by RS Frost
With five album releases, years of extensive touring and some of the most brazen, callous and unyielding death metal to date, Auckland based trio ULCERATE have become one of the forerunners of the angular death metal class.
I made contact with drummer Jamie Saint Merat to discuss the early days of death metal in New Zealand, the impulsions that drive his twisted and atypically disjointed artistry, and what’s on the horizon for Ulcerate.
Originally formed as BLOODWREATH in 2000, the band changed their name to ULCERATE in 2002 and went on to release two demos; 2003’s self-titled release and then ‘The Coming of Genocide’ in 2004, before embarking on their first full-length album ‘Of Fracture and Failure’ in 2007.
What was the reason behind the name change early on and how was the process of finding your feet as a band and putting these early releases together?
- As far as I can remember, the name change was dictated by a style change. Prior to our first demo the material, being teenagers, was kind of all over the place thematically and style-wise, and when it came to recording the demo we thought that taking the name of one of the new tracks ‘Ulceration’ and shortening it made sense. The first two demos weren’t even really initially considered as releases, just internal recordings to literally demo the material. But they both came out ok, and in hindsight were vital to us getting exposure outside of our tiny island. You have to remember that this was still the age of CD-Rs and trading, long before platforms like YouTube, Bandcamp, Facebook etc. even existed.
The extreme scene at that time was small and close-knit, with a lot of the bands comprised of shared members.
Auckland’s best bands at that time were made up of probably only 10-15 people. I think we all have fond memories of that time - there was a lot of experimentation and a disregard for musical orthodoxy that I haven’t seen in years here, unfortunately. The internet homogeny hadn’t yet begun, and the feeling of geographic isolation was a very real thing.
It wasn’t until 2009’s ‘Everything is Fire’ that the atonal, angular and all-round unfriendly sound that Ulcerate would come to be epitomised by took shape, although one could argue that there were inklings of these ingredients present on ‘Of Fracture and Failure’.
When you guys sat down and started putting ‘Everything is Fire’ together, was there a conscious decision to take the sound in this direction, or was this simply an expression of where you were as a creative hub at the time?
- Yeah, a very conscious decision. It was the first album that became the blueprint for how we work still to this day in terms of rationalising a focused direction from the outset. Both the demo material and first album were written over a much more disparate time period, and the first album especially, we all agree, is an unfocused mess… but a necessary exploration and transition out of our more derivate demo material.
My first exposure to Ulcerate was around this time. I can recall being at Melbourne’s famed Arthouse in 2010 with a bandmate who had insisted I attend the gig. Firstly, because the venue was soon to close its doors, and secondly, to see “this insane fucking band from New Zealand”. I remember being audibly smashed in the face for the better part of 45 minutes and left satisfied and enthralled with a copy of the album in hand.
Do you have any memories, fond or otherwise from this time at all? I’m going to assume that, like most other bands, you guys have seen your fair share of chaos whilst on the road…
- The only feelings I really remember from those first international forays were somewhat uncomfortable conditions in us trying to deliver what we believed we could deliver. Touring is an expensive endeavour, and when we first started going out and doing our own shows there were a lot of compromises that had to be made from a financial standpoint that impacted how we travelled, options for consistency of gear from night-to-night, and a somewhat naive approach in who we had booking shows and curating lineups.
But the experience of travelling and performing night-to-night is highly addictive - the three of us became hooked and it is yet to release its stronghold on us. Being able to play on the other side of the world and attract an audience is still a humbling experience, particularly going into this with the mindset that we’re making music for ourselves first and foremost.
The band’s next album, 2011’s ‘The Destroyers of All’, saw an influx of attention, serious touring and praise from almost every corner of the extreme metal collective. This release was accompanied by a noticeable jump in production and a polishing of composition in general. It is as though the band had not only discovered itself, but had matured with that knowledge.
I should mention that, aside from being one of the most impressive percussionists within extreme metal’s ranks, Jamie is also responsible for engineering, mixing and mastering Ulcerate’s albums as well as putting together all of the band’s artwork and visual counterparts.
How is it that you came to take the reins of all of these roles within the band? How long have you been into the recording side of things and where do the images you create for Ulcerate come from?
- Pure necessity to be honest. As I mentioned earlier - growing up pre-modern internet, the options were extremely limited for us in NZ. At the time, there were literally no studios here that had produced any true metal that was export-worthy, and no visual artists at the time that were creating anything that felt like it meshed with our vision. So combine a specific vision with a lack of external resources and a student budget, and the options soon narrow.
My interest in recording came about at high school - again, pre-Pro Tools explosion, so we were tracking demos on four-track tape recorders and mini systems with mic capabilities. From there, I graduated to crude digital (‘The Coming of Genocide’ with a single mic for the entire drum kit, for example), and eventually, we invested in a pro set of mics, an entry-level audio interface and mic preamps by the time we came to track the first album. And from there, it’s just been iterations of that process plus gear upgrades and accumulation.
The same goes for the visual aspect. My career outside of the band is in design so it’s a natural extension. I never really even questioned that there would be another way of going about that. In terms of the imagery, it’s a visual exploration of the sonic and lyrical manifestation. The visual and aural aspects are symbiotic, and co-exist to serve each other.
In 2013 Ulcerate released a different kind of monster; ‘Vermis’. Although this album carries the hallmark Ulcerate atmosphere and, to a certain degree, riff work, there is a far deeper and darker feel to it- an overall sense of dread and disdain. Album opener ‘Odium’ provides an apprehensive and sinister tone not found in previous works, and this feeling is present throughout the entire release.
The accompanying artwork only adds to the album’s precarious nature, exhibiting, from what I can make out at least, something along the lines of bile, maggots and concrete.
Was there a particular event or situation that contributed to this album sounding the way it does, or was this just the natural progression of Ulcerate?
- That came about fairly naturally after reflections, and hindsight, on what we thought were weaknesses with ‘The Destroyers of All’. That album was intentionally polished by our standards, and even though a lot of the material is strong, the execution is not filthy enough for us. So we pushed that side of things a lot further and really hammered home the uncomfortableness. A lot of our favourite records from the past are incredibly unpolished and I don’t think any of us want to fall into the trap of ‘safe’ sounding extreme metal. I find that completely antithetical, and unfortunately, it is how most of the records released in the wider metal genre sound these days. We’ve always hated the ‘technical’ category that we somehow get lumped in with, so anything we can do to raise a middle finger to that ethos, we’ll gladly oblige.
Ulcerate’s most recent offering is ‘Shrines of Paralysis’ which was released in October of 2016. This album, not unlike ‘The Destroyers of All’ comes across as another expression of growth and self-realisation. It retains a healthy dose of the tenseness and uneasy atmosphere of ‘Vermis’ whilst bringing back elements of previous efforts, repute with staunch, aggressive riffs to debilitating technicality when the right moment presents itself. All in all, ‘Shrines of Paralysis’ could be seen as the accumulative product of the past decade of musical adventure, and it appears that the band has spent an inordinate amount of time on the road since its release.
How do you see ‘Shrines…’ in relation to the band’s discography, and how has touring in support of it been treating you guys?
- Yeah I guess that sounds valid. It’s also us making a sideways move away from impenetrable dissonance 80-90% of the time and exploring power in hooks, which will segue way nicely into the new material, where almost all of the dissonance has been removed. What we found when writing ‘Shrines…’, and what we’re finding even more-so now, is that there is a very strong melodic identity we’ve had since ‘…Fire’ that makes our strongest work memorable, so we need to capitalise on this for us to move forward in an honest way. We’ve also been feeling fatigued from the sheer amount of bands that are now pedalling a dissonant sound, so we need to distance ourselves a little from that and find the characteristics of our sound that are uniquely ours.
Touring has been better than ever at this point. Larger crowds, better festivals, and more territory than ever previously covered. Excited to see what the future holds.
It’s been two and a half years since ‘Shrines...’, have you got anything in the works that you can talk about? What can we expect from Ulcerate moving forward?
- We’re nearing completion on the writing and pre-production of album six, as mentioned earlier. We’ve been taking our time to ensure that the material is incredibly strong and that each individual track has its own fully-formed identity. We’re looking to track within the last quarter of this year, with a 2020 release via a new partnership with DEBEMUR MORTI PRODUCTIONS.
Other than that, we head to Turkey, Europe and the UK shortly for two festivals and a small run of headline dates for territories we haven't been able to hit prior - highly anticipated from our side.
This interview is featured in the print edition of Inner Missive #2, alongside discussions with THY DARKENED SHADE, WOLCENSMEN, THE ANTICHRIST IMPERIUM, ART AS CATHARSIS, ALTARS, GRIFT, ALTARAGE, ADRIAN BAXTER, PRIMITIVE MAN, COSMIC PUTREFACTION, EMYN MUIL, GIGAN, BYRDI, SLUDGE and ÖXXÖ XÖÖX.