An Intrinsic Pathway

feature image

One of the best-kept secrets in extreme metal certainly has to be Austin, Texas’ Morgengrau, a quartet that plays a near-flawless brand of vintage death metal. Their debut album, Extrinsic Pathway was released in April via Blind God Records and to say it’s a hidden gem of crushing death would be an understatement.

In the weeks since the release of Extrinsic Pathway, the band has been working hard at trying to get the word out about themselves and, most importantly, their debut long player. TeethOfTheDivine was fortunate enough to spend some time with vocalist/guitarist Erika Tandy to gauge her views on her band’s music, old school death metal and the Texas metal scene, among other topics.

Read on to see what the mastermind behind the crushing and catchy riffs – and mountain-pummeling pipes – of one of the future’s brightest bands had to say:

TeethOfTheDivine: Morgengrau has been around for three years and your debut full-length album Extrinsic Pathway just came out a few months ago. It’s an excellent listen from start to finish; a solid chunk of old school death metal. What are your thoughts on the album since its creation?

Erika Tandy: I’m immensely pleased; the reception of the album exceeded my expectations greatly. I feel like we succeeded in our goal to make a contribution to the genre. When you endeavor in writing music for the first time, especially in a genre you love but have never performed, the results are certainly unpredictable. We’re proud of the release and are working hard on promotion so others can discover and enjoy it.

Take us through the creation of the album. Where did the song ideas come from and how challenging was it to finally get it completed?

Looking back, writing was very free-flowing. For the first time in almost 20 years I was doing something totally different with music – rather than just singing, I was playing guitar and writing from scratch. There were no preconceived notions about what the tunes should sound like – I was just churning out riffs fueled by the enthusiasm. Assembly was instinctual. If a riff or structure made me want to bang my head, it was a winner.

During that process, the band was in that golden formative phase where everything we did was new and fun. You play your first shows, have your little road trips, your hang out sessions after practice, etc. You learn about each other as people and creative forces. All that creates fuel for the raw energy you find in so many new bands.

Towards the end of the writing phase, I became more reflective on what we were doing – that’s where “Polymorphic Communion” came from. You can hear the greater level of planning in that track. It set the new standard for everything that will come on album #2.

The studio was hard, though. I’ve talked about it in other interviews. We didn’t have a lot of experience recording songs from the ground up. My level of scrutiny on the music was high – I wanted to be satisfied with this album and not make the same mistakes I had made on others. I have a bad habit of “good enough-ing” stuff once I get frustrated or tired. I also felt very responsible to the others to ensure the album came out good, since this was their first pro-studio experience. It’s all about patience, detail and the willingness to admit a performance could have been better even after you’ve played a part 50 times. You have to be willing to play that 51st take. Our engineer at Amplitude Media, Kris, helped us tremendously and kept me from losing my shit when my frustration levels (with myself) were at max.

All in all, we learned a lot. We know better how to approach recording next time and we know what worked for us and what didn’t. I certainly have a more realistic perception of what kind of effort will be needed. Knowing that going in will make the next rough patches easier to tolerate. We’re a better band for the whole experience. And I’ll admit I’m now firmly in the throes of sophomore album writing difficulty – because now I have something I have to beat.

Some of the members of Morgengrau have been in other bands like Hod, Autumn Tears, Humut Tabal, etc. How different has it been in terms of experiences and creating music for Morgengrau compared to the other bands?

I can only speak for myself. In my other bands, I was the vocalist who would make an occasional suggestion around music. When it was time to write the melody lines and lyrics, the song structures were already well-baked. I had freedom but not a huge amount. My level of participation was out of alignment with how I conducted the rest of my life; in those endeavors I didn’t lead, where in everything else I led. After some time, I realized that’s why I would get so frustrated. I’ve got a type A personality and I like to control trajectories – that’s essentially what I do for a living – so I was subverting my natural tendencies. I also kept ending up in bands that weren’t the type of music I truly wanted to make. Were these bad choices? Not at the time. I believed firmly in everything I endeavored in and gave everything my best effort, but the misalignment of taste made for continuous dissatisfaction.

It took a long time for me to admit to myself that 1) I love death metal more than anything; 2) I needed to get back to playing guitar; and 3) I needed to start my own band, rather than joining other existing groups. Once I admitted those three things, Morgengrau came together easily and we’ve been rolling along ever since. No arguing, no bitching, everyone’s responsible, we like what we’re doing and enjoy being together. I always leave practice exhilarated and happy. It’s all good.

When listening to Extrinsic Pathway, the obvious influences immediately spring to mind. There are many elements of early Pestilence, Asphyx, Comecon, Sepultura (obviously, with the “Inner Self” cover), Bolt Thrower, and others all over the album, which is understandable considering how great those bands’ early albums are. Was that a conscious decision on the entire band to write songs in that vein, or is that something that just happened to be birthed as you were all writing?

Those bands are deeply rooted in my inner soundtrack. So many of the awesome albums of the early 90s were created by kids who hadn’t yet reached their peak playing and composing capacity – and that’s why those albums were so good! They were simple, raw, lawless and rule-less, written and played fueled by passion rather than musical theory or the latest industry pressure. So many bands lose that fire, that simplistic approach, become overthought and stiff. They get all up in their heads about what they’re doing and it kills it.

My goal is to keep a firm grip on that primal rawness while maintaining flow and the buildup and release of tension. Everything should have its place and there should be no fluff. If it doesn’t add value to the feel or the theme, it goes. No chaff.

Like those aforementioned bands, Morgengrau write death songs that are actual songs. They all have a point and direction and the riffs are memorable. That’s something that many of the newer bands and the overwhelming majority of the super brutal bands lack, which is the ability to write actual songs. I’ll assume that is arguably the most crucial element when the four of you are in writing mode.

It was. I really thought hard about the structure and did my best to keep the songs short and sensible. For a few, I actually told myself “You will not use more than 4 riffs and go over 4 minutes.” Sometimes it’s fun to give yourself a limit and see what you can do. Constraints can really focus creativity.

I like songs that are complete thoughts, not ones that wander vastly far afield from where they began. A lot of death metal suffers from that – all of us know about the never-ending riff salad. Kind of a close subject for me right now, as I’m working on a tune that isn’t wanting to repeat any of its parts. This one is definitely different compared to the songs on Extrinsic. I’m struggling to discover what the resolution of the tune will be, some way to tie it back. That’s why it takes me so long to write some songs – they have to feel complete, finished – not just end. I hate songs that leave you feeling like you fell off a cliff. Yes, everybody, I have a hard time with Battles in the North. I admit it!

Another bonus about Extrinsic Pathway is the classic production. It’s dirty and raw like it should be, though the final mix is clean enough where the instruments are all audible. That was the charm of the early 1990’s death metal and, again, it’s something that is lacking in the majority of the newer releases that are simply too clean. Again, was that a decision you all made?

This was also very conscious. We didn’t want the overly-compressed, super-hot production found on so many albums today. It took me a while to figure out what some reviewers were on about saying the sound is “muddy”. I don’t think it sounds muddy at all – I think it sounds organic – but I guess that equates to mud in this day and age. The perception is fascinating to me and it’s where the generation gap in metal shows itself. I’m old school. I want my music to breathe.  I don’t need to be hyperstimulated every second of every song. Not everything needs to be quantized perfectly. The human brain needs variation, something to latch onto.  There is grand power in dropping out all the tracks to let a single melody or riff stand alone. That’s dynamics. In our instant gratification, super-size everything, max volume, too xtreme culture, I can see why some listeners don’t get it. Their loss.

While “Inner Self” is a classic song from Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains album, why did you four choose to cover that one over the thousands of other killer tracks from that era?

“Inner Self” ended up being a special song for Jake, who really had his coming of age while we were writing and recording the album. We had a lot of fun recording it and now we’re sick to death of it and don’t play it any more [laughs]

There has been an influx of classic, old-school sounding death metal bands popping up all over the place. What are your thoughts on this and do you think the resurgence of this particular genre of metal will ultimately hurt or help you?

It’s fantastic. Nothing but good. The old school sound was lost for a while and a lot of younger fans are getting back into it. Everything old is new again and all that. DM is a powerful, emotive form of extreme metal which can be stretched in many directions without losing its essential nature. Tons of creativity out there, in all countries. Makes for some great festivals.

Back “in the day” it was quite shocking to a degree when a woman was in an extreme metal band. Even though Jo Bench has always been in Bolt Thrower, it always seemed sort of taboo whenever a woman was in a band like yours. Over the years, though, there has been a much higher number of metal bands sporting female members who aren’t just the pretty face/voice like Tristania, Lacuna Coil, Nightwish, etc. Quality bands like Funerus, Fuck the Facts, Haemorrhage, Embodied Torment, Menstruary and several others all feature women in their ranks and they aren’t the typical “chick in metal band” sort of bands. When people find out that Morgengrau has two women in the band and that one of them is the vocalist/guitarist and the other is the drummer, is there surprise? If so, is it annoying to you and/or Reba, considering how far women in extreme metal have come over the years?

Most of the surprise comes from other women when I tell them how much I truly do not care for the “women in metal” subject. I don’t want to be given a pass, or judged against a different scale. I don’t need a grade curve. I want my work and performance to be judged on merit and against my peers. Reba feels the same. Women are so used to being treated with privilege in all aspects of society, and this constant questioning about “how does it feel to be a female in metal” is an extension of that. Being female doesn’t make me special or worthy of attention. Having created a decent album that people want to hear does.

Your vocal approach is reminiscent of early Martin van Drunen and Max Cavalera, at least to me when I listen. Are those two a huge influence on your style or is that just how your natural death voice comes out?

Martin is one of my biggest vocal heroes. His rabid werewolf howl is wholly unique.  He bellows and his voice cracks in a lot of places – there’s no preciousness in his performances – and I love it. He’s just raw. Ross from Immolation is a bit of an influence as well – I like his diction and the way he finishes phrases. Then there’s the part of me that loves how freaking possessed and demonic it sounds when you blend low roars with higher screams – the “Deicide principle” as I think of it – so we made sure to work that into the album in plenty of places.

There are plenty of times when people get rowdy at metal shows. For you and Reba, has there ever been a situation where some drunken hooligan has heckled you two because of who you are?

Not with this band. It doesn’t even come up.

Though there have been several terrific and successful bands from Texas over the years (Pantera, Absu, Rigor Mortis, Solitude Aeturnus, Dead Horse, Hod and countless others), Texas isn’t really known as a true scene across the States. It’s always the Florida death metal, Bay Area thrash, New York hardcore, etc. Why do you think this is?

I disagree. Texas has made huge contributions to metal and continues to maintain a very strong scene. San Antonio and Houston frequently have the best turnouts for tour packages that roll through. Austin hasn’t been much of a contender since The Backroom and Emo’s closed – most mid-sized roadshows skip us now, which is unfortunate, but for many years we were known for killer turnouts as well. We do have a small but talented death metal community in this state. If we’re not known as a scene I think it’s because Texas is far away from both coasts, so people forget we’re here. Texas’ sheer size and distance between cities also lends a sense of dilution. If you shrank the state to the size of the Bay Area, we’d have an incredibly concentrated scene. It would be crazy!

What are the immediate plans for Morgengrau moving forward? Obviously it’s unlikely you’ll all be able to make millions off of death metal because that’s a sad fact of the scene. What are the plans on touring, new material, etc?

Honestly, if we were making millions off this music, it wouldn’t be worth the media it was printed on. Can you imagine the fuckwits who would be buying it? I’d rather sell 1000 copies to 1000 fans who appreciate and understand it, than 1,000,000 to dipshits in pegged jeans with front-brushed hair who’ll use it for a coaster after 6 months. 

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in writing mode now. Reba and I just had a good session improvising riffs last weekend.  But it’s up to slow-ass me to assemble everything, and we all know that’s going to take ages. Perhaps recording next summer with an album in the fall or winter. I’d really like to get a label for this next one, so we’ll see.

We recently got back from playing in NYC at the Martyrdoom II fest. That was our first out-of-state appearance. It went over very well. We’re looking into some central US/West Coast opportunities and then we want to get the band over to Europe. Because of our personal responsibilities, only short tours are possible, but that just means we need to be very strategic in our choices.

Where did you all come up with the name “Morgengrau” for the band?

In the difficult search for a unique band name, after pouring over medical dictionaries, Latin demonology books, and Encyclopedia Metallum, I stumbled across the word “Morgengrau” in an old German song. I wasn’t looking for band names that day – I was just checking out a tune a music colleague told me about. The selection was fairly instantaneous; it just fit.

Outside of Morgengrau, what do the four members do for a living?

Normal stuff. Nick and Jake are the youngest – Nick is finishing college and is desperate to move out of the gulag (more commonly known as the Rio Grande Valley). Jake works a variety of short-term contract jobs at various tech/education companies and spends the rest of his time playing his bass in the dark because he doesn’t want to spend money on electricity. Reba is building her career as a laboratory technician – she works really hard and has a lot of interesting stories about lab samples and infectious diseases. I manage a global technical team at a major corporation, spend most of my time dreaming about the apocalypse and fussing over my beloved cat, Pandora.

Thanks for your time. You can freely add whatever you like to this interview.

Thank you for the interview! All of us in Morgengrau appreciate the support and encourage anyone interested in learning more about our brand of old school death metal to visit our Facebook, Reverbnation and Bandcamp pages. Support the Old School! Hail Metal, Hail Death!



Leave a Reply

Privacy notice: When you submit a comment, your creditentials, message and IP address will be logged. A cookie will also be created on your browser with your chosen name and email, so that you do not need to type them again to post a new comment. All post and details will also go through an automatic spam check via Akismet's servers and need to be manually approved (so don't wonder about the delay). We purge our logs from your meta-data at frequent intervals.