“We’re all drawn into ourselves — in a collective coma,” Joe Duplantier sings on “Born for One Thing,” the punishing centerpiece of Gojira‘s seventh LP.
That lyric is crucial to Fortitude, as the French prog/death metal band gaze outward (and occasionally inward) to critique the evils of consumerism and the world’s zombie-like apathy toward watching nature crumble.
“Things are happening around us on a big scale: the [destruction of] the Amazon rainforest, the oceans getting drained, the ice caps melting,” the frontman tells SPIN. “All this stuff is pretty alarming. And also on a small scale: Sometimes you don’t know the name of your freaking neighbors. If you live in New York, you get on the subway and everybody’s on their phones. What’s happening? If you took somebody from 100 years ago and put them on the subway, they would say, ‘Are you guys OK? Do you need help? What is this weird little rectangle you’re staring at?'”
“On the way to the studio [to record the album], I was on my phone too,” he adds. “That’s why I ‘we’re’ all drawn into a collective coma. I’m not saying I’m not, but I’m trying to wake the fuck up.”
Fortitude — tracked at the band’s own Silver Cord Studio in Ridgewood, Queens — packs plenty of “wake the fuck up” moments between its hammering, detuned riffs and scream-along choruses: The “fire in the sky” thunder of “Amazonia” highlights the environmental crisis affecting the region’s indigenous communities, and the apocalyptic “Another World” dreams of a society where people don’t “mock and slaughter all the purest kinds.”
In our conversation, Duplantier opened up about human enlightenment, the album’s central theme of “civil disobedience” and why he doesn’t view 2016’s Magma as the band’s “breakthrough.”
SPIN: Magma was such a turning point for you guys — you played bigger shows, got nominated for a couple Grammys (including Best Rock Album) and earned more coverage outside the metal world. Were you shocked by that, or did you have a feeling things were about to get bigger?
Joe Duplantier: That’s what we think with every album somehow. We always think, ‘This is the album that will change everything.” When Magma was released, we did some TV shows we couldn’t do before; we headlined some festivals. But it’s funny, man — people tell me that a lot, especially these days. That’s obviously how people see Magma: the breakthrough album, the explosion of the band. But I didn’t experience it this way. It was one step after another for 25 years. First time we toured in the United States, first time we toured in South America and Japan. We played at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. 6 p.m.. We played third-to-headline, second support, then on Magma, with some festivals we were headliners.
These were huge accomplishments that happened with the Magma era. And we did have two songs on that album that made a difference, I think, because they were really songs with choruses and catchy parts, more digestible and structured perhaps. I can see how in people’s perception it was a breakthrough album. But for me, I see it as we were going up, up, up steadily all these years, and then with Magma we were more visible. But for me, the ratio of progression was pretty constant since day one.
Still, even if the progression was steady, there was a noticeable leap here. How did that success affect you creatively, if at all? Did you think, “Our audience has expanded, and we’re playing bigger shows — we should write some songs that will work in this context”?
The answer is a bit intricate and complicated. But there’s something along these lines: When you start to play bigger slots at festivals in front of more people — when every show on your tour is now a freaking area because you’re opening for an arena band — the response, the echo of your song, is different than in a 1,000-capacity club. Sometimes when we end up performing for a large audience and all we have to play is death-metal songs, subconsciously we want to adapt our repertoire to a wider audience. We’re like, “What do we have in our back catalog that we can play and not freak people out? Not so intense and long and epic.”
Not freaking out the audience is always a plus.
Naturally and organically a sound is shaped by our experiences on tour. This is something people might not understand or think about, but the progression of the band is also shaping our sound, as much as our songs and our sound dictating how good we’re going to do. Of course we keep that in mind that if we do a song with a chorus that people can sing along to, we’re going to have bigger chances to succeed in this business. But it’s not also a business for us — it’s been a reason to be alive, to play music in the first place, since we were teenagers.
If we betray ourselves, our tendencies, if we don’t fulfill our creative hearts, we are going to fail. We are going to lose the point. For us, it’s very important to be in tune with our music because this is what we eat and breathe for years on the road. We play these songs every single night. We want to punch people in the face with our music. We’re not here to sing a lullaby! We want it to be powerful and meaningful, and also it’s a little bit more political than before in a weird way. Also we were [ages] 14 to 18 or 19 when we started, and now we’re in our 40s. So we have a different internal pace. It sounds cliched and bragging a little bit — “I don’t care about the pressure or success.” Of course we want to drive a career in a smart way, but we try to concentrate on what the music will create in our hearts.
I know it’s hard to specifically say, “Here’s where the album process began,” but was there a specific moment where the switch flipped? Is there a specific track where you said, “Oh, we’re making an album”?
We were still touring a little bit at the end of 2018, but we had moments in the studio. We started tracking beginning of March ’19. Here was a whole year where we very concentrated on making demos. We had some ideas here and there, even some leftovers from Magma and leftovers from previous albums that were still in the neighborhood. We were like, “OK, what about that riff we wrote in ’96?” We tried to shove it on the album, and it didn’t work. It’s going to be on the next album. But we have this killer riff that we wrote in 1996, man! [It was from] one of the band’s first rehearsals, and since that day we’ve been trying to put it in a song. [Laughs.] It seems like the riff is too big to fit in a song.
Wow, that riff is trying to be born!
That riff is like, “Please, please find me a home!” We have all these riffs that we call “friends” — they have names.
What’s ’96’s name?
I forgot his name!
What a bad friend!
He’s our oldest, oldest friend. But in 2018, all year long, we were doing demos. If we weren’t on tour, we were in the studio working. Sometimes just [drummer] Mario Duplantier and me, sometimes the whole band. We did some sessions to see how we felt jamming together — trying not to force things. The key for us is to be consistent and be in the studio every single day. Even if we feel like shit, we’ll have a coffee and talk. Maybe we call it a day early, but we make a point to see each other every single day in that time frame, unless there’s an emergency. We tour for a long time and then have studio/writing time. We have to concentrate on one thing at a time, which is why is takes us so long to make an album.
I’m intrigued by the “collective coma” idea you present on “Born for One Thing.” How does that tie into the theme of consumerism?
The way we consume, we have the power to change things. For example, I went vegan about eight years ago because I realized we were torturing animals. When I say this to people, they say, “What are you talking about? It says on the [milk] box that [the cows are] raised outside. It’s not animals in factory farms.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, dude, but they are.” If you have a grandma who makes your milk with love and has a cow with a name, who they pet, I guess that’s fine. But this is not the milk you’re drinking. People like to tell themselves stories to escape the facts and not have to feel responsible for things. I think we need to take responsibility into our own hands. When we buy something, we want to be at least conscious of our impact in the world.
It’s an illusion to think we need to vote for the right person to change things. It’s a collective effort that starts from individuals. It’s the individual awakening — the only revolution that can work. There’s an underlying idea of civil disobedience on this album, but you have to read between the lines. Civil disobedience is to not follow the rules blindly. We have to make the laws. To better the laws, we have to break them. We don’t have to break the law to be cool. But what I mean by that is: “Think for yourself.” Look around and think about your impact on the world. This is the great weapon we have: just simple choices and everyday habits.
In your Kerrang! interview, you offered up a quote that really stuck with me: “You’ve got to ask what your attitude will be if this is the end of the world as we know it.” At some point, we may reach a point of no return, and we may already have. But maybe we have to march bravely into the apocalypse.
I said that in a specific context, thinking about whether we’re worthy or not to be on this planet as a species. I have philosophical conversations with some friends, and I tend to be an optimistic person. I want to see humanity succeed because I’m a human being. But at the same time, I can’t help but think we’re a problem to this planet and to the other species. It’s not like they don’t have a right to be alive on this planet, just because they don’t write books and go to museums and sip coffee. The way we treat animals — it’s the elephant in the room for me. I’m absolutely outraged and shocked by the way we treat animals. It’s perfectly normal! That raises some questions. People say, “It’s because we’re animals and we eat animals.” OK, well, what other animal has factory farms? It’s something to think about.
But also, I have friends who tell me, “We’re meant to disappear. Let’s enjoy. Let’s fuck it all up. We’re gonna die. It doesn’t matter anyway. The sun’s gonna destroy the Earth eventually, in 4 billion years.” Am I right to be an optimistic person, or should I be a pessimistic person and cynical? I don’t see how you can be in-between. It means you are sleeping. But do you have an opinion or feel something about humanity? My own answer to my own question is I choose to be an optimistic person and shake people and shake myself to be more compassionate, more giving and to inquire more on the problems of this planet instead of relying on a president or a government. And even if we’re doomed and even if our civilization is meant to disappear, at least we could do it with a last spark of consciousness and beauty and elevate our souls before disappearing.
What would you tell that friend who says there’s no point?
For what sake? I don’t know. But it’s just a personal choice I want to make. I’d like to see humanity be more enlightened. I don’t want to sound too cheesy or clichéd, but it would be a war without or competition. We need to be the best — that’s what school teaches us. Well, guess what? There are many of us, so we can’t all be number one. Our society is pretty fucked-up in that sense — we’re completely ignoring some things that are inconvenient and we’re obsessed by other things. I don’t know where this is going, but we’ll see. We have a great potential as humans.
In the past, you’ve mentioned reading Buddhist texts, and the Buddhist concepts of avoiding suffering and materialism seem to factor pretty heavily on this album.
Not [drawing on it] specifically so much. But I did read a bunch of books when I was younger about that — The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is one of them, an incredible book about death! [Laughs.] But it’s beautiful. Some heavy questions. I like to challenge my vision of life. I like to read about things, like aliens, and stay open to the idea. It doesn’t mean believing — it means staying curious and open-minded.