Interview & Album Premiere: John Kerr (Marsh Dweller)
Let’s address the obvious: Yes, that’s John Kerr, the multi-instrumentalist behind Marsh Dweller dressed in a tuxedo. No, it’s not a promo photo. It’s one I scraped from his Facebook. Kerr doesn’t approach his projects as a professional, he approaches them with patience and humor. That’s why he does things like make an interviewer get blackout drunk with him, or say ‘pick a photo where you think I look handsome’ and then only let you publish it if you tell this silly story to put it in context.
Speaking of context, here’s some: Kerr and I have been friends for four years, and in that time I’ve watched him learn new instruments and put practice videos on social media in order to document the creation of his first record The Weight of Sunlight. Kerr’s sort of an ur-modern black metal artist in that sense. Yes he’s DIY but he’s not interested in anonymity, or satanic hoodoo.
Instead, Marsh Dweller is a deeply personal, almost confessional project that is confounded by its own lack of self-consciousness (more on that below). Kerr rejects cooler-than-thou airs in lieu of loving homages to classic bands like Metallica and In Flames.
Kerr and I chatted on a lunch break to reconnect as friends, and parse out The Weight of Sunlight, streaming in full below.
Well, here we are… you and I met four years ago, was it? At a Primordial show in Cleveland with Kim Kelly.
At the very earliest, it was 2012, because that’s when I lived in Cleveland, Kim was doing merch for them. I remember her being behind the booth.
Yes, and I bought everyone really really awful whisky shots. I remember we took them and I immediately regretted taking them. As a result I don’t remember most of While Heaven Wept’s set. I snapped out of it during Primordial.
Oh yeah. I remember that during While Heaven Wept there was barely anybody there, but there was one chick up front who was super stoked about it the whole time.
That’s right. She was like a giant hairball, just hair flying everywhere.
I’ve never seen someone that stoked for a band. The fact that there was only like ten people in the crowd made it even more intense.
The reason I brought this up is that you were talking about writing this Marsh Dweller record at that show.
Yeah. I’ve been writing this record on and off for, honestly probably eight years. I’m not going to say it took eight years to make this record, because that’s not true at all. There was one year where I didn’t write a single song, you know what I mean? But the first chord progression on this record, on the first song? I wrote that before I knew how to play guitar. I wrote that around 2007, 2008.
I know you mostly as a drummer though your work in Vit and Seidr. Did you learn to play guitar in order to make this record?
Basically. It wasn’t specifically to make this record. It was more like, I’ve got this stuff in my head — and not even Marsh Dweller, just riffs in general —and I’m sick of just writing guitar pro tabs out and giving it to other people for them to play. It was more out of a motivation to get stuff out, instead of just hearing stuff in my head, if you know what I’m saying. This record just happened to be the first thing that came out of that. I guess I learned to play guitar for the same reason everybody else does.
I read that great two-part interview you did with Brian Krasman at Meat Mead Metal. In that interview you mention substances and hallucinations —
It wasn’t hallucinogenic so much as it was… If there’s anybody who didn’t read that interview, Brian and I were both trashed by design. I was very drunk. I thought it would be funny to do that. So half of the shit I say in that interview is kinda true.
Way to verify my research, thank you.
No problem, dude.
It’s not wrong — It’s just half true. The whole story about doing drugs and going up into a hill in the forest? It did happen, and it’s where I got the idea for the concept of the record, but it wasn’t as ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ as I made it.
Right. But what I’m trying to figure out is: if it wasn’t that you went up to this hill, had this altered state experience, and in the depths of that stupor, realized, ‘I must make the Marsh Dweller record’, followed by, ‘I’m going to learn guitar to make the record I thought up on that hill,’ then what was it?
Yeah, that’s kind of like the gist of it. The timeline is the only difference. I started learning to play guitar before then. But, before that it was just sporadic riffs or song structure ideas—it wasn’t anything concrete. After that, it was like, ‘alright, now I know what the fuck I have to do. I know have a vision in my head, I have an idea of how this record will flow.’ Track 5 is this slow ambient song without drums or vocals. Before I wrote that song, I had the idea that I wanted the middle of the album to be this calm, quiet break, apart from the screaming and blasts. That’s when that all started to feel more fleshed out in my head. I wasn’t coming home, writing a riff, then waiting another 2 weeks to write something else [anymore]. It felt like actually an attainable concept. Do you know what I mean?
I do know what you mean. Sometimes writing articles is kind of like that. I’m writing a novel, and writing a novel is definitely like that. You have ideas for scenes, but you don’t really understand structure. My first draft was like, ‘I’m going to write every scene and then put them in chronological order... and it’s bullshit. Time to go back to zero and really rethink this.'
Yeah, man. There were parts for the guitar stage of this record that were… I never delete any files or anything like that. I’d go back and listen and say, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ I had this part that sounded like Rush meets Emperor. It was cool, but looking back I’m thinking, ‘Why the fuck would I ever consider putting this on this record?’ It doesn’t make any sense.
You listen to your record and think about your mindset and say, ‘This person might like Emperor,’ and you can also listen and say, ‘This person might like Rush.’ There’s some progressive parts, and there’s definitely ornate black metal parts.
Anybody who knows me, can listen and say, ‘That sounds like a Rush part and also like something John would write.’ But it was so blatantly prog that I was like, ‘Ok, maybe the next record, but not this one.’
You did mention blast beats earlier, but there’s not a lot of blasting on The Weight of Sunlight. If you were singing cleanly the whole time, it wouldn’t be an extreme heavy metal record.
Sure. And I want to say that was intentional, but it wasn’t. I’m not sure where that directly came from. When I first started playing guitar, it was, tremolo-picking, blast beats, black metal stuff, right? Which is still there, but when I turned 23 or 22, suddenly everything I was writing just had this kind of…I don’t wanna say traditional heavy metal, but that’s what it reminded me of, and apparently it’s reminded other people of that too, which is sweet. I honestly didn’t think anyone was going to pick up on that.
No, I think that’s actually a pretty obvious influence.
I do. But at the same time, my experience is tainted. You and I met that night of the Primordial show and we Facebook-friended that night. And so I’ve watched you make the record as much as you’ve shared publicly. Because of that I’m aware that you like old-school heavy metal, and for example, that you’re a big In Flames fan. You can hear the In Flames in Marsh Dweller, I think.
It’s really funny, I love to hear that. Because anyone who asks, ‘Hey John, what’s your favorite band?’ I always say In Flames and Iron Maiden. I always say them as well as Metallica. Those are the big three for me. It’s really funny because when I was first made it public that I was going to be working with Bindrune and Eihwasz they wanted to write a press release. They asked me what my influences were, and I gave them this whole list of influences. I said Metallica, In Flames, Iron Maiden first, then I said Dissection, Vinterland, all these cult bands. And those [later influences] are the only bands they listed.
They didn’t list In Flames, they didn’t list Metallica, they didn’t list Iron Maiden. It’s really funny.
That’s totally something unique to the metal underground. No one wants to acknowledge any sort of direct lineage from the classics. It’s almost like an invented history. People want, say, Vintersorg to be the classic. And if enough people say their influences are Vintersorg, it sort of becomes true to an extent.
Yeah, to an extent, but like, you didn’t pick up a guitar because you listened to Visions from the Spiral Generator. You picked up a guitar because of Master of Puppets.
Exactly. I picked up a bass because of Cliff Burton.
Right. I have a house here in Pittsburgh, and I end up hosting a lot of bands that are on tour, because people always hosted me, and it’s nice to pay it forward. Inevitably after the show is over, we’re back at my house, drinking beers or something, and I say, ‘You guys care if I put music on?’ You don’t want to listen to some scary spooky black metal record when you’re hanging out with friends. So I always put on the first Yngwie Malmsteen record, because I fucking love that album. And inevitably what happens is everybody in the band says, ‘Aw dude, I love this,’ or ‘I grew up with this shit.’ I’ll put on In Flames and they’re saying, ‘Oh my god, The Jester Race is one of the best albums ever.’ I always think, ‘Why the fuck don’t people talk about this public?’ They only talk about the cult bands in interviews and influences and press releases, but everybody is still influenced by this old stuff.
These records are staying the same and we’re getting older. At some point in time we’re going to get people writing music whose first primary metal influence is White Zombie.
Oh, dude, that’s already happening man.
I’m in full support. Bring back “Electric Head Part 1” please.
It makes total sense, man. If we’re talking about Metallica, they were listening to all these '70s hard rock bands, early '80s and late '70s, early-and proto-metal. Toward the late '80s, Slayer and Metallica were the main influences. It’s a natural progression. I feel like I’m in that weird age group where, like, I missed the whole nu-metal thing. That never hit me, I’m very lucky, I’m not that old. I’m 27.
I have an older brother, and me and him both got into Metallica at the same time, but he was older than me so he was definitely past the whole nu-metal phase. I actively avoided all nu-metal because I figured he’d make fun of me if I ever listened to it. So to this day I’ve never heard a Korn album before. I’ve never heard a Slipknot record before. It just doesn’t exist to me.
That’s sort of funny to me, because I think that if you revisited that stuff now, I think you’d find a lot to like about it.
You think so?
I recently interviewed Corey Taylor [Slipknot vocalist], and to prepare for it, I listened to the first three Slipknot records again. Just to sort of put myself in that mindset. And all the people in the comment threads are going to fucking kill me but it’s the truth. Here I am, 28, a grown man, on the bus listening to “Wait and Bleed.” And I’m thinking to myself, 'This is a pretty good song.’ They’ve got a decent melody, it works as a pop rock song. You’re the kind of guy who just appreciates good songwriting, and it shows on your record. You have this unique opportunity to see something with new eyes, and probably find a lot of value in it.
I think the main thing that would be rough for me would be listening to Joey Jordison. I fucking hate that guy. Ever since I saw that video for him filling in for Lars in Metallica, and he fucking ruined “Creeping Death.”
Yeah, he did, didn’t he?
He like, put all these random double-bass fills in it for no reason, and it sounded like garbage.
Well you know what’s funny? Like Lars is the most extreme metal fan in Metallica, Joey was the most extreme metal fan in Slipknot.
Isn’t he in a band with Atilla from Mayhem? That’s fucking weird.
Yes he is. I remember reading an interview with him when he produced the Three Inches of Blood album, Fire Up the Blades. I actually think that is a great record. I still really like listening to it.
I’ve never heard that band either.
Go listen to Fire Up the Blades. The production is bad, but the songs are good.
That’s a pretty sweet title.
It’s a great title. Anyway, Joey Jordison says in this interview that he’s a big cult black metal fan.
Was he wearing Jnco jeans when he said that?
I have no idea.
Did they wear Jnco jeans? I don’t know.
They were more about the jumpsuits.
Oooh, right, and then In Flames started doing that. That’s the thing I know most about Slipknot, is whenever Reroute to Remain came out, and they started wearing jumpsuits and ties and shit like that. That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to listening to Slipknot is listening to Reroute to Remain. I think that album is almost their version of Load, where they had some really cool ideas, but it was way too fucking long. It was at its best when they were kind of experimenting with it. What’s that one song with a violin on it and a slide guitar and shit? Metaphor. That one for example.
They also wanted to be an electronic band, sort of. The programming is excellent on those records.
I can’t stand the one after it though. Reroute has cool parts, but Soundtrack to Your Escape? I fucking hate that so much.
Soundtrack is no good. Goddamnit, we’re supposed to be talking about your record and here we are talking about In Flames.
If you start any conversation about music with me, I’ll probably start talking about In Flames.
So there’s something about the way you made the album that really irritated me. Let’s talk about it. Tell the readers what you did with the lyrics.
I knew this was going to come up.
I’m the lyric guy, what do you want?
Yeah, I know, you’re a writer, and I totally get it. And the fun thing about this is I totally get why you hate that I did this.
I hate it so much.
So I wrote the lyrics to this record on the front and back of one piece of paper with no breaks, song titles or whatever. While recording I was just reading down the page of lyrics. They’re cohesive, it’s not just phrases or whatever. And after I finished recording, I took the piece of paper and threw it away. So yeah, I don’t know what most of the lyrics are on this record, because I forget them. Another thing I was doing was, as I was recording the vocals, I was drinking 13 beers. I don’t know if anyone reading knows, but it makes your voice sound real gnarly when you drink while you growl. So I wanted my voice to sound more and more gnarly as the album goes on, so I remember the lyrics even less as it goes on [Note: This is very bad for your vocal cords. John is probably fine because he does not perform this material but please, do not drink heavily and then perform extreme metal vocals - Ed.].
I did this because I took it like a personal growth kind of thing. This record was about a very specific evolution in both my actual life and my personality. Now that this record is out and done, that part of my life is over, so I wanted to move on from it.
That’s fair, but now the album is harder for me to appreciate that than it would be otherwise. Here’s the expression of your growth as well as me trying to appreciate it, but there’s this aspect of it that exists but is now walled off from me, and from you as well. If you listen to it, there are a few words you can understand, but they’re monosyllabic words like ‘a’ and ‘the’ and ‘I’.
The last lyric on the album is--maybe just because I know what it is--really easy to understand, It is, “We shall remain feathers on the breath of god.” One it’s the song title, and two, I just think I enunciated it well. That line right there just kind of sums it up. I can explain it if you want, but I can also just leave it for people to get it.
The thing that isn’t obvious about that lyric is that you’re not a very religious person.
I’m not at all, I’m an atheist.
Which obscures the obvious interpretation of that lyric, so even in its clarity it remains obscured.
This is hard to explain. I left some hints about what the record’s about in the artwork in the book. I have a mix between a nature aesthetic and a medieval-religious aesthetic. The reason I wanted to do that is because I’ve always kind of been fascinated by [medieval religions]. You think of a stereotypical guy living in a monastery, completely dedicating his life to studying something, but the scholars back then weren’t one-trick ponies. If they were theologians, they were also philosophers or astronomers. I like that idea. Even when they talked about natural physical processes, like astronomy, they still always talked about it in this poetic, religious sense. They talked about it very Biblical ways. So I’m kind of appropriating that. So when I say “God” it doesn’t mean God. It means a way of representing natural order, natural law, natural consequences, in one three-letter word. I don’t mean someone that created humans and yells at us when we masturbate.
I look around the world and mankind, our country right now, and I think that a lack of faith in science is probably a motivating force in the internal friction that we have as a society right now. Science used to be something that could unify people, and now it isn’t. I wonder if part of the reason for that is that the language of science has lost some of its poetry, you know?
That’s totally true. I don’t remember if I said this in the drunk interview or not, but I used to be a scientist.
You did, and it bears repeating.
I used to be an astronomer. I’d go up to the mountains with a telescope, sit there for a week and a half, and take data. I got into it because when I was a kid I had a telescope. I always took it in this very poetic sense. I was always good at math, so it seemed natural for me to go into something like that, but when I was in grad school, and just like sitting in a fucking blank windowless office, staring at papers and highlighting words I didn’t understand, and you know, every other word was an acronym. I was just like, ‘This is fucking going to make me go insane.’ It’s gotten so specific that there are some fields in astronomy that some astronomers would never even have heard of. I think that’s where that disconnect comes from, because the public can’t appreciate it anymore. Not even every scientist can even appreciate it anymore, because it’s so fucking specific.
Metal is kind of like that, too. The genres are becoming so precise that people have become disinterested in them.
Yeah, it’s almost like to get into it, you have to train for it. The whole internet metal culture thing is so stupid. I don’t know, man. It’s so far removed from metal culture in general. It’s not even something I usually think about. But I’m obviously friends with a lot of people in the metal world, so I’ll see a bunch of people start posting about the same band or something, and think, ‘Alright, what happened?’ And then I just shut off my internet for the day.
The Weight of Sunlight will be released on August 15th. Order it at Bindrune here.