Finding Solace In The Dark: A Conversation With Dennis Mikula of Ghost Bath

From the Beksiński cover to the somber visual identity, we talk all things 'Self Loather'.

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Still from 'Convince Me To Bleed' (2021) Video by Austin Scherzberg & John Olivier

Insular yet accessible – it's a unique contrast present in many of music's most powerful and long living records. Though the musicians themselves didn't intend for a particular message or feeling to be shared, the human experience allows for listeners to engage with the material in ways only they can understand. Upon release, the composition no longer belongs to the musicians but to the audience, who breathe new life into the hymns embodied within through a communal effort of likeminded interests. Records known to have this dynamic exist beyond themselves and speak highly of the heartfelt substance they carry.


In the case of North Dakota's Ghost Bath, black metal serves as a canvass for their inner turmoil. a turmoil privy to those who find musical and emotional comfort throughout the band's grim lyricism. It's here that Ghost Bath find a common ground with their audience despite every bit of their compositional endeavors originating from their own creative ambitions. With a daunting cover illustration by the revered Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, their latest album, Self Loather, arrived last fall via Nuclear Blast and Northern Silence Productions to great acclaim from longtime fans of the band's melodic efforts and newcomers as well, who find much to enjoy of the varied craft. Differing ends of the musical spectrum coalesce in seamless nature and Ghost Bath present one of their most cohesive efforts yet. Self Loather is insular yet accessible at a time where loss is prevalent.


We welcome frontman Dennis Mikula to an expansive conversation detailing the band's approach to cover selection, the band's creative process, establishing a musical persona, Self Loather, and more:

 

Despite their separate timelines of inception, Beksiński’s work and ‘Self Loather’ exist as one with the music itself building on the painting’s desolate tone. Dennis, what drew you to this particular Beksinski painting and where do you feel that it coalesces with the album’s larger themes and concepts?


Dennis: As with all of my album art, usually the entire album is either done or it's mostly done by the time I find the cover. So with this one, the title and all the music were finished before I found this particular art piece. I've kind of been using this method since ‘Funeral’ (2014). I’ll listen to the material and then search around in different forums, like Google and what have you, and as soon as I spot something that I think fits with it, it just clicks with me, like right away. With ‘Moonlover’ (2015), I was looking for a piece for maybe a month until I found the one by Luiz Gonzalez Palma. As soon as I saw it, I was like, “This is the piece that fits.”

Luis González Palma
'La Luna' (1989) by Luis González Palma

I know a lot of people prefer to have a piece created specifically for the album, but for me, I just feel like I'm too picky for that. Instead of going back and forth and disagreeing with how I want certain things to look, I prefer to find something that already exists and is already perfect for it. Sometimes, it just takes a while to find it. With this one in particular, it just clicked. I'm not analytical about it. I don't think, “Oh with this theme, it'll fit with this part of the painting or the way he did this.” It's more of an overall experience and less of figuring out if the painting works with a title or song.


I base my music and art on feeling and emotion only, which I don't do for basically anything else in my life. I kind of do that on purpose just to give myself something more freeing, more free flowing. It’s kind of hard to explain exactly why I picked this piece other than it had the right feeling and it clicked and connected with me right away in regards to self loathing.


That's an interesting dynamic because as you mention, it’s the norm for bands to commission a fitting illustration while they gear up for an album. For you, the music informs your search process, as we’ve seen with all of the band’s records so far. ‘Luna’ by Luis Gonzales was one and then you also had ‘Ofelia’ by John Everett on ‘Funeral’ (2014). Was this also the case for ‘Starmourner’ (2017)? I’m aware that it's Luciana Nedelea’s work.


Dennis: Yes, it was actually already done and I just found it. I'd seen her paintings before and I knew I liked her stuff. I saw that particular painting in a folder she had of artworks that were not sold or used yet. Right when I saw that, I immediately thought, “This is it.” On this one, she added the crying on the skull, so the skull is initially there with some smoke coming out and the stars and we just added the streams, which I thought were a better fit.

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Artwork by Luciana Nedelea

It was a perfect fit.


Dennis: With the amount of art pieces out there, something is bound to connect really well. It's just a matter of finding it by sifting through so many pieces and so many different artists. I'm super picky with art, so I don't want to commission anything because I just know, I know for a fact it's not going to be what I envision in my head.


Is your compositional process similar in that way? As the band grows over the years, you obviously try to find your niche through trial and error, you see what works, you see what sticks and what doesn't. Ghost Bath has the DSBM tag too, which of course comes with both positive and negative connotations amidst the nuances of genre classification.


Dennis: No, it's actually pretty much the opposite when it comes to the music. It's more of an extension of myself and I think whatever I write is correct. For example, I hate going back and editing parts and changing things after I've written it because I really get myself into a certain mindset, a certain dark space. When I'm in that, whatever I write is, to me, the most honest, so I like to keep that. I used to take it to an even more extreme in records like ‘Funeral’ where I would leave in a messed up guitar part, or like I wouldn't like fully click the note and it'd be like a dead note and I'd leave it in the album. I think that gave it a certain unique character to it. I don't do that anymore. I like to keep it as close to the original idea as possible and I just let it flow in the moment.

John Everett Millais dark art
'Ophelia' (1851–52) by John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

It's kind of the opposite of when choosing the visual art because for the arts, I have to find something that fits the exact feeling I get when I'm writing and I just know that if I commissioned it, that wouldn't happen. I just had to look at the many pieces out there. There's bound to be something that's going to click the same way and connect the same way. For the music, whatever I write, I write. I'm not a perfectionist at all, I'm a super minimalist with my composition.


Having noted that distinction between the two elements, how significant do you feel that the visual component is to your records? That of course extends to your promo photographs and music videos, which you know, are very bleak.


Dennis: It's definitely very important. I take the whole thing as one package that I present, being from every little detail like the name, the logo, the title of the song, or the album. All of it presented together creates the experience. It's not just the song or the riff, but the riff in context with the cover art, the visual aspect, the name Ghost bath and the connotations it has when saying it out loud. I just like the way it comes off the tongue and I think about all of those little details when I'm creating a piece or an album. That's why it's so important for me to pick the right cover art, something that I really like.


For this particular piece for ‘Self Loather’, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to be able to license it because it was from a museum in Poland. They were very hard to contact, like the director, and there's a bit of a language barrier. With that came a lot of waiting and figuring stuff out and I didn't think I was going to get this piece because they didn't answer me for over a month. I was getting worried because I knew I really wanted this.

Zdzisław Beksiński dark art
Illustration by Zdzisław Beksiński

I think it's unfortunate, in my opinion, that the cover is so important. It’s extremely important and that's why I'm so particular about it. If I could just blast the record to somebody with just audio, I would do that.


There’s the marketing element of it too, especially in this digital age of Spotify and Bandcamp where the art plays as a selling point as much as it does as an extension of the music.


Dennis: I was having an argument with someone about this the other day, or a debate, however you want to call it. All of that you're talking about, I call business, not art. The creation of a song for me is art and the picking of the cover, I would say it's just business. It’s all part of the presentation and you of course have to have the business aspect of it. That’s just what it is. A cover is just like a book cover in that you want to get people to listen to it, click on it, or pick it up at the record shop. It’s business.


That’s an interesting perspective, especially with the industry being inevitably profit driven while integrity and genuineness take the back end for the more commercially successful. We can go back and forth about this for days, so let’s jump back into ‘Self Loather’, an emotionally heavy outing full of compositional complexities, atmosphere, and heart. With the release now past us and enjoyed by thousands across the world, is it cathartic in any way to see it in circulation after months of emotional and physical investment?


Dennis: For me, the cathartic part is writing. That's been over for about a year and a half since it started in 2020. That's where I get the most cathartic feeling, when I'm writing and sort of recording it down as a demo. Releasing it is more of just excitement. I’ve kind of moved past it. I'm the kind of person who once I make something, I'm on to the next thing and I'm already coming up with more ideas and writing more music. I don't even want to think about playing shows right now because of the current situation, but if we could go on tour, that'd be probably the next cathartic type moment, to be on stage actually performing. For me, the release process is like a means to an end ticket to perform it.

Austin Scherzberg ghost bath dark art
Photograph by Austin Scherzberg

Live performances continue to be uncertain as the pandemic rages on, so let’s see where we are in a few months and a proper Ghost Bath tour begins taking shape. With every year comes change, as is the nature of life, but there's an often debated idea that suffering breeds great art. Some argue that ‘Iowa’ (2001) by Slipknot is a masterpiece because of where it found the band at the time. Where do you stand on that matter, especially with Ghost Bath treading down a similar path of putting emotion at the forefront?


Dennis: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. That same debate is in a Discord channel for vocal coaching. We were all listening to music and then it became a debate about art. I do think suffering is art, for sure. You can tell just instinctively when someone was in a dark place or was suffering with art that they created. It's something you can't really mask or hide or pretend it's kind of easy to suss out by instinct.


I actually just thought of a really cool analogy for why I pick already done paintings for the cover. I love reading fantasy books and I love fantasy shows. When a show happens first, and then there's a book adaptation of it, I don't even want to touch it. It's written for the show and uses the show as inspiration. I want to pick a piece of art that's done for the sake of that piece of art instead of made for the album. Does that make sense? They're each like Lord of the Rings in that way. The book was written first and I could read the books and enjoy it because it was written as a book. For something like Star Wars, the movie came first and somebody wrote the books to the movies. I have no interest in that because the art wasn't made for itself. Do you know what I mean? With the art pieces, that piece by Beksiński was already made as a standalone art piece not made for an album. Sorry for that tangent, but I just thought of that.

Zdzisław Beksiński
Zdzisław Beksiński Painting The Album Cover Illustration

No apologies needed, it's a good way of seeing it. Talking about the scene at large, American black metal holds a very interesting spot in the larger black metal scene. Your European counterparts, obviously, get most of the acclaim for that. In North America, the genre is pocketed and characterized as having more of a regional approach. Where do you feel that Ghost Bath and North American bands stand among the larger scope of the genre?


Dennis: I was thinking about that recently. I don't personally understand why everyone would want to be like, “Oh, we were going for that European sound.” If you're from America, that's not where you grew up. This isn’t you, and that’s okay. I don't see anything wrong with having a different sound or being able to tell that you sound like an American black metal band. I don't see that as a negative comment. What I hear in the States is that we have a little bit more of like a hardcore or core undertone to a lot of our riffs, which music in Europe doesn't tend to have. I think that's where a lot of people can tell the difference.


I remember when we were on tour with our driver from Greece and I played him an American black metal band. He's like, “You know, over here, that sounds like hardcore.” I don't see anything wrong with that. I don't know why people think it's more prestigious or more elitist to be like, “Oh, we're Norwegian sounding.” For me, if you tell me I sound like American black metal, that's good. That's what I am like and I have no problem embracing that. I think more bands should because too many bands right now are trying to go for that European sound. It’s almost like an act. You can grow up listening to it despite it originating over in Europe, but it's the mixture of it with your background, and your region that makes it interesting, and it makes it something new instead of just, you know, a copy and paste of another European black metal band.


Definitely, and for ‘Self Loather’, you allowed for different minds to invest in the compositional side of things. Your bandmates of course have their own respective backgrounds and it all coalesces into one unified being with plenty of sonic interplay. How does it all come together in terms of the audiovisual cohesion you looked to achieve from the get go?


Dennis: I think that when certain things play off each other, they feed into each other and then eventually, you sort of settle on a more focused vision. The beginnings of this album were always centered around the aspects of tragedy, ecstasy, dread, and hatred. Those were named by an artist Mark Roscoe and that's where I first came up with the idea for the trilogy. From there, you kind of just take a very abstract look at it and then you slowly hone in.

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Photograph by Austin Scherzberg

When we were recording, like the first demo in the studio, we had our friend Austin do some shots. He’s a videographer and he did some slow motion shots. They're black and white and pretty contrasted. We really liked how they looked, so we just kind of honed in on all those aspects of it. There were contrasts within the music and within the visual art, which is white and black. If you look at our Instagram, let's say from when we first started this album compared to before with ‘Starmourner’, you're going to see a ton of color. Then all of a sudden, it's just black and white. We try to use that in the music videos. All of the layouts for the artwork are all black and white. We just kind of take those ideas that come up naturally when we're trying to go for a general theme of dread and hatred.


It’s all very intentional. As the title would suggest, ‘Self Loather’ is really a record about pain and what comes with the mental battlefield of going through troubling thoughts and so forth. With all the introspection that came from being isolated in this last year and a half, do you feel as though the contemporary state of affairs played a subconscious role in the record’s development, even though that may have not been the case intentionally? Do you feel as though these times will impact how the record connects with listeners?


Dennis: I probably have a pretty unique perspective on this because first of all, I live in a small town, so I didn't do much anyway. It was all written and planned regardless of the pandemic situation. I think it's hard for me to say what other people are going to get out of it because of the pandemic.


I generally work on the records myself, so I didn't have any significant changes from the pandemic other than not being able to tour in support of the album. Personally, I think I came out lucky compared to a lot of people, especially people who had records coming out right when the pandemic started. I can't say I’ll know what other people will feel, but I can see how the themes and my everyday life will maybe connect with more people because of the pandemic and the isolation, which is how I usually am. I hate saying what something is supposed to mean because I want people to get whatever they want out of it. Experience happens in the moment when you're listening to the music and looking at the artwork, but yeah, it's definitely very possible the pandemic will force audiences to connect more with records than it would have otherwise without the pandemic.

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Dennis Mikula, Photograph by Austin Scherzberg

That’s the beauty of it all, it's open to interpretation. It’s apparent you’re more insular as a musician as you compose to please your own creative ambitions rather than that of seeking relatability or a specific audience response.


Dennis: Yeah, I think the best thing you can do if you're creating something is to make something that's honest and make something that represents you because there's always going to be somebody else out there who can connect with it in whatever way. Sometimes, it happens in a surprising way that you wouldn't expect. I don't think making a piece of art just to be successful or to reach a certain person is going to be as impactful straight away. What sticks with audiences is the full experience and actually encourages them to connect with it on a different level. I just make the art that comes out when I'm in these certain states of mind and I didn't expect it to connect with as many people as it did when I first started. Now, I kind of understand that somebody is going to connect with it somehow. The messages, emails, or people coming up to me at shows saying, “This really helped me through this or that”, it’s all completely unrelated to me when I was writing it. It's a sort of emotional connection, human connection that you can only get when you're expressing yourself. Someone else takes that and mixes your experience with theirs and that's kind of what leaves a lasting impact. It's more of like a slow burn instead of the flashy, explosion type of impact. The surface level stuff is going to fade but if you make something honest to you, people will connect with it no matter how small.


Well said, Dennis, and it happens organically. It just comes to you without having to meticulously dissect elements of a track. In closing, it’s important to mention the support and faithful fan base that you’ve built over the years.You have listeners from across the world that are actively looking forward to new music and so forth, a testament to the honesty in the craft we mentioned earlier. Where do you find yourself now compared to where this all kind of began with ‘Funeral’?


Dennis: Surprisingly, almost in the exact same spot. I thought it would be much different than it is. You get to a certain level or you get a certain number of listens or a certain number of fans and all of a sudden you're like, “Okay, I've made it, I'm feeling good, everything's great.” Humans adapt to things so quickly and just start taking it for granted, so I tend not to linger on things too heavily. I'm kind of in the same spot honestly. I mean if I think back, I could probably write another ‘Funeral’ if I wanted. In my mind, it just feels exactly the same as when I wrote that record. Maybe I thought it would help me more than it has to write these records, and I think it ended up just helping other people more than me.


Knowing that your records have helped other people more than yourself, does it change your perspective at all?


Dennis: I’ve been in bands since I was twelve years old. As long as you create the art for yourself in an honest place, it’s going to have that effect. I’ve been able to find a way to do that since the beginning, since my very first band in middle school. Someone literally just posted today that the show that had the most impact on them was from one of my first bands, which is crazy. I don’t think it changes my perspective. I don’t think it should. You should stay true to what you want to create, regardless of how many people you’ve helped or how many people pay you. We get tons of hate too, and it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to change how I write because the way people react to our records is separate to how we feel putting it together.

 

Self Loather is available now via Nuclear Blast Records. Stream/order your copy HERE.

Zdzisław Beksiński
Illustration by Zdzisław Beksiński