Interview: Shelby Lermo – Ulthar

On February 17, cosmic black/death metal outfit Ulthar released two albums: Anthronomicon and Helionomicon, once again through 20 Buck Spin, each with their own Ulthar-tinged atmosphere. They fly to different planets using the same vehicle: an old-school attitude painted with aggressive confidence and an unimpeachable desire to stretch the boundaries of extreme metal.

TMW friend and frequent contributor, Peter K. aka Trendcrusher spoke at length with Ulthar guitarist/vocalist Shelby Lermo for the Trendcrusher Podcast a week or two back. The pair chatted about Anthronomicon and Helionomicon, how the albums were conceived, the destructiveness of social media, and much more.

Read this chat below, as transcribed by The Metal Wanderlust.

Welcome, Shelby from Ultar! You’ve got new music coming out, which is exciting. And not one album, but two. I’m going to take a deep breath and attempt to say both. It’s “Anthronomicon,” and “Helionomicon.” My science teachers would be happy. 

Shelby: I think it would be your literature teachers, probably. Your Latin teachers, if you had them. Anthronimicon translates to “book of man.” Helionomicon translates to “book of the sun.”

You guys just came out of nowhere dropping two albums, right? Or at least releasing them. Now, what’s been up for the last couple of years or so, other than everything else that’s been going on in the world?

Shelby: It’s actually very much tied in with everything else going on in the world, because our last album, Providence, came out in May of 2020. So right at the beginning of the pandemic was when our last album came out. And because of the pandemic, we had to cancel 80 shows. 80 plus shows, like two US. Tours and a European tour. And we all lost our jobs. We had tons of time on our hands. 

That’s sort of where the two albums came from. We knew from the beginning, we wanted to do two albums that would be released simultaneously. And yeah, we had plenty of time to do it. So, that’s what we did. How we used our time was writing these two albums, starting in 2020. We finished writing them in 2021. And yeah, the rest is history, I guess.

I’m bringing this up early in our conversation, but this is so counter to everything that’s happening right now. I don’t know how familiar you are with the band Ghost. They blew up on TikTok with one of their songs, and they ended up re-releasing a new video. So, there’s something to be said about short attention spans – short videos and things like that. Current music consumption is so dependent on Spotify playlists or curated playlists, etc. Correct me if I’m misinterpreting, but do you think “This is how we want to do our music. We don’t give a fuck what’s happening right now.”

Shelby: Yeah, I know. That’s absolutely 100% correct. We don’t pay attention to any of that kind of shit. I don’t even have social media. I hate that stuff. I hate the way that music has been commodified through social media. 

We’ve always prided ourselves on doing shit our own way and writing the music exactly how we want it and putting it out the way we want it. And whatever the current trend in metal is or whatever, we don’t give a shit. And if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. The important thing is that we like what we’re doing. [That] we like the music that we’re making. So if people like it and want to buy it, that’s awesome. And if they don’t, we don’t care. We’re just doing our thing, and it’s not about what anyone else wants or what anyone else is doing.

Let’s dive into both of the albums, and just understand a bit about them. The press release came with these two great descriptions of the album. It says, “Anthropomicon is eight tracks of cosmic death metal, while Helinomicon is two 20-minute tracks that will atomize you.” 

I think that’s such a great description just to show the contrast there. So, let’s go back to 2020/2021 when you were writing and recording this album. Help me understand that process. Was it from the outset that this is going to be two albums? 

Shelby: Yeah, we knew from the beginning exactly how we were going to do it. We were kind of thinking of it as – if you’re familiar with our first two albums – Cosmovore has this format where it’s five songs that are of a regular length and then a 14-minute song that’s most of Side B. Providence is eight regular length songs. And we [thought] our new album should be more than our first two albums combined. It should have all of the same elements, but even more like, “let’s recreate our entire career and then some with this new album/albums.” 

So, that’s kind of where we were coming from with it. But we knew from the beginning that was going to be the format. That was going to be how the songs were arranged and which album they were going to go on. And then, yeah, we recorded it all in mid-2022 out here on the East Coast in Baltimore.

Peter: Wow. I’m trying to wrap my head around it. I mean, again, this is a consumer or a listener’s point of view – like, you’re getting people to commit X amount of time to listen. So, when I’m thinking about it from a writing perspective, you’re looking at multiple amounts of time going in. I have to ask, was there at any given point where maybe you or the rest of the band thought, did we bite off more than we could chew?

Shelby: Yeah, there definitely was. And it was when we were in the studio recording it. Because we all live in different states. There are three of us. Myself, Steve, the bass player/vocalist, and Justin, the drummer. In the last two and a half years, Steve moved to Portland, Oregon, and I moved to Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. So, we’re thousands of miles away from each other. 

These albums were composed remotely. We recorded demos and we sent them back and forth. We flew to California to play all the songs together. But the recording process was like, we reserved time at a studio in Baltimore, and they flew out. Justin and Steve flew out and stayed with me in Virginia, and we just drove up to Baltimore every day for two weeks. But we only gave ourselves 15 days to record two albums, and ten days into that, we were like, “Oh, shit, are we going to make it?” It was very close. We were at the studio at 10:00 p.m. on the last day we had booked. We were there at the studio finishing up the last details. So, we barely made it. 

None of us were really worried about finishing the albums until the last couple of days of recording it. And we were like, “Oh, man, this is going to be tough.” But we made it. We finally made it. And at the end of it, we were all like, “Holy shit! I can’t believe we finished that.”

I’m glad you’re saying that. Because, for me, it’s hard to imagine putting that amount of time in. And I think there’s also a certain amount of time you’ve had to ruminate over that and look back. That’s why you can speak about this experience, right? 

In terms of writing, what would you say about having that clarity from the start? Because it’s very important as a listener to have that continuity in the album. And that’s one of the things you really see from Astronomicon. It seamlessly fits in. It doesn’t seem like an entire album. At some point, you’re just in that zone, so to say. Was that how you put the album together?

Shelby: Technically, I wrote half of the songs and Steve wrote half of the songs. And even though we have very different songwriting styles, it just always ends up sounding like Ulthar. Just because there are only three people involved, we all contribute, and I think we all have very distinct styles of writing and playing. So, I think no matter what we do, just because of the sound of the band, we have the freedom to do whatever we want, in whatever genre we want. But it always sounds like us. 

I’m not really sure what that is or why that is, but it is very consistent. And I’ve learned to stop worrying about it now. Like, if we do this, is it going to be out of character for us? And I’ve learned to just stop worrying about that. It always sounds like Ulthar no matter what we do. And so we can get pretty weird with things and it’ll still feel at home.

Tell me about the song “Saccades,” and why you all decided to put out that as a single.

Shelby: I think the song in particular is just a very driving, powerful song. It kicks in right away. It grabs you by the throat right away. Um, but it also really encapsulates some disparate elements of our sound. It has very blasting, driving death metal parts and then also very expansive black metal parts. And that’s why we wanted to release it as a single. It just sums up a lot of different elements that we go for in a pretty easy-to-digest package, I think.

Now, here’s a theory. And if you’re a metal nerd like I am – I overthink and find patterns in these things. But here’s a theory for a lot of metal bands – over the years, the third album is when they really hit their stride, right? A good example is Master of Puppets by Metallica. The reason I can at least ask you this is that you were one of the few bands that actually did that demo, right? A lot of bands skipped that demo, and sometimes the demo is also an EP. But then you had the demo, which you’re trying to figure out, put the word out about your band, and you’ve got the first album where you put all your energy and everything into it. By the second album, you’re like, “Okay, how do we top the first album?” And by the third album, you’re like, “Hey, this is who we are. This is our sound.” Would you say that’s fair with Ulthar? 

Shelby: Yeah, I think that’s spot on. I think we’re only getting more and more comfortable as a band, confident, and learning to trust each other’s ideas and opinions. Like, for example, this album was like, huh? The first time that I just wrote songs and handed them to Justin and Steve and said, “Here are my finished songs.” And the same thing with Steve. He wrote the songs and just handed them to us. And we changed the songs very little. 

It was like, they were written and they were finished. And I think that’s an important step; to learn to just trust your bandmates and not be like, “Uh, I think you should change this.” Which is fine if somebody wants to do that. We’re all open to changing our stuff. But, at this point, I think it’s just like, we know what we’re doing and when we write a song, it’s like, “This is an Ulthar song. It’s good. It’s ready to go.” And, yeah, we’re just getting more comfortable as a band. 

I’m not sure what we’re going to do next, but we were joking about doing, like, a two-song EP next. Like three-chord punk songs or something [to] just decompress after this experience. But, I don’t know. We’re definitely very comfortable now as a band, doing what we’re doing.

You mentioned earlier about the Ulthar sound, and you can’t really articulate it, right? In terms of this, what’s the emotion or the feeling? If you can kind of explain – when you hear Steve songs, like, “Yeah, that’s it!” How would you describe that? 

Shelby: I think it’s like controlled chaos. I think I’m the control and Steve’s the chaos, and that’s why it works. It’s that dynamic between the two of us.

Would Steve agree to this?

Shelby: I think he probably would. I’ve been thinking about this because a couple of people – I mean, I’ve heard from people in the past, that Ulthar is like a technical death metal band without the, like, shitty trappings of the technical.

That is, like, sterile.

Shelby: Yeah. I think that’s the chaos, like bleeding out of the edges, that’s what people are hearing. Like, we’re not afraid to get a little sloppy and a little weird and break our voices singing in the studio. I think that’s the key. That’s the element – structure versus chaos. 

For a lot of bands, I used to always think the second album was the tough one because like, say the first one does really well, then how do you kind of top it? But with a band like yours that is now consistently getting praise across the board, does that even remotely affect you all? Does that even play in your mind? I’m glad you actually said that to decompress, you all want to do punk and stuff like that. So that kind of tells me where your head is at. But does it matter at all? I’m not getting into reviews and stuff, but generally, what anyone else says about your music, does that affect the process at all?

Shelby: No. I mean, we’re just going to do what we want to do. I don’t know what we’re going to do next yet. I don’t think any of us do. We’ve talked about it a little bit, and joked about it a little bit. But we’re not writing music to please critics or even fans. We’re writing music for ourselves. We’re writing music that we think is interesting and cool. I’m not really worried about what anybody thinks about it. Like, if people buy it, awesome, but if they don’t, whatever. Like I said, though, we’re comfortable and we’re confident and I think that’s where that comes from. It’s just like, whatever we do next, it’s going to be something that we like, and hopefully, that translates to other people liking it. But that’s really the only priority.

Something I read in a written interview, I’m not sure if it was something you did over an email, or if it was a transcription of an audio thing, but I just thought I’d get some better context. Because it didn’t add up for me. You talk about how metal journalism is a bizarre world that you try and avoid as much as possible. Do you remember that?

Shelby: Yes, I remember saying that in an interview. I think at the time I was very frustrated with some things that were written because journalism as a whole is – especially in 2023 – it’s like everybody’s trying to sell you something, you know? And I think when it comes to something as specific as metal journalism, I’ve just encountered so many times writers who have come up with their own story in their heads, and are writing about their own story that they’ve made up for your band. And it doesn’t matter what you say about it, they’ve already written their story, and it’s completely fabricated. And that’s fine, whatever, but at the time, I had seen so much of it and so much about my bands and my music. I’m like, where are they even getting this shit from? 

I understand everybody’s got to get clicks and sell copies or whatever, but it’s really crazy sometimes. The first Ulthar review I ever read was some guy that was like, “these guys call themselves thrash metal, but they don’t sound like thrash metal.” And I was like, when did we ever say we were thrash metal? We’re most definitely not thrash metal. In fact, at band practice, if we come up with a part that sounds like thrash metal, we’re like, “that sounds like thrash metal, we shouldn’t use that.” So, this guy had somehow come up with this quote that we were billing ourselves as a thrash metal band and gave us a bad review based on that. And it’s just like, people come up with their own storylines, and I don’t get it.

Yeah, I think it’s a very tough line. Because I don’t think there’s a balance where you can read just some of the reviews or interviews. Actually, a great way to tap back into social media, there are so many musicians I’ve seen who actually sit on Twitter and reply saying, blah, blah, blah, blah, and I’m just like, why do you need to do that? Right? Like, if you’ve got the conviction about your music and release your music, why does it matter what someone sitting on Twitter is saying? He may just be a random person who heard one minute of his song, right? So it’s very tough. What do you think about social media? 

Shelby: That’s exactly it. It’s like my philosophy on music, social media, or the internet in general or whatever. It’s like, the music – I mean, I’m sitting here doing an interview with you, but the music should speak for itself. You shouldn’t have to go out and explain what your music means or defend your music. 

There’s a quote from David Lynch in an interview that he was doing once, and somebody asked him about – I can’t remember which movie it was. I think it was Mulholland Falls or something [ed. Mullholand Drive, 2001] – and somebody was like, “What’s the meaning of the movie?” And he’s like, “The meaning is the movie. Like, didn’t you watch it? It’s up to the viewer to interpret what it means. It’s no fun if I explain it to you.” And that’s really where I stand on all that stuff. 

I’m fine doing an interview and talking about the band, but I’m not going to explain what the music means. That should be the fun of listening to music – forming your own opinions and ideas about it. And also, I just fucking hate social media. So, on top of all that, I don’t want to have any involvement in any of that shit.

Have you always been this way, like, completely off social media?

Shelby: No, I used to use social media. I’ve been off for, like, six years now. Something like that. I was just at a point where whenever I looked at social media, it made me depressed or angry. And I was like, “Well, why do I have it? If every time I look at it, it makes me feel bad, why do I have it?” So, I just deleted all of it. And I’ve felt better ever since. So, I don’t see the point of going back to it.

I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with social media. Because I worked for a decade in marketing. So, thanks to that back end of it, I realized how creepy it is, and how brands and advertisers, and platforms have access to information. So, each year I started disassociating myself more and more and putting less out because I realized that if you think you can actually go down those conspiracy theories, how basically social media is made to spy or monitor us. It’s something like that.

Shelby: That’s part of it, too. I’m not comfortable having my information used or having my privacy violated or whatever. And also, I totally understand. I am a hypocrite. Ulthar has social media pages. I don’t have anything to do with them, but I also have the benefit and the privilege of being like, “Well, the record label will post on social media so that I don’t have to.” I understand that I’m still benefiting from it even if I don’t use it. I have friends who worked in marketing, and it seems like everyone I talk to about it has the same story about realizing just how dark the underbelly of social media is from working in marketing and distancing their personal use more after working in marketing.

Yeah, I’m militant. I didn’t have public profiles for a long time. And then I finally bit the bullet and made a public profile. But I have no pictures of my six-year-old on the public profile. I’m like, Good. No chance of doing that. Right?

Shelby: Yeah.

But just to close the loop on the social media thing. One thing I’m glad about, at least with a band like Ulthar, I’m not seeing you in Instagram stories complaining about how your favorite coffee shop didn’t make your coffee the right way.

Shelby: Yeah, we’ve had that conversation explicitly. Like, we have a set of rules about what we can and can’t put on our social media. Mostly for me, being like, hey, let’s not put any corny shit on. No selfies, no fucking blah, blah, blah. No this, no that. It’s very purposeful. Like, our social media is just for promoting shows or albums. It’s not about our own personal opinions about anything. That just makes you look stupid.

Since you brought up shows, I can’t even imagine what it would be like for you guys in 2020 to go through all of that. I don’t even know where to start talking about 2020, but considering you’ll release an album, which I can say during the pandemic, what’s it going to be like when you take the next music live? What are the sets going to be like?

Shelby: Um, that’s a good question. I’m not really sure. You just cracked open a really big question, which I’ll try to answer as briefly as possible. So, as far as live shows go, we can’t book anything right now. And that’s because I’m recovering from throat cancer. I was diagnosed in the middle of last year, and I went through treatment. 

I went through radiation and chemotherapy, and the prognosis is great. Like, everything looks good. It looks like it’s totally in remission, and that I beat it, basically. But my vocal cords are destroyed from the radiation until I start to heal. We can’t book tours or shows until we know that I can perform again. 

So, it’s after that frustration of canceling 80 shows in 2020. Like, it’s sort of just the same thing in a different package now. But fingers crossed. Nobody knows how long it’ll take for me to heal or if I will heal at all, vocally speaking. But that’s what’s holding us back at present. So, I’m hoping for the best. I’m actually flying to California next week to go jam with Ulthar. Just play through the set and knock the dust off, basically. But as far as playing shows, no idea when it’s going to happen. I would love to play these songs in front of a crowd, but I don’t know when it’ll happen.

Well, man, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have – like, I had no idea at all.

Shelby: No, it’s okay. There’s no reason you should. I’m not on fucking Instagram stories talking about it or anything. No, it’s totally okay. And I don’t mind talking about it at all. There’s no reason you should know about it. I’m like a total hermit. But it’s just an easy way to answer that question when people ask it. You know what I mean?

Yeah. I must say, this is something I was telling my friend yesterday over dinner. For a lot of people, I think in the last year and a half, we’ve really come to terms with what we’ve gone through during the pandemic. But one of the main things I’ve seen is when we’re talking about it and airing out, we also realize that thinking of what we went through as this huge mountain – was not really huge. When you compare it to what others went through. That’s a certain sense of what I’m getting from you. Full power to you, man.

Shelby: Thank you.

It’s really awesome just to see the way you’re talking about it. I really appreciate that. 

Shelby: I feel like I’ve come out the other side stronger, of course.

I’m really glad to see that. You know what, Shelby? Here’s me before I sign off saying that the next time Ulthar is playing live – wherever it is, even though I’m halfway around the world, I may show up in the crowd. Who knows? So that’s a good thing to look out for. 

Shelby: And I would love to come to you [India] someday. Hopefully, it happens.

Yes, that would be totally cool. Thanks so much for spending time talking about the album with me. I really appreciate it, and I wish you all the best. 

Shelby: Awesome. Thanks for having me, man.

You can listen to this conversation unedited on Spotify (below), and wherever you listen to your podcasts. TMW thanks Shelby Lermo and Trendcrusher for their time and continued support of the metal underground.

Buy Anthronomicon on Amazon!

Buy Helionomicon on Bandcamp!

*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s