Morta Skuld – Fighting Underdogs

Thursday, 15th February 2024

While many remember the early death metal pioneers from countries or states like Sweden or Florida, there were other quality acts in the 1990’s sprouting up from the Midwest like Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Morta Skuld. Releasing four albums in that period before disbanding in 1998, they would resurrect themselves in 2012 and have been rolling ever since. Their seventh studio album Creation Undone keeps the same intensity, versatility, plus creativity on par with the best in the genre – still climbing the ranks as new generations discover their discography. We reached out to guitarist/vocalist Dave Gregor to learn more behind the latest effort, working with Chris Wisco, the special way they acquired artwork for this album, plenty of special memories surrounding Nuclear Assault, Autopsy, Immolation, Bolt Thrower, and Memoriam, as well as a great Ozzy concert story and future touring plans.

Dead Rhetoric: Creation Undone is the latest Morta Skuld album – and the first in four years for the band. How did the songwriting and recording sessions go for this set of material? Did the pandemic also have additional benefits when it came to digging deeper into the finer details for a better outcome that you are happier with?

Dave Gregor: Yeah, I definitely think the last couple of years definitely had a play into this. Especially with the dark times for everybody, I wasn’t immune to it, and I went through a couple of bouts of depression myself. I really think that the writing process is definitely therapy for me, and I used a lot of my experiences and what was going on around me in my life for not only the lyrics but as far as inspiration for writing the material. It’s kind of like one of those things where you are an underdog fighting against whatever entity, it makes you want to be more ferocious and fight a little bit harder.

Dead Rhetoric: And when it comes to the writing process, has that differed a lot from the early days of the band when you were crafting material together in a rehearsal room?

Gregor: Especially because we are in different times now, we aren’t young kids anymore. Two of my guys do travel about an hour and a half to come to practice, so we get together about one day a week, we really have to make things productive. Sometimes there was not necessarily file sharing, but more like I got this riff that I recorded, what do you think? For the most part, this record was different. Scott (Willecke) would come to practice on one day, and I wasn’t able to come, so he and Eric started a song that became “Painful Conflict”. What was cool about it, we didn’t have a bunch of songs ready, we came in and started writing the new material as it was coming to us. We noticed we had more energy, we felt fresh, we weren’t exhausted. We started each session where we would write a song, and it would spill over to the next rehearsal to finish it, put it on a shelf and then go onto the next song. We had new riffs, new songs, new lyrical ideas, and we just kind of went from there. We built the songs together as a band.

Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to the lyrical content, are you consistently jotting down ideas and parts and seeing how to fit them as the music develops, or do you work on that part once the music is completed?

Gregor: I really appreciate you asking this. We’ve tried once writing lyrics and then writing the music, but I don’t know many people that do that. It’s hard because you don’t know what measures you are going to write, how long the measures are going to be. When the lyrics are premeditated, it dictates the verses, the choruses. We always write the music first, that way as I’m working on lyrics, I can get into the song – this part is super heavy, I want to say things in this way, or this part is more melodic, where I need to let the music breathe – and then let things twist when it gets heavier with a scream.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s it like working with Chris Wisco (aka Chris Djuricic) on the recording and mixing side of things? Are there specific areas where his knowledge and understanding aid the band in getting better takes or specific sonic aspects that work best for what you want to hear?

Gregor: Chris is an amazing studio guy. Every time we go in with him, it’s never the same. There is always a different process he tries. He always likes to stay fresh and current. Sometimes the process is a little different, but his insight, I can’t even explain it. He’s one of those guys that will actually ask if we have pre-production demos, and if we do, he needs it, he wants to listen to it. He’ll listen to it for a couple of weeks before you come in, just to get the nuances of the material, the songs, the feel. If there is a take he doesn’t like, he will suggest trying something different. It may sound more dynamic to bring this part out. I call him a co-producer, he has other ideas, even when we are doing the vocals with certain lyrics, he may ask me to try this here. He has a lot of advice – but if it doesn’t sound good, he’s not going to suggest it. He wants to enhance the songs.

Not only is he a producer or an engineer, he’s a guitar player and a musician himself. I’ve seen him also play drums, and he plays them really well. He has a lot of different insights into the recording process, we are going to mic things this way.

Dead Rhetoric: Were there any specific songs that took on the greatest transformation from the demo stage to the final output?

Gregor: I would say “Oblivion”, definitely morphed into something more than it was. I can’t pinpoint specifically what it is that we did, it just came to life really quickly. And that’s another thing – when you get into the studio and you start layering things, you start off ah… a general person would think things are sterile. Once you start layering things, bass, guitars, the vocals – you are almost making a sandwich. At the end of the day, it’s a really good tasting sandwich. You start to hear the fruits of your labor come to fruition at that point, and it’s like oh wow.

And with this record… I know a lot of bands say, ‘this is our best record ever!’. I hate saying that, it’s subjective. But I do feel that this is our best effort. I’ve listened to it twice already since it’s been done, and usually I don’t listen to my material once it’s done.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the cover art design come about for Creation Undone? Where do you see the importance in appropriate imagery for records, especially in the death metal landscape?

Gregor: That’s another thing. Everybody has a different idea for what they think is good and what not. We actually – the piece wasn’t ours at first. My buddy Matt Bishop was going to use it for his band, and we were having a lot of troubles with finding a piece. Artists are charging between $3,000-$5,000 a piece, and I guess rightfully so in some of their wheelhouses, they are definitely amazing artists, but for a band like us, we don’t just have that kind of budget. Ed Repka, Travis Smith, a couple of other guys, we just couldn’t make the budget. Matt is a good friend of ours, he wanted to use this piece a year to a year and a half before we even needed a piece. He was willing to gift us the piece. The piece was originally done by Mike Wyatt. We gave the piece to our label, they thought it was okay, but there were certain parts they didn’t like. There was a painter and two illustrators that spent forty hours into making this look different. The background was repainted and added. Every time a change was made, they threw it past me to see if it was cool or not. Finally, it fell into place.

I might have thrown in the globe or the earth thing. Cause that was the original idea, to have this earth piece looking at you. I like the idea, but the band didn’t like it. Once the label got ahold of it, I asked about that. They made the changes; they threw them over to us every couple of weeks. I’m happy that the other people helped make things stand out a little bit more.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been a part of the Peaceville roster again since Wounds Deeper Than Time was released in 2017. How do you feel about the record label, and where do you see their importance in the modern music industry landscape versus the responsibilities and promotion that took place during the 1990’s on the first run for Morta Skuld?

Gregor: We have a very long-standing history with Peaceville. We were on their sub-label Deaf Records. We got picked up by the actual Peaceville roster for As Humanity Fades came out. After Morta Skuld had broken up in 1998, I kept in touch with them, started a newer band (9mm Solution) and was trying to get them signed to Peaceville, even though they weren’t death metal. They couldn’t touch it, I look back and say no kidding, it didn’t fit the criteria of the label.

When we finally came back, we did an EP Serving Two Masters in 2014, threw that out there, and got a good response. We were still talking to the label as we were going to reissue Dying Remains, the debut album, we had good contact with them. How about doing another record with us? We went into negotiations with them, they sent over the contracts, put out Wounds Deeper Than Time and we were elated to be back with them. They treat us really well, as far as the promotions are concerned. There are differences now with the internet, you have Spotify, different outlets, they are not a major label. They are still somewhat underground, but their roster with bands like Autopsy, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, all those early bands, they were amazing bands with amazing releases. I wanted to still be a part of that. Those bands early on, those are legacy bands, those records are iconic. Dying Remains fit in really well with those releases.

I have a good rapport with them, there are things they let us do on our own. Some bands have to ask permission to do things – we really don’t have to. I send a courtesy email, we are going to be doing this – they say okay, cool. They let us do what we want to a certain aspect of it, I like the freedom of it. We are not locked into doing this and that, they are open to a lot of suggestions, and I feel like we have a little bit more freedom with Peaceville than if we went with somebody else.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s always been special about the Midwest US underground metal movement in your eyes? There seems to be a lot of community, respect, and differentiation between a lot of the acts that allows them to develop a healthy following, even when specific trends come and go…

Gregor: The Midwest – I don’t know if it’s something in the water, or something in the food. There seems to be an abundance of amazing musicians and amazing bands to offer. We do a couple of small tours every year, and some of the newer bands – we went out with Obscene from Indiana, Mutilatred from Ohio, just bands like this that are young bands, and already having a decent following out of the gate. The way the Midwest lifestyle is, we are not California, we are not New York, a lot of these states like Ohio, Indiana, it’s not a hustle and bustle, fast paced lifestyle. It’s how we live.

Dead Rhetoric: You are in your late 50’s playing a form of death metal that is an obvious passion or labor of love, yet probably does not pay the bills full-time. What fuels that desire to keep creating and keep moving forward, even in the toughest or bleakest of times? Do you have the support of your family and friends in these endeavors?

Gregor: For me, personally, I don’t know if I’m just psychotic or dumb. Sometimes I don’t know. It definitely is a passion, a labor of love. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be doing it. I have passed on a lot of opportunities to work at decent jobs, stuff like that, to continue to do this in my fifties. To me, I have this drive. I think it’s no different than if you are a CEO in charge of a company. I have a drive, you want to be better, you want to be bigger. You want to keep progressing and keep moving. The desire, I feel like we have always been an underdog fighting the powers that be. That fuels me and gives me the energy to keep going every day.

Not to mention just playing with the guys I have. They are a bit younger, and they have a bit more energy. Everybody comes together at the same time; we all want to do this. Like you said, it is a big labor of love. It’s a therapy for me. If I get upset about something in my life, or something happens in my life, I can write about it, I can get it out in the music too. There’s nothing like writing an amazing riff and really being one with the riff. Everybody is in the same headspace at the same time, writing the riff and everyone is playing it, you think, wow this is really cool. It’s almost like a machine, everyone is operating on all cylinders, everyone is operating on the same page. It’s this synergy I can’t explain. Me being a vocalist also, it makes me want to vocalize over the music. That fuels from the lyrical end of it as well.

Dead Rhetoric: What have been some of your greatest memories or moments related to the career of Morta Skuld? Specific albums, shows, tours, festival appearances, where you knew you were making an impact with your craft?

Gregor: I’m probably going to get some flak for this one, but last year we did the UK Deathfest. It’s always on my mind, we had an amazing time. It almost brought back the old days of the Milwaukee Metalfest. Back in the day we played with a lot of these bands for years and years. We did eight Metalfests. It felt like this big melting pot of bands. I hooked up with John Connelly of Nuclear Assault, I hadn’t seen him in thirty years. When he was playing live, he had a can of something, nodded over to me and said, ‘dude, I’m thirsty’. On stage, while they are playing mid-song, I end up cracking open a beverage and pouring it down his throat as he is playing the song. I thought that was so cool – he’s sixty, the energy that guy has, it’s amazing. Ross from Immolation and I, we hung out and talked. I got to meet from Chris Reifert and Eric Cutler from Autopsy. I had met them back in 1993, but I didn’t really remember it and I don’t think they do either. Now we are all older.

The other highlight for me is Karl Willetts of Memoriam, ex-Bolt Thrower vocalist. I had met him in Sheboygan, Wisconsin at a little club, a church that turned into a venue. A real hot spot back then, 300-400 kids would come out. It was snowing, I didn’t know if I should make it. I travelled there, I came in, and he’s already started. He’s up there, sees me come in, and literally starts talking to me mid-song where he is supposed to be singing the lyrics. I make my way up stage, gives me a big hug. Thirty-two years ago. When I knew he was playing at the UK Deathfest, there was two different venues there, as soon as I knew he was playing I ran two blocks down the street, cut through the people, went near the stage, looked at him – and he did the same thing! Talking to me, we had a big hug afterwards. He’s been an inspiration of mine, a great guy.

We got to meet the head of our label, Peaceville. We opened for Slayer in 1998, we played the Milwaukee Metalfest again last year which was amazing. Meeting all these people again, coming together like there was no time lost. It was very enjoyable to see all these bands play, sit down and talk with them.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the state of heavy metal as a genre in the current landscape? What do you enjoy most about the movement, and what changes (if any) would you like to make for the greater good of all parties involved?

Gregor: The movement, it’s different right now. There are a lot of younger bands that are up and coming, really moving fast. As far as seeing a change, I may be biased but I would like some of these venues to give us a little bit more of an opportunity. Sometimes being an older band, back in the late 80’s / early 90’s, when you were a death metal band, some got a golden ticket. We were one of the bands that didn’t get that. We didn’t tour a lot either, and that affected some things. Maybe give the smaller guys some opportunities. A lot of these younger bands are kicking a lot of ass. Genres come and go. Every dog will have its day. Will this music stay around for the next twenty years? Maybe, maybe not. It will go down and dip back up again. Ebbs and flows happen, according to the fans and listeners.

I will say this much. I think the younger fans are hungry for this, they love it. A lot of our fans are older, some are divorced, some have died. These younger kids just picked up a disc ten years ago when they were fifteen, now they are twenty-five. That’s just great, I appreciate the young fans. As long as they come to the shows, buy the CD’s and LP’s, I think it’ll still remain for quite a while.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider three of the most important heavy metal records (they can be death metal or otherwise) that helped shape your outlook and personal development with the genre? And what’s your favorite concert memory, purely attending a show as a member of the audience – and what made that show so special or memorable to you?

Gregor: Three records. I’d say Forbidden – Twisted Into Form. Great record. Death – Human. And then I would have to say Ozzy Osbourne – Diary of a Madman. As far as the most memorable concert. It’s hard to say, I’ve been to so many. Seeing Randy Rhoads in 1981 when Ozzy came to Milwaukee. It was memorable for a couple of reasons. We were young kids, we had to take the bus to the venue. One of our friends got trashed, so trashed he didn’t know where he was. He ended up pissing himself on the bus – mid-January. We ran off the bus, and he was throwing snow on himself. As a fan, hearing the music – the same guy that pissed himself, passed out and didn’t see one note of the concert. Hearing Ozzy at his peak. Listening and hearing that music, I was so engrossed with those albums.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for anything related to Morta Skuld over the next year or so to promote the record?

Gregor: As far as plans for us. We are going out next month with Skeletal Remains and Oxygen Destroyer for a four-day, West Coast run. Two weeks after that we are slated to go to South America with Malevolent Creation. Those are the plans. We want to try to get to Europe at the end of the year, we’ve had a lot of problems with that. Costs are definitely a factor in this. We probably will do another short US run, if anything, later in the year.

Morta Skuld on Facebook

[fbcomments width="580"]