How does Simon Larose, Zen Bamboo’s frontman, spend his self-isolation? He plays guitar on his balcony, just as he was doing when we reached him at the end of an afternoon. Or he reads his girlfriend’s favourite books while she reads his. “It’s like an illumination, even though we know each other by heart,’ he says. “Our favourite books reveal a lot about who we are, it illustrates a lot of things about our respective inner worlds. It is a very rewarding and intimate experience.”
What’s on Larose’s own list of favourite books? Les fous de Bassan, by Anne Hébert, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade, Graham Green’s Picture Post, Romain Gary’s Les Cerfs-volants and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
And what might we learn about him by diving into his small, ideal library? “You’d probably learn that I’m drama queen, I’m a diva,” he says with a laugh. The 25-year-old lyricist and musician has completed two-thirds of a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal. “You might also learn that I’m a cynic who loves humans. As one of my friends says, inside every cynic, there’s a disappointed optimist.”
One can detect an underlying tension between this muted aversion for humanity and a burning desire to embrace it on GLU, Zen Bamboo’s debut full-length album, released in March 2020. The record expresses the desire to work on the continuity of our world, and the fear that said world will end soon, by our own hand.
“Qu’est-ce qui restera après de nous/ Qu’est-ce qui restera après/ Si nos bébés à nous/ On les avale, on les déjoue/ Si nos bébés à nous/ On les renverse sur nos joues,” ((Translation: “What will be left of us, after / What will be left after / If our babies / We swallow them and defeat them / If our babies / Are spilled on our cheeks”), Larose asks in “Xoxoxo,” a song that is to GLU what “La Monogamie” was to Malajube’s Trompe-l’œil: a work where the euphoria of sex and the anguish of death dance together through the night.
“I often write songs as one would build a beast, to fight those monsters that haunt me.”
“‘Xoxoxo’ is about the unbridgeable gap between this generation’s anxiety about having children and how we approach sex purely as a hobby, mindlessly, and without protecting ourselves,” says Simon. “I started thinking about that one night – the amount of unprotected sex that people who don’t want children have – and it started to haunt me, it became a monster. I often write songs as one would build a beast, to fight those monsters that haunt me.”
And yet, a very jovial Larose sings “Moi j’aime vivre/ Et j’aime vivre/ Et j’aime vivre encore/ Encore plus fort, ” in “J’<3 vivre” (“I love to live / I love to live / I love to live again / Ever harder”). “Je veux tout de la vie/ Sans le moindre compromis,” he goes one singing on “Glu (coule sur moi)” (« I want everything from life / Without compromise »). A bit schizophrenic, maybe? No wonder that the first incarnations of GLU were divided in two distinct entities: “Five life songs – the life side – and five death songs – the death side.” But the definitive version is fraught with babies, food, and scenes of devouring, halfway between life impulses and deadly impulses, firmly establishing Simon Larose as an author who prefers asking questions to giving answers.
Whether it’s their lyrics or music, it’s been quite a while since a band from Québec has combined such artistic ambition with such a strong desire to reach as many people as possible. GLU is the kind of album that moight renew your faith in the future of rock. Ardent admirers of Malajube, Zen Bamboo’s members (Larose, guitarist Léo Leblanc, bassist Xavier Toukan, and drummer Cao) tapped producer Julien Mineau for this album after working with Thomas Augustin, Malajube’s other “brain,” on their previous EPs.
“Ironically,” explains Larose, “I think that if we wanted to avoid sounding like a Malajube pastiche, we needed to work with Julien – because if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to sound like Malajube, it’s Julien Mineau.”
The producer, who now lives in Saint-Ursule (about a one-hour drive northeast of Montréal), brought the band what Larose calls “kamikaze ideas.” Which means? “Julien is the type of guy who’s not afraid to try stuff without knowing what the outcome will be. He’s never afraid to question everything: putting the end of the song at the beginning, making an acoustic song heavy, changing the key of a song, or its chords. We agreed that anything was possible, that a song is not a sacred thing, and that we’re allowed to twist it – and that’s when the process began in earnest.”
Nothing is sacred in his creative process, but music itself holds something sacred for Larose, and on GLU, he appears to be constantly chasing the idea that life makes no sense. “Yes, there is a transcendent need in me that’s often disappointed,” he says. “Music becomes this vehicle through which I try to dig deep to see – and this is going to sound stupidly mystical – the Great Beyond.”