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Gorguts’ 2013 album Colored Sands has in recent weeks landed on many best-of-the-year lists — and not just lists limited to metal. The record is a masterpiece, composed by French-Canadian guitarist and vocalist Luc Lemay, the only consistent member of the band he co-founded in 1989.
Tonight, Gorguts closes their tour at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn, and back on Halloween, Lemay spoke to us from his home in Montreal. He explained how a toddler’s coloring book inspired a death metal album, how Buddhism can be metal, and how metal can be academic.
Did you know that the history of Tibet was going to be the concept for Colored Sands when you wrote the music?
I knew even before I wrote a single song that I was going to talk about it. It’s a very funny story. I’ll tell you how I got the idea for that. One day, my girlfriend came home, and she had just visited a friend of hers, and this friend had a little youngster, maybe a three- or four- or five-year-old, and this kid had just colored a mandala from a coloring book. And he or she offered the mandala [picture] as a gift to my girlfriend. So my girlfriend came home, and she told me about this little story: “The kid colored a mandala in a book and offered it to me.” And I said, “What? A what?” And she said, “A mandala.” And that just caught my attention. The word.
So, from there, by reading on mandalas, [I saw] the Dalai Lama was mentioned many times. I got interested in knowing about this character, how he was found as a kid…Every story led to another one, up to the Chinese invasion of 1950.
This strikes me as analogous: the way the mandala art pieces are very meticulously crafted and the amount of detail that went into this album. In addition to writing music that’s very complicated, you did research, and you really put a lot of thought into the concept. Do you do that level of research for every album?
It was the first record that there was this much research. It’s the first record that I had to educate myself this much…Even throughout those readings, at some point it was really intimidating, in that I could have read books for 25 years before I really, really, really, really, really knew what I was talking about. I just scratched the surface on those topics with the lyrics.
When I think of death metal, I don’t think of Buddhism. I don’t think non-violence. I think quite the opposite: violence.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. If we look at it from a very simple angle, it’s like, oh, it’s never going to work within death metal. But also, we’ve heard enough songs about blood and guts and corpses. We’ve seen it all. I think that the angle that I decided to take was a storytelling way and very epic. I didn’t want to do a documentary. I wanted to do a storytelling.
I read that you went to a conservatory where you studied music composition formally.
That was in ’97. When we moved the band to Montreal in ’95, I had started playing viola maybe a year and a half or two before that…I got admitted to college [in Montreal] for a year, but I started too old to play a string instrument like this. You really gotta start those at six, seven years old. I would really have loved to some day play in a string quartet, or something like that. But anyway, it wasn’t a waste of time because it provided me a good understanding of the string instrument. With Gorguts records, I’ve always been into composition, so I decided to enroll myself in the conservatory [Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal] to study composition more academically: orchestration, counterpoint, harmony, choir singing, and everything. That was a really passionate and very great time in my life.
It’s interesting to hear on this Gorguts album the collaboration between you and Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel, who are also composer-thinking sorts of musicians.
They are amazing players, and they have training themselves, as well. When we work on arrangements together, we can go into very micro-detail, like in doing composition on a sheet of paper, and we can understand each other’s minds and very specific ideas in words by using an academic vocabulary. Colin’s a big fan of those very modern American composers, like Elliot Carter, which is super complex music, and he listens to that like every day. It’s the first time that I have [with me] someone writing extreme music and death metal, and we can share on Bartok and appreciate it.