Mercenary – Forward Momentum in the End Times

Sunday, 17th September 2023

Photo: Lucas Peter Bunk

When it comes to a strong musical blend of melodic death, groove, and power metal, Mercenary seem to check all the boxes of creative flow throughout their long history. Even amidst the lineup shifts or label changes, quality has been paramount to the group’s loyal fanbase. The majority of the staff at Dead Rhetoric have praised their albums while continually enjoying the fruits of their labor – and the latest studio record Soundtrack for the End Times keeps the momentum moving in the right direction. Aggressive yet darker, still powerful and melodic – the songs flow in a manner that encompasses all facets of what the band can bring to the genre. We reached out to guitarist Jakob Mølbjerg via Zoom to find out the details behind the decade-long absence between studio records, the difference in songwriting process this go around, career highlights through the many eras of the band, the development of personal relationships/chemistry, how thrash shaped Jakob’s love of the genre, and what touring in current times will look like for the group.

Dead Rhetoric: Soundtrack for the End Times is the eighth studio album for Mercenary – and first in over a decade from the group. Outside of the lineup change behind the drums, were there any specific circumstances that took place as far as the band members or life experiences to have such a long gap between records?

Jakob Mølbjerg: Yeah, in a sense we aren’t the same people. I had two kids, Martin had one kid, René had one more kid and one prior to the whole ordeal. There was also a lot of going through different job situations, circumstances of life. It’s something that we had been neglecting for the past ten years prior to our Through Our Darkest Days album, where we more or less had a touring to album cycle of two to three years from 2002 until that album. If you are gamer, you can talk about having a huge backlog of games – well, we had a huge backlog of life (laughs). A lot of committing to our family, relationships, different job opportunities. I felt it was time to focus on other stuff, it was rewarding creatively to be in a band, but we weren’t making a living from it. That set us on this direction.

None of us wanted to quit the band. That was never on the table. We had to find a new way forward, and none of us knew how to approach it. I guess if we had known it would take ten years to write and release an album, maybe we would have given up. Just because the whole notion is absurd, it’s on the level of Chinese Democracy, you know?

Dead Rhetoric: With ten years between records, did you pull from fairly recently written material to record, or is there stuff that goes back in the archives that also made the final cut?

Mølbjerg: It’s a cross-section. Probably the oldest song to have survived the cut is “From the Ashes of the Fallen” or “Beyond the Waves”. I had a demo from “Beyond the Waves” that goes back to 2016. I think the most recent track was probably written within half a year of entering the studio or mixing the album. It’s a good mix.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the songwriting and recording sessions for the latest record? What types of challenges, obstacles, or surprises took place – and now after completing this, how do you see this record sitting in the discography of Mercenary compared to your previous work?

Mølbjerg: That was a huge question (laughs)! Let’s try to approach it bit by bit. The changes in the circumstances of the songwriting. The major difference is Martin and I became fathers. Up until this album, we would co-write very intimately. I would have a riff, and Martin would have another riff or typically have a different idea than me as far as arranging the guitar, do something weird with the riff. We would be in the room together, showing each other riffs, and preparing/feeding off each other. Sometimes we would have a drummer in the room. That chemistry just changed when we became dads. It was dead and gone. Our rehearsals would become very uninspired, we would just sit there, totally zero energy with zero sleep, not really knowing what to do and where to go. We had some riffs, but they were shit. It was different, and those early two-three years as a father, you think you will never be able to lead a real life again. We were trying to force things, work on music and having different approaches. Maybe instead of writing songs from beginning to end, maybe we could just write a chorus, do a bit of sparring riffs, melodies with chords to elaborate on to fill out the blanks. We tried that for a year, and it was pretty shitty – it didn’t go really anywhere, the songs weren’t that great. We scrapped all that material from the first year to a year and a half.

Perhaps people think we have been away all these ten years, but that wasn’t the case. We were on a one-year hiatus in 2014, and then began to write material. It was just an incredible uphill battle. In the end, I got so frustrated from things going so slowly that I started to fill out the blanks. I just wrote things in my home studio, develop demos, and that really changed the chemistry in the band. Martin started to take on more of a producer role, he produced the new album and recorded it in his home studio. He is like the band octopus, writes some songs, does lead guitars, did most of the keyboards, helps with the bass and drum patterns. I’m just like a riff guy; I do a bit of keyboards too. That changed the whole thing – for this album I did eight of the songs, my demos at least, and three of them are Martin’s.

I wanted the songs to be super heavy, darker and more aggressive. That’s such a cliché when you start talking about metal bands. All metal bands say their new album is the most aggressive album they’ve ever done. This time I feel it’s really the case, because our last album was very optimistic. This time it’s slower, darker, and heavier – and I’m really happy about that creatively. I’m immensely happy about it.

When a band changes their singers, you can’t really compare the eras. We have a ‘Kral’-era, a ‘Kral’ / Mikkel era, a Mikkel/René era, and now we have a René era. I would love to compare the eras, but then people may take it the wrong way, especially considering at what point they discovered the band. For me personally, I’m super happy with this new direction. The vocals are more aggressive generally, the melodies are still there but perhaps more melancholic. It may recall some of the vibe of Everblack and 11 Dreams, in sort of more of a contemporary expression. I always felt that some of our albums felt a bit sprawling, exploring a lot of different directions on the same album. This album is much more coherent. I’m eager to hear if people perceive things the same way.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the guest vocal appearance with Trivium’s Matt Heafy come to be on “Heart of the Numb”? Have they always been one of the long-standing bands you’ve come to love and respect for their approach to the genre, diversity, and business sensibilities?

Mølbjerg: It was a pretty old thing. We met Matt backstage for the first time at Dynamo Festival in 2005, I think. We didn’t really know Trivium back then, but he had heard 11 Dreams and we just had a super quick exchange just outside the showers. Later, we knew him and watched the band blow up, it was huge and impressive. In some interviews he would mention Mercenary, especially if he was talking to a Danish website. We thought that was pretty cool. We had this big lineup change in 2009, when we did the Metamorphosis album. We went from a big label like Century Media to I guess you could say a more underground label with NoiseArt. We thought well, let’s use the resources we have and try to write Matt. We wrote to him on Twitter, talked about that meeting, and how would you like to hear the new album? We messaged a few times through the years, he suggested that he could contribute with either the guitar or some vocals on the new album. When we were finishing the recordings of the new album, we thought now was the time (to do it).

This song “Heart of the Numb”, I wouldn’t call it metalcore, but it’s in your face like some of that style. We thought it was a good match. He said he couldn’t do it, because Trivium was about to go on tour with Iron Maiden. They were the main support, which was insane – they’ve come such a long way. They are an inspiration for the diehard tenacity and their professionalism. All their shows, they are top notch professionals, and it’s really something to be admired. And then out of the blue, I was bummed out, I was hoping it would come to fruition.

A half year later, he sent me an email, asking if we were still up for this, and could we do it? This was seven to nine days before we were to start the mix process. Yeah, we’ll make it work somehow. I took two hours to give him some stems he could sing to. He had one day, got him the files. There’s a video where he does it on Twitch, he streamed the whole thing live on there. I don’t think he heard the song really before that, he just figured it out, did his parts, and it was super cool.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the Niklas Sundin-designed artwork for this effort? How did the process work from initial ideas to final conception – was it a collaborative process between the band and Niklas to arrive at what we see?

Mølbjerg: Yeah, very much so because this is the third album he’s done for us. He did 11 Dreams, he did Architect of Lies, and this new one. 11 Dreams was quite collaborative, it felt like a combination of two prior motifs he had, we suggested he merge them, and it turned out pretty well. Architect of Lies, we went through the label, we had a suggestion, he had a suggestion and we used it. This time around, it was completely different. We told him we had an album with different working titles, the concept, do you have anything vaguely useful? He sent us a bunch of sketches, and we felt this face that ended up on the cover was perfect. To me it was typical Mercenary, this dreamy, surreal melancholic and undefined being allowed to your own interpretation. There was something to work on, it respected the legacy of the band so to speak.

The initial sketch is an incredible, different piece of art. We went through so many iterations where things were tweaked, rotated it, and did something else with the back head, something else with the color scheme, did this, did that. Tried different backgrounds, and for each element it just kept getting better and better. It was very collaborative and really great. It felt like we tailor made it for this whole project. Even though I’m not a very visually intelligent guy. Our albums are not very conceptual, specific stories – they are very much about vibes and atmospheres that you can project into and people recognize something of themselves.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the complete history of Mercenary, what would you consider some of the benchmark moments or highlights of the group? Be it specific albums, tours, festival appearances, or other events where you knew you were making a strong impact and impression with your music to move up the ranks in terms of quality and a steadier, faithful following?

Mølbjerg: Back in the day, after our first album, we started to get more into melodic metal, especially Nevermore. That inspiration was the main reason we invited Mikkel to join the band for the album Everblack. And I think when we made that album, we tapped into something that was quite personal and not something that had been done a lot before. Kral, he was such a powerhouse with his vocals, Mikkel had this super unique, high-pitched and emotional voice, they just went really well together. Those two albums between Everblack and 11 Dreams, we knew we were making an impact somehow, changing things. And that led us to be signed with Century Media, which is also something that was a milestone for sure.

Then we did two tours with Nevermore – quite a lot of years apart. That was insane for me – I’m a huge Nevermore fan, I still am today. I probably saw fifty Nevermore shows, the 25-year-old me would have exploded. We did a cover song “Inside Four Walls”, and they came out to play it with us, Jeff Loomis, Jim Sheppard, and their other touring guitarist in Switzerland, and that was pretty mindboggling. I think we gained a lot of new fans on those tours – but if you tour with a really good band, the fans aren’t necessarily super curious about the support bands (laughs). It was good crowds to play in front of.

And then the whole lineup changes got us into this period of years where we struggled to find our feet, find our expression. It felt like we had to prove ourselves time and time again. We did a club headline tour with Omnium Gatherum in 2013 I think, when the last album came out. It was completing a cycle, we are a great band, we had some great concerts, that also lessened my eagerness to have to keep proving ourselves. This new album, I don’t know if it will have any lasting, commercial impact. The scene is so difficult, and we are a bunch of family guys. I don’t know how much we can tour, even if you are eager to tour, it’s super difficult these days. I’m so happy with the way the creative process worked, so the last album would be another pick.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the relationships and band chemistry within Mercenary over the years?

Mølbjerg: That’s very difficult for me to answer. Now, we are doing the third album with René as our lead singer, and myself, René, and Martin have always been tight. We have a shared understanding, and we have our differences, but what we share is much bigger than what would keep us apart. In the ten years prior to René being the only singer, we had a carousel of very different people with different ideas of work ethics, different dreams. It was always slippery; we did have some forward momentum, but it always felt like we were just about to stumble. And in the end we did, with that lineup, because it just didn’t work out, there was no way we could work together professionally and do things satisfying for all of us.

The relationship between us has changed a lot too. Even though we always have had good chemistry, we are now fathers and that gives you a whole different approach to what is important in life. Music become secondary, and we lost the idea that the band momentum was the most important thing in the universe. In a way, you have to have that when you are a young band, you have to have this idea that what you are doing as a band matters incredibly much, to be able to put so much aside for it. As you get older, you get some perspective on that. We have matured as individuals, and we have more mature relationships now. You have to give space to our individuality, our projects, and the families. Our parents are getting older, and it’s pretty cool as we are not as obsessed about the small stuff, the small conflicts as we used to be. I’d love to see how it works out in the future.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider three of the most important albums that shaped your outlook on heavy metal as a genre? And what’s the best live concert memory you have – purely attending a show as a fan – plus what made that show so special to you?

Mølbjerg: Yeah, that’s just incredibly hard to answer. I grew up on thrash metal – that’s what first fascinated me when I first started to pick up the guitar. Bands like Overkill, Megadeth, Metallica, I learned all the Slayer songs in my bedroom. Because they were just so iconic to me. I’d say Slayer – South of Heaven is one of those iconic albums to me because it’s dark, brooding, and menacing. Whereas that album felt eviler than their faster stuff. I’m more of a (Jeff) Hanneman kind of guy than a Kerry King guy, with all respect for what he’s done. We have some influences from Megadeth – so I’d have to say Countdown to Extinction as well. We were fortunate enough to play with Megadeth as a main support. As for the third album, I could pick a million different albums and I may regret what I say. But another album that had significance for me was Symbolic by Death. This whole approach to metal that could be intellectual in some way, with spiritual dimensions. Not just be in the traditional gore or tropes of death metal.

If I was to pick a show, I saw Gojira ten years ago in a Danish venue and they just crushed all of us. They were even better live than on the album.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Mercenary over the next twelve months following the release of the album? Are you hopeful to have another album come out quicker than ten years as the follow-up?

Mølbjerg: We hope to have a new album out within ten years. We hope we can continue the good chemistry as far as writing songs. It was a hard process because Martin recorded the whole album in his home studio, it was a huge effort for him. We have to figure out if we want to do this the same way. The process of writing and recording aren’t the same as if you have a rehearsal room and then go into a real studio. What’s on the horizon – we have some Danish shows lined up for the autumn. Some more Danish shows with Hatesphere in the spring, we might also do some European shows with them in the spring. It’s a bit difficult to make very big plans right now. Because of family life, job life, so on – we have commitments now that we didn’t have ten years ago. We’ll have to see how things pan out; we will have to do it step by step.

Back in the day, it was easy to say to go on a package tour, are you available for these days in March, we would say, ‘yeah – sure!’. And now, I don’t know, it depends. We’ll have to work it out. We hope to do some cool European festivals. I don’t know if we will return to the states. As you may know we played ProgPower USA two times, and I wouldn’t mind going back to that festival. We have a lot of American fans so it would be nice to be able to play in front of them. I don’t see us going back to playing sixty to eighty shows a year like we did in a two-year touring cycle when we were obsessed about growing the band. Twenty to forty shows? That depends on the quality of the shows and the interest that this album generates. Basically, it has to be fun, it has to be interesting, it has to feel like we haven’t done this ten times already. This is a cutthroat scene, the post-COVID situation, a lot of the labels have been sitting on albums that they are still releasing sparsely here and there. The touring situation is super cutthroat, we will have to see how it all turns out. There is no masterplan other than doing our best to promote the new album.

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