Lamb of God has gone through the ringer. Even before, when they went by the name Burn The Priest, there was no guarantee that this band of southern metal heads would be able to sustain a career in the insane world of professional music. Guitarist and primary songwriter Mark Morton knows this all too well, having traveled the globe many times over with his fearsome brothers in arms. But he hasn't lost perspective on where they came from and stays grounded even as the band is kicking off a tour with Anthrax and Deafhaven. I spoke with Morton about his band's up and downs and where both he and his art form is headed.
I finished the documentary As The Palaces Burn last night. I really enjoyed it, and I was wondering how you liked the process of kind of putting together the music for that film?
Oh wow, thanks for asking that, man. Wow. I hadn't talked about that and really appreciate you digging into that. I loved the process of that. I'll tell you why, man. It was really, really exciting to be able to create music for something that was really outside of heavy metal and even really, even though it's more of a Lamb of God project, I didn't treat it as if it was Lamb of God music. It was really something very personal to me. It was very much like something that was really coming from ... I don't want to sound like a cheese ball, but really coming from my soul, like, creatively, and some of those pieces, I tried to capture some emotion in some of that stuff, and the fact that I didn't have to play super distorted guitars or didn't have to worry about how heavy this is, how many grooves was in it and that kind of thing. It really freed me up and gave me a lot of creative freedom to explore different moods and emotion and that kind of thing with music, and to know that it had a destination, to know that soundtrack had a purpose and it was going somewhere and that it was working ... It had an endpoint. It had somewhere ... I guess it had a purpose is what I'm trying to say, but I still had that freedom to explore creatively a lot of different things that I don't necessarily get to flesh out within Lamb of God. A really, really special project that gave me something very close to me. I don't get to talk about it a lot, but people don't ask about it a lot, but yeah, that was really special. Very proud of how that turned out.
That's awesome. I'm assuming that then is something you'd like to do again sometime.
Given the chance, yeah. If the project was right and something that I felt some kind of connection with, yeah, I would jump at the chance to be able to do another film score, because that was a really, really good experience for me.
At what point did you find that playing guitar was actually your career? Do you remember the moment when you told yourself, "Wow, I don't ever have to have like a real job ever again?"
That moment hasn't happened! (laughs)
I don't take anything for granted, Jesse. I feel very, very blessed to be able to call this my career right now and have had a lot of success, much of it unexpected. I think I understand where your question's coming from. For us, it wasn't like this instant explosion. We were a basement band, and then we became kind of a party band, and then we became a bar band, and then we started playing like warehouses and small clubs, and then theaters opening for GWAR. It was just kind of this slow climb, which has ended up being a very, very fortunate trajectory for us, because we got to see every single stage of it. It's not like we were in a basement, sent a demo to a label, and then all of a sudden we had tour support, we were on a bus playing in Reno. Some bands, that's their story. That doesn't make that irrelevant, but it's just not our story. We really worked through absolutely every kind of level of the ladder.
I was not working a day job by the end of As The Palaces Burn, which I guess was maybe 2002? 2001 or maybe 2002, I was no longer working a day job, which I had worked construction. I was a roofer. I did sheet metal, copperplate roofing, restoration of kind of old stuff. Restoration roofing is what I did as a trade, but by 2002 I was no longer doing that. I was basically a full-time guitar player but still living kind of month-to-month in terms of the work we were doing. We weren't yet on a major label. I didn't have a day job but I didn't really have any security yet either, then we got signed to Epic. I think that was kind of the turning point when we could at least take a breath and say, "Okay, we've got this budget. We're on a major label. There's at least going to be a year or two where we can focus on the band without having to worry about a straight kind of job, day job kind of thing." There was never a point where I felt like "I'm done, I'm never going to have to do anything but music again," because, really, if it all went away tomorrow, I'd have to find something else to do.
Just go get a roofing job back, man. I'm sure they'll welcome you back.
Yeah, I don't know, man. I don't think I'm cut out for that anymore.
Is it kind of like being an athlete? Like you hear about all these athletes who make a bunch of money, or just have some prolonged success and they think it's going to last forever. They turn 35 or get hurt or whatever, and then they're like, "Oh ****. I'm going to be alive for another 35 years. What do I do?"
Yeah, it is. That's a really good question. Sometimes people ask us about the financial side of things, and it can be a little bit offensive but, no, I think that's a very good question the way you phrased it. It's interesting because you have to be smart, because at certain levels of success, you do get significant sums of money, and if you think you're going to be Aerosmith and it's going to last forever, it would be really, really easy to blow that money and go buy the brand new Mercedes and overspend, buy a house that you can't afford and that kind of thing, so you have to be smart.
I think you have to realize that success is kind of a finite thing. It's a very fragile thing. Fortunately, for whatever reason, maybe it's just my dad kind of saying the right things to me, but I figured out pretty early that all this could go away quickly, so I was advised, and I guess I listened enough to kind of invest well. I never really went crazy with any of the checks or any of the money. You have to be cautious, but it is very much like the stories you read about athletes or stuff. There are people that got their record deals, thought they were going to be rock stars forever, and then it all went away in a couple of years, and they're back to flipping burgers or whatever. I never wanted to be in that position. Fortunately, we've been able to stretch this out for a long time and really have a pretty lengthy period of success. I feel really blessed and fortunate to say that we're still here, we're still working, and we're still pretty motivated.
You are. The new album is pretty awesome. I particularly like "Overlord" on that album. The first half of that song is a little bit slower and it kind of lets you focus on some of each piece of the band, and then it switches gears, goes full speed. Was that initially two songs when you put it together?
No, no it wasn't. No, the middle section or the end section, however you want to look at it, the heavier part, it was never its own entity. It was always written to be a part of that song. There was some question amongst us as to whether to include that part, because there was a conversation within the band about whether or not this song should just be that slow kind of bluesy melodic thing without going into that super heavy kind of metal feel. The majority of the band felt like we should still do that section because it builds the excitement and keeps the song moving.
I don't want to go over the Randy (Blythe) stuff. I think people should watch the documentary. It covers everything pretty well.
For you personally, when you book a new tour and you know that you're going to play overseas, do you get just a weird twinge in the back of your mind of like, "Who knows what's going to happen?"
Not really, because touring outside of the US really is what we do the most. Not that we focus on any one place more than the U.S., but the U.S. is just the just the U.S., and we tour Australia very frequently and we tour Asia frequently. We tour Europe extremely frequently and even outside of there we've been to India a couple times, China a couple times, Israel...So, we really do tour the globe. That's just kind of part of our cycle. So, yes, the events in Prague happened overseas, but going overseas is something we've been doing for well over a decade, so it's part of what we do.
Personally, like in the 2000's, I felt like there was this kind of shift going on where people were looking for like the next wave, the next evolution. I think it's either Slash, or it might be Joey from Sirius, that mentions it in the documentary that the Big 4 kind of took a step off the gas a little bit, and there was some space for some other bands to kind of fill the void that some of the younger fans were looking for. After your first couple of albums, you were getting a lot more recognition. Did you feel that shift happening where, "Hey, there's some space for us. We're starting to get a little more exposure." By the mid 2000's, you guys hit a stride where you were the biggest name in metal. I would say you kind of still are. Obviously there was a speed bump a couple years ago, but was there like an actual shift that you felt?
What great questions you're asking me, and I appreciate your thoughtful questions, and that's a good question. I'll tell you, I'll take you back even a little further than that. When we first got together as Burn the Priest around '94, '95 is when we really started first kind of jamming together as a basement band, as Burn the Priest, there were really only a handful of bands that were actually kind of keeping that metal frame alive. A small handful: Pantera, Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth to a degree. Metal was really, really out of fashion and not a lot of people were doing it. Burn the Priest was almost kind of this grindcore punk rock thing happening. Then as we kind of got better at writing songs, the times came to us and that whole New Wave of American Heavy Metal thing kind of started happening around the early 2000's. There was a collection of bands which ... and I'm overlooking bands like Meshuggah and Death. They were kind of underground. There was underground metal stuff happening.
In the early 2000's, that New Wave of American Heavy Metal thing sort of ... It hadn't even been coined that term yet, but we did feel that. We did feel there was a group of bands like ourselves, Killswitch, Shadows Fall, Unearth, God Forbid, to some degree Chimera. It did feel like a movement, and it did feel even more in touch with your question, like it felt special, like you could really, really tell something was happening. I remember, I think it was in 2003, there was the Headbangers Ball tour, and it was us and Killswitch, and Shadows Fall, and I guess God Forbid and Unearth as well, and it felt like there was something happening. Bands were starting to get signed, and it was palpable, the moment was. You could tell that this was exciting, and this had momentum, and we were a part of something that was bigger than us.
I remember thinking ... I thought we were lucky to be grouped in that, because I thought Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage were going to be huge bands and we were just really lucky to be a part of that tour. Of course, we all went on to have success but, again, I felt like ... A sort of aside to that was that whole New England hardcore and metal scene, which was very, very receptive to us, even the small shows we played early in on that, I always kind of felt like we were the weirdo kind of southern cousin that they sort of adopted into that scene, and we felt really lucky to be a part of that. It was exciting, and it was palpable, and it was something that you could feel the energy and the momentum amongst the bands, amongst the crowd. You would see the same kids at shows in New York, Jersey, and Philly, you know what I mean? It was a scene and it was happening, and it was really, really exciting. I feel really fortunate to have been there and have been a part of that, and even before ... I could talk for hours about this, but even before, I was looking just the other day at some old Burn the Priest footage, and there were a bunch of bands a few years before that, like Disassociate from New York and Soylent Green and Today is the Day, and it's kind of like grime, underground, kind of more punk metal theme that Burn the Priest had sort of been a part of, and those were really, really exciting times. Playing warehouses and squats and Stalag 13 in Philly, it was just really kind of an underground punk thing that felt special. It felt like it was a scene in the best possible way. It was exciting. It was a lot of fun there.
Where do you see metal going in the future? You've obviously had two decades now of seeing where you started it and where you've grown, where the genre's gone. I kind of see two different paths: either we keep getting more diverse, more specialized sub-genres, or do you think there'll ever be a return to the type of huge metal bands that even your mom has heard of? There was a time when "Enter Sandman" played in malls across America. Is there ever going to be a time where metal gets that big and should it ever get that big again?
You know, it's tough to predict, but here's what I do know. At 43 years old, I have been playing in bands since I was 12 or 13, and have really been through basically every level of being in band. I've played stadiums, I've played basements with three people there for years. Music goes through phases. It goes through trends, if you want to call it that, or waves, and I think right now it seems like ... I think because of the way the genres and the categories of metal are sort of specialized, I think that was kind of divisive to the genre as a whole. I think it's also exciting, because it allows for people to explore different avenues of this genre. We're getting ready to go out on tour with this band Deafheaven, who are, in a lot of ways a black metal band, but there's almost like an indie rock element to that as well. Super unique and super creative, and I'm a fan. I think the fact that metal kind of split and went into all these different categories ... you know the prog scene is really big right now, even the more progressive stuff like Animals As Leaders, Between the Buried and Me and that kind of super technical, jazz-influenced kind of thing. I think those sub-genres start to explore their own thing and it sort of splits apart heavy metal as a whole, but it allows new influences and new elements to come in. I think when it comes back, this is just my idea of it, but when it comes back together, I think it's going to make for a much more colorful, much more diverse broader picture of the genre.
I think it's probably going to get smaller and then get bigger. It's just going to go through those phases, but I think that's all part of the growth of music, and that's going to allow for a lot of outside influences or a lot of, at least, fresh new ideas to come in and to be considered a part of the bigger picture. Will metal ever be huge again? Yeah, I think so. I think the same way that punk will probably come back. There was a psychedelic element in the 90's that came back, so I think all these different kinds of textures and colors and influences sort of appear, disappear, and reappear, and that's the beauty of music. It's in constant motion. It's constantly evolving, and it's constantly reinventing itself, and I think metal is no different than any other style of music in that it's doing that as we speak.