There are a multitude of things that set Gojira apart from so many of their contemporaries. There’s the French band’s groundbreaking, environmentally conscious lyricism, singer/guitarist Joe Duplantier often screaming for the salvation of a polluted world.
There’s the mix of technicality and brute force of Mario Duplantier’s intricate drumming against hulking riffs inspired by everything from death metal to nu metal. And there’s their ability to conjure inventive melodies, something backed up by the millions of Spotify streams amassed by hook-laden singles such as Silvera and Stranded.
All three came together perfectly on Flying Whales, the 2005 anthem that has become one of their signature songs. The seven-minute behemoth – originally from Gojira’s third album, From Mars To Sirius – plummets from a hummable introduction to bouncing death metal, before Joe roars about the wonders of ocean life over a torrent of breakdowns.
The song turned out to be Gojira’s moment of self-actualisation and its omnipresence in their setlist for the last 17 years has gifted it with life beyond even their control. Gig-goers regularly bring inflatable whales to gigs and chuck them about, and there’s even a Facebook fan group called Gojira Whaleposting with some 20,000 members.
There’s only one downside: Joe Duplantier doesn’t particularly like Flying Whales very much. “It starts with a super-duper long intro that, honestly, if I’m going to listen to the song, I skip,” he tells Hammer with a laugh.
“It’s such a drag! It leads into that main riff, which dictates the tempo of the song. To this day, we don’t understand what’s so special about that riff, but Mario has a million theories. He says that Flying Whales is the perfect tempo. That’s why it’s successful, because it [matches] the average human heartbeat.
Then the lyrics are like this crazy, mystical bum that lives in a cave and says, ‘Oh, I wanna reach the whales!’ It’s so weird. I’m kind of pissed, because these are not my favourite lyrics and there’s something clumsy about the song; it has a million breakdowns. When we play it every night, I’m wondering, ‘What’s up with this song? Why do people want to hear this song?’”
Joe may lament the lyrics of Flying Whales making him sound like “a fucking hippie”, but the fact remains that the song’s awe at the miracles of nature perfectly fits his values and upbringing. He and his brother Mario, five years his junior, grew up in the rural Landes forest, two hours from Bordeaux in the south-west of France.
Joe used to pass the time collecting wood and stones at the beach, only to come home with hands blackened by crude oil. Even worse, Mario once went to the hospital with an ear infection after swimming in polluted water. As the pair grew older and discovered rock and metal, they attended gigs in the nearby Basque Country, which was fighting a perennial battle for independence from France and Spain.
“There was some ‘mild’ terrorism going on,” Joe recalls. “They were exploding cars and banks and real estate. There was an ongoing war between the French and Spanish police and these Basque terrorists, so there was this climate of tension. Bands would do underground shows in somebody’s garage or somebody’s barn. Even though I didn’t share the whole ‘independence of the Basque Country’ [stance], I got to witness this electric dimension of rock and punk music that had a purpose.”
Gojira’s 2001 debut album, Terra Incognita, and 2003 follow-up The Link combined brutal death metal with spiritually inclined lyrics that pondered meditation and the course of life. “My political consciousness wasn’t activated yet,” admits Joe. By the time of From Mars To Sirius, that was starting to change. Their love of nature and increasing desire to make music to instigate social action began to shift front and centre – something manifested on Flying Whales.
The frontman was inspired to write Flying Whales’ lyrics when he read that ocean-based mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have some of the most complex brains in the world. “This book said that whales, like humans, have an incredible amount of grey matter compared to other animals,” he explains. “So, what do they do? They don’t build houses, roads or prisons. They don’t have laws, don’t read books, don’t make movies. Why are they so smart? Maybe we’re missing something.”
While honouring these mysteriously intelligent cetaceans, Joe holds a mirror to mankind: the species that hunts them for their meat and blubber. ‘Beneath the seas I searched and had a different view of us on Earth; the sinking ship of man,’ he growls during the second verse. It neatly fits the over-arching theme of From Mars To Sirius: not only is there a flying whale emblazoned on the album’s cover but, lyrically, it’s fixated on the belief that we must reject violence to evolve.
“Mars is the Roman god of war and Sirius is a star that, in some cultures, represents love and peace,” Joe elaborates. “Going from the masculine energy of Mars to the more feminine and peaceful Sirius is what humanity needs to do in order to survive.”
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Although the band’s messaging evolved, Flying Whales’ music is a result of Gojira doing what they always did: jamming in the Duplantiers’ house until they stumbled upon something cool.
When Joe slid his fingers from the fifth fret of his guitar to the first, the quartet instantly leapt on the sound and composed the simplest yet heaviest of riffs around it. It proved emblematic of an album that, guitar-wise, became the least complicated Gojira had done at that point, de-emphasising tremolo picking in favour of pick scrapes, melodic taps and seismic chords.
“There’s a nu metal vibe,” Joe concurs. “I think Gojira dwell somewhere between Morbid Angel and Korn. We had a lot of fun playing with those two elements, often in the same riff: death metal and whatever Sepultura invented with Chaos A.D.. The Flying Whales riff came from a pulse, a mood, that happened organically in the rehearsal space.”
Meanwhile, that atmospheric opening – the one that Joe today considers skippable – was necessitated simply by the song’s placement midway through the album. “We try to balance out the pace of every record by putting in a song with a calm intro,” explains Joe. “That’s what every musician is probably doing when they release an album; maybe after six songs, they’re like, ‘OK, this is too much! We need to slow things down so we can come back and strike again.’”
Despite being held up today as the band’s earliest masterpiece, From Mars… proved more of a creeping infestation than a meteoric smash hit. Released on underground label Listenable and too monolithic for rock radio, its success came on the back of Gojira’s live shows, which were as frequent as they were intense. “We’re definitely a live band,” states Joe. “We record albums and then we just tour, tour, tour. We never said no to a tour for 20 years.”
Such a prolific schedule has only made Flying Whales more and more of a Gojira mainstay. In turn, Joe has only grown more and more perplexed. “When I talk to fans, they say, ‘If you don’t play that song, I’m going to shoot myself in the face,’” he laughs. “There are so many other songs that are way better than this one! I think it has something to do with the title. The image of a flying whale has caught people’s attention, like, ‘What?!’ It became this gimmick for our entire career.”
Indeed, ever since the singer painted a planet-sized white whale and plastered it on the front cover of From Mars…, the image has been inseparable from Gojira. A legion of devotees have the artwork as a tattoo. Plus, the connection between the band and the animal has been the inspiration for countless memes all over social media, no doubt fuelling the song’s status as a live must-see. Joe himself has mixed feelings about the unexpected life the song has taken on.
“I actually dislike fans bringing inflatable whales to shows,” he says. “I’m trying to express something spiritual and otherworldly, and it ends up being a bunch of plastic objects thrown at people. When I look at this paradox, I’m cringing a little bit. But that’s personal. This band is not my band; it’s everybody’s band. They want to come to the show, have fun and do their own thing.”