DATE OF INTERVIEW: 4th October 2018
AGNETE M. KIRKEVAAG
Norwegian metal bands have been pushing the parameters of the genre for over two decades now - from the early days of Emperor, Fleurety, Ulver and Arcturus, right through to Solefald, Atrox, Peccatum and Shining, and, in more recent years, the likes of Communic, In Vain, Vulture Industries and Leprous. Emerging onto the scene in 1999 with their mightily impressive debut album, 'Mercury', Madder Mortem quickly established themselves as part of that seemingly Norwegian penchant for creating innovative, refreshing and sublime music with an undeniable sense of individuality. That's remained the case for all their subsequent albums, including their 2018 seventh full-length release, 'Marrow', which sees the Madders at their most inventively and emotionally potent, on a career best record. Metal Discovery quizzed the band's vocalist, Agnete M. Kirkevaag, about their phenomenal new album, as well as other Madder divergences, including plans to celebrate 'Mercury's twentieth anniversary next year and random gibberish such as "A Mended Turd Thermometer" and "The Dreaded Mum Tormenter"...
METAL DISCOVERY: Hi there! Firstly, absolutely massive congratulations on ‘Marrow’ - an innovatively gargantuan album that, were it actually a marrow, would no doubt win first prize in a vegetable growing competition! It was a straight 10/10 from me and I gather there have also been a ton of other great reviews out there. Has it been gratifying to see people connect with the album in the ways they have?
AGNETE: Hehe - you were the first to make the vegetable connection! Yes, the reviews have been amazing, and that feels very good. I mean, we do think it’s a very good album ourselves, otherwise we wouldn’t release it, but it’s always nice that people out there agree. It has also been very rewarding to see the emotional connection people seem to be making with this album. That’s sort of the point of music, to reach into people’s hearts and minds in some way and give them something, hopefully something that enriches their lives.
(Agnete on new Madder Mortem album, 'Marrow')
"It has also been very rewarding to see the emotional connection people seem to be making with this album. That’s sort of the point of music, to reach into people’s hearts and minds in some way and give them something, hopefully something that enriches their lives."
Madder Mortem - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2018 - Janne Kim Gitmark
Thanks to Magnus Jaschke for offering and arranging the interview
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MD: What’s the biggest and most pleasing compliment you’ve read so far about the new music?
AGNETE: I would say it was this one review - actually, I’ll just copy in the passage, it’s easier that way: "All in all, this is not an easy listen. Hell, I’m still coming to terms with it. But this is because this year, never have I had an album speak so truthfully to me, even among many others that I have enjoyed; never have I had an album that has laid out my demons before me and forced me to stare them in the face like this."
The reason this is so pleasing to me, is that what I (and we) strive for more than anything in music, is honesty. That’s not about how many takes you require to get a part right, or how much editing you do - it’s a different kind of honesty, the kind where you’re actually baring a part of your soul, the kind where you mean what you’re playing without any kind of ironic distance or reservation. The comment above seems to say that we’ve made that sincerity we feel shine through, and that makes me very proud and happy.
MD: Vegetables aside, you’ve said that, “The marrow is the inner core, the essence of who we are.” What would you say is the essence of Madder Mortem in 2018?
AGNETE: The same as always, I guess - just making the music we want to play, all three aspects, preferably - writing it, recording it and playing it live, without compromising and without changing who we are to suit anybody else. Oh, yeah, and we really like coffee. Like REALLY.
MD: I wrote in my review, “As ever, it's all about contrasts, from the mellow to the heavy, where songs explode from dulcet comforts into the most emotionally hard-hitting crescendos. Madder Mortem have always been masters at stark emotional contrasts, and this album is chock-full of them.” What inspires these contrasts in your music? Life experience? Nature and the world in general?
AGNETE: Hard to say. I think as you begin making music (or any other form of art), you quickly realise that contrast is a very efficient tool. Juxtapositioning is such an essential way of emphasising the character of different parts, and it’s also the absolute best way to make the most of the feeling of a song. There’s also the fact that all the Madders have really broad musical tastes, which basically means that if we’re going to be able to try out all the styles and approaches we want, our music needs to have room for all the shades of red and white and everything in between, as well.
MD: I also wrote, “With generic mimicry, stagnancy and mindlessly regurgitated clichés all too rife within the metal scene, the world needs bands like Madder Mortem, so thank fuck they're still making music as wonderfully inventive and sublime as what we have here.” Is it always a conscious decision to eschew clichés? Do your innovative tendencies come very natural to you, or do you always work hard during the creative process, to try and find new ways of expressing your emotions through music?
AGNETE: Thank you - that’s a huge compliment! I think most of all, we try to write music we find interesting ourselves and, by extension, that means that we’ll usually choose things that feel fresh and original, when possible. But clichés are also wonderful tools - for example, introducing a clichéd transitional chord progression, and then changing it just at the moment when you’ve lulled the listener into thinking they know what’s coming … moahahahah! We do have this sense of joy at surprising twists in music that I think pushes us towards trying out new things. Also, we don’t really concern ourselves with anything BUT the song we’re writing, and I think it’s easier to avoid clichés if you’re not bothered by genre conventions and expectations, for instance.
MD: What’s the meaning behind the album’s ‘Untethered’/’Tethered’ bookends? I’m guessing there’s a more profound meaning behind it, but could it also be that people are tethered to the Madder way by the end of the album, by being 100% hooked on your music?!
AGNETE: I like that interpretation! Really, we just felt that these two variations over the same basic idea would pull the ends of the album together … and that it would make for a great effect if someone listened to the album two times in a row. Sort of an Ourobouros-thing, the head biting the tail. If people get hooked, all the better!
MD: What’s the story behind the genesis of ‘White Snow, Red Shadows’, as that track, for me, is one of the very best things you’ve ever written. One of the most exhilarating tracks you’ve ever recorded, too!
AGNETE: Thank you! Well, we’ve been working on parts of this song for a very long time. I think we’ve had the chorus in some form for close to ten years, but we just couldn’t find the right place for it. If I remember correctly, BP had the basis for the verse and bridge riff quite early on, and then I had the super-fast choir stuff idea for the bridge quite early, as well. The verse went through a sort of punk-ish phase first, then a phase where there was some quite outrageous sweeping guitar parts on it, and it took a long time before we really landed the mix between the parts. It all kind of came together, I think, when we came up with the riffing parts at the end of each chorus and of the song, that was sort of the catalyst that let us put the whole thing together - and then there were even more changes in the guitar arrangements during the recording. And so it goes, not a lot of glamour, but years of trying really hard and just not letting go of a good idea, even if you can’t find the right solution right away.
MD: I gather Richard Wikstrand has left Madder, since the recording of ‘Marrow’, but I understand it’s all been very amicable, so what led to his decision to leave after just four years in the band?
AGNETE: Quite simple, really, he has kids, and simply can’t make the practical realities work with a band that’s a lot more active than when he joined, both with recordings and gigs. He’s a great guy and a damn good guitarist, and we’ll be keeping in touch with him, for sure.
MD: You already have a replacement, as of July this year, with Anders Langberg joining. How did you hook up with him, and what do you expect Anders to bring to the Madder camp?
AGNETE: Anders actually filled in for Richard on the second leg of the Soen tour last year, so he’s already done quite a few live shows with the band, not to mention being on the road with us for a couple of weeks, as well. He’s from Hamar, not far from where we’re from, and we have a lot of friends and acquaintances in common, so that’s how we came to think of him for that temp tour position. We’re expecting him to bring himself, I hope, that he’ll have ideas that he can add to the general pool, and that he’ll want to work in this collectivist way we’ve ended up with. Also, he’s a bit of a gear geek, so it takes some of the pressure off BP, as well, with the technical side of things.
MD: Personally, of your seven albums to date, I’d place ‘Marrow’ right at the top. It’s utterly phenomenal. Every single one of your six previous albums have also all been very strong in their own ways, but ‘Mercury’, ‘Deadlands’ and ‘Desiderata’ remain personal favourites. Do you have favourites out of all your seven ‘children’?
AGNETE: Generally, the youngest is always the favourite. I really love all our albums, but the most recent release is, of course, always the one I’ve heard the least; the one I’m most curious about as a listener. I think they all have different qualities, and they all sort of fit different moods or states of mind.
MD: What led to the seven year gap between ‘Eight Ways’ and ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’, and were you worried that momentum had been lost, creatively or otherwise, during that period? Was it difficult in any way to get back into the Madder zone and mindset?
AGNETE: Quite simple, really - line-up change, label change, line-up change. Some things take a long time, and especially finding new people to play with or settling on a new contract can be unbelievably time-consuming. And we did lose a lot of momentum commercially, of course, a lot of people thought we had quit. Creatively we were working quite steadily all along, we were rehearsing regularly and writing songs, so the gap was only about releases and the public; as a band, we were quietly active all along. But it felt amazing to get back on track again!
MD: With ‘Marrow’ following ‘Red…’ so soon, was it all about creatively capitalising on the renewed momentum?
AGNETE: More capitalizing in a commercial sense, trying to build the band’s profile a bit. And also a little bit trying to kick ourselves in the butt a bit more. We can be a bit slow at times, so we really need to set deadlines for ourselves and commit to them, otherwise we can probably spend ten years just polishing the same songs.
MD: You’ve had an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign, where you raised 160% of your 8,000 Euro target. Congrats! But did this level of interest and enthusiasm from the fans take you by surprise?
AGNETE: Thank you - we’re really blown away by this amazing result! Yes, we were a little surprised, especially since we’d been away for so long, and also because we’ve got no experience with crowdfunding and are, in many ways, just taking our first steps when it comes to social media and so on. So THANK YOU to all the outstanding people who supported our campaign!
MD: Were there any perks you were surprised were snapped up, and any that surprised you by not being bought? That 7-string guitar remained unclaimed, for example.
AGNETE: I’m not so surprised about the 7-string - it’s a very large and very expensive piece of memorabilia. I was caught a bit off-guard when all the karaoke perks sold out in just one day or so - I’m starting work on those next week. And also, it seems that people loved the Underdog, the stuffed toy dog.
MD: I gather the funding will be used to celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Mercury’ next year, with “new versions” of the songs on that album. Are we talking new arrangements as well as re-recording everything?
AGNETE: We want to make a release that both gives you the original album, untouched (a re-release part), and then try to show you what some of those songs might sound like if we attacked those ideas now (a rework part). Those reworks won’t be for the full album, just a few songs, since we really don’t have the time to make a full album of it now. However, they’ll be a complete rework from basic idea and all the way up.
MD: Are you worried about offering up new versions of the ‘Mercury’ songs? Even though the production on your debut was not as good as on the albums that followed, I’m sure people (including myself) have come to love and adore the album for everything it is and how it already sounds. You know, as an example, as much as everyone has complained over the years about the bass being way too low in the mix on Metallica’s ‘…And Justice For All’, I think it’s perfect as it is, and would sound pretty fucking weird with bass suddenly prominent in the mix!
AGNETE: That’s kind of why we want to make a double release - we love ‘Mercury’ ourselves, and we don’t want to mess with it, but we do want to see what happens if we liberate some of the ideas from that album and try to work on them now. We’ve also been talking about writing a new song or two based on riffs from that era we haven’t used yet - that would also be really cool, I think!
MD: It was promised that you’d make a Madder documentary if you reached 150% of the crowdfunding target… which you did… so I guess this will be happening now! Do you know what form this will take yet? Do you have a lot of archive stuff you can include in there?
AGNETE: Absolutely, that’s on! We’ve started discussing how to do it, but it’s still mostly in the air, until we get all of the crowdfunding remains and tour planning done. We know that we want a quite large part of the documentary to be fan-filmed video pieces, where people tell us how and why they ended up with the Marrow people - I think that’ll be such a fun project to work on! We’ve got some video archive materials, as well as some never-released soundbites and fun old demos and such, and we really want to include all the Madder members through our history, as well. If we can make the timing work, we might also add some filming from the special anniversary show.
MD: You’ve also mentioned a special anniversary live show in 2019, with previous band members coming back for the occasion. How are plans for the show shaping up? And will there be one big Madder jam, with everyone at least playing one song together? I’m sure your live sound engineer would love the challenge of mixing a dozen or so people!
AGNETE: Hehe, the poor sound engineer will have a really rough night at work! Just like the documentary, we haven’t gotten very far with the planning. I’m waiting for confirmation from the venue we want to use; once that is set, we can really start planning. Quite a few of the previous members have already said yes, so I’m hoping we might get the full set for the show, so to speak. And I think there should be some kind of Madder mosh, indeed - too much of an opportunity to miss!
MD: Apart from next year’s anniversary show, some headline dates have also been teased. Is a return to the UK on the cards?
AGNETE: We’re trying to get the last dates down, as we speak, for a European tour, but that will be quite concentrated in Germany and BeNeLux and Central Europe, to keep distances and costs down. We’re planning to get to the UK again for this album, but I think it’ll have to be fly-in gigs a little later, somtime early next year, perhaps.
MD: Finally, in the spirit of how you used to segue between albums, like the sample from ‘All Flesh is Grass’ track, ‘Breaker of Worlds’, reworked into the intro for ‘Enter’ on ‘Deadlands’, maybe you could segue between ‘Marrow’ and the next album through the power of the anagram! Some suggested song titles or lyrics to open the next album, based on anagrams of “Madder Mortem Untethered”: A Demented Hotter Drummer; Maddened Teeth Terror Mum; The Dreaded Mum Tormenter; Mr Torture Demanded Theme; Hmm…A Redeemed Rotten Turd; Men Deterred a Truth Modem; Team Murdered Rented Moth; A Mended Turd Thermometer. Pure gibberish, but what do you think? Actually, maybe ‘Madder Mortem Untethered’ would be a good name for the documentary!
AGNETE: Hahahah, that’s such a perfectly geeky idea we might actually go for it, you know! You should have seen the list of very stupid working titles and album title suggestions we keep!
MD: Thanks for the interview and best of luck for the rest of the year, and the big 20th anniversary in 2019!
AGNETE: Thank you, too - hope we’ll see you on the road!