I was on every shot. Every scene I was doing something, whether the make-up or the wardrobe or starting little fires to create smoke because we were limited in gear. It was an epic experience.”
‘Amazonia’s similarly epic video and lyrics also deal with cultural genocide, in this case regarding the ‘hot’ issue of mining companies setting fires to drive the indigenous peoples of the Amazon from their ancestral homelands. “There’s something really crucial going on down in Brazil for the last three years. Criminal activities on the Amazon forest and its people have been increasing dramatically,” Joe explains, “I’m in touch with people there and I have terrible news every day. Last week two kids died running away from gold miners who were attacking a village. The people in the Amazon fight, not just for their homes and their way of life, but for the entire planet. Because they realise that what they are in charge of is precious for everybody.”
Enlisting other prominent metal musicians to donate valuable gear for auction, Gojira have managed to raise over $300,000 in support of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, leading by example and demonstrating that ‘Fortitude’s call to arms is about more than just creating a backdrop for a new consignment of thick riffs and juddering breakdowns. “I think it is crucial to remain, or to be, or to become a decent species,” Joe puts it, sagely, “We have to stary on our toes, point out what is unacceptable and consider these things.”
With the world gradually returning to some state of normality, Gojira should be adding a good number of these new tracks to their legendary live show in the non-too distant future. Though Joe is not yet certain that their already delayed tour with Deftones and Poppy won’t end up being pushed back even further, he’s fairly sure that their October arena tour with support from Knocked Loose and Alien Weaponry will go ahead as planned. “At first I was sort of happy to be forced to take a break for a few months,” he admits, looking back over the last year, “But then I started to get the itch again, you know? I think I’m ready to jump back on stage and make these songs come to life!”
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'Fortitude' is out now.
Words: Josh Gray
Photo Credit: Jimmy Fontaine