Isolation Breeds Creativity – An Interview With Ulcerate

Ulcerate 1It is said that isolation breeds creativity. As much as a platitude this is, Ulcerate’s case seems to help it regain some credibility. Although spawned and based in picturesque New Zealand, the brooding metal trio has a penchant for sonically summoning dark, twisted worlds that reflect and pass judgment on the rotten core of humanity—hardly a mental picture that fits the towering-mountains-and-serene-meadows imagery present in the imagination of many a LotR (Lord of the Rings) fan. This natural inclination towards and ability to clearly convey such depressing negativity doesn’t come easily to most bands, let alone one dwelling within the dream retirement country for many. This creativity is of a virulent nature; one that births realms so displeasing in any ordinary person’s view that it is shunned by the masses and revered only by those who have stared into the abyss for too long. From within the murky darkness of pessimism, drummer Jamie Saint Merat surfaces briefly to speak to Dane Prokofiev about the theme of Vermis (Relapse), his philosophy of the human condition and more.

Are there any bands on Relapse’s roster, both past and present, whom you consider to be an influence on Ulcerate’s lyrical and musical styles?

Yeah, for sure, particularly early on — a lot of the older Neurosis records, Today Is The Day‘s Temple Of The Morning Star/In The Eyes Of God era for example. From a drumming perspective, I really dug the first two Nile albums, the debut Origin album (still do actually) and Suffocation with Dave Culross.

Does New Zealand culture influence Ulcerate’s lyrical and musical styles too? If any, what are the lyrical and/or musical manifestations of those indigenous influences?

No, not all. But our geographic isolation definitely played a part early on in developing our sound, as we had very little access [to the outside metal world] in terms of seeing international acts live, and ended up being more influenced by our peers from a playing perspective. There was certainly no wider benchmark for how good a live performance can be.

How do you create that alien-like, Deathspell Omega-ish guitar tone?

I’d say the correlation between ourselves and a band like Deathspell Omega has less to do with the amp tone and more to do with the notes that are actually being played. Our tone for Vermis has come from a fairly common Marshall/Sunn combination setup (although not a typical death metal configuration). I’d say neither band has any interest in a clean ‘tight’ sound; the bare tone should at least invoke some sort of impending doom.

Does the latest album’s title literally mean “worm” or “the rounded and elongated central part of the cerebellum that is between the two hemispheres of the human brain”?

We’re using the Latin worm metaphor.

Once again, the lyrical theme seems to depict Man as a fragile and extremely flawed being. Who is the human character in Vermis? What are the major issues he/she is grappling with?

The character or persona that we’ve looked at in our lyrics, I would say, is in each and every one of us. Much more of an observation of the weaknesses of human nature, our arrogance in elevating ourselves above the rest of the animal kingdom and within our own species (racism, religion, sexism etc), and our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. I would say that arrogance is definitely a major issue — our potential for incompetence and inability to recognise or even acknowledge said incompetence until well after the fact. The overriding theme for the album is centred around the idea of tyranny and oppression in all its forms, and exploring this concept from all angles, particularly via dogma, power and manipulation. As mentioned before, we’re using the Latin worm version of Vermis metaphorically for the spinelessness/cowardice of tyranny from both sides.

What is it about the human condition that intrigues you so much so that you’d write about it in your lyrics every time?

What’s not to be interested in as humans? I’d argue that every band, metal or otherwise, is speaking about the human condition in some capacity. Unless you’re writing pure fantasy, you’re always writing from your experience as a human. We’ve just always gravitated to exploring the more negative aspects, the aspects that, from an aesthetic point of view, complement the music. The music is very distinct in the kind of feeling it portrays, so to have lyrics that don’t match would be futile.

Due to the human condition, all of us are forced to see and make sense of the world through the human lens. How do you think we can discard this lens and observe the universe from an entirely new perspective?

We can’t. I think the closest that we can come to that is through the loss of self — via music, visual arts, meditation, psychedelics etc. Even via psychedelics, the hallucinations are still birthed and destroyed in the mind, regardless of how exotic they might be. Anything that we can imagine is just a composite of other things we’ve witnessed or experienced. Even trying to imagine something as simple as a colour you’ve never seen before just shows you the limits of empiricism we’re confined to.

Relapse Records described Ulcerate as an “avant-garde, progressive death metal” band. Do you agree with this description? Why?

I neither agree or disagree really. This band has just been a part of ourselves for so long now that it all feels totally natural to us. Both terms, especially “avant-garde”, suggest to me that we’re intentionally trying to make music that is outside of the norm for the sake of it, which isn’t the case. We’re definitely trying to challenge ourselves, but not at the expense of sustaining a cohesive atmosphere. All these label taglines are supposed to attract people who haven’t heard a band before, so how else would you describe it? Particularly when you know that the band might appeal to those who are into a wide range of eclectic music, and not just metal.

Do you think that “progressive” is an ambiguous adjective that is thrown around too often these days?

Yeah, for sure — I’ve always associated it with prog-rock, like King Crimson etc. But nowadays it just gets slapped onto anything heavy that utilises dynamics… it’s the same point as my answer to the previous question: we’re not thinking of these descriptions ourselves; they’re what record labels are using to gain attention for music that has the potential to reach a wider audience, particularly when, at its core, our music is not the easiest to dive right into.

Another term that is thrown around quite often is “forward-thinking”. Do you think it is even possible to make “forward-thinking” metal in this age of continual recycling of old ideas and repackaging them to make them look new? If so, what is one possible way “forward-thinking” metal could sound like?

Again, it’s just another marketing term to attract listeners who aren’t necessarily only listeners of death metal. To be honest, as both a listener and a musician, this is just not something that concerns me at all. I’m not worried about whether the music I listen to or play propels a genre forward; I’m far more interested in the feeling it portrays: Is it a worthwhile addition to the sonic landscape? Is it satisfying on a creative level? Can you lose yourself in the music night-to-night? All this other theorising can be left up to music critics and magazines.

Isn’t it frustrating that no matter how hard one tries to push extreme metal’s boundaries by ignoring traditional musical structural tendencies, one, ironically, ends up creating a new type of musical structure that traps and anchors the music within a world governed by particular sets of rules? What is your opinion on this problem?

Frustrating for whom exactly? If this kind of issues irks you about what we’re writing, then you can always just choose to not listen to it. Again, pushing boundaries is not a goal. It might be a cursory outcome, but definitely not a goal. I can’t imagine sitting down to start a band and thinking: “We’re going to write music that nobody has heard before.” It’s not about impressing anyone. In our case, we sit down to write material that excites us and challenges our own perceptions. We don’t write our material in a non-traditional way to be ironic or sarcastic; we do it for our own satisfaction, because growing up, there were bands doing this that we liked the sound of, we emulated them, and then developed our own approach from this. In terms of rules, setting parameters forces you to be more creative, not just in music — this is very common in the visual arts as well.

Dane Prokofiev

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