GREAT COLD EMPTINESS – A Conversation with Songwriter Nathan Guerrette.
Vuk: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really enjoyed “Miles Before I Sleep” (particularly “The Last of the Wisemen”) As well as the “St. Elm’s Fire” and “Quebec” EP’s.
But right off the bat with this new album (“Death Gifted a Bouquet”), it seems obvious you’re making a bold statement! I was hooked within ten seconds of “The Erotic Waltz”.
Nathan Guerrette (NG): I’m very partial to that track too. I wrote it after I wrote the rest of the album, which is probably why it’s so different sounding than the rest. It’s also an incredibly personal track, with lyrics really existing as a microcosm to the entire ethos of the album as well.
I also wanted to write something that really encapsulated the musical tropes that GCE (Great Cold Emptiness) showcases (ie: very prominent vocals, overwhelming soundscapes, heartfelt atmospheres and lush synth-work). It’s one of those songs that after 12 years of writing music, starting from writing humble techno pieces to this, I can say that this probably the best song I’ve ever composed. It exists as a culmination of the past decade of growth for me.
Vuk: I was wondering about the heaviness of it, so thank you for giving me some clarity on that.
NG: You’re welcome.
Vuk: So, the opening track then serves as a bit of foreshadowing in a way? Musically, if I understand you correctly, its creation was in response to the rest of the material on the album.
NG: Yes, that’s the way I look at it.
I try to make every GCE album a concept album, with each album having its narrative being more focused or less depending on the themes. With “Miles Before I Sleep”, the narrative was less focused, with themes such as yearning, solitude and wisdom being explored with the simple tale of a wanderer in search of forbidden knowledge; travelling to faraway cities, kingdoms etc., ultimately realizing that wisdom is given through experience in simple things like raising a family, living off the land and being modest in every aspect of life.
Looking back, it acts as a prequel to the underlying philosophy of GCE, that of personal responsibility, virtue and family being the most important things in life. Writing that album, at that particular time, seemed to be a reflection of my own understanding and meditations of such themes in my own life.
With “Death Gifted a Bouquet”, the themes manifest differently, with my own personal experiences of breaking up with my fiance at the time, but more importantly, the breakup of my own family, with my parents separating due to their own personal actions against one another. This helped form the narrative of “Death Gifted a Bouquet” to surround a dysfunctional family and the impact selfishness, hedonism, hyper-individualism and modernity has on those who are also part of said family.
Ultimately, in the song “The Erotic Waltz”, the lyrics foreshadow the daughter of the family abandoning her name and dishonoring her ancestors by following the path of her parents, ironically as means of self-reconciliation through the trauma she experienced from them. It is a tragedy, and the album does well to put the concept of self-sacrifice in the name of the metaphysics of a long standing and unified family structure as the forefront philosophy.
Vuk: That’s fascinating! From a songwriting perspective, certainly, but more specifically you’re developing a sort of Great Cold Emptiness mythos. With family as the foundation, and the things that make (and break) successful relationships within them serving as tributaries to a deeper understanding of how to be a better human.
By exploring the themes of nature, personal responsibility, the mental hardships of loneliness and abandonment, and the importance of integrity (for lack of a better word), thematically your music is incredibly heavy, even without the guitars, or reverb-soaked pain within the dirtier vocal tracks (which I’m sure we’ll get to).
Your character (the daughter) knows what she’s doing? She understands the underlying wrongness of it, but this is her way of doing right by her ancestors?
NG: No, she unfortunately falls victim to the same blunders as her parents, even though she knows that her parents do not exemplify the right behaviors (ie: the Father being absent and the Mother being neglecting and consumed by drugs), she also contributes to the cycle of self-destruction by forging her own path of disrespect, by abandoning her title completely by being trapped in the thought pattern of hedonism and essentially “taking the easy way out” by consuming excesses in sexual promiscuity, alcohol and other “darker seductions”.
Even through act of rebellion, where she’s conscious of her own parents’ actions, she falls prey to coping with harmful things, instead of mantling her name and forging it into something good. In the song, “The Erotic Waltz” this concept goes into detail, with her only resonating action being her descent being known by her descendants, looking back at the once proud and great honor of their ancient family.
Vuk: Oh, I see. Her hedonism is a trauma response.
I apologize for misunderstanding. I think part of the tragedy is that when I look at the lyrics, and read the background information, I picture a little girl.
NG: Originally yes, but “The Erotic Waltz” is her as an adult. When she is mentioned earlier, she is a child.
Vuk: In some ways, as so often is the case, poor parenting stunts the growth of any serious wisdom.
NG: Yes, that’s also why the concept of family unity and self-sacrifice is important, as is the concept of the metaphysics of a family, that there are things greater than the self that exist in such a unit, and that the actions of one person will always affect the other.
Vuk: “The Breadmaker’s Daughter” then, is what you just explained in action, correct? The actions of the daughter’s parents dramatically alter the course of her life. This is a heartbreaking moment.
NG: Yes, it explains the start of the downfall of her family, with the father leaving the family, initially causing the events to unfold.
Vuk: Is the advent of Meghan Wood’s vocal performance here specific to one or the other women of the story?
NG: No, she fits the music as a whole, and she was on the previous releases as well. I like her powerful and prominent vocal style, as its display is very integral to my sound.
Vuk: She does have a powerful, yet subtle, presence.
I must confess to only discovering this through this particular album.
My perspective of your work (and hers) is sort of backwards, as “Death Gifted…” was my introduction to both of you.
NG: That will be the case for a lot of people, as I’ve always been in the shadows so to speak. Only very recently becoming somewhat of a name in the scene.
Vuk: That’s sort of ironic as well. As you explained the opening of the album as a foreshadowing, or expression of the past. Some audiences will hear that before anything.
I think that’s kind of romantic.
NG: Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t think of it that way. Any unintentional romance is always welcome, but as time goes on, more people will see the upcoming or latest release as their introduction, so it all evens out.
Vuk: How recently, would you say, did you emerge from the shadows?
You have been fairly prolific the past couple years, though. Success comes from hard work.
NG: Well, GCE formed in 2014, in St Agatha, Maine. I released a debut demo a year later and an EP a few months after that and split quietly, after promising the debut, “Miles Before I Sleep” to be out later in 2016.
I moved from Maine to Quebec in 2016, and in the process of University life and work, I just didn’t have time for writing, nor did I really have the will to either, it was a weird time.
I was very prolific before, always motivated to write new things, but in the span from 2016-2018 I didn’t write a single song. I thank God for the motivation to start “Miles Before I Sleep”, almost at random. I remember in April of 2018, I had a jolt of will, and want, for this album, which prior to this, was never going to see the light of day, to be written finally, so I wrote and recorded the thing in a month and it was out late June in 2018, to weirdly mass acclaim, at least relatively.
I managed 52k, as of August 2020, views on YouTube for this album, which isn’t a whole lot, but nothing I ever wrote before ever managed anywhere close to this level of success. I dropped it at the right time I guess, and that’s when I managed to make a name for myself.
I am a bit prolific, though not nearly what I was before. I have an insane quality control checkpoint in my head as of late, so it’s helped in deciding what is good and what needs more work.
Vuk: Everything seems to happen at exactly the perfect time, doesn’t it?
I know that Flowing Downward is certainly very proud to have you a part of their catalogue.
NG: I’m glad to hear that. It’s been extremely difficult finding a label to begin with, even to release “Miles Before I Sleep”. I never worked with any label prior either, and on top of that, I have a lot of self-doubt and self-conscious issues with my own music in general, so hearing that really makes my day.
It took every ounce of me writing that thing, so I’m relieved that some find catharsis in it. That means the words within it, and the music that carries them do their job.
Vuk: “The Little Deer” has a massive sound. A real Funeral Doom vibe (at least during the first half of the song). With that organ, and the tempo. It’s gorgeous, and haunting. It’s triumphant, and destructive. Can you tell me more about where we’re at in the story you’re telling?
NG: Yes, that one is directly linked to the trauma I had received from my ex fiancé, who’s name literally means “Little Deer” in Gaelic. The song is about watching someone you love self annhilate, and the innocence of them not knowing their demise.
Throughout the song, the imagery describes a hunter pitying a fawn who has been caught in his trap, and the dillema of the need the hunter has for the meat of the animal coupled with the innocence of it as it slowly dies in front of him. If “The Erotic Waltz” is my best song, “The Little Deer” is easily the most personal, written less than a month after I had to leave my ex fiancé.
Vuk: Quite a flood of emotion, I imagine. Going through something like that… the destruction it could cause to you personally… and coming out the other side seems a trauma of its own. Certainly, fertile ground for self-expression.
Earlier you mentioned the music and lyrics doing their jobs. I’d say this song is a clear example of that. Incredibly powerful.
NG: Yeah, lyrics in GCE are extremely important. A lot of bands use them just to fill the void, but I find the lyrics as being just another instrument entirely, and the fact some bands don’t utilize them to their fullest potentials is a tragedy
Vuk: It really is. Such a strange phenomenon. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t a lack of understanding of poetry, or if it’s that some musicians think more about the melodies than the words. There’s something to be said about that in certain circumstances (Lisa Gerrard, for example), but it seems a missed oportunity.
NG: There’s a level of experimentation that must occur thematically as well as musically, the three constants in life are death, taxes and black metal’s inability to stray too far from certain themes, unfortunately
Vuk: Haha! I’m not certain that was intended to be comical, but I just “lol’ed“.
NG: Nah, it was. The truth is what makes it funny. Bands like Liturgy are truly revolutionary in that they completely disregard the whole black metal ethos, and with GCE, I hope to do the same, and help instill in people the values of family and personal responsibility.
Though, ultimately, I am unsure of how far it will go, given the audience’s tendency to live within the spheres of rebellion either to their governments, parents etc. I wish for the rest of Metal to have their own little “Liturgy-esque” project that turns the ethos of the subgenre around, otherwise, I just grow more and more distant from the whole genre every passing day.
Vuk: I see what you mean. The idea of rebelling against the confines of genre while still remaining part of it… that’s kind of a Punk Rock attitude, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Sometimes the subject matter is what kills a genre for folks, and it seems to be what kills the actual genre. Playing by the rules seems counterintuitive, but if you break too many it can come off as pretentious.
NG: The fine line of pretentiousness comes only when the artist creates for the sake of creating, without any other motive for the experimentation. If you can justify breaking established rules, that doesn’t make you pretentious, it’s only when the rules are broken solely to break them that it starts to falter into that
NG: I’d defend Liturgy to the grave.
Vuk: I wasn’t trying to slam Liturgy by any means. Truth be told, I’m not nearly familiar enough with them to be so bold. But I’d imagine, given the frequency with which Metal in general collects “purists”, a band like Liturgy would be an easy target.
NG: Oh yeah, and given the fact that Hunter (Hunt-Hendrix) recently came out as trans, it only adds to the issue, unfortunately.
Vuk: I actually didn’t know that, but the ridicule doesn’t surprise me.
NG: Yeah, it’s quite sad.
Vuk: “The Withering Pyre” is, to put it plainly, a ridiculously epic composition. The lyrics read like ancient mythology, which does two things for me: 1) intrigues the hell out of me, and 2) makes me reluctant to speculate as to its meaning.
It seems to me like this is where the fate of your character is revealed.
NG: “The Withering Pyre” is the event which the cover art takes place, where the daughter burns her ancestral home to the ground in a fit of rage. It is the eventual revealing of the Daughter’s fate, where “The Erotic Waltz” serves as where she ended up, years later.
As for the lyrics, aside from documenting the event, they go off, like you said, in an almost ancient mythological sense. I wrote it as if the story of the burning of the homestead was being told by descendants of the family, like it was some sort of Edda or epic poem recited orally through the ages.
My favorite verse in it, verse 4, essentially encapsulates the premise of the album, where skeletons of the Daughter’s ancestors ask her if she’s willing to give up simple pleasures such as “the perfume of burning spruce and honey” or the “gentle petrichoral whispers of the northern rain” for her own hedonistic desires. As we see in the first song, she ultimately gives in to her own moral discordance,
Vuk: That’s fantastic! The last several minutes of the song, after taking into account your explanation, sound like the embers floating away into the night. Absolutely breathtaking.
NG: I try to make it as visual as possible, as I’m also an aspiring filmmaker, it comes naturally to me, the concept of cinematic and visual metaphors in all my artistic endeavors
Vuk: Well, nicely done! This seems like an Autumn album.
NG: It definitely is. The next album, I’m trying to make is the opposite of this one, so very summer sounding.
Vuk: Are there plans for a vinyl release?
NG: Maybe. COVID-19 has really messed up the schedule and it’s very expensive to print a double vinyl, so if sales do well, I don’t see why not. But it’s all up to Andrea (Pantini of Flowing Downward).
Vuk: A good dude, Andrea.
NG: He really is. I’m blessed to work with him. He seems very fond of this album.
Vuk: That’s a fact.
NG: Waiting over a year for it to be released will do that. I’ve listened to this album so many times at this point, I’m just itching to do something new.
My life is also miles better than what it was when I was writing “DGAB”, so I anticipate the next one to go into a new direction.
Vuk: Given the very personal nature of your work, I have no doubt that will be the case.
I’m so happy we had the chance to chat about your work here. Truly, a very special record.
NG: Thank you so much. I hope many others soon feel the same.
Vuk: I have no doubt many will.