Mark Morton, Lamb of God

This site is woefully short of interviews with metal songwriters. I've been a Lamb of God fan for a while, but it was only recently that I watched the 2014 documentary about the band "As the Palaces Burn." No less a metal god than Slash calls them one of the biggest metal acts in the world in the trailer (below). I was impressed by the introspection and thoughtful responses in the band member interviews, so I figured that Mark Morton, guitarist and songwriter for the band, would make a fantastic interview.  And boy was I right. 

Bands like Lamb of God are revered in the metal world for their technical prowess. That's no surprise after talking to Morton.  Songwriting is a complicated and extracting process for him. He clears his head of "external clutter and inner chaos," then writes music and lyrics separately. Then the hard part: Morton makes sure that the words and music fit perfectly.  He says:

If it’s close to being a good fit, to laying over correctly, then I will have to edit by adding or deleting words while still hopefully maintaining the same thought pattern in the lyric.

On a mechanical level, I have to literally edit the syllables so that it locks into the music better. In that sense, it evolves from a point of being purely creative and imaginative, almost like a prose freeform thing, into a technical process where I have to ensure that the words lock in just right and that they are not too wordy. What words can I lose, for example, without losing the meaning? What words can I add to make it flow more naturally? That’s where I become a technician.

Given the groove element of the band's music, it's no surprise that Morton counts Public Enemy and Biggie Smalls as huge influences on his writing. Oh, and his wife helps out too. 

Read my interview with Mark Morton of Lamb of God after the trailer for As the Palaces Burn. And when you get to the end of the interview, watch the video,which is another great look at his creative process.

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

Nothing that I really do consistently. I mess around with visual artistic pursuits but I’m not any good. Occasionally I’ll sit down with oils and pastels. Those pursuits have always been about the meditative qualities rather than getting song ideas.  

Recently, I was reading a piece by Eckhart Tolle, and he talked about how creative people who are in touch with their process will tell you that they are most productive and creative when their mind is turned off. It’s more about using those processes as a way to clear my mind of all the clutter and chaos so that the real inner creativity can flow unobstructed.  That ties into the times when I’m painting, which is really not very often. I don’t want to characterize myself as a painter. But it’s more about meditation. Early on, when I first started writing my own material, those creative outlets freed me from the chatter in my head. They allow me to get to that clear place a lot faster.

It’s a peaceful experience to be free from all that inner chaos. To me songwriting has always been about two pieces: a musical piece and a lyrical piece. In thinking about this interview, those two processes are very different for me.

What you say reminds me of the eureka moment. Those great ideas come when we’re not really thinking about them.

It’s about a little less micromanagement of the idea for me. When I first started collecting lyrics, particularly for Lamb of God, I’d have a subject matter. Almost like how you would approach a thesis: here’s the premise, here’s how I’m going to support it, here’s how I'm going to flesh out the idea, here are the details, and here’s the conclusion. It was almost a narrative or essay style type of lyric. It worked sometimes, but now I look back on that stuff and think, “Wow that’s hokey." It wasn’t very pure.

But nowadays I focus on putting some words down that invoke some imagery or emotional response. Then I build around it. The best songs paint a picture, but they paint a picture that’s open-ended and vague. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve had people come up to me and ask me about a song like “Vigil.” They have in their mind what they think it’s about; it’s speaking to them in their experiences. But it’s not really what I had in mind when I wrote it. My best songs let the listener relate on whatever level they want. It’s really personal to them, even when it’s not what I meant when I wrote it. So in that sense it does tie into more visual abstract stuff, where you and I might look at the same piece and get two very different meanings.

When you do draw, does the process ever get you going with song ideas?

I don’t think I’ve made that connection. I’d be lying if I said it did. It’s more to clear the clutter and silence the chaos between the ears. Getting to that place is always a positive for me.  Being able to get to that place unaffected by outside poisons or influences, if I can get there in a natural way, that’s a feat for someone like me.

You made the analogy about songwriting as a thesis. How often do you sit down and decide to write a song about a certain topic?

Early on it happened more. Our second album was just post-9/11 and the second Gulf War. There was a charged political atmosphere. Randy I both had a lot to say about that. Without sitting down and planning anything conceptually, we vented a lot.

So then I wrote that kind of deliberate material, but as I’ve aged things have become a little bit more abstract. That’s not to say that the songs I write have no meaning, because they do. But I’m less concerned with conveying my opinion now. Lyrically, I write more about something I’m going through or something I’ve been through. In a way, at the risk of sounding trite, a lot of songwriting for me is about processing the conflicting elements in my life  Or the dark parts of my personality. And that’s not just because we’re heavy metal band. I mean, Randy and I joke all the time that it’s not like we walk around kicking puppies. Laughs. But it is heavy metal. It can’t be all flowers and sunshine.

When you talk about the meaning of your songs, you remind me of what poets say when they talk about the meaning of their poetry. They never tell you a poem's meaning because they want the poem to mean something to each reader. They don’t want that to cloud the reader’s perception of the poem.

To be perfectly honest, I will realize later that a song has a meaning that I didn’t intend when I first wrote it. I mean, I don’t carry it so far as to say that subconsciously a song that I wrote really had a much deeper meaning. But sometimes I’ll look back at my lyrics and I’ll think, “Wow! Where was I at?” Sometimes it might be just a cool line that I wrote. I’m a big Nirvana freak, and a lot of times Kurt would write lyrics just because he liked the way the words sounded. But in 1991, to my 18-year-old head,  it was prophetic. But all the time he was thinking simply that those two words sounded cool together. Laughs.

 Let’s talk about your process. What comes first, lyrics or music?

I write music as music. I don’t write music around lyrics. Ever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s just not my process.  I write music typically with a pulse in mind. A lot of people refer to us as having a strong groove element. I take that as a big compliment. I listen to a lot of hip-hop.  As much as Slayer and Metallica have influenced our music, Biggie and Public Enemy have influenced it just as much. I look for that groove and that undeniable head bounce that elevates your heart rate and gets you excited.

I will very often write music looking for some kind of physical response to the pattern and to the cadence of the guitar. I look for the rhythm. Lyrics come at any given moment. Sometimes they come while I'm making a demo of the music. I hear a vocal pattern and I sketch out a couple of lines. Other times I’m in the car. I reach for the voice memo on my phone and speak some stuff into it. So while they are separate processes for me, somewhere down the line I have a piece of music coming together with some streaming words.  I try different variations of laying those words on the music to see if they fit.  At that point it becomes a little more technical, because if it’s close to being a good fit, to laying over correctly, then I will have to edit by adding or deleting words while still hopefully maintaining the same thought pattern in the lyric.

On a mechanical level, I have to literally edit the syllables so that it locks into the music better. In that sense, it evolves from a point of being purely creative and imaginative, almost like a prose freeform thing, into a technical process where I have to ensure that the words lock-in just right and that they are not too wordy. What words can I lose for example, without losing the meaning? What words can I add to make it flow more naturally? That’s where I become a technician.

A few years ago, Paul Banks of Interpol told me that he will sacrifice the meaning of the words in the song for the sake of the melody. For him, melody is king.  He will add or edit words, even changing the meaning of the line, if it means maintaining the melody.

That makes total sense. Melody is not a real strong component of our music in the vocal sense. But I do relate to that in the pattern or the cadence of the vocals. It’s very important. When I write lyrics, I write as if Randy were an instrument. It has to fit just as perfectly as the bass line and the drum part. If it lays over awkwardly, we have to change it. You have to add and delete lyrics and massage them to make sure they fit.

How important is environment to you when you write? Are you able to write anywhere?

One constant is that I require isolation. I’m able to work at that level if there are other people around or other things going on around me. I have my little comfort zone here in my house, a little studio, where I do a lot of my work.  I write a fair amount of lyrics on the road because there is a lot of downtime. I can sit in the back lounge of the bus if it’s quiet and sketch some stuff out.

At times, it’s really difficult to navigate. I’m just being brutally honest, but what I consider to be my best lyrics come from times of extreme emotion. It can be positive, but very often it’s negative. So if I’m in a very bad place psychologically or spiritually or emotionally, it makes for productive lyric writing. But sometimes that’s a big sacrifice: I get a lot out of it while other things get damaged. At the risk of sounding like a tortured artist, there are times when I’ve sabotaged myself and milked it for some good stuff.

My best writing seems to happen at night. I’ve got a young child and a wife, so when I’m home I try to participate in the activities of the day in being a father and husband. Once I’ve tucked my daughter in and given my wife a kiss good night, I go to the studio. I may be there till three in the morning. But that’s not all the time. Sometimes I go out there in the afternoon.

I’ve got four young kids, and I find that having a family has made me a much more disciplined writer because there’s so little time of my own. Do you find that having a family has made you more disciplined as a writer?

 I wish. Laughs. Discipline is something I lack. There is nothing very disciplined about my process, unfortunately.

 That’s usually the answer I get. Most songwriters tell me they are incredibly undisciplined.

But what that means is that when I do stumble on something that’s really good, I get so excited. My favorite part of everything we do is writing and recording new music. I’m not a big touring guy. We do it a lot because it’s the nature of the business. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy watching people enjoy our music and I enjoy the energy of the live show, but I didn’t start playing guitar or writing music as a means to the end of getting on stage in front of thousands of people. I started writing songs because that was the end game. I’ve always been so enamored by that process.

So when you’re in those bad places psychologically, do you take advantage of those moments and write a song? Or does it just tend to happen?

It’s just kind of happens. It’s a natural outlet for me, so if I’m in some sort of crisis or have just had a traumatic event, or there's some significant conflict in my life, there is a good chance I’m going to get a song out of it. I can’t say that’s a great trade-off, but that’s always how it happens.

A lot of writers need distance from the emotional events they write about. Do you need a emotional distance from those times to be able to write really well about them?  Or is it better to write in the rawness of the emotion?

 For me, it’s when I’m drowning in it. 

Do you go back and edit those lyrics, or do you keep them relatively untouched so that they can reflect the rawness of that state?

At that point, it flips to the technical side. I go back and look at that stuff and think, “Wow. This is heavy-duty. I don’t know if anyone’s gonna get this.”  And a lot of times I hope they won’t. But it’s heavy duty and I can use it, so I need to make it fit the song. A lot of times I will sacrifice the purity of the emotion or the concision of the thought to make it a better song. At that point it becomes about the song, not about martyring myself in the lyric. 

Then it goes through Randy’s filter, because he’s the one who has to sing this stuff. If it feels like it’s something he wants to sing, then has the opportunity to make changes and tweaks so that he can relate better to what’s going on. Early on, when it was all about the egos, we weren’t as willing to change things. But you grow and realize it’s a team effort. I may put together a demo with a killer drum part that Chris may not like. He can change it to make it something that he feels is much more reflective of who he is as a drummer. And that’s a learning curve for me.  

How often do you sit down and write a song, realize it’s not working, then set it aside to come back to it later, even months or years later?

It happens a lot. That’s a great question. And a lot of times those songs age really well. I’ll periodically go back through those old files and see what's laying around. I’ll come across something I don’t even really remember doing and hear it from a new perspective, and suddenly I realize it’s pretty good. I hear something I didn't hear before. My wife’s great at that. She’s a big music fan and is familiar with my process. I bounce a lot of stuff off of her. And she’ll say, “Wow, that’s killer. How come I haven’t heard that?” And it’s because I thought it sucked when I did it.

Sometimes when you’re too close to something you can’t really see it. You need distance to give you some perspective.  That’s why it’s good to have feedback from others. Sometimes I’ll think something isn’t technical enough or it’s the wrong note. Well, no note is wrong. That’s why collaboration is great. I think most creative people like me are hypercritical of themselves and lean towards being perfectionists. We think that nothing’s ever done or nothing's ever right. Sometimes you need someone you trust who will just say, “Stop, this is good."

 What have you learned about yourself as a songwriter when you collaborate with others?

I don’t think it’s limited to what I learned about myself as a songwriter. It makes me realize what a control freak I am. When you learn to let go of the steering wheel a little bit on a song, it’s a real opportunity to learn a lesson that can translate to other forms of your life in your interactions with other people. Of course, that all comes back to issues like fear and anxiety and wanting to fix everything. 

How do you know when a song is done?

That comes back to the distance thing we talked about. I get to a point where I feel like everything is down, the parts are good, the lyrics are good. It’s a good representation of where it should be going. I pack it away and start working on another song. Then I come back to it periodically to check on it. I may not listen to it for two weeks.

But I don't want to misconstrue our process. I’m not a solo songwriter. I will bring what I think are complete ideas to the band, but they inevitably change once the other guys hear it. So in a sense that’s a little bit of a pressure break because I know that the song is going to change. If I can bring them a good solid outline, I know we’re going to tear it down and put it back together. 

 When you write your lyrics, do you use pen and paper or computer?

I’m definitely a pen and paper guy. There are scraps of paper all over our house. One line here, two lines here, three lines somewhere else.

 Why is that process better for you?

I’ve never really thought about that. I have noticed, though, that my handwriting changes. I look at those three scraps of paper and it looks like three different people have written on them. There’s a real immediacy to writing down the idea.

A few years ago I interviewed Adam Granduciel, the lead singer for the War on Drugs, and he told me that he writes his lyrics on the back of utility bills. Sometimes he has to fish them out of the garbage because his girlfriend has thrown them away.

I can totally relate to that. Sometimes I use the envelopes that the bills come in. A couple of weeks ago I was in my studio scrambling around looking for a piece of paper because I had a great lyric in my head. The only thing I found were pieces of paper with lyrics from songs we wrote about 10 or 12 years ago that had turned into pretty big songs.  Those were the original lyric sheets that I was saving. But I couldn’t find anything else to write on, so I grabbed one of those, flipped it over, and wrote the lyrics that were running through my head. But heck, maybe that’s just good juju going on right there. Laughs.