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Interview: Joseph D. Rowland (Pallbearer)

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Photo by Greg Cristman

What kind of world do you believe in? Do you see hidden, sinister machinations lurking behind even the most quotidian of events? Or do you assume that the universe is essentially a neutral bystander?

Pallbearer‘s meteoric rise from a humble three-song demo to one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2014 — not to mention all the bluster touting them as the saviors of doom — invites this line of questioning. Particularly if you’re disinclined to surrender to the band’s seductive darkness, it’s easy to see hype-conspiracies everywhere. NPR, Pitchfork, black helicopters at the UN: they must all be in on some concerted scheme to foist this band on you. This is an attractive sort of delusion, because it domesticates the wild uncertainty of a fundamentally random world by suggesting that not only are there forces of intentionality behind every social outcome, but also that only you are keen enough to see through these most sophisticated smokescreens.

But, of course, it is a delusion. Some bands break through while others languish in the wings. There’s no algorithm dictating these fortunes, no shrouded madman grinding gears at the center of the earth; there’s only chance and the narratives we build around it. Pallbearer is here, now. They also happen to be crafting superlative music. Hold on to it, because tomorrow? Tomorrow is the question.

I recently caught up with Pallbearer’s Joseph D. Rowland to talk about Godflesh, prog rock, and musical evolution.

— Dan Lawrence

The first thing I wanted to ask about is literally the first thing on the new album: the opening riff on the lead track “Worlds Apart.” It’s a huge, immediate riff; the album starts with a boom. Did you guys know when you came up with that riff that, “Man, this has to be the first thing on our album?”

You know, that was a relatively last-minute thing. We had actually intended that to be the second track on the album, but once we had the rough mixes we changed our mind, and felt that would be a lot more immediate. We thought we had the track order completely ready to go but we ended up going with our gut feeling on it and changing that around. I feel like the album is better for it. It’s definitely quite a bit different than Sorrow and Extinction which has a pretty lengthy easing-in to the heaviness.

At several other points throughout the album, there’s an early Peaceville vibe, especially on the track “Foundations.” It has kind of got an old Paradise Lost thing going on, which is a really interesting piece of the sound which wasn’t that recognizable on Sorrow and Extinction.

We’re definitely big fans of My Dying Bride, and Anathema especially. Oddly enough, out of the Peaceville three, Paradise Lost is not so much of an influence. I mean, I respect what they did, but probably out of that era of bands they’re not one of my favorites. Some of the primal element that I think the early Anathema stuff had almost reminds me of Godflesh. You might not hear much of a Godflesh influence with us but it’s definitely another big band from a conceptual standpoint.

Yeah, I haven’t really heard the industrial stuff creeping into Pallbearer yet.

I don’t know if Brett would agree with me, but I feel like his lead at the end of “Worlds Apart” owes a little bit to Justin Broadrick with its almost abstract noise solo kind of thing.

In general all of the instrumentation throughout this new album is a lot more upfront and immediate when you compare it to Sorrow and Extinction. There’s this really interesting distance between the album and the listener where the songs are almost coming through some sort of mist. Is that something that you guys knew you wanted right away or was it something that came out more naturally through working with Billy Anderson on this record?

Honestly, I think both. We made a conscious effort to move towards a cleaner guitar tone, even before we went into the studio. Our music is pretty orchestrated and a lot of the chords that we use are more complex than just typical power chords, so I think that’s part of it. And then obviously Billy’s production style helps bring that to the forefront.

Also, in regards to Sorrow and Extinction, looking back at the production and the atmosphere of that record, it feels kind of dreamlike; it reminds me of a record that’s being played a little bit too slow. Like, if you’re in a dream and you’re trying to run and you’re being held back by some invisible force. The new one has more movement and isn’t quite as murky and held back in the same way. I think the new one has a lot more forward motion, a real-time thing.

As far as underground metal goes, Sorrow and Extinction was a breakout hit. Given that self-doubt is a pretty typical part of any artistic process, did you guys have an even harder time getting to work on this new record?

Well, you know we work really slowly. So it was difficult to think about, after Sorrow and Extinction was out, reaching that point where we know that we are working on the new record. We’re not just working on new songs, but we’re putting ourselves into a new album. But at the same time, from the get-go we told ourselves we’re not going to let any anticipation or expectations have any effect on what we do. We’re still going to write the record that we felt like we wanted to write. We approached it the same way as Sorrow and Extinction, just in a really basic way, which was that we were writing the record that we absolutely knew that we needed to manifest.

It was heartening to see the attention that you guys received on the debut. Not just because the album was good, but because doom is never the sexy thing. The sort of clean, traditionally-minded doom that you guys are doing, in the footsteps of St. Vitus, Trouble, Candlemass, that sort of thing, has always been sort of a niche market. Do you see that same kind of tension, or a reluctance on the part of listeners to engage with that lineage of the music?

I’m not really sure. I definitely agree that doom with a traditional mindset is very niche, and that was one thing that kind of took me by such surprise, that so many people latched onto it, because it’s not something that I ever would have really pictured. I think that to a degree it’s hard to find people who don’t like Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd and that kind of thing. And not that that’s the reason so many people have gravitated towards Pallbearer, because I honestly haven’t really been able to put my finger on what it is.

I think we’re drawing from a way wider scope of music than a lot of those bands do, but I think a lot of those bands, they’re trying to maybe be the heavy parts of Black Sabbath without the rest of the songwriting. They’re only trying to do the “Cornucopia” riff, not really trying to do the whole scope of Sabbath. Whereas us, we love Sabbath and Judas Priest and stuff like that, but we’re also really into like Asia and Boston, also love you know progressive rock, we’re really big fans of Camel and Ennio Morricone, and stuff like that. At this point, I don’t want to say we’re not a doom band, because that’s definitely a huge part of what we’re doing, but we’re at least starting to get comfortable with what we feel is like our signature. What we’re doing are Pallbearer songs, it’s not just a genre.

So what I’m hearing you say is that Pallbearer is a band for people that like Black Sabbath but also like Black Sabbath’s “Changes.”

Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

(laughs) Alright. You and Brett are the primary songwriters, and I was wondering: In Pallbearer’s case it certainly seems like you’re doing music that’s very personal and very emotional. Do you think that it’s harder to take constructive criticism? Like, if you’re in a party thrash band and somebody doesn’t like your riff about pizza-eating zombies, it’s no big deal, but with music like this, do you feel like you have more invested in what you already bring to the table?

I hadn’t really thought about it before but you’re right, it is a little hard when we put that much of ourselves into what we’re doing. I usually try my best to trust the instincts of everybody else, because more often than not, somebody else will have an idea that will improve on something that I might have come up with or whatever.

So you haven’t had the practices where it just devolves into someone yelling “That was my riff, you assholes!”

(laughs) Not yet.

Well, that’s good. I think that’s probably good for your future.

Yeah.

I saw you guys play in Chicago a few years back with Royal Thunder, and the striking thing about the live show was, the albums are heavy in an almost somber way, but live, you guys are really getting into it. Do you guys think about that duality between the heavy, weighty tone of the album, and then the desire when you do a show to just jam like hell?

One thing that has always been very present in what we try to accomplish live is something that I feel is a signature thing in the Arkansas scene, which is to have the performances be good, but loose. Almost like, not in a bad way, feeling like it could veer off the tracks at any moment, but holding it together. One of my absolute favorite bands of all time is Deadbird. They were originally based out of Fayetteville, and used to play a lot, and they had some of the rawest, most amazing performances, like everybody in the band would be drunk and potentially on various other substances too. And you could just tell, there were times when it really could’ve been a trainwreck, but they held it together.

Obviously, we don’t want to be a sloppy band, but at the same time, we don’t really want to play the music exactly like it is on the album, because then you could just listen to the album. If you wanted to hear an absolutely note-perfect performance with no variation whatsoever, us just standing onstage not moving around, we could just put it on over the PA and stand there. So yeah, I really feel like people are going out of their way, spending their money to come see us, so we better fucking make it worth it. That level, giving a more raw and more emotional performance is different from what’s on the record even if it still carries a lot of those emotions over.

It seems like there has got to be at least a slightly different sort of catharsis in the live setting.

Absolutely.

There’s no distance between you and the people you’re trying to communicate with.

And more often than not, almost every show I really do just get lost in the performance; the audience, I don’t even see them. However many people there might be, or what’s going on, that kind of stays in the background for me. I mean, I care about the audience, but I think part of that care is, I’m putting that into the performance and not so much focusing on what else might be going on.

So, you’re the bass player. It’s an under-appreciated thing. But, especially on this new album, it feels like your playing takes on even more of an active role. I’m curious if you have particular bass idols? I mean you’ve got Geezer and Lemmy and Steve Harris and Geddy Lee and whomever else, so who gives you strength as a bass player when you feel overlooked?

Well, you already named two of ‘em: Geezer and Geddy. But my absolute favorite bass player of all time is Al Cisneros, and honestly I’ve really tried to channel a little bit of what I draw from him on the new record. Peter Steele, from the fact that I am now playing bass and singing some, and MLNY Parsons from Royal Thunder. Oh, and John Wetton, John Wetton from King Crimson and Asia is another person that I really look up to as a player. I had an idea that I wanted my tone on the album to be a little bit Al Cisneros, and then kinda like King Crimson’s “Red” mixed with Burning Witch.

That’s a nice collision of different approaches. This is particularly noticeable on that solo that turns into a jam section at the end of “Watcher in the Dark,” and you’re kind of leading the chord progression with some piano.

The piano was sort of a last minute thing, because the bass was really, you know, getting pretty far out I thought we needed something to ground the song a little more while the bass was exploring deep space a little bit. That was the reason for that, and I am really glad that we ended up doing that. I think it did take the song in a different direction than it would’ve gone otherwise.

For the cover art, you’ve again gone with Sean Williams who did the art for Sorrow and Extinction, and again it’s just a really beautiful piece. With both covers, it’s striking because they are very atypical images, at least in terms of the style of music that you’re doing. Did you give him much direction with the art, or did you leave it up to him to interpret certain themes or images that you presented?

This time around, as a band we got together and discussed the ideas that we had for the imagery for the cover and what was supposed to be on the inner gatefold, and Brett drew a rough sketch of the idea that we had for the cover and then Sean ended up taking that and re-interpreting it a bit, obviously in his style, and making a few small changes here and there. And interestingly enough, we only gave him like verbal directions for what the inner gatefold would be, and he did it and decided he didn’t like the end result so he just did something entirely on his own for the inner art, which I honestly think is absolutely fantastic and way better than what our original idea was.

What do you think are your shortcomings as a band? Or, let me put it a bit differently: Are there certain things that you wish you could incorporate into Pallbearer’s music, but just haven’t figured out how to do so?

Yeah, I guess in a way, but I think those elements that we’re still sort of unsure about incorporating may end up finding their own outlets outside of the band. Like at this point I feel like we have come to define who we are pretty well. There are still things that I’ve been working on that have taken me a long time for me to figure out if it’s absolutely the right feel for Pallbearer. I always want Pallbearer’s sound to be evolving, but still sound like Pallbearer. I don’t want to make too big of a jump, you know? We’re not going to go from an amoeba to a Cro-Magnon man, in, like two albums. So that’s kind of a struggle, and it has been weighing on me heavily lately, because I have been working on what may end up being part of the third album already. We’re always looking to improve, so there’s never been a point where we’re like, “Fuck it, this is as good as it’s ever going to be.” We’re always looking to learn and be better at what we do.

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