The Godzilla-Inspired Heavy Metal Band Preaching Environmentalism
Gojira frontman Joe Duplantier opens up about their most activist album yet and why he’s not afraid to be called a “hippie” by his headbanging contemporaries.
There’s nothing more metal than environmentalism, and for proof of that fact, just listen to French heavyweights Gojira’s crushing new album Fortitude, the latest from the death-metal quartet to marry brutal riffs, sonic experimentation, and lyrical laments for the state of the planet.
Since their breakthrough 2001 debut Terra Incognita, Gojira (whose songs are in English) have carved out a unique path in their doom-laden field, their thunderous assaults often fixated on the desecration and pollution of our oceans, the unnecessary slaughter of our wildlife populations, and the destruction of our rainforests—the last of which is the subject of the band’s recent single “Amazonia,” in which lead singer/guitarist Joe Duplantier screams with fury, “The greatest miracle / Is burning to the ground.”
Such concerns are nothing new for Gojira, the original Japanese name for Godzilla—a fictional creature born of man’s catastrophic nuclear folly—who have been addressing these crises with insightful ferocity for the past two decades. Fortitude is their most mature and activist work yet, a furious cry for change that, as on lead single “Born For One Thing” and album closer “Grind,” brings the righteous fury. Nonetheless, despite retaining their signature heaviness, Fortitude is also Gojira’s most mainstream output to date, employing even more of the clean vocals, harmonies, and melodic diversions that elevated their 2016 gem Magma. It’s classic Gojira, as well as an evolution, with the four-piece—which includes Duplantier’s brother Mario on drums, Christian Andreu on guitar, and Jean-Michel Labadie on bass—introducing diverse and dynamic elements to their sonic maelstroms, to thrilling and inspiring ends.
His eco-conscious outlook born from a childhood in the coastal French commune of Ondres, Duplantier is arguably metal’s most engaged activist voice, to the point that Gojira even boasts an “Activism” section on its website. The positive intent of their message is summed up by the chorus of Magma single “Silvera” (“When you change yourself, you change the world”). With the release of “Amazonia,” Gojira has launched a fundraising initiative dubbed Operation Amazonia (including an auction of rare goods) to benefit The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), an indigenous-owned NGO that advocates for environmental and cultural rights of indigenous tribes. For Duplantier, such work goes hand-in-hand with his pioneering metal artistry.
Ahead of Fortitude’s debut, we spoke with the gregarious frontman about Gojira’s phenomenal new LP, the impact being environmentally outspoken has had on the band’s fortunes, and his hopes for the planet—and the human race.
Fortitude feels more accessible than your brutal past work. Do you all deliberately think about the mainstream? Or is this just an unconscious evolution of the band’s sound?
We don’t consciously worry too much about it. We’re basically getting together and jamming. We’re not the same as we were when we started. I was 16 when I first picked up a guitar, and I wanted to go fast and be dissonant and weird. Now I want different things. We still are obsessed with the idea of creating powerful music. It’s not an obsession with power, per se, but rather creating powerful material that will punch you in the face and shake you. We don’t want to do something that will just fit in the background. We want to shock people somehow. But we’re not controlling everything here. We just get together and something happens and that’s what Gojira is. We’re a bit limited on the result. It’s even painful having to talk about all this, you know? I just like to create music and release it, and then people read the lyrics and they have so much information already! [Laughs] The songs have notes, rhythms, patterns, and dreamy parts, and there’s a reason why we make music—we’re not talkers, we’re musicians.
Your question is very interesting, though, because I’ve been thinking about it—but do I want to think too much about all that? It’s poetry, and we’re fucking headbanging, and I’m 44 years old now and I’m still headbanging! It’s not bad. Of course, what I now think is super brutal and whoa-in-your-face, my younger self would look at it and maybe say, dude, this is lame, go faster! I don’t know. Life is weird, you change, and you see things differently. So I don’t want to say, no, that’s bullshit, it’s not so commercial.
Does playing to bigger crowds change the direction of the music?
At first, we didn’t have that intention to seduce people. We only wanted to be tight as a band, and sound like Morbid Angel and Metallica and Sepultura had a baby [Laughs]. We had a vision of the best parts of all those bands, and we were just music fans. But as we started touring, people were interested, and other artists also gave us a lot of support, like Randy Blythe from Lamb of God (and Chris Adler too), who absolutely insisted to bring us on tour, and took us all through the States—like 45 shows in a row. And the reviews were tremendous, for us doing death metal.
As the venues get bigger, the music resonates differently. We have to adapt to festivals and huge venues, especially opening for Metallica, so I think that indeed has an influence on our music. Not only the success and the perspective of success, and wanting to seduce an audience—wanting to be more mainstream is a thing. But I don’t think this is necessarily the problem with how it works here. We’re trying to adapt our material organically, without thinking about it. We know that we’re going to jump on a stage that is bigger than the last time, so our music is becoming a little slower, a little fuller, less notes, more wholesome. You blast “Amazonia” on a huge PA in front of 100,000 people, which happens often on our tours, especially in the summer at festivals, and it’s going to kick some serious fucking ass.
You wrote Fortitude before the pandemic, right? Why wait so long to release it—and did the pandemic influence its final form in any way?
It only affected the last steps of the making of the record, which is after it was recorded. The mixing and the marketing—what song are you going to release first, and what kind of video are we going to do. The album was completed a year ago, before the pandemic hit. More than a year ago, actually. It was all done in February 2020. A lot of people think we wrote the album during the pandemic, but we didn’t! But it resonates pretty well during the pandemic, because everything we’re talking about is the way humanity behaves, in general, and how we’re not sustainable. We’re not smart from a survival standpoint. An earthworm is way smarter and has adapted to life on Earth way better than us, because it lives in perfect harmony with its environment. It’s not exploiting, it’s not doing genocides, and it’s not sucking the fossil fuels and stuff like that.
Has the last year left you less hopeful for the planet’s and/or humanity’s survival?
People watch a lot of movies, so when something starts to look like a movie where everybody dies at the end, everybody starts projecting dramatic outcomes. But there have been pandemics before, and 10 times more people died, and there was no lockdown or global situation, with the media. Humanity survived, so I think we’re going to be fine. Maybe we’re going to have to live differently a little bit. Of course, when I say we’re going to be fine, I feel for all the people that died and lost their jobs and became homeless—it’s dramatic for lots of people. But from a species standpoint, we’ll survive. And I think there’ll always be shows too. People always ask me, do you think you’re still going to play shows? I don’t know about me, but even if it’s a Mad Max post-apocalyptic world, there’s always going to be four or five people jumping on stage to make some noise. I think that’s going to survive.
Fortitude continues your career-long focus on environmental issues. Have you ever experienced a backlash in the metal community for being outspoken on that issue?
Yeah, being called hippies, and stuff like that. I cannot worry too much about what people say and think. At the end of the day, I’m just a dumb metal musician trying to write poetry in the songs about things that hurt my heart. It doesn’t go further than that. Yes, we did Operation Amazonia recently, because I want to use our position. We’re connected to a lot of successful bands, and we have an opportunity to point out something that we could do something about. But I’m a musician, and I worry about how to cut my hair, and how to hold my guitar, and I’m trying to take care of my family—there’s only three other people in my family, and I’m completely overwhelmed most of the time. I’m trying to play the guitar right, and to not fight with people around me. I’m struggling with things every day.
How did “Amazonia,” and Operation Amazonia, come about—and how has that activist effort gone so far?
We saw images of the Amazon on fire two years ago when we were working on the album. My brother and I had a meeting at the studio to write a new song, and we showed up with a very heavy heart with these images all over the internet of the Amazon on fire. We picked up our instruments, started to jam with a sort of Amazonian vibe and riff—very Sepultura, as everyone says, and it’s true. Then I did my lyrics about the Amazon, and as we were writing the song, and I was finding a chorus, I told Mario, we’re going for it. We’re really talking about something in particular, in the world. We’re naming a place, we’re naming a zone, in the Earth. Whereas normally we talk about dragons on another dimension, or we use a lot of metaphors: the mountain, the cave, the dragonslayer. It’s a big thing for us.
We’re pretty fascinated by that imagery and symbolism, and we don’t name people or places in our songs, almost on purpose. All of a sudden, we’re dropping a song called “Amazonia,” motherfucker. It’s very specific, so I better watch my words. I have this very genuine and naïve outlook on things, and I can sort of speak like a child in my lyrics. I try to be fancy, but it’s very naive in a way. The forest is burning—aaaaah! It sucks! Let’s do something! [Laughs] It’s not very deep, but it has the quality to be genuine.
When that song came along, and I started to do the vocals, there was a lot of work around the guitars and the texture, and we wanted something simple and punchy. The song sounds to me a little like a curse—there’s all these weird sounds, and we don’t display a lot of technicality in it. As we went, we decided we have to do something about this particular place in the world that’s disappearing and that is so dear to us, and to all of us. So we decided to organize an auction and a donation, and it’s pretty basic. There was a lot of work put in to find the right people to make sure the money would go directly to something we understand and that would make sense to the people living there. So I ended up talking to a lot of people, a lot of leaders of tribes in the Amazon, and we organized that thing. And it’s going pretty well so far.
Was there a particular theme, or intention, that drove the songwriting process for Fortitude? Do you begin with a guiding idea, or does that materialize during the creative process?
The intention was to express strength, and to inspire people to be strong. When they wake up in the morning, they can blast the album and hopefully get up on their legs, to do something they had to do. They’re going to have the strength to face things. We were in a good mood, you know? We were enjoying it. We had a lot of fun recording it with new techniques and committing more as we record—using compressors and EQs and really giving a type and a personality to every riff on the album. Using a different amp for that riff, and a specific guitar, and if we need more meat on that riff, we’ll grab a Mesa amp, because it’s really spongy and very fat, and then blend it. So when it was time to mix, everything was already there. The whole artistic direction of the mix, the whole signature of the album was there, which made the tracking processes very interesting and fun.
Do you have any idea about future touring plans? Or are things still in a holding pattern?
We’re still waiting to see if it’s going to happen. We have a tour opening for Deftones lined up for North America, starting Aug. 12. It’s a bit close, and it’s looking like it could happen, it could not happen. It’s 50/50, I’d say, because in America, the vaccine rollout is in a better place than in Europe, from what I understand. So that maybe makes it possible. Fingers crossed. If it doesn’t happen this year, for sure we’ll do it anyway, because we’re horny for that tour with the Deftones. Them and us, we’re super excited to do this together. There’s a big respect between the two bands. We were fans of them when they had no clue who we were. But now they appreciate us. It’d be the second time we’d have to postpone, if we have to postpone it.
Do you get a lot of questions about Godzilla—especially now, with the recent release of Godzilla vs. Kong?
[Laughs] It was the case 20 years ago, when the first Godzilla was released—not the original one, but when the franchise kicked off again [in 1998], and Jean Reno was in it. At the time, we got a lot of, “Oh, so you guys are in the movie hahaha”—dumb jokes like that. We’re like, shut the fuck up!