Even if you knew Portland’s Megaton Leviathan prior to the (now) six-piece collective’s third full-length Mage, you don’t know Megaton Leviathan.
As much as it may sound like hyperbole, this really isn’t the same band that released 2014’s highly enjoyable dark psychedelic doom/drone album Past 21 Beyond the Arctic Cell. At that point, Megaton Leviathan was essentially multi-instrumentalist Andrew James Costa Reuscher, and after the the difficult touring cycle around that album, he was left burned out, frustrated, and ready to permanently put the band to bed.
Except he didn’t. Instead, he and longtime collaborator Mort Subite (‘Sudden Death’ in French) rebuild the band, adding ex-Lord Dying drummer Jon Reid, former Subarachnoid Space guitarist Russel Archer, bassist Trejen, and violinist/vocalist Andrea Morgan. In this particular configuration, Megaton Leviathan is still kind of psychedelic, and there are the occasional traces of doom, but they’re painting with a much more vibrant palette of colors on Mage, and incorporating a wider range of influences and a hell of a lot more synthesizers. Perhaps most remarkably, no two of the album’s exquisitely textured songs – from the sun-kissed psychedelic haze of “Wave” to the extended krautrock intro to closer “Within the Threshold” – sound quite the same. One thing they do all have in common, though? They’re uniformly brilliant. As far as I’m concerned, Mage is the best album you’re going to hear in 2018.
As I was already a fan of Morgan’s thanks to her work with Exulansis. I was hopeful she’d be willing to chat a bit about joining Megaton Leviathan and her role in the writing and arranging of Mage. Happily, she agreed, and it turns out that she’s just as engaging an interview subject as she is talented as a musician. And as an added bonus, she’s also one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever interviewed.
Mage will be available on October 26 from Blood Music (preorder here). Go pick up a copy, and then check out my interview with Morgan below.
Indy Metal Vault: First off, thank you for the interview. I got into Megaton Leviathan with Past 21 Beyond the Arctic Cell, which I particularly appreciated for its expansive take on psychedelic doom that incorporated a variety of elements, including violin. So when I saw that AJCR reconfigured the band’s lineup and added a classically-trained violinist for Mage, I was totally expecting the result to be a synth-driven album with heavy krautrock and Jesu-style shoegaze influences instead of continuing on in a similar vein. Yeah…not really – I don’t think anyone would have guessed at the direction of Mage, but it really works all the same. In fact, it’s probably my favorite album of the year, thanks in no small part to your vocals. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it sounds like the post-Past 21 years were somewhat tumultuous. How and when did you end up joining the band?
Andrea Morgan: First and foremost, thank you Clayton for reaching out with such kind and thoughtful words. I joined Megaton Leviathan in the late summer of 2016, when the beginning stages of the newest lineup configuration were taking place. I had been aware of ML for a few years through mutual friends who shared the stage with them in other bands, and through Mort Subite. If someone had told me in those early years that I would eventually take part in creating an album with Mort, I would have never believed it, and often I am still bewildered at what we all managed to conjure with this album. I cannot speak for much of the Past 21 era, but I know that album was nearly the end of Megaton Leviathan, and in many ways this installation of the project is a rebirth from that time period into a whole new era with a much more expansive variety of influence from each member.
IMV: Before we start to talk specifically about Mage, I’m curious about your musical background. I’ve interviewed a couple of other musicians with classical backgrounds who made the leap into metal—Jackie Perez Gratz of Giant Squid/Grayceon and Marisa Kaye Janke of Isenordal—and their respective paths from one into the other were fascinating. I know you studied music performance in college, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that you’ve played with the Vancouver Washington Symphony. However, it seems like at one point or another you’ve played almost every kind of music where one might use a bowed instrument. So I want to ask you a slightly different question: you currently play in the black metal band Exulansis as well as with Megaton Leviathan – does metal have a particular draw for you, or are you more the sort of musician who just loves to play, regardless of genre or style?
AM: I hope to, but have never crossed paths with Jackie Perez Gratz. However, I have an infinite amount of respect for her not only for her innovative music making, but also including her two young children in her music. She’s a powerhouse. I had the distinct pleasure of supporting Marisa Kaye Janke and her wonderful ensemble Isenordal on tour in September 2017. I was doing double duty in Exulansis and Omens on that tour, and we had an absolute blast. She and I bonded immediately, and her leadership as a violist is truly an inspiration to all traditional and non-traditional string players alike.
I grew up with two parents who were not only completely in love with each other, but were also true blue metal heads. My dad Rex Morgan (with his Sunn stack set up in the bedroom closet) was (dare I say) a rippin’ guitar player. I was introduced to the violin by Rex senior when I was 11 years old, and began playing in my elementary school’s fifth grade strings program. One year later, my dad unexpectedly passed away. This was the point in time when I became much more serious about music. What immediately became apparent was that classical music spoke to me in a way no other music could. I was drawn particularly to Romantic-era symphonic and chamber works from the likes of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Sibelius, Dvořákand many more. I immersed myself in classical music at that time as both a means of creative expression, and a way to cope with the grief my family and I were experiencing together.
Through those years something that was also running parallel to my life as a classical musician were my friends and family who loved listening to and playing metal. Growing up in the woods in southern Oregon, I also became drawn to Black Metal, Doom, Melodic Death Metal, 70s and 80s Heavy Metal, and also a lot of Folk and Country music. It wasn’t until after I received my music degree that I began merging the parallel paths of my influences. My love of classical music still persists today as a freelance musician for orchestras such as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (WA) and the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra. However, my relationship with classical music has evolved significantly since I started playing violin in bands. I was seen as overtly expressive in college, and I was often criticized for not blending in very well with the orchestra. It started to become clear to me that I could no longer depend solely on classical music as a means of creative expression. I had an LR Baggs pickup installed on one of my grandfather’s violins, plugged it into an amp, and my world completely changed and I’ve never looked back.
IMV: Even though Mage is very different from Past 21, it’s actually not quite as radical a departure as I may have made it seem in the first question. Both “Mage” and the bulk of “Within the Threshold,” after the krautrock intro, do hearken back to the psychedelic doom style of the last album. That being said, it’s different enough that I can’t help but wonder if there was any worry on either your part as the new vocalist–or on the part of any of the members of the band added after Past 21, for that matter—that you might draw the ire of longtime Megaton Leviathan fans who aren’t thrilled with the new direction?
AM: We knew from the beginning that despite any reminiscence of Past 21 and other previous releases, Mage would be a departure to a new realm for this ensemble. We know that anyone who’s looking for a bona-fide “doom” album might be in for a bit of a surprise, and we invite past and prospective fans of Megaton Leviathan to put on their careful listening ears as they experience Mage.
IMV: As a follow-up to that…from what I’ve read elsewhere, it seems like a good chunk of the songwriting for Mage had been completed before you joined the band (which is slightly ironic, for reasons I’ll get to in a later question). How involved were you with the writing and arrangements on Mage? My assumption is that AJCR did the bulk of it as he has on past releases, with the obvious exception of the cover of “The Belldog.” How much collaboration was there in the latter part of the writing process?
AM: The foundation of this album was based on synth parts created by both Andrew and Mort. At this stage, the album could have taken a myriad of different directions, and we weren’t really sure what that was going to be until near completion. With these foundational tracks, we recorded our parts in-house, and were in a constant state of experimentation with the arrangements. Andrew says that I had a big hand in fine tuning these arrangements, giving objective feedback and helping direct the rest of the band in laying down the overdubs. This was a unique recording experience for me because not only were we writing the parts as we recorded them, but I was also getting to know my band mates through this process, with whom I had little acquaintance with before beginning this journey. We made ourselves vulnerable to each other through this writing process, and took a lot of risks that yielded an incredible reward.
IMV: While this is the first time I’ve interviewed you, it isn’t the first time we’ve talked. I reviewed the second Exulansis demo Cyclical Sentient Struggle back in March, and I remember messaging with you before I finished it and being like ‘I’m having a hard time finding your cello in the mix.’ At which point you mentioned that most of the songwriting was finished before you joined the band, so you did a lot of droning parts (thus the ‘irony’ in the previous question). Irony number two: on the first few listens, I had a hell of a time picking out your violin on Mage as well. However, the more time I spend with it, the more I’m able to pick it out among the synth and other stringed instruments. Given how difficult it is to isolate individual instruments, was the ultimate goal with the arrangements to create textures, rather than the usual riff-based approach of most traditionally guitar-driven metal bands?
AM: I wanted my violin parts to serve as both a melodic and harmonic compliment, particularly with the synth and guitar parts, as sort of a go-between of those two worlds. So when I’m not playing leads, I’m filling in harmonic texture. Much of the texture that you hear in the album is a lot of post-production layering of synth, violin and guitar. It was not necessarily our ultimate goal with these arrangements, but the combination of our influences was ultimately what created that texture. What you’ll find in Megaton Leviathan is that the recorded pieces are merely templates. What we end up doing live is a variation of these templates. You’re not going to get a carbon copy of these pieces live but rather an enhanced version based on a slight element of improvisation and the energy in the room.
IMV: I did see a few months back that you switched to an electric 5-string violin as your main instrument, at least for live performances. I’ll be honest – I didn’t even know that was a thing. What does that extra string allow you to do live that you weren’t able to do with a traditional 4-string setup? Do you use it in the studio as well, or just when gigging?
AM: Yeah, the Yamaha Five-String has been a total game changer for me. It fixed all of the feedback issues I was having while competing for volume with both ML and Exulansis. Part of the reason I wasn’t playing an electric from the very beginning is because I had never found an electric violin that had the same warmth and acoustic quality as a standard violin. Not only does this instrument keep the integrity of the authentic sound of the violin, but it also gives me the bonus of the low C string which I crave so much in my song writing, hence my decision to play cello on the Exulansis demo rather than violin. This allows me to transpose my cello parts (though the timbre will be different) to this instrument live without me having to switch instruments in between songs. This has also opened a lot of doors harmonically for existing and future Megaton compositions. I have yet to record with this instrument, but it seems inevitable that I will incorporate it along with my acoustic violin and cello for future albums and other projects.
IMV: Since we’re on the subject of gear, what does the rest of your setup look like? Basically every bowed instrumentalist I’ve talked to has spoken about the challenges of having her instrument audible in the live mix, particularly since most sound people have little to no experience with a violin/viola/cello/etc.
AM: Luckily, I have been blessed with a few sound people in my life who have helped me convey what I need on stage in regard to making my instrument audible. Having my own LR Baggs Preamp DI helps a lot in being able to control the parameters of my instrument in any given room, and that is chained to the Line 6 POD HD500X for my effects, which I play out of a Roland KC880 keyboard amp. I’m still experimenting with my set up quite a bit and always learning more about the potential of my tone, which has been such an exciting venture in and of itself as a classical musician. It seems like the possibilities are endless with these crazy machines!
IMV: What are Megaton Leviathan’s plans once Mage is released? It looks like it’s been a while since the band has played outside the PNW – any touring plans? I know a good spot in Indianapolis if you’re heading this way any time soon?
AM: We’re still working out the logistics of this at the moment, but you can expect Megaton Leviathan to make an appearance in a city near you sometime in 2019.
IMV: Since this interview is primarily about Megaton Leviathan, I’ve waited until the end to ask about your other projects: the aforementioned black metal band Exulansis, post-punkers Shadowhouse, and electro-acoustic neo-folkers Omens. Is there anything new on any of those fronts? I’ll admit to being pretty stoked for whatever Exulansis does next, since your cello and/or violin figures to be a larger component of their sound now that you’re more fully integrated into the band.
AM: Yes, as we approach the winter months each one of these projects are heading back into the studio. Exulansis is a special project for me, because I get to work with one of my best friends James Henderson on guitar, and my youngest brother Mark Morgan on drums. There is no greater bonding experience than playing music with your sibling and it helps that he is an absolute machine behind the drums. We are currently working on a full-length album that we anticipate releasing next year pending our search for a label. Without giving too much away, this next release will be taking a more refined instrumental approach to our style, and may also incorporate a more chamber/acoustic experience that will weave through the fast and heavy elements we promise to deliver.
Omens has been inactive for a while. We have been talking about getting together next year for a short run of performances and releasing more music, but Jonathan is now a part of the group Crowhurst out of Philly and they have a lot of exciting things going on right now. Shadowhouse is my newest project, only joining them this past February and it has been so much fun working with these guys. This is my first time playing synthesizers in a band and I absolutely love it. We are also recording new music at the moment that will hopefully see the light in 2019. These guys are brilliant songwriters and solid musicians, so I look forward to the future with them. Other than all that I have some other really exciting projects that are on the horizon but I’m not allowed to talk about those yet…
IMV: Okay…thank you for your (presumably) not very concise responses to my hella wordy questions. I like to leave the last word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
AM: I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of my band mates. It has been such an honor getting down to business and creating all of this music with such high caliber musicians. I don’t think you guys will ever know how much it means to me and how much these projects have kept me afloat through the thick and thin of life. I am eternally grateful that I have an opportunity to share this music with the world and I could not think of better people to share in that experience. We all continue to make sacrifices and compromises to do what is that we love, and the light is not always visible, but when it is, it’s all we can see, and I look forward to continuing on our path and making new discoveries along the way. Also, thank you to our friends, family, and coworkers who put up with us and sustain us as we chase the light…