Since their formation in 2000 Auckland three-piece Ulcerate has helped re-define death metal, globally. Along with the new generation of post-metal acts such as Vader and Autopsy, this new wave is shrugging off the genre’s oft self-imposed shackles, while staying true to its defining elements. Drummer Jamie Saint Merat and NZM’s Sammy Jay Dawson had an early morning chat.
Boasting a massive following in North America and Europe, yet continually overlooked in their homeland, just how did the Kiwi trio of Michael Hoggard, Paul Kelland and Jamie Saint Merat break the mould – where so many before have failed – and gain international renown?
“There was no grand ambition,” says drummer Saint Merat via Skype. “NZ, for the style we play, wasn’t to say a dead-end, but there was going to be a cap on our level of success here. We were never going to rise to the level of other big acts here playing death metal, there’s just isn’t the amount of people and it’s a marginalised genre. You can pull a couple of hundred to a gig, but you’re not gonna call up IRD and hear us on call waiting!”
“All of my favourite bands that play our style of music tour internationally and are on American labels, so I thought, ’Okay if we want to take ourselves seriously, this is what we have to do.’”
Formed in 2000 whilst Jaime and guitarist Michael Hoggard were still in high school, it’s a classic tale of two teenagers discovering heavy music and being inspired to pick up instruments to try and play the music they love.
“We got a couple more members to fill the line-up and basically just started playing shows. We were always recording ourselves to see what we sounded like, and we were starting to get a bit of interest so we decided to do some demos around 2003-2004. They were pretty well received here so I started sending them overseas to get reviewed.
“This was the pre-YouTube era, pre-Bandcamp, pre-streaming. Everything was CDrs. It was the start of Myspace, it was a weird period, but I started sending stuff to magazines and online blogs to see if we could get reviews. We weren’t even thinking about trying to attract label interest at that point, or building a fan-base, I just wanted to see how our music held up and what people thought of it.”
Some of the reviews were, as he says, “super positive” and before they knew it a buzz had started to spread leading a couple of labels to contacted them expressing interest.
“At the time it was really mind-blowing and super humbling that people gave a shit. We had a really good offer from Dutch label Neurotic and in 2006 we released our first album ’Of Fracture And Failure’. Off the back of the first record we did a few shows in Australia to test the waters, and to our surprise people came to the shows and actually knew the stuff. Although the shows weren’t sold out it felt really weird playing to people overseas that knew our songs.”
There’ve been a couple of bands-worth of musicians through Ulcerate over 16 years but Paul Kelland has been providing vocals and bass since 2005. Following the success of ’Of Fracture And Failure’, Ulcerate signed with American label, Willowtip Records and in 2009 released their sophomore ’Everything Is Fire’. Critics praised the album for its unique approach to death metal, drawing comparisons to heavyweights such as Isis, Immolation, Gorguts and Shellac. Technical prowess, something many death metal bands had until now purposely avoided, was one of the key factors to its success, one critic naming it the quintessential death metal album of its era.
“’Everything is Fire’ is when we really took off, people really identified with that record. It was the first release we’ve done where we personally felt we’d hit our stride in terms of our aesthetic and the musicality side of things.
“In support of the record we went on a five week tour of Europe supporting Rotting Christ, Malevolent Creation, Incantation and Neuraxis. It was just a crazy time. It was the first time we’d played more than three shows consecutively so we really were thrown into the deep end. The tour was 35 shows, but we handled it better than I thought we would. We were a bit worried we might burn out, but really it just got us hooked on touring. We got back thinking, ’We have to do this every chance we get!’
“We did a second album with Willowtip, 2011’s ’The Destroyers Of All, following which we again Europe and North America, this time as the headlining act. The North American leg was only nine or 10 shows, to test the waters, but it was a huge success.
“We did a couple of festivals, most notably The Maryland Death-Fest, which we feel is a highly regarded festival, and we got great feedback. Basically everything since then has been snowballing. We just try things out to see if they work and if they do we go back and do it again in a bigger capacity. That’s become our ethos.
“We’re at a stage where we don’t have to struggle or search for a break, it kind of just comes to us. It’s taken 16 years but everything is starting to pay off now. It’s very easy for us to go out and do the stuff we want to do rather than sit around hoping there’s something we can tag along with.”
Little did they anticipate it would be Relapse Records, one of heavy music’s most influential and well-respected labels that would come knocking. In 2013 Relapse released their fourth studio album ’Vermis’, with many rating it amongst the very best heavy metal releases of the year. Jamie said then that ’Vermis’ uses melody in a “weird and unsettling” way, and that the band had made a conscious decision to bring back the kind of unpredictability Ulcerate had always shown in the past.
With their place amongst death metal music’s elite, the band’s soon to be released fifth album ’Shrines Of Paralysis’ once again builds upon the model they’ve held to since the beginning. It walks the fine line between living up to their hype without being defined by it, using it instead as an excuse to further both the band’s musicianship and the genre’s boundaries.
“We wanted to make an album that begged for a repeated listen. Why show all your cards at once? It needs time to click. It might take six months of persevering, but then, things start to reveal themselves.
“We get asked a lot, what’s your influence for the new album, but the truth is we’ve been doing this for so long that we don’t really have that many outside influences creeping in. We’ve always been very clear, musically on the path we want to take, so there’s no conscious decision to emulate anything. We’ve never thought, ’Oh, we should make this part sound like that band etc.’”
Now in their early 30s, Jamie and Michael were mid-teens when they first began playing together, and as he says, they just wanted to play music in that darkened death style.
“Immolation, Gorguts, Crytopsy – they were the main three influences we had. When we started recording our first album we really wanted to focus on creating atmosphere, inject subtleties and not just go for the throat 100% of the time. We wanted to do things differently, add a bit more nuance underneath.
“You could say your biggest influence is your own body of work. We never thought we’d get to five albums, and really it’s a shitload of music. So we’re just constantly reflecting. When you’re touring you really get a feel for what works, not just from an audience feedback vibe, but from the band just jelling over the music or not. Sometimes by the end of a tour I think, ’Ahhh, I’m done with that song, I don’t want to play it live and I don’t want to push down that path again.’ So we’re constantly reflecting on what we’ve done and where we’d like to go.
“Recording an album really does take a long time, it’s been a year and a half since we started working on ’Shrines Of Paralysis’ and we still haven’t started the tour. So we’re ready to take a break from the creative process and focus on tightening our live set. Eventually we will get that itch to start creating again, and really that’s our indication to start. These aren’t easy songs to construct and we do spend a lot of time on each song, probably far too long. Arranging, re-arranging, pre-producing… recording.”
The new album’s eight tracks average over seven minutes long.
“When it comes to writing we’re what I’d call a jam-based band. Some bands these days are a bit more clinical in their songwriting, in the fact that one person will write the main body of work then outsource it to the other musicians to fill the rest of the parts. Everything has always been constructed by Mike and me sitting in one of our rooms, with practice pads and amps.
“We’ll sit there for a few hours and throw a couple of ideas, just to get melodic and riff ideas. We basically focus on the guitar aspect and build up from there. Once we’ve got some ideas we’ll track things loosely, then start building the drum ideas up from the demo tracks. When things start to feel good we’ll track them and start arranging them in a jam scenario, or arrange them on a computer and just see what works beside what.
“We just try to keep everything feeling natural and see where they want to end up. We tend to write in a linear fashion; in the sense we’ve never had verse, chorus style structures. We’ll have nine or 10 big sections that are separate from the rest of the song. It’s about trying to find tension and release points, but we try to stay away from making things needlessly complex for the sake of showing off. We’ve never enjoyed music like that, taking a technical approach just for the sake of it. I feel it’s a bit show-off-y”
Although Ulcerate continue to turn heads on the world stage, to the vast majority of NZ music listeners their reinvention of the genre has gone almost un-noticed.
“I guess it’s just a really fucking weird style of music. It’s violent sounding and people don’t want that kind of experience when they’re listening to music. Maybe that mindset won’t ever change. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. People will be into violent sports, or have no problem with violent or dark movies, but when it comes to music somehow it’s taboo? That dark music is not to be listened to unless you’re a certain type of person… it’s strange.”
“NZ is just such a small market for death metal, and that’s the way we treat it. For the style of music that’s kind of the way it has to be. It’d be very different if we were a pop band, touring all the time and playing festivals, but it’s not gonna happen for a band like us, and we’re fine with that. It’s no big deal to us. We still play a lot of shows in NZ and try to make them special, but when we started touring internationally – that became our focus rather than maintaining a presence here.
“We’re not a pushy band, we’re not big into the press or hyping ourselves up and stuff. We do what we say, we say what we do. We let people make their own minds up about us and let whatever kind of buzz we have do the talking.”