Growing up in the Duplantier household, what happens after we die was a hot topic. Brothers Joe and Mario, now singer/guitarist and drummer of Gojira respectively, often discussed what lies behind the veil of mortality. They still do.
‘We always talk about death and the idea of leaving the earth,’ Mario Duplantier tells me on a Zoom call from the relative peace of his car. ‘What is going to happen? The afterlife is still a big source of questions for us. We constantly talk about this: life and death as a cycle.’
With Gojira, completed by guitarist Christian Andreu and bassist Jean-Michel Labadie, the Duplantier brothers have pledged to examine life’s mysteries. Their first album, 2001’s ‘Terra Incognita’, took the premise that the soul is an unknown territory and 2008’s ‘The Way of All Flesh’ tackled the subject of our mortality directly. But it was the passing of their mother that prompted the brothers' most profound reflections on death and beyond, with the release of ‘Magma’ in 2016. Powerful, melancholy and spectral, it was a huge breakthrough for Gojira, piercing the veil between the physical and the metaphysical.
Now they have returned with ‘Fortitude’, written in 2019 but delayed by the pandemic. The gap between conception and release has given Mario the space to understand its message. He sees it as an ‘uplifting’ album and ‘a real trip’ in its emotional range – in contrast to the rage and sadness of ‘Magma’.
‘I took a step back and I can tell that “Magma” was about mourning a person we lost: our mother,’ says Mario. ‘And I would say that on “Fortitude” the loss of my mother has made me stronger. “Fortitude” is a result of losing someone and having to find the strength to go ahead. It’s really this idea of going through something difficult, trying to find the force and the strength just to live, and to be able to continue and have faith in life.’
When the band released the video for album opener “Born For One Thing” in February it was a real event at the tail-end of the grind of a long pandemic winter. The song is much more aggressive than most of ‘Magma’, but picks up exactly where that album left off: we’re all going to die and there is no use ‘wishing the life of another self’ as the lyric puts it. It is a direct challenge to pull yourself out of your own head, landing its initial blows with the piston-like palm-muted crush that recalls “The Heaviest Matter of the Universe” from 2005’s 'From Mars to Sirius'.
'From Mars to Sirius' told a story of natural disaster through the potent symbol of flying whales and the resurrection of a dead planet. But with the blunt recognition that we have only one life and all else is mystery, Gojira are now cutting to the chase. As the lyrics to “Silvera” from ‘Magma’ put it: ‘When you change yourself, you change the world’. With inner strength comes the strength to address the very real problems of life on our precious planet.
‘There is this dimension of being more concrete and talking about, for example, the Amazon, which for us is something we should worry about – the human condition on this earth: are we going to disappear or should we preserve something?’ says Mario. ‘This ecosystem is also a part of our life and our music, so the album contains a lot of reflection about existence, ecology, being human. It’s very introspective in general.’
The resulting song, “Amazonia” is very pointed: ‘The greatest miracle/Is burning to the ground’, Joe Duplantier pleads on it. As is the accompanying video, which according to Mario, the band wanted to make ‘more concrete’ with ‘objective images’ to support its message. When the lungs of the world are choked with smoke, there is an ecological emergency to relay that rejects metaphor – even a giant lizard destroying Tokyo.
‘The Amazon is a concrete problem,’ says Mario. ‘It was all over the news in 2019 with the 80,000 fires ravaging the Amazon. We felt so shocked and so sad at the time because we know there is a climate crisis. There are wildfires coming from storms, but most of the fires are coming from ignorance and just the desire to make money. What
It’s the bringing together of the crises of the material world and the spiritual self – the Gojira of old and Gojira of ‘Magma’ – which makes ‘Fortitude’ compelling. The song “New Found” describes a hole in someone’s existence, replaced by ‘brand-new ritual’ but also ‘New found land across the sea’. It made me wonder whether Gojira are going back to the roots of the problem: the European colonial project itself, which began in the fifteenth century.
I couldn’t help listening to “New Found” and “Another World” (the album’s first single, which wishes away Earth's crisis by yearning for 'another place to be'), without thinking about Raoul Peck’s recent documentary ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’. Peck’s genre-blending HBO series plainly states that western civilisation is built on genocide and ruthless exploitation of commandeered resources.
‘"Another World" is absolutely about this,’ says Mario 'There are also many dimensions in "Another World". It’s just, let’s get out of here and find another planet, but we know that it won’t be a solution for anyone.’
In the animated video for the song, the band is depicted as astronauts who escape in a DIY rocket and land on a planet which transpires to be our own, in an ending that is a tribute to ‘Planet of the Apes’. Mario takes a swipe at Elon Musk and his ilk when he tells me, ‘trying to colonise Mars is not really a solution for us <...> basically there is no Planet B.’
Gojira's message on ‘Fortitude’ is that the world is a complicated and arduous place and those with inner strength should spend their lives trying to withstand it, and if possible, improve it.
Another thing that was often discussed when the brothers were children was Tibet. Their mother practised Buddhist philosophy and showed them documentaries about the oppression and displacement of the Tibetan people following the Chinese invasion of 1949. When Joe went to art school in his early twenties he became close friends with a student who had fled Tibet. Mario describes the brothers' knowledge of the situation as ‘something in our DNA’.
When it came to making a video for “The Chant”, about what the lyrics describe as ‘victims of fear and deception’ forced to ‘swallow, crawl, and hide’, Joe wrote a story about a Tibetan refugee. He went to India with American director Russell Brownley to film it. The band were keen to avoid what Mario calls an ‘occidental vision’ of events. By making the video in India, with its Tibetan diaspora, they hoped to honour the struggle closer to its source.
“The Chant” is the centrepiece of ‘Fortitude’. A rousing, major-key singalong, it’s a further departure for the band. But it also builds on “The Shooting Star” from ‘Magma’ – particularly the way Joe’s vocals crests over the undulating wave of the melody. ‘We’ve been a heavy band for so many years and we have so many things to express musically that it’s almost too bad to just not try to write something else,’ says Mario.
‘“The Shooting Star” was a good start,’ he continues. ‘That song had a lot of success. It was more melancholic than “The Chant”. “The Chant” is more of a challenge because the kind of notes we use are not very dark or melancholic. There is something very uplifting about it. As soon as you are dark the fans love it. However, “The Chant” was less dark than usual, but the tempo, the vibe, the atmosphere, Joe’s vocals, were already there in “Magma.”’
Mario confesses he is the member of Gojira who worries most about how the band’s audience might perceive a softening in their music. But he speaks passionately about how his brother, approaching his mid-forties, has many more aspects of his personality he wants to express: ‘He cannot just scream. He really wants to sing more. So we just have to listen to ourselves and play with heart.’
The song also demonstrates Mario’s approach to the album, playing for the songs and fitting into the groove – he fought the urge to be an ‘egoist’ in his drumming. Gojira’s music is often like being hit in the face by a flying slab of brutalist architecture: modern, angular and uncompromising. It is defined by their signature tricks and frills as much as the pummelling riffing at its core. Gojira would not be Gojira without the scrapes, squees and pitch bends on the guitars, or the accents and ghost notes in the drum patterns. One of the album's best moments is during the breakdown of “New Found” when they hit a huge, surprise pinch harmonic which feels like a gift to the fans.
‘For this album we were very focused on the structures of the songs, and the balance of the verses and the choruses,’ says Mario. ‘For the first time we had a little more of a classic approach of writing a song. But I always love to put in some technical elements because it's part of the identity of the band. So, for me, it's very important to keep this.’
That said, Mario Duplantier is one of the best metal drummers in the world and he is clearly itching to let loose a little more. He talks proudly of the frantic ride cymbal-driven drum pattern of “Into The Storm” as one example on 'Fortitude'.
‘We are thinking about the next album and I am already challenging myself a little bit more than this album,’ he reveals. ‘I would love to be a bit more crazy on the next album on the drums. It’s like movement. This is a long career and the movement of “Fortitude” and “Magma” was different.
Gojira recruited legendary metal producer Andy Wallace to mix ‘Fortitude’. Wallace’s trademark sound blends the bass drum with the root notes of guitars to devastating effect. The low end of Sepultura’s 1993 album ‘Chaos A.D.’, which Wallace produced and mixed, has rarely been matched. 'Chaos A.D.', with its caustic condemnation of globalisation, has long felt like an unanswered call in musical style and lyrical themes – one which Gojira is now responding to over 25 years later.
‘We had this desire to have this sound from the nineties because all the best metal bands were from the nineties,’ says Mario. ‘It was a bit of a fantasy. You know what I mean: when you listen to Pantera and Sepultura and Metallica, the sound is full of life. It's actually the opposite of new production sometimes. So maybe we are an old band. We are all 40 years old now. We are more attached now to what we were enjoying as teenagers, you know? So for us having Andy Wallace was a dream. The way he treats the bass and the drums is phenomenal.’
Watching some of the footage of Gojira’s recent publicity tour of French television, I was reminded of an explosive Machine Head performance on TV show ‘Nulle Part Ailleurs’ after the release of ‘Burn My Eyes’. Gojira recently appeared on daytime TV show ‘Quotidien’ to perform a succinct, edited version of ‘Amazonia’, throat singing and all. Gojira seem to be making a cultural breakthrough in wider French consciousness.
‘You know, France is not like the UK or the English-speaking countries,’ says Mario. ‘France is way behind. The way we perceive metal in general is very clichéd. It's still very archaic. We still think in France that metalheads are absolutely stupid and alcoholic and drug addicts. For the first time in French history, talking about the metal scene, we are the first band doing it in the big media so we are actually changing the image of the metal community. I think it's a very good point. We are polite, respectful, we try to talk well and we really want to change the image of metal. We want people to understand that you can be smart. I'm not saying I'm smart personally, but the point is you can be a normal person and play this kind of music.’
Where they are already established in the global metal scene, Gojira are ready to grasp the brass ring of massive headliner status. When I saw them on their UK tour in Spring 2017 with Car Bomb and Code Orange supporting it felt like a coronation. Their performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado in May 2017, with a stacked bill featuring Devin Townsend and Opeth, was released on YouTube for a limited period last year during the height of the pandemic. It left fans screaming out for a live album.
Mario has seen the proposed schedule for a forthcoming tour and says he is ‘amazed by the size of the venues. We want to bring a huge production, so I just cannot wait’. Gojira want to be massive and they deserve to be. When their light show was disrupted at London’s Brixton Academy in 2019 by a flying pint that doused the mixing desk in beer, Joe was irate onstage. Gojira are perfectionists and want to achieve big things.
As the anticipation builds for live activity, we can savour the thought of Mario sending Joe the drum patterns he’s been working on: ‘I’m ready to play all the crazy drum stuff to my brother and see what he’s coming up with. Because my brother is a fucking killer riff writer. So I wrote a lot of drum patterns and I’m very curious to hear a guitar on it.’
I think we all are a little curious to hear the results.
‘Fortitude’ is out now on Roadrunner Records. Get the album - HERE
Gojira are on the bill for the recently announced Knotfest Iowa on 25 September. Read more about that HERE