Monday, May 11, 2020

Exclusive Interview - Jamie Saint Merat (Ulcerate)

Crafting their unique, dissonant brand for nearly 20 years, Ulcerate should be considered a crucial member of extreme death metal's vanguard. Weaving melody throughout a chaotic blend of cavernous growls, spastic guitars, and dizzying drum-work is a monumental task, but one that the band's latest release, Stare Into Death and Be Still, accomplishes flawlessly. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to drummer Jamie Saint Merat about the new album, his personal influences, and reflections on the band's history. I understand that this type of death metal doesn't resonate with everyone, but I cannot emphasize enough how, at the very least, this is a drummer who's among the best in his craft and one that you'll want to follow.

With Stare Into Death and Be Still, what are key aspects that separate it from the rest of Ulcerate's discography? Were there specific goals the band had in mind when approaching this album? I'd imagine it only gets more challenging to find new ways to be extreme.

This album is a definitive move away from the almost purely dissonant sound of the prior releases. It was established early on that a more melodic and impactful direction was going to be the focal point for this material. We wanted to challenge our own instincts and move out of our comfort zones, and into a more sonically representative palette of where we're all at this far into the bands' career.

With regards to being 'extreme' - that's not a a focus at all. But it's certainly the case that if you don't proactively seek to challenge and adapt your own inclinations you'll slowly atrophy the creative muscles so-to-speak. And it's always about walking the fine line between innovation and tradition - there are very few bands that reinvent the wheel album to album without destroying what makes the band's sound so compelling in the first place.

Is there any one track that you're particularly proud of on the new album? For what reason(s)?

Usually the tracks that I end up favoring are the ones I'm a little on the fence about during the writing - yet almost always once executed during the recording process they get new life breathed into them. In this case both "Drawn into the Next Void" and "The Lifeless Advance" came out stronger than I thought they would. Not that I thought these were weak songs during the writing phase, I just knew that there were key sections that needed to be 100% for the tracks as a whole to be convincing.

For reference, I'm thinking of tracks like "Extinguished Light" when I ask this, but how has the use of melody evolved in the band? "Melody" is obviously a relative term here given the unconventional, dissonant nature of Ulcerate's sound, but it sounds like it's slowly been becoming more integral to your guy's formula. In my opinion, it's particularly apparent on the new album.

Absolutely. As I mentioned before this aspect was the focus for this album, and for us moving forward as well. We've always had a strong sense of melody weaved through our material, but more often than not chosen to obfuscate it through harsh chordal dissonance, favoring high tension and an almost total sense of claustrophobia. But we've grown tired of this technique, and have exhausted all we can say with this approach. So this album finds a new path forward, reveling in unorthodox melody and harmony, with a strong emotional foundation, and letting riffs and sections resolve of their own volition.

In reading other interviews, it seems Cryptopsy, Gorguts, and Immolation were big influences for the band within the death metal sphere. Are there any influences at play that metal fans wouldn't necessarily suspect? As musicians who play such a physically demanding form of music, I feel you've studied a variety of different styles.

We all have our own personal influences in terms of instrumentation that for the most part has no boundaries - particularly when it comes to appreciation of form and technique, yet not necessarily valuing the music or listenable output. But there's some consistent artists that all three of us have perhaps internalized in terms of how they approach contemporary music with a very innovative, yet dark, sombre, contemplative tone - Bohren und der Club of Gore, Dawn of Midi, Johann Johansson, Gustavo Santaollo, Clint Mansell, Ulver... And in terms of song-writing nostalgia we all worship 70's and 80's rock and pop, with names that are too obvious to even mention.

For you personally, what was it about heavier music, in general, that hooked you? Can you pinpoint it to any one band or album or was it more of a slow-burn?

Honestly the first album which introduced me to a legitimately caustic style was Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness which I caught on tape when I was 11. There's a couple of tracks on there that still to this day blow me away in terms of their extremity while being on such a massive selling album ("Tales of a Scorched Earth", "X.Y.U"). Very raw, filthy production. And there was something thrilling about this sliver of ugliness when juxtaposed against the rest of the album - so from there it was seeking albums that harnessed that same energy. So initial explorations began with the usual suspects Slayer, Pantera etc. But these bands lacked an unhinged, vitriolic quality - which I quickly found in early releases by Angelcorpse, Cryptopsy, Nile, Today is the Day and Bolt Thrower albums in '97 or so - all of which caught my eye at record stores for whatever reason. From there I was hooked.

I'm admittedly cherry-picking, but lyrics from the new album like "Isolation swallows everything. Idle as it burns to ember." have been given an extra layer of depth due to the current events of COVID-19. Obviously you guys didn't plan that, but has Stare Into Death and Be Still taken any deeper level of resonance with you personally due to that or not?

No, we're coming from a totally different and more introspective angle - even though some of the vernacular there is oddly similar to that which is being thrown around these days.

At this point in the band's existence, do you feel that where you guys are now is where you wanted to be when starting the band nearly 20 years ago? Were there any unanticipated events that played major roles in shaping how you wanted the band to operate for the better?

I think we've well surpassed any ideas we had as teenagers of where this band could have gone. We've always just taken things one step at a time, taken opportunities when they've arisen and capitalized on successes (or perceived successes). Ultimately we're still a passion project, something that we have a need for, but thankfully something that we don't rely on for making a living. As I alluded to before, there's been unanticipated events throughout every year of the bands' existence - label opportunities, tour ideas and relationships forged that you just take hold of and capitalize on.

Though the world is indefinitely on hold, is there anything official you can announce in terms of what's next for the band, whether that be plans for tours or otherwise?

Nothing official to announce just yet due to the nature of things - we've cancelled North American tour dates we had booked for November this year, are re-booking Australasian dates and tentatively looking towards Europe for early 2021.

To end on a fun note, have you seen the YouTube video of that jazz drummer reacting to live footage of you playing "Dead Oceans"? Are there any specific drummers that make you equally as awe-inspired?

Haha yeah I was sent that and watched it in horror - his reaction is humbling but it's very awkward for me to hear other people's opinion of my playing, particularly when it's so intimate. There's endless players out there that leave me with my jaw dragging on the ground - Chris Coleman, Benny Greb, Gavin Harrison, Dave Weckl, Jojo Mayer, Anika Nilles, Kai Hahto, Derek Roddy, Nils Fjellstrom to name a few...

- Mick

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