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Lamb of God: Raw Roots and Aggression - An Interview with Guitarist Mark Morton

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, January 30, 2009 @ 7:31 AM


"One thing that stands out to me about Josh is his approach was to make Lamb of God sound like Lamb of God. …His primary objective is to document the sound of the band, rather than augment it."

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At this stage of their career — four albums in since the release of their 2000 debut New American Gospel — if Richmond, Va., thrashers Lamb of God were going to have some sort of midlife crisis, now would be about the time to expect it. It’s at roughly this same point, give or take, that, as a few notable examples, Metallica abandoned speed metal in favor of the commerciality of “The Black Album,” Sepultura got all thick and chunky with Roots and Testament softened things up on The Ritual.

Apparently, however, Lamb of God are fairly happy in their own skins, as one of the leading purveyors of the new wave of American thrash that they helped popularize. Their fifth studio album, Wrath, due out Feb. 24, sounds a lot like what fans have come to expect from Lamb of God: vitriolic, mosh-inducing, full-on metal bombast.

Though Wrath dabbles a little bit more with melody and structural sophistication — yes there are some acoustic guitars and clean vocals, and a monumental, Southern-fried closing track in “Reclamation” — it’s by no means a radical departure for the band, who seem to feel no need for the musical version of the 20-year-old trophy wife or new Corvette to prove their vitality. Wrath came together over the last year as Lamb of God took the longest extended break from touring in a decade, following nearly 18 months worth of roadwork for 2006’s Grammy-nominated Sacrament. The recording and touring cycle for that album was documented, with painstaking detail, in the band’s third DVD, Walk with Me in Hell, which was issued in July. The four-plus hour, two-disc set might not boast the “holy shit” moments of its platinum predecessor Killadelphia, — where guitarist Mark Morton famously punches out raging drunk, kilt-wearing frontman Randy Blythe outside the band’s bus — but it does provides a surprisingly intimate view of the band in the studio, on the road and at home being regular dudes doing things like building porches and taking part in chili cookoffs.

Prior to Wrath’s release, Lamb of God — rounded out by bassist John Campbell and brothers Willie Adler on guitar and drummer ChrisAdler — returned to the road again at year’s end, opening for Metallica’s ginorous Death Magnetic production in the states. The band will begin their first headlining American run for Wrath April 2 leading the No Fear Energy tour with As I Lay Dying and Children of Bodom, and God Forbid and Municipal Waste rotating opening slots.

On the phone from Richmond in early January, Mark Morton offered his thoughts on opening for Metallica, the creative challenges and expectations of a veteran band and the pros and cons of providing total access to your fans.

KNAC.COM: What have you been doing since the Metallica tour, just hanging out for the holidays and trying to relax while you can?

Morton: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The past few years have been kind of walk off the bus, onto an airplane and then right into Christmas. We got home this time on the 21st or 22nd, so you have to shift gears real quick. But that’s basically what we’ve been doing, spending time with our families over Christmas, doing the whole holiday thing, before we fire the machine back up. We’re doing a video this week, and we’re getting the press thing rolling for the new record, which is why I’m talking to you (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Do you all still live in the Richmond area, or have some of you moved to greener pastures, as it were?

Morton: Nope, we’re all in the area. I can only speak for myself, but I can’t imagine why I want to live anywhere else. I was born and raised in Virginia. We certainly know a lot of places and go a lot of places. But I wouldn’t have any aspirations of leaving this area. I went to graduate school for awhile and lived in Chicago for a couple of years, and it’s a really nice town but it definitely made me appreciate the slowness of Virginia a little bit more than before I left.

KNAC.COM: People don’t hassle you at the Home Depot or wherever there?

Morton: We definitely get called out from time to time when we’re out, but people here are pretty respectful when it comes to your privacy. We certainly don’t mind when people say “hey, we love your band” and that sort of thing. And it’s definitely cool to meet fans, no matter what environment you’re in. But it’s pretty low-key around here, that’s for sure.

KNAC.COM: Where are you shooting your video?

Morton: The video is going to be shot in the recording studio where we recorded the Ashes of the Wake album, the Sacrament record and part of the new record. It’s for the song “Set To Fail.” It’s about a self-fulfilling prophecy, though hopefully for us it’s not (laughs).

KNAC.COM: The invite that got sent out looking for people to be in the video warned they shouldn’t mind being slammed around and abused for like 12 hours. Just what in mind do you have for them?

Morton: I’m not entirely sure. I know for my part I’m going to show up and pretend to play guitar (laughs). I think the idea is we’re going to corral a bunch of our fans into a small area and basically re-create a basement show, much like we used to play around here and up and down the East Coast in the early years of the band. We had a very punk rock beginning and the video is a throwback to that kind of vibe.

KNAC.COM: On the flipside, how was the Metallica tour?

Morton: Very, very cool. It was good opportunity for us, of course, opening for one of the biggest bands in the world. We were really flattered for them to have asked us to come out with them. We had some great shows. When we go out with like a Slayer or a Megadeth or a band like that, chances are most of those people are at least aware of what we do. It’s safe to say that a good portion of the Metallica crowd had not yet been exposed to us. So for us, at that this stage of the game, it was a golden opportunity.

In addition to that, it was a lot of fun to go on tour with people who were our heroes when we were coming up as musicians and to learn first hand that they really are a great bunch of guys, really down to earth people, surprisingly so given their celebrity and their status in the industry and some of the ways they’ve been portrayed. They made us feel at home and made us feel welcome, and for that I’m grateful. We’ve got about 20 more shows with them next summer in Europe, so we’re very excited about that. So all in all it was a great experience.

KNAC.COM: Playing in front of a crowd that was, like you said, not really familiar with you, how did you go over?

Morton: We went over really well. We were, not concerned, we were curious how we would go over with an unfamiliar audience. To be fair, we certainly had our share of fans there every night, the Lamb of God fans were showing up and they were very vocal and very visible and we love them to death for it, but I could definitely feel the momentum of the shows. When we would start playing, people would still be taking their seats, and by the end of our set the faces changed from deer in the headlights to fists in the air. There were no train wrecks, no boos, no catastrophes, at least that I was aware of, and I think we won some people over.

The thing about, say, Slayer is, they are a very, very heavy band, very dark, very aggressive, and the music, at least to my ears, is a little bit similar to what Lamb of God is doing, so it’s not such a stretch for the audience. Metallica has gone through different phases at different eras, until very recently most of their modern stuff is pretty commercial, so their fans are there to hear that. But like I said, they seemed to like us and I know we made some new fans.

KNAC.COM: Since everyone else has chimed in on it, what is your opinion of Metallica’s new album?

Morton: It’s great, it’s their best record in a lot of years. They had moved away from where my interest was in them, but good for them, they’ve redefined themselves over and over again, reinvented themselves. And they are a great band and nice guys.

KNAC.COM: Lamb of God is certainly a veteran band, but Metallica’s been around for a lot longer and at a much higher level, no disrespect. Is there anything you guys can take away from someone like that?

Morton: The answer to your question is yes and no. I don’t think there’s things or lessons that we picked up directly from them as a band because we’re two very different situations and two very different types of bands in very different levels of our careers, as you mentioned. But working with them has taught us some things.

It’s one of the few times where, like I said, we’ve been in front of an audience that we felt we had to win over. Early on in our career, when no one knew who we were on our first couple national tours, it was like that, and maybe the main stage at Ozzfest that we played a couple years ago. But even then we felt like we were on our home turf. We learned how to work in an environment that wasn’t necessarily hostile, but it wasn’t necessarily friendly either.

And Metallica plays in the round, which is like being in a boxing ring in the middle of the arena, so we really had to work a four-sided stage instead of a one-side stage. And 14-15 years into our career, that’s the first time we’ve had to do that. We picked up really quick, and I’m really proud of our band and especially our crew for adapting, because those guys really bear the brunt of that. If things don’t get set up just so, it can make things a lot more difficult and really limit your mobility, which you really need in a situation like that.

KNAC.COM: You guys are going to start your own tour in Finland in early February, which seems like the last place on earth you’d want to be in early February.

Morton: Yeah, it’s gonna be dark and it’s gonna be cold. No doubt about that. But there is a festival there, I think it’s called Frostbite or something like that, which is fitting. It’s a big metal festival and our management was asked by the organizers if we would play, and it made sense for us to be there, so that’s where we start the tour. And then we move down to the U.K., which in February isn’t exactly tropical either. We’re going to do a quick tour there with Dimmu Borgir, the Metal Hammer tour, and from there we go to Australia and do some killer festival shows there, and then Japan and Indonesia, and we’ll do all that in a matter for four weeks.

KNAC.COM: So you won’t be launching the new album with shows here?

Morton: No. We won’t be, but by then the U.S. tour will have been announced and tickets will be on sale and we’ll have the video out, so we’ll be able to give it a bit of a kick out the door.

KNAC.COM: Since this is your fifth album, and the last two have done pretty well, do you have any aspirations for the new one to get you “to the next level,” as everyone likes to say?

Morton: (laughs) With us it ends with writing and recording the songs and being satisfied with them creatively. First of all, a band like us, we’re not a hit single band, we’re not a radio band, we don’t necessarily expect to top the charts or anything like that. Our last album had an amazing first week, #8 I believe on the Billboard chart, and was nominated for a Grammy and all these wonderful accolades, that was fantastic. But those things happening are out of our hands. So we don’t have any expectations there.

Furthermore, in this day and age, the record industry is in a free-fall, as is the economy in general (laughs), and it’s getting easier and easier for people to steal albums than buy them. So my expectations were that the five of use would write some killer songs and make a really, really exciting recording with them, and those expectations were reached, in fact they were surpassed. So from there I’m just excited to turn it loose on people and give the fans some new music and give the band an excuse to go around the world a couple times and play the songs in front of people.

KNAC.COM: Did you go into this album with any kind of game plan, or does spontaneity work better for you guys?

Morton: We went in knowing that we wanted to strip things down a bit on a production level. Our last album was very epic sounding, and that worked for that record, but as kind of a rebound to that we really wanted to strip it down and get it back to the raw roots and aggression. And that sort of led into the songwriting and we had a lot of fun writing this record, we decided this would be kind of a free-for-all, do whatever we want record, and it was very collaborative. There was really very little competition, or tug of war, some of those things that sometimes arise among the group when you’re writing a record that are a natural part of being a band. There’s always some of that, people have different visions of how songs should flow, it’s always hard to get five people on the same page all the time. With Sacrament there was a whole lot of that, and you see some of that on the DVD [Walk with Me in Hell].

This time we were all at a stage where we felt like we really should have fun writing a record, being at home for a year with our families, sleeping in our beds, working on our music, and just enjoying that moment, and I think we did. It’s a really rowdy bunch of songs, it’s the sound of us having fun.

KNAC.COM: It certainly doesn’t sound like you were looking to make any radical changes?

Morton: We chose what came the most natural. In the past few years there have been a few situations where we found ourselves a little stretched out, a little bit like wondering whether or not this certain approach or sound was the right fit. Sometimes we took risks that worked and sometimes we took risks that didn’t work as well, and this time we just wanted to do what felt that most natural. If that meant stripping it down, making it little more raw and getting more in your face, then that’s what it would be. It was the time to do what we wanted, not that we didn’t before, but more than ever before, and reconnect with the reason why we started doing this in the first place. And that’s what we did.

KNAC.COM: But at the same time, you’ve got songs like “In Your Words” and “Reclamation” that actually sound, well, epic, they really build and are quite intricate.

Morton: We’re talking about how stripped down and raw it is, but at the same time there’s some incredibly orchestrated guitar pieces here and a lot of clean guitars and stuff that we haven’t done. In a lot of cases, it’s more sophisticated than our other records, it’s just more organic, and by that I mean made naturally, not as processed. But it’s a pretty fast, brutal album. Those two songs are at the beginning and the end, so you sort of ease into and out of the album, but in between it doesn’t let up for very long.

KNAC.COM: Wrath, is that supposed to symbolize the tone of the album, or is it like you guys talk about on the Walk With Me DVD, a good sounding word for a metal album title?

Morton: It’s a little of both. The litmus test for album titles for us, first and foremost, is is it a cool name for a heavy metal record? So it passes that test. And then sure, if you think about the word Wrath, and that menacing kind of anger, that’s a fair summation of what the record sounds like. Randy’s definitely written some angry lyrics here, like he always does, and with the way he delivers it, it certainly sounds like Wrath. We probably could have used it for every album we’ve done (laughs).

KNAC.COM: I know you’ve worked with Josh in various capacities before, how did you decide to elevate him to producer on this album? What did you expect to bring to the table?

Morton: He engineered my guitar and Chris’ drums on the Sacrament album and he also mixed the live audio part of the Walk With Me DVD, which sounded incredible. So based on those experiences, he was definitely leading the pack when we started talking about who was going to produce the record.

It was time to go with someone different, not because we don’t love working with Machine, we certainly do. I still talk to him fairly often and have become good friends with him through the process of working with him on the last two records, and he’s an incredibly talented individual. We’ve made some great records together, and perhaps we will again, nothing was particularly broken, but we felt like in the hopes of taking a fresh approach — we certainly we’re going to swap out any of the band members — the quickest way to get a clean slate in terms of walking into a record process was to try to work with someone new as a producer. We really trusted Josh’s ear from an engineering perspective and we knew he could capture an incredible sound, it was really just a matter of committing to give him the title and the steering wheel as producer.

He really wanted to prove himself and he came in very early in the cycle and we did some preproduction with him, he sat with us for about a week while we were writing and putting songs together and recording as we were going and helping us arrange songs. He gained a lot of confidence from us there, and that carried through the remainder of the record.

KNAC.COM: You have worked with some interesting personalities, Steve Austin, Devin Townsend, Machine, how was Josh’s personality in comparison to them?

Morton: One thing that stands out to me about Josh is his approach was to make Lamb of God sound like Lamb of God. His approach to recording and producing is: “I don’t want someone listening to the record to know Josh Wilbur produced it.” He’s like, “I don’t want to put my stamp on the band or the recording, I want to capture the best possible performance of these songs as a band.” In the context of how we were working before, I think that was unique. His primary objective is to document the sound of the band, rather than augment it.

KNAC.COM: Do you see a time when you would ever produce yourselves, or do you need another body or another opinion in the studio to keep the five of you from killing each other?

Morton: (laughs) Yeah, we do. In a lot of ways, we’ve always produced ourselves, we’ve just had that other person in to corral all of the different arguments and push and pulls. We’re very, very hands on in terms of the songwriting and arranging, the guitar tones and the drum tones, even down to the recording techniques and mixing, and all that. We’re a lot more involved than a lot of other bands. But it seems to be much more advantageous to bring in that impartial opinion to help tell us when we’re wrong and to help evaluate some of the disagreements that go on when we’re in the studio. Otherwise we’d either never get anything done or, like you said, kill each other.

KNAC.COM: Earlier you talked about all the time you had spent at home and being with your families and all, do you have any plans to scale back on the touring you do?

Morton: I don’t think we’ll scale it back to any degree that will be noticeable by the fans. On this record cycle I think the fans can expect us to come through as much as we always have. We’re trying to take a bit longer breaks between tours and maybe make the back-to-back runs not as long. In the past, we’d end up doing 12-week runs. That gets pretty long when you’re gone for three months, four months. That gets tough. A couple band members are new fathers, so those kinds of long runs can take a lot out of you.

We’re gonna tour as much and as long, maybe longer, as we always do, we’re making a few changes in th schedule just to make the schedule a little less brutal on us. But it’s not anything anyone would notice unless you’re part of the touring team, or stalking us or something like that (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You’ve done three DVDs, each one of them longer and more elaborate than the previous one, do you plan to do another?

Morton: We’re in the initial stages of dreaming up what the next thing is going to be. We’re constantly documenting what we do and our fans really love them and they really connect to the band more because of them, it’s a real insight into not only this band but almost documentary style what it is to be in a band. Even if Lamb of God isn’t your favorite band, you can get a lot out of watching the DVDs because they are so honest and at times very funny and at others not too funny at all and almost too honest.

KNAC.COM: Like your fight with Randy on Killadelphia?

Morton: Like my fight with Randy on Killadelphia. But stuff like that happens with just about every band, it’s just not something most bands are eager for their fans to see, for obvious reasons. But I know our fans appreciate that we’re not trying to hide anything, no matter how embarrassing it might be for us.


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