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Interview: Mike Semesky of Ordinance discusses Roman history and even more concept albums

Posted by on February 5, 2016

Ordinance-Band-PhotoWhen we last talked to Mike Semesky, he spoke at length about the debut of his project Rest Among Ruins and his love for concept albums. Now, the Maryland native is back with another concept piece, the sophomore album The Ides of March for his band Ordinance. Following our debut of the track “Of the Fatherland” last week, Semesky joined us again to tell us the depth of his knowledge about the story within this album, as well as what’s next for him and the rest of Ordinance’s all-star lineup.

 

How did Ordinance originally come together? This is quite the lineup you have assembled.

This was pre-The HAARP Machine for me, and pre-Threat Signal for Alex (Rudinger). I want to say 2009 or 2010 was when we first started up, right around the same time I started Rest Among Ruins. Ordinance has only played a handful of shows. We all came from different bands in the Maryland scene, and we all knew each other from the scene, and just sort of came together for this. They had a vocalist before me, and a few songs written for the first release Ordinance did, which was called Internal Monologues. We released that in 2011. But they had a few songs written with their original vocalist. Things didn’t work out with him, for whatever reason. Meanwhile, I had played with Alex and Greg (Macklin), our guitar player, in another band before that. It was a Soilwork-sounding, European melodic death metal band, incidentally produced by Peter Wichers from Soilwork. That kind of fell apart, though, but we had known each other from that, and they had this thing going for the two of them. They hit me up, late 2010, and said “We haven’t seen you in awhile, but we’d love to have you do vocals on this Ordinance album. Would you be interested in joining?” I said, “Hell yeah!” They replied, “Okay, great! Well, the album needs to be done in about two weeks.” (laughs)

Oh god, what an introduction to a project!

It was eleven songs, maybe one interlude in there, possibly two. They had a few songs written lyrically already, and they wanted me to come up with some melodic hooks, because I believe the guy before me didn’t really sing clean vocals. I think he was just more of a screamer. So I took the lyrics that they had for the songs, and just tailored them here and there, and came up with some melodies that fit. That album wasn’t quite as melodic as this new one that’s coming out. It’s a lot more scream-heavy, vocally. But I did that entire album over the course of three or four sessions. It was crazy. By the end of that, I felt like I was swallowing knives. That was before I had vocal training or anything like that. It was purely after that that I started pursuing vocal training.

With good reason, at that point. No one wants to feel like they’re swallowing knives!

Yeah, exactly! So that came out in 2011. We actually started working on this album, The Ides of March, pretty much directly after that. Then Alex joined Threat Signal, and he had all kind of obligations with them. Shortly after that, I joined The HAARP Machine, and I had obligations for that. But we kept it going, throughout all these other projects we were joining. Greg joined Jeff Loomis’ band, and then after that System Divide. Gunter (Ostendorp), our other guitar player, had another band, a local band. He was the only one without any touring obligations. Luckily, though, we all have our own recording setups and the ability to write and track on our own time, separately from one another. So this album was written over the course of two or three years, with lots of file sharing back and forth, some tweaking here and there. Guitars would come first, or drums would come first, and they would send me just a rough demo of those songs, and I started writing lyrics. It was after a few songs were written that I proposed the concept idea of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

So it wasn’t always intended to be a concept album?

No it wasn’t, but everyone was very on board with it. We decided, at that point, only a few songs into the writing and demoing process, that we wanted the music instrumentally to paint a picture of the lyrical theme. A lot of the guitar solos and riffs in there – you’re going to hear a lot of Roman-sounding inspiration. The types of modes they go into definitely illustrate that Roman vibe, which is great because it ties everything together really well. It’s a Roman-themed lyrical and instrumental effort, all within a death metal package. (laughs) I figured that the concept was appropriate for a death metal album, and luckily everyone was on board.

What inspired the theme itself?

What really actually inspired me was that show Rome. It was an HBO show, incredible show, very well cast. The script was amazing. Like every other HBO show, it was very much an extended film, essentially. There were ten-episode seasons, a huge budget, everything. That was the original inspiration. Obviously, I’d also learned a bit of Roman history throughout grade school in various history classes. But this was what provided a visual for me and gave me a bit more insight into what exactly happened to Julius Caesar. So I started doing a lot more research after watching the show. This was actually a couple of years before I even started writing the concept for this album, so it was a long time in the making. Essentially, I just wanted to write about the assassination plot, the conspiracy, everything that led up to the assassination, and the motives behind it.

If you’re not familiar, the Liberatores were led by Cassius and Brutus. They plotted to assassinate Julius Caesar because he was named the dictator of the Roman Republic, and they feared that his power was too strong. They feared that, with his plans for governmental and social reform, he would overthrow the Senate altogether. That was the main thing that brought that conspiracy together. But the different Senators all came from very different backgrounds and all had very different experiences with Julius Caesar. Some of them were ex-soldiers or generals; some of them were politicians ranging from local to the actual Senate. All of them had very unique stories, so I just wanted to paint a picture of what their stories were and why they joined the assassination plot and the Liberatores.

I also talked about a few different characters outside of the Liberatores. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife – I took some creative liberties there, but apparently she did warn him of some premonition before the Ides of March, about how she thought something wasn’t right, something was coming, and Caesar had too many enemies. She tried persuading her husband to not go to the actual location of the assassination and take the day off. It was a diversion that was the day of a big gladiator match and she warned him not to go. So the song about her, “Fear of Discovery”, was written from her dream state, so it’s a first-person perspective. It paints a picture of what happened in her dreams and the premonition the day before.

Then there’s a song, “Denarius”, that’s named after the first coin that had Caesar’s face and name printed on it, and that’s just more of a symbol of his power. It marked the beginning of his dictatorship. He promised prosperity to everyone in what he called the Fatherland – everyone who was loyal to him, obviously. So that song is written about the beginning of his dictatorship. We talk about Brutus in there, how he betrayed Caesar, and how Brutus was so close with Caesar. Julius Caesar was Brutus’ uncle, and even still, he agreed. He thought that his uncle’s power had just become too much and he feared that Caesar would overthrow the Senate altogether. Brutus was a Senator himself, so he joined the plot and helped lead.

There’s also the song that talks about Mark Antony, “23 Wounds”. Marc Antony was warned before the Ides of March. He wasn’t in Rome at the time. One of the other conspirators, Casca, came to him because he thought the plot was going to fold. So he wrote to Marc Antony and warned him of the plot, I guess trying to save face there. So Marc Antony rode back to Rome, and obviously was too late.

There’s a song written from Julius Caesar’s nephew’s perspective, Octavian, who later became Augustus Caesar. It just talks about how he admired his great uncle and how Julius Caesar wanted him to learn and master every facet of what made him such a great leader. He became the first emperor of Rome, technically, after his uncle’s assassination. He was named the heir to the throne in Julius Caesar’s will. So yeah, lots of very interesting perspectives. The very first song on the album, even – the title is a Latin phrase, and I don’t know exactly how to pronounce it. Wish I had taken that in high school! (laughs) It’s called “Ista Quidem Vis Est”, and those were apparently Julius Caesar’s last words as he was being stabbed in the Senate. It translates to “Why is this violence?” So the very first song of the album actually opens with that. That’s the fastest song on the album, and probably the most “brutal” on the album, which I thought was fitting, putting his finals words in the fastest, most death metal of all of the tunes.

That’s the gist of the lyrical content. As far as vocal style, there are fifteen songs, and with the exception of one or two, each song has a very different ratio of clean to screaming vocals, compared to the average death metal album, if there is such a thing.

This seems to be more progressive death metal than anything else, based on what you’ve debuted so far. It almost compares to early Opeth in some ways, except the songs are shorter.

I can totally see that. This was such an amazing collaboration of all four of us. Everyone introduced song ideas. Whether it was the foundation and actual skeleton of the song, the main riffs and chord progressions, the structure – everyone contributed. Greg and Gunter both wrote songs, and they have very distinctive styles, but they were both trying to branch out into other inspirations. Alex wrote songs as well. On some of the more rhythmic songs, you’ll be able to hear his influence, in the vocals and melodies especially. It was very much a collaborative effort, instrumentally.

There have been so many different takes on this historical event, among them documentaries, theatrical performances, and books. What among those, if anything, influenced your writing on this story?

I’m guilty of loving Shakespeare’s take on it, so there’s a lot of tips of the hat to his work. It is dramatized, in that sense. But I tried to stay true to the facts. Any names that are named; I tried to stay historically accurate with those. It is a lot of characters, so I had to pick and choose. But like you said, it’s been told in so many ways. The way that I’m telling it is in a very different context than any other way, at least that I’m aware of, in this progressive death metal context. But the actual content is based on historical facts and dramatized by Shakespeare’s take, with my own twists through a few creative liberties. When reviewing the facts and examining these different people that were involved, you learn a lot about their motives, so I had to put myself in their shoes and try to illustrate their thoughts and motives.

How did you differentiate each of the Liberatores from each other in the lyrics?

There are going to be some lyrical cues in there that, for the people who have done their research or want to do their research about the plot, are going to help differentiate. Something as simple as who took the first strike, who followed Caesar on the battlefield, who may have been exiled at some point and then welcomed back in years later – these details will help distinguish the characters. That’s a great question, because they all have one goal in mind, and I can’t be saying the same thing with every one. Some of the songs are written in past tense, some are in future tense, some of them present tense. That’s another thing I considered.

How did you reach your chosen method for writing Caesar’s perspective on the song “Of the Fatherland”? There were so many ways that could have gone.

It could have, yeah. It wasn’t meant to be partial to one side or the other. It was meant to be what he wanted for Rome. His idea was to spread the empire, and he felt that there needed to be social reform whilst conquering other areas, so that people could be accepted into the Roman family once they pledged loyalty. He obviously thought that he was doing the right thing. Essentially, I was just trying to illustrate his priorities. You’ll notice in that song that he doesn’t really consider the priorities of the Senate. In the lyrics, he’s talking about social equality and how he wants to put an end to all the chaos in the republic. When he was named dictator, he called for people’s support, and he just wanted to strengthen Rome. That’s the intent he had, I believe.

Getting back to the band itself, do you believe Ordinance will remain as a studio-only project going forward?

For the foreseeable future, it will remain a studio project. But we’re open to the idea of playing live. I can’t imagine that it would be something that we’d be trying to do year-round or full-time, though. But if it were to reach a point where there was enough demand for a live performance, I could see us doing a short tour across the States or a festival here and there. We’re all in different places professionally, so we have different priorities in terms of our separate professional projects. Alex is in Good Tiger, and they’re going to be touring a lot this year to support their newest album. For me, Raunchy is going to be touring again soon, and then eventually working on another album. Greg actually lives across the country now, in Seattle, so rehearsing would kind of be a difficult thing. Then again, I sing for a Danish band, so that’s nothing by comparison! (laughs) It’s tough to say what the future holds, in terms of the live aspect of this band. But it would be super fun to play this material live. I would love that. I don’t know when it might happen, but if it does, I’m totally into it.

You could always do a hometown gig at Maryland Deathfest.

That’s true! I’ve actually never been to that.

How does a band that’s studio-only go about promoting a new release? That seems to be quite a difficult undertaking.

It really is! A lot of it is reliant on social media and fans re-posting on social media. Ordinance was born on the Internet, in the sense that the band began a grassroots following on YouTube. Greg and Alex were writing Ordinance songs, just the two of them, and Alex was releasing drum playthrough videos.

Which you’ve continued doing now.

Exactly. I think those sparked some interest on a small scale, and may have been the reason for creating a band out of it with the full lineup, because there was some traction online. YouTube is still a big one for us. Alex has a big fanbase on his own, and they love seeing him play ungodly fast blastbeats at ungodly fast tempos. Putting an actual visual to the music is one way of promoting. Other ways include doing a lyric video, putting together YouTube stream videos, and plugging from our own personal social media outlets. Then it’s just premiering new songs and being fresh with new material, using sites like Metal Insider to put our music in front of an audience that might not have heard of us otherwise. In the end, it’s all about online promotion, because it’s very different from putting out an album, getting on the road, and touring to spread the word of the album in person. That’s something that, obviously, we’re not exploring right now. So just like Rest Among Ruins, the promotion and getting the word out there is dependent on the online success.

What can you tell me about the artwork for this album?Ordinance - The Ides of March

We really wanted to stray from the super busy and chaotic death metal album cover that you tend to see.

That certainly could have worked well, though, given that the content of the album is about a brutal assassination. It would have fit well alongside a Suffocation album cover!

Sure, absolutely! And you make a good point, because we talked about that quite a bit. Did we want to blend in and look like every other death metal album cover? And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s more that the layout and composition are usually pretty busy, and it makes sense. I think that, because we are a bit different and we stand out from other death metal bands – we’re not reinventing the wheel here, but there is a lot of melody to it – we wanted something that stood out. The designer, Jordan Salmon, did an incredible job of it. He designed the Rest Among Ruins artwork, and he’s worked with me quite a bit. He’s just a phenomenal artist. He took our idea for what we wanted the album cover to look like and what we wanted it to convey, and just brought it to a level that we didn’t realize it had the potential to get to. The Roman calendar on there with the soldier’s helmet – it just wrapped everything up into a very nice, polished-looking package.

Given your love for concept albums, do you think that the next album will also be conceptual, or do you want it to be something more traditional?

We haven’t really talked about new material just yet, which is funny because this album has been done for so long, you’d think we would already be talking about it and writing. It’s just a matter of time, at this point. Honestly, writing concept albums is a way to distinguish creative inspiration among my various projects. It’s a really nice way to stay organized. I guess there is some left and right brain involved with writing concept albums. But to answer your question, I haven’t yet come to a conclusion either way. I do love writing concept albums because it does provide a nice structure, and I love the idea of just telling stories. Whether it’s from beginning to end, from a bunch of different perspectives, or just a massive theme that doesn’t necessarily tell a story but still ties everything together – I just really like writing concept albums. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility that I’ll be doing another concept album for the next Ordinance record. I can’t say what exactly it would be, though. I mean, there is a beginning and an end to this album, so it can’t necessarily be an extension of this, unless I were to just keep tracking history from there. But I think I want to stray from this concept here.

What’s going on right now in your other projects and the projects of the other guys in the band?

Like I mentioned before, Alex is working really hard with Good Tiger. They released their first album, and it sounds amazing. They have some really cool tours coming up, so we’re all really excited for him. The whole lineup is a good group of dudes and talented musicians, so there’s a ton of potential there. I think they’re going to do some big things. Gunter is in school currently, and Greg is working while also being a producer. He does a lot of mixing. I think Greg has mixed all but one of my covers. He’s a really talented guy, and I think he’s going to be taking on a lot of different types of projects. He’s strayed a bit from his more traditional metal mixing when he’s working on my pop, indie, and rock covers, but he’s done a phenomenal job of that. So I hope he gets into some more pop and rock mixing. He’s constantly busy with projects. As for me, I’m going back to Europe in April for a tour with Raunchy. We’re doing a headlining tour in Europe. We haven’t announced the details yet, but I think that announcement will probably be coming in the next month or so. I’m really excited to see those guys, and I’m sure we’ll start writing if the guys haven’t already started writing. When we’re all together, I’m sure we’ll all be discussing plans for the next album. Outside of that, I’ve been working on my own solo music. It’s been a chore, because I’ve been working on so much other stuff lately. I play guitar and bass, and writing a rock song is something I’ve done for a long time. But writing a pop song is so much different. You have to say a lot more with a lot less. It’s very much been a process, but I’ve been working with a lot of producers and refining my sound. I think I’m getting to the point where I have a much clearer vision of where I want to go with it and what I want to say with it. I’m not really sure when anything will be released, but I’m really excited about that. There’s also another new band with a lot of musicians from the scene that have taken an interest in my vocals. I’m writing some stuff for them right now. I’ve also done quite a few guest vocal appearances lately. I’ll be on the new Fallujah record.

Oh, you just made my day.

Their new stuff sounds amazing. I think you’re going to love it. They’re awesome guys, and I was really excited to work with them. I’ve been hired by a few other bands to guest vocals as well. Some are up-and-coming bands, some that I just know from the scene or are friends of friends, and some that I don’t know personally but that reached out to me and had stuff that I believed in and wanted to help support. There will be at least four guest vocal spots for various projects that will be coming out this year. I actually just now got a message about a track going live now with a guest vocal that I did. It’s probably one of my favorite guest vocals that I’ve done. It’s for a band called Behaviour. They’re just starting out. They’re from various projects. I do all the clean vocals, and they have a screamer. They have nothing else online, it’s a brand new thing. The new track “Dancing With the Sunset” just went live. It’s an interesting mix of groove and electronic elements. They have some interesting time signatures and great screaming vocals. I have two sections of clean vocals in the song that I’m really proud of. But my main priorities right now are my solo music, the Ordinance album being released, and continuing to give voice lessons. Hopefully, enough time will free up soon that I can dedicate serious chunks of my week to working on my own material. That’s my main priority right now – trying to work that out. It’s been a long time coming, and I don’t want to disappoint. I want to come up with something that has not only a timeless sound and quality, but a timeless message as well.

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