(In this week’s edition of Waxing Lyrical, Andy Synn elicits thoughts about lyrics from Withered guitarist/vocalist Mike Thompson.)
If you don’t know the name Withered by now, stop what you’re doing and go listen to their latest oppressive opus Grief Relic (which I hailed as one of the best albums of 2016) right now.
Then, if you want to delve further back into the band’s discography, go check out Memento Mori, Folie Circulaire, and Dualitas, which I have fortuitously collected together for you here.
Now, despite being busy prepping for the band’s upcoming tour with Canadian grindmeisters Wake (which, by this point, will actually have begun), I was lucky enough to grab some time with the band’s long-serving guitarist/vocalist Mike Thompson and bully him into answering some questions for the latest edition of Waxing Lyrical.
Chris (Freeman) and I had already been writing music with me as drummer and him playing guitar in Social Infestation, and when we decided to form Withered, I said “Ok but I want to play guitar”, to which he countered “you need to do vocals with me too”.
I’ve always adhered to a “master your craft” sort of ethos and feel that, to have real ownership and passionately communicate your message, you need to be the primary creator of what you perform. And since I had never written lyrics before, Chris took the helm initially, but we also collaborated a lot and massaged things together.
I think the first lyrics I ever wrote were for the song “Among Sorrow” or maybe “Within Your Grief”. We would typically pick individual songs that spoke to each of us musically and write the lyrics, and it just went from there — although, due to the line-up changes, I’ve had to fill the gap during a lot of the writing sessions.
Usually the band will discuss themes as a group and I’ll sort of give my take on what each song is communicating, and then later on we’ll pass around lyrics and discuss any concerns. But about 90% stays intact, I’d say.
I get most inspiration just from existence, honestly. I’ll find myself in isolated thought at times and I’ll ponder the ages, psychological motivations within myself or sometimes others, and start shaping some (hopefully) new philosophical themes to run with. I’m obsessively curious with the big questions of the universe. From quantum physics to spirituality, humanity’s role in existence, etc.
Strangely enough, I find myself writing a lot on airplanes. I fly solo a lot for work or to visit friends/colleagues. There’s a real isolation 30,000 feet up and it makes it easier for me to take a big step back to look at things.
There aren’t a lot of music lyrics that stick with me. Though, Neurosis’ “Under the Surface” is loaded with great stuff. Actually, that entire album drives such an incredible mood that’s underpinned by the lyrics.
Lines like “In a burning red fog, the great mind swims in confusion” conjure images of an ancient god suffering conflict as any consciousness does.
Outside of that, if I’m to mention any of my own lines, a lot of them push my buttons live. “The Progenitor’s Grasp” has always been a strong one for me.
The lines “I can faintly recall the burn of the sun….. dwell on the lacking within…… as if to strip away the deceit and reveal the glorious perversion” really draw me into the headspace much quicker than other songs. Though everything we do resonates with me a lot.
I’ve had 13 years of experience with this band, so my writing has definitely matured a lot I think.
I traditionally struggle with whether or not I’m communicating accurately enough for my liking. When I feel a sentiment in my gut, I want so badly to put that same weight in every listener’s gut. I’ve found that it feels more effective as I’ve developed my skill for metaphorical expression and try to be more visual with the words themselves.
I’m fairly proud of what I was able to accomplish on Grief Relic in this way. It’s the most satisfactory to me overall so far.
Ugh, this will feel like a therapy session, man. Some lyrics can be a little more superficial than others and mostly “sound cool” so they may not be as personal. Especially in the older stuff. But, maybe we can look at “Among Sorrow”.
The lines themselves aren’t too poetic overall but the passage I wrote at the ending always resonated with me. It’s:
‘Sorrow’s depth returns you to that which is most basic.
Left with the pain of solitude.
Passing arrests the comfort of monotony.’
That album was generally themed around the grieving process after about 18 months of (what felt like) constant death around me. I attended probably 7 funerals and there were some towards the end I didn’t attend because I was worn from all the loss.
It wasn’t an epidemic or anything, just circumstantial. They ranged from old age (family, or the family of friends) to illness, car accidents, and even the brutal murder of a friend. That was the one where I skipped the funeral. I was numb to it all once that happened and just fell into an emotional coma. Like I was waiting for it all to be over and wake up in normal balanced life again.
Then, before it would return to normal, my father passed unexpectedly as some sort of grand finale to this ongoing experience. That forced open the flood gates emotionally and is the most lasting of all those experiences.
After somehow finding peace with all that, I had grown a lot and stared mortality in the face for a long, long time, so this passage always rips me right back to that time and reconnects me with those raw lessons.
Hmm, let’s take a look at “Distort, Engulf” and “To Glimpse Godliness” off our last album. They are actually two parts to one set of lyrics.
I write a lot of lyrics/passages before the music is written just as general thoughts or sentiments then use them when we write an appropriate piece of music.
These lyrics were written in my tour bus bunk in 2010 when we were touring for the release of Dualitas. I remember laying in my bunk (very coffin like) in the dark very late at night while everyone was asleep. Just staring deeply into the dark. I love doing this any chance I get. I can’t meditate well with my eyes closed, so finding darkness with no perceivable limit is a great sensation. I can focus on imaginary points at unmeasurable distances to help eliminate any sense of relativity.
So, that obviously fuelled the opening lines like, “As I dwell in this box, I can peer into the limitless black…”, but it really evolved into the freedom of perceiving yourself and your consciousness as a singularity. As the only thing that exists in an empty void. As what the universe might have been before anything. A pure emptiness except for your perception of it.
Such a liberating sensation only encourages creation since there is nothing else. The elimination of relativity erases good/bad, right/wrong, etc. when you can’t affect anything but yourself, morality doesn’t exist and you get as close to pure objectivity as is conceivable to then revel in the pure subjectivity and sense of glory to theoretically achieve such a thing.
So, THAT is what gave way to lines like:
‘The relief of despair overwhelms me
Knowing that tears can no longer distort my sight.
Instead, they flow to engulf my lingering weakness.
Beholding this glory is to glimpse godliness.’
Ok, I feel like I’ve wandered way off the reservation, but ultimately, I guess I’ve worked through my music to devalue my own existence and its impact on the world/universe as a whole. Not that I don’t enjoy life and my family, friends, experiences. But just on that certain scale of relativity. Those things have grown to mean everything and nothing.
Yeah, I need a fucking drink! I thought, “It’s just a few questions, I’ll knock em out real quick…”, but oh well, I sprinted down the rabbit hole once again.
Thanks so much for your continued support and the opportunity to do this. It’s the most unique interview I’ve done in a very long time. It definitely peeled back some layers for me which is great for this tour we’re going on tomorrow.
I also want to mention that we just re-released Memento Mori on cassette on my label, Atlanta Grind Productions. We did a small run of 100 copies with limited packaging and a couple of live bonus tracks on it. It’ll only be available on this tour and, if any are left afterwards, I’ll post ’em for sale online somewhere.
We’re also writing again and hope to complete a new album or something before the end of the year.
Withered’s North American tour with Wake is now in progress. The dates are shown on the flyer below… and you can easily find more of Withered’s music on Bandcamp.
Withered on Bandcamp:
Withered on Facebook: