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In Extremis

Blessed By The Sabbath: Pallbearer Interviewed
Dean Brown , August 13th, 2014 09:39

With the release of their formidable second album Foundations Of Burden imminent, Dean Brown talks to the Arkansas metal crew about their development since debut Sorrow And Extinction and why doom has the capacity for emotional catharsis

Photograph courtesy of Diana Lee Zadlo

In its purest form, without cross-pollination from experimental noise, drone, death or black metal, doom can be emotionally shattering. It reaches inside and shakes your psyche with its mournful chord progressions, funereal pace and lyrics centred around death, loss, addiction and the rest of the realities each of us face on a daily basis, living as we do in a world plagued by war, disease and all manner of other Biblical shit. But equally, the best doom can offer solace in times of grief and tragedy. Peering in through the gloom, redemptive light can emerge in the form of an aching vocal melody, a particularly affecting lyric, a soaring guitar solo or a simple yet soul-stirring chord progression.

Little Rock, Arkansas four-piece Pallbearer understand how to convey that sort of heart-rending emotion through their music. Ranked highly on many end of year lists in 2012, Pallbearer's full-length debut Sorrow And Extinction made an immediate impact on metal critics and die-hard doom fans alike, but it also connected with people outside metal's high walls. Coming two years after their three-song demo captured the attention of those with their fingers closest to the pulse of the underground, Sorrow And Extinction was equal parts might and fragility, like a beating heart impaled upon an ancient sword. Pallbearer's debut came at a time when doom of the traditional melodic persuasion needed a torchbearer to carry forth the traditions of Black Sabbath, Saint Vitus, Warning et al, and the band's marble-hewn riffs, clear vocal melodies, and lyrics – which spoke of personal pain beneath the use of classic metal metaphors – were a majestic breath of air.

Their second studio album, Foundations Of Burden, follows two years spent on the road touring. Its statuesque riffs rain down as if dropped in retribution from the heavens. The ground is split by the thundering impact of the drums and bass, with guitarist Brett Campbell's vocals rising, phoenix-like, from the ensuing dust with more force than before. From the regal opening of 'Worlds Apart' to the lithe and breathless 'Ashes', and on to mournful magnitudes of closer 'Vanished', Pallbearer have crafted six songs boasting greater dynamics, subtleties, movement and musicality than anything on their debut.

With Foundations Of Burden released this month, the Quietus spoke to to the band's bassist Joseph Rowland, who discussed his background, the genesis of the band, the new album and the emotional depth of doom.

First off, Joseph, could you please tell us a bit about your musical upbringing?

Joseph Rowland: Well, growing up, I was in a very strictly religious family and wasn't allowed to listen to anything other than classical music for a good part of my childhood. As time went on, I ended up wanting to listen to other things, kind of secretly.  There was a college radio station that I was sometimes able to pick up on a good night, and I was really intrigued by stuff like Smashing Pumpkins and Alice In Chains, among other things. I eventually ended up searching out heavier things by the time I was a teen and was less confined on what I could listen to and got into stuff like Neurosis, Isis, His Hero Is Gone, Floor as well as some things more on the punk end of the spectrum like Fugazi or Hot Water Music. I've always enjoyed seeking out new music and still do, although it's usually more like discovering older things rather than newer bands for me the past few years. Likewise, I guess I've always been drawn towards heavy music as well; it just interested me a lot once I was aware of it.

A lot of metal musicians who came from strict religious backgrounds got into metal as a form of rebellion against what they had forced upon them at an early age. Do you think your strict religious upbringing drew you to heavier music?

JR: I'm not really sure that had anything to do with it, or wasn't a crucial part at least. I was really interested in it sonically. There was just something that intrigued me in the sounds I was taking in, more than the act of "rebellious" listening itself, or the image or whatever. It just piqued my curiosity and never really went away.

As you've grown older, have you gone back to the kind of classic music you had to listen to growing up?

JR: I do still enjoy classical music, and have never really stopped. I still feel that certain pieces are undeniably powerful and still speak to me and inform certain ways I think about composition and melody now. I definitely prefer nuance over bombast when it comes to classical music, and really enjoy early sacred music, especially choral works, pieces from the Renaissance and baroque periods, and piano works from many Romantic and early 20th century composers. 'Miserere mei, Deus' by Gregorio Allegri is one of the most personally affecting songs I've ever heard. I still remember hearing a recording of it for the first time as a child and being completed awed by it. That's never changed. 

Besides Pallbearer, Rwake are probably the best known metal band to come out of Little Rock, Arkansas. Was metal popular in your city when you were growing up?

JR: I didn't actually grow up in Little Rock, but I moved here to go to college and got immersed in the Little Rock metal scene shortly thereafter. It's a small but dedicated group of people that go out to shows and play in bands here. The scene has kind of dwindled a bit over the years but I still have a lot of love for it, and it has definitely had a profound effect on where I am as a musician and metal fan nowadays. I'm definitely thankful for it, because it's a place that has always been accepting of newcomers and lacking in egos.

How did you come to meet the other guys and go on to form Pallbearer?

JR: Brett [Campbell, guitars and lead vocals] and I met nearly ten years ago. We attended the same college and I happened to see him on campus one day wearing an Anathema shirt. It prompted me to talk to him later on, and we both wanted to jam together, so we did. From that point on, we've played music together in some form or another. As for Devin [Holt, bass] and Mark [Lierly, drums], they both played in various bands locally and we met Devin through some parties and found out that he was interested in playing the sort of music Brett and I had been working on for the early Pallbearer material, and he and Brett had started working on some black metal material concurrently with that, so it just made sense. We met Mark much later, although I had actually seen him play in his old band Soophie Nun Squad over ten years ago. We had a lot of mutual friends but had never really met.

Did you have any hopes and dreams for Pallbearer when you wrote your 2010 demo, or was it just a case of “let's record these songs we've been jamming and see what happens”?

JR: We really didn't have any aspirations for it other than just creating something and getting it out there. There was never an inclination that it was going to make the sort of waves that it did or of anything of the repercussions of that either.

How did the band come to work with Profound Lore for Sorrow And Extinction?

JR: Mike [Meacham] from Loss urged Chris [Bruni] at Profound Lore to get in touch with us. I believe Chris had already heard the demo at that point, but either way, that definitely helped solidify things.

Do you think the sterling reputation of the Canadian underground metal label lent Pallbearer an initial clout of credibility?

JR: I definitely feel like Profound Lore has gained a bit of a built-in audience due to Chris' unwavering attention to creative and boundary-pushing music, and that definitely gave us a higher profile earlier on.

Did the band have any initial expectations for Sorrow And Extinction before its release? I assume that, whatever they were, they were easily surpassed upon the album's release?

JR: Yeah, we really didn't expect much, other than the usual niche attention. Obviously when it came to the record being put out by Profound Lore, we expected that there would be some contingent of underground metal fans that would probably take interest but definitely not the crossover appeal that it ended up gaining, which was a little disarming, but awesome nonetheless.

So, it's fair to say the amount of critical acclaim came as a surprise to you guys?

JR: It was quite surprising, especially that it ended up in the upper reaches of a lot of year-end lists, considering it came out so early in 2012. It was good to know that it stuck with people for the whole year.

When it came the time to start writing for what would become Pallbearer's second album, Foundations Of Burden, did the band have any apprehensions following a record that has reaped so much praise since 2012?

JR: Only really making sure that we were pushing ourselves to make something that we honestly felt was a better album in the end.

At what point in the writing process did you feel that you had written a better record?

JR: Personally, it was hard to put it in that perspective until the album was really coming together in the studio. We had a good notion of how it would play out and flow, and felt really strongly about the individual songs, and just basically made a point not to second guess ourselves. We spent countless hours carefully editing songs in and out of rehearsals for what we felt was the right amount of repeats, best times and methods of transitioning between parts, the best points for vocals and such, and then just had to go with our collective gut feeling from there. 

After numerous listens, I feel Foundations of Burden fully explores the emotional spectrum, from positive to negative. It also finds the necessary equilibrium between massively heavy riffs and delicate melodies, and there are also plenty of subtle textures explored throughout. Plus, because of the way the songs are structured, coupled with the overall pacing of the album, there seems to be greater energy to the music than that of your debut.

JR: I would agree. I feel like this is a much more challenging record and much more dynamic than Sorrow And Extinction, which I think ended up having sort of a singular feel through its course. Not necessarily a bad thing, because it made for an album that flowed well in my opinion, but not something that we really wanted to repeat either. I feel like this time around we made something that feels like an album, can be taken as individual songs, and has much more variation throughout too.

Foundations Of Burden is also much stronger in terms of Brett's vocal delivery/melodies.

JR: I think it's something that has developed naturally, as Brett has had infinitely more experience to find where he's most comfortable and confident in his singing, due in large part to the amount of touring we've done.

What was the highlight of your touring schedule in the two years between albums?

JR: My personal favourite has still been the Enslaved tour. Some of my favourite memories occurred on that tour, that had a lasting effect on me; just personal, sentimental stuff that I won't really go into here. Roadburn last year was definitely another highlight. That was just an incredible experience that really transcends the average music event. Really, I feel like that was a bright point in my life that I won't ever forget.

How was working with "Engine Ear" Billy Anderson for Foundations Of Burden? The man is responsible for recording some of metal's greatest albums and he also has the reputation of being quite the character! Were there any funny stories from the studio that you could share?

JR: It was fantastic working with Billy! He's incredibly talented, knowledgeable and surprisingly willing to put up with people with an incredibly stupid collective sense of humour like us! We joked with him while we were there that he has a serious Coke habit, because he would go through around a 12 pack of cola or root beer every day while we were working, and one of us would usually have to go on an errand to pick up more soda at some point during each session. He was really fun to work with and helped us really push ourselves to get the best performances recorded at every turn.

Do you think the fun you guys had informed the energy of Foundations Of Burden? 

JR: Maybe in some ways. I think it at least really helped stave off some points of extreme stress and aggravation over the technical issues that occurred. So it surely had an effect one way or another.

Lyrically, Sorrow And Extinction seemed so focused on death, though the lyrics used classic metal metaphors to convey the personal pain. What was going on at the time that shaped the album's themes of death and loss?

JR: That record was definitely focused pretty heavily on impending mortality. I was going through watching the decline and eventually passing of someone very dear to me during the course of its writing and it affected a lot of my life at that time. Brett wrote nearly all of the lyrics on that one, but it was definitely a theme that was weighing heavily overall. Also, Brett was dealing with a long-term deep depression, for different reasons, during its writing process.

Are the lyrical themes are you exploring on Foundations Of Burden as grounded in impending mortality as your debut?

JR: This time, anything coming from me personally veers away from that death and it explores a little more personal and introspective territory. It's more about finding and knowing what is worth holding onto in life and what things should be let go of in the heart that might be holding me back. All of what I wrote personally stems from some turmoil in my personal life and relationships during 2013 especially.

Was writing about the personal turmoil in your life a cathartic experience? Did it give you some perspective on the issues you had been going through?

JR: Yes, it definitely was cathartic, both musically and lyrically. I still occasionally return and reflect on the lyrics that I wrote, and Brett's as well, just for a continued sense of where I'm at in my life's journey and how they might affect and apply to my current place. Getting that sense of perspective and noting its relation to my life now is something I value quite a bit.

With a now-defunct band like Warning (who share deep similarities with Pallbearer in terms of how easily both bands establish a deep connection with the listener) being directly responsible for emphasising the emotional depth of doom metal in the past, doom is now arguably classed – both musically and lyrically – as the most emotional of all of metal's subgenres. What do you think it is that makes doom so affecting?

JR: I think we're a pretty different band than Warning, although they definitely had a heavy emotional streak. I'd say we're coming from a very different place in terms of songwriting, and honestly, while our music is definitely based in doom, there are a lot more elements from other styles at play that I don't really hear in many other bands in the genre.

But, looking at the genre as a whole, I'd say because of its generally slower tempos, it gives room for a lot of the elements to breathe, if the musician wants them to. It's kind of like the concept of negative space; sometimes the things that aren't there can really help bring attention to the things that are. The slow-moving music can give much more life to elements that might be lost in other styles, not to mention the generally mournful or introspective nature that's often utilised in some of the best doom compositions. 

More specifically, what do you think makes Pallbearer's music so emotionally affecting and so easily connectable with the listener?

JR: We definitely place a lot of value in feeling and I believe that manifests most in our live performances. In addition to that, I feel the lyrics are defined loosely enough that I feel like they are pretty easily applicable to wherever the listener might be in their journey, past or present.

Speaking of live performances, you have been on tour with Deafheaven who have been saddled with the dreaded “hipster metal” tag by metalheads unhappy with outsiders penetrating their walls – not that it has done that band any harm. This tag however, has negative connotations and seems to just be pressed upon bands that become successful and appeal to more than the metal faithful. In fact, Pallbearer have also been called “hipster metal” for this very reason. What's your opinion on this – do you see it as being as derogatory as it seems?

JR: I really don't care what people listen to; if they enjoy it and it speaks to them – good! I think “hipster” is a pretty ill-defined term that gets thrown around by people who are more often than not drawing attention away from the fact that they are guilty of the same sort of flighty and judgemental behaviour that they are trying to call out. I'm not exactly sure what would make Deafheaven, or us, a hipster metal band... Because people that listen to all kinds of music like us? Because we don't wear some particular kind of clothes? Whatever it may be, it's pointless and kind of a non-issue as far as I'm concerned. 

Agreed. So. Why do you think, like Deafheaven, Pallbearer have appealed to a broader spectrum of music lovers not limited to metal?

JR: It's hard for me to really define what it is. I think that emotional level is a part of it. I also think both bands really enjoy melody a lot – in different ways sometimes – but I think that is something that sticks with people. I can enjoy a good, well-written pop song as much as the next person, and I think a little bit of that may bleed into the writing here and there as well.

Now that Pallbearer are a reputable and established band with one of the best albums of 2014 in the can, what are your aspirations for Foundations Of Burden and for the band going forward?

JR: We are looking forward to touring, playing places we've never been and getting to meet more awesome folks out there. That's always been one of the most rewarding things, getting to meet the people who have connected with what we're doing. Apart from that, just trying to roll with the opportunities we've been given, as we always have!

Finally, you mentioned meeting people who have connected with your music. Has there been any one story from a fan that has made you guys realise the extent of the connection Pallbearer are capable of?

JR: I met a fan in Baltimore who told me that Sorrow And Extinction was a critical part of him dealing with the suicide of one of his closest friends. That affected me quite a bit, and I honestly didn't know how to respond. It was very humbling to me, mainly because I don't know how I would deal with that on a personal level. I'm not sure how I would even begin to help someone cope with that sort of loss. Yet inexplicably, we created something that connects on a deeper level than I would feel capable of on my own, outside of music. I don't totally know what it is that has seemed to strike such a chord with people in regards to our music thus far, but knowing that it has, and in such a soul-stirring and positive way, really means so much to me.

Foundations Of Burden is out on August 25 via Profound Lore. Pallbearer will head to Europe for a tour next month, with their UK dates beginning at The Fleece in Bristol on September 4; head to their website for details