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Interview: Ulcerate Talk About Their New Album 'Stare Into Death And Be Still'

Interview: Ulcerate Talk About Their New Album 'Stare Into Death And Be Still'

Otis Chamberlain / Monday 3rd August, 2020 12:56PM

Ulcerate have arguably been New Zealand’s premier ambassadors of dissonant and labyrinthine death-metal for well over a decade. While their roots are firmly planted in extreme music, their frequent forays into adjacent and unconventional sonic territories have chiselled their sound into a totem of uncompromising originality that has consistently kept them at the forefront of the international metal scene.

While 2020 has undeniably given the human race a myriad of reasons to loathe and revile its own existence, it has also given lovers of metal a reason to rejoice, in the form of Ulcerate's sixth full length studio album – Stare Into Death And Be Still. Taking a much more sullen and introspective ambiance to their preceding release [2016's Shrines Of Paralysis] the new material invites the listener to revel in the in-between spaces, and what may at first sound like a shifting-down of gears for the band, ultimately reveals an anthology of material equally as dense, layered and purposefully harrowing as any previous Ulcerate release to date.

New Zealanders can, for now, enjoy Covid-free social gatherings, and it is good fortune for local metal fans that the band have elected to give us live shows to support the new release, performing in Auckland and Wellington this August with support from local blackened heathens Vassafor. In the lead-up to these dates, we interrogated Ulcerate drummer Jamie Saint Merat about the new album, metal in the age of a pandemic, and what's on the horizon for the band.

Ulcerate & Vassafor
Saturday 8th August - Galatos, Auckland w/ Distant Fear, Draulicht
Saturday 15th August - San Fran, Wellington w/ Corpsefeast*

Wellington tickets available HERE via UTR*
Auckland tickets available here

Otis Chamberlain: Stare Into Death And Be Still is a heavy load, it bares all the hallmarks of what one would come to expect from an Ulcerate album, yet somehow there is both a subtle yet definite departure in mood for the band. The intensity remains at the forefront yet there is almost a meditative quality to it. Can you tell us about the intentions (if any) for the new album, what may have changed for the band in the time since the last release, and how Stare Into Death And Be Still fits into the greater Ulcerate canon?

Jamie Saint Merat: Six albums in, we found ourselves at a juncture in terms of where-to from here. We have exhausted all we can say with a primarily dissonant and obfuscated approach, and time and time again it was becoming apparent that our strongest material has always had a deep sense of melody running through it. And we’re also at a point in time where there is now a glut of bands pedalling this sound, so we need to give ourselves some distance – asides from a few obvious practitioners there’s a total proliferation of the same ideas being rehashed again and again. So in early 2018 we began experimenting with inverting our gut instincts, and spent a good 6 months or so gathering a library of experiments which pushed as far as we could melodically and rhythmically. Most of this was trashed, but was crucial in us finding the sense of melody that delivered the ‘alien’ quality we were searching for. And in finding this, we also re-tooled our entire composition framework – the album is tuned to D# (higher than anything we’ve done before), more emphasis on chord progression and riff resolution, we’ve pushed the bass even further to the foreground in terms of the role it plays, down-tempo passages are far more detailed (and less so about creating breathing room), and drum orchestrations are placing a much deeper emphasis on power over chaos. Even though there’s still a lot of linearity to the song-writing, this album is not afraid of repetitions, and is definitely the closest we’ve ever come to ‘choruses’. Production-wise it was also crucial that this album isn’t a wall-of-sound approach, it needed to be deeper and darker in its presentation.

Stare Into Death and Be Still is a definitive line in the sand for the next chapter of the band’s sound.

The band’s sound has always been a bit of a Tardis for me, there’s more going on than a typical 3-piece would suggest (especially live). Can you give us any insights into the band's reduction process, or how you successfully translate such crafted and densely layered recorded material into live pieces for performance?

There’s a few factors at play here – orchestration, tone and counterpoint. Orchestration in terms of having essentially 3 to 4 layers of instrumentation, and knowing when and where to place notes that fill the entire sound spectrum. At its simplest – when a guitar line is playing in a higher register it’s often fairly compelling to keep bass lines harmonising in a lower register. Same goes with drum patterns – we often take the approach of playing ‘in the gaps’ so to speak. Obviously not a hard and fast rule, but for moments where you need sheer sonic size and heft, there’s a total art to orchestrating the instrumentation in this manner.

Tone for us is finding the perfect spot spectrum-wise for every piece of instrumentation to sit, and which ties in closely with an album or live mix. So learning where and how to place a kick drum so that it sits either above or below the bass for example, utilising the bass as a third guitar tonally through grotesque layers of distortion (we used 3 bass channels on ‘Stare...’ for example), finding the sweet spot for guitars to have lower-mid-range thickness, but without mud, knowing how to strike a drum kit for 100% consistency across all shells (playing a snare is a very different animal than playing toms etc).

Counterpoint for us has again been a device for gaining size and width, most prominently with left and right channel guitar lines. Setting an atmosphere with almost parallel lines and then splitting away completely – it’s a very different atmosphere than typical harmonisation. And this approach we’ve extended to drum lines as well – playing off and against the other instrumentation while still hitting key accents or markers can very quickly get you into ‘dense’ territory.

In terms of a live context – none of what we do is studio trickery, so it’s literally just a matter of us recreating our own parts. The exception is the twin guitar lines, for which we use a looper pedal. This allows guitarist Mike [Hoggard] to play a section, then split away from it for harmony and counterpoint lines. We’re totally against using backing tracks, so this methodology keeps everything live. And to keep all this in check, I play to a click which is the direct tempo mapping from the albums - meaning riffs fluctuate in tempo, sometimes even inside of themselves. The maps themselves are worked out from our early rehearsal work, so it’s matched to how we play naturally.

Your dedication and approach to drumming has always struck me as being more like a painter than a musician, the nuanced cymbal flourishes combined with jackhammer bass-drum bursts and angular fills are a unique identifier of the band’s sound. Yet on the new album there is a lot more 'space' in the rhythm section, while still retaining a certain playfulness. Do you feel your drumming has evolved for this album, and if so in what ways are you approaching the kit differently in 2020?

As mentioned before the drumming this time around needed to emphasise power over chaos, so there’s a truckload more space for sure. But it’s also where my tastes are shifting to – I don’t really listen to a whole lot of death metal with fast / tight drumming these days, I’m much more interested in the expression of the instrument and how it works to build tension and release. And while high velocity is an earmark of this style that we inhabit, there’s a million ways of approaching this without falling into the tropes of the genre.

From an evolution standpoint, what I’ve been working the hardest on over the past 5 or so years is fluidity, flow and dynamic range, and developing a somewhat deep triplet feel that can sit under and weave in and out of the essentially strict straight pulse. Just hammering straight 8ths and 16ths for an entire song does nothing for creating any sort of ebb and flow or sense of contrast. I’m also obsessing over how to recreate the perfect sound and feel for the instrument particularly in a live context. Go see any of the top clinic guys perform in person (Coleman, Weckl, Greb, Harrison etc) and they’re just in a completely different universe in terms of tone and how they strike the instrument. Which has led me to things like ultra loose grip and a really deep focus on note spacing and phrasing, quintuplets etc.

Critical acclaim, consistent touring schedules and periodic album releases have solidified Ulcerate as a unique and quantifiable entity on the international stage. Relativity aside, it’s fair to say the band is one of New Zealand’s most hard-working and successful metal 'exports'. Has the band’s antipodean origins ever presented as a benefit (or hurdle) in its upward trajectory?

I mean it’s still a logistical nightmare of sorts – the sheer cost of transporting ourselves and crew around the planet is an overhead that just doesn’t exist for northern hemisphere bands. So from the outset any touring activity starts out in deficit. But by doing our own headlining runs we essentially take on a higher risk but can also break even, which for us has always been the holy grail.

But in creative terms, I think it definitely works in our favour. We inhabit a marginalised style of music where people are hungry for anything unique or interesting, particularly if it comes from somewhere out of the norm, which is the polar opposite to how the pop industry (or even broader metal styles) functions. And from our side it’s a total source of pride seeing people in Vassafor or Witchrist shirts at our shows for example – people are excited to see and hear what our small scene produces.

You are primarily responsible for the band’s artwork. Can you tell us a little about the art direction for the new album, and what was it like working with Dehn Sora for the incredible 'Dissolved Orders' video?

I view our album art as a symbiotic relationship with the music and lyrical themes. I’m not an artist by trade, so these days this is a muscle I only flex for our work. I’ll start looking at a cover concept usually half-way through the writing process, once I have a feel for the sonic direction and once we have an album title and enough of a base lyrical theme. So everything is how I ‘see’ what we’re creating. I think there’s more than enough clues to be found in both the album title and throughout a lot of the lyrics to understand how the work ties in figuratively.

In terms of the ‘Dissolved Orders’ video: We’ve had many offers throughout the years to do a music video – but the last thing I’ve ever wanted for us was the foul cliche of ‘tits / muck / screaming mouth’ trope that is in almost every metal video. So with a dangerous combination of low budget and somewhat high concept, we’ve always just shelved the idea altogether. Fast forward to late last year, and Schammasch released an incredible video for ‘A Paradigm of Beauty’, which Dehn Sora directed. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and a lot of friend’s bands have collaborated with him, so it was a no-brainer to reach out. We Skyped and talked at length – turns out we’re mutual fans of each other's work and that a collaboration was an extremely natural proposition. So I provided him with the audio, lyrics and an overarching visual aesthetic that I wanted to explore, as well as some film references (Under the Skin for example) that conveyed the exact sense of silent horror I was after. After that, I let him run with it. What he came back with floored me, and actually went well above and beyond where I thought we’d end up. From there, there were 2 or 3 more rounds of feedback in terms of pacing and shot selection and how it related sonically, and then we were done. A perfect collaboration.

Ulcerate’s lyrics have always hovered somewhere between the abstract and the downright bleak, yet the new album is particularly literal in its abject despair. What was the lyric-writing process this time, and are they a direct response to anything in particular?

As discussed earlier – this album needed to be a seismic shift for us. The material we were writing was instantly more emotive and personal, and this needed to be reflected lyrically. So it was decided early on to switch the outlook of the lyrics to be introspective rather than commentative, which has been the case for all previous albums. Thematically, the lyrics are exploring the horror of passively witnessing those closest to you be taken by death’s grip, often in a completely calm manner. Which is the whole focus and exploration of the aforementioned album art and ‘Dissolved Orders’ video. Over the past few years all 3 of us have experienced people extremely close to us dying, which has had a profound impact on how we view life and death itself.

Coronavirus has drastically impacted the playing field for recording and performing artists everywhere, and it’s not yet clear what the new 'normal' is for career musicians. Has the pandemic impacted Ulcerate specifically, and as a performing artist how do you see the band adapting to the post-pandemic paradigm?

We’ve had to cancel and postpone all tour activity – we had Australian and North American dates booked, which have all had to be put on ice. Asides from that, we’ve obviously fared extremely well in New Zealand – it’s just the whole leaving the country for performances that is going to be extremely difficult to navigate. In terms of adapting, no idea to be honest. The idea of live streaming is not something we’re really interested in entertaining, so we’ll see I guess.

Ulcerate has had the privilege of working with many iconic metal labels during its tenure, how has Debemur Morti Productions been for the band so far, and how did that connection come about?

DMP reached out to us around the release of Vermis [2013], so the expression of interest had been there for a few years. And they’re obviously a label that has always been in our peripheral view for a number of reasons. When it came to re-assess with this album, Relapse were extending the offer for us to re-sign, but for the past couple of years I had been wanting us to move somewhere that’s a little more aligned conceptually / artistically, even if that meant going with a ‘smaller’ label. Relapse have always treated us with the highest level of professionalism and are great people, make no mistake. And there were other options as well, but DMP just made the most sense to us. So I had some great Skype discussions with label owner Phil, as well as some nice suggestive beckonings from Vindsval of BAN to join the ranks at which point it was a no-brainer.

So far this is easily the most natural and collaborative label experience, an absolute pleasure to work with people that are 100% on the same wavelength.

Describe a personal band highlight of recent years, and if possible give us an insight into what’s next for Ulcerate.

Obviously the release of each album is always a highlight and a great chapter marker for any given period of time. Outside of that, touring has been treating us very well in the last few years, always a treat for us to be able to perform this absurd music all around the globe. Recent memorable shows off the top of my head – Istanbul, Dublin, Krakow, Roadburn fest, Brutal Assault fest, Paris, NYC, Vancouver, Moscow, Athens, Armageddon Descends Fest (Lithuania), Iceland, Zagreb, Lausanne, Prague, Montreal, Dallas...

Where next? No idea at this stage, just playing it by ear like the rest of the planet. We were looking to Europe for March next year, but that’s feeling highly unlikely. If we get the itch to write we’ll obviously make a start, but we also don’t have any interest in rushing that process.

Otis Chamberlain records solo as Infinite Hex, listen to his new collection 'Permanently Delete All Items' here.


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Ulcerate & Vassafor
Sat 19th Dec 8:00pm
San Fran, Wellington