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Interview

Guitarist Mark Kloeppel Of Misery Index Discusses New Album "The Killing Gods," Creative Evolution, And Music Format Nostalgia

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Band Photo: Misery Index (?)

A personal confession: When "The Killing Gods," the fifth studio album from Baltimore, Maryland's Misery Index, was presented to me, I hadn't listened to more than a handful of the band's songs since 2003.

Stuck in my memory vault from that time were the brash, abrasive, punk-influenced deathgrind strains of yore - a style that, in my experience, has produced some notable hits and many more forgettable misses. But my reservations proved unfounded.

Over the past eleven years, Misery Index has evolved into a lean, fearsome, consummate death metal machine. Far from a simple, numbing blast beat extravaganza, "The Killing Gods" is a pure riff factory laden with groove, thrash, and teasingly melodic elements that represent the ultimate melting pot of influences and personalities.

At the forefront of this evolution is, and has been, guitarist Mark Kloeppel, who joined Misery Index in 2005 from a decidedly different geographic and musical background. His creative path, in convergence with his bandmates', led directly to what now may be a strong contender for 2014's "best-of" lists.

Mark recently made himself available for some questions over the phone. Here's what happened.

Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): Until now, I was only a casual observer of Misery Index, so bear in mind that this will be an educational experience for me.

Mark Kloeppel: I don’t blame you; I started auditioning in 2004 and joined the band in early 2005. And I wasn’t a fan of the band at that point! [Laughs] I was more into Dying Fetus and stuff, and I knew that some of the guys had been in that band. I’d seen Misery Index maybe one or two times live, and then my buddy from St. Louis, Adam Jarvis, ended up joining the band. We’d played the same scene; we were both kind of in the “other good band,” [Laughs] in St. Louis, and that’s how we thought of each other. So he hit me up when Misery Index lost a guitar player, and I was actually his third choice. [Laughs] He had two other guys, and of course they were the guitarists from his old band. He hit them up first, ‘cause that’s what you do with your homies. But they weren’t able to commit for whatever reason, so he hit me up, and that’s how that happened. But I wasn’t the hugest fan; I thought they were pretty cool, so joining the band seemed like a good opportunity, and I learned to like all the older material, and had to learn to appreciate grind and punk and stuff like that. I’ve kind of grown onto those things, but I really wasn’t into that kind of stuff when I first started.

Mike: So what was your own background in terms of taste and guitar playing?

Mark: Now, it’s kind of an amalgamation of a lot of different things, so I’m equally as interested in grind and punk as I am in the stuff I grew up on. Melodic, European, darkened, more evil-like, visionary-type stuff. Dissection, Emperor, stuff like that. Back when I joined the band, I got the question, “Hey, ever heard of Terrorizer?” And honestly, in 2005, I had never listened to Terrorizer. I’d listened to Morbid Angel, but never to Terrorizer at that point, which is probably a big shock to some people. [Laughs] But yeah, that was my first exposure, through Sparky [Voyles, ex-guitarist] and Jason [Netherton, bassist/vocalist]. They schooled me on a lot of stuff. You gotta understand, I grew up in pre-Internet Midwest, and it was a cultural fucking wasteland. The best thing we had going for us, and some people in the underground might remember selling their records to this dude, was Frank at Missing Link, a record store in St. Louis, which is no more. We had him, and we had people’s older brothers that were into metal. And that was it! That was the culture. You’re in suburbia, Midwest, cultural wasteland, pre-Internet, no communication whatsoever. You’ve got people’s older brothers listening to things like Pantera and Faith No More, and Metallica and Slayer, and that’s what we all started on out there. Eventually you wander into obscure stuff because you want to dig deeper, so the Missing Link really was the “missing link.” [Laughs] Out there, we were following a different path. We sort of stumbled onto Edge Of Sanity and all these other obscure bands, but we weren’t into a lot of the mainstay stuff that was commonplace on the coasts: stuff like At The Gates, Terrorizer… if you’re in a larger population center, that stuff is just kind of in the air, but where we were, we had no clue.

Mike: This guy Frank at Missing Link must’ve enjoyed a total monopoly, then, in the underground metal market.

Mark: For metal, yeah, he was the only one. There were other places that sold it - there was Streetside Records and Vintage Vinyl, but they were deeper into the city, so you kind of had to be a city kid, or as “city” a kid as you can be in St. Louis. [Laughs] But yeah, that’s where we were: a cultural wasteland, diving into some obscure stuff. So my own traditional stuff is very different from a lot of other people’s, because when I dug in, it wasn’t into those mainstays. I was really into these obscure bands that had only two or three albums. [Laughs] And I didn’t know; at that age, you think that every metal band with a record out is HUGE! [Laughs] You get older, deeper into the scene in more places, and people say, “Who the hell are those guys? I’ve never heard of them.” And they show you stuff that everybody on the block knows, and you’re like, “Nope, never listened to them in my life.”

Mike: We’re speaking a great deal about ‘90s bands, and what interest me are these cycles of popular resurgence. Last decade, we saw a big revival in the thrash movement, which was an ‘80s thing, and now we’re just starting to see a big ‘90s comeback wave, what with new albums from Carcass and At The Gates. So who knows what that might mean, in a few years, for bands that popped up around the turn of the millennium like Misery Index?

Mark: A bigger push in general interest, hopefully. We’re seeing a lot of interest for this new record in particular. An unprecedented amount. It’s odd; we’re on kind of a bigger label, and they seem to be doing all the right things, and we work hand in hand with them on a daily basis, and they do a really good job, but I don’t think we’re doing anything too crazily different from before, in terms of promotion. I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with the social media phenomenon, or maybe it’s just that we made a really good record. I don’t know. Maybe a combination of all those things. A lot of what I’m hearing is from people like you: people who say, “Misery Index? Yeah, I’ve heard of them before, heard a song here or there, but never really gave them a shot,” things like that. But then this record hit, and somehow more people are giving it a shot and liking what they’re hearing.

Mike: The first song I ever heard was “Bottom Feeders,” off the “Retaliate” debut in 2003. It came on a Nuclear Blast sampler CD, along with bands like Dimmu Borgir and Mnemic, and that song was good, but never truly turned me onto the band. So flash forward all these years: “The Killing Gods” falls into my lap and blows me away. It’s just leaps and bounds above what I’d been casually expecting. Considering the bigger reactions this time around, did you guys do anything differently in creating these songs?

Mark: Yes, a lot of things were done differently. I’ll get to that in a sec, though. I think one of the most important aspects is the way we’ve evolved, stylistically, into each other. I remember seeing Misery Index a long time ago, before I was in the band, and not feeling this way or that about them. One thing I knew I liked was that there was some groove and some pretty ferocious blast beats. But what I didn’t like at the time was the punk influence. I just didn’t like that vibe. I think there might’ve been some metalheads turned off by that, because it was coming from that Napalm Death or Terrorizer influence, and if you’re not into that grind vibe, it’s gonna turn you off. And they had a lot of that in there at the time, so when I joined the band, I had to adapt so I could write songs. I had to internalize all that stuff really quick. I kept developing my own style on the side, and worked whatever influences I could into what we were doing, so with the songs I wrote, you see a steady progression of that. “Discordia” [2006] sounds like deathgrind, and then you get to “Traitors” [2008] and a song like “Ghosts Of Catalonia,” which has a more epic, doomy, atmospheric, dark vibe. Or “Partisans Of Grief,” which has a more groove-oriented guitar layering type of thing going on. So the further we went into history, the more personal I tried to make my own musical contributions. I wasn’t just gonna take what I’d been doing and put it in Misery Index. People wouldn’t have accepted that. If you were a fan, and all of a sudden this new guy starts writing these WAY different songs, stylistically, you wouldn’t have accepted it, and I wouldn’t have either. It just wouldn’t have sounded right. You have to make the progression gradual. So fast forward all the way to “The Killing Gods,” where I’m putting all my cards on the table, so to speak. At this point, it’s an amalgamation of the past ten years of experience, and everyone else’s influences have rubbed off onto my own personal style. So now, while my own style is one hundred percent represented, it’s also become an amalgamation, where the punk and grind are truly mixed in. I love all that stuff now, whereas in 2005, that was all new to me.

Mike: It finally all comes naturally, in a sense.

Mark: Right. It was never “forced,” because I’m a musician, and that’s the kind of stuff we were playing, and I enjoyed making that style my own, but yeah. That was a long digression. [Laughs] Back to what you asked about things done differently for “The Killing Gods.” For one thing, we threw out the timetable. Bands get locked in this year-and-a-half, two-year cycle. They spend all this time writing that first record and making this great music as a group. Then they get signed and get locked into this cycle, and you almost hear the music stagnate immediately, and they have to figure out how to make it work within that schedule. Some bands do make it work, and they’re the ones that succeed, and some bands don’t, and they’re the ones you don’t see anymore. But either way, the music suffers. After “Traitors,” we didn’t feel that “Heirs To Thievery” [2010] was a great departure, which was OK, but we felt like we didn’t have the time to get the production we wanted. It’s a good production that sat well for 2010, but it wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted something like the prior record, which sounded rawer and more organic, but with modern sensibilities. So we took our time tracking these new songs - well, not “tracking;” we know how to play our instruments [Laughs] - we took our time mixing and mastering. It was a really strenuous process; we had some members bowing out left and right due to stress; they just couldn’t take it any more. I was guilty of that too. It was just really intense. The mastering guy, Tony Eichler, ran some experiments on us and asked if we could tell which new vacuum tube he was sticking in his compressor. That’s the difference between “Heirs To Thievery” and “The Killing Gods.” We spent way, way more time in post production, getting it the way we wanted. What you hear on that record - the song arrangement, the layers of guitars, the organic drum production - that’s all one hundred percent intentional and very carefully planned and thought out.

Mike: And stylistically, some things really stand out. “Heretics” sounds pretty much like a classic thrash song.

Mark: Yeah, that’s Darin’s [Morris, lead guitar] song that Adam helped put together. He’s an older cat, so you can clearly hear his influences. There’s Venom and Celtic Frost all over that. But if you think about those two bands, they come from a time where crossover was natural. There wasn’t this crazy amount of subgenres and delineations and stuff; metal was just metal. Darin’s more of a Mercyful Fate type guy, and he still thinks that way. He only knows the subgenres as they’ve been prescribed to him. [Laughs] In a lot of ways, I still think like that too: metal is just metal, and all this confinement is just ridiculous. Metal is supposed to be about rebellion and freedom and a punch in the gut and a big “fuck you,” not this conformist, conservative type thing. So when critics are intolerant of a little bit of crossover, it’s like, “Sorry man, that’s not what this is about. You have to go reevaluate what you’re listening to.” Back in the day, there was less constriction on what you supposedly could or couldn’t do, and I do think it’s moving back that way. But for a while there, and this was probably perpetuated by the Internet, people were just getting a little too niched. And it’s cool to dive really hardcore into certain aspects that you like, but after a while it gets really boring. If your “scene” is constricted to one, two, three, four influences, then you start running out of possibilities really quick. I don’t know if dubstep has died already, [Laughs] but I’m not sure you can do much more with Optimus Prime and a kickstand. I mean, there are still some top artists I think, but it’s pretty much over. I don’t hear people talking much about anything except wanting to hear change.

Mike: It seems that way, because even online, we’re starting to see a backlash against this niched way of thinking. People are coming out and saying, “This is absurd. Metal is just metal,” and so on.

Mark: What I see happening on the street are people doing different things in subtle, cool ways. Like they only listen to vinyl, or they’re getting back into older analog versions of stuff. Like a cool way to approach the whole paradigm through an omission of technology. Everyone uses it, and it’s part of our lives at this point, but I do see people omitting certain things: “I buy vinyl and only listen to vinyl,” that kind of thing, people who get really hardcore into that. You see it a lot in metal these days. Especially in black metal or the gritty stuff on the rock side. Instead of being so honed in on the musical style itself, they’re honed in on the format, so their taste tends to be governed by what’s available on that medium. It does kind of depend on when you grew up, though. I’m 32, and the compact disc had such an impact on our lives in the ‘90s. I’m sure you remember the long boxes, where the plastic case itself was the size of about three cases put together. And for people from an earlier generation, or those from the recent revival, the gatefold has a big impact. People are really into this retro stuff; they’re going out and buying Walkmans. [Laughs] Actually, “The Killing Gods” is the first album we’ve put out on cassette tape, because enough people out there want it on that format. It reminds them of something cool. I don’t know if we officially sanctioned the idea - the label just went ahead and did it - so no one asked, but when I saw it, with the gold-on-white tape and the gold-on-black tape… that was just so cool, man. I remember the cassette days too, and it takes me back. To hold my own album on a cassette tape, it brings the whole experience full circle. Like “We’ve finally made it, man!” [Laughs]

Mike: And to think we used to consider any band with an album as having “made it,” now it feels that way when a band gets the retro cassette treatment.

Mark: Yeah, it’s awesome. I remember holding my old cassette copy of “Kill ‘Em All” - the special edition with “Blitzkrieg” on it - and when I picked up our own cassette, it just brought me back. Even though we didn’t say we were gonna do it, I’m glad it happened. I think it’s a really fun thing to do.

Mike: Now speaking of gatherings of metalheads - hopefully diverse gatherings - I’m still a little bummed I had to miss Maryland Deathfest recently -

Mark: You should be bummed. You’re in Virginia! You could’ve just hopped in the car. [Laughs] You missed a good “nut-tap” from Ben Falgoust. [Soilent Green] If you stand near him long enough, he’ll give you the nut-tap. It is just his way. [Laughs] It was so amazing that they got back together and played that set, that was killer. I think we toured with them the last time they played, or sometime around then. We went across Canada with them and The Black Dahlia Murder, maybe three or four years ago? Maybe five? Anyway, one thing I’m bummed about, thinking “Man, we should’ve planned this…” Tompa [Tomas Lindberg] from At The Gates sang on “Ruling Class Cancelled” off “Traitors.” And we suddenly remembered that, and I’m at the bar, and I’m like, “Tomas, dude, you gotta sing it with us.” He’s like, “Are you guys ready to do it?” And I was. He says, “But does your band wanna do it?” And I’m like, “You’re probably right - I’d better check with the band first.” [Laughs]

Mike: So did it happen?

Mark: Well, we’d been doing a bit of drinking, and maybe got a little overzealous. I went and talked to Adam, he was down. But when I got to Darin and Jason, they weren’t too stoked about it. We hadn’t played or practiced that song in maybe a couple years or something. Jason was like, “I think I know all the words off the top of my head right now, but I’m not sure… I definitely don’t want to get in front of 7,000 people and try to pull that off by mumbling over words.” So in the end, we elected not to do it, and we were kicking ourselves in the ass. We should’ve practiced it at least once beforehand and invited Tomas well in advance. And he was ready to go! We played from 3:00 to 4:00, and he didn’t have to go to the airport until 5:00. It would’ve been perfect, and how many times are we all gonna be in the same place, y’know? It should’ve happened, and it didn’t, and I’m pissed. [Laughs] We might be able to squeeze our way in and hook up with those guys once they put that new record out, though, so we’ll see. That would be a really fun thing to do. And then Tomas could sing “Ruling Class Cancelled” every day. [Laughs]

Mike: So what’s the near-future touring agenda?

Mark: We’re playing a lot of festivals. We’re gonna be over in Europe about a month, and then we’ve got some other stuff that I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about yet, some things that were pitched and are being negotiated… that kind of thing. All I can talk about are the things that are booked, with flyers and everything. But Europe will be awesome because we’ll be playing some club shows in between the festivals, and I can’t even list them all, because it’s too long! I’m really stoked about Party San in Germany. We always have a good time there. It has “party” in the name, so you know it’s good. [Laughs] I’m excited to get back to Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic, and we have some club shows in Scandinavia, so it’ll be fun to get back up there too.

Mike: How about regular touring, perhaps in the States, later in the year?

Mark: We’re… talking about things. [Laughs] I will say this, though: we pounded the pavement as a band for a decade, and the common thing for a band to do is flip around to practically every country in the world about three times a year. And we don’t think that’s a good thing for some bands to do. I see it when I go to shows. First time a band comes around for their new album, it’s packed. Second time, not as packed. Third time, and half the room is filled. And then the album cycle starts over. That happens because you’re over-saturating the market. So we no longer feel it’s a good way to honor our legacy. It’s a good way to sell products and put some money in our pockets, but now we kind of have a bigger picture in mind for ourselves and our art. We’re gonna be a little particular about what we do and how we do it. We want to do it big. We do have the luxury to be able to do that now; not every band has that option. If they stop their momentum, the band will surely fall out of favor and people will forget about them. Thankfully, we’re no longer in that realm, so like I said, all we’re trying to do now is honor our art and our legacy, and coming through your rock club three times a year is just not gonna do that. It’s just gonna wear you out. It’s all about savoring the experience when we come through. For us now, it needs to be special, and when we don’t feel burnt out, we put on a better show, which ends up being more special for you too.

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Mike Smith is a Southern-born, New England-based writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine. As a screenwriter/producer, he is currently working on his first film with director Jason Matzner ("Dreamland").

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