photos by Samantha Marble
I don’t consider myself a very good interviewer, which is why I don’t do it very often. Of course, this means that my deficiencies in skill are compounded by inexperience. But I really, really like the new album by Brooklyn-based Mortals — Cursed To See the Future — and when I learned more about the fascinating backgrounds and day jobs of the three women in the band, I felt I had to put my insecurities aside and try to talk with them.
And that happened last week. It started as a Facebook chat and ended via e-mail, and I had a blast. I also learned a valuable lesson about interviewing: When the people you’re questioning are smart, funny, and really interesting, the resulting interview can be highly entertaining even when you, the interviewer, don’t know what you’re doing. You just have to keep the subjects talking.
In this case, the subjects were Caryn Havlik (drums), Elizabeth Cline (guitar), and Lesley Wolf (vocal and bass) – and I’m very grateful to them for giving me so much of their time (and for indulging all the jock questions).
Before getting to the questions and answers, I think it’s important that you listen to a Mortals song or two, just in case you don’t know what they sound like. Because when you hear the way they sound, I think it’s going to make the conversation even more interesting. So, listen to these:
Thank you all for carving out some time to talk with me. I really am going to get to the music, but I’m so fascinated by what all three of you do when you’re NOT playing music — both in your day jobs and in your spare time — that I have to start there.
Caryn, I read that you’ve been a drummer for more than 20 years and that you teach drumming, but I gather you’re also an assistant radio producer for New York Public Radio (WNYC) and a competitive softball player on three different teams? All true?
Caryn: Verily, yes.
I also read that you have a college degree in Japanese Language and Literature and that you’re a “kamikaze biker”. Not to suggest there’s any connection between the two, but what the hell does a “kamikaze biking” involve?
Caryn: The softball part was sort of a job requirement of the assistantship. Kamikaze biking is yelling and doing suicidal things by bike on NYC streets.
Elizabeth: She’s being modest about the softball. She loves it.
I thought that was just normal New York biking.
Elizabeth: Caryn isn’t a normal NYC biker. She screams at the top of her lungs through every intersection.
That seems like a highly adaptive survival skill.
Caryn: That is how I have evolved, yes.
Elizabeth: She’s still with us somehow.
Caryn: Japanese degree is not really related but boy do I use that every day… (zen zen yakuni tatanai.)
OK, we’re only a few questions in and you’ve already soared over my head.
Caryn: (Totally useless)
Back to the softball, you kind of made it sound like you were a ringer for the WNYC team, what with the softball being sort of a job requirement. Are you a slugger or a pitcher or both?
Caryn: Slugger in the olden days, more of a defensive threat ringer type now. Never an effective pitcher. I enjoying chasing down long balls. Heh.
Caryn: I am an outfielder by choice.
This is one of the reasons I moved from outfielder to catcher when I played baseball. My natural field positioning instincts were such that everything was over my head.
Caryn: Ha. Well punned, sir. Did you see the handy softball tips in Decibel a few months ago? I stand by everything.
I did see that. [“How Not To Suck at Softball” in the May 2014 issue.] I’m guessing that as a sports enthusiast you’ve been watching the World Cup?
Caryn: Omg. Yes. Bandmates now roll eyes.
Elizabeth: Yes. We watched the Netherlands and Mexico as a band and got drunk. It was great fun.
Caryn: I can’t believe NED just went down. So sad.
Lots of tragedy in this event. I can’t say that the World Cup means anything to me, but I did feel for Brazil, sort of like I feel when I read about innocent lives snuffed out in some cataclysmic natural disaster. That was brutal.
Caryn: My crush Dailey Blind having to play Brazil w/o Neymar for 3rd place. Injustice! He is a Dutch defender.
So who’s going to win the whole thing?
Caryn: Deutschland. Uber alles. 3-1 Germany. Argentina might put up a fight and do all kinds of dumb dives, but Germany will emerge victorious.
Well, maybe you’ll wake me when it’s all over so I’ll know whether you called it right?
Caryn: Oh. So you could care less? Sure. Now then, how about that puppy bowl?
Hey, it’s not my fault that I grew up in central Texas at a time when the word “football” had one and only one meaning.
Caryn: Cue explosions in the sky.
I know, I know. Okay, it’s time for me to bother Elizabeth so she doesn’t feel left out.
Elizabeth: Dude I grew up in rural Georgia and went to every single football game in my town from ages 10 to 17. I feel you.
Finally, some sympathy for being a soccer Neanderthal. I don’t get much of that among most of the people I know these days. By which I mean I live in Seattle now.
Caryn: How bout your Sounders! Your MLS team is killer!
So I hear. But barely, because the SEAHAWKS ARE SO DAMNED LOUD!
Elizabeth: My family are rabid Georgia Bulldog fans. I get into it when I’m home, but the professional teams all these northerners cheer for don’t interest me.
You have the misfortune of being in Giants/Jets land. Of course almost everything else about NY is cool (I say that as a visitor of course). How long have you lived in NYC?
Elizabeth: Too long. I try to run away to the south as often as possible. But ya know I’ve got a pretty good thing going here with Mortals and my journalism career.
Caryn: It’s kind of high – larious that this is going the way of – what Mortals thinks about sports.
Elizabeth: Also have you smelled our garbage in the summer? It’s delightful.
Um, just the one time. Most of my visits have been in spring, fall, or winter. On the subject of Mortals and sports, I had some jock questions for Lesley too but I don’t think she’s with us, so I’ll ask this of Elizabeth…
Elizabeth: I went to college in Syracuse because I was a straight-edge vegan as a kid and moved to NYC from there and have been here since. Okay ready…
Your bio lists a college degree in political philosophy and articles written for such publications as The Nation, New Yorker.com, The Village Voice, and The New Republic, plus regular public speaking appearances as well as televised interviews on NBC Nightly News and MSNBC. And you’ve written a widely reviewed and critically praised book called “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”. How does someone with those kinds of accomplishments also have another side of life that involves writing music and performing in an extreme metal band?
Caryn: Hahaha… Looks like you are pinned down.
Elizabeth: My dad put it best: It’s a rare and fortunate person who gets to ride two horses at the same time.
Your dad sounds like a wise man. But why these two particular horses? I think most people wouldn’t find them the most natural pairing.
Lesley: I’m here and can answer jock questions.
Oh good! I’ll be through pestering Elizabeth in a few minutes, depending on whether she tries to get evasive on that last question.
Elizabeth: They go together perfectly in mind. They both combine emotion and intellect. The only dissonance I feel is when I have on a fucking blazer and I’m on the news and I wonder what my metal friends would say if they saw me. And actually they are excited for me and proud.
Caryn: Really proud!
photo by Fred Pessaro
So, I’m not surprised that at least some of your metal friends know about the other side of your life. But in the literary and journalistic circles in which you move, how well known is it that you’re a guitarist for a metal band?
Elizabeth: Um it’s becoming more known. I used to try to keep the worlds separate but it’s not really possible anymore. Everybody gets excited about it. I just saw my book agent today and the first thing I told him was that our album was out. And he was stoked.
I also have 2 lives that I’ve so far succeeded in keeping separate (for the most part), so I understand it’s both difficult sometimes and also not entirely satisfying.
Elizabeth: Do tell! What’s your other life? Honestly when you start digging into the metal scene, so many people have multifaceted lives. Metal can’t be everything, right?
I’d be pretty happy if it were, actually. Anyway, there are some reasons why I keep my 2 lives separate, so I’m afraid I’m going to dodge that question and ask you another: In a nutshell, for those who are unfamiliar with “Overdressed”, what’s it about?
Elizabeth: It’s about how the global fashion industry has turned clothing into a cheap disposable commodity that is driving up consumption and wreaking havoc on the environment and worker’s rights.
Next one should be for Lesley cuz we need to get to practicing if that’s cool.
Absolutely. Okay, Lesley, time to embarrass you next. You also have a college degree from Syracuse, in fashion design, and work as a designer for a sock manufacturing company in Manhattan. What’s involved in designing socks?
[At this point we started experiencing technical problems with FB chat, and we were near the end of our allotted time anyway, so the remaining questions were sent and answered by e-mail]
Lesley: You have to have understanding of yarns, knitting, needle counts/gauge, and being proficient on Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop (this is stripping it down to pretty bare bones). My job is awesome for a few reasons, mainly I really like my fellow designers who I work with and the company allows me to be an hourly employee so I can set my own schedule around touring and playing shows.
Lesley, what do you think of Elizabeth’s book?
Lesley: Embarrassed to say I haven’t read it yet but I do have a copy. Elizabeth and I see eye to eye on the problems she discusses in her book. I think it’s sad how people purchase items without any thought to where it comes from or the impact it makes on the planet, not just in fashion but also electronics, cars, food, etc. I am always repairing my clothing when it’s worn out instead of just buying new; I reuse as much of EVERYTHING that I possibly can. I hope her book can ultimately teach some people out there to make adjustments to their buying habits that will make a difference in what’s demanded in the market.
Seems like you have an athletic background, too, since you were on the women’s crew team at Syracuse, which is a grueling sport. Do you ever get out on the water in a shell any more, or was it one of those experiences you couldn’t wait to escape?
Lesley: I went to the alumni gathering last fall and got in an 8-person shell for the first time since I graduated college. We did some warm-ups and then a 500-meter race piece (which is nothing), and I am pretty sure that within the first 50 meters I was thinking to myself WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING!
Kind of an off-the-wall question, but how did you learn how to howl and shriek in such convincingly demonic fashion?
Lesley: A lot of listening to bands informed me on what I like and more so what I don’t like in vocals within heavy music; I try to emulate those I admire the most. Self-taught, I guess. My vocals didn’t sound this way in early Mortals, either. It’s another natural progression of where we’ve been going over the years. Our current sound would not be complimented with cleanly sung vocals.
The kind of music Mortals plays does seem to have evolved significantly since the earliest days, becoming darker, heavier, and more intense and extreme as time has passed. Why do you think that has happened?
Caryn: I think that each of us is exploring darker, heavier, bleaker, and more violent music on our own time, and sharing the listening with the others. I think it’s a natural progression. I, for one, am sick to death metal of gentle music and how it is pushed at drugstores, coffee shops, or healthy food stores or restaurants as background. More black metal in coffee shops, please.
As you know, I’m a big fan of the new album. The music on it is really a whirlwind tour of so many styles of heavy music, from black metal to sludge, doom, thrash, and more, but it doesn’t sound stitched together at all. All the connections seem natural. It sounds like the work of people who were really steeped in heavy metal and many of its variations for a really long time. When and how did you each get into metal?
Caryn: Well, thank you! I was a hair metal aficionado for my formative years. Mötley Crüe was one of the first shows I went to as a 12-13 year old, and I really liked Def Leppard. I discovered Iron Maiden and Metallica a few years later, around the same time I started to figure out beer and boys. When I switched to a different high school, I wound up pursuing the industrial route like Ministry, RevCo, and Front 242, while also receiving a quick tour through the metal canon of the big four and others, thanks to friends in a band called Chronic Hallitosis.
After a college immersion in the Pixies, some Brit-pop bands like Kitchens of Distinction, and a detour with playing trumpet in a ska band, I didn’t really come back around to metal until I was recruited to be part of the Slayer cover band with Lesley. I will say that learning all of those Dave Lombardo drum parts totally did the devil’s work of reigniting the holy flame of metals, and I haven’t looked back. Only forward to the NORTH, and I’m listening to things from there, plus a lot of USBM, along with swamp, sludge, and stoner metal. Oh, and brass bands from the world over.
Elizabeth: I grew up in the hardcore scene and came to metal later, and that progression is still very evident in the kinds of riffs I write. In the early 2000s, I was heavily influenced by “post” bands like At the Drive-In, Don Caballero, Oxes, and Blood Brothers. In Mortals, we just naturally ditched that sound and started getting heavier after a few years. I eventually found my musical home in contemporary American metal because it’s so compositionally complex and open to experimentation. I’m talking specifically about bands like Baroness, Mastodon, Kylesa, and High on Fire, really, who showed me 6 or 7 years ago that this scene is where some real artistry and total breaking of rules is taking place. I started to get more into European and American black metal, thrash, and death metal in recent years, but I continue to be very open-minded about listening and writing music. The fewer rules, the better.
Lesley: I was going to punk and hardcore shows growing up in Syracuse NY and I remember thinking at the time that I liked the atmosphere of the shows but not ever being blown away by the music or musicians. The bands/artists I listened to then that are still in my music library today are really eclectic, from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and WuTang. When I moved to NYC it was a swift immersion into the punk scene and closely linked metal scene, and I soon found myself going to metal shows more and more, playing music with like-minded folks, and here I am now. I remember the first time I listened to In the Nightside Eclipse, around 2006 (late, I know). It was the first black metal album I’d ever heard, and it totally changed me.
photo by Nadya Wasylko
You each have such different other lives outside of metal. What attracts you to it? What is it about the music and/or the scene that you need?
Caryn: I think the directness and unrestrained passion of metal fans, as well as feeling like I’m somehow harnessing metal’s great power as we play, attracts me the most. Then, there’s the community aspect of it, which I NEVER felt playing music in other bands. I love meeting our tribe as we travel and play shows. Plus, there’s a healthy bit of respect for the music makers, which I also didn’t feel so much in other scenes.
Going back to how eclectic the music of Mortals is, could you describe the creative process? How do you manage to integrate so many different strands of heavy music into your own compositions?
Caryn: Well. Lately, a Mortals song happens like this: Elizabeth will bring a cluster of riffs which may or may not have weird time signatures in them. Lesley will add her anchoring bass lines, and write some more riffs off of those riffs. Sometimes, I’ll hear something that just fits the riff, and if I don’t, I make frustrated faces and put placeholder drum parts to all of these parts to try and hold the song germ together anyhow. I will probably then decide that my thrash part doesn’t sound Dave-enough, and try out a Des-like part instead, or that the blast beat I’m playing doesn’t fit, or I’ll just pray to Aesop to grant me inspiration.
Or we play back a part of a song by a band we admire to try and figure out how they have achieved a not-dumb sounding transition. We will play the parts in the same or different orders. Elizabeth and/or Lesley get bored with what they are playing and tweak it. A lot. We decide that we hate most of the song or each other, scrap at least 2/3 of it, make up & drink whiskey together, and then surgically replace parts of the song. Eventually a flow is achieved that makes us all tingly to play it. When the song map and structure seems solid enough, Lesley consults the Warrior Whale to find lyrics she has written, sings some place-holder vocals, and we kick the song around for a few practices. If we like it, it gets born; if it needs more massaging, we do that.
I guess that the song riffs and germs will necessarily draw from all that we have listened to. Perhaps that eclecticism is us just playing what we like, no matter what it is, after we have figured out how to combine and recombine ideas. I threw a reggaeton part into our newest song. Because I wanted to.
I’m sure there are knuckle-draggers in every genre of music, so I don’t mean to suggest that metal is unique, but have you ever run into dudes in the scene who either don’t take you seriously or have tried to put you down for being in a metal band, especially one that’s exclusively female?
Caryn: Nope. And I will say that if we have, they haven’t found the body yet.
What advice would you give to other women who might be thinking about trying to break into metal as musicians?
Caryn: This goes for everyone. Learn your craft well. Play with whomever you want to play with, not merely other people who are the same as you. Go out and kill it. Then, find other friend-bands, and do it some more. Get in a van. Do the same thing in other cities. Pack more underwear than you think you will need. Be as enthusiastic as you want to be. Say thank you, and in general, be respectful, smart, and communicative.
Cursed To See the Future is out now on Relapse Records. It’s available for sale on Bandcamp (here) as well as iTunes and Amazon, and it can be streamed below. Mortals has a Facebook page at this location.