Friday, May 1, 2020

an interview with Ulcerate

For over a decade, New Zealand's Ulcerate has pushed death metal past its self-imposed boundaries; in so doing, their atmospheric and dissonant style inspired a horde of imitators. With their album Stare Into Death and Be Still newly released through Debemur Morti Productions, I reached out to the band to find out more about their approach to songwriting and the creation of their latest release. Drummer Jamie Saint Merat was kind enough to answer my questions.

DoC: Please give a brief history of Ulcerate - when did you form, and what were your goals at the time? Would you say you've achieved those goals - why or why not?

I’m not going to go into the history of the band, there’s more than enough info floating around that details all that. But in terms of a goal - very simple: create the death metal that we’ve always wanted to hear and play, with an uncompromising and DIY attitude. That goal remains the same to this day.

DoC: There was a noticeable stylistic shift from your early work to your current sound. What led to this change? How do you look back on your first two albums now?

The shift is a completely instinctual progression over the 20 years we’ve been together as a band. You throw all you have into writing an album - some things you’ll get right, others you won’t. You’ll sit with that music for a year or two, tour it so you become extremely intimate with it, and then you iterate going forward.

In terms of looking back at the first two albums - I’m extremely proud of Everything is Fire, and completely indifferent to Of Fracture and Failure. The latter was a chaotic, yet necessary experiment for us shifting away from the more conventional death metal during our demo era. By the time we sat down to write Everything is Fire, we knew exactly where we needed to take things, and for all of us in the band this feels like the first release where we found our sonic footprint, so to speak.

DoC: What is your writing process like? Do you write as a group, or does one member handle the bulk of the songwriting?

Mike [Hoggard, guitarist] and myself write everything as a team, at all times. We see it as a symbiotic relationship between rhythm and melody. Paul [Kelland, bass and vocals] handles lyrics exclusively, but we all have veto power over any and all of the process.

DoC: You have a new album out now called Stare Into Death and Be Still. Tell us a little bit about this album - how long had you been working on it? Where was it recorded? How would you compare it to your previous releases?

We began the writing process for this album in early 2018. The first six months or so involved a lot of experimentation and trial and error in terms of the more melodic direction we felt necessary to start moving the band towards. The album was tracked across two Auckland studios - drums and vox at More Core Audio, strings at Depot Sound.

Comparison-wise - we’ve had a lengthy career now of exploring a claustrophobic and oppressive sound via an almost exclusively dissonant approach. This album is us drawing a line in the sand for where we want to move going forward, which is in a more melodic and impactful direction. We’ve said all we can with a strict adherence to dissonance, and reining this composition technique in has opened an infinite amount of doors for us.

DoC: What can you tell me about the lyrical themes of the album? Would you say they relate to the global pandemic at all?

While the title is coincidentally apt given the current climate, there’s no intentional correlation. A lot of the album focuses on the passivity of witnessing death’s grip reach forth and take people that are close to you. The silent horror of inevitably, the sombreness of loss.

DoC: The album will be your first for Debemur Morti Productions. How did they get involved with this release?

We’ve been talking with DMP since the release of Vermis, so the seed of collaboration has been there for a number of years. We had a two album contract with Relapse, and when the time came to renew I took some time to reevaluate where we were and how we wanted to move forward. Over the last few years we’ve been moving more and more into a space where we need to surround ourselves and our work only with individuals and collectives who are on the same wavelength creatively and conceptually. Label owner Phil and myself had some detailed discussions up-front, and it became all too clear that this was the right fit for us.

DoC: In addition to your work with Ulcerate, you are a sound engineer/producer. How would you describe your approach to recording music? If you had to pick, which album are you most proud of working on in terms of recording/engineering?

No, I’m not a sound engineer by trade at all. This is a glorified hobby that I capitalise on with Ulcerate and a few other close projects.

My approach is a little old school it seems in the current climate - I like real performances and real tones captured in rooms. I’m not interested in perfection - the beautiful thing about music to me is the capturing of a moment in time and space. And when it comes to music as played by people I want to hear those people express something, so I choose to avoid the modern trappings of digital audio workstation production as much as possible. I don’t touch quantisation, I like to capture tones in a room and commit (so no direct input and reamping), I hate the sound of amp modeller plugins... I like happy accidents and the errors of imperfection that characterise great records.

In terms of records - I’d say this latest album by far. I was able to spend a lot more time with it from a mix perspective, and have spent the last few years upskilling and trying to really iron out a lot of the flaws in my mix work.

Ulcerate at Saint Vitus Bar, 2014

DoC: Ulcerate helped shine a light on the metal scene in New Zealand. How would you characterize the scene there? How involved are you with that scene now?

The scene here has always been small, with an ebb and flow of activity. To be honest, we’re not that involved here these days - we like to keep live activity here to once a year for the most part - it’s a small place and we prefer to keep a low profile. There’s also a big part of ‘scenes’ that I couldn’t give two fucks about, regardless of where they are. Bands worth your time: Vassafor, Vesicant, Heresiarch, Distant Fear, Shallow Grave, Witchrist, Sinistrous Diabolus.

DoC: What's next for you?

Ride 2020 out I guess for the most part. We’ve had to cancel all of our booked tour dates this year unfortunately - Australasia and North America. So we’re currently booking for Europe early 2021, and rescheduling Australsia to later this year... but even these activities are all up in the air at this stage.

Ulcerate on Facebook

Ulcerate on Bandcamp

South of South of Heaven:

Mixtape 75:
Scorn of Creation