Ross Markonish of OGRE interviewed by Luke Hayhurst of Northern Darkness Zine
I decided a while ago that whilst I love black metal, Northern Darkness has become rather heavily focused on the frost and chill of Scandinavia’s favourite expert. With that in mind Issue 6 was always going to be more of a doom metal orientated release, after all doom is where my heart truly lies! What better way then, to start off Issue 6 than with a lengthy and absorbing discussion with Ross Markonish, the guitarist of Maine’s and indeed the world’s most superb heavy and doom metal band… OGRE!
Lets start with a simple ice breaker, how are things currently in the Ogre camp?
Right now, I think I speak for the rest of the crew when I say that we are all pretty psyched about all the cool OGRE reissues that have come out recently. In addition to Minotauro Records’ deluxe CD reissues of our first two albums, we also finally got an OGRE album out on vinyl, with the Pariah Child/Yoshiwara Collective release of our latest album, The Last Neanderthal. I’m not sure what we did to deserve all this deluxe treatment, but I must say that it feels pretty damn cool!
Well seeing as you brought the topic up, let’s start with “The Last Neanderthal”. What we’re your inspirations behind its conception? Having given the record a fair few spins it certainly feels like there is quite a diversity to the subject matter on offer?
Well, there are a couple of factors that sort of influenced how “Neanderthal” came about. The first is that the whole album was conceived after an almost five year hiatus from the band. For various reasons, we had decided to take a break from the band in 2009, after 10 years together. We played a big “farewell show” and all that jazz, but eventually, we got the itch again and started jamming, probably around late 2013. Somewhat to our surprise, all these new riffs started to materialize, and before we knew it, we had an album on our hands. It really came together quickly!
The other factor that influenced our approach to “Neanderthal” was the fact that our prior album, “Plague of the Planet”, was a single-song, 37 minute concept album that was pretty ambitious in scope and style. As much as we all were very happy with how “Plague” came out, we all agreed that we wouldn’t try to replicate it, and if and when we wrote another album, it would consist of individual songs. In fact, we originally tossed around the idea of only writing songs that were 3-4 minutes long, but as you can tell from “Neanderthal”, that idea didn’t last long!
All of that said, I think that one defining quality of all our albums (even including “Plague”) is the diverse approach we take to song writing. We always try to include up-tempo songs next to heavy doom epics next to riff rock (with some bits of prog thrown in!), all while trying to make it as cohesive as possible. We even go so far as to make sure we don’t have too many songs in the same key, so that the listener gets a lot of variety throughout the album. Too often, many otherwise great doom metal albums suffer because, after a while, all the songs start to sound the same…
What we’re the reasons behind the band being put on ice? Also what contributed to the “itch” returning?
In terms of the initial hiatus, it was a combination of things, mostly due to stuff in our personal lives that prevented us from putting 100% into the band. Ed and I both have families, and with things getting more and more complicated, we realized that it was time to take a break. At just around that time, we had booked a big gig to celebrate 10 years as a band, so we figured we would just turn that into a celebratory “farewell” show, rather than quietly fizzling out as so many bands do. I think it was the right move at the time. The “itch” is a little harder to explain (and please don’t take that statement literally, ladies!). I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but for some reason or another, we thought it would be fun to just get together and jam again. Since the initial “break-up” in 2009, Will and I continued to play together in the heavy psych band Dementia Five, but we hadn’t jammed with Ed since that “farewell” show. Anyway, we got together in Will’s basement and the energy was good. In fact, by the end of that first practice, we already were working on writing what would eventually become “Nine Princes of Amber”, the opening track of “Neanderthal.” As I already mentioned, other riffs soon started flowing, we played a couple of gigs, and then decided to record the album. The way it came together was all really organic and a helluva a lot of fun.
Was there any external pressure from fans or the media to reform? I imagine you must have had gig offers, fan requests etc. during your hiatus?
As much as I would love to say that fans were screaming for a reunion, I can’t really say that was the case! We definitely got requests to play local shows here and there, but for the most part, people were really cool and respectful of our decision. One thing that’s always been great about this scene is how supportive everyone has been of whatever we do.
Getting back to Neanderthal, now that it’s completed what are your overall thoughts on the finished work?
We really couldn’t be any happier about how the album came out. While I’ll always be especially proud of what we were able to accomplish with “Plague of the Planet”, I think that, taken as a whole, “Neanderthal” is likely our best album and probably the most representative of all the different aspects of our song writing. Also, I think it’s the first of our albums where the production really captures our live sound—it’s really in-your-face but dynamic at the same time. To be honest, I have trouble listening to our first two albums, which are a bit rough around the edges, but by the time we recorded “Plague” and, especially, “Neanderthal”, I think that we finally figured out the whole recording thing. Marc Bartholomew, the guy who engineered and mixed the album, deserves a special shout-out for all the amazing production work he did. We’ve worked with Marc for a while now, and he is just amazing at capturing the vintage sound we are aiming for. Even though the album was recorded digitally, we’ve had plenty of reviewers and listeners comment on the “warm, analog sound” of the album, which I attribute primarily to Marc’s efforts.
So you have been working with the same guy for a while… what do you put the increase in sound quality and atmosphere too?
It’s hard to say exactly, but I think a big part of it simply has to do with confidence. With a few albums under our collective belt, I think we had a good sense of what to expect in the studio and what we needed to do to make sure that this album sounded the way it was supposed to. I also think that working in a familiar studio with the same sound engineer made it all a hell of a lot easier on everyone. Compared to the recording of our first three records, everything just felt way more relaxed this time around, and I think it shows in the performance. In the past, I’ve always hated the tracking stage of recording an album—there’s too much pressure to perform, budget limitations loom over head, and the environment can sometimes feel too artificial—but with “Neanderthal” I had a lot of fun during the recording stage.
That being the case, would you say that you personally feel more comfortable on stage that in a studio environment?
Absolutely….Even though I do love the whole process of creating an album (especially the mixing stage, when all the pieces start coming together), I still prefer the rush of being on stage and playing loud music in front of a bunch of enthusiastic fans. Even those shows when we have really small crowds (of which there have been many!), all it takes is one dude in the audience banging his head to the music to make it a good gig. Our Portland fans, in particular, are an incredible bunch—they can make even an introverted dork like me feel like a rock star!
I think that, if we had bigger budgets and, therefore, more time to spend in the studio, I would probably like it a whole lot better, as I really enjoy experimenting and tinkering around a bit in the studio. For example, when we recorded our “Seven Hells” album, the first thing I saw when I stepped into the studio was a vintage Mellotron. We had no plans to put any keyboards on the record, but the second I saw it, I was like, “That HAS to make it on there somewhere!” Sure enough, I ended up playing it on “Flesh Feast” off that album, where it added a really cool atmospheric layer to the song. Similarly, on “Neanderthal”, the studio had just acquired a fully working Leslie speaker cabinet with rotating speaker and everything. Again, with no prior plans, I knew that I had to use it, which I did on
several songs, most notably the middle section of “The Hermit.” If I had more time to do that sort of stuff, I would love the studio, but alas, it’s been more of a “one-and-done” sort of situation for our records. Of course, I realize that banging out the tunes pretty quickly is often for the better, as you want to capture that live energy and you don’t want the songs to be too overwrought, but at the same time, it’s that rushed pressure that I’m not too crazy about when it comes to studio recording.
I’d like to discuss “Neanderthal” in some depth if I may? For me this is going to be one of the very best albums released year and like all truly classic albums it starts with a really breath taking opener, “Nine Princes in Amber”. Can you tell the readers the story behind this track?
In a sense, “Nine Princes” was the song that really kicked off the whole decision to record a new album. If I remember correctly, we came up with the riff during our very first rehearsal after the split in 2009, and by the end of that night, we pretty much had the whole song written. It more or less wrote itself, to be honest. At that point, we hadn’t even decided to record a new album, but we had a “reunion” gig booked and we figured it would be cool to have a new song to debut, so we set about to tighten up the arrangement and add lyrics. Ed, at the time, was re-reading one of his favourite sci-fi series—Roger Zelazny’s “Chronicles of Amber”—and he ended up writing some cool lyrics based around the first book of the series, which also is titled “Nine Princes of Amber”. Given our penchant for writing songs with sci-fi themes as well as the song’s up-tempo vibe, it seemed like the perfect tune to kick start the new album!
“Bad trip” feels much more doom metal orientated, both in context and in its slower, more groove driven riffs and melody! Would you say you deliberately tried to fuse a little early Sabbath into proceedings at this point?
I think it goes without saying that early Sabbath are our biggest influence, and it usually doesn’t take us long to slow things down and bring out the doom. Interestingly enough, the main riff for “Bad Trip” was something that I came up with right after we finished “Plague of the Planet”, so it was actually a song we already were working on back when we decided to split up in 2009. Jumping ahead four years, after we wrote “Nine Princes” and agreed to work on a new album, Will and I unearthed a rehearsal tape that contained the original jams from back in 2009 when we were first working on this riff. We ended up keeping the basic doom riff and then added in the quiet middle and the fast jam parts, and before we knew it, we had an epic on our hands. “Bad Trip” is quite possibly my favourite song on the album, as it has a little bit of every musical trick in the OGRE handbook. Will’s drum performance is especially epic.
I love the lyrics to “Son of Sisyphus”, a working man trudging through an ordinary working class life with little excitement. How close to home does this particular story fall?
Ed writes most of the lyrics for the band, and the words for “Sisyphus” were his baby, start to finish. Speaking for Ed, I can say that the lyrics definitely hit close to home for him, as he quit his job not long after writing the song! Even though the lyrics are sort of personal for him, I think we all can relate to that feeling of being stuck in a shitty, dead-end job that you think you’re never going to escape from, so there’s definitely some blue-collar universal appeal in those words. Interestingly enough, Ed didn’t finish the lyrics for “Sisyphus” until moments before we recorded it in the studio! I still remember the three of us, hunched over his hand-written lyrics, trying to think up some Greek mythology stories, so that he could finish the final verse before we recorded it. It was all pretty ridiculous in a Spinal Tap sort of way, but thankfully, he was able to pull something together!
I’d say the most intriguing track, lyrically speaking, is “Warpath”, a touch of local history behind this one perhaps?
Yeah, that song’s actually about some events that happened in York, Maine back during the time of the French-Indian War. We had written the music for the song and were trying to come up with some lyric ideas, when I came across an article on-line about a supposed “witch” who haunts the town of York, which actually is Will’s hometown. I wrote some rough lyrics and sent them to Ed, who ended up reworking them to focus more on the historical events surrounding a raid by Abenaki Indians on the people of Old York back in the late 17th century. The fact that the raid took place on Candlemas was just too doom metal to pass up, and the whole Indian raid concept was a perfect fit for the galloping groove of that song, so all the pieces quickly fell into place. I agree with you that Ed came up with some great lyrics for that one.
“Neanderthal” closes with “The Hermit” which feels like part fantasy, part love story… how close to the truth am I?
Actually, “The Hermit” is another bit of Maine ‘history’, albeit much more recent history. The song is based on the true story of a man named Christopher Knight, who dropped out of life in the mid-1980s and, without telling anyone, disappeared into the deep Maine woods, where he lived alone for over 25 years. During that time, he became this weird local myth/legend, as all sorts of people would report sightings of some strange guy in the woods, but no one ever really had direct encounters with him. Real creepy, Stephen King material, for sure. Anyway, after years of raiding local camps for food and supplies, he was finally caught and arrested back in 2013, right when we were working on the record. The material was just too good to pass up, so Ed ended up writing these cool lyrics, imagining what may have been going through Knight’s head all those years in the woods and leading up to his arrest. As Ed has proven so many times on our albums, real life sometimes is the best material for doom metal lyrics. Who needs Satan and H.P. Lovecraft when you’ve got the North Pond Hermit in your backyard!
So this Knight is like Maine’s Jersey Devil to some extent? What happened to the guy following his arrest? Also with regards to Ogre, is this a theme that you try to incorporate into all your work at some point? The local histories and flavours. Are there any interesting stories that you are still intending to use? Any spoilers for me?
There hasn’t been much recent news about the Hermit, but I think that Knight quietly served out his sentence and is just trying to acclimate to “real” life. The cool thing is that, after his arrest, he took on a bit of a “cult hero” status, as people were amazed at his ability to survive off-the-grid for so many years. Mainers are a pretty resilient bunch, so the idea of hunkering down and surviving in the wilderness somehow seems a perfect image for so many people who live here (ignoring all of the Hermit’s thievery, of course!).
Though “Neanderthal” is the first album where we have delved so deeply into Maine history, we definitely have a trend of mining the darker side of history for lyrical content. When he’s not reading sci-fi novels, Ed is usually reading some sort of history book, and those influences tend to pop up in our songs. Roman Centurions, the Black Plague, Japanese kamikaze pilots, Vietnam atrocities, Hun invaders—all made appearances in our songs over the years.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any spoilers to reveal here, but I do think it would be cool to use more Maine history/mythology in the future. There’s just so much weird stuff that goes on here, especially as you head further north, that I’m sure we could fill several albums with bizarre tales of Mainers, past and present. Not surprisingly, one of my favourite record shops in Portland is appropriately called “Strange Maine”!
What is Maine like as a place to live? As someone who lives outside the US looking in, Maine feels detached from most people’s idea of what America is like. Do you feel there is some truth to this?
Great question! Maine definitely has its own vibe that’s pretty hard to put into words, but I love living here. This state is a weird study of contrasts…Most of the population is crammed into the lower third of the state, which is also where much of the tourism industry is focused. Lots of people from Massachusetts and other New England states flock to Maine in the summer as an “escape” from “real life”, so there’s definitely that sense of detachment you were talking about. And, as you move further and further north, things start to spread out in crazy ways with fewer and fewer people and wider expanses of land. Mountains, beaches, huge lakes, potato fields…we’ve got it all here.
The people of Maine are an eclectic bunch as well. You’ve got millionaires living on the coast and then, just a few miles inland, you’ve got people in the depths of poverty living in trailers. You’ve got stoic lobstermen and true-blood Mainers in the Down east area of the state, and then you’ve got the city of Portland, which I think is one of the greatest small cities in America. Really funky vibe, lots of cool shops, restaurants, clubs, a great art and music scene and it’s all small enough so that everyone (for the most part) is really friendly and supportive of one another.
In many ways, Maine is like the quintessential classic American state, but at the same time, it really does feel like its own world, at the edges of civilization and separated from the rest of the country.
Would you say that the atmosphere and aesthetics of Maine life is conducive to creating metal, and in particular heavy and doom metal?
Yeah, I think you could say that…especially in the dead of winter, which can get pretty bleak around here. Considering the size of Portland, there’s actually a pretty healthy heavy music scene here, and people tend to go crazy over metal in general. I’d like to believe that some of that can be attributed to the Maine “aesthetic” that you asked about.
Are there any bands local to you that you’d recommend?
Eldemur Krimm are an incredible band who play a unique combination of bluesy stoner rock mixed with some more aggressive Clutch-like riffery and weird Zappa-esque flourishes. Their lead singer, Fred Dodge, is almost 7-feet tall, a quintessential Mainer, and something of a legend around these parts. He also plays a mean guitar. Krimm and OGRE have a long history together, as we both started around the same time and played a bunch of shows together over the years. Krimm also took a long hiatus around the same time that we did, but they are back in action, which is a great thing for the Portland scene.
In terms of currently active bands, other heavy hitters right now include Murcielago, who play classic straight-up stoner rock, and Hessian, who worship at the altar of late 70s/early 80s NWOBHM and classic lo-fi metal bands. Both of those groups have developed a pretty big following in town and have recently released debut records. I’d also include a shout out to Sunrunner, whose style is a bit hard to define but mostly fall into the prog metal camp. They were recently signed to Minotauro Records, who put out the CD of “The Last Neanderthal”, so they are a band to look out for in the future.
Getting back to Ogre, I’ve also been listing to what I believe is a new 7″ entitled “Soulless Woman/Naked Lady”. It has a much more heavy metal feel to it. What can you tell me about it?
I hope you can bear with me for a bit, as there’s quite a story behind that 7″, which is an exclusive release that comes packaged with the 12″ vinyl edition of “Neanderthal.” “Soulless Woman” is a song that we recorded with the rest of the album, and on the CD version, it is sequenced among the other tracks, right between “Son of Sisyphus” and “Warpath”. “Soulless Woman” is actually a cover of a song by an uber-obscure 70s rock band from Idaho named….Ogre. They never released anything and mostly played bars and such. Well, about six or seven years ago, we were contacted by a guy who was the brother of one of the members of the original 70s Ogre. This guy was searching the web to see if there was any info on his brother’s band, and he came across our stuff. Considering that he grew up in the late 60s/early 70s, he really dug the vibe that we had going on, and he ended up sending us all these rehearsal tapes and live shows by the 70s Ogre. Even though Will and I pride ourselves on our knowledge of all sorts of obscure 70s rock bands, this was a band that NO ONE had ever heard of before, so we didn’t know what to expect. Well, those tapes, as roughly recorded as they were, more than met our expectations. Among covers of songs by The Stooges and Alice Cooper, there were two or three cool originals, including a prime slice of riff rock called “Soulless Woman”. We loved the song and vowed to record it someday…OGRE covers Ogre! Flash forward to 2013…We had written pretty much the whole album and studio time was booked, but we felt like the album needed one more song. Not more than a week or two before we hit the studio, I brought up the idea of covering “Soulless Woman”, we practiced it one or two times, and then we thrashed it out in one take in the studio. Initially, we debated about whether to include it on the final CD, as it really does have a different vibe from the rest of the record, but we figured why not? Much to our surprise, many reviewers have had good things to say about it!
When Danny at Pariah Child approached us about releasing a vinyl version of the album, one of the first challenges we faced was the album length, which was just a few minutes too long for good quality vinyl. That’s when I proposed the idea of taking “Soulless Woman” out of the track listing and putting it on a bonus 7″ to really maximize the vinyl format. The question, of course, was what to include on the B-side. We figured another cover song would be a cool idea, and before we knew it, we all agreed to record a song by The Bags, a Boston-based hard rock band who were local heroes back in the early 90s. The pieces all fell into place when we decided on “Naked Lady”, one our favourite songs by The Bags. The whole concept of “Soulless Woman” b/w “Naked Lady” was too good to pass up—hard rock misogyny at its finest! Once Danny agreed to the whole 12″/7″ vinyl package, we booked some studio time and, as with “Soulless Woman”, we quickly recorded “Naked Lady” in a take or two.
In the end, I think it was an inspired idea, if I do say so myself. With “Soulless Woman” out of the mix, “Neanderthal” really coheres, especially in terms of the A side/B side split of the vinyl. And the 7″ is just awesome, especially once Will came up with the amazing artwork for it. I have the 7″ sleeve on display in my music room, and I crack up laughing every time I look at it!
Well it certainly was an inspired decision indeed. What I will say to all those reading is that if you have a record player, get the vinyl version of the album with the additional 7″ as Ogre’s music is meant for wax!! Right now though I’m going to call a halt to proceedings because this could go on forever haha! It’s been a pleasure for me to speak with you and to learn more about Ogre. I shall leave the closing words to you if you’d like to tell everyone what to expect from ogre towards the end of this year and going into 2016…
Well, as we like to say in OGRE-land, at the moment the Beast has gone back into its cave. In other words, we’re pretty much laying low right now, mostly just focusing on promoting the vinyl release of “Neanderthal”. However, Will and I do have another project that I’d like to mention here. When OGRE initially split up in 2009, Will and I briefly played in a heavy psych band called Dementia Five. We played a bunch of shows in Portland and even went into the studio to record an album, which has been in the vaults until now. Just recently, though, Will decided to put it up for download on Bandcamp, and Danny from Pariah Child/Yoshiwara was so into the album that he is putting out a limited edition cassette version this summer! Though D5 has a different vibe from OGRE, I think our fans will dig the album. It’s certainly still heavy, but whereas OGRE is primarily a doom band with 70s rock influences, D5 is more influenced by garage and psych rock of the late 60s…Blue Cheer, early Deep Purple, MC5, maybe a little 13th Floor Elevators. There’s organ/keyboards on every track and vocals are quite capably handled by Will’s wife Peri. Stay tuned to the OGRE and Dementia Five Facebook pages for more information on this release…
And that’s about it for now! Thanks, Luke, for an awesome interview…I had a blast answering your excellent questions, and I agree with you that we probably could have gone on for a lot longer. Hopefully, I won’t bore your readers with all of my babbling! Thanks again for all the support, and stay heavy!
This interview originally appeared in Issue 6 of Northern Darkness Print Zine