Lamb of God
guitarist Mark Morton
might write about rednecks, drinking and peppering his lyrics with f-bombs, but he is one of the brightest and most insightful musicians you'd ever want to talk to. A student at the Virgina Commonwealth University where he first met future LOG members John Campbell
and Chris Adler
Morton is an obviously well-educated dude who just happens to play lead guitar and write songs for one of the more successful metal bands around. Mark and his bandmates just released Resolution
, their seventh album, a pounding collection of riffs and agonized vocals balanced by a sampling of acoustic guitars and even one track featuring real strings and operatic vocals.
This interview happened at 7:00 a.m. Pacific time and 10:00 a.m. locally for Morton. He apologized for the early start time and said he had a lot of things to do today. It was not a problem since this writer started waking up at the ungodly hour of like 6:00 in the morning, working for two hours, and completing the day by 8 o'clock. When Mark heard about the schedule he laughed and said, "I'll trade you.
" I laughed even louder and said, "Dude, I'd trade for your life in a heartbeat.
UG: What was it like performing in India for the Summer Storm Festival?
I'd forgotten or didn't recall that they called it that but I'm not doubting it. It is and will be one of the most memorable experiences in all my career. India is world renowned as just being this incredibly exotic and such a rich history and such an amazingly complex place. I think most of the world is fascinated with Indian culture and it was just a place that I never thought I would get to. It's not something I would have ever really considered a vacation destination just because of how far it is and not really knowing much about the place. It's a place I never thought I'd get to but a place I've always appreciated from a distance.
So it met your expectations?
To have gotten there to play a show in front of what I think was certainly more than 6,000 kids and closer to 7,000 our first time in in Bangalore was just incredible. We say kids and I've gotten lashed for saying that lately: Closer to 7,000 fans. It was one of those things where I was like, I can't believe this is like happening. It's really surreal to be in this incredible faraway land and have all these fans in front of us that know the songs and are so eager to see the show. We were just blown away by the whole experience.
Indian fans really did know the music?
Oh, man, I mean, yeah. There were a sea of bootleg t-shirts in front of us and singing every word. It was everything you could have asked for. And we're going back.
You also went out with Metallica for the World Magnetic Tour.
We were for several legs of it for part of the Wrath tour cycle. It's funny to do these interviews because I'm reminded of everything. You get back to your normal life and everything sort of just fades into the fabric of what our lives are. But yeah, now I think about it, Wow, we went to India and we were on tour with Metallica three times. Pretty incredible. Yeah, we toured North America, Europe and Australia with Metallica. They were incredibly gracious hosts and we learned a lot from those guys. It was just exciting to get to know them on a personal level and realize that they're really committed, down-to-earth guys who are very serious about their music and very grateful about their position in the music industry. They take it seriously but they have a lot of fun with it as well. I think their outlook and the vision on the whole thing is one of the things I've carried away with me as one of the more inspirational elements of what I got out of that experience.
Musically did Metallica open your eyes in any way?
Well the thing is I've been a Metallica fan since I first heard Ride the Lightning. I think I've been inspired by them on a musical level for decades. They've veered off into more commercial ventures over the course of their career and I didn't necessarily follow them through all of that just because of the timing and where I was in my own tastes musically. And that's fine but I have a huge respect for them having done that. I think it was a big risk and they pulled it off like no one ever has and there's a lot to be said for that. But I have a huge respect and admiration for their guts in doing that and how well they executed it. But my point is that watching them play, watching their setand I watched them a lotit's not to much that anything was really new to me in terms of how they construct songs or that riff, Wow, I'm inspired by that riff. I already knew that stuff.
It was more their attitude than the music?
I think what inspired me was the fact that these guys switch up their set list every single night. They practice and rehearse for 45 minutes to an hour as a band before they take the stage. I don't mean like we'd strap on our guitars and warm up for 10 or 15 minutes. They have the luxury of having their own practice room but they set up and play as a band for better than 45 minutes before they ever take the stage. You'll be walking down the hallway and hear them learning one of their songs that they maybe haven't played in a couple months. Rehearsing it and getting it back up to speed because they're gonna play it that night and they may not have played it for a monthor a year. I think they keep themselves interested and they certainly keep the fans interested by doing things like that. That is the kind of stuff that inspired me and that was the kind of stuff that made me take a look and see how we could get better.
Do people ask you about Metallica a lot?
It's interesting. I've spent probably interview-wise 25 percent of my time since that tour talking about Metallica and the other 75 percent talking about Lamb of God.
That was stupid. I shouldn't have asked you about Metallica right off the bat.
[Laughs] It's OK; people can't resist. I think people are enamored by them and I think people are intrigued by em. We're fortunate to have had an inside look and we're fortunate to have gotten to know them and to have gotten to know them musically and personally. So I understand why people are interested.
Why do you think Metallica have had so much success?
I think it's easy to understand up through Justice because they were one of the more accessible and very well-constructed thrash metal bands in my own opinion. Bay Area thrash. And they were just kinda the most sort of polished and just a great thrash metal bandone of the best. I think when the Black record hit, which was the first record that kind of lost me as a fan but that's because I was a fan through all that [other] stuff, I think the Black album was the perfect tie to all that sort of 80s decadentI hate the termhair metal.
You thought that was the transition?
All that 80s glossy music, which wasn't metal, it was pop but they had long hair and called it metal. But the Black album had that Bob Rock production and that slick song structure but it was still super heavy and I still think it's one of the best-sounding metal records ever made. Even though the songs like I said alienated me a little bit at the time. But I think it was just the perfect bridge between all that super glossy pop stuff and an in-between to real thrash metal. It was just polished enough where it was acceptable and spliced-up songwriting-wise enough so it was accessible and hooky and catchy but it was still heavy. And to me it was almost like a parallel toand this is a weird comparisonbut the way Nirvana took punk rock and made it accessible.
That makes complete sense.
"Performing in India for the Summer Storm Festival is and will be one of the most memorable experiences in all my career."
They were the other way aroundit was pop music but it was just dirty enough and grimy and ugly enough and it had punk roots, that it appealed [to the punks]. They were kind of parallel successes even though the bands sound nothing alike. But they were just the perfect bridge between pop and this true underbelly, this true underground scene. And Metallica and Nirvana were both examples of bands that were able to sort of bridge that and still maintain their identity. I think that plus a lot of good marketing is the reason at least to me for the success on paper. But there's also a very visceral magic element that you can't construct.
Let's leave those guys for the moment and talk about something important.
Let's talk about my little band!
Exactly. When we spoke previously for the Wrath album you said, Wrath is stripped down and it's more raw, but I know that there are actually more guitar tracks on Wrath than there are in Sacrament. How would you position Resolution guitar-wise when compared to Wrath?
I don't think there was necessarily a global vision in terms of guitars and the amount and the approach. I knew going in that we wanted a very realistic tone again. It's very easy to plug into all these wonderful machines and I won't name names because then I'll be knockin' on people. They have their use and we use those types of machines and programs and all that kind of stuff for a certain thing. But I knew that like Wrath we wanted to set up real amps with real cabinets. And put mics in front of them and actually play the guitar parts through them and have the speaker push the air and the signal into the mic and have that run straight into the ProTools. These days that is a very organic way of running guitar tracks and I knew we wanted to do that again.
So the approach to the album in general was maybe a bit less scripted than Wrath?
As we were beginning to write Wrath, I think we kinda knew we wanted to make this very stripped down, raw, thrashy, high-energy record and we did that and it was cool. Mission accomplished. This time we didn't necessarily know.
Whatever the song required is what you played?
I think in terms of the approach and sort of the direction of the guitar tracking, I think it was just more for the song. This album was interesting because we were just kind of taking all these loose ideas and making them into songs and letting them be what they were gonna be. I think the guitar tracking very much reflected that where it was more like no universal directive and it was more about, Well what does this song need? Maybe we should try a different guitar on this one. Let's adjust our tone a little bit because this is that kind of song. This song needs to sound a little swampier. This song needs to be super-tight and saturated.
Did Ghost Walking suggest an acoustic guitar intro?
That was really off-the-cuff. All through writing I was using my neck pickup with the volume rolled way back and getting this kind of pseudo-clean sound. I always figured I'd plug in a Fender Twin and maybe a Les Paul or a Telly with the neck pickup and get a cool, gritty and relatively clean sound for that. I don't remember whose idea it was, it might have been Josh [Wilbur, producer] or it might have been me, but there was an acoustic laying in the control room and it was just like, Hey, grab that Guild. I'm gonna put a mic up and let's see what it sounds like. And it was like, Hey, is that cool? We even went across the hall and got [John, bass] Campbell and was like, What do you think of this? And he was like, I don't know, man. It sounds kindaI don't know. And then the next day we all listened again and it was like, Yeah, that's cool.
Spontaneous moments can have a lot of magic in them.
There always stuff in recording that just kinda happens spur-of-the-moment. Those are the things that are sometimes hard to commit to because you've spent so much time writing and arranging these songs that you feel like you're walking in the studio knowing that you're just executing. But inevitably these things come up and they really add the last little sheen of life to a record but that kind of spontaneity I think is exciting and I think it comes through in the takes. I think if you listen to me count that in and then play that bit, it sounds cool and it sounds like someone is about to start jamming, which is what we were going for.
What about that sort of bass breakdown section in The Number Six? Where did that come from?
I think that's a perfect almost quintessential example of Willie's [Adler, guitar] kind of abstract approach to songwriting. He doesn't really have a foundation in traditional rock. He probably grew up listening to whatever was blaring out of his big brother's room and I think he was exposed to underground metal at an early stage in the development of his playing. So he just has this really kind of abstract and unconventional approach to structuring songs. Sometimes honestly and he'll be the first to admit, we've got to rein him in a little bit. It becomes this meandering landscape that you feel like you just took a drive through the country, which can be cool but from a songwriting perspective sometimes you can lose focus.
Has Willie Adler's harmonic approach been a bit more refined on Resolution?
I think on this album probably more than any, he's really kind of honed in on how to use that character of his writing but also structure songs that are a little more focused. And I that part in The Number Six is a prime example of Willie just being Willie.
Guilty has a monster-sounding riff and a crazy bluesy solo like Jimmy Page on speed.
That's hands-down the coolest thing you could say to me but you know that [laughs].
I know that Page is one of your guys, yeah.
You know it's funny, man. I'd say I've never been less prepared going in the studio with solos than I was on this record. I knew loosely what I wanted to do with Ghost Walking and even that changed because the sweep wasn't there. When I set up my amps and we were getting ready to start tracking, I didn't have the sweep in that solo that came in; I didn't have that really fast part in there yet and those all came up spontaneously. I think that was really probably the only solo I had worked out and even that one changed dramatically when we started tracking.
Did you consciously want to cut the solos without having rehearsed anything?
I don't really have a reason for that and I didn't intend to go in there like that. I think because of the way in pre-production we were really writing to the last minute and I wrote a lot of lyrics for this record, I knew I could go in there and we'd do it until we got something we liked. We did every solo on this record in the course of two nights. I don't know how many there are on the recordprobably six maybe or more? But we did every solo in the course of two evenings and when I say evenings I mean eight to twelve or eight to one or something like that.
It was turn on the machine and see what happens?
They were pretty much all based on, OK, roll it and I'm just gonna jam. We'd take a couple passes and we'd find a pass that we felt like, Well that has got a real cool spin. Josh and I working together of course it would be like, Hey that has a cool lyric. Do you know what I mean when I say lyric and I'm talking about solos? It's a piece in itself and it goes somewhere.
A lyrical quality. I totally get it.
I think what I look for in a solo is that it's gotta go somewhere. I just don't want lick after lick after lick; I want some rise and falls and some dynamic to it. And I think that's one of the things because you brought up Page and one of my favorite things of his playing is when he takes off on a solo it's almost its own little piece. Anyway I'm no Jimmy Page but I think one thing we looked for was to have it go somewhere. So once we do a couple passes and we found out and liked how it sat, we'd really just go in and run it until we got a good take of it.
So it was all unplanned stuff and then refining a bit afterwards.
They were very, very spontaneous and very off-the-cuff. I was almost concerned like I left the session saying to Josh, Listen, I've got to sit with these solos for a while. I might redo some of em. I'm gonna listen at home and I may send you some files. Cause I can record stuff here, I got my own little jam room studio here [at Morton's home]. So I said, I may send you some files to replace some of these solos. And he's like, OK, I think you're crazy but if that's what you want to do, do it. I sat with it for three or four days and I didn't send him a single file. I played em for a couple friends and they were like, Dude, you're crazythat's dope. And I was like, Alright. And then now the reviews are starting to come back and most of the reviews are going, Wow, Morton's really going for it on his solos on this record. And I'm just like, Damn, I was gonna replace half of it!
The magic really can happen in being totally unprepared and just letting yourself go.
"This album was interesting because we were just kind of taking all these loose ideas and making them into songs and letting them be what they were gonna be."
But that just goes to show that you can chalk it up to me being scatterbrained or unprepared but there's something to be said for spontaneity. It's exciting in your marriage; it's exciting in your job; it's exciting in your playing.
On Insurrection you create this very dark-sounding thing with a sort of Arabic-type of riff and solo.
I think it might be mixolydian with a b2 and a #3 [flat 2nd and sharp 3rd].
Talking about that lyrical quality you shoot for in your solos, you actually begin this solo with that same type of melody that runs through the song.
It references the melody of the chorus, yeah.
How did that riff in Insurrection develop?
I probably was working on that song for over a year easily. When I brought it in, the guys weren't wild about itit had a cool mood to it but they thought it got a little boring. This rarely happens but I was actually kind of offended cause I was like, This is like my favorite piece that I've brought in and they're like, Yeah, yeah, it's cool man, we'll use it. And Josh was like, I know what the problem iswe need a big, wide open chorus and we don't have that. Cause that part you referenced, which is obviously the one that struck you wasn't there yet. And so I went home with my tail between my legs.
And wrote that signature part.
I was like, Maybe Josh is right and maybe I need a new chorus and came back to rehearsal the next day and I was like, Hey guys, I got an idea for that track. We got back to it and I played the chorus and they're like, Wow, that's really cool. I like the melody. It tied the song together so that's what a good producer does. I think the reason my feelings were hurt is because I've been workin' on that song for so long. Tiny little tweaks and sort of Frankensteining this thing to life.
Has that happened before where you've brought in a song you thought was really cool and the other guys didn't respond?
It's funny because that story's happened beforethat's exactly how Redneck was written. I brought Descending in and they were like, Ehh and I was like, You guys are crazy! This song is awesome. And then the next day I came in with Redneck.
What about Terminally Unique?
Back to our producer Josh, he came in and was like, Listen, we've got all these great songs that Mark and Willie are bringing inthese long developed ideas. Why don't we all sit in a room today and write a song together? Everyone brainstorm and throw it at the wall and just see what we come up with. If at the end of the whole session the song doesn't make the grade, who cares? Let's spend one day writing a song together.
That must have felt good.
That's how we wrote Terminally Uniqueas it is. And because we wrote it that way no one was really married to it for a while. Everyone was just like, Oh, yeah, that's that cool thing we threw together. Whatever. Maybe it'll be a B-side or maybe it will be an extra track somewhere. But then by the time the vocals came on it, it really came to life and it brought something to the track list that wasn't there. Josh even started snapping it out [Morton snaps his fingers] and he's like, I'm missing that 6/8 Lamb of God thingthat duhduhduh duhduhduh duhduhduh duhduhduh. When I think of Lamb of God, I think of that groove and we're not doing that this time. And I'm like, You know why we're not doing that this time? Cause Willie and I have been writing all these songs on our computers and it's really hard to program 6/8 on a fake drum machine. And he's like, That's exactly why it's not there. So screw your stupid computerslet's write a song and we wrote Terminally Unique.
Technology does have its limitations.
Because it gets hard to grid out using anything other than straight time on your laptop with your headphones on.
King Me is the real odd track on Resolution. What moved you to bring in strings and an opera singer?
I'm bringing up Josh a lot in this interview but it's just testimony to how talented this dude is. King Me was a Willie contribution and we all kind of worked on it; edited a lot of stuff; shortened stuff, lengthened stuff and moved stuff around. But the basic parts were brought in by Willie. I added in that kind of atonal lead-like meandering off key thing just to give some friction there. The song was done as far as we were concerned and we knew it was gonna be the last song. We always try and save the spot of the last song on the album for something to punctuate the album and to really give it closure but still be exciting.
King Me felt like the right closer?
I think King Me is the culmination of us trying to do that over the course of a lot of albums. You can hear us start trying to do it with Vigil on Palaces and continuing on to the next records. Josh listened to the song and said, Man, this song is so great and it's so epic but I think we can make it even huger and more grand. I've got some ideas and I'm just gonna work with emdon't shoot me down until I really present my idea. He made it his baby. He called in the opera singers [Amanda Munton] and those real strings.
They are real?
Yeah, and he took his time recording that. He finished it and I totally loved it and he sent us this rough mix with all of that stuff up so you could hear it. And a couple of the guysI'm not gonna pick on anybodybut a couple of the guys were like, Are you crazy? We're not a black metal band. This sounds like Dimmu Borgir meets Evanescence! I even texted him and was like, Josh, man, can you tuck the shit a little bit? You know what I mean? He's like, I want everyone to hear how cool the stuff is. But then he's like, Alright, everyone stop listening and give me a day and then he sent like a pretty close mix. And everyone was like, Whoa, that's cool. So that's a funny story about that.
Those extra elements really do take the song outside of what Lamb of God normally do.
The song in its structure has a different character altogether once you add the strings and the vocals. That's actually something we're struggling with cause we talked about playing it but the tricky part comes in with how do you address that? There are elements in the band that feel one way about how to address it and elements in the band that feel another way and they feel like the song can stand live like it is as five people play it. Those aren't always the easiest things to figure out but we figured it out.
There is some cool guitar on the instrumental track, Barbarosa.
I don't want to take credit for that; that's pure Willie. And I understand why you think that was me just based on the history of little pieces like that. But I think Willie got sick and tired of me doing all the little intros and instrumentals and that kind of thing that he wanted to get some of that and he did. It's really cool and it's a great little interlude on the record.
I'm sorry about that. It was stupid.
No, don't be sorry at all. I think it's great and I love that Willie brought that to the table and that he came in the tracking room and said, Hey, man, I need to borrow your Guild. And I'm like, What are you talking about? and he mics that up and busted that out and it's cool.
In some respects, do you feel like Lamb of God has this invisible banner you carry to constantly try new things and push other bands into new territory? Does that make any sense?
"Nirvana was pop music but it was just dirty enough and grimy and ugly enough and it had punk roots, that it appealed [to the punks]."
I understand what you're saying but I almost think it's the opposite for us. The band always looks so much bigger to me when I talk to people like you and I step back and I talk about things like going to India and three Grammy nominations and four major label records and two Top 10 debuts and touring with Metallica and blah blah blah. When I sit back and look at that stuff on the wall, it looks bigger to me than it feels like when I go to the rehearsal space and I look at those four assholes and we try and write a song. Because that's what it's always beenit's the same five assholes in a dingy warehouse basement that it was 15 years ago. So for us when you're inside the little insulated circle, it's really the same. So I think rather than feeling like, Oh, we're so big, we're so successful and everyone follow us we're carrying the banner, we feel like the challenge is keeping up with all the new younger bands and aspiring to some of the bigger bands. It's more just about trying to fine tune what we do best and keep getting better at it in the hopes that people will stay interested and we'll stay challenged. I think that's what it's about for us; there's no bragging rights and I don't know that we'd want to be MetallicaI mean honestly. Having seen that from such a close vantage point, I'm not sure that would be for me. But I can certainly take things from it and sort of fold that into the Lamb of God process and hopefully use it to get better. So I think for us it's just more about continually trying to figure out what we can do next to keep ourselves interested and to keep our fans listening and maybe grab some new ones along the way.
Are you working on a side project with Dez Fafara?
You know I should be as much as people ask me about that. That's a funny story. Dez and I have been good friends for years and we kind of just started sending songs back and forth because like I said I'm always kind of tinkering and writing music and a lot of that stuff is completely inappropriate for Lamb of God. It's a little more straightforward rock and roll that wouldn't fit right in the band and sometimes some of those things make their way in one way or another but there's a lot of stuff that is clearly not Lamb of God material. So some of that stuff me and Dez have been bouncing back and forth and just writing some songs together and we really kind of enjoyed it. We got into a Twitter conversation about it and all of a sudden Blabbermouth picks up the story that Mark and Dez are working on a new band. It's like, No, we're not. We're just two friends emailing songs to each other and tracking a vocal on my riff.
You wanted to do something completely off the radar.
I guess what I want to say about that is as much as I enjoy the process that is Lamb of God and everything that goes along with it, when something gets to the level that we're at there's a lot of people depending on you; there's a lot of people employed by you; there's a lot of people with expectations of you creatively, business-wise, tour-wise, schedule-wise and commitment-wise. A lot of that stuff at a certain level can get really distracting cause as a guitar player and songwriter, I was writing songs with lyrics on guitar when I was 14 and I didn't have a manager telling me I had to be in India in three weeks and I'm gonna go on tour for six weeks and I've got two weeks of rehearsal before that and I've got four interviews today and we need to talk about payroll next month. I was just writing songs in my room because it was fun and sometimes all of that other element can distract you. It's certainly a blessing that all of that stuff is part of what we do and I have a wonderful career and my family and I all appreciate it and don't take it for granted.
There is a certain price you pay for success.
Just from a pure selfish guitar player/songwriter point of view, you can get distracted and you can lose a little bit of the magic that made you start doing this in the first place. So when I can do something like the project with Dez, which has absolutely no commercial ambition and no plans for release. It's just a pure kind of fun thing and I think it's important for all of us to have that kind of stuff. Randy is doing a thing right now with this local band and playing a benefit show with Cannabis Corpse and just having fun. I think it's important to do things like that that are just pure fun to remind yourself why you did this in the first place and to remember that's why you're doing this in the end.
In a recent story in Guitar World, you chose Jimi Hendrix's The Wind Cries Mary as one of his greatest songs. Decades from now, what song do you think people will choose as your defining moment?
I guess it would depend what you're looking for. I wish I could just single out one but maybe it's good that I can't. I think commercially and most well known would be Redneck that would be the one people are probably gonna first identify. I think it's probably our first crossover songI say it's the first song that the girls liked. You know what I mean? It's always funny when we play that live because that's the one where everyone's girlfriend starts putting their hands up in the air. They know that one. So I think that one on a commercial level would be the one. I'm proud of Redneck and I just love that that song took off like it did and I felt good about it. I felt good about the kind of groove it had and that kind of southern boogie that I was able to force into a thrash metal song. But I think from a songwriting perspective and overall riff construction, lyrically and solo, I would go with Walk With Me in Hell or Grace. I think Grace is just a really, really super personal song to me lyrically and a technically challenging song riff-wise and one of my favorite solos I've ever cut. Walk With Me in Hell is a really special song too and it's kind of misinterpreted because of the title but again it's a very personal song and almost a love song to my wife and the power of having someone next to you no matter how band things get. Again hopefully it's one of those solos that you could hear and identify as being me.
Thank you for your honesty, Mark.
It's always fun to talk to you, Steve. I'll talk to you next time.
Interview by Steven Rosen