Interviews : Morgoth
With Sebastian Swart
Morgoth released several album for Century Media in the early '90s. "Cursed" - a brutal slab of '90s death metal - was their breakout, but it was their following album, "Odium" that cemented their place in death metal history. Where their early albums were all excellent executions of the Tampa / Death / Obituary mold, "Odium" broke all the rules and took things to a brooding, emotional zone that relied on slow builds and honest rage instead of calculated violence. Their swansong was "Feel Sorry for the Fanatic," which carried the evolutionary ideas of "Odium" even further and despite being a quality album, was just too much too soon for many of the band's death metal fans. Not long after the release of "Feel Sorry..." Morgoth called it a day.
We caught up with Sebastian Swart – bassist on Morgoth's three seminal albums – for a look back on the band's peak years.
You joined Morgoth in late 1990, just in time to record "Cursed". How did you hook up with them?
I was playing guitar in a band named Dark Millenium at that time. Harry introduced me to that band a couple of weeks before. I was just playing in Dark Millenium for two months or so when he asked me if I would be able to take over the bass for Morgoth. I said "Yes!" immediately, of course.
Marc Grewe had been handling the bass up to that point. Why were they looking for a new bassist?
After a European tour together with Obituary and Demolition Hammer, Marc found that the effort of singing and playing bass at one time was too exhausting for him.
Were you involved in the writing of "Cursed"? If so, how did the band function on that album? Was it a team effort, did everyone write their own songs, etc., etc...
I was not involved in the songwriting on "Cursed" because all the songs were finished when I joined the band. Like on all albums, the writing process was in the hands of the whole band and all members had a certain influence on the songs. I would say Harry came up with most of the riffs that later turned into songs by working it out with the whole band.
Morgoth's bio says that Randy Burns mixed "Cursed" in Los Angeles. Where was the album recorded? Who produced it?
It was recorded at the Woodhouse Studios here in Germany together with Siggi Bemm the owner and engineer. I believe we were the first Metal Band that he recorded. Later a lot of bands from Century Media like Samael, Tiamat and also Voodoo Cult (with Dave Lombardo) recorded there. Our Producer was always Dirk Dreager who is still their acoustic engineer today and did some of other metal bands, mainly for Century Media. He was singer, guitar player and songwriter in the band Short Romans which was quite successful in Germany in the late ‘80s.
What do you remember about recording "Cursed"?
It was my first studio recording ever and I was very impressed of the professional work. I was 17 at that time and tried to do my best to learn the songs as fast as I could and get the bass on tape.
What are your favorite tracks from that album?
"Sold Baptism" and "Suffer Life"...
Morgoth's bio mentions "long time friend and producer, Dirk Draeger". Can you talk about the band's relationship with him?
Dirk was and is a friend of the band and a great guy to work with. He and his band Short Romans rented the rehearsal room right next to us in an old slaughterhouse. He was around from the first day. All members of his band were excellent musicians. In the early days, Martin – their bassist – gave me a lot of good advice that helped me a lot to develop my style.
How did Morgoth end up touring North American tour w/ Kreator?
Good question. Carsten our 2nd guitar player managed us. He always did an excellent job and he and the Kreator company made the deals. One day I was sitting in a plane to New York. The tour began in March 1991 and I can’t believe that this is 17 years ago. We played 60 shows in 2 1/2 months and it was my first time to the States.
How was Morgoth received on that tour?
As far as I remember, the tour was very successful for us. The reaction of the crowds was very different every night. In Poughkeepsie, the people didn’t like us at all and in New Mexico it seemed that the fans came just to see us. One day, we played in a salad bar and the other at Hollywood Palladium in front of 2,500 people. All in all it was the most exciting tour that I have been on. Unfortunately, we never had the chance to come back. So we toured Europe uncountable times instead!
From the early demos through "Cursed", Morgoth traced a pretty straight path from raw death metal to slightly more refined but still very traditional death metal. Somewhere between the release of "Cursed" (1991) and "Odium" (1993), you guys completely reinvented the Morgoth sound and created something that still isn't entirely recognized for the genius that it is. What happened in those two years between "Cursed" and "Odium"?
All band members including me always were open to different sounds and music. For us death metal in its pure and raw version was just one way to express aggressiveness. At that time we also listened a lot to industrial and popular music. It was never planned to record a "Cursed, Part 2". Also we developed our abilities to play our instruments and we just turned to better musicians over the years. We just tried to get the best out of us without being a copy of ourselves.
Was any one member of the band leading the charge for the new sound or did it just naturally evolve?
It evolved, but the most experimental influences like keyboards and samples came from Rüdiger and Harry.
Who recorded "Odium" ? It's a brilliant production...
Again, Dirk Dreager and Siggi Bemm at Woodhouse Studios.
Did you guys have any clue how well it was turning out while you were in the studio?
Yes, because we always did pre-mixes and recorded them on tape. We played those tapes everywhere we could. On shitty ghetto blasters or on high-end stereos, it just had to sound good on all of them. And the most important: also with a low volume!
I've always cited Marc's vocals on "Odium" as one of the very best death metal vocal performances ever recorded. Was anything different this time around for him? More time in the studio, more time with the material before recording it...?
Marc developed his voice a lot during the years. I can’t say that he had a lot of more time but during the rehearsals he and the rest of the band took a lot of effort to get the best out of his voice. Later, he also took singing lessons. I did my last studio recording with Marc in 2004. He is still able to scream/sing against the whole band without being amplified. This is quite remarkable, I think.
What was Century Media's reaction to "Odium" when you turned it in? Were they appreciative of its successful experimentation or disappointed that it didn't sound like the band they signed?
I believe "Odium" was a big step forward for the band. Century Media at that time supported basically everything we came up with. "Cursed" sold well and was probably one of the most important releases for the label until today. So we basically had the freedom to do what ever we wanted.
I've always loved the guitar tones of "Odium" . Do you remember what amps and guitars Harry and Carsten were using?
They both used a Peavy 5150 Head with Marshall Cabinets.
One major change on "Odium" is that the bass and drums actually act like a rhythm section instead of just doubling guitar riffs. Was that an easy transition to make or did you and Rudiger work on that for a while?
One major change on "Odium" is that the bass and drums actually act like a rhythm section instead of just doubling guitar riffs. Was that an easy transition to make or did you and Rudiger work on that for a while? As I mentioned before, through all the touring and playing music every day we had the chance to develop a lot. This was the first time for me to have an impact of how the band sounds. I tried to work out own bass lines that go along tight together with the drums and not necessarily with the guitars. Also this time I offered bass lines at first and Rüdiger worked out his drum part following the bass. As a guitar player I had to switch my mind a little to get the right bass feeling. That just worked after a while.
How well did Century Media support you guys on "Odium"?
As far as I remember, we got the support that we needed. Carsten could probably answer this question better. "Odium" did not sell as well as "Cursed" but we were still able to do large headlining tours.
Once again, Morgoth shifted gears and reinvented themselves by the time "Feel Sorry for the Fanatic" was released. Again, what happened? Who was responsible? How did the label react?
This album was a totally uncompromising recording at a time when we all where totally fed up with death metal, touring and the pressure to satisfy audiences and record companies. We just did what we wanted to do without asking anyone. And what we did was a very personal and emotional album on which we processed a lot of very personal things going on in our lives. At this time we asked a lot of questions. When it comes to the songwriting I say that "Feel Sorry..." is the best album we did. Everything else is a question of taste.
How long did Morgoth last after "Feel Sorry for the Fanatic" was released?
It was released in 1996 and we did the last tour in 1997. I believe in summer 1997 we did our last show at a festival in Germany and then sold our equipment.
At what point was the band in danger of breaking up?
I personally would say during the last tour through Europe with Die Krupps. Things were just different and after seven years on the road and in studios we just had nothing to say anymore. It was a riddle to us how other bands could do this for 20 years or longer. We all were thinking of a life after the band at that time.
Did the radical departure on "Feel Sorry for the Fanatic" push things over the edge?
Over the edge for the death metal audience in terms of music, yes. We found out that the development from one album to the other was probably to big and "Feel Sorry..." was five years or more to early. The press loved that album but the fans couldn’t follow. At least most of them.
Assuming you like "Feel Sorry for the Fanatic", what songs would you point to for people that might otherwise write the album off as a loss?
"Graceland", "Curiosity", "Watch the Fortune Wheel".
Almost decade after the breakup, Morgoth received a very nice double-album retrospective ("The Best of Morgoth : 1987-1997"). How did this come together?
The idea came from Century Media. They asked Marc and I if we could help them out. So we looked up old photo albums and decided which songs should be on it. Marc wrote the liner notes and in 2005 the CD was ready.
And, for a question I'm sure you hear a lot, is there ANY hope of you guys reforming?
Yes, yes, we had some talks about that. Besides Carsten, we also came together for a rehearsal a couple of months ago and we were as good as we were 12 years ago. But, to be honest, I don’t see a reunion at this time as our opinions about the if, when, why, what do differ a lot. Also, it is a question of time and everyone is involved in his daily business and it seems to be impossible to take enough time to put it back to the level from which we came from. All solutions between would damage the bands image and the status that we still have after all the years.
Many thanks to Sebastian for digging up the past with us. Do yourself a favor and dig up some Morgoth. The greatest hits compilation is a great place to start.