The name Madder Mortem may be familiar. In fact, there’s a chance the Decibel faithful have seen/heard the “My Name is Silence,” “Fallow Season,” or “Where Dream & Day Collide” videos. Some of us may even own several albums of Madder Mortem’s diverse, very Norwegian (think The Third and the Mortal mixed with Winds) catalog. Albums like All Flesh Is Grass, Desiderata, and Marrow have been celebrated by a select contingent of metalhead for the better part of a decade and more. Well, we’ve not seen, heard or experienced Madder Mortem quite like this before. Enter Randy M. Salo’s documentary Howl of the Underdogs, the riveting, entirely open, and yet honestly tragic story of the Norwegians’ musical, personal, and cultural innards/skin.
Filmmaker Salo is both an accomplished auteur/technician — from directing The Dragons of Jim Green to rigging grip on Men in Black 3 — and a diehard fan of Madder Mortem. Originally, the idea was to document the band’s 20th anniversary (the group formed in Oslo in 1997), but as he got closer, the scope of Howl of the Underdogs broadened and deepened. To wit, Salo wasn’t just the guy behind the camera as Madder Mortem organized their most special concert for fans, but a willing participant in the group’s challenges, successes, and everything in-between. He became a silent member of the band, owning yet visualizing their musical heaviness/uniqueness as well as their very human pains.
Decibel and Salo chatted briefly about Howl of the Underdogs. What did Madder Mortem — opening their hearts and souls — mean to him as a filmmaker, fan, and person? What journey did the Norwegians take him on as he documented their inner workings? Well, we’re here to find out what makes Madder Mortem tick, and how do they, as musicians, persons, and creative forces affect those they come into contact with. NOTE: the first trailer is exclusive to Decibel (for a short period of time), while the second trailer is the official trailer. Decibel readers get a 20-percent discount through July 31st on the full documentary. See links at the end of the Q&A.
How did you arrive on the subject of Madder Mortem? They’re relatively non-mainstream even in the extreme metal underground.
Randy M. Salo: Back in 2001, while studying filmmaking in NYC, I discovered Madder Mortem by blindly purchasing All Flesh is Grass at Generation Records. I just thought the cover art was so amazing with those little shrunken heads being spit out by the bigger head. I immediately fell in love with the combination of Agnete’s unbelievable vocal skills and the ultra heavy, rhythmic guitar and drum pounding. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It certainly was modern, but had little to do with a lot of what else was coming out of Scandinavian metal at the time, at least that I knew of. I remained a big fan of theirs for 18 years until I had the chance to interview Agnete on my prog metal podcast, Progcast, in December of 2018. At this time, she told me the band was thinking of celebrating their 20th anniversary by making a short documentary about the band’s history. That was the initial spark. Of course, like so many documentary journeys, we didn’t end up making a short documentary about the band’s history.
Was the goal of Howl of the Underdogs to expose Madder Mortem’s music through exploration of who they are as a band and as people? Or, were you more looking into the people first and music collaterally?
Randy M. Salo: The original goal was to film with them during their 20th anniversary as they wrote and recorded music for the re-release of their debut album, Mercury, toured Europe and put on a special anniversary concert in Oslo with all the former members of the band. Mostly, as a gift to the fans. As a filmmaker and a fan, though, I wanted to get to the heart of where their music came from. Therefore I had planned to capture where they came from, the spirit of their hometown, as well as explore a new concept that was revealed to me: the Scandinavian morality laws, or Jante Law. But when I arrived in Norway in February of 2019, unbeknownst to me, Agnete had just had weight loss surgery. Along with the physical and personal struggles she was facing, drummer Mads Solås was also having a crisis of his own, going into the recording sessions they had planned that week. So those narratives played out naturally in front of the camera and by the end of the first week of filming, we had a discussion about what the movie was going to be about. While the film would still show how the year progressed, and explore the Law of Jante, it would ultimately do so as these other major life-changing events played out in the personal lives of the band members and give us context for those bigger themes. Ultimately, I hoped we would get to heart of their music by witnessing these other unexpected turns.
Decibel Exclusive Trailer
Randy M. Salo: I did a double major at The School of Visual Arts focusing on Directing and Cinematography and my thesis film was American Tale. It’s a narrative short film, but it’s shot like a documentary. Since I needed a job after college, I began working as a grip and ultimately joined IATSE Local 52 where I worked on a lot of the big projects like Law & Order and Enchanted. I wanted to write scripts and make my own indie feature films, but ended up shooting my first documentary, The Dragons of Jim Green. After I relocated to Munich, Germany in 2011, I switched gears completely and started making short documentaries with bands for the web. I established FreqsTV in 2015 and we made films with tons of bands like At the Gates, Opeth, Crowbar, Red Fang etc. and I eventually set my sights on trying to make my second feature length film as a band documentary. After several false starts and stops, I crossed paths with Agnete. I cut my teeth on those early New York movie sets and those skills which I learned I brought to my documentary productions. You learn how to be organized, communicate clearly, give people space to perform and generally make your presence small. Plus, you learn to be on time. Those are the things I brought from my early New York career and applied to my own films, when I was finally able to make them.
At what point did Madder Mortem’s inner self get exposed during Howl of the Underdogs filming? There’s a lot of contemplation, consideration, and emotional heft to how they conduct personal and professional business.
Randy M. Salo: Just like their music, Madder Mortem are contemplative people. Maybe because I was both an outsider to them and their culture, I was able to ask questions that they might not have considered themselves, for instance. And much like their music, they decided if they were going to make a film then it was going to be honest. They decided this early on and that allowed for a very intense, open dialog between us from the start. They wear their hearts on their sleeve and put every bit of themselves into this band. It has been quite an inspiration to witness.
Agnete M. Kirkevaag emerges as the emotional center of Madder Mortem. She’s been described as “enigmatic” but in Howl of the Underdogs she’s incredibly open, confident, yet vulnerable. Kind of the opposite of “enigmatic”.
Randy M. Salo: The Madders came later to the social media revolution and are from an era where there was less exposure. I can also remember listening to those powerful lines in “Necropol Lit” (from 2002’s Deadlands) where she sings “Here I am and here I’m staying…Queen of all that crawls and dies!” and just feeling this sense of dread and awe. There weren’t many band photos of them by then and I just had this voice and the artwork to go on. I remember being generally frightened of her persona and being drawn into at the same time. True metal! Of course, when you meet Agnete (or any of the Madders, for that Madder!) you quickly find out how polite, humble, warm and genuinely kind they are. A part of that is because of where they are from and their upbringing. And of course, the Law of Jante. But the secrets and intimate details revealed in Howl of the Underdogs will be the first time the band truly opens up about where their music comes from. It has always been shrouded in the mystery of their dark music and lyrics. For the first time, the gates are blown open and all the scars and struggles are laid bare. As with all of their endeavors, however, the Madders march bravely into the fray.
How can interested parties view Howl of the Underdogs? I assume it’s available via your site, but will it be on the major streaming platforms as well?
Randy M. Salo: The film is now available for rent or purchase on Vimeo (HERE) and we have some possible plans for a future deluxe edition DVD. As far as major streaming platforms go, we will see what possibilities there are. Typically, they are looking for bigger names (think Tina Turner) for music documentaries which means they miss some real gems. Decibel readers can follow this link to grab a digital copy for 20% off (until July 31st): Direct link: https://vimeo.com/r/3h0q/dDR5MWxTcz; Use code: DECIBEL20.
** Randy M. Salo and Dark Essence Records’ documentary Howl of the Underdogs is available for viewing now via Vimeo.
– Click HERE with promo code DECIBEL20 to get 20% off.
– Click HERE to visit Howl of the Underdogs‘ official site.
– Click HERE to visit Howl of the Underdogs‘ Facebook site.
– Click HERE to visit Madder Mortem’s official site.
– Click HERE to visit Madder Mortem’s Facebook site.
– Click HERE to visit Dark Essence Records’ official site.
– Click HERE to visit Dark Essence Records’ Facebook site.
– Click HERE to visit Metal Heads Against Bullying’s Facebook site.