INTERVIEW: Mark Morton

Guitarist Mark Morton has achieved worldwide success with Lamb of God, one of the leading metal bands of the past 20 years. But it turns out there’s a lot more to him as a musician and songwriter—a side that often leans more toward rock than metal. So he took years of song ideas that would never fit into the Lamb of God machine, enlisted an impressive list of vocalists (including the late Chester Bennington, Jacoby Shaddix, Chuck Billy, Mark Lanegan, Myles Kennedy, Alissa White-Gluz and Randy Blythe) and musicians (including David Ellefson, Mike Inez, Jean-Paul Gaster, Steve Gorman, Roy Mayorga and Ray Luzier), and created “Anesthetic,” his debut solo album, released March 1 via Spinefarm Records. With the single “Cross Off” (featuring Bennington) making waves at rock radio and Morton out on his first solo tour (also featuring Light the Torch and Moon Tooth), Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with him to discuss the new album and more.

LIVE METAL: You’re out on your first solo tour right now. What is it like pulling up to a venue and seeing not a band name but your name, Mark Morton, up there on the marquee?

MARK MORTON: Yeah, that’s crazy, man. It’s funny that you pick up on that, because the first night of the tour was in Richmond, and we pulled up in the tour bus and saw my name up there on the marquee. I was like, “Holy cow.” It made it all feel more real.

It’s interesting. We’ve been rolling out the album for a couple months now. The single, “Cross Off,” is doing really well at radio, very well received, and that’s all been exciting. But I think to get it out on the road and be playing shows with my band and get it in rooms with people watching and seeing people singing the words to songs off the album, it just makes it all more real. I think for us and for the crowd, it legitimizes the whole thing. It would’ve been easy to write it off as just a studio project, studio collaboration, but now that we have a show on the road with it and we’re playing these clubs, and we’re on tour with Light the Torch and Moon Tooth, it gives it another layer, another component to the whole project.

Do you feel more pressure on yourself playing these shows?

Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, I do feel a little bit of pressure. Lamb of God is such a big machine, and it’s easy for me to just be a member of the band and kind of blend in if I feel like it. If that’s the part of my personality that’s coming out that day and I just kind of want to be a member of the band, I can do that. Or I can step up and do press and that kind of thing. I’m a little more able to dial it in depending on how I’m feeling.

With this thing, it’s my project, and it all kind of filters through me. It’s a different level of commitment. I welcome the challenge. Definitely sometimes it pushes me outside of my comfort zone in ways, and I think that’s maybe good for me as a person. It’s just an awesome opportunity to be able to explore a little more of the rock side of my playing and songwriting. I’m really grateful that people care enough to give it a listen, and people seem to be responding well to it.

Are you doing the talking on stage between songs?

No, I don’t do much talking. I let the music do the talking. We’ve got a great singer, Mark Morales. He’s a great frontman, great singer, and he’s introducing the songs and that kind of stuff. I like to play guitar, man. I play guitar better than I talk. (laughs)

As you mentioned, the single, “Cross Off,” is doing really well at radio. It was top 10 last I saw, which is kind of a new thing for you. As successful as Lamb of God is, you’ve never been a radio band. So what has that experience been like, getting that kind of exposure?

Yeah, it’s really exciting. Like you said, it’s a whole new world for me. Lamb is so successful and has such a long career and such a huge body of work, and we’ve been so grateful to have that kind of longevity and that kind of success. But radio is not a world that we’ve ever really operated in. It’s just not that kind of band; it’s not what we do. So for me to have a top 10 single at radio, it’s a brand-new experience and one that I guess I never really anticipated having at this stage of my career. So it makes it even more exciting, because there’s a whole other side of things that come with it.

I’m still learning. I’m learning about how radio works, how the charts work and doing some cool promotional stuff—played live on the air, acoustic, in Boston a couple days ago, and I think we might be doing that again here shortly in Colorado Springs. It’s an opportunity for me to get new looks and a different take on all this. It makes me appreciate all the success Lamb has even more than I already did, and it’s exciting to be able to have the chance to try and break a new project and support a new album on my own. The whole process has been a thrill for me.

Did you know Chester before working on this song with him?

I didn’t know Chester before working on this song. We kind of got to know each other as we went through the process of writing and recording this song. I was certainly familiar with his work and a fan of his singing. I think pretty much the entire rest of the world was along with me. I had never met him personally. We had never really corresponded. I reached out to him to listen to the song and see if he might be interested in working on it, and fortunately, he was. From there, we corresponded about the whens and wheres and sort of conceptual ideas behind the song, and then we got in the same room and started writing it, worked out the melodies, and then we recorded that amazing performance that you hear on “Cross Off.”

It’s cool to hear him singing over something heavier than Linkin Park or STP. Was he eager to kind of sink his teeth into that heavier side?

He was. He was really, really excited to get back into that kind of aggressive zone of his voice and to be able to scream. I think first and foremost, he just liked the song. He definitely was very vocal about that to me, that he just really genuinely loved the song and loved the melody of the chorus that we had already worked out. He came in with a whole lot of ideas—a whole lot of lyrics, a whole lot of vocal ideas. We tried a bunch of different patterns and putting things in different places. So it was very collaborative, and he had a lot of input on the song creatively, and again, he was thrilled to be able to scream on a track and have his fans hear that sort of throwback vocal approach that he had had more of in the earlier days, I think, of Linkin Park with their “Hybrid Theory” and maybe “Meteora”—that era of the band.

Was it a similar collaborative process working with everybody else you worked with on this?

Each song had its own sort of process. There were certainly some other songs that were collaborative in nature, in terms of the vocal. In some cases, I sent the artist an instrumental track, and they wrote their lyrics and melodies and all that, and just came in and we just kind of heard what they had and maybe made a few tweaks. In some cases, I had written all the lyrics and vocal melodies and done a demo, and the artist came in and just sort of used mine as a template and then based their performance on that. In some cases, it was collaborative, and we worked on it together, as was the case with Chester. So there was no formula to be applied to the whole album. Each song had a different process.

You’re working with singers on this album. There are only two or three songs that have screaming. Knowing you were writing music to go along with melodic vocals, did that have any effect on your approach to writing the music?

Well, it did. But honestly, a lot of these songs were in place before there was ever a project. It’s not like I decided to do a solo album and then started writing songs for it. It was actually the reverse of that. I had songs that I’d been working on, on my own, doing my own demos, and as they started accumulating, these were in a pile, so to speak, that was clearly not gonna fit into any kind of Lamb of God session. It wouldn’t really work to force these songs through that filter. So that was really the beginning. The genesis of the project was that I had these songs that were a little more rock, maybe a little more commercial-sounding, a little more melodic in the cases where I had written a lyric or a vocal melody, and I just kind of needed a destination for that material.

Is there anyone you worked with—either the singers or musicians—where you asked them about it and you were like, “Wow, I can’t believe this guy said yes?”

Yeah. Golly, a bunch of people. You name it. There’s so many incredible artists and players on this album. The whole time, I was humbled by the fact that these incredible musicians that, in most cases, I was a massive fan of, that they would even be interested in collaborating with me and working on my project. Obviously, Chester comes to mind. I didn’t have any history with Chester, and he was a superstar that I didn’t even know that I would be able to get his ear to listen to the song, let alone end up co-writing it with him. Mark Lanegan—same thing. I’m just a massive Mark Lanegan fan, and we had no history, no correspondence before we started talking about doing music together. So for him to even take the time to listen to a song idea I had, to me, was amazing, let alone the end product, the song “Axis” on the album, which is one of my favorites. So it was a personal highlight for me, because I was such a huge fan.

You’ve done some tours with Testament in the past, but what was it like getting in the studio and working with Chuck Billy, someone from a legendary thrash band like that?

Yeah, for sure. That’s not lost on me. It’s interesting because Chuck and I are such good friends. We’ve toured together a bunch, and we know each other personally. Chuck and (Chuck’s wife) Tiffany are good friends; they’ve been to the house and hung with my daughter and all that kind of stuff. It’s more like family working with Chuck, but I will say that I have probably spent more time standing in line and more money out of my wallet buying Testament tickets than any other metal band. So I can’t forget that part of me that’s such a massive Chuck Billy and massive Testament fan. So it’s really special to be able to finally do something creatively with him. It’s pretty special to have developed such a personal relationship with such a hero of mine in the music world. But to finally be able to work on a song with him was great.

I guess it must have been a no-brainer to ask (Lamb of God vocalist) Randy (Blythe) to contribute, right?

It was a no-brainer to ask Randy. I get asked about that song a lot, and some people say, “Were you hesitant to ask Randy?” My answer is always the same: I had a metal song that I wanted a screamer on, and it just so happens that one of my best friends in the world is the best heavy metal screamer in the world. So he was a text away.

I think it’s really cool that you have him on the song with (Arch Enemy vocalist) Alissa (White-Gluz), because there’s no way someone would confuse that with a Lamb of God song.

Yeah, I think you’re right, the fact that they did that sort of heavy metal duet. Alissa’s vocals are so fantastic. She’s got such a wide range of ability. She really killed it on that with the clean vocals, especially at the beginning—and the whole way through—and the way their voices blend together gave a kind of energy to the track that I think was really special and set it apart. It might be easy to imagine that it maybe would sound a little too much like Lamb if it was just a thrash metal song I wrote with Randy singing, because that’s pretty close to the Lamb formula, right? Having Alissa on the track, I think Dave Ellefson’s bass line is great on it—it’s got a lot of his character in there—and Roy Mayorga killing it on the drums. So it turned out really cool. I think it’s a really special moment on the album.

Even in track sequencing with Lamb, it comes to mind, I always think that last song on the album is really important. I think some bands put the best song first and the worst song last, and I always considered the last song on the album to be a very coveted position in the track list.

Yeah, it’s the last thing you’re leaving the listener with. You want it to really make an impression.

Yeah, I agree. I like to think of it as bookends.

Did you always intend to sing “Imaginary Days” yourself?

I didn’t always intend to sing that song myself, no. That was, I guess, a result of the process. I did write a lot of the lyrics for this album—not all of them but a quite a bit of them. A lot of the vocal melodies I wrote, as well. In the course of doing that one, I had a lyric or a melody idea or both. I would hop in the booth while we were doing the pre-production demos and just lay down the vocal so we had a reference track. “Imaginary Days” is one of those songs that I had written all the music and all the lyrics and melodies to, so I went and tracked a vocal for it, just so we would have it as a reference, fully intending to have someone else sing the song. We just kind of got used to listening to my version of it. I actually had another artist record it, but we started the conversation where it might be cool to have me sing a song on the album. So that’s the version we went with.

This album just came out, so is it too early to say if you would do another one in the future?

I’ve got no plans to do another one in the future. Like you said, this one just came out. I’m on tour supporting it. We’ve got a top 10 radio single. We’re at number 22 on the Billboard album chart this week. It’s way beyond any expectations I had, anything I could’ve hoped for, and I’m excited about that. I can tell you that I would love the opportunity sometime down the road to do something like this again. It’s been a really positive experience for me, personally and creatively. I think it’s resonating with a fair amount of Lamb fans. A lot of Linkin Park fans are really grateful for the Chester song and checking out the rest of the album and seem to be responding well to it. And I think some rock fans in general are coming that maybe don’t necessarily listen to Lamb of God.

I feel like it’s going over really well. I certainly had a blast making it. I’m really proud of it. For now, we’re gonna finish this tour, and then I’m jumping right back in to full-time Lamb of God work. We’ve got a busy summer ahead of us, and hopefully some more solo shows later in the year. If I get the chance down the road to do another recording as a solo artist, I would certainly welcome that opportunity.

Randy Blythe, left, and Mark Morton

As you said, you have to work around the Lamb of God schedule. You’ve got more tour dates with Slayer coming up this spring. You toured with them last year, too. Since you’ve been there close to them, do you really think this is it for them?

I think it is. I think it’s just a matter of how long they’re gonna stretch out the farewell tour and give everyone a chance to see them one last time and hit all those markets. But no, I do think this is the finale. I definitely think they mean it.

For Lamb of God, part of last year (drummer) Chris Adler was out of commission with an injury. Is he going to be ready to go when you start up again?

Tough to say. Not sure yet. Not sure yet how that’s coming along. We don’t have a final word on that just yet.

There’s been some talk that there’s been some writing for the next Lamb of God album. How far along is that?

It’s definitely in process. We’ve got a lot of new material put together, and we’ve got some more sessions to work on writing coming up. There’s a ton of new—it’s tough to call them songs yet, because they’re not really completed—but there’s a ton of new song ideas. Randy’s already recorded some demo stuff. So I’d say we’re very deep into the writing process but not yet into the recording process.

Is there anything else you’d like to say right now?

No, man, just thanks for your time and support.

Well, thank you very much for your time. If you do some more solo dates, I’m in Maryland, so if you come to Baltimore or D.C., I definitely want to come check it out.

Yeah, man, it would’ve been cool to hit the Black Cat or Ottobar or something like that close to home. But hopefully next run.

Mark Morton YouTube channel

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