Why Gorguts' Luc Lemay Wrote a 33-Minute Death Metal Song About an Ancient Iraqi Library
We talk hitchhiking, algebra, and the House of Wisdom with the Canadian avant-death metal legend.
“I feel like avant-garde metal is in a very happy place now.” So says Luc Lemay, guitarist, vocalist and all-around mastermind of Quebecois death dealers Gorguts. And he would know: Lemay and his squad of highly trained musical assassins—bassist Colin Marston (also of Krallice, Dysrhythmia, Behold The Arctopus, and about half a dozen other bands), guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (Sabbath Assembly, Dysrhythmia) and new drummer Patrice Hamelin (Cephalic Carnage, Beneath the Massacre)—have just unveiled a 33-minute, single-song concept EP entitled Pleiades’ Dust, which hauls the listener through almost every arcane corner of extreme metal—and about 700 years of Middle Eastern history—by way of classical and avant-jazz composition.
“I’m 44 years old now and I feel like I did when I was 17 or 18 and jamming songs,” Lemay says of the latest incarnation of Gorguts, a band he founded as a teenager in 1989. “I’m so happy to have a vehicle to bring my musical ideas to the world. To me, that’s what the band is: It’s a voice to speak and create things and share them with people.”
We recently spoke with Lemay about his latest creation and the two decades he spent hitchhiking around Quebec in order to fulfill his musical vision and still make rent.
Noisey: What are some of the challenges of writing a 33-minute song?
Luc Lemay: As always, you gotta come up with riffs that really please you, but then the challenge is to put it all together so it stays interesting for over half an hour. So the challenge was totally in the song structure, and that’s where I wanted to put myself into an uncomfortable place. It was the first time I wrote a piece this long, and the number one rule was that I didn’t want it to sound like three or four songs put together. And I think we did it. You can feel movements happening, but you don’t feel like each movement is a song by itself. That was important.
The lyrics are about the House Of Wisdom, a massive library that existed in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries. What led you to that story?
You know how sometimes you’ll read an interview with a writer and they’ll say, “You don’t choose your subjects—they choose you”? That’s really how I feel about this topic. I got this French magazine about Arabic literature—it’s called Books. It’s like a music magazine, with reviews and things, but it’s for books. So there was a book in there called House Of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, who I believe is an American writer. I read the review of the book and I thought, “Wow! What is this?” So I got the book, but it was not easy to read. I was into the subject, but not the book. So I did more research on the library and found another book with the same title that apparently came way earlier. It was by an author named Jim Al-Khalili, who also made an amazing three-part documentary for the BBC called Science and Islam, which you can find on YouTube very easy. So I looked on the website of the Strand, the big book shop in New York City—I go there every time I go down to practice with Kevin and Colin. They happened to have a used copy of the book, so I emailed Kevin and asked him to pick it up for me because I was planning to go down for practice a week or two after. And dude, this book is so fucking amazing. It was a piece of cake to read—it was a more documentary approach.
Many significant academic advances took place at the House Of Wisdom, and at one point they had the largest collection of books in the world.
Algebra was invented there, and so many things that we still use today involving astronomy and numbers. So the lyrics of the song start with the fall of Rome around 500 A.D., then go to Baghdad in 762 when they founded the city, then the Mongol invasion in the 1200s, when the library was destroyed. It’s a beautiful story, so I couldn’t be happier to share it in the metal world because metal fans are very curious and they read a lot. It’s a story that people should know about, especially in this time because of everything that is going on in the world.
Was it the ongoing rift between the Muslim world and the Western world that initially sparked your interest in the subject?
Yeah, because I was thinking about [Iraq] from a dogmatic point of view, so I was just trying to question myself about this part of the world and why it functions this way. But I’m glad I let this go, because I didn’t want to write a religious kind of record. I don’t want to talk about bad people exploding themselves—we have enough of that on the news. But people should know about the thinkers from that part of the world who gave us algebra and were thinking about geometry and the stars. Because now we’re all just stuck on your phones—we don’t think about those things anymore. [Laughs] So I just wanted to tell a story about what I find amazing and fascinating.
It even got me thinking about what it means to be a philosopher in 2016. We think of philosophers as being from ancient Greece or something, but we have those people today and they are crucial to solving very complicated problems. Money and numbers can’t solve everything. At some point, you need to have those minds included if there’s a debate on abortion or something. These are the kinds of minds that I find fascinating, and I’m giving a nod to them on this record.
Will you play the song live?
We did it in Europe already on this tour we just finished, and it was great to play the song in front of an audience that never heard it because usually on all the tours we do, we’re playing the songs after the records are released. So it was great to share it with the crowd and see their first reaction to hearing this big chunk of music. But it works very good live—it’s not like after ten minutes people were walking away to get a drink. [Laughs] People were very focused and transported by the music. It’s not circle pit kind of music, but it’s still heavy as fuck. It’s got all the blastbeats and everything you want from that kind of music.
Gorguts is often talked of as a band that’s pushing death metal’s boundaries. Is that a goal of yours when you’re writing music?
I just focus on making the best music I can make, but you know I’m not gonna complain if someone says that about us. [Laughs] That’s a great compliment. But for me, rule number one—even when I was playing a more conventional type of death metal with the first two records—I always wanted to write the music I wanted to hear. And I surrounded myself with players that had the same vision. I need to have a sense of surprise and a storytelling ambience—even in the instrumental parts. It’s not just one riff after the other. It has to feel like we’re going somewhere, with curveballs here and there. That’s what I want to hear, and that’s what guides me.
Speaking of “going somewhere,” you’ve had an extensive hitchhiking career. How did that start?
[Laughs] I hitchhiked for 20 years before having my driver’s license. I started at maybe 15 or 16 years old and got my license at 36. I did it to get to Sherbrooke to jam with [former Gorguts drummer] Stéphane [Provencher] and [former guitarist] Sylvain [Marcoux] because they were living there. I was living in a very small town, maybe two or three thousand people, which is about half an hour from Sherbrooke. So every Friday I would finish work around four, go home to get my guitar and go to the stop light in the little village that I lived in. Luckily, I would get picked up by pretty much the same people. I would sleep in Sherbrooke on Friday and Saturday and then one Sunday I ended up hitchhiking back home very late and met this guy who was the security guard at the Sherbrooke bus station. He lived in Richmond, where I live right now, which is the next town just before where I grew up. We ended up making a little deal where I’d meet him at 11pm when his shift ended and he’d give me a ride home. He did that for maybe a good year.
At one point, you had a “two cheeseburgers for a ride” deal going. What’s the story there?
I ended up moving to Sherbrooke in the summer of 91 because we signed to Roadrunner in January or February that year and recorded the first album that summer. But even after I moved to Sherbrooke, I would hitchhike three or four days a week to come work at my mom’s restaurant here in Richmond. That’s how the “two cheeseburgers for a ride” thing started. My mom had a burger stand that was open from spring to fall, and me and my brother and sister worked there all our teenage years. I would hitchhike to work for the lunchtime rush Monday through Thursday to make money. There was this salesman stopping there at the same time everyday, so one day I asked him where he was going. He said Sherbrooke, so I asked him if I could jump in. I ended up cooking him his meal for free and he would give me a ride back to the apartment where we were writing [Gorguts’ 1998 album] Obscura.
What’s the longest you ever stood on the side of the road waiting for a ride?
Oh, dude… a whole night! It was in early winter, so every fuckin’ hour I would walk back to this 24-hour convenience store about 20 minutes from the highway so I could warm up. After a few hours of that, the girl that was working there said, “It doesn’t look like you’re gonna get a ride tonight, but if you wanna hold on we’re going to a funeral in your area tomorrow morning so we’d be happy to give you a ride back home.” So I ended up just sitting at the convenience store for hours waiting for her to pick me up. [Laughs] I have so many hitchhiking stories, dude. I met so many nice people and so many fucked-up weirdos.
What kind of weirdos?
Bible freaks who would condemn me to burn in hell because I was hitchhiking with my guitar. This one guy played these tapes for me about the apocalypse and started yelling at me. Finally I asked him to pull over and just leave me on the side of the road. Dude, I walked so much on that highway. I know every inch of that highway between Sherbrooke and Montreal. But I kinda liked being by myself on the road, just being in my head and thinking about music and things.
J. Bennett hitchhiked home from a Metallica concert once.