17 Jan 2023
I am not a particularly encyclopedic connoisseur of music. I much rather prefer hesitant, haphazard journeys through darkened corridors of style, letting chance encounters with inspiring musicians and powerful recorded statements reveal secret passages leading onward who knows where but toward some new recess or bejeweled cavern. Little can I foretell what might emerge from those depths - some phantasmal beauty, sentient echo, or half-glimpsed minotaurine fright of my subconscious - but if I’m lucky, the knotted thread I carry will sometimes afterward disclose woven patterns of delight. One such recent journey into the darkling wilds has led me to Mellowdeath, the wily Germany-based duo of bassist Isabel Merten and drummer Sara Neidorf, whose doom jazz/post-rock excursions avoid well-worn paths of ease for more adventuresome, hinky peril. Their EP, Deadly Stares, offers a foretaste of the labyrinthine experimentation and roulette risk we should expect from their first full-length, which is slated for release later this year.
Perhaps you know these players from their many other projects – No Chronicles (Merten) or Aptera and Sarattma (Neidorf) - but as Mellowdeath they opt for a bold, bare bones instrumentation distinguished by equal measures of inventive songcraft and tastefully intonated, unadorned performance without a safety net. Songs that begin over deceptively simple riffs and rhythmic patterns develop unpredictably through responsive interplay and deconstruction of bubblegum chewy melodies, in retrospect recalled as a teasing panoramic display of passages metamorphosing from dank, groovy doom rock to cowpokey boom bap punk, harmonically decentered jazz, and bright smart aleck pop. Occasionally, when chasing a color palette, the duo augments their sound performing and recording with a guest musician, perhaps on theremin or guitar (as on “Dances with Death”, which features Francesco Fusco) - but not yet, to my knowledge, on didgeridoo, though I wouldn’t put this possibility past the pair’s derring-do.
“Dramatic Death” sets the tone of the record, while hinting at the many twists and turns to come. Merten’s unsteady, but singing jazz bassline meanders briefly upward, then trips over itself into a slow, loping triplet feel, which Neidorf first accentuates in strict unison before dropping in a tom fill or a cymbal tap and ride over her partner’s arpeggiated and sliding embellishments. Power chords announce a doomy chorus slightly distorted, but without overdriving or washing out the colors of voicings that wander outside conventional fifth shapes. In the middle section, Merten cleans up the tone to peck out ascending triplet shapes that move about the fretboard as if in search of a tonal center or maybe just playing the field, and Neidorf begins to push the boundaries of a jazz shuffle over toms into a full-kit exercise, with dirty crashes splashing all over the place. As Merten’s gutwork grows ever fuzzier for the crescendo, Neidorf’s elastic snare snaps downbeats, grooving through various theatrical patterns, before leaving you dusted and dazed - though, surprisingly upright - despite all the rugged changes in terrain.
Eyes in your feet, watch where you step is the word. I would recommend sensible footwear were it not for the Escherian relativity of these causeways and the Piranesian treachery of their precipitous planes: sudden transversals, unanticipated steps, and blindfalls render pretty much any apparel, whether gravity boots or seven-leaguers, causeless. Your natal dancing shoes will just have to do. Nothing captures this signature surrealism so immediately as the aptly titled “Deadly Stairs,” the shortest track but also the most transparent. Naked skins and gut in all their audible resplendence, it’s a puzzle of interlocking riffs and surprise suspensions in timing. “The ”Mellow Dies” doubles down on the doom, but dig the freer interludes where you’ll hear Neidorf’s surgically incisive cymbal work sparkling over inventive pulled punches on the kit. Yet, for all the pretzel logic, Mellowdeath is always in the pocket. Reliable groove is for cowgrrls on “Dead Western”. Its vocalese spook, gallops around the corral, and do-si-dos are guaranteed to get you up on your haunches. While “Dances with Death” introduces a little macabre psychedelia by way of integrated guitar atmospherics and skronk.
Some trips into nether regions, for all their peril, delight as much as bedim. Risk grows sweet, shades make fair dancing partners, cavernous prospects yawn with enticement. So grab tightly the thread and let your benighted senses once more take the lead. Mellowdeath beckons you to take a plunge…
AND, as luck would have it, I was able to detain Sara Neidorf momentarily from her busy schedule to ask a few questions about Mellowdeath and what we can expect from the upcoming full-length. So, as an added treat, enjoy this brief interview:
Hi, Sara! Thanks for taking the time to jive on Mellowdeath. I love this project of yours and I’m super excited to hear we can expect a full-length later this year.
Hi Joshua! Thanks for taking an interest in our niche, peculiar concoctions. We do indeed have a full-length coming. Whereas our EP featured one song with a guest guitarist (Francesco Fusco, whom you mentioned above), our 10-track full-length will feature guests on every track. We’ve got theremin, guitar, trombone, synths, and cello. Possibly another surprise or two as well. Almost finished gathering the stems from the guests, and then we’ll embark on the mix/mastering process and hope to catch the ear of a suitable label for release.
How did you and Isabel hook up for this project? Did you share a vision for Mellowdeath going in, perhaps differentiating it from your other musical endeavors? Have your concepts changed at all since 2017?
I actually saw Isabel performing with her band No Chronicles, also a duo, but with more playful vocal interplay, and I just knew I had to work with her. I sent her some Sarattma, and she still likes to jokingly say that it scared her off, because she thought I was too technical for her. But I pursued her hard, and eventually she took the trip to Berlin for a rehearsal weekend. We’ve been working sporadically like that for the past five years or so. She lives in Bielefeld, around 4 hours west of Berlin by car, so we only meet every few months to rehearse, or when we have gigs. It’s far, but it’s not as tricky as being divided across continents, as is the case with Sarattma. I don’t think we necessarily had a direct vision from the get-go. It’s just the product of our particular tastes and proclivities. Isabel often writes really wonky riffs without knowing how to count them, so then I sort of have to crack the whip and figure out or decide what time signature a part will be in, so we can recreate it reliably. We really jive on unexpected, dynamic shifts and transitions. So that’s one thing we really like to play with together.
I imagine your songwriting with Isabel emerges from a lot of organic collaboration and rehearsal. Your recordings sound like live takes, or at least are at pains to preserve that presence. Can you tell us a little about your composition process? How important is live performance and/or improvisation to you in this mix?
The Deadly Stares EP was all recorded live, no overdubs or punch-ins. We did it rather DIY in her studio space. Improv is definitely essential to both of us. All the songs remain living, open, permeable entities, which are still evolving over time. Still, four years after recording, we’ll revisit an old song and change the structure, or slow down/speed up a particular part to dramatize a transition. If you see us play the older songs live in 2023, there will definitely be a few surprises thrown in, perhaps a blast beat where there was a minimal doom feel in the past.
What do you remember about the recording process for Deadly Stares - notably, any challenges or breakthroughs involved?
I remember it was snowing a ton and we just locked ourselves in Isabel’s studio (which is in Bielefeld…kind of a dead town in the first place) for a few days. It was a really sweet, immersive little cocoon of wonky music. She borrowed a reeeeeally good drum set from a friend of hers, and I still listen back and hear how nicely the toms sing on that recording, as DIY as it was. However, I was also borrowing cymbals, which weren’t the dimensions I typically have, so my brow still furrows at some of the high-pitched crash placements, though I also appreciate their ornery sort of idiosyncrasy. It’s hard to remember the details, but as usual with a DIY process, I’m sure there were a number of snafus and moments of “great take! oops… nothing got recorded. Here we go again!”
What can we expect from the upcoming album? Can we still look forward to that same naked honesty and witty repartee in your duo performances? Are you collaborating with other musicians?
More repartee than ever! We do a lot of watching each other’s face and hands live (and in the studio), because so many parts are just about feeling it out, playing with and stretching out time. It results in a lot of sort of playing jokes on each other and laughter. I really enjoy the amount of spontaneity and mutability we allow our songs to have. It’s a mixture of demanding, loose, and playful.
Yes, guest musicians are a major part of the new album, which we’re very excited about. We’ve developed a few ongoing collaborations in Berlin, like with Marco Bianciardi, a great guitarist who I also play with in a separate duo, Soporose. He also plays live with us regularly. We also worked with Hekla Magnusdottir, a phenomenal theremin player, whom we also played live with before she moved back to Iceland. We’re glad she’ll come back to record something for us for the record. We’re also bringing in Matt Hollenberg, my bandmate from Sarattma and from so many other killer projects such as iNFiNiEN and Titan to Tachyons. There’ll be Florian Juncker, a trombone player from the experimental contemporary music scene in Berlin, and Rachel Glassberg, who plays synths in a really exciting band, Point No Point, whom I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live a few times, including when Mellowdeath shared a bill with them. And then I was extremely stoked to get Jackie Perez Gratz on board for a song, whom you surely know from Grayceon and Giant Squid, as well as her collaborations with Om and so many others. I like the idea that our compositions are open to conversations, leaving a lot of space for instrumentalists to bring totally unique voicings atop the groundwork we lay.
Mellowdeath has a cinematic quality or moodiness to it, and I’ve seen some footage of performances involving visual psychedelia. The photography for Deadly Stares has a kind of performance art irony and cheekiness to it as well. The playful irreverence of the cover casts a winking, withering glance at outmoded clichés of feminine domesticity. Is this just who you are, or is there also a visual aesthetic you’re exploring with this project?
I feel like if we lived in the same city and didn’t have annoying things like jobs and the need to support ourselves, we would explore a visual aesthetic much more in depth… as well as crank out material way faster. Isabel comes from a performance art background, and she was the one who designed that photo shoot with the poison tea cups. I feel like clowny and confrontational is sort of the vibe. We’re also planning a music video with the new album for our song “Omacore”, which means granny-core, in which we’ll celebrate our wish to keep playing heavy music well into old age (via some slapstick and prosthetic granny makeup). I think there’s a lot of potential to play more with visual language in our live performances as well, with projected visuals or with intentional wardrobe, but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. More to look forward to in the future.
You’re just about to launch the 2023 edition of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. Would you like to share some information about that or other news relating to your many other projects?
Thanks for asking about Final Girls Berlin! It’s a film fest for horror films made by women and non-binary folks. We’re heading into our 8th edition, from February 1-5, 2023, and while the in-person fest will be in Berlin, we’re having almost all of the short film programs available for streaming on vimeo on demand, so people can watch from anywhere. Other than that, I’m getting ready to release a music video very soon with Sarattma, going on a European tour with Aptera in April, doing some freelance work drumming for dance and theater pieces, and playing in a number of improv-based duos which I hope will record something this year. And yes, a new LP from Mellowdeath in the summertime and lots of chewy new material in the works.
Thanks so much for your time and your art, Sara!