Death metal is music by and for the underground. If you’re a fan of the style (hell, even if you’ve only heard a song or two), you understand what I mean. Screaming and growling the most disturbing, violent, and extreme lyrics that Jack Ketchum never wrote does not lend itself to mainstream appeal. Certainly some bands have made it big within the scene but, by and large, it’s still and always will be music for fans by fans where the people on stage don’t feel a huge disconnect between them and the sweating masses they’re playing for. Times and scenes change but death metal screams are still, by and large, screams from the underground.
When talking about the death metal underground in the Midwest, one would be remiss not to mention Milwaukee legends Morta Skuld. Formed in 1990, Morta Skuld has been steadily ripping corpses and uncovering fetid tombs of inspiration to delight metalheads the world over for decades (minus one prolonged hiatus). The band’s latest album, 2020’s Suffer for Nothing, showed that even the great leveller of time can’t slow down Milwaukee’s most extreme export. I recently caught up with guitarist/vocalist Dave Gregor to dive into the secrets of Morta Skuld.
First off, what is the origin of Morta Skuld? How did the band get started and what, initially, did the band want to do from a musical standpoint? How did you guys come up with the name?
Dave: The band name is Greek and Norse mythology, meaning the beginning and of life ’til our end of days. We started out as a hardcore band and then eventually decided to play death metal.
What got you guys into death metal?
Dave: That’s an easy one: DEATH!! (as in the band).
What’s the writing process like for the music side of things? Has that changed at all as time has gone on?
Dave: Like everything, stuff changes and back in the day we had more time and did write as a band, over the years it hasn’t changed much but there are some songs where one of us writes the entire song and presents it to the band to see if any changes need to be made.
What’s the writing process like for the lyrics side of things? What do you try to do with the words to a Morta Skuld song and is there anything that you turn to in particular for inspiration?
Dave: Lyrics are always a struggle and I tend to stay with what’s going on in my life kinda guy. I usually have some lyrics or title ideas and build from there.
I’m always interested in how bands got the opportunity to record their first album and what that process was like. How did getting to make “Dying Remains” come about and how much of a learning experience was the process of writing/recording that one? What did you learn making that album that you took to future recordings?
Dave: The demos that we did were really well received and the underground was really sharing our tapes and that got us a deal with Peaceville. We were young and it was just raw and we didn’t overthink it at all, all came very natural to us and we just went off our influences.
With different members coming and going over the years, what do you look for in a potential new member of the band? How do you guys maintain a healthy band dynamic through recording and touring?
Dave: We all love to play and create this music and it’s our labor of love and what we do.
What was the scene like up there in the Milwaukee area when you were starting out and what kind of changes have you seen in it over the years?
Dave: The scene back in the day was very fruitful, tons of kids, 2-300 kids every show, selling cassette tapes, you know, out the back door or [out of the] trunk of your car. I’d say the one thing that’s changed over the years is there’s definitely not as many venues around. There’s definitely plenty of bands but not a lot of places to play. I think Milwaukee has a lot of talent and it’s too bad there’s not enough venues for the smaller bands to showcase that.
After Surface the band went on an extended hiatus. What led to that and how did you know it was time to bring Morta Skuld back in 2012?
Dave: We were in the middle of recording Surface [and our] guitar player, Jason O’Connell, left after everything was finished for that particular album. So at that point we had to look for a new guitar player and, not only that, but still play to promote that record. After Morta Skuld decided to go on hiatus, I had started up another band and was doing that roughly for about eight years. Before that band came to its end, my old manager and confidant Eric Grief had got us a small entry-level deal with Relapse to put out our demos collection to see if there was any interest anymore. The Relapse compilation got us some interest and that, with Eric bugging me to just do this again, got me interested and I figured what do I got to lose and started the process of playing the early demo stuff again with the demo lineup.
What was recording that first album back, Wounds Deeper Than Time, like? Was there an adjustment to being back to recording as Morta Skuld or did you fall back into it pretty easily?
Dave: When we came to the recording process of Wounds Deeper Than Time, you knew it was definitely different. We had just recorded an EP, Serving Two Masters, and were kind of getting back into that groove. I would say my vocals were a big concern. I didn’t know where I was with that style of vocals anymore, not having been a frontman in quite a while, so it was all a learning process but I’m really happy [with] the way that album came out.
The most recent record, Suffer for Nothing, was another killer album. What was the recording/writing process like for that one? At this point, is it easier to record albums with so many under your belts or harder since you don’t want to repeat yourself?
Dave: Suffer for Nothing was one of those records in writing process that was pretty similar to records beforehand. AJ [Lewandowski] was our bass player at the time and he was starting to contribute to the songwriting process before he decided to leave, which left us with picking up the pieces of the writing process and trying to finish things that him and us both started, which would eventually become the Suffer for Nothing record.
The recording process was pretty much the same as it’s been in the past, as far as how we lay our tracks down and as far as what order [we record in], you know . . . who lays down guitars first [or] second, but definitely trying to focus on not writing the same record as we did with the previous album. I think the main difference was AJ was writing a little bit more, he had a little more input on the songs and I think that set a pretty nice tone on top. I think we were just angry and hungry, so to speak, and I think it just came out in the music. And I would say any musician that’s been in the recording studio multiple times. . . it does tend to get easier at some things but as we all get older as well some things can become challenges as well so I think it’s all about taking care of yourself, health-wise, and your instrument, whether it’s your voice your hands or feet or both.
How affected has the band been by the COVID pandemic, either in terms of recording new music or getting to play live?
Dave: It affected us like everybody else. We had a record coming out during that time. Of course people weren’t in the offices [so] there wasn’t as much promotion going around. People were definitely buying more records at that point, which was great, but obviously we can’t go out on the road. You know things, [were] just really upside down for a very long time so I think it hurt us just like every other band that does what we do.
Having been in the world of metal for decades, what do you feel the current state of the genre is? Do you feel like metal is in a stronger or weaker place than it was when you guys were starting out and why?
Dave: I think the current state of the metal scene overall is very very good. I think it’s very strong, lots of bands touring, lots of bands coming out with new records. I think it’s definitely a good sign and I think it shows us that, you know, there are a lot of fans out there that want to hear extreme music or heavy metal. It’s like anywhere else in the world or the country, you’re going to have some places that aren’t as strong for metal as other places. You know, we’ve toured the U.S. a few times and there’s definitely some cities that are better than others, but you take each city the same way: you go out there and you play 100% and even if there isn’t as many fans as you want, those fans are still there to see you and they paid to see you and it’s our job to put on our performance.
It feels like there are more bands than ever thanks to the ease of home recording and self-distribution methods like Bandcamp but that can also be a bit of a double edged sword when it comes to bands getting people to pay attention to them over all the other ones out there. What advice do you have to younger bands starting out about making something that connects with the fans and that lasts?
Dave: I don’t really know if I have any advice, to be honest with you, as I’m an older guy playing this style of music. I can say that these younger bands are definitely blowing up pretty quickly and it just shows you that this style of music is still sought after and people still want to hear the evolving versions of it. We are fortunate our fans support us the way they do and we always want to let them know [that] without them, we are nothing.
Being that Morta Skuld has been going since the 90s, what keeps bringing you back to making this style of music and this band? What is it about Morta Skuld that has made you want to dedicate a large portion of your adult life to the band?
Dave: I really love this question because people don’t realize how dedicated you have to be in order to play this style of music, not only practicing with your band but also, you know, self-practice, not to mention if you are the leader or the business person of your band, that’s another whole responsibility as well. I really think it’s just something that’s in my blood and it’s just kind of like breathing, you know? You just…it’s just something natural and I think it’s something that I started off as kind of a hobby, thinking I was going to, you know, be a Metallica-size band to recording Dying Remains and having the cult classic following that we have.
Lastly, what’s next for Morta Skuld? What are your goals for the future of the band?
Dave: Well, right now our goals are to finish the new record and hopefully be in the studio by March of 2023 and also, with Dying Remains having its 30th anniversary next year, we are trying to do a special dining room set for portions of next year. We do have some small tours coming up, possibly a European and a West Coast run so other than that, I guess in a nutshell, relearn some older songs and try to finish writing the new record. I think you and all your readers for everything and I appreciate all your support and remember, you can purchase any of our back catalog stuff, including the new 30th anniversary edition of Dying Remains next year, at Peaceville Records. Thank you.
Photo at top: Album cover for Suffer for Nothing.