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GHOST BATH's Frontman Dennis Mikula Talks Recording his 'Most Hateful' Album Self Loather During Pandemic & Protests

Austin Scherzberg Photo

Originally springing from small-town Minot, North Dakota, brooding, atmospheric black metallers Ghost Bath have always walked the fine line between beauty and brutality. Nowhere is that more evident than the finale of their trilogy of albums, Self-Loather (out October 29th through Nuclear Blast).

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The conclusion of the series that began with 2015's sophomore album Moonlover and continued with 2017's ultra-textured Starmourner, Self Loather was recorded at TreeSpeak Recording Studio in Minneapolis at the height of a turbulent period in American history, the double-whammy of COVID-19's spread and the powder-keg of the George Floyd Protests.

Frontman Dennis Mikula caught up with Metal Injection for a deep examination into the latest, and perhaps heaviest album in the Ghost Bath catalogue, his preference for solitude in small-town America, growing up a metal fan in North Dakota, his philosophy of songwriting and much more!

I feel like Self Loather is the heaviest record you guys have done, and it really threads that line of the beauty and the brutality that I love about Ghost Bath. The moments of serenity and the moments of just pulverizing you. I really love that about this band. 

Yeah man, definitely our heaviest, I would agree with you there. I think like the beauty in it, the melody, the happier parts are just part of my writing style. And it's going to seep through no matter what I do. Like, I probably could force myself if I really tried to write something without that in it, but it wouldn't be me. It wouldn't be my voice. Those kinds of things automatically come out when I'm writing. I love melody. My favorite thing is chord changes. So I'm really listening to how the space between where one chord changes to another. If you sit on one chord a little longer then it changes and just how those interact with each other. And that's what I'm most interested in as a writer. The other guys in the band helped to write this one, unlike the previous albums. And so you get a lot more complicated time signatures. You get some stuff that I would never write. Like I'm super minimalist. I'll write something like four four. I like simplicity, but then they all wrote riffs and parts and it just created something that I would never be able to create on my own.

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Did you envision a trilogy like the idea of doing Moonlover or Starmourner and then this final album? I know there was some idea of doing something with Sun, but that didn't really work for the mood and theme of the record. Was the idea for you to do three albums like this and then go on to something else, was that kind of just how it came about as the process unfolded? 

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From the very beginning, it was my plan to do the trilogy after I did Funeral. Funeral was my first full length album and from then on, I was thinking I should do something bigger, something that had multiple parts. I love trilogy's, I read a lot of fantasy, so like when a book series is a trilogy I can really get into it. I feel like standalones I can't really get into as much. So that's kind of where the initial idea came from. And then searching for how I wanted to do the trilogy. I just went to an art museum and our guitarist showed me this painter, Mark Rothko, and he does like giant abstract paintings of just blocks of color, super minimalist. So I was really into it. And he said I just try to portray three basic human emotions; tragedy, ecstasy and doom. And I was like, oh, that's perfect. That's kind of where the seed started.

And then I did have the cosmic, moon, sun, stars in mind, but for this one it felt like Self Loather just fit the album better. And I wasn't going to hold myself to that because I didn't know what this album would end up being when I first envisioned it other than being doom. The heaviest, the most hateful, that's the only part that I had envisioned. And from there I was like I don't want to force a sun-loather title onto it or anything like that. And so, yeah, we changed it to Self-Loather and I think it fit a lot better.

It's such a fascinating thing to me and I don't really want to mythologize the recording process for this, but obviously doing things a little bit differently with the extra guys and then going down to Minneapolis. And then obviously this all happening in what I guess you could say is one of the more tumultuous times in recent American history with the protests and the pandemic. It was batshit, to say the least, for you guys. Looking back on that now in hindsight, how crazy and tumultuous and taxing was this process?

We first wanted to try to write this album and we started in 2019 and we're like, OK, we can take a year, write it and when it's done we can tour on it. And obviously that is definitely not what happened with COVID. I lived eight hours away from Minneapolis. Everyone else lives in the city, so I'm a little bit removed from them, an eight hour drive away. So I just kind of waited and we were like, OK, how can we do this? So that's why our writing process for this one was a little bit scattered and we just decided, you know, we're going to take our time. We're not going to like rush it out because we can't tour anyway. And one after another, like COVID got worse. So we just put off the writing process. And I think we ended up writing a lot more on our own and then sending it to each other than we would have because we weren't really getting together as much. And then when the protests happened, I was like, OK, I'm not going to drive up there now. And there's buildings on fire like a block away from our practice spot where all our equipment was. Like, oh, this is great. So I just kind of stayed out of the area as best as I could.

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It just gave us a lot more time than we usually have because usually we'll book and have a week. We'll make the album, write it or whatever. This time it was just scattered over like a year and a half, two years process. No one obviously could have predicted this, so we just kind of went with the flow and did what we could. For me, I mean, living in Minot, North Dakota, I was kind of used to just being by myself on my own, so it didn't really affect me. Like my day to day life is kind of the same, normal at home all the time. I'm like a night owl. I'm awake through the night where nobody else is awake anyway, so it didn't really affect me in that way.

You lived in Minot, North Dakota for most of your life. I'm just curious for you personally, if there's ties to homes there, if it's that convenience away from the big city. A lot of people kind of like that isolation. What's the draw to a more 'small town' living as opposed to being in Minneapolis with the rest of the band?

I've moved from Minot since, so I'm in Pennsylvania now. But I lived in Minot all my life, until I was like 30. I like the quiet sort of homestead where you go on tour, you're in all these big cities, you're doing all this stuff and you get back and it's super slow paced and like nobody's in a rush. You can just decompress. And I even moved to an even smaller town called Buffalo Center, Iowa for two years, which is like 300 people, and I lived on a farm, just for kind of the same reason. I got kind of bored with that place. That was really small. There's nothing there. Like the closest actual grocery store is like 45 minutes or something crazy like that. But I didn't mind Minot for a long time. It's a decent town and then I just felt like it was time for a change.

I didn't really want to go to Minneapolis. I can just fly there if I want to like practice and I'm already used to being away from the band so it's not like a big change or anything. I was living in an apartment and the meth problem there is getting really bad. It was time for me to move out. So yeah, it was fun for a while. And I kind of like the notoriety being like, oh this band's from where? Like nobody even thinks of North Dakota. That was kind of cool. And so yeah, I didn't mind it at all. And like everything I do is on the computer or online. I don't think if I lived in New York City or Minot it would really change anything in my mind.

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In terms of coming up and absorbing metal and absorbing different things, was there a "scene" at all in Minot or in Fargo or anywhere you'd go in the state? If you Google Minot the biggest musical claim to fame is probably Wiz Khalifa, which is about as far removed from Ghost Bath as you can get. Was there a bit of a scene bubbling or did you have to travel out of town?

In my town it was more hardcore and like post-hardcore was really big when I was growing up. So stuff like The Chariot, Underoath, Norma Jean, that kind of stuff. In the Midwest, that's kind of big. And same with the Midwest kind of emo, kind of like twinkle when you're like tapping on the guitar. It's like a clean guitar sound. I use tapping a lot and I think I got influenced by that. But as far as metal, I mean we had a couple bands. We had like a satanic black metal band, really small from my town and nobody really came through. I'm trying to think of the biggest band that I saw that came through Minot. Probably Fear Before the March of Flames before they changed their name to Fear Before. Other than that I think Fargo had a bigger metal scene and so did Bismarck. Bismarck's about an hour and a half drive from me, Fargo's about five hours from where I was. That kind of shaped me writing metal, because I didn't really have too many straight up metal influences.

People would always say we were like blackgaze, but like shoegaze was never even in my head. I've never listened to a shoegaze band in my life. It was more post-hardcore, melodic hardcore, that kind of stuff. Wall of sound, lots of noise, lots of feedback, all that kind of thing. And I think that's where I get a lot of my, like, melodic influence and just my sort of unique take on things. And I didn't realize how unique my growing up period was until you travel to different cities and they're like, oh yeah, I've seen Trivium five times. What? I have to drive eight hours to see them one time. I think it just gave me sort of a unique perspective on writing music.

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I think people take it for granted if they're not from, you know, small town USA or small town wherever. It's an interesting thing. There's that idea of the loneliness and the isolation that does come with rural small town living to a degree. Has there been a catharsis for you in the idea of this band and this type of album, like something like Self Loather? Because I know you're a very psychologically minded, analytical, emotive songwriter. You put a lot of yourself into this type of stuff. Is there kind of a release that comes from that?

I think so, but it's very small and it's a lot less than I would like it to be. I think when I get into a certain mindset, I get certain thoughts, that's when I do my best writing, and so the catharsis part is the actual writing of the riffs, like the genesis of the parts on the guitar. The guitar kind of just became another part of me. I've been playing it for, I don't know, 18 years or something like that. So it's very easy for me to get into a certain dark place and then just pick up a guitar and sort of let it flow out through playing. I don't really know how to explain it to people who don't like to play an instrument. Maybe kind of like writing, I would say it's like if you write out your thoughts or something in a journal, it's kind of similar to that maybe, just like letting it out that way. But it's just through the notes and playing in music.

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I think I've said this before in interviews, but I feel like I have some kind of synesthesia where you hear something and it brings up something vivid or different. Like I'll hear like a song and then I just get a vision of a landscape … I'll hear a certain part of a song and it seems like a memory of something I've seen before and it's just super vivid, like a dream. And it just appears in my head and I can just like connect with that and feel it on a different level, I think, than a lot of people. And I can create that at the same time when I'm writing. I can say I like feeling this very specific way. Like I'm sitting here looking at this, feeling this breeze, and I just can translate that to music very easily, at least to me. I can't say if other people listening to it will get that same feeling. But when I'm writing it and when I listen to it, that's what I get from it.

I read somewhere you said something along the lines of once the songs are written the album isn't yours anymore. You don't own it anymore, and you can't really tell or give people what they can interpret from it. Do you put much thought into that, like the idea that this song might represent something from my childhood. This song is an allegory of war. Do you hope people get certain things from an album like this which can be very reflective? Or do you really hope at the end of the day they listen to this and if they want to mosh their guts out and have it help them with a workout or something? That's awesome. Or if they want to brood to it in the dark? Wicked!

I think, since the sort of catharsis aspect of it happens when I write it, then after it's written and out there, kind of my part of it is done. I can do certain things, like I like playing around with psychology. If I show you a song and I say this is a depressive black metal song, you're going to take something different than if I show you a song and say, oh yeah, this is an atmospheric song. Whatever specific words you use are going to color how somebody takes it in and experiences it, every little aspect of that. And so I like playing with that. But no matter what people are going to bring their own life experience to something when they consume art, whether it be a book, music, or painting. Nobody else is going to have the same line of experiences that you have. Nobody else got dumped the day before they listened to this album and they're going to hear it differently than somebody who just won the lottery and now this on the radio. So there's not really much you can do to control that.

But I think that's what makes art cool is that the same piece of art can be interpreted infinite ways with however many people listen to it. They're all going to take their own unique experience to it and they'll all take something different out of it, even though there are some commonalities people can take. I mean, obviously if the song is heavy, people can all feel that. But I think even heavy to one person might not be heavy to another person. And so yeah, in the end I think whatever you take from a piece of art is not wrong, it's not incorrect. It's not like oh you can't understand it. Like if you don't understand it, that's what you take away from it. That's important to you. And so my philosophy has always been basically any reaction to my art is a correct reaction. Like whatever your reaction is, that's right. And that's what I wanted you to get out of it.

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You've finally wrapped up the trilogy of albums. Do you have designs of doing something bigger or ambitious again? With the pandemic and tours being grounded we've seen a lot of artists get ahead of the game in the creative department. Have you already kind of looked ahead to what the future of Ghost Bath might be in terms of new material or maybe new directions you'd like to take? 

Always. I'm always ahead. As soon as I finish writing one song I'm on to the next. I'm that kind of person. I don't dwell on what I've just created or what's just coming out. Like for me, obviously, with the album being done for so long and there's like so much time in between when it's released, I'm like far moved on. That's the kind of person I am. Like, I have so many ideas. The only thing holding me back ever is like time, basically, because I'm always writing, I'm always creating something. And yeah, I definitely have a ton of ideas for Ghost Bath. The problem is like what do I limit it down to? Because I could go in a million different directions. My brain's always working.

Yeah, I'm excited. I mean, we'll definitely be writing something new. I don't really know any specifics about it yet, but I have a lot of specific ideas. It's just where do we want to go with it? And right now with the trilogy done we can go any direction we want really. I think I wouldn't want to do it all or do every idea I ever had, even if I could or even if I had the time. I think limits and restrictions and stuff like that is what makes art, art. Because if you just had unlimited resources, unlimited skill, unlimited time, I don't know. I feel like it would turn out very bland and boring because where you're limited in like, oh, I can only play this fast, I only have like an hour to write this part, all of a sudden, that's where the magic comes in and that's where real art is created. You know, it's more honest. It's more you. Everyone has their own limitations and other people can relate to your limitations and your failures because we're all human, and that's where I think people connect the most.

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