Interview: Ulthar (2020) / From The Bowels Of Perdition

Conversation with

Ulthar

As portals to the world of Ulthar, the front covers of both of your albums are the doors anyone with the bare minimum of aesthetic appreciation would gladly enter. Obviously, Ian Miller is a remarkable artist. Knowing that he’s primarily known for the illustrations he did for the H.P. Lovecraft and J.R. Tolkien books, and that the band was named after the H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Cats Of Ulthar, would it be fair to assume that you hired him precisely because of some of those H.P. Lovecraft’s books he did the illustrations for, that you perhaps grew up reading and maybe even owned a physical copy of in your home library?

Shelby Lermo: I don’t think I’ve ever owned a copy of a Lovecraft novel with one of Ian’s illustrations, but I wish I did. It is, however, how I initially became aware of his work, by looking at the covers of old Lovecraft paperbacks. Ian is amazing, a kind, smart, and friendly person who is very easy to work with and talk to.

The amount of details on both Cosmovore and Providence front covers is simply astounding. Considering that Ian is a 74 year old man, one could say that having a keen eye and patience required for something so visually intricate doesn’t go hand in hand with his age. That being said, were those images commissioned works, something he drew recently, after you asked him to, or were they old pieces from his back catalogue that you accidentally discovered?

Shelby Lermo: They were pre-existing pieces that we licensed. Cosmovore is a piece titled At The Mountains Of Madness 3 from around 2014, I think, and Providence is a piece called Witches Tree from around that same time. But Ian is still very active, not only in illustration, but in music, film, collage, all types of stuff. We correspond via email from time to time, I like to think he’s become something of a friend.

Is there a deeper meaning to those two images, that cannot be seen from all the craziness that is going on on their surface?

Shelby Lermo: I thought both pieces were great accompaniment to our music, frenzied, weird, otherworldly, but outside of that, if you’re looking for a higher meaning you would have to ask Mr. Miller himself.

According to his biographers, The Cats Of Ulthar was a story Lovecraft believed was one of his best works. When you were making the decision to name the band after the name of the town in which the story takes place, did you do it because you felt that it would be not only a tribute to the story, but to H.P. Lovecraft himself and his taste in his own literature? Did the fact that he loved that story so much additionally influence your decision to go with that name?

Shelby Lermo: We had no idea, to be honest. Metal band names that haven’t been used are nearly impossible to find. We were looking for a band name, we were considering something sort of Lovecrafty. Ulthar came to mind, and I was immensely surprised when I saw no results for it on Metal Archives website. At the time we had not yet heard of the German band Ultha, and now there is at least one other band from Poland called Ulthar, as well as a post-rock band from Philadelphia (now broken up) that contacted us to demand we change our name.

If you were to deconstruct H.P. Lovecraft’s personality by taking into account everything you have ever read by him and about him, how much in common would you say his private life had with his artistry? Do you see him more as a dark, brooding character with a disgust for the human race and one hell of a psychological problem or as a man who maintained a lively correspondence with fellow writers of which some were actually his friends, for he apparently was, according to his biographers, both of those things?

Shelby Lermo: I’m no Lovecraft biographer, but I think besides living in an attic and being kind of a creep, he didn’t seem to be too much of a nutcase. Then again, nobody is just one thing. People have different aspects of personality that surface in different ways. I think Lovecraft was just extremely creative as well as being very shy.

Ulthar doesn’t sound familiar, for lack of a better word, and it seems that for every signature feature of your sound you have another one that directly contradicts it. It is technical on the surface, yet with raw, filthy and primitive undercurrents. It flirts with black, death and thrash metal, but is at the same time neither of those things. How did such an ambiguous sound come about?

Shelby Lermo: We’re not trying to be any of those things. We don’t want to fit into any genre or subgenre. We are just writing music that we think is cool and weird and heavy. To me, it seems silly to set out to create a band that fits so neatly into one category. How boring! Doesn’t that take the whole point of being creative away? To try and forcefully make it into something that someone else has done already?

Was it difficult was to capture that, as you call it, cool and weird and heavy sound, that doesn’t quite stand with both feet in any of known extreme metal subgenres? Did you make that decision guided by your taste, your temper, were you looking for the least crowded niche, or was that decision even a decision?

Shelby Lermo: The music we make is merely a reflection of who we are as people and as musicians. We are merely playing the type of music that appeals to us personally. Ulthar is a very clear blend of our three personalities and sensibilities. There is no desire to fit into any particular scene, or sell a million records, or appeal to any type of person. That being said, people who classify us as OSDM are fucking idiots.

With regard to the previous question, some say that taste in music is much more a matter of temperament than a matter of intellect. Would you subscribe to that notion? Do you like the music you like simply because you like it, because it hits you on the most primal level, or do you tend to intellectually deconstruct it and then decide whether it is worth liking or not?

Shelby Lermo: I like all different kinds of music, and I don’t like to spend too much time trying to figure out why I like it. There are, of course, different types of music for different moods. I’m listening to Isao Tomita’s version of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez as we speak, for example. I enjoy ambient, soundtrack, or classical when I’m working. Metal appeals to me as a constructive release of frustration and anger. I think I am a relatively calm and sober person, because I have metal as a release. I don’t try to overanalyze that.

The diversity of bands all three Ulthar members are involved with says a lot about your eclectic taste, as no two bands on that list sound the same. What about the urge to take part in many different projects makes it more appealing to giving everything you have to only one of them and channeling all your musical ambitions and affinities through it?

Shelby Lermo: I think it’s fun and challenging to make a bunch of different kinds of music. Why wouldn’t you want to fully explore every avenue available to you, if you’re a creative person? I think this comes back to the issue of starting a band that fits into some sort of niche or category. I have no interest in that, and I know Justin and Steve don’t either. It seems silly to limit one’s self like that. We all want to work with different musicians as well, and learn from them.

Cosmovore and Providence are at the same time very different and very similar albums, that simultaneously converge to each other and diverge from each other. Do you feel that is a correct assessment of their mutual dynamics and what would you say are the main traits that feed those similarities and distinctions?

Shelby Lermo: I think Providence is just a very logical follow-up to our first album. We played live a lot after the album’s release, we toured together, we got tighter, we learned to trust each other’s ideas and instincts. As a result, I think Providence is just a lot more focused, and as a result, is leaner, heavier, and angrier.

When you take a look at the structure of the album and the arrangements of the songs, do you think that songs on Providence showcase more diversity between themselves or within themselves?

Shelby Lermo: Not necessarily. I mean, we didn’t set out to do that, per se, but if that is what you hear, I think it’s a valid opinion. We weren’t making a conscious decision to do that, but I think as a band grows, that’s bound to happen, whether it’s on purpose or not. At least, I hope it would.

The thing that gives a very distinct flavour to your sound are the vocals, both in how they intermingle and how they resonate when they’re on their own. It would be fair to say that neither you nor Steve have typical vocals for the respective singing techniques you’re going for, as both growls and screams have a certain nuance to them that makes them feel like they stray from the norm somewhat.

Shelby Lermo: It is definitely something we talk about from time to time. Steve and I are both big fans of Dictius Te Necare era Bethlehem, especially the completely unhinged vocal style. I’m actually surprised more metal bands don’t take that approach. Something sounds so chaotic about a vocal performance if you are audibly losing control of it. I think that is what you’re hearing, just us screaming our guts out, to the point that we can’t control it.

Unlike most bands that aim to create an aura of mystique around them, you are consciously moving in the opposite direction by keeping things simple, honest and, dare I say, unpretentious. Is that unpretentiousness, with everything that it entails, something you take a great deal of pride in? Do you even see yourselves that way, like three guys that make loud and obnoxious music for no apparent reason, as the late Lemmy used to put it when describing what rock music is all about?

Shelby Lermo: It is very encouraging to hear you say that. We do aim to make complex, weird, insane music, but we also strive to stay unpretentious about it. I mean, there is a reason for all of it, but we leave it up to the listener to decide what that reason is.

 

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