In 1907, construction was underway in Quebec City for the longest cantilever bridge in the world, spanning nearly 1,000 meters across the lower Saint Lawrence River.
Sadly, preliminary calculations for its riveted steel beams were never properly checked, and after four years of work, the weight of the bridge became far too heavy for its capacity.
Despite the fact that these structural issues were noted, construction continued. On August 29th of that year, the bridge’s south cantilever and anchor arms collapsed, killing 75 steelworkers. Thirty-three of these men were Mohawk workers from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. Then, tragedy struck again on September 11th, 1916 when the bridge’s central section fell into the river, killing another 13 men.
One hundred years later, at a cost of $25 million dollars and 88 lives, the Quebec Bridge now includes three highway lanes, one rail line, and a pedestrian walkway. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995, but Quebec City’s (swedish) Death Polka have never forgotten its tragic origins. In 2006, the duo of Sam Murdock and Guillaume Lizotte were inspired to tell the imaginary tale of Judith, an orphan killed by its 100-meter fall into the river. Blending history with fiction, (swedish) Death Polka’s concept album Judith Judith sets her story to a haunting backdrop of neo-classical music, spoken word vocals, and electronic pop.
Label Obscura and Quebec City’s P572 have now joined forces for a deluxe reissue. Originally released on CD by P572 in 2006, this edition of Judith Judith finds the album reissued on vinyl for the first time. The 12” clear LP, limited to 275 hand-numbered copies, includes a poster, postcards, CD, download, and church pamphlet inspired fanzine featuring the piano score. Three alternate versions of the album are included with different track listings on the remastered CD, LP, and download.
To celebrate this reissue of Judith Judith, (swedish) Death Polka will present a gallery show spotlighting the surrealist collage works of Paris-based cover artist Julien Pacaud on November 9th at Quebec City’s Les Trafiquants d’Art. Pacaud will be in attendance along with the band for a celebratory listening party. Read on for Jesse Locke’s interview with (swedish) Death Polka member and P572 label head Sam Murdock.
Can you start off by telling me a bit about (swedish) Death Polka? How did you and Guillaume come together to start the project?
I’ve lived all across Canada – south of Winnipeg, up north in B.C. and then in Halifax for two years. At that point I was sort of aimless with no musical projects and no job, just bumming around and busking. I came back to Quebec City, and through a mutual friend I met Sébastien Leduc, who co-runs my label P572.
My friend’s dad was working for a hotline you can call if you have suicidal thoughts, and they were collecting money at shopping malls. I took a job doing that at the door of a Zeller’s for a weekend, and a woman had a heart attack in front of me. I called 911, and that experience really moved me. I always had the name (swedish) Death Polka in my head, and then I wrote 30 songs about death in a month.
I wanted to add cello to those songs, and the only person I knew who played cello was Guillaume. He’s the most talented musician I know. Guillaume taught himself how to play piano, cello, violin, guitar, and bass. At 16, instead of getting a car like most people do, he bought himself a grand piano. His parents destroyed a wall to get it inside the house. He later went to music school, and after one semester, the teacher offered him a job.
Guillaume and I have a mutual love of Megadeth, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Tori Amos. We’ve always been good at making music together without talking. I’ll record some demos, send them to him, and he’ll just play along. We started the band in 2003, around the same time I started my label, so the first release was our demo.
I understand you’ve been accompanied by a string quartet, a choir, or in your words a “mysterious diva.” What can you tell me about those collaborations?
All of those were for our live shows. On the albums, Guillaume plays all of the piano and cello parts and I sing everything. But for every one of our shows, we make a small zine that includes the scores so people can play or sing along. My other projects have just been guitar, bass, and drums so we wanted something bigger.
We’ve played shows in all of the churches in Quebec City, so we’ve had choirs of teenagers and people from music schools that usually perform the works of famous composers. Since all of our scores are written down, people can learn them and play them. We also had a woman named Jennifer Banks from Halifax singing with us. She was the “mysterious diva.”
For anyone who might not be familiar with its history, can you tell me a bit about the Quebec bridge tragedy that inspired this album?
It’s the longest bridge of its kind in the world, but when it was built 100 years ago it collapsed twice. The first time the south side of the bridge fell, and then the center of the bridge collapsed right as they were putting it up. These are forgotten tragedies in a way, because people travel across the bridge every day. Now it’s the 100th anniversary of the bridge’s completion. There was supposed to be a big celebration with money put into the bridge being painted again, but that’s not happening and the bridge is rotting.
When the bridge collapsed, there were thousands of people on the shore watching it go up. Almost 100 workers were trapped inside. It was low tide, so there was no way to get them out, but they sent a priest on a boat to give them absolution. That part of the bridge is still in the Saint Lawrence River. At low tide you can see it. There’s even an urban myth that the iron ring worn by many Canadian engineers is made from steel salvaged from the collapse of 1907.
Wow, it’s almost like a shipwreck.
Years and years ago, there was no way to take that part of the bridge out of the water. Now they probably could, but it’s still too expensive, so it is like a shipwreck. The water is brown though, so you can’t usually see it.
What inspired you to write this story about Judith, an imaginary orphan girl who was killed by the collapse? Were there any children that actually died?
A lot of the workers who died on the bridge were Indigenous people. Some of them were young, but I don’t think were any children. At first we wanted the album to be a musical, but it was too much. Everything felt like a puzzle. The words, images, and music all came at the same time. We were inspired by Philip Glass’s use of repetition in his
You’ve described the album as “listening to Yanqui U.X.O. and Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret at the same time,” which is actually pretty accurate!
I love Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret as an album title, but I wouldn’t say Soft Cell is a huge inspiration for me. Some people say our electronic music parts remind them of Depeche Mode, but I’m not really sure where it comes from. I don’t like short bios that say things like “for fans of Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day.” That’s why I just use the album titles.
Because of our neo-classical elements and the fact that we’ve played in churches, some people have compared us to a smaller Godspeed duo from Quebec City. I would call our music something like “neo-classical pop ambient” because we don’t use any drums outside of the electronic beats. I always thought it was weird to describe us as post-rock because that makes me think of something like Mogwai where you have a full band.
What’s sort of striking and weird about our live shows is that we always like to dance. When I see Godspeed, I get very mesmerized by their music and visuals, but at a certain point I start to feel that it’s all very serious. Post-rock usually goes from music that’s really epic to music that’s really droney, but I’ve always thought it should also be fun. In the middle of a set, we’ll start dancing to our songs, and people in the audience will stand up and join us. It doesn’t make sense, but it works!
You’re releasing the album on vinyl for the first time with Label Obscura, along with a church pamphlet inspired fanzine with the piano score, plus a digital download with a different track listing. What do you hope these alternate versions will offer to people’s listening experience?
Good question! The original album was too long to be on a single LP, so that’s the practical answer. We’re essentially doing three different mixes for the digital, CD, and LP versions. I’ve always loved the idea of putting a different song on the vinyl release. That way there’s a reason to get the object instead of just buying it and downloading or streaming the music. I always include something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. The CD is even longer because of a hidden track.
How did you start working with Label Obscura for this reissue?
Years ago, when I was 18, I went hitchhiking to get to Rhode Island but they wouldn’t let me cross the border because they thought I was an illegal immigrant. I ended up in Halifax and stayed there for two years. That’s when I started putting on basement shows for bands like The Plan and North of America. Those bands were breaking up around the time, but I learned that they were legendary. I never lived in Quebec City as a kid because I grew up in the countryside, but I also learned that a label from Quebec called Matlock Records released The Plan’s albums.
I fell in love with another Halifax band called The Burdocks. I was sleeping on a bench with some punks at the time until the people from The Burdocks let me stay on their couch. I met Tim through the albums he released for them on his old label Black Mountain Music, and would order tons of records. I always though the Sharp Like Knives 7” was a steal because the silkscreen alone is worth $5. I probably ordered 25 copies.
When I saw Tim was getting back into gear with Label Obscura, I got in touch about doing this release. I knew he was really into zines, history, and records. I’ve always loved the way punk bands have four labels from four different countries putting out their releases because I’m super into that kind of collaboration. I sent Tim the music and the artwork for our album and he was really into it too. He’s working like a madman right now on these reissues of classic Canadian albums.
Can you tell me a bit about Julien Pacaud creating the album’s artwork?
He’s sort of a genius surrealist collage artist for Paris. He works for Fuji, The New York Times, and bigger companies like that, but there’s no difference between his commissioned work and his personal work. It all blends into this big world he’s created, and he makes music and videos too. He’s been making one collage per day for years and years, and his work has been copied so many times. Every piece has a weird title, so he’s almost like the David Lynch of collages. If you read the biography on his website, he’s working on time travel too.
I discovered him around 2003. We exchanged maybe five emails, then I sent him a CD, and he sent me back a CD of his music. He offered to do a poster for some shows we did. At one point I sent him some high-res scanned photos of the Quebec Bridge, and wrote him maybe five lines about the project for this album. The whole thing was burlesque and weird, and he really understood it. He sent me back an email with the artwork, and that was it. We’ve never met or even talked [over the phone], so we will finally will at the album release event.
How will you present this music and the reissue of the album?
We’re not doing a live performance. It will be an art show with Julien’s framed collages and a listening party at my friend’s gallery here in town, and Julien will be there. The project is a celebration of the 100th year of the bridge as much as the music and his art. I always have the cover art ready before I start recording.
This album was originally supposed to be released on vinyl from a different label in 2006, and Julien had prepared everything. That label backed down at the time, so now we finally get to celebrate those pieces of his art as well. I don’t know how it worked, but he liked the project enough to work on all of these things for free. Now this year he’s created three new prints of the Quebec Bridge as well. There will be postcards included with every record.
What are (swedish) Death Polka and P572 doing next?
I have two new albums that I want to release. One will be solo piano, and the other will include brand new songs from (swedish) Death Polka.
I’m also starting a sub-label for digital releases and postcards. That’s taking the fun back from working on vinyl releases that take forever. No one else is doing what me and my friend Seb do with P572. There are no grants and no money. I don’t sleep or eat much, but I’ve been at it 24/7 for the last 13 years.
This album is a reissue, but it’s sort of like a new album as well because it’s a new mix and master, and a lot of people have never heard it. Everything Label Obscura is releasing comes from a nostalgic place, but I think there will be a lot of things people discover for the first time, like The Nils. I’m really happy and proud that we’re the first band Label Obscura has released from Quebec City. There’s French Canada and Anglo Canada but I find it weird that even with the Internet people don’t know what’s happening in the music scenes of different provinces.