We don’t do a ton of interviews around here, mainly because I am under the impression that I’m not any good at doing them. But every now and again we give them a go, and with the release of Marsh Dweller’s debut record “The Weight of Sunlight” approaching (Aug. 15 on Eihwaz Recordings, so get your moneys ready), it seemed the right time. That full disclosure shit: John Kerr is a friend of mine, as we’ve spent many times imbibing, watching wrestling, texting about “Star Wars,” and him mocking me for not going to shows, etc. So with the record coming out, it felt a little conflict of interest-y for me to do a review.
That’s where interviews come in great, because we can talk the new record (which, friendship aside, does rule a huge ton, and you should go out of your way to hear it) and I don’t have to have people question my motives just because we hang out. Not that anyone would. Anyway, I’m rambling, which is perfect for what you’re about to read. Kerr (also of Seidr, Vit, and Noltem) set some ground rules for this interview. First, we both had to be drunk. Second, the interview had to run with very minimal edits (basically if I had to correct a fact or something, but I wasn’t to edit out any ridiculous shit). So here it is, drinks and conversation with John Kerr that meanders like you wouldn’t believe, but that’s what makes this fun. This starts in the middle of nowhere with us talking about Christianity. Don’t ask why, because I don’t remember.
Meat Mead Metal: OK, we’re going to talk about some shit.
John Kerr: Yeah! OK, so I grew up really Christian, too, but I just never gave a shit about it. I don’t know why. I remember thinking when I was like 13 or 14, like when puberty was really at a max.
MMM: You had to jerk off all the time.
JK: (laughs) Yeah, I had to jerk off all the time, like eight times a day. And I remember thinking … like, I still called myself a Christian at the time because I felt like I needed to. And I had been drumming. I’d been playing drums since I was, like, 11, and I was a drummer in a church band, because I didn’t want to just sit in the fucking pew. I’m fucking bored, so I might as well play drums. (laughs) So I had all these vapid Christian songs and figured, “OK, yeah, I’m a Christian.” But I remembered thinking there was no way I was going to be able to wait to have sex until I get married.
MMM: Yeah, that sucks. I tried to do that.
JK: I didn’t. (laughs) I did not try. But the thing was I wanted to play drums, and I looked forward to playing drums even though I was playing these Christian songs that were terrible. Fucking horrible. Anyone who grew up in the Methodist or Protestant church and knows of a “modern service” that’s at 9:30 instead of 8 in the morning, and they thought they were awesome because they had an electric guitar and shit, but it was only on the clean channel, but I liked playing. It wasn’t until playing Gilead (Fest in 2014) with Seidr and playing with Vit, because we went on tour for a little while with Wolves in the Throne Room, those were the biggest shows I played. Before that, the biggest shows I had played were with this bullshit sermon band. I mean, they’re shows. I’m playing drums in front of people.
MMM: It’s not nothing.
JK: Yeah, and during these services there would be these things where there’d be 500 people there. So I was 14 years old and playing to 500 people.
MMM: They’re feeling something, right?
JK: I don’t know about that. (laughs) I honestly, and not to get too heavy or anything, I think most religious people are faking it.
MMM: OK, well let’s get to the real stuff, and I don’t mean to be a dick…
JK: Oh, be a dick. I encourage it.
MMM: Fine. How does it feel to be solely responsible for both the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup and the Cavs winning the NBA title?
JK: (laughs) I am responsible for both of those. So, I move around a lot. In 2014 and 2015 or so, I lived in five different places. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I moved to Pittsburgh the month the 2015/2016 season started, and the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup since, what, 2009?
At this point, there is unintelligible conversation about who knows what? I’m also just realizing John never explained the reason the Cavs won the title is because he left Ohio. This is what beers do.
JK: Which I made. (laughs)
MMM: OK, perfect! So the term naturalist pantheism, can we talk about that?
JK: Sure. So basically, I start having feelings once I get enough beers in me. And that term naturalistic pantheism, I had never heard that term until I was living in Minnesota for a little bit in, I want to say that was 2014, because Seidr had some shows and such, and I had just gotten out of grad school and it made sense. I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, and I was going to move back there after grad school, and it didn’t make sense for me to find a job because Seidr had all of these shows lined up. So Austin Lunn for Seidr and Panopticon, he said, “Well, why don’t you just move to Minnesota and live with me for a little bit, and we can get these Seidr shows out of the way and you can figure out what you’re going to do for work.” So I said, “Alright, that sounds awesome!” So I went to work at HammerHeart (Brewing Co.), and HammerHeart is like, in my opinion, the mecca of American breweries. I was working there, Austin was working there, Tanner from Obsequiae and Celestial was working there, um, Joe Beres who runs Small Doses works there, so it’s just this really awesome environment to work in. So Tanner and I were talking one night, and I sort of alternated from living at Austin’s house and living at Tanner’s house. So Tanner and I had this talk about how we both have this pseudo-spiritual appreciation for nature. And I don’t want to speak for Tanner or anything, but neither of us feel anything supernatural, so he told me about this term naturalistic pantheism that, it’s a fancy way of saying I really like trees but I don’t think there’s a god. (laughs)
MMM: OK, that’s what I kind of thought. It seemed like an extreme appreciation for nature. I like being outside, and the whole idea of Earth and the whole idea of our surroundings are what we come from. People lose that because of Christianity and because of all this other shit. Because there’s this guy. And look, I don’t know if there’s a guy.
JK: There’s not. (laughs)
MMM: OK, fine! I’m trying to play devil’s advocate. Say there’s a guy. Didn’t that guy create this shit? So your surroundings … sorry, I’m pretty drunk.
JK: Good. This is what I wanted.
MMM: But your surroundings are your world. That sounds stupid…
JK: No, to bring this back toward music stuff, but Marsh Dweller is not an Agalloch-style nature worship type of band. I like concept albums and those types of things. I grew up with Pink Floyd and Rush and, to some extent Metallica, who did concept albums, and I always gravitated toward that kind of stuff. Albums that weren’t just collection of songs, they were…
JK: Right. And it just so happens that the first Marsh Dweller album that I’ve made is dealing with themes of nature. The next one isn’t at all. It’s just this one.
MMM: With this record, when you did your field recordings, the streams, the fire crackling, the footsteps, things like that, explain what those mean to the plot of the record.
JK: Well, not to make me sound like a party bro, but the bulk of this record was inspired by, well, not the bulk of the record, but a significant part of this record was inspired by a night I had with a friend of mine in college where we took a bunch of drugs and …
MMM: (laughs) What?! No. We have to stop this interview.
JK: (laughs) I’m not going to say what the drugs were, but we took a bunch, and I went to college in a very rural area, and there was this national forest right along the edge. So what we did was we drove out there, took this drug, and drank some beers (laughs) and this is Appalachian rural foothills of Ohio, and we just sat on top of this hill for like eight hours. It was pretty entertaining. But I basically had this … I was going through this really weird mental state at the time. I went to school for physics and astronomy. I love physics and astronomy, actually doing it, but the workload of number crunching for 80 hours each week was just driving me fucking crazy. So anyway, I was just sitting there, and I bring this up because this is where the album title comes from, and it’s called “The Weight of Sunlight.” So we went out there at like midnight, and we were there when the sun started coming up at like 6:30 or something like that, and I remember thinking, “I’m hiding in here.” Like, we’re in this very dense forest in this nature preserve, and I’m hiding in here. So when the sun started coming up and, I mean, you play videogames. You know god rays?
MMM: Yeah, of course.
JK: Yeah, so when you play “Uncharted,” you can see the waves of sunlight coming through the trees, that effect in video games? I saw that. I’m hiding in this little tree canopy hiding from everything in my life that I don’t like, and the sun coming up is this reminder that I can’t hide from it. It’s literally pushing down on me. I don’t even remember your original question.
MMM: Me neither. Maybe it was something about the album title. I’m going to get another beer. Keep going.
JK: Yeah, it was about being high as fuck. (laughs) Should I pause the recording?
MMM: I don’t care. I’m getting another beer.
(really long pause ensures… because beer)
JK: OK, I don’t remember anything we were talking about.
MMM: Shit. OK.
JK: I’m putting the lights on because maybe I’ll feel less drunk.
MMM: I’m putting on the Pirates game. Ugh. I’m burping like a fucking dick.
JK: (laughs) Between questions banter.
MMM: OK, we were talking about monotheism. Wait. Not that.
JK: Naturalistic pantheism. Yeah, so, I have this thing where I like to, and maybe this is part of my Christian upbringing, but I kind of like to appropriate Christian imagery, so a lot of the song titles on the album are stolen from these medieval compositions by this composer Hildegard von Bingen from the 1200s? 13th century? (Note: She lived from 1098 to 1179.) So that’s where track seven, “Feathers on the Breath of God,” comes from. “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree,” totally stole that from her, too. I’ve actually been worried that all of these things I’ve been appropriating from medieval Christianity that people are going to think I’m a Christian. (laughs) But I use these things in almost a mocking way.
MMM: OK, that actually leads me into a question. I have a respect for Christian symbolism because, in a weird way, it’s kind of creepy. I think there is symbolism of Christianity that can be kind of scary.
JK: It’s so weirdly ritualistic. If this was put into the context of a horror movie with some sort of made-up religion, every Christian would think it was creepy.
MMM: Can you imagine if a new religion came out now where it’s like, “Hey, we eat our god, and we drink his blood”?
JK: It’s totally weird shit. I think my main motivation for using religious imagery is that it invokes feelings and an atmosphere of things that are greater than humanity. But at the same time, I do that to emphasize how bullshit it all is. It’s not immediately obvious because I’m not being explicitly blasphemous on the record or anything. But I consider Marsh Dweller to be an extremely anti-Christian band. Especially with this album. Maybe not going forward so much, because the focus is changing. Not that I believe anything different, because I still believe the same things. Like, one of the shirts that we’re going to be doing is I took this etching from medieval times—not the restaurant—and it’s called “God the Architect,” and it’s this medieval-looking image of Jesus, and he has a compass measuring the earth, mapping out the Earth. So whenever that shirt goes up, the title of it is going to be Measuring Pizza. (laughs) It’s just my little way of making fun of it.
MMM: OK, so you worked with Andrew (D’Cagna) of Nechochwen and Obsequiae on this record. What was it about him that made you decide that he was to be the one to record you?
JK: Well, Andrew and I have been good friends for a while, and one of the things I like about Bindrune and Eihwaz is all the bands are kind of incestual. Like, Panopticon is kind of the tent pole of Bindrune, and it goes out from there. I played with Austin in Seidr. Tanner is in Obsequiae that was on Bindrune and Celestial still is on Bindrune. Tanner did guest vocals on “Roads to the North” by Panopticon. Nechochwen is on Bindrune, and Andrew is in Obsequiae. Aaron (Carey) from Nechochwen did guest vocals on Obsequiae. It just kind of made sense to keep it in the family, as it were. We’ve always gotten along really well, and location, too. I live in Pittsburgh now, and he’s in Martins Ferry, Ohio, which is right along the West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania border, so it was less than an hour away.
MMM: Has anything changed musically or philosophically moving from Columbus to Pittsburgh? That’s kind of a weird question.
JK: It’s hard to say. I wrote these songs over such a large period of time that it’s hard to say if anything really changed. Like, “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree,” I wrote that chord progression before I knew how to play guitar. Like, I wrote that in 2006? At the time, I only knew how to play drums, but I knew music theory, so I could write sheet music. I knew about chord structure and chord progressions and things like that. So that’s how I wrote that song. But songs like “Forks of the River,” I wrote that when I got to Pittsburgh.
MMM: Is there a reason that came to you once you moved to Pittsburgh?
JK: I don’t know. “Forks of the River,” the lyrics to that song are actually about moving to Pittsburgh in a weird kind of way. The lyrical composition for Marsh Dweller is to take things that literally happened to me and make them more cosmic, I guess. The song “Forks of the River,” the name comes from living along the Allegheny River, and we have the Point in Pittsburgh where it’s three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio) meeting, but in a cosmic sense it’s about … I mean, if you had told me a year and a half ago I was going to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, come September 2015, I would have been like, bullshit! So it’s just …
MMM: It’s just kind of how life works out.
JK: Yes. I mean, this record is kind of like a weird coming-of-age story.
MMM: That’s kind of what I was thinking. I mean, black metal’s supposed to be personal, but it’s not. Some people think it’s just supposed to be about Satan. But I’ve always thought of black metal as something that connects you with something within you. I don’t even know what that is.
JK: Yeah, I look at it as connecting you with something within yourself but that also is greater than yourself. At the same time, Marsh Dweller’s not really black metal. There are elements there, for sure. There’s tremolo picking, there are blast beats. But I think of Marsh Dweller as a heavy metal band, you know? I think some of my riffs wouldn’t sound out of place on an Iron Maiden record.
MMM: Well, I’ve always thought about Obsequiae in the same way. When I hear his riffs, I think about the reasons I fell in love with heavy metal. And that’s the riff. You know it when you hear it. And when I heard the Marsh Dweller record, I realized the riffs are there. And that’s the main point for me.
JK: The thing that bothers me about a lot of underground music is there is not a lot of discipline. And look, I’m not the greatest guitar player ever or anything, but it feels like people take the easy way too much. People are content with playing inverted power chords and just doing tremolo picking. But I tried to put in a lot of classic heavy picking and melodies and solos, and that’s what’s missing from a lot of quote unquote atmospheric heavy metal for me.
Please come back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of drinks in the semi-dark with John Kerr, where we dig in a little further into the music on the album, the band’s future, and other stuff I barely can remember right now.
For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/marshdwellerhails
To buy the album, go here: https://thecollectivedistro.com/
For more on the label, go here: http://eihwazrecordings.com/