Lamb of Gods Mark Morton släppte nyligen sitt första soloalbum, som gästas av allehanda musiker. Ett mastodontprojekt han är väldigt glad över att han lyckades ro i hamn trots stora frågor:
With this one there were a lot of big question marks. Were people going to be interested in hearing what I did as a solo project? Are they going to accept this as a project with my name on the top of it? Were people going to come along with me to listen to songs like ”Reveal” and ”Axis”? It makes me feel good, man! I worked hard on this thing and I´m really proud of it.
I read somewhere that initially the idea was to stay away from the metal stuff and go for something else? Were you thinking of music more similar to what you did with Matt Conner back in 2012?
No, not specifically. I mean, that stuff with Matt, those were his songs and I was just kind of playing with him. Matt´s a great songwriter and I´ve played music with him throughout the years and he was an early member of Burn The Priest actually. But no, not specifically that direction. The songs were there, a lot of the songs were there before the idea. The way I write music is that there´s music rattling around in between my ears and I listen to what´s going on in my head and I kind of learn it on guitar the same way you would learn an AC/DC song or a Metallica song from the stereo, just figuring it out. I was doing my regular songwriting process and coming up with new material and a lot of which was metal stuff that ended up on the last couple of Lamb Of God albums, but a lot of it was other stuff that just didn´t fit into that framework and it wouldn´t have fit into that mold, right. That material started to piling up and it was like ”What am I going to do with this stuff?” Sometimes I write for other acts and that kind of thing, but it was more than that and I felt there was this kind of rock element that was happening in my songwriting so I played some of it for Josh Wilbur (producer) and he agreed it was worth developing and Jake Oni was starting WPP Records, so he got involved on a business level. We just kind of started rolling with it and developing the songs and some of the demos that I had to see what we could turn them into.
When you started working on the songs, did you already then have these specific singers in mind or did it just end up being that guy on this song and that guy on that song?
Sort of in the middle of your two suggestions. I didn´t really write the songs for each singer, but as the songs were coming together, Josh and I would have conversations while listening to our demos, ”Who do you hear singing this song?” and ”Whose voice would be right for this type of song, like the instrumental track?” because in some cases it was more than an instrumental because I wrote a lot of lyrics on the album too. When I wrote lyrics and we had a melody idea, I would cut like a demo vocal. Like ”Imaginary days” where I sang the track, that´s just one I did a demo vocal for the whole song because I had written all the lyrics to it and we got used to hearing it. We rerecorded it but I sang that one on the album, but I did that for a lot of the songs that I had written lyrics for. Some of them were just instrumentals though, so no matter what state the song was in, we would listen back together and start having a dialogue about whose voice we hear on each individual track. That´s how you get Chester Bennington (1975-2017, Linkin Park) , Jacoby Shaddix (Papa Roach) and Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge).
I also read somewhere that the song Josh Todd (Buckcherry) sings on was the catalyst for the album?
It was one of the first ones that we approached someone to sing on. It wasn´t really the catalyst for the album, it was just that it was one of the early demos we had and it had this kind of personality where it sounded to me, even in instrumental form, like a real kind of sleazy LA rock/hard rock song and we needed a real swaggery rock star for it. we were in LA and I was like ”Man, we need Josh Todd on this song! Let´s call him and see if he´ll do it.” and he was like on it and he certainly made it his own.
I thought we´d talk about some of the songs. My favorite is ”Reveal” and I had never heard of Naeemah Maddox. You´re in a band with her, right?
Yes, I am. That song is unique and I´m glad that you identify that one as being special because it´s really special to me as well. That song is unique on this album in the sense that that is a group of people… we can call it a band, but it doesn´t have a name and we haven´t played a show… we recorded a fair amount of material and this is the first song that people will be hearing, sort of. There are instrumental recordings on Soundcloud that I threw out into the world a couple of years ago, that is that band, just without Naeemah. After that Soundcloud stuff kind of popped up and people went ”Check that out!”, then we got Naeemah and started writing more stuff. That song is unique on the album in that sense that it is a group of people that get together and play on a regular basis, a band if you will. Naeemah is fantastic. She does a ton of solo work on her own and she´s a brilliant guitar player and a brilliant singer and she plays the heel out of the flute. She´s just super talented and awesome to work with.
You´re all scattered around the country. How did you all meet in the first place?
We´re up and down the east coast, so our bass player Yanni Papadopoulis is in a band called Stinking Lazaveta, an underground, instrumental kind of punk band that´s been around for a couple of decades at least and he was really motivated… he had jammed with Jean Paul Gaster, who plays drums for Clutch, a couple of times and Yanni and I had jammed a couple of times and we all said ”We gotta get this together!” and that´s where it started. Jean Paul brought in Chris Brooks who´s Lionize´s keyboard player and we rolled with that for a while and we were just doing instrumental bluesy rock sort of stuff and then we wanted to see what it sounded like with vocals and Yanni knew Naeemah from Philadelphia. Yanni really started assembling the band, but that´s been a few years ago now. We´re still working on stuff, but we don´t really know what we´re going to do with it. This is just the introduction of that project. Hopefully more of it comes out.
When the song starts out it has a bit of that 90´s grungy feel to it.
That´s what Naeemah says. I though we kind of sounded like Allman Brothersy, but she calls it our grunge band, so you guys are on the same wave length. I´ll tell her about that. There is more of that stuff and hopefully it´ll see some light.
Then there´s Mark Lanegan on the song ”Axis” Wasn´t that the name of one of your first bands?
Yeah, you did your research. It has nothing to do with the song other than when I write songs and they´re in sort of demo preproduction form, you have to name them something. Some people call them “Steve” or “Joe” and some call them “Song 1” or “Song 2”. I just pull words out of the air and Axis is what I called the original version of that one, which changed quite a bit musically after Lanegan got a hold of it and sent me the vocals. Actually we rewrote the whole song around his vocal. He must´ve taken a cue from that too because there´s a line in there where he says the word ”Axis” I have to ask him about this. I´ve actually never asked him about it. I wonder if he saw the filename and started going ”Well, what am I gonna sing on this one?” In my little fantasy that´s how that happened. Can´t be a coincidence, right? (laughs)
Is Lanegan a guy you´ve kept your eye on through the years and are you a fan of his music?
Yeah, a fan from Screaming Trees through Quuens Of The Stone Age through his solo stuff. His ”Bubblegum” (2004) album top to bottom I just love. I´m a big Mark Lanegan fan.
I understand that a lot of the vocals were actually done in the studio face to face, but there´s also stuff done through file sharing, which is the way you do it these days. Was Lanegan done in the studio?
That particular song we were not able to get together, so he recorded that with his engineer, unfortunately because I would´ve loved to be around to watch that being done. It´s funny… Mark´s a man of few words. I sent him the original version of the song and it was complete cold called. I still don´t know if he knew who I was or of my work, I have no idea. I got a hold of him through his management and he said he would listen to the song idea I had and let me know if he was interested and it came back the vocal he recorded with his engineer is what you hear. What I heard him do on it sent my mind spinning in a completely different direction, so I had Josh Wilbur wipe all the music I had sent him, give me Lanegan´s vocals with a click track and I wrote a whole new song. The ”Axis” you hear now I wrote to the vocals. It was cool, but then I had to send it back to him because I was like ”I like your vocals so much I just rewrote the entire song so now you´re singing to something you weren´t singing to before, so you´ve got to let me know if you´re cool with it?” And of course, true to what seems to be Lanegan´s style, he said ”It´s great!” (laughs) He has since said some nice thing on social media.
Isn´t that the ultimate thing when it comes to musicianship, that you hear something and it totally alters your song and it takes it somewhere else?
That´s what´s the great thing about collaborating and especially with people of that caliber of talent. It´s humbling for me first of all to be able to work with these people that I would listen to as a fan. And for so many of these people that I´ve worked with on this album to work on something that started out like a little demo in my jam room in my house, it just blows my mind. But then you get over that and just start working and do what you do creatively and that´s the beauty of it, that you have this sort of creative dialogue, this inner action between people sharing ideas. It´s very personal in some cases. Certainly working with Chester (Bennington) was really a kind of personal experience. We talked about what the lyrics we were writing together meant to each of us and some experiences we shared in common. For someone I hadn´t really spent much time with, that´s a real kind of personal conversation and it requires a certain level of trust. A pretty powerful experience.
Considering what later happened, did you see anything of that when you were with him? That he was going through things?
Yeah… I say yes, because I understand your question and not because I did. I didn´t know Chester personally before we started working on the song, so I didn´t have a point of reference to compare to anything, but the guy I met and the guy I worked with and the guy I wrote this song with and the guy that recorded it in the studio when I was there and the guy I talked to throughout that process was incredibly motivated, very energetic, excited about music, very prepared with ideas and lyrics. He was very excited to open his notebook and show me the lyrics he had written and to play the tape and sing along and say ”This is what I want to do here.” and sing it in my ear, which is pretty awesome. Very humble and willing and excited to take directions if you had an idea, because Josh and I are in the control room and Chester´s in the booth and we´re cutting the song we´re all writing, ”Hey man, try it like this! Can you change this one note?” and he went ”Got it! Roll it again!” and he drills it. It was so amazing to watch. Whether someone´s a Linkin Park fan or not, that´s just a matter of taste, but it´s undeniable that that guy could sing. To watch someone with that kind of level of mastery and technical ability and be able to change those little inflections or like ”A little less vibrato on that last note!” and he´s like ”Boom!” dialed in. It´s amazing to watch and be able to do that and have that level of skill, that level of artistry, creatively with the lyrics he brought in, the ideas he brought in… he had a vision and we put our visions together and he had a whole bridge, the rapping part, that was Chester and he wanted to do that and he was really excited about it. It was cool and a big moment in the song. To have all that and bring all that to the table with his body of work and his level of celebrity and the success he´s had and be as humble and down to earth and open to not only giving of himself creatively to a song but also being willing to take directions and be able to hear me say ”I don´t love that idea, but I love this one. Can we try this? and for him to be like ”Cool!” and be open to that, that´s a special kind of cat, man.
His death and for instance Chris Cornell´s (1964-2017) really put things in perspective. In what way did that affect you? I didn´t know these guys but it made you think about life and what you´re going through yourself. We all go through difficult times.
It makes me think about a lot. I mean, I was completely shocked like the rest of the world about both of those guys passing. Particularly Chester because I had just worked with him and just been in a room with him and scribbling on sheets of paper and crumbling them up and throwing them over the shoulder and trying again. To hear that was just like ”Wait, what?” and it put the song into a different light, just because of hearing him sing that in light of what had happened, it gave it a different kind of context. I guess people see their favorite rock stars or celebrities or whatever… you know, there´s a lot that goes on with that stuff. There´s a lot of pressure and I´m not trying to even begin to speculate on what or why happened with either of those dudes, but I know from my own experience that this can be a very isolated kind of industry. You can spend a lot of time alone or separated from the people you care about, from your family. You can sometimes move so fast that you literally don´t know what continent you´re on or what time zone you´re supposed to be in versus what time you feel like you´re in and how long it´s been since you´ve slept in your bed, where you´re going to be tomorrow, where you were yesterday… It´s tough to navigate and I don´t know if any of that had a role in those situations, but I know for myself that the pace which you live in all of this music stuff can be exhausting and it can be difficult. I just know that when I hear about stuff like that, it´s… I don´t know. It´s always a tragedy no matter if it´s someone famous or someone down the block.
It´s fascinating that there´s still a lot of stigma around that and you read comments from people saying it´s such a selfish act and so one. People don´t seem to understand.
It also means that when people get on the internet and they can hide behind an IP-address, there´s no dignity in some of the things people say and no compassion.
Another great track is ”The never” with Testament´s Chuck Billy. A great singer and a funny guy.
He´s a great guy. It´s so great to work with Chuck on so many levels. I´ve told him this several times, that I have stood in line and paid hard earned money to watch Chuck Billy perform and to buy his t-shirts many times in my life. To be able to work with him at this level and to really have built a friendship with him over the years with the touring. Whenever people ask I like to tell the story that I have a picture of Chuck Billy and my daughter sitting on the patio in the back of my house playing the board game “Candyland”. I hope she appreciates that one day, because I sure as hell do. Chuck´s just a great guy and to me his voice is just so… within the context of heavy metal, it´s so iconic. To me he´s still one of the best when it comes to blending a heavy, shredding metal voice but having melody without making it sound wimpy or commercial. He´s still great at that and he has been all along. Chuck´s awesome and a blast to work with. First time I´ve ever done something creatively with him and I got to be in the studio when he was tracking it and we had a fun day.
First time I heard the song it made me think of Kirk (Windstein) in Crowbar.
Yeah, I can see that. It´s still a melody you can follow, but it´s kind of shreddy and raspy too.
What about the song you sing yourself, ”Imaginary days”? I can totally see you sing on a whole album.
Well, thank you! I´ll take that as a compliment. I write a lot of lyrics and historically I´ve written a lot of lyrics for Lamb of God and I wrote a fair amount of lyrics for this project. I didn´t necessarily intend to sing lead on this one. Like I said, we were cutting a lot of demos for the stuff I was writing and just for the sake of the demo, I´d go into the boot and lay down a vocal. I´ve sang before. I´ve sung on a handful of Lamb of God songs and I´ve sung background vocals and done some harmony vocals and done that sort of thing, so I was accustomed to singing. A lot of times when I do demos for Lamb of God, I´ll sing so it wasn´t completely foreign to me to do that. Out of my comfort zone was releasing it and people outside of the inner workings hearing it. ”Imaginary days” is a song I had written all the music and the lyrics for and one that we did really early in. I just cut the demo for it and we got used to listening to it and it became this idea that people involved were kind of rallying around having me sing it. I took a little bit of convincing, but I finally caved and so far no one´s tearing me apart for it so I guess it sounds alright. I like how it came out and I can listen to it and feel I´m pretty pleased with it.
Could you see yourself doing a full album where you sing all the songs?
Not at this point in time, but I mean, if you´d asked me a few years ago if I saw myself with a solo album… you never know what the future holds, but I don´t know, man. There´s a lot of great singers on this album and I´m not one of them. (laughs)
With this album and the process of working with all these singers, could you see yourself doing another one in like five years from now?
Yeah, who knows, man? I can tell you this much. I can tell you that the process of putting all this together has been super positive. Challenging at times for sure and trying in terms of patience because it took a long time from start to finish for sure. Over all it´s been a super awesome experience. Very positive and very cathartic for me and very therapeutic and just kind of a joy to be able to work with the list of people on this album and to collaborate with them and writing songs with them and the experiences we´ve had along the way. I would absolutely welcome the opportunity to do it again.
You´ve got two Crowes guys on there as well. Are they friends of yours?
Yeah, Marc Ford and Steve Gorman. No, but friends now I´d say. Particularly Steve, we keep up quite a bit. I´m just a massive Black Crowes fan and Marc Ford is one of my favorite guitar players and he´s the only guest guitarist on the album. I play all of the rest of the guitars except for the lead guitar on ”Axis”, which is Marc Ford. He came into the studio and I sat there and got a front row seat to watch one of my favorite players play lead on a song that I´d written and that was sung by one of my favorite singers. My favorite living drummer playing drums and one of my favorite bass players, Mike Inez from Alice in Chains. What a lineup on that one! It was really cool.
I read somewhere that Slash was supposed to be on the album, but your guitar playing was better?
No! I knew that was going to come back to haunt me. Here´s the story! I´m friendly with Slash and we´ve talked a few times. He´s a Lamb of God fan from what I understand. I had corresponded with Slash enough where I felt comfortable asking him if I could send him a song. I think it was while he was touring with GNR, when I reached out to him. He replied ”Yeah, I´d consider it. I´m busy, but if I can find the time, send me the track and let me have a listen and I´ll go from there.” What a positive and awesome response! In the mean time I cut a solo for the song that I was going to send him because I hadn´t heard back and didn´t know what was going down and it just so happened to be a solo I really loved, so I never sent him the song. (laughs) That´s how that worked out. Not that I´m better than Slash. Slash is one of my favorite guitar players. I love, love Slash and GNR. I got a magic take and I didn´t want to let go of it. I just never sent the e-mail. (laughs)
What is it about Slash that makes you think of him as such a great player? Is it his tone?
Man, it´s all of it! He´s just one of those guys like Joe Perry or something. He´s got a style that is bluesy and really based in classic blues rock and just cool licks but a signature sound, in the same way that Jimmy page will do his bends and it sings in a certain way. It´s just not common and Slash has those idiosyncrasies too which give him a character on the instrument. That´s one of the most valuable things you can have as a player, a sound that is unique to you and a voice of your own and a character to your playing that still fits within the framework of your band and the song and that tells it´s you. Slash is for sure one of those guys and he´s just cool. (laughs)
When you started out playing, who were your guitar heroes?
It just depends on what month you were going to ask me.
Were you an Ace Frehley fan?
You know, I loved KISS when I was really little. I have a brother that is eight years older than me, so when I was six or seven he was fourteen, fifteen and this was would´ve been in the late 70´s, so I was exposed to KISS very young and to me that was like the coolest band in the world and then I kind of moved on to Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Halen and all the stuff that was coming out of my brother´s room. Once I started playing guitar, that was a cool foundation for me because there´s a lot of great guitar playing in that stuff. I would go literally from listening to Led Zeppelin for like a month, listen to The Doors for a month, listen to Jimi Hendrix for two months, Randy Rhoads and then later on Metallica and I would just cycle through players and trying to listen to what they were doing. Comparing players and trying to take bits and pieces from their styles that first of all my ability allowed me to do and then later as I was more technically competent what spoke to me and what didn´t. By and large it was a lot of that heavy blues kind of classic rock playing that to me just felt like it had a pulse and it just made me feel something. Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix… not the fastest guys on the block and not even the cleanest guys, just something that made you feel something.
Do you remember what then later on attracted you to the more heavier stuff and made you go with that type of metal?
There was something about, and still is, the groove of thrash metal that Testament had and Slayer had it a lot of the time, particularly on ”South of heaven” (1988)which I think is the best Slayer album because the slowed down It and you could feel that groove. The same reasons I like Testament were the same reasons I like N.W.A., you know what I mean? It just gave me that same kind of bounce and the same kind of groove. Later on Pantera would do it well and ”Ride the lightning” (1984) and ”Master of puppets” (1986) era Metallica had a lot of that. Just really heavy on the groove. That made my heart beat. I´m still trying to achieve that in Lamb of God. Sometimes with success, sometimes still trying.
When did you start going to shows? Early teens?
My brother was real big in that too. I think when I was around twelve or thirteen he took me to see Van Halen and Mötley Crüe and that thing.
You saw the 84 tour?
No, the first one was 5150 (1986). It was a big deal for me because Eddie Van Halen was huge for me. Lot of groove in that too like ”Mean street” (1981) and ”Unchained” (1981) Early on he would take me to shows and once I was about fifteen and some of my friends were driving so that would be around ´88.
Who was the first metal guy or musician you met that you idolized?
Good question. I´ve never though about that. Probably Scott Ian. He was like the first guy that I met and had conversations with and I was like ”Wow, I used to go see those guys play in arenas and now I´m talking to him about the weather or whatever.” We did a tour with Anthrax like 2003 and I got to know Scott a little bit. Later on we would tour for like a year with Metallica which was just crazy. I was a big Megadeth fan so we did some touring with them and talking to Mustaine. Of course Chuck Billy is a great friend.
Touring with Metallica. That´s like the biggest machine. What´s that like?
It´s like a lot of things. First of all it´s amazing because it´s an awesome opportunity. It´s intriguing to see. Their fans are diehard fans and by and large, certainly when we were touring with them and probably still today, their fans don´t give a fuck about Lamb of God. There´s a beauty in that and it´s kind of liberating in a way and I did think we win some fans. I´m being a little sarcastic. It´s just amazing to watch an operation at that level operate and a band at that level operate. We did a North American tour, a European tour and an Australian tour with them. The biggest take away for me, was that those guys really care. They care every single night. Their hearts are 100% in it and they want to put on the best show and entertain those people and make people feel good and they are amazing at it. The other big take away was that they really are like… someone of that success and that level of celebrity that I got to know a little bit… Kirk and I would hang a little bit on that tour and James was around and we would talk some and they really are normal people. Regular, normal people. Like I would be surprised by that. They´re really down to earth, cool dudes.
What about the artwork for the album. I was checking out the guy that did it, Daniel Danger, and he´s done bands like At The Drive In and Foo Fighters and I listened to some of the bands he´s been in and it´s some cool stuff. How did you come across that guy?
He was suggested to me by my management. We knew it needed to have another aesthetic than Lamb of God, so they sent me a list of artists that they felt would be a potentially a good fit and I just went through those portfolios and made a few phone calls and Daniel was just a guy that I clicked with in terms of talking about our ideas, paired with what I saw of his work, which is amazing. Very specific stylistically, but really cool. He had some ideas and we talked about some different visual icons and symbolically to the context and the lyrics and that sort of thing. The picture you see on the album is my front yard, it´s my property in Virginia. But it´s a very dilapidated and decaying version of my home in Virginia.
This is your album and not Lamb of God´s, do you in anyway feel prouder of an album like this one compared to a Lamb of God album? This is just you and you pulled it off.
Creatively it´s not that distinctively different, because I really do put a lot of myself into Lamb of God. It is collaborative, but so was this. Creatively I´m proud of how much of an investment of myself I put into my work. You mentioned something that did struck a chord with me and that is that I pulled it off. That I am proud of in a different way because with Lamb of God at this point I´m pretty confident we´re going to pull it off. People might like one more than the other, but as long as we feel we´ve got something to say and the five of us agree that we like what it is, I feel it´s going to stand up and have a pulse and run away and do what it does. With this one there were a lot of big question marks. Were people going to be interested in hearing what I did as a solo project? Are they going to accept this as a project with my name on the top of it? Were people going to come along with me to listen to songs like ”Reveal” and ”Axis”? It makes me feel good, man! I worked hard on this thing and I´m really proud of it.
Lamb of God then? I read that you can´s say if it´s this year or the next. How far into the album process have you come? Do you actually have anything?
Yeah, the only reason I can´t say is because I don´t know. We´ve got a lot of instrumental material and more to come. We´re still putting a few more songs together. We´re at the stage right now where we have a lot of raw material and pieces of music that we now are going to start refining, maybe rearranging a little bit and start putting vocal ideas on it. We´re in the writing process. I don´t want to say the initial stages, because it´s passed that, but we´re in the writing process. There´s no shortage of material, so one of the challenges this time will be not whether or not we have good enough material, it´s which good material are we going to use for the body of the album. That´s really what it´s all about, picking what pieces you´re going to work on and refine. There´s a lot going on.
Text: Niclas Müller-Hansen
Foto: Therés Stephansdotter Björk