Interview: Ulcerate

Over 16 years New Zealand’s Ulcerate have had an inexorable rise to the upper echelon of death metal. They have not only become one of the most respected bands in the genre, but have begun to define the modern iteration of death metal itself. 

Fresh off an extensive North American tour, drummer Jamie Saint Merat kindly fielded some questions from Kane Power.

Hi Jamie, thanks for taking the time out to do this and congratulations on ‘Shrines Of Paralysis’. How did the tour go?

The tour went great, awesome crowds and impeccable performances from both Zhrine and Phobocosm each and every night. Mitochondrion too in Vancouver. It was 27 shows in 28 days, so it was fairly fatiguing, but highly enjoyable.

Any stand-out shows?

LA, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Atlanta, Richmond, NYC, Dallas, Montreal were all highlights.

How do you enjoy the aspects of travelling that aren’t related to music. Favourite cities? Good spots for food?

Yeah for sure, our entire crew always makes an effort to get out and see cities as much as we can. Unfortunately if you’re not using a nightliner to tour your time is consumed with transit, so more often than not you end up with only really an hour or so spare each day which is usually dinner time. But seeking new food experiences is a huge part of touring for us. In North America I’ve always really enjoyed cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York, Montreal, Richmond, Boston, Philadelphia – both for the tourist side of things and for excellent food.

When you aren’t touring, what do you guys do outside of Ulcerate? Any other creative outlets?

We all have careers outside of the band, so these days that’s more or less what consumes the majority of our time. Bassist/vocalist Paul works for a software company, guitarist Mike is currently finishing a science doctorate, and I am a front-end web developer / graphic designer. We usually have other musical projects on the go, but the busier we’ve gotten with Ulcerate the less time we have available for other projects. But there’s things on the horizon for sure.

Shrines Of Paralysis was recorded and released this year, can you tell us about the recording process?

We split the tracking of instruments over 2 studios, both for convenience and tonal reasons. Drums were tracked at MCA studios here in Auckland over 2 days – nothing too exciting to report, I just track as efficiently as possible, I like to do full takes for the most part with minimal punch-ins to keep the energy of the performance intact. I’m also staunch about zero editing and quantisation after the fact too. We tracked guitars and bass in Auckland also at Depot Studios over a 5 day period, which went smoothly, but was extremely fatiguing in terms of the sheer amount of tracks we needed to lay down (4 channels of rhythm guitars, 2 of bass, between 3 and 4 of additional lead/overlay guitars). Vox were tracked in a day or 2 also at MCA, and I worked on the mix and master over a 2 week period after tracking was done and dusted.

Ulcerate have been earning recognition in particular for the atmospheric aspect to your music, which seems to be getting more concise with each release. Is the immersive quality to your work something that happens organically, or is it a prerequisite when writing and combining new material?

It’s not really even something we’re totally conscious of these days, we just write naturally and what happens happens. ‘Atmosphere’ for me is more about the overall tonality of how a band functions together as a unit, more-so than any prescriptive composition device. I don’t think we’ve ever once thought ‘let’s make this part atmospheric’ – to me everything is atmosphere. I’m more concerned with the fact that we play inherently violent sounding music, so the atmosphere created had better represent that intent, both in a live and recorded format. So it’s everything – instrument tones, performance, conviction of performance, visual aesthetic, instrument mix.

Shrines Of Paralysis is incredibly refined. How did you approach the creative process and how did that eventuate into such a focused sound?

Our approach has been the same for the last few albums – Mike and myself sit down with a practice amp and practice pad configuration and discuss guitar ideas and base rhythmic concepts. We’ll eventually arrive at collection of riff ideas, which we’ll then take to the rehearsal room over the next few days and trial at full volume with real instruments. Here I’ll improv drum ideas until we find something that sticks. We’ll then go through this process again and again until we arrive at a collection of thematic ideas that we’ll arrange into sections. Sections then become full songs, at which point we’ll track things with a single room mic, with more arranging to follow. We’ll then multi-track drums and begin working up counterpoint ideas with guitar and bass and layer in additional lead melodies. Vox are always the very last piece of the puzzle. So it’s a fastidious process but it gives us parameters and discipline, which I feel allows creativity to flow in a very effortless way.

From a musician’s standpoint, the layers you manage to combine in each song are prodigious, especially for your genre. How do you find subtlety in such a technically demanding style?

With great difficulty. haha. I don’t know, these days it comes pretty naturally. If you listen to our earliest material it feels very immature to me, I know what we were trying to do but we just didn’t have full control over everything – both from a playing / chops point of view, but also from an execution standpoint, trying to get the ideas tracked as we were hearing in our heads didn’t translate as easily as we thought it would.

Speaking for myself, my focus these days with drumming has very little to do with how I play in Ulcerate, and a more nuanced, ghost-note driven feel has crept into Ulcerate for sure. And I know that’s a similar scenario for Mike as well – I actually think most, if not all, of his guitar playing outside of Ulcerate is acoustic.

Can you elaborate on some of the main themes on Shrines Of Paralysis, the artwork, and meaning behind the title?

The title “Shrines of Paralysis” represents the species’ apathy and inabilities in dealing with self-imposed catastrophe until it’s beyond the point of reconciliation. In general the lyrics speak of mankind’s arrogance and narcissism, and failure to respect our irrelevance in the broadest possible sense. The artwork ties in with this inextricably and provides a visual metaphor of the sonic content of the album.

You guys have had a steady rise in popularity, eventually signing with Relapse Records in 2012. How has being in Ulcerate changed, especially in the last decade?

Things have just become more streamlined and more focused in terms of what’s on the horizon. We’ve transitioned from a band that jammed once or twice a week with the possibility of a show here or there to entirely demanding rehearsals for international tours and album work, and we know in the back of our minds we have a fanbase that intently watches our every move. We’ve also watched as zero people are interested in what we’re doing, to now having tens of thousands all with fairly strong opinions on whether or not what we’re doing is up to their standards. So it has its upsides and downsides. I’m on one hand continually humbled, but on the other pretty jaded with what people have to say about our band at this point in time. I just try to avoid reading any internet commentary on us, seems to work out well. haha.

Finally, what’s the next step for Ulcerate? What are some of the goals you have for the future of the band?

Next steps are a couple of festival shows in Australia in March with Marduk, Gorguts and Mgla, then Brutal Assault fest in August which we’re going to structure some European headline dates around. We also have loose plans to return to Central Europe at the end of next year. In terms of goals, I can’t say that we’ve ever really set them to be honest. We just keep doing the band so long as we’re all still hungry for writing and performing this music. Touring once or twice a year seems to work for us and is still immensely enjoyable, so we’ll keep forging ahead for sure.

‘Shrines of Paralysis’ is available now at Relapse Records.
More on Ulcerate: Website || Bandcamp || Facebook
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