In 2012 it was pretty rare for a metal band — especially a doom metal band — to be covered by NPR, but that’s what happened with the debut from the Arkansas band Pallbearer. More surprising was the fact that the extreme metal community, which typically resists an album once it’s blessed with any kind of mainstream attention, embraced the band with just as much fervor. The album hearkened back to the classic sound of European doom, drawing maximum power from the dichotomy between strong, clear vocals and booming, crawling guitars.
Not willing to simply coast on critical acclaim, the band’s latest release, Foundations of Burden showcases their determination to grow and flourish on their own terms. While it’s still a balance between bone-crushing riffs and Brett Campbell’s delicate, almost angelic vocals, Foundations lets in even more light. Its vibrant melodies, expansive atmospherics and soaring group harmonies (courtesy of bassist Joseph D. Rowland, guitarist Devin Holt and new drummer Mark Lierly), give the album a pronounced shine. Where Sorrow and Extinction offered a striking portrait of loss and suffering, Foundations of Burden is a glimpse into the other, more hopeful side of the human condition.
On the eve of heading back out on the road to resume their non-stop touring schedule, Wondering Sound talked with Joseph D. Rowland about touring and magical realism.
What struck me about this album is how much fuller and more lush it is than Sorrow and Extinction. The melodies are more pronounced. How did this transition come about?
It was just a natural progression for us. Basically, once Sorrow and Extinction was done and we were working on new stuff, we knew we wanted to challenge ourselves to make a better record. For us, part of that meant more dynamics. More composition, more challenging stuff to play. I feel, in a lot of different ways, that the instrumentation and the arrangement is a lot more advanced. Brett [Campbell] spent a lot of time working on vocal melodies. There are a lot of points where he harmonized with himself on the record, and it has a really cool and lush sound. There aren’t a lot of bands around nowadays that are doing that level of vocal arrangement. It hearkens back to ’70s bands, where you had a lot of vocal harmonies. Brett did a really good job in composing those vocal lines.
I loved the bass part on “Watcher in the Dark.” [Producer] Billy Anderson is known for really knowing how to enhance every nuance of every instrument and make them stand alone instead getting muddled in the mix.
I can tell you exactly whose sound I was going for on that specific part: My favorite bass player is Al Cisneros from Sleep.
Oh my god, I love him.
He is absolutely my favorite, especially in relation to anyone who is playing these days. I really look up to him. He is probably my biggest influence, and I felt that the bass didn’t really shine on Sorrow and Extinction — I kept it simple on that album. Within that section on “Watcher in the Dark” I wanted to have a little adaptation of Cisneros playing style into mine. That, coupled with…I don’t know if they have any direct influence on what I play with Pallbearer, but I also like [Black Sabbath's] Geezer Butler, [Rush's] Geddy Lee and [Deep Purple's/Black Sabbath's] Glenn Hughes — he’s a really great bass player, and also [Deep Purple's] Roger Glover. I think that in terms of me really like listening to and studying what they do, they are my favorite players.
Before you went into the studio, did you already have the songs fleshed out? Did you find that, working with Anderson, there were some changes that you didn’t anticipate during your own writing process?
There definitely weren’t any radical changes. We had assembled five out of the six songs completely before we went into the studio, and then rehearsed them quite a bit. There were definitely some things that Billy had us arrange a little differently, but never so much that a part changed drastically. It would be playing two different layers of stuff instead of one. Basically separating some stuff out so there was a little more clarity. He didn’t even suggest that we change a riff — nothing like that. Billy is not one, in my experience, to really tamper with what you have. He wants to help you enhance it.
There is more of a vocal dynamic on Foundations of Burden, with the added harmonies. What led to the decision for you, Devin and Mark to sing on the album?
This time around we all felt like it would add to the dynamic — we all have something to bring to the table to make the experience a bit more diverse both on the record and during the live show. Being able to have people contributing different things beyond just the instruments is important. When I see bands do that live, it’s more…maybe theatrical isn’t the word, but you, as the audience, get more out of the experience. From the audience’s perspective, it takes the experience up a notch. At least for me! We’ve already done what we did on Sorrow and Extinction with just Brett singing, but we wanted to challenge ourselves and pick it up another notch and have four singers to add to the dynamic a little bit. Whoever was strongest on a certain part they would just take over that part. It’s still Brett doing 95 percent of the vocals, but with us there, it does make a little bit of difference.
You guys toured like crazy in 2013. This summer and fall you are going out with YOB and Tombs, and will also be heading to Europe. What have you learned in your travels that you learned last year that you will apply this year?
It’s pretty important that you get enough rest, and there were definitely some nights last year where we ended up partying way too late and the next day we would feel just terrible. It’s important to pace yourself. One thing that doesn’t really apply to me but affects me — for the longest time, I was the only one in the band who didn’t smoke cigarettes. So being in the van for hours at a time, everybody would be smoking and it would be difficult for me. Actually, Devin quit smoking because it was becoming really taxing on his health, he was feeling like he was getting sick a lot and Brett — if he felt he was smoking too much on one night it would end up hurting his vocals two to three nights after that. He’s stopped smoking cigarettes and might smoke a bit of a cigar a little bit, just to get the sensation. That’s one thing we’ve learned — that there are habits one the road that by just changing a bit makes you feel a lot better.
One thing for me, and actually for all of us, is that I used to be an unhealthy eater, and on the road the most accessible thing is usually fast food. So when we were on tour with St. Vitus, I decided I was done eating like that. I stopped eating meat and made a point to start being more health conscious, and just stopped eating junk food on the road. Devin and Mark and Brett, while none of them have gone strict vegetarian, they have started moving toward only eating meat maybe once every couple of days, and making a point to eat healthier, which makes all of us feel better. On this last tour with Deafheaven, all of us were primarily eating vegetarian food and scrutinized our food habits so we’d have a bit more longevity when we’re on tour. It’s not very much fun to feel sick when you’re on the road. We want to be at 100 percent. So hopefully, everyone wins.
In previous interviews you have mentioned how important dreams are to you. Have you been doing any reading in relation to that?
Not really, but I can see a parallel there. For this album, I ended up writing half of the lyrics and Brett [Campbell] did the other half. Whatever I end up writing for Pallbearer, I like to put it in this dreamlike frame. It’s not so much metaphor but, like, [it exists in] this otherworldly place that isn’t necessarily a dream and not so much a fantasy, but is something people can relate to. Books that deal with magical realism resonate with me, because that’s the direction I’ve, perhaps subconsciously, gravitated toward when I’ve been writing stuff for Pallbearer.
There was a book that I read in which there was this imagery that really influenced me, and I ended up having that in mind when I was writing the lyrics for “Worlds Apart” — Haruki Murakami’s book, Hard Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World. There was some imagery in that which I found really striking. When I was working on those lyrics, there were some parts from that book that really popped in my head. It felt like my imagination was drawing from that book.
What books were you reading on the road?
I never feel like I get to read as many books as I want to. I’m usually the one driving, but hopefully that will change soon! When I was in Portland recording [Foundations of Burden] I had a few books I was reading. There was a book, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which is a collection of short stories. Since I’ve been off the road I’ve been able to pick this book up again, Confederacy of Dunces. I had started reading it but then I lost the book in the van. I ended up finding the copy eventually and started reading it all over again.
You are more of a fiction guy?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. When I was in college — I have a writing degree — I was really interested in nonfiction. That was most of what I focused on when I was in school. But for whatever reason, for the past couple of years when I’ve had the opportunity to read, I’ve been reading magical realism. There are a lot of South American authors that use that. For whatever reason, that particular style is something that I’ve been interested in for a while.
“Ashes” seems like an extremely sensitive and delicate song that stands out on Foundations of Burden. What were you thinking about when writing that?
It’s definitely a personal relationship-type song in nature. I don’t want to get too much into it for privacy’s sake, but it’s reflecting on the hardships that I and another person were going through and looking forward to the future, whatever that may hold, good or bad. [It's about] trying to let go of the things that were weighing us down from the past and holding us in a place that might have not been the best for us. Any of the songs that I wrote for Foundations of Burden reflect, to some degree, personal experiences that I was having leading up the recording of this album — all of last year until probably like, January of this one. Anything that I had a hand in on this album pulls from personal experiences.
But when you write from a personal perspective, the listener can relate to what you’ve written and it makes them feel better about whatever situation they’re facing. Have you ever talked to Brett, songwriter to songwriter, about what is “too much” — if you are revealing too much about yourself for personal consumption?
It’s something that I don’t talk to Brett about, but it is something that I struggle with within myself, wondering — and this is just about my writing, I can’t speak on behalf of Brett — but just wondering how much of myself I am putting into it, and if I’m letting myself become too vulnerable. At the same time, I feel like everything is coming from this oblique angle. I never feel that there’s so much in a song that someone could absolutely pinpoint what the subject is about. And I choose, for a number of reasons, not to reveal exactly what each song is about. To go back to what I was saying before, that is something that makes it more relatable and in a way, I might put myself out there a lot, but at the same time, nobody will ever know what the concrete definition of what that is.
A song belongs to everybody. They can apply whatever meaning they want to those lyrics. And hopefully it will end of being a positive experience in some form or another. A lot of the lyrics were there to help me have a cathartic experience, to let me get some things out, and hopefully it will help others too.
Joseph D. Rowland’s suggested reading list:
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
My girlfriend passed me this book, which contains three short stories, all bleak in their own ways. Harrison does a great job of not showing his hand about the direction each story is headed, and I found the drama at the heart of each of the individual sections to be very gripping.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Another collection of short stories, this one dealing primarily with a number of not-quite-down-on-their-luck individuals, teetering on the edge of moral bankruptcy — or at least having a low moral credit score. Tower has an interesting way with words, and that appealed to me from the first few pages.
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Sort of an interesting theme-and-variation work, but in a literary context. A lot of people may be familiar with this one, especially considering Marquez’s recent passing, but his fantastic tale of a family’s cyclical shortcomings and small triumphs had me laughing out loud quite a few times, and also pondering over some of his more poignant statements.
Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I’m actually not quite finished with this one, but Toole’s posthumous masterwork is so visually striking, it’s very easy to picture every bit of this farcical story, both characters and setting. I’ve been enjoying this book quite a bit, and am looking forward to seeing how it ends.
Tender as Hellfire by Joe Meno
A strange but compelling novella about two oddly named youngsters causing trouble in their rural setting. Even though this is based in Minnesota, it reminded me of some areas near where I spent my late childhood in the south. Also, it’s interesting to note that Meno wrote this when he was only 25 years old. His use of unusual descriptors was striking, and often led me to spend extra time thinking about what was unfolding in the story.
Anything by Haruki Murakami
I’ve read several of Murakami’s works recently, my favorite being Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami is one of the few newer authors whose books I often find myself making notations in; even translated from Japanese, his prose is beautiful, and I found in myself a true sense of wonder at many points while reading. I love the fantastical but grounded worlds he creates, and really feel influenced by this and by the notions and emotions he stirs up.
Anything by Jorge Luis Borges
I’ve been interested in his works since I became familiar with him in college. I recently found a used collection of his writings, and am currently working through it. Borges is another author who I admire for his way with words. I suppose that can sometimes be as much of a draw for me as the content itself.