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Interview: Joseph Rowland (Pallbearer)

Photo by Diana Lee Zadlo
Photo by Diana Lee Zadlo

Pallbearer have, over their nine year existence, established themselves as modern doom metal titans perched on the edge of an unprepared mainstream. But most fans are unaware of their roots in a far more experimental pre-doom-stardom outfit, SPORTS. With that project, Pallbearer bassist Joseph Rowland and guitarist/vocalist Brett Campbell leaned heavily into the void of sonic experimentation, forming massive bulwarks of sound with synthesizers, guitars, stacks of amplification, and just about any sound generating device they could get their hands on. Rowland’s love for vintage and modular synthesizers played a crucial role in the sound of SPORTS and continues to shape both the live and recorded elements of Pallbearer. On the eve of their US and European tours supporting the new long-player Heartless, I got a chance to pick Mr. Rowland’s brain about gear obsession and if it’s really possible to have too many VCA’s.

-Brandon Elkins

I’ve read quite a bit about the previous project you had with Brett Campbell [guitarist and vocalist in Pallbearer] called SPORTS, which was a synthesizer-based project. In one interview you talked about how discouraging it was to lug all your gear around to play for like six people. Was that sense of discouragement a part of the impetus to start doing something a little more “traditional” in terms of setup?

Yeah, that whole experience definitely was very instrumental in shaping my philosophy towards gear and instruments. In SPORTS, we were totally gluttons for punishment and would lug around a truly absurd amount of gear, and the more we got, the more we would add to the live set-up. It was like adding new instruments to a cacophonous orchestra. Eventually we were running these racks of old polysynths, noise generators, feedback loops, toy pianos with contact mics run through boatloads of modulation effects […] pretty much anything we could get our hands on to make strange and otherworldly sounds. This was in addition to two guitars, bass and vocals. We wanted to make music that was so loud and all-enveloping that it would completely destroy any sense of reality while we were playing. Of course, the result was probably way, way too “out there” and sonically caustic for most part, so we didn’t get much out of it aside from an odd satisfaction of being an anomaly, and the occasional stories we would hear. At one point we were asked to play this DIY hippie musical festival out in the woods in central Arkansas, and we ended up hearing afterwards that the cops had gotten numerous calls from local residents, who feared there had been some sort of industrial accident! Eventually it got to the point where some piece of gear was breaking pretty much every time we played, and it was just becoming impossible to even transport what we were using without taking three different vehicles, so we ended up making a shift over to something more structured. Music that was less about the gear itself and more based on our actual playing, which was the beginning of Pallbearer.

I checked some of the videos on your Facebook page like the synth stalker that I am but can’t quite decipher what all is going on outside the MS-20. Can you give me a rundown of your current rig or your Modular Grid page?

Here’s my modulargrid. In addition to this I generally use a Korg MS-20 Mini, two Korg SQ-1 sequencers and a Roland JU-06. I’ve sold and traded a lot of my synths outside of the Eurorack gear because space is really limited in my apartment in Brooklyn. I still have some of my older, larger analog synths in storage down at the Pallbearer rehearsal space in Arkansas but sadly I have no room for them at home. I had always been really interested in modular synthesizers, but living in New York really “forced my hand” in getting in-depth with them. It’s been a really enjoyable shift from what I considered to be a traditional workflow with standalone synths into delving into the wild world of modular. I’ve found it to be a very meditative medium.

Put together my half of the @pallbearerdoom synth rig for the shows coming up over the next few months 👽

A post shared by JDR (@hosianna_mantra) on

What is it that attracts you to working in the modular environment? I know a lot of people dig the kind of “happy accident” nature of it. Is there a particular element of your modular workflow that really brings out the creative flow in you?

I want to make music that transcends time and in which it’s easy to get lost; something that feels archaic but futuristic. The modular synth itself has an effect on me. My process of thinking out a patch or a song is slow and deliberate. I spend time listening to the sounds themselves, and ruminate on where they seem to want to go on their own. Interestingly enough, I heard Suzanne Ciani give a lecture regarding the Buchla 200 modular synthesizer and she said that she feels as if it’s communicating with her via its interface of lights, as if it were a sentient artificial being. I was sort of astonished because it was so similar to how I felt. Sometimes it feels as if my synthesizer is some sort of computer or robot from a different dimension and it’s communicating with me via nearly all my senses. It provides visual feedback, a tactile experience through manipulating the controls, and hearing and feeling the sounds/music it produces: its own sort of language. Am I playing it, or is it merely using me for its own devices? In all seriousness though, the workflow is something that really appeals to me. I enjoy the amount of time it takes to really develop something and in a way, the goals I have with solo work and the process are one in the same.

I’ve heard, maybe incorrectly, that you’ve done some synthesizer and circuit circuit design. Is that true?

I wish! Sadly that’s not correct. I would definitely like to learn, I’ve even looked into a course locally that teaches circuit design and synth repair but it was a bit out of my budget at the time. I hope that during the next period of downtime we have I’ll be able to delve into this because the DIY aspect is definitely something that intrigues me.

I’ve noticed that with most folks interested in synths in general, it’s an “all or nothing” kind of deal. Like, everyone that gets into it seems to become really obsessive. Do you find that to be the case with yourself?

You’re totally right, it becomes an obsession. I think I bought my first analog synth ten years ago at age 22. Before that I had messed around with a few Microkorgs and VSTs but didn’t really have a whole lot of understanding about how to actually create my own sounds. With that in mind, there is something fascinating about synthesizers that I believe extends far, far beyond what traditional instruments are capable of– a few exceptions not withstanding. The ability to sculpt the sonic elements from the ground up, from the most basic shape — the sine wave — into something otherworldly or beyond reality is something very appealing and addictive to me. When you strum a guitar or press the keys of a piano, you already have this ingrained expectation of the sound that will be produced. Synthesizers allow you eschew that sort of notion and actualize a sound from your imagination. There is visceral element to it as well, because the sounds you can create occupy a much wider frequency spectrum than most traditional instruments. It allows you to feel the music in a very different sonic space than most things. It feels as though you can create your own artificial world if you want.

For @dianaleezadlo (and also @malierly 🎩) #25daysofqubit #eurorack #modular #synth

A post shared by JDR (@hosianna_mantra) on

Going along with that whole gearhead theme, what’s your holy grail of synth or modular gear? I’m currently lusting after the Intellijel Shapeshifter because I’m a total nut for wavetable synths.

Well, my holy grail would probably be to own a Buchla 200 system. I certainly won’t be able to afford that any time in the foreseeable future. In my own system I have now, I’m particularly fixated on sequencers and I would love to own as many as I can. There is something I really love about the repetitive nature of sequencer music that becomes very meditative to me, and it speaks to me on a level that I feel is really applicable to the sorts of composition style that I gravitate towards. Two composers that have had a huge impact on my mindset and love for this would be Gregorio Allegri and Erik Satie. They were from completely different eras and use repetition for entirely different reasons; Allegeri because of primarily being a composer of sacred music. He was essentially creating these mantras of worship. Satie, because he is creating tone poems — utilizing the similar principles of meter and expressiveness that one would expect from a written poem, but with the language of notes rather than words. I am not religious but I hope to instill these same sorts of principles, perhaps a sort of sacred music for the cosmos.

Where do you see yourself taking your modular work? Can we look forward to your Encyclopedia Metallum page being updated for a side project any time soon?

I’m not sure it’ll show up on Metal Archives due to the nature of the music, but I have a solo project called Hosianna Mantra that primarily centers around the modular synth. I’m nearly done with my first release under that name, really the only thing getting in my way right now is being on tour with Pallbearer. I’m planning on wrapping up some mixing touches and maybe a few additional layers once I have some downtime. I actually recorded a whole different album in fall of 2015 but I ended up deciding it wasn’t quite what I wanted as my first release. I may revisit it sometime. Hopefully my newer recording will find its way out into the world at some point this year.

How has your synth work (modular, analog or otherwise) figured into the sound of Pallbearer? Has it found it’s way onto any studio work? I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Mouth of the Architect but I’ve always loved how they’ve used Jason Watkin’s keys front and center in their live shows and pretty heavily on albums.

The synth element has actually always been a part of Pallbearer. Every release we’ve done, minus the demo, has had at least one track with synth utilized in some way. So far it’s mostly been supplemental to our more usual sound, but then there’s stuff like “Ashes” which flips the paradigm and makes the guitar supplemental to the Fender Rhodes and analog monosynth. I am curious to see where we head in the future as the synth element grows more and more prevalent. I have no idea where it might head and how far out it might get. And yes I totally agree with you about Mouth of the Architect, I’ve always thought that was really cool. I haven’t seen them in years but it’s still a very distinct memory for me.

Last question is a trick one: Can a modular setup ever have too many VCA’s?

Literally never.

Brandon Elkins is the mind behind drone suicide unit Auditor and the weirdo electronics of Iron Forest. He has released albums on Crucial Blast, APEX, and Paradigms Recordings along with playing live keys for abstract death metal titans Aevangelist.

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