Exploring the significance of art as a conduit for activism during a time plagued by turmoil.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
In the famous words of Zack de la Rocha, "It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here, what better time than now?" These iconic lines from Rage Against The Machine's Guerrilla Radio rang true in '99 and continue to do so decades beyond their inception. The issues at hand may have changed, but the battle lives on and for GOJIRA's Joe Duplantier, there's no time to waste. With the band's new album Fortitude just days away, the French unit do right by their mantra of putting the spotlight on self reflection and global conflicts, such as the burning of the Amazon forest, and they do so with a meticulous attention to their musical craft.
Arriving on April 30th via Roadrunner Records with another neat cover illustration by the band's own frontman, Fortitude stands as a fighting spirit of uplifting capabilities. As detailed on our review of the record, Fortitude's conscious approach to lyricism comes well equipped with yet another astounding technical display, one that could be arguably considered their most kaleidoscopic yet. It's not just musically sound but visually as well for it comes well adorned by a symbolic work that emphasizes a will to thrive against the oppressive powers that be. The cover invites viewers into an engaging experience that pairs well with the GOJIRA's polyrhythmic sound, driving home a message while rattling the senses.
We go Behind the Cover of Fortitude with Joe Duplantier to grasp the scope of the symbols present at the forefront:
‘Fortitude’ is nearly here and like most of the predecessors, you illustrated the cover. As a musician and illustrator yourself, how important is it to you to have both components of a release complement each other so seamlessly?
Duplantier: It’s very important because every single detail matters. The way we see it, everything from the band’s logo to the illustrations within and around the record matter. The cover is going to convey a feeling, a texture, and a color. Our second album, ‘The Link’ (2003), is our red album. ‘From Mars to Sirius’ (2005) is the white album. Art carries a lot.
I remember when we were writing ‘From Mars to Sirius’ back in 2004, I sent a sketch of the whale to the head of the record company back then. He was like, “What! Is it going to be white? It has to be black. You’re a metal band!” If you went to the metal section of a record store, we were that one white album among all these other black albums. If anything, art is a way of standing out and breaking the code of whatever genre you’re in. Maybe on the next record, we’ll have a bunch of flowers with a cup of tea. Why not, you know? It could create an intrigue. There’s a big part of our music that is very sensitive and influenced by philosophy among other art forms. It’s important for us to represent that on the cover.
Definitely, and I’m fairly certain that audiences would welcome that tea drinking cover, myself included. Art is of course in political by nature and your cover paintings a unique approach to social commentary, specifically highlighting issues of deforestation, pollution, and global warming among other topics. What role do you feel that art plays in the contemporary world, specifically as a conduit for activism?
Duplantier: We live in a critical time. For example, there has never been as little fish in the ocean as there is now. We’ve never treated animals as bad as we do today. Meat consumption is a destroyer. It’s destroying the Amazon and it’s directly linked to our ways, destroying the ways we consume. We’ve become so accustomed to wanting to eat bacon every morning and wanting hamburgers every day. Maybe it’s time to slow down a little bit and behave. We need strength to think for ourselves and dig into our hearts, human knowledge, history, and science. There’s so many ways that we can educate ourselves. For that, we need to take responsibility into our own hands if we want to see a better world.
Obviously, this world could be better. There’s a lot of injustice going on, rights being violated, and unfair laws around the world. I don’t think there are animal rights written on paper even though there should be. Animals deserve rights. Overall, we have work to do. The Amazon is disappearing, the oceans are dying, and there are things we’re too scared to face. It’s easier to blame a president. The president is not going to ask a population to change their ways too harshly or ask them to participate in things they’re not already used to doing because they won’t get reelected. There’s no ideal way to fix problems through the head of a pyramid. There’s always the chance of a dictatorship and things becoming a mess, so it has to come from the individual. When you buy your food from the supermarket, that’s where it starts. How are you going to get from point A to point B? Are you going to take a bicycle, public transit, or an electric vehicle? All these little things that we have control of can make a huge difference on a global scale.
Absolutely, and we’ll elaborate more on the power of the self a bit later. For now, let’s jump into ‘Fortitude’. With a shield, spear, and radiating heart, our indigenous protagonist stands firm and looks towards fighting to save the Amazon. Visually, what were you looking to capture?
Duplantier: Human potential. Human strength. One individual can do a lot. Also, this album is sort of a tribute to all indigenous people of the world. They are the last humans in their right mind. They’re the only ones that can live within nature without harming nature. This is a huge deal. As a species, we should be able to ask, “What are we doing to this world? Are we a parasite or do we actually have something to bring? Can we fix this?” If we listen to science, we’re living in a very critical era of human history, so we need to be strong.
It’s not easy to fit in. I think about our listeners and how they feel. I would say that most metal heads and metal fans in general are smart people, sensitive people. That’s why they need this music to exercise their anxieties and stress. It’s not enough for them to watch a Hollywood movie with a cheesy ending. They need more. They need to hear that other people are suffering too and perhaps have the answers they’re looking for. Thinking about that and the audience we have, I’ve learned that we are a source of inspiration and power, or at least that's what our fans tell us. Listeners enjoy our music carefully and read through our lyrics. We have a responsibility to them and we take it as our mission now. Life brought us success with our band, which is incredible and we’re very thankful for that. So we ask ourselves, “What is it that we can bring to people? What kind of impact can we have on the world and how can we shake consciousness in people to hopefully make a change for the better? How can we inspire people to be the best version of themselves?”
Visually, I remember constantly having this idea of a warrior holding a spear. I don’t know why, but it’s a symbol. We also have the shield. We need to protect ourselves from all the bullshit. We need to be strong and the heart leads the way. By default, if you act by the heart, you won’t harm others because your decisions will be based on love, compassion, and unity with others. It’s something that humans need to do more of, be guided by the heart instead of the testicles.
It’s essentially a message of compassion rooted in strength. The cover itself is quite simple yet effective, putting symbols at the forefront without being overly pretentious in its design. Is the illustration something that comes together as you’re writing and recording the music or is it something that comes about naturally afterwards? It would appear they go hand in hand.
Duplantier: It depends. Sometimes when I’m writing lyrics, I do little sketches. It sort of feels like I’m slacking off sometimes and I’m just drawing instead of writing music. I’m here drawing sketches of planets, dragons, and car accidents or whatever. However, it often inspires my lyrics. The creative process for my writing sometimes goes through this drawing phase. Years ago when we were writing ‘The Way Of All Flesh’ (2008), I drew a picture of a monster swallowing the earth. It inspired me for a whole song, which became ‘Wolf Down The Earth’.
I like symbols and legends, like St. George and the dragon. It’s in the Bible and it’s in a lot of paintings. I like the idea of defeating the dragon, or the monster within us. You could also tame the dragon. Both ideas work, but in general, there’s symbols like St. George that really left an impact on me personally. For Gojira, we used a whale that represents something mighty yet peaceful. Whales could crush humans after what we do to them, but no, they come, they blink, and they swim away. They teach us compassion. This is just me speaking in my poetic self, but yeah. We like to use symbols in our covers.
One could say that the whale also represents the heaviness of your records. Whatever it is that the whale means, it will vary by the listener, and that’s really the beauty of art. It connects with listeners in different ways. Though every record in the Gojira discography is distinct, they’re all interconnected through a common purpose: the betterment of one and the betterment of society. Now entering this seventh full-length, how has ‘Fortitude’ served as a conduit for reflection of all the years of activism and growth as a band?
Duplantier: The album is a result of that, a sort of state of mind and underlying direction that we’re giving our entire project. Our art, our visuals, our shows, what we communicate, and what we don’t communicate is all carefully thought through. For example, when we do shows, I don’t preach. I’m not making huge speeches because it’s all about rocking out. We like to keep it that way. Maybe during the show, I’ll say a few things in the moment like “hey, peace and love everybody” and then boom, go right back to it.
Compared to ‘Magma’ (2016), ‘Fortitude’ is very outgoing and political. ‘Magma’ was very intimate and personal. On this new album, we even talked about things that are relevant in the news today, which is pretty rare. We talk about the great emergency happening to the Amazon forest. When the album drops, we’re going to release a video that covers other things. There’s also the idea of civil disobedience. If you disagree with something that was said or done by your government against your people, it’s your duty to go out in the street and express yourself publicly. You shouldn’t blindly follow the rules. You should make the rules. There are so many existing laws and rules that have become completely irrelevant to the society we’re living in today. These laws need to be broke, and that’s where the spear in the album cover comes in. The heart is sort of the state of mind, the general state of peace and compassion we should all be in. Hate, war, and nuclear bombs lead to nothingness. Compassion, love, understanding, and knowledge of other cultures and civilizations is key. You have to know the world in order to adapt to what’s coming at you. The shield is the protection from the unnecessary evils, harassments, and attacks of all kinds, which in turn connects back to the importance of knowledge.
In hearing this explanation, it’s clear that you’re very ingrained within the process of putting the visuals together. However, this hasn’t always been the case. As an artist, when do you feel that you have to take a step back and allow for somebody else to take on the cover? This happened of course for ‘Magma’ (2016) when you had Hibiki Miyazaki take it on.
Duplantier: For ‘Magma’, I was a bit overwhelmed when the time came to do the cover. I was mixing the album with our live sound engineer. We were basically in the studio finalizing the album when we had a death in the family. My mother passed, so I was very busy going back and forth and arranging things. Being with her was a big part of that time off we took. We had to cancel shows and stuff, so as you can imagine, my mind was somewhere else. However, we were completely into the music. When it came to the art, I had to get my shit together. I needed to shop because I’m not usually drawing all the time. It’s funny, I always go and buy a lot of supplies when a new album comes around because I’m going to be trying different stuff out. The ‘Magma’ cycle was a bit tight and we had a very busy schedule, so I decided I wasn’t going to do it. We had our eyes on Hibiki for a while because my brother Mario and I were very impressed with the stuff she was doing. We decided to hit her up and it was a great adventure.
We were going back and forth and I was able to check sketches, mockups, and that sort of stuff from our hotel room. I just needed to communicate with her. That was important for me, to be able to be involved in some way through the process. She did a great job.
It’s definitely a fan favorite. Seeing as Mario is an artist as well, what role does he play in the visual component of the release? Has it ever been discussed to have him do a cover perhaps?
Duplantier: Yeah, of course! For this one, I actually called him and asked him if he wanted to do the cover. He said, “No man, it has to be you.” That lazy son of a...but yeah, I ask him all the time. He just says it’s my thing, so it looks like I’ll be doing this forever.
Who knows, he might switch his mind sometime in the future. Time will tell. From the iconic whale on ‘From Mars to Sirius’ to the volcanic sun of ‘Magma’, there’s plenty to love from Gojira’s covers as we’ve discussed. They’re simple yet effective, serving as apt representations of the music they embody. In looking back at your artistic endeavors, which is your favorite Gojira cover and why?
Duplantier: It would be ‘Fortitude’. I kept this element of having everything be centered and symmetrical. I’m obsessed with that. ‘From Mars To Sirius’ wasn’t but our first album ‘Terra Incognita’ (2001) was. The cover is a picture that my sister Gabrielle took. I remember holding an old light for that one. I had a vision for that cover and had some sketches going, but we wanted our sister to take the picture. It’s our guitar player Christian who’s in the picture. He’s in the middle in a very Buddhist-like pose and his body is very symmetrically positioned underneath our logo at the top.
‘The Link’ is also like that with the tree in the middle. For this one, I approached the symmetry aspect with the logo, the heart, the album title, and face aligned along with the two horns and leaves playing a part too. I didn’t even think about this until this very moment, but the right side of the human brain is the more active, problem solver side while the left side is more in touch with the dream realm and the unconsciousness of the body. That said, it’s important to note that the shield is on the left side of the warrior. It’s full of beautiful, flowery details. I find this cover to be very rich.
When I did it, I scanned some golden paper behind the painting, which gave it this earthy tone. It translated as brown a little bit, but I wanted it to have this golden feeling of the sun and nature.
That’s interesting! I thought the background was hand painted. It’s amazing how some of these little details sometimes go unnoticed. Throughout the ‘Fortitude’ album cycle, you’ve been highlighting the issues that surround the Indigenous communities of Amazonia and have helped fundraise for the APIB NGO. You’ve also shared news of the ongoing turmoil in Tibet. Though a good percentage of bands tend to avoid political involvement and commentary, you seem to embrace it and use Gojira as a platform to spread awareness, which in turn lends a helping hand. What role do you feel that bands play in an interconnected world where global issues are at the scroll of a fingertip?
Duplantier: Artists, actors, we all have a responsibility. It sounds a bit cliché because it’s something that a lot of celebrities say. It sometimes feels a bit pretentious. I do think that it’s about more than just education, but using the opportunity. Imagine we’re standing on a table and we have a group of people yelling at us to play some music. We’re standing on a table and everyone can see us, but what if there’s a house burning nearby? We’re going to go ahead and play the song, but just so that everyone knows, we’re going to mention the house burning. If everybody could please go throw a glass of water on it, that would be great. This is it basically. It’s not always about worrying about our hair, how we look on stage, the contracts, and that sort of stuff. 99.9% of our efforts are very oriented on our business, and by business, I don’t mean it in a bad way. I’m European so the word business in my mouth will always sound a little strange. I don’t say business as evil, because I very much enjoy being in this music business, but this is also a passion. It’s what we are. We’re musicians and we’re destined to play music until the day we die. That’s what we do and we embrace it completely.
Once in a while, showing the world that something is wrong is super important. We have that responsibility. I say responsibility with a capital R. Going back to the burning house reference, somebody has to say something. If you’re holding the microphone, fucking say something.
Definitely. In closing, Joe, a line that always stood out to me as one of the most significant lines in the Gojira discography was one from the chorus of ‘Silvera’. It goes, “When you change yourself, you change the world.” It all starts with you. This is also expressed in ‘Fortitude’ as we've mentioned. What message do you have for those who underestimate the power that one simple person can have on any given thing?
Duplantier: You don’t need to estimate it because you have the power. You just got it. Everything comes down to us, the individual. We’re the ones buying the products that are shipped in cargo ships and the meat that is causing the deforestation, yet we’re here saying “Oh shit, that sucks” as we eat a hamburger. We have to get our shit together because we do have the power. Each time we order food at a restaurant or buy food from a deli or supermarket, we make an impact. You have to know where things come from. That’s one thing, and then there’s our behavior with others. We need to stop amplifying the unhealthy electricity in our society and start trusting and showing empathy towards one another. The moment we stop creating hostile environments for ourselves, the world will change in a snap.
Fortitude arrives on April 30th via Roadrunner Records. Order your copy HERE.