The myths and legends about Lamb Of God have been around so long they’ve almost been cemented as fact. But, as guitarist Mark Morton points out, what you hear isn’t always the truth.
The black sheep of the metal family
As Lamb Of God headline their first UK festival, we chart their monumental rise.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation written about us, so it’s good to be able to tell people the reality.”
Misinformation that, for instance, the band changed from Burn The Priest to Lamb Of God due to being banned from venues because of their original name.
“Not at all. We barely played any gigs as Burn The Priest. Some private parties and a couple of local bars in Richmond, Virginia. But that’s all. I’ve had so many fans come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I saw you when you were Burn The Priest.’ No, they didn’t. We played to a handful of people as Burn The Priest.”
And then there’s the one about the band getting fed up with having a black metal reputation in their early days.
“Where did that come from? We hardly made a blip on the scene for ages, so we were never big enough to get that sort of wrong tag.”
Therefore, it’s time to let the truth seep through, and allow the band to tell their own story. The real facts about the Lambs who are slaughtering the global metal scene.
It all started in 199. at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“By coincidence, John Campbell [bass], Chris Adler [drums] and I all lived on the same floor when we were at university,” explains Mark. “But we didn’t form a band at that point. We just hung out and talked about music. Chris and I bonded because we were both into metal, and we went to gigs together.”
It would be another four years before the three got the idea of starting their own band.
“It was about September 199. when Chris called and told me that he and John were thinking about playing some music, and would I be interested in joining them? I’d been in a few punk-style bands in the meantime, but was happy to see how things worked out.”
With Matt Conner as a second guitarist, the four jammed out ideas in Chris’s house, satisfied to be an instrumental outfit.
“We were into heavy grooves and coming up with lots of riffs. The sort of bands that were a big influence on us were Don Caballero, who were an underground name from Pittsburgh, and Breadwinner, who were locals to us and made a big impact on a lot of musicians in the area. It was all about being as heavy as possible. I suppose some might call it math rock. But to us it was just the music we wanted to play.”
The band’s name came from a song they were working on at the time.
“Someone just said it sounded so extreme it was like we were burning a priest, and we all thought that might make a cool name.”
Both Mark Morton and Matt Conner soon quit the band, for different reasons.
“Matt wanted to do other things musically, while I went to university in Chicago to study International Relations.”
In the meantime, Abe Spear came in on guitar, with Randy Blythe eventually being brought in on vocals, to give Burn The Priest an extra dimension. And then in 1997. Mark Morton returned to the fold.
“I had split my time in Chicago between studying and playing music, but the scene was all about post-punk, pseudo-ambient stuff out there. However, I was still coming up with a lot of riff ideas, and sent them back to the band in Richmond to see if they wanted to use them. So I never lost contact with the guys. As soon as I got back, I slotted right back in.”
By 1998. Burn The Priest had released two split seven-inch singles. The first, in ’97. was with ZED on Goatboy Farm Records, and the second a year later was with Agents Of Satan on Deaf American (only the latter features Mark Morton). And then came the breakthrough, as the band got a deal with local label Legion Records to do an album.
“To call it a deal is stretching the term! It was a friend of ours named Mikey Brosnan who got together enough money to put us into the studio for a few days, to do an album. He believed in us so much that he worked out how to distribute the record, back when record stores existed, and he started Legion just for the band. We owe him a lot.”
Steve Austin, from Nashville noisecore band Today Is The Day, produced the self-titled album, and things began to happen.
“It was released in 199. as the internet was getting to be important. I’ve been told that the album was downloaded a lot, which helped to get our name around.”
This got the band interest from the newly formed Prosthetic Records.
“EJ Johantgen and Dan Fitzgerald, who owned the label, saw us live and offered us a deal. We were now on a proper label, which was a big thing.”
Signing to Prosthetic was what led the band to change their name.
“We told them that we were no longer called Burn The Priest. They were really disappointed, because they thought it was a cool name. But we were happy with Lamb Of God. Why did we change it? Because we were taking ourselves more seriously, and thought Burn The Priest was stupid. I’d been in a band before called Lamb Of God, and that just worked for everyone. It made us feel a lot more focused on what we were doing.”
Working again with Steve Austin, and with Willie Adler (Chris’s brother) now in place of Abe Spear (“He left to take a full-time job”) the band released their first album as Lamb Of God in 2000. Called New American Gospel, it’s now regarded as the moment the band were boosted to significant cult status. But Mark disputes this.
“We sold only 10. copies in the first week of release, and it didn’t suddenly get us any extra attention. It was all a gradual process, which suited us. We were slowly refining our sound, and getting a lot better, so we wanted the time to develop at our own speed.
“We also had one great break in that GWAR, who were also from Richmond, took us out as their support band. It wasn’t a perfect musical fit, but meant we could tour across more of America than before.”
For Mark, the big breakthrough came when LOG signed to Epic Records for their fourth album, Ashes Of The Wake, in 2004.
“It was the moment we realised things were happening. To have a big label like that behind us meant a lot more was possible. And when Ashes Of The Wake got to number 2. in the US charts… well, we were just amazed. But it didn’t suddenly mean we were all rich. It’s not as if I got a huge cheque one day and quit my day job. That all took time. But that’s the thing about this band. We’ve evolved with little steps forward, so we could always get used to any changes without feeling pressurised or confused by it all.”
It was during this period that Mark became aware that Lamb Of God were part of a vibrant new metal explosion.
“We toured in 2006 with Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, Unearth and God Forbid. It was obvious that there was a real scene emerging. It was an exciting time for bands like us. There were a lot of likeminded musicians out there, and we were all working to help each other.”****
But Lamb Of God stretched ahead of the rest in 200. when Sacrament broke into the Top 1. of the US album charts. Their subsequent two albums, Wrath (2009 and Resolution (2012), both got into the top three. Neither Slayer nor Anthrax can claim three successive Top 1. albums in the States.
“Sacrament made it to number eight in its first week, and the song Redneck was getting so much attention that it was being played on mainstream rock radio stations. We weren’t exactly stars, but were regarded as significant. And Redneck also got nominated in the Best Metal Performance category at the 200. Grammy Awards. I know there are those who dismiss that sort of thing as irrelevant, but I was delighted to have the acknowledgement.”
But all the band’s upwardly mobile momentum came crashing in June last year, when Randy Blythe was arrested on a charge of manslaughter following the death of a fan at a concert in Prague in 2010. It took a year for him to finally clear his name.
Now, with the case resolved, there have been reports that the band have been virtually bankrupted by the whole affair. Mark, though, is reticent to be too forthcoming on the subject.
“Let’s just say that a lot of what you read comes from members of the band being misquoted,” he says.
And he’s also reluctant to talk about the impact this will have on the songs for the next Lamb Of God album.
“It’s disrespectful to suggest we would deliberately see anything like this as a resource for the music. This was heavy shit, and to do something like that would be to trivialise it. However, this obviously will have some impact on the emotions in the new songs, although I can’t tell you exactly how it’ll come out because we are a long way off going into the studio.”
However, on August 1. the band will be able to celebrate another landmark occasion when they headline Bloodstock Festival. Not only is this their first UK gig since Randy’s acquittal, but it’s also the first time they’ve headlined a festival on British soil.
“Wow. That’s gonna be some gig. We cannot wait. It means a lot to us to be headlining Bloodstock. Another huge moment in our career. And we owe so much to our British fans, Playing two nights at the Astoria in London in 2003. opening for Slayer, was special, and also the first time we played at the Download Festival in 2005. Going onstage that day was incredible; I’d never played in front of so many people. Now we get the chance to take it to another level.
“I think about all the great metal bands who never made it, ones who deserved it as much as us, and you know what? For all the problems we’ve had in the past year or so, I know we still have that sixth member on our side: Luck!”