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Withered's Mike Thompson: "…my infatuation with the human experience has taught me that there’s always something new around the corner and I want to know it all. So, endings are always new beginnings, right?"

Interview with Mike Thompson from Withered
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 01 August 2021, 9:49 PM

So many questions and very much less answers, a lot of aspects of life that can provoke a person's mind until even the verge of insanity. Time what is Time? Mourning or celebrate the loss of time, one day one is a boy and the next day and older man. At times, people aren't really taking into account that their lives are simply flowing by, even in our constant survival in order to be somebody throughout our lives or mainly take care of our loved ones. Passing through time, and its traumas of loss, there is the American Withered, led by Mike Thompson. Hailing with their next album, "Verloren", Steinmetal and Thompson convened in order to discuss spiritual matters and of course massiveness of the music.

Hello Mike, it is great to have you for this conversation for Metal Temple online Magazine, how have you been doing sir?

Hello! I’m doing fairly well, thanks for having me.

Getting right to it, while listening to the new "Verloren", you sent me out soul searching, trying to understand things that have been hidden from me, as if you masterfully locked me in a puzzle for 45 minutes, not really giving me a chance. Let me just ask it straightforward, was it your initial intention to have the listener ultimately challenged?

I’m so glad you were able to connect with it in that way. Yes, it is very intentional for us to encourage the listener to embrace that sort of experience. It’s how we experience the music when performing it and hopefully we can draw the audience into that space with us. I hope you were able to revel in some self-discovery while you were at it.

"Verloren", or “Missing” in translation from German, spins around happenings in a person’s lives, and from what I could gather, you are, or were, engulfed, by negative vibes due to earlier shockwaves in your life. Forwarding this to you, when you sit down and listen to the album, what goes through you? Even though you are the songwriter, do you feel that you found what you needed in order to carry on?

I’ll answer this in reverse order because I tend to always have what I need to carry on. Only because I like being surprised by what’s next in life. I’m pretty obsessed with the human experience and how infinitely diverse it is. When I listed to ‘Verloren’, being newly released, it takes me back through the experience of the creation process along side Beau, Dan, & Rafay. That in itself was arduous. A lot of uncertainty about whether we could still take Withered to the next level as we’ve done with every previous album. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of stress and discouragement. Though, those things were also inspirational even if they were not enjoyable. I tend to reflect on that aspect of every album. Connecting with that period in life and where my perspective was at the time. Each album is like a timestamp and milestone in my life. Much like having children in some ways. After that, when the energy of the record finally pulls me in, I connect with the subject matter, reflect on and reconnect with each of the traumas and/or ponderings that fuel each song, sometimes specific parts. It’s still a vivid experience and that is quite satisfying to know it holds up too many repeat listening sessions. It’s exactly what we strive for.

You talk about time as a concept, or more to the point, missing time, other than the sense of loss of a loved one, would you say that through "Verloren" you mourn the loss of time as it melts away fast, as if right between our fingertips?

That’s complicated to express. Being middle aged, I find myself mourning and celebrating the loss of time/life. It can simultaneously feel incredibly fleeting whilst being incredibly rich. This puzzling sort of contradiction is a big part of what keeps me engaged and fascinated with life.

What kind of negative experiences that you can share with the readers led you to the writing and composition of "Verloren"?

For me personally, there are two primary traumas that stuck with me. In 2001, my father passed abruptly. It was 2 days before my 24th birthday and really traumatized my family for a multitude of reasons. This is what I tapped into when we formed Withered and wrote ‘Memento Mori’ about the grieving process. So, Verloren was released around the 20th anniversary of his death. This forced me to look at Withered’s entire existence and my part to play in it all. Speaking of time loss, wow. It feels like yesterday and 100 years ago at times. All of that then sent me into a bit of a crisis over the possibility of losing the one thing I never thought I could lose, Withered itself. With the industry being threatened by the pandemic just as we had a gelled with our new lineup and had a good start to what was looking like a fantastic album, I was faced with the possibility it could all come crashing. This was the darkness finding it’s way into my safe space for the first time in my life. Very unsettling.

How do you relate the Covid-19 pandemic to the bowling soup of "Verloren"? Do you believe that people may have been unappreciative towards what and who they have in their lives, not really knowing when they are going to lose it all?

Everyone neglects things in life to varying degrees so, yes, of course they have been. This is the silver lining of this situation. Well, hopefully. There are still many who refuse to accept the trauma of it and also those who may never find their way out of the trauma. But I think most people were afforded a bit of a perspective reset. So, I’m grateful for that at least. And, I hope that things never “return to normal”. We can all use less screen time and more face to face time. Stop having things and start doing things.

The simplistic, yet in a special way kind of realistic, artwork, smashes the traditional way of forming an artwork with a band’s logo and album’s title. Was it your way to confront naturality? What am I looking at in this picture? What are the symbols presented? 

Perhaps on more of an instinctual level than trying to make a conscious statement. When discussing concepts with Paul, I had reached a point where illustrations/paintings didn’t feel as special as they did a decade ago. Don’t get me wrong, his paintings are true timeless masterpieces to behold in person. I’ve spent a lot of money to own a few of them and they’re in my house. But once a masterpiece gets reduced to a 5” CD cover, the magic gets lost. So, I expressed to him that I missed seeing the photography work he used to do during the Relapse Records golden age, for example. And, he’s always wanted to build one of the chaotic wooden structures he illustrated into our previous albums’ artwork, so that’s the direction he took. And, I couldn’t be happier. The faceless figure without limbs is the archetype of Verloren/Missing. The flowing veil covering the face taps into the forlornness we are trying to express with the music. And the chaotic wooden structure really represents the unpredictability of being a sentient hurling through the abyss of space and existence in general.

We go back to our self-listening session, is there a message of positivity going out from "Verloren"? Is there a sense of hope that a person might cling on to?

I think we incorporate a sense of hope in every album. Even if it’s just the guarantee that your suffering will eventually, somehow. Haha. Though, we tend to aim for something a little richer than that. Again, my infatuation with the human experience has taught me that there’s always something new around the corner and I want to know it all. So, endings are always new beginnings, right?

Withered is one of the few bands out there in the vast Metal world that is hard to label, and to be frank, I am glad about that. You can call it Extreme Metal in overall, but again, it would end up incomplete. You are nearly everywhere on this album, going through decades, subgenres, with a lot of “expect the unexpected”. What can you tell about the course of change within the band’s music on this record?

Just that the change is what you can predict about Withered. Every album intends to add new elements to the existing mix of stylings/intentions. We do not impose limits on ourselves. All that matters is that we tap into the style of expression that most clearly represents the emotions we are striving to encourage and share with everyone. Sometimes, unorthodox approaches prove to be the best vehicle for this. Before now, I never would have thought I would endeavor into singing clean vocals. But again, it was the only thing that pinned down the energy we needed to create. I had to put insecurity and ego aside to accomplish the goal.

In regards to your motivation to be different, to so-call break the rules, what would you say were your prime influences that led you to that direction? What drove you beyond your own expectations?

I don’t think we’re motivated to just be different but to make sure we’re actually carving our own path. Doing the hard work and experiencing all this truly in our own way. All of the greats I grew up listening to carved their own path and proudly wore their styles like a badge of honor. A lot of bands stopped doing that and just travel a well worn path before them. Nothing wrong with that if you’re mostly focused on a successful career. I just can’t get past my need to express specific perspectives and emotions to be terribly successful professionally. Hahaha.

The songwriting on "Verloren", including all the musical elements added to this mixture of hot extremity, appears to me as quite challenging. How would you say that it developed you as a songwriter? How did it change your perception of what you have been doing all these years?

We really didn’t approach ‘Verloren’ any different than previous albums. It’s very much an organic process. We decide on a theme/energy we want to focus on. Always primarily misanthropic but we we’ll decide to try and focus on a particular aspect of it. I suppose, for me, I am aware of things I do or do not want to do differently than previous albums from a production standpoint. I try to look at what the ideal end goal is and work back to where we are. That helps me judge whether I feel we are honoring our intentions or have gotten distracted by something that may be attractive but not inline with the concept.

We allow for flexibility in this regard but I’d say that I’m much more prudent these days about knowing what still honors Withered’s legacy while continuing to progress into unknown territories. I imagine it like that scene in Poltergeist where the mother is tied to a rope to remain tethered to her origin, her foundation. Then be willing to venture into an unknown realm with unknown risk to find her child. We hope to honor every previous album in one way or another every time around. Ultimately, I have much more confidence as a songwriter and, as a result, a producer as well. Our end reward becomes a little clearer, a little more into view with every album. Though I doubt we’ll ever reach the end by choice.

Certainly, and yes it is another challenge that I bet was quite the thing, finding that right cohesion between the lyrics and music was probably outstanding, uncanny. How did you do it?

It boils down to identifying the specific emotion or combination of emotions you’re expressing. If any part of the music doesn’t serve that feeling, it changes. If any part of the lyrics, and especially the vocal delivery, doesn’t serve that feeling, it changes.

As a guitarist and vocalist, what can you tell of what "Verloren" demanded of you as a musician, putting the initial songwriting into work through instrumentation and vocals? How much did it take from you?

I’m fairly stubborn about my competence as a musician. By that, I mean, I don’t really perceive limitations whilst creating any of it. When I hear something in my mind, there is no option to fail at it. It must be realized 100%. So, if it pushes my limitations as a guitarist or vocalist, that doesn’t matter. I have to suck it up and figure out how to do it. No matter what. I’m of an opinion that no one is more special than the next. If someone else is capable, I can be too. I just practice until I get it right. So, in that regard, my stubbornness can cost me some confidence or stress but only temporarily.

I have the feeling that after such a demanding songwriting process, and believe me it is quite evident as I ran across the album, that you felt somewhat drained, wouldn’t you say? Or was it the other way around, you felt energized, ready for more?

Personally, I felt drained. It was very stressful this time around for many reasons. For me, every new album must be the best Withered album ever. So, after several, it is a lot of pressure to put on myself. I procrastinate a lot and I listen to demos thousands of times to make sure each part serves its purpose as part of the whole. All while trying to accomplish everything I’ve already described. And to do it under time and financial constraints. Hahaha. Though, now that it’s been several months, I’ve forgotten the sharpness of the pain and that ignorance now has me eager to find out what we can conjure next.

I don’t usually discuss instrumentals, yet this one is far from it. “Passing Through…” gave me the creeps. Not because of the distorted sounds of ambience, but the fact that it may be a process running through a person’s head, as if rolling back and forth memories or events, or maybe just being out there in the world in slow motion, maybe even a near death experience. What is going on here?

Well, I wanted a turning point on side B of the record to darker, more abstract energies. I had made a recording (with family permission) at my step father’s mother’s funeral service. She was woman who suffered much in the way of abuse, oppression, and poverty. Despite it all, she accepted the burden and found a way to love as much as she could. A true testament to the strength of love. The loss of her was felt tremendously throughout the small congregation at a tiny rural Alabama church. There is no mobile phone service there, no air conditioning in the building, and no musical instrumentation or PA system.

The entire congregation broke into hymns to honor this woman. Just their voices and lumbering stomps on the ground. All the hairs stood up on my body and I was completely moved by the energy of this. So, I recorded it and saved it for quite some time. I wasn’t sure how to use it then. We considered it for Grief Relic but the energy didn’t match. Once the themes of Verloren were developed, it felt right. Many Blessings (Ethan McCarthy) is one of the few noise artists who I know and are still doing it the old school way. So, I sent him the recording to process and maximize the energies for us. I think he did a wonderful job. Listening to the vinyl on headphones and when you flip to side B and it begins this way, it can chill your bones.

An atmospheric, but brutal, melodic but not letting off the roughness, there is “The Predation”, delivering massiveness to the nerves that is quite devouring. What can you tell about this track? What is your appreciation of it?

I find it very useful in propelling the listener into the full energy of the album. ‘By Tooth In Tongue’ is kind of a warm up to let you know a little of what you might be in for with the album. Once you’re warmed up, ‘The Predation’ takes hold and propels you into more of the full energies to come. It introduces more of the crust element we made more prominent on this record. And also brings the first real funeral doom part of the album. Another aspect we wished to reconnect with on this album. It’s a massive track and we put it 2nd as to say “buckle in tight, we’re not letting up”

Thanks to the great work of the studio team, Raheem Amlani, Greg Wilkinson and Jarrett Pritchard, Withered sounded raw, unfiltered and I might even say true to form. With all the polished stuff out there, I guess that it was obvious for you to take the opposite course even in sound? What is your perspective towards your sound?

Thank you so much. That is how I feel as well. As producer, I needed to have a very specific combination of elements work together and thought long about how to do that. We trust Raheem completely since he also performed live with us for several tours to fill in for Ethan during the Grief Relic tour cycle. I also wanted to tap people who I’ve known for a long time and trust their judgment. Attempting to weave together so many styles and capture successfully is difficult. If the production is too clean or too “death metal”, some parts will sound great but others will suffer.

Conversely, too much of a lo-fi production will have the opposite effect. So we needed to find that balance. I met Greg back around 2000. He flew out to perform as a vocalist with my old crust / grindcore band, Social Infestation. So, he’s someone who I knew had an appreciation for everything from Neurosis to Tragedy to Napalm Death to Grave, etc.. and could find a natural way to honor our tones and help us meld the styles. So this primary responsibility came down to the mix. Also, we tracked everything naturally. We didn’t do any sound replacing, amp modeling, nor auto tune, etc. No modern tricks. That’s why you might hear some slight “flubs” etc. but that’s our humanity oozing through. After that, I knew we needed someone old school with a similarly diverse perspective but on the cut throat side of old school Tampa Bay Death Metal. So I called up Jarett to master it. I think it was the right call. He knew what to do and delivered some wonderfully powerful masters.

When all this blows over, I mean the pandemic, what is the first thing that you want to do in order to feel free?

Tour all foreign lands and connect with people again. Being in a strange place, uncomfortable, and alone is the only time I feel truly free. I can almost reach out and touch the potentials in the air.

What are the band’s plans for the remainder of the year, if there are? If not, what about 2022?

We have some special live performances in the US as well as a US tour towards the end of the year that we’re announcing soon. We are working on 2022 now. Hoping to return to EU again if all opens up. And pretty much anywhere that promoters are naïve (or strong) enough to invite us! Ha.

Mike, I would like to thank you for this amazing talk, no doubt that you are bound to trigger questions, more than answers, from listeners. Thank you for the stimulant. All the best.

Lior, it is my pleasure. I really appreciate the thoughtful questions. I will continue to ponder/consider some of them long after this. Anyone reading, thanks for your patience. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I know I have said a lot here and hope it is for some good. This is the curse of being a detailed oriented over-thinker and a pretty fast typist. Thank you also to anyone who’s soaked in Verloren. After a few spins, please attend a performance and come have a chat about it. Cheers!

Certainly, you provoked my thoughts, so it was only logical for me to return the favor, highly interesting mind you have sir, Cheers.


 



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