In respect of experimental music in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Canada was the burning reference point for those curious listeners harbouring desires for something new.
While Godspeed You! Black Emperor opened the world to new, endless possibilities, what they also did was charge the gates. And in their quest to go beyond the sentinels, GY!BE’s defiance resulted in many other artists following them into previously uninhabited terrains. Yes, this was a cultural zeitgeist.
One of those bands was Esmerine.
Having played together in Set Fire To Flames, Bruce Cawdron and Rebecca Foon founded Esmerine in 2001. Since then, the pair have spent the last three decades producing dream-state music.
Formerly of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Cawdron’s rolling percussion underpinned the dystopian backdrop and fiery static on landmark albums, F♯ A♯ ∞ and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, and later on the band’s 2012 comeback record, ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Meanwhile Foon featured heavily in the GY!BE offshoot, A Silver Mt. Zion. Involved from 2001’s Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward to 2008’s 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, Foon departed the band shortly after.
While Foon has collaborated over the past decade, including the faux-supergroup, Fifths of Seven, also featuring Rebecca Levine and Spencer Krug, who released their debut LP Spry from the Bitter Anise Folds, Foon followed it up with her excellent 2020 solo release, Waxing Moon – an album that proved to be a vital circuit-breaker during the lockdown period.
However, Esmerine seemingly remains the focal point for Cawdron and Foon. Over their seven album existence which started with 2003’s If Only a Sweet Surrender to the Nights to Come Be True and includes the Juno Award winning 2013 offering, Dalmak, Esmerine have intersected the drama of GY!BE and rich textual splendour of classical music to great effect. Sounds immersed in subtle intricacies and soft tones.
A band that has boasted a revolving cast of musicians over the years, the current incarnation of Esmerine sees Cawdron and Foon joined by bassist Philippe Charbonneau and multi-instrumentalist Brian Sanderson, and earlier this year they returned with their surprise new seventh album and fourth for Constellation Records, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.
Following 2017’s Mechanics Of Dominion, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More is not only one of the great surprises of 2022, it’s arguably Esmerine’s finest offering yet. Drawing all of their finest elements together, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More solidifies Esmerine’s position as one of the most important voices in the experimental landscape since the turn of the century.
This is neo-classical chamber folk that possess a majestic quality. The kind that imbues hope. Look no further than the orchestral beauty of Entropy: Incantation – Radiance – The Wild Sea and Entropy: Acquiescence. Music that simply lifts you off the ground.
On the day of their hometown show in Montreal, over Zoom, we caught up with Cawdron to talk about Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, the history of the band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and more.
Sun 13: It’s been five years since Mechanics of Dominion, then Everything Was Forever, Until It Was no More just sort of dropped out of the sky! Can you tell us a bit about it?
Bruce Cawdron: “[It was] one of those slow COVID fuses, you know? You’re working with each other when everybody’s supposed to be in lockdown, and everybody getting tests and trading files back and forth before getting in a large room to do some recording. Everybody had a lot of time over the last two thirds or three quarters of 2020, so it was good time to settle in and do stuff.”
S13: The album feels like all the best bits of Esmerine rolled into one. Pieces like Entropy: Incantation, Acquiescence, and Fractals For Any Tonality I’d say it’s your most accomplished record yet.
BC: “Wow, that’s great.”
S13: Obviously the circumstances recording were quite different given the lockdown. I don’t know whether that had any kind of impact on how the record turned out, but did it feel any different?
BC: “Speaking about those two tunes, because Entropy is really like a five-parter rolled into a four-parter rolled into two track listings on the CD. And Fractals, both of those tunes, I think benefited from us being apart and not jamming and everybody trying to play all the time. It becomes a little bit more, ‘Oh, let’s leave some space in this area, just let it develop’. That’s pretty post-rock right there, but it could be orchestral to just leave space in, like, ‘Wouldn’t it sound good if you sat out and then just came in here?’ That’s just any music, really – keeping your powder dry until it makes an impact. But I think the whole record benefited from that. Just being able to situate instruments in spots where they would have the most impact, and otherwise they didn’t need to be playing!”
S13: That’s probably more of a post-rock thing as well: space and sound. Less is more, to capture that emotional intensity, because I think Esmerine’s work really zones in on that. Is that something you think about when composing songs?
BC: “We have our own plot that we’re farming, you know? We’ve really created our own niche, and now that we’re on record number seven. I mean… there’s some weight to that! There is a history that we can build on and reference and jump away from and explore. I think we’re super lucky with what we’ve created and where we can go with it.”
S13: You’ve been together for so many years now. Have your songwriting methods changed over time?
BC: “Mine personally?”
S13: Both yours and the synergy between you and Rebecca, because you’ve been together in various projects for over 20 years now.
BC: “I think each of our methods have sort of remained the same and grown at the same time. We started together when we were in our ’20s, while I was in my ’30s and Becks was in her ’20s. Now, after 20 years, you still were who you were, but at the same time you’ve grown, you’ve learned a whole bunch of stuff.
“We still do the jammy thing, but then we also write stuff and bring it in and know how to talk to each other respectfully. When you get older, there’s less intensity – not that Rebecca and I ever had that kind of a relationship. What you would see in some bands where it can just be intense, and it can be like a youthful… not exuberance, but a youthful passion. Maybe that doesn’t die, but it’s just not so important to get your way all the time. That’s an emotional maturity that has entered into the conversation.”
S13: You worked with Jace Lacek again on the album. How important was his involvement in capturing the energy and sound?
BC: “Jace is an excellent, excellent, excellent engineer. He’s also a master in the editing process, because face it, everybody works with computers now. It’s really rare that you’ll be recording to tape. I mean, the first two Esmerine albums were recorded to tape with Howard Bilerman. And then editing, you’re still cutting with a razor. They’re taping it together, doing the mixing all by hand and I super miss that. That was really fun to play the song as it’s going along – you’re not going to get that back, whereas now everything’s automated. It’s so much easier, but a bit less fun, you know? Have you ever done that?”
S13: No, I haven’t, but I’ve been in studios seeing that happen. There’s a certain kind of personality you need to employ that meticulousness.
BC: “Totally. That’s all through the first three Godspeed records. I remember four of us at the console, ‘Can you take your part and just move that’. Jace is kind of a wizard at doing that, and listening, and suggesting.
“With any relationship, sometimes a relationship clicks, you click with a person, then sometimes there’s an awkwardness and might not click. For us, ever since we started working with Jace when we were adding a few extra instruments, and then mixing Dalmak back in 2012, it clicked with him right away. If something works, you’re going to do it again. And his partner Oggy from The Besnard Lakes played flute on the record, too.”
S13: They played Liverpool a couple of months ago. They’re one of my favourite bands, to be honest.
BC: “Me too. My partner wants to have them play our wedding. (laughs) And they were so excited. They were like, ‘Yes, we want to do it!’”
S13: Probably not that drone piece, the last song off the new record.
BC: “No she likes that one a lot. That was the one!”
BC: “The melodic part before the drone and the wind and all that locked groove at the end.”
S13: Speaking of experimentation, listening to a piece like Imaginary Pasts, how central is the drone to your ideas? I know Set Fire To Flames and also with Rebecca’s latest record Waxing Moon, there’s a drone thread that runs through. How important is it to Esmerine?
BC: “I think [with] some tunes, it’s the starting point. And it can be a touchstone for a particular tune. And other tunes not. Look at Fractals – not at all. It’s almost putting these little bits here and there. But Entropy? Drone! You know what I mean? Imaginary Paths is quite drone-y with a real Stereolab vibe, so we just kind of went with that. We’re like ‘Stereolab, we love you’. A little reference. The big thing about drone is the post-rock thing – you can settle into it. It’s such a late twentieth century, early twenty-first century exploration, but we can also say it’s like a super mediaeval thing.
“One of the things that is magic about drone and then holding that note, or holding that chord is when you change it, it’s like a revelation, it’s like a device. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a gimmick, because it does sound good when it’s done well, but it’s a musical device that one can employ in songwriting.”
S13: Godspeed were the first band to me that felt political. The sound was political. Do politics play any part in Esmerine?
BC: “I would say less overt politics, in the sense that Godspeed was all about the hammer of hope. There’s that aspect of, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make it, we’re gonna get through it, but fuck, we got to have a hammer, man’. At the beginning, that whole anarchist kind of thing, and Godspeed definitely calls attention to inequity and inequality and injustice in our time, in a way that is overt because there are manifestos, and there is film, which also says a lot.
“Esmerine, I would say, is political in a softer way. In a gentler way. For a long time, we didn’t even have any guitars in the band, so it’s much more classical and just softer acoustically and volume-wise. But still, I think it calls attention. Its political nature is more ‘What are we doing with ourselves and our cultures?’ It’s not ‘Rally to the barricades’, as Godspeed definitely was when I was in it. There’s more of an inclusive nature. We’re not at the barricades, we’re behind the barricades supporting people.”
S13: Interesting. I mean, sonically Esmerine is perhaps… not more orchestral, but perhaps richer and sound, which led to another thought after listening to something like Funambule from Lost Voices. I couldn’t believe how folk that sounded.
BC: “I know, right! Rebecca and I really come from a post-rock background. Me a very punk background because I played in that before Godspeed. And then I went to school in the mid ’90s to get better at drums and went into percussion. Actually, orchestral percussion. That really informed a lot of my playing in Godspeed – that’s where all the glockenspiel came from, and cymbal washes and trying to do orchestral aspects within a rock format. It lends itself very well to that band, because that band is basically an orchestral rock band.
“Then in around 2011, early 2012, Brian Sanderson started to play with us. And his background is very folk-ey. He spent a long time in India learning instruments there. He has played in all sorts of different traditional forms for many years. That was a side of me, too – I played in like, four folk bands. Not folk, I would say traditional Irish, Scottish, Cajun Gypsy, klezmer, that sort of stuff – I was playing that at the time with other bands on the side. So Brian brings a lot of that, because he is literally a master of all trades; he can play almost any instrument. For instance, that haunting reed instrument at the beginning of Entropy is this weird instrument called the hulusi. It looks like a series of panpipes if you curve them in a circle and you play and they’re all shooting up. Google it!
“We have a running joke in the band, because he’s always bringing up, ‘Look, I can play!’ You know, turkey basters for Thanksgiving? He plays the shit out of those! And we’re like, ‘No, sorry, save that for your other band. You can only go so far’. (laughs) What’s the other one? We call it an ngoni, that’s the instrument that he plays on Le Penombre. Have you ever heard of a Malian instrument called a cora?”
BC: “Right. Cora is the instrument that is played in the palaces by the Griot. It’s the huge instrument, but in the villages there’s a smaller one called an ngoni. That instrument is easy to transport, it’s easy to make, it doesn’t have as many strings, everyone can play it. You don’t have to be a Griot to be learning this. And so he got one. In Ottawa, there’s a huge garage sale every summer called the Glebe Garage Sale. It’s literally neighbourhood wide, everybody has a garage sale. At the end of the day, he was driving around and somebody had left this beautiful ngoni by the side of the road, nobody wanted to buy it. So he brought it home! He’s playing it and we made a song around it, and because ngoni and marimba, of course it goes so well together; the roots are in West Africa, so the sound is there. On tour, it’s too fragile to bring on an aeroplane, so he built one out of an old snare shell I had. And then, super Canadian, this is my little spiel when we play the song at a show; because the neck is made out of an old hockey stick, and the bridge is made out of a piece of cross country ski, and then the strings are made out of fishing twine, we’re like, ‘See, that’s the Canadian ngoni!'”
S13: Constellation have been a massive pillar for basically everything post-rock and experimental for decades now.
BC: “It’s amazing that they’ve been that for so long and it’s kept up. They’ve created quite an oeuvre. It’s amazing.”
S13: How vital is a label like that as being a gateway for artists such as yourselves?
BC: “I think it’s really important. Especially in the age of the internet. Although Esmerine started after the internet, [our] first two records were really even before Napster and all that. But now with streaming and downloading, people searching and the sort of genius bar of our culture, yeah, it’s important. It takes people to different things. But even so, I’d say we’re still a pretty small band.”
S13: Canadian Music really blew up in the early ’00s. You had Godspeed, then you had other bands like Broken Social Scene, then Arcade Fire. Underneath that, bands like Esmerine were so relevant, which led to so many rabbit holes. Set Fire To Flames had the Godspeed connection, which led to a Do Make Say Think connection which fed into Broken Social Scene. I don’t think there has been such a fertile creative landscape since that period.
BC: “I think you’re right. There was a little flowering there, right? It was really nice.”
S13: You can still go down rabbit holes and probably find new things. I was reading something the other day about people over 30 have stopped listening to new music.
BC: “I’ve got a 13 year old and 14 year old. Neither of them are super into music in the way I was. But I listen to a lot of music, and they definitely are exposed to stuff and they are like, ‘I like that tune’. They’re decisive about their likes. But some of their friends are exactly like I was when I was a kid, like, knowing I’ve got a favourite band, ‘I like this genre’ and I’m like, ‘Okay’. So I don’t know, maybe there was a hole, maybe when we were younger, I’m not trying to put you in with me, but you’re into music, so maybe when we were younger, we were those kids who really liked that kind of music.
“I was going out to see Husker Du and Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, sneaking into bars and stuff like that. I just missed seeing The Clash. I think there are still lots of people like that. I think people always like to talk about different generations and how this generation doesn’t. They’ll be saying the same thing. I have a feeling.”
S13: How important has Montreal been for Esmerine?
BC: “Well, it’s super important in the sense that that flowering that we were just talking about and how it was just an amazing, spontaneous synchronicity that happened in the mid to late ’90s. And then expressed itself worldwide, which is amazing in the ’00s, as you were saying. So just the meeting of all those people and not just from Montreal. I would say there’s a bunch of people from Ottawa, Toronto, the Maritimes, that kind of closeness. But also a bunch of people from Europe, meeting up and creating a scene. That was just the latest Montreal scene. There was a pretty good scene, I’d say, [in] the late ’80s, early ’90s. And another great scene in the early ’80s of Montreal. But none of them went worldwide, some of them went sort of North America wide, but that was that. Then of course, right when the post-rock thing was starting to die down a little bit, because it’s time had come and gone as a flowering, then Arcade Fire, Braids, all those bands came out.
“The post-rock scene, I could say, influenced other things. Look at Jerusalem In My Heart. He comes out of that scene, too. Radwan [Ghazi Moumneh] moved from Lebanon, but he was in the scene. You can really hear the drone, which also has its own Arabic roots. The post rockiness within that.”
Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More is out now via Constellation. Purchase from Bandcamp.