In just 10 years, a relatively short amount of time by musical standards, the Richmond, Virginia band Lamb Of God
has risen from obscure instrumental group to leading-edge purveyors of a brutal guitar assault style of heavy metal. With the release of Wrath
, their sixth album, the band continues to push the boundaries with unique approaches to guitar textures, song arrangements, and vocal treatments.
Guitarist Mark Morton
has weathered the storm from dozens of competing bands to guide his group to the very top of the metal heap. He is not afraid of experimentation and indeed on Wrath
, has moved onto a new producer Josh Wilbur
- and a new cycle in the group's life.
UG: Do you ever think about the idea that your music will later be scrutinized? If so, would you ever censor yourself or pull back because you think that people won't understand it?
Yes, some of it does and some of it doesn't. I understand what you're getting at. We are absolutely aware certainly at this stage in our career that obviously we're writing songs that are going to come out on the record. It's going to be relatively high profile, at least within in the heavy metal community. So we don't have any illusions about where this is going and that people are going to scrutinize and analyze it and all those things that you said. Early in, I think by necessity, we adopted this sort of fuck you all attitude in writing. That's not to disrespect the fact that people pay attention to our music. We love that and we're very fortunate that that is indeed the case. As a necessity as songwriters, particularly given the attitudes and personalities of the five of us in the band, we really don't have much room to consider what our fans might want to hear or what might impress the critics or what Ultimate-Guitar might think of this riff or what the editors of Guitar World are going to think about my solo. There is not a lot of room for consideration of those sorts of things because of the fact that the five of us are so strong-willed and so stubborn and come from such different angles and have such competing and different visions of what Lamb of God should be or what direction we should be pointed in at any given point in time. To get the five of us on the same page and in the same lane and to rally around the same type of thing is an incredible feat in itself. Once we've come close to that, we call that a victory. We're kind of like, Hope you like it, guys. We're going to do our thing. That thing is going to be what it is. If people react to it, if people gravitate towards it, if people are excited by it, if people connect with it, then hurray for us. But if they don't, hurray for us anyway because it was hard enough to get the five of us on the same page. I think that's a healthy part of the process. It's not always fun. I play to my friends and my wife and people around me when I'm working all the time. If only it were the Mark Morton Experience, then I would do this. I can't because I've got four other people that more or less have to sign off on it. That goes for all of us for it to become Lamb of God. I will catch myself writing for Randy or for Chris or for Willy, envisioning parts or songs or layers or lyrics or riffs or whatever that are going to get a certain kind of response or get a certain kind of reaction either musically or personally or whatever from the guys in my band. Really we are our strongest critics. It's really ourselves that we have to live up to.
Mastodon is a band that often gets mentioned in the same breath as Lamb of God, but they are actually two very distinct bands. Mastodon is more of a throwback to some of the classic rock bands. Why does that comparison happen, other than the fact that there are the big guitars?
I really don't know. I wish I could give you a more clever answer, but I really don't know. Other than I would say that both bands are heavy. I don't really draw a lot of parallels between what Mastodon does and what we do. I'm a fan of that band. I love their music. I love them as people. They're good friends of mine. We've toured together a bunch. They come through town, and I go hang out with them. We come through town, and they come hang out with us. They're brothers. I've known Brann and Bill since before Mastodon was even together as a matter of fact. Musically, other than the fact that the bands are heavy, I don't see a lot of immediate parallels or comparisons. What I could say about both bands is I think that we, knowing them as people and obviously knowing how my band works, I think that both bands are very, very interested in evolving and changing from album to album and pushing the limits of what we can do within the context of our band. I think that neither band is the type that is going to tread water and stick with what's comfortable just because it's working. I think they're very serious musicians and they're playing music for the love of creating music. I think probably our philosophies are similar. I think the way those philosophies play themselves out artistically are different.
Was that one of the reasons that you moved away from Machine? Was that your way of wanting to try something new or was it a personal thing?
"We are absolutely aware that obviously we're writing songs that are going to come out on the record."
I think it's certainly safe to say that different members of the band had different takes on the work we did with Machine. Everyone would agree that clearly those two records, until now, we're certainly our most successful records commercially and were big records for the band. We made great big strides with those records, and Machine had a lot to do with that. Machine is a personal friend of mine. Again, I love the guy and I love working with him. I have a blast making records with him. Even that said, I knew from a creative point of view that if we were to do a third record with the same producer, I think it would be more of a challenge to keep things moving and evolving and changing. To me, one of the most immediate ways to flip the script if you will, is to bring someone in and get a different take on the production. I've said it before in interviews, nothing was broke with our relationship with Machine. Obviously, we had just made our most successful record to date with Sacrament, and it was a very, very ambitious project. That record was very, very produced. It was very processed, very layered. There were lots of additional arrangements and kind of things worked into those tunes that were in some ways a little bit of a stretch for us here and there. I think they were right for the tunes. Walk With Me In Hell, I don't think could sound any better. It needed that sort of huge, epic approach to the production for that song. It just fit that song. Descending is another example. I think having made that record that way and having approached the production of it that way, it was almost a response to that or a reaction to that that really got us rallied around the idea of making Wrath something really raw and aggressive and pure and stripped down and really bare bones almost. I don't think we could have been as excited about making that record had we not made Sacrament the way we did. It was just sort of the natural progression of things. Again, like you alluded to, one of the ways we felt that would keep things changing and sort of mix things up a little bit and shake it down a little bit was to bring a different producer in.
You described Wrath as bare bones, but there does seem to be a fair amount of guitars flying around.
It is a bit of paradox, the way I describe it. In one breath, I'll say that it's stripped down and it's more raw, but I know that there are actually more guitar tracks on Wrath than there are on Sacrament. I think it's more about the tones that we got, the sounds we got, the way we recorded the record. Instead of re-amping everything and calculating and devising our guitar tones after everything was already tracked, which is how we approached Ashes and Sacrament. On Wrath, we got the guitar tones first and then we recorded it. That sort of seems obvious. To someone who hasn't made a lot of records, that might seem obvious. Really, there are two different schools of doing it. With re-amping and direct signals and that kind of thing now, a lot of people a lot of times will just track and use a standard tone to monitor what you're tracking and then go back and really kind of create the guitar tones after the fact during the mix. It's almost like a post-production type thing. We went back to the more traditional way with Wrath, where we get a great guitar tone and then put a mic in front of that speaker and press record. These days, that's almost not revolutionary but it's almost like fresh to do it that way. I was really driving that home to Willy and to Josh, our producer, early in. Look guys, I really want to record this. I want to know while I'm playing it that this is the tone that I'll be working with on the album. As a guitar player, a lot of how you play and how your instrument reacts is directly related to what your tone is and how your amps and tubes are responding to that signal. If you're tracking things and you hear it come back one way, and then later you're going to go completely reinvent that sound, I would have played it differently had I know the tone was going to be set like this. I would have executed that part differently. I would have hit harder. I would have hit lighter, whatever, been more legato. I would have pedaled that one harder, whatever. Those are some of the things that I learned over the past couple records before, when we would go back and change things. I would hear the pinch harmonic on Laid To Rest and go, Hmm. Had I know that this is where we were going to settle at with the tone, I probably would have struck that just a little bit differently. Subtle differences, you know? Things that your average fan probably wouldn't give two shits about. But to me, as a player, when you get that precise and that focused in on a tone, you kind of live with it after it's done. But you're like, If I had known that we would have pumped that mix that high, I might have struck that a little bit differently. Those are the kinds of things that I didn't want to walk away from the project living with. I wanted to know exactly how it was going down, as it was going down. I think the most efficient way to do that is to get the tones, set the tones, put the mics, up, and get the take.
The way you describe your process is basically how people had been recording in the last 30 years before the digital age.
Exactly. I was talking to a friend of mine about this the other day. I feel very fortunate to have come just at the cusp of that. The first couple records I made were on tape. I have made records recording on to a 2-inch tape. Now that's completely antiquated. It's a whole generation of pro players right now that will never do that and will have never seen someone editing tape and actually cutting reels off and editing like that. We were just barely caught in the end of that. I was talking to a photographer about film. It's kind of inevitable that it's going to go away. At the same time, there are a lot of lessons that we can learn from those old ways. There is a lot of legacy there that is worth thinking about. Certainly, Wrath was recorded digitally. Of course, we did it on Pro Tools. Some of these ideas, like you and I just discussed about getting the tone and then getting the take instead of getting the take and then getting the tone, I think there is an order of things that we kind of went back to that was a little bit more traditional on this record. I think that's part of why it sounds like it does.
In some ways I would think it would be harder to go back to the older way of doing things by getting your tone first. With technology you can add anything you want to it or change it as needed. In some respects, there are too many choices.
Yeah, I think you kind of set your boundaries up. We've been around the block a time or two. This was our sixth record if you count the Burn the Priest record. We kind of knew what we wanted going in. So it wasn't like a huge dilemma trying to figure out our tones. It was just a matter of everybody agreeing to what we were going to do. Of course, there were things that we went and re-amped when we plotted out the course. We picked that later and that kind of thing. I'm not saying we didn't do any re-amping because we certainly did. The foundation of the songs was recorded and played as they sound on the record.
Set To Fail is the first single on the record, and it's a pretty brutal song. Was that the face you wanted to put on the record?
Yeah. Sure. The short answer is yes. It was a little tricky this time because I think this record is pretty dynamic. Set To Fail, certainly in my view, does notIf I had to pick a song that represented everything that Wrath brought to the table, I don't think Set To Fail would be that tune. Set To Fail was a very immediate, groovy, heavy, kind of head bobbing, that kind of tune. When you're going to pick a song to do a little video for, that's kind of what you want. You just want that immediacy. It had a real cool, hooky groove to it and a cool riff. I had a lot of fun with that guitar solo, so I was excited about that. If you had to pick one that you were going to put a little bow on and make a video for, that was the one that kind of stuck out.
I understand that the band did a lot of preproduction. Is that true for the solos as well?
It depends on the solo. Some of them I had straight-up worked out over the course of preproduction and doing demos. We do pretty extensive demo sessions anytime we make a record. Anyone that is going in to make a record, I would say that you should always walk in knowing what you want to play. Clearly with song structures, you should have songs written, but even for solos. One of the mistakes that I would make early, early, early in my different bands before this or different recording sessions was going in thinking, Oh, I'll just plug in and I'll come up with something. I would sometimes get let down. Sometimes you'll stumble on that magic and you'll just be hitting that night, and you may come up with something that is the coolest thing you've ever played. That will happen. When that doesn't happen, you have nothing to fall back on. I feel like you should walk into a session knowing what you want to play. Once you've got that down, then start fucking around with it. That's really kind of what I did with most of the solos on this record. I came in with something thinking, This is what I want to play. I would lay that down, and then me and Josh would start playing with it. We'd say, Okay, cool. Let's do another random take and see what comes up. Most of the solos that you hear are kind of a combination of those two things. For the most part it's following the outline of the solo that I had worked out and laid out, but sometimes we'd tweak a couple of things. Hey, let's try a different lick here. This lick sounds a little bit like the one in the other tune. Look at the different positions, and see if you can stretch out a little bit. That kind of thing. We would do our sessions in such a way that I would start at noon, one in the afternoon, and we would work up until seven or eight doing basic rhythm tracks. Then we would take a break, and then the wine would come out or the whiskey would come out. Well, Josh doesn't drink, but I would! I would get a couple of glasses of wine in me and start loosening up a bit. So by 10 or 11 o'clock, that's when we started really doing solos. It was kind of cool because we were working and all business during the day, executing the tracks and laying it down and getting the rhythm tracks down and getting them tight and right. At night we'd take a break. We were right on the water. We were in this beautiful studio in Matthews County, Virginia, which is right out on the bay. You would walk to the back of the studio, and you were standing on the sand with the waves rolling in. We would take a little break, hang out there, smoke a cigar or whatever, drink a couple glasses of wine, come back in, and we would start jamming out solos. That's kind of the vibe that we had for the rest of the night. It was, Let's jam. Let's shred leads and see what we come up with. It was fun for the rest of the night. That's how our sessions were laid out.
What about a song like Grace? It has those clean guitars at the beginning.
"We do pretty extensive demo sessions anytime we make a record."
Grace, that was very, very, very worked out. That's really one of the first couple of songs that I wrote for the record. I wrote that actually in the downtime after the Sacrament touring cycle ended, at the end of Christmas '07. We finished up that tour with Killswitch that we were doing and came home. We took like three or four months, I guess, off. It wound up being more like three months. I think we planned on it being four or five, but it wound up being between two and three months off away from the band. Grace was one of the songs that I had put together in my home studio with GarageBand and EZdrummer. I was just sitting in my studio, trying out ideas. I pretty much wrote the music for that tune sitting in my little studio, just kind of fucking around the intro and everything. That one was pretty established from the start.
How about Everything To Nothing? Is there wah-wah on that?
Yeah. Sure, there's a lot everywhere.
Choke Sermon has an interesting solo.
Again, those were just fun. It was, What do we hear over this? They weren't necessarily anything that I spentThose two in particular are good examples. They weren't anything that I spent weeks composing the solo or anything. It was more like, Okay, take a swig and go for it. You do five or six takes like that, and then you start developing little patterns. I guess I'm talking myself out of what I said. You should always know what you're going in to play. You should always have a baseline and always have a plan, but don't necessarily be scared to deviate away from your plan.
Reclamation is a pretty strange tune with the acoustics and dobros. That was cool.
Reclamation was fun. That was fun. Willy put a lot of the music together for that song. He was tracking the intro for that because him and I were kind of tracking simultaneously in the same studio, but in like studio A and studio B of the same studio. It was one afternoon, and I totally remember it. I'm a crazy NASCAR fan, a big-time race fan. I took a break to go watch the end of the race. I come back upstairs, and Willy is on the back porch of this beautiful studio that we're at that's right on the water. They're setting up mics, and he's got the dobro. I'm like, Yo, what's going on here? He's like, I'm going to cut this thing for the start of Reclamation.' I was like, Oh. Can I get in on this? He's like, Yeah! So I grab my Guild acoustic and sat up with him. Randy was actually there with us, just kind of hanging out. He came up for a few days and was doing shrimp boils and cooking for us. He was just kind of having fun hanging. We just kind of winged it. What you hear at the end of it was me breaking off and doing that little solo. We just kind of were jamming. That's what is really cool about this record. It's little things like that that are like little moments of life, instead of making some super-sterile perfect vacuum. There is a lot of life in this record, and that to me is one of the best examples of that. That's just me and Willy jamming on the porch. The engineer is going, Man, this is really cool. This is going to be fun. You can hear the waves and the wind, and you guys are playing. It sounds real. You can almost hear Randy's cigarette burning. To me, every time I hear that, it's almost like a document of that day more than anything.
In a perfect world, isn't that what music should be about anyway?
Yeah, you would think.
I recall that Randy previously wasn't involved in much of the preproduction. When I talked with him about the Sacrament record he said, I write at home. I'm by myself a lot, and they bring me music. I see what in my notebook I've laid out would possibly fit the scenario. If I'm having writer's block or something, Mark writes lyrics as well. Was Randy more involved with the new record?
The difference was this time Randy was way more interested in the songs as they were coming together. Whereas in the past, it might be like we would get a collection of four or five songs together demoed. He be in and out or whatever, but not really there everyday. We'd give him a CD. Listen to these and start wrapping your head around them. Okay, I've got an idea. It would go forward from there. I've been writing a fair amount of our lyrics since like the Palaces record, so quite awhile. I've been writing lyrics for a lot of these songs, and I still did on this record. For me, when I'm writing lyrics for a tune, it's usually a tune I'm starting to riff for. So I put the riffs together, start hearing the lyrics, and then I start scribbling them down. It kind of all comes together at once. Whereas with Randy, he usually gets the tune when they're a lot further along. He just kind of takes what he's got in his notebook and starts making it fit to the song that's more or less structured. So it makes for a little bit different type of song, but this time I think Randy was more interested in being around as the songs came together. He felt that by being present he would have a lot more influence on saying, Hey guys, you know what? I'm hearing something on this part. I think it needs to go two more times so I can raise it like I need to raise it. He was a lot more interested from the jump, instead of getting handed a CD and saying, Here's what we've come up with so far. Have fun. I think there was more of a connection this time with Randy in terms of the songwriting. Instead of him being handed something to go over top of, now he was sitting there the whole time as the song came together. Just by being present, your voice carries a lot more weight.
Are you constantly trying to explore new musical arrangements? Does that kind of stuff interest you?
It does. I think it's a bit of a balance. I think as a songwriter, there are certain things that are set or are part of my style and part of my approach to songwriting. I think that can be a songwriting. You don't want to get caught in a rut, either. You don't want to start using the same formulas all the time. Not that there's really a formula, but you don't want to use the same structure. You don't want to move the same way every time. It's about finding a balance between, This is my sound and these are the songs I want to hear. You also don't want to get stale. So, yeah. I do think about that. That's something I do try to work on. I think one of the things we have going for us is that Willy writes great music as well. Willy and I write very differently. I think my style of arranging songs and writing songs is a little more conventional in terms of the hard rock, rock and roll, classic rock song structures. Willy's are a little more landscapish. He's not necessarily concerned with a chorus that comes back a second time. That's not even necessarily on his radar when he sits down to write a song. So it makes for a very different kind of song. He's certainly more abstract and a little more prog-y than me. When you put 10, 12 songs on a record, it makes for a great balance. He can have that kind of landscapish, never-ending journey kind of song. Mine might be a little more traditional in terms of a hook that comes back around and that kind of thing. You put the two together, and it's a nice balance.
Was playing with a second guitar always a part of your musical vision?
For this band, yes. For me, no. I've played in bands where I was the only guitar player in the past. It's certainly never anything that got any national exposure. In my first band, I was pretty much the rhythm guitar player. It was like my band when I was in 10th grade. It was called Access. I was actually probably 14 years old, and the lead guitar player was a guy named Ryan Lake, who wound up playing for Alabama Thunderpussy. He's a phenomenal player. Great, great lead player. I grew up with him. When you grow up playing guitar, you've always got a buddy that you jam with. Ryan was my buddy. He was the one that pushed me along and got me figuring out how to play leads based on scales and that kind of thing. He was way more advanced than me. He was 14 years old playing Angus Young solos perfectly. In my first band I was lucky enough to be playing with Ryan. It's really cool that Ryan went on to do his own thing and make his own records and tours. Then I moved on and I started wanting to get the spot. So I started playing in bands where I was the only guitar player. I had experience with all this stuff, but for Lamb of God it always made sense that it was a two-guitar band. You can do so much more with harmonies, and it's kind of heavier with another guitar.
Can you give me 25 words on the Walk With Me In Hell DVD?
"You should always have a baseline and always have a plan, but don't necessarily be scared to deviate away from your plan."
The Walk With Me In Hell DVD, it was really an extension of the Killadelphia DVD. Right when we started putting Killadelphia together, which I'm not sure if you're familiar with that. It's the DVD that came out before Walk With Me In Hell. We really wanted to give the fan, the viewer, whoever, a realistic and accurate look at what it is to be in a touring heavy metal band. It doesn't just show us at the Grammys or in a limo or standing on a stage in front of 70,000 people at Download or whatever, but it really shows the bullshit side of it, too. All those things are true and they happen, but when you're in this world you realize that all that shit you seeIt's there, but it's smoke and mirrors, too. That's the glamorous part and the showbiz part, but there's a lot of shit that you don't see. You wake up at eight in the morning in a Walmart parking lot, and you're shitting at Walmart. You're a big rock star! You're banging on the door at Walmart because you've got to use the bathroom. You're at a truck stop, drunk as hell, buying beef jerky at four o'clock in the morning. That's not very rock star, either. We really wanted to show an accurate portrayal of what all this is, for better or worse. Killadelphia showed some of that on the level that we were at during that point. Walk With Me In Hell was really just an extension of that. Basically we followed the tour around the world, so it showed us going to Australia, Japan, and all these places. They're a little more exotic for us, but all part of the tour. It just kind of gives you a view of what it's like and how boring it can be and how goofy we can get and how drunk we can get. All that kind of stuff.
I understand that Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Page are heroes of yours?
Have you ever met them?
No, I haven't. I've had the good fortune of meeting some real guitar heroes of mine. I was lucky enough to have done a good, hard night of drinking with Dimebag while he was still with us. He was such a sweet, awesome dude. I feel totally grateful for that time that I got to bullshit with him and talk about music and pound whiskey and all that stuff. I toured with Zakk a couple times. Well, you can't say enough about Zakk Wylde. He's an awesome player, and what a fun guy, too. Dave Mustaine. James and Kirk and all the Metallica guys that we've toured with, to find out firsthand that they're just really genuine, awesome dudes and really hospitable hosts to have us on tour they're great people. I've had the good fortune of meeting some of my heroes, but not Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Page. I don't get starstruck much, but I tell you what. You put me in a room with Jimmy Page, and I'd probably be!
I got a migraine headache during my interview with Jimmy. I'm glad that you have been able to have positive experience so far, however.
I've had a few, too. None of the people I mentioned, actually. I've had a few people that I've come across that I've been like, Wow, what a dick. But that's cool, too. Whatever. I've also learned in my own experience that sometimes in this music world, sometimes you feel like you can't escape it, especially when you're on the road and there's press and that environment. You almost feel a little trapped by it. Sometimes I feel like a circus clown a little bit. On the wrong day, that can be tough to deal with. So I always have some thick skin if someone's coming across funny like that. Who knows what they've got going on in their real life. You take it for what it is. I have had a lot of good experiences with my guitar heroes coming up. That's been fun. That's been icing on the cake, just to be able to spend time with dudes and players that when you were just picking up the instrument were your heroes. Now you're in the same room, having a beer with them.
Interview by Steven Rosen