Brooklyn-based trio Mortals are a modern metal band in every sense. Their debut album, Cursed to See the Future, is an omnivorous beast — six tracks, 48 minutes — that blends influences from hardcore and punk, stoner and sludge, black metal and even prog.
Perhaps more importantly in 2014, each of the group’s members — guitarist Elizabeth Cline, bassist/vocalist Lesley Wolf and drummer Caryn Havlik — recognize the limits of the rockstar dream, and balance band life with fulfilling (and extremely busy) careers in the slightly more real world. Havlik is an assistant radio producer at WNYC and works at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls; Wolf is a designer for a Manhattan sock company and a part-time sound engineer; and Cline is a journalist and the author of 2012′s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
Recorded at Baltimore’s Developing Nations studio with Kevin Bernsten, Cursed to See the Future makes a powerful statement. All but one song stretches to somewhere between seven and nine minutes, and several feel like suites, Cline’s guitar work flowing organically from searing black metal to thundering riffs reminiscent of High On Fire or even Mastodon, as Wolf’s rumbling bass and fierce vocals bolster the structure and Havlik’s drumming drives it all inexorably forward. While listeners with sufficiently broad tastes will hear echoes of bands from Black Anvil to Coffins, Mortals are making a noise all their own.
Over the phone, I talked with guitarist Cline about everything from the album’s bifurcated recording process to the black metal’s conquest of Brooklyn, from work-life balance to band merch as sustainable fashion.
The sessions for this album were split in two — you started recording, went back on the road, then finished recording. Why did you do that, and how did it help the creative process?
What happened was, we went into the studio in the summer of 2013 and recorded what we thought would be the whole album. And we listened back and — I don’t know, it was one of those things that sort of slapped us in the face: We didn’t have the album we wanted. We had gone too far down the path of black metal; it just didn’t sound like Mortals. So we wanted to write another song for the album, and we wound up rerecording a couple of songs, and then we recorded “View from a Tower,” and I can’t imagine this album without that song on it. To me, that song is sort of quintessentially Mortals. It wasn’t necessarily ideal, but it was one of those things where I don’t think we could have lived with the album that we recorded the first time.
The black metal influence is still pretty strong on the record. Do you think that just comes from being a New York band right now? It feels like every metal band in Brooklyn is influenced by black metal now.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess that’s perceptive. Black metal is definitely a very large part of the scene in Brooklyn right now. I mean, I wouldn’t have it any other way — all three of the people in our band love black metal, but maybe you’re right, maybe part of it was the era that we’re in seeping into what we’re doing. But it’s hard to say, because with Mortals, we pull from so many different genres to begin with, so it’s all about finding the right balance, and as I said, in that first session, the balance just wasn’t there. It wasn’t eclectic enough for us.
Speaking as a guitarist, what do you like about the black metal sound?
See, that’s the thing. As a guitarist, I don’t necessarily enjoy playing black metal. I like the way it sounds in a composition, though, which is why I like to always mix more punk, hardcore and stoner influences into our songs and then balance it with black metal, because that’s the stuff that’s really fucking fun as a guitarist. Playing actual riffs, parts that groove, where your hands are doing more complex things — that’s what really excites me. Then, if you stand back and listen to the whole song together, paired with black metal, it ends up being really beautiful, and the contrast is what’s really cool.
Instead of talking about influences in the traditional sense, let me ask the question like this: Who have you stolen the most from, as a player?
[Laughs] I don’t know, I feel like it’s pretty obvious when you listen to a lot of Mortals songs that we’re pretty influenced by High On Fire, Entombed, Inquisition and then on this album a little bit from Bolt Thrower, but when I hear my guitar riffs, I feel like the stuff I was listening to growing up kinda comes out a lot, which is more hardcore — like, I still feel like the fact that I listened to Refused and At the Drive-In for so long still ends up coming out in our music. But Lesley, the bass player, is very deeply influenced by melodic black metal like Sargeist and Taake, and Caryn, the drummer, is probably the most influenced by non-metal sources, like she listens to a lot of New Orleans brass bands and Balkan music and Gypsy music, and so that ends up coming out in Mortals’ music as well.
I really like that sort of hypnotic, looping riff that comes about seven minutes into “The Summoning” — it almost reminds me of Mastodon. Where did that come from?
I love that song in general, and that’s probably one of my favorite moments on the whole album. I wish I remember where I was when I wrote it, but I think you’re probably pretty spot-on that it’s coming more out of the influence, for me, of bands like Mastodon and Baroness and even post-rock bands that I’ve been really into, everything like Mogwai, Pelican, Russian Circles. I just really love those kinds of riffs, I hope that they happen more in our music going forward. I think that part’s really pretty, and really dynamic, and after that long stretch of song it just feels like a really cool breath, you know? It’s a necessary pause before we go into the ending of the song.
The three of you sort of consolidated two bands into one, with Caryn as the axis. How long have you known one another?
Well, Caryn and I have been playing in bands together for 10 years, and Caryn and Lesley have known each other since the beginning of [all-female Slayer cover band] Slaywhore, which is going back probably eight or nine years. But Lesley and I didn’t know each other until we joined Mortals, and we’ve been playing together in some form or another for about six years now. So we’ve become a family through being in the band together, and I got to build on the relationship with Caryn from the band we were in before.
You’re an author as well as a musician; Caryn works in public radio and at Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls; Lesley is a designer and an engineer — do you think it’s important to be open about the band just being one of many aspects of your lives, and not pretend the rock star dream is a viable thing in 2014?
[Laughs] I feel like that’s a strength of our band, that we have other things going on in our lives. I mean, first of all, it’s realistic; you live in New York, I don’t know how people just do their band and scrape by because it’s so expensive. But I also think it accentuates what we’re doing in our lives really well. What I’m doing is very intellectual, and what Caryn is doing is very cerebral, and Lesley’s a graphic designer, and it comes out in our music. We all think, when we’re writing music, about how easily bored we are, how everything has to be going to all these different places, and we have to have all these different transitions, and all these ideas packed into our songs, and I think that just comes from our personalities. We like to have a lot going on, and we never pretend in interviews — people who know us know that we’re not, like, really grim people; we’re not trying to front. I feel like we’ve always, from the beginning, been ourselves.
Have you been to Willie Mae Rock Camp? Are there a lot of young metal girls there?
I have been; when Mortals first started we played a couple of times at the camp, which was funny because it’s like [schoolteacher voice], “OK now, everybody put in your earplugs…” The kids were just like, “Holy shit, that’s the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.” It is pretty cool to know that you’re introducing a 7-year-old to metal for the first time. That’s a pretty amazing feeling. [Caryn] has a higher threshold for dealing with children; I don’t know she does it, but she’s tireless about it.
How does your work in the clothing industry dovetail with the band? Do you have any thoughts on, say, ethically sourcing T-shirts?
I’ve thought about that a little bit. I think I actually have wondered before, because my interest is in economics, globalization and manufacturing. That’s what drove me to write the book, more than wanting to write about clothes, and I always get a kick out of how metalheads sort of by default are sustainable fashion followers. I was just at Maryland Deathfest, and looking around, people have got on their outfits that they’ve been — it’s a look they’ve been cultivating for a long time, especially when people sew their own clothes and they’ve got a vest on where they put everything on it and they wear it every day, or they’ve got on a pair of pants they’ve re-stitched like five times, and patched up. I love that about the culture; it’s not a consumerist culture at all, metal’s not.
Are you someone who goes to a show wearing the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see?
[Laughs] No, but I kind of hate that that’s so taboo. Like, I’m always joking with my band that somebody needs to change the rule about wearing your own band T-shirt, for example, ’cause, like, I love all the Mortals shirts and I want to wear them, but it’s not “cool.” I guess I need to move to Europe to do that. I think it’s a certain era of band — you have to be living legends for it to be acceptable. But it’s all nonsense. If somebody wants to wear the shirt of the band they’re going to see, more power to them.
I kind of feel like metal bands need grown-up merch, like black T-shirts with just their logo on them in white, and not a picture of a demon ripping some woman’s head off, because honestly, at my age, I’m just not gonna walk down the street wearing that.
[Laughs] Um…I disagree with that statement. That’s no fun. I don’t know, on tour we all just wear the same thing every day and just change our shirts. That’s why I’m saying metal is, by default, sustainable fashion, because we are basically wearing a uniform.