Pallbearer Interview with Joseph D. Rowland: When Even the Sun Becomes an Offering of Grief

Amid a slew of hyperbolic reviews and proclamations of their ascendency, Little Rock, Arkansas, traditional doomers Pallbearer seem content to let the music do the talking. Fitting, since that’s what got them there in the first place. The follow-up full-length after a well-received 2010 demo, Sorrow and Extinction, makes its way to the masses caked in semi-psych tonality and riffy churn, copping olde melodies from out of the doomly ether and crafting a five-track journey through distinct emotionality.

They are one of several strong acts in an apparently formative trad doom revival, and if Sorrow and Extinction proves anything — other than the quality of the four-piece’s songwriting — it proves that there’s still fire in the tenets of the genre, still new ground to explore and lines to push, and that with a set focus on mood and atmosphere, it’s possible to engage with ambience even as you crush with distortion. The album (which was reviewed on Valentine’s Day) seems to live up to its titular descriptors in equal measure.

As a result, Pallbearer have earned critical welcome (to put it lightly) and much demand for live performances. Veterans already of Wisconsin’s Days of the Doomed, they’ll no doubt come out of this year’s SXSW a bigger band than they went in — barring disaster, they’ll share bills with the likes of Rwake, The Atlas Moth, Deafheaven, Alcest, Nachtmystium and others (info here and here) — and they’ll also be participating in a Scion-sponsored showcase with YOB, The Atlas Moth and Loss in Los Angeles at the end of this month.

Bassist Joseph D. Rowland credits Loss with getting the band signed to Profound Lore, and the allegiance between the two acts is pervasive. Loss played Pallbearer‘s album release show for Sorrow and Extinction in Little Rock in February and they will head north together for a show in Brooklyn in May. In the interview that follows, Rowland discusses how that came about, as well as bringing in recording engineer Chuck Schaaf (also of Deadbird) to replace drummer Zach Stine, the processes at work behind the more experimental album closer, “Given to the Grave,” their prog influences, and much more.

Pallbearer is Rowland on bass, Schaaf on drums, guitarist/vocalist Brett Campbell, and guitarist Devin Holt.

Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.

Were you surprised at the response you got to the 2010 demo?

Yeah man. Honestly, the demo wasn’t something we did expecting people to really get into it. It was kind of a document for that point in time in the band. We had a few songs that we’d been working on and we hadn’t recorded yet, so we were just like, “Let’s try to knock out a few and see how it goes,” and then we ended up recording those three. We just put them online for free for anyone who wanted to download it, and here we are now.

How did you wind up working with Profound Lore?

Kind of a long story. I don’t want to get into too much detail just for some of the parties involved, but we were initially approached by another label, that we had verbally agreed to work with, but as time went on, we decided we weren’t really sure that it was the right fit for us, and in the meantime, Mike Meacham from the band Loss, I guess he had shared the Pallbearer with Chris Bruni from Profound Lore, and he was really excited about it, so we had kind of already had a little bit of discourse back and forth with him, and when we were free of any obligations to the other label, we spent a little bit of time trying to decide what we wanted to do. We actually had quite a few offers from different labels, and we decided that just from the relationship that we had built with Chris at Profound Lore, that we thought that was the right choice. So far we’ve been really happy with that.

What happened with Zach Stine leaving?

Zach was a really good friend of ours. He really was just a friend of ours that we had ended up asking to play drums for us, and he agreed, but he never really committed to the fact that he was gonna be in the band forever. He ended up getting involved with a program called City Year after he graduated from college, and that was gonna be the priority for his time. He informed us right before we went into the studio to start recording Sorrow and Extinction that he was gonna be leaving Pallbearer, but he was gracious enough to go ahead and record his tracks that we had been spending so much time rehearsing before we went into the studio. That was the very first thing we did when we started recording, was getting his drum tracks down, and then we spent the next year working from there. It was just kind of a mutual agreement, I guess. He had other priorities that he needed to work on, and support him with that. He’s definitely still a great friend of ours. We actually even, as a one-time thing, we did a little reunion with him, with both he and Chuck playing drums on “Given to the Grave” live last year. Just locally. Just for something cool to do.

You recorded over the course of a year, then?

Part of the deal was that Chuck, who at that time was the engineer, now a member of the band, he lived several hours away from us, and his studio was several hours away, so we kind of had to work around all of our schedules to be able to go up there and record. More often than not, we’d end up getting really fucked up (laughs) while in the studio, and sometimes we’d end up deciding that some choices that we made while recording should probably be changed. We just worked slow, too. It took us a long time to get to the point where we knew that what we had was what we wanted to be the final product. It was a slow whittling away of things here and there, and adding a few things here and there until we just knew that what we had was right.

Did that play into how the songs were structured at all? They were already written.

The songs were already written. It was mostly just some aesthetic choices and the way that a few of the things played out. The structures were all still the same. Listening to the record, I’m sure you can hear there’s a lot of layering in places, and sometimes we would end up pulling back a little bit, not having it be such a bombardment of tone. Let it be sparse. Some of the acoustic sections. At some points we had clean guitars there, and I don’t know. Who could really remember for sure? There was quite a bit of alcohol consumed over that time. But yeah, there was a lot of pondering over making it feel exactly the way that we wanted it to feel. That’s really one of our cornerstones of the band, is the feeling. More than anything else. If something doesn’t feel right, then it gets thrown out.

What was the feeling you wanted to bring out of the album? Was it the title, Sorrow and Extinction?

I don’t really want to get too much into that, just because I think there’s a lot of interpretation that can be made from the listener – that you can hear some of the themes in there, and if you’re able to have the lyrics in front of you, I think there can be a little bit of that interpretation. Just in a vague sense, it has to do with the struggle of the journey towards the end. There’s sorrow in that, but at the same time, there’s a catharsis in letting that grief go. There’s a lot of intricacy to it. Sometimes I think I might even notice something a little different that I might not have before, like in the feelings that I have about it. But it definitely has to do with dealing with loss and also dealing with the inevitability of your own life winding down in its journey.

How have your feelings on the record changed since it was recorded? You mentioned noticing other things and feeling differently about it.

I think as time has gone on, I’ve started to notice a little bit more some of the triumph in the record. There’s definitely some peaks and some valleys in the recording. There’s points where I think the music almost lets a little bit of light through. It’s not 100 percent darkness all the time. Just as in life, you know, even if it is a lot of drudgery, there’ll still be high points, and I think there’s a few places in the record where you can feel you’re on the verge of having a little bit of triumph, even if it ends up crashing down in the end. But, say for the instance, toward the end of “Given to the Grave.” That’s where, to me, a lot of the catharsis comes. It’s not like a wholly pitch black ending to the album. It lets a little light shine through as it begins to fade out.

I wanted to ask you about “Given to the Grave” specifically. Did you guys know that you wanted to end the record with that?

Yes, absolutely. Everything on the record, when it comes to the tracklisting, was planned out ahead of time.

How did the process work? What were you going for in the way the songs were arranged?

There’s a lot of aspects. We thought it flowed best that way. We looked to a lot of our favorite albums – I don’t really feel that the album sounds like a Black Sabbath album, but Sabbath had a lot of different-sounding songs on all their albums, so we wanted to have every song have a kind of different feel. “The Void” and “The Legend,” even, are pretty drastically different. And like I said, the journey. There’s a bit of a thread of the journey. It’s kind of denoted in the artwork as well. Some of the songs don’t deal as specifically with that, and they fall a little bit more in the allegorical style that has been popularized by a lot of different bands over the years. But there’s definitely, in the flow of the order of the album, I think you can discern that there are steps in a journey towards what is eventually the end, when it gets to that denouement at the end of “Given to the Grave.”

Was that song written with it being the closer?

It wasn’t necessarily written that way. When we wrote it, we just knew that’s what it was intended to be. It was just meant to be that. If that makes sense. That’s definitely our most improvisational song, and we knew from the get-go, once we had stumbled upon the way everything was gonna work in it, that that was absolutely the closer for the album. It was just the perfect finish for us, we thought.

Has bringing Chuck into the band changed the writing process at all?

Yeah, I guess it has to a degree, but mostly just because of the distance between he and us. When we started the band, Brett and I wrote quite a bit of the material together, like, in the same room together. As it is now, we mostly write stuff on our own, each of us, and a lot of times, we’ll demo that material, just record it ourselves and show each other, and try to develop some ideas off of that, and when we get together to rehearse, we’ll branch out even farther and possibly pare down what’s been written or expand on it. But it’s definitely different than it was in the beginning.

The material on Sorrow and Extinction – was that written more individually or together?

It depends on the song. “Foreigner” was actually almost entirely written by Brett. And only some of the augmentary stuff – he didn’t write the way the bass line expands on the riffs – but the song structure itself was all Brett’s, and he wrote that by himself. “An Offering of Grief” I wrote by myself, and then we worked on, and worked on, trying to make everything fit perfectly in the band setting. “Given to the Grave” was actually almost just a jam. Devin came up with the original riff, the intro riff that the song starts with, but the rest of it was almost pure improvisation. The other two songs that were from the demo are things that Brett and I had originally written together, as a team, basically.

Do you have a preference for working one way or the other?

I don’t know that I necessarily have a preference, because I think a lot of the time, there can be a lot of good that can come out of both. I enjoy spending time by myself writing, but at the same time, I think I like the immediacy of being able to write a riff and then have my bandmates take it and shape it in a way that I might not have been able to think of at first, and then end up being on a whole different level than I would’ve imagined at first. There’s positive qualities to both. I don’t know that I could say I like one way better than the other.

With so much focus on mood and atmosphere, I wanted to ask about the keyboards and how they’re used, especially on “Given to the Grave,” which you said was mostly a jam. I would imagine that’s one of those things that came later?

To a degree. We all love progressive rock, and I’m sure that you can probably notice that there’s a little bit of flourishes of that throughout the album. We had wanted there to be lots of (laughs) keyboards all over the album, but as time went on, we found that it didn’t fit as well as we thought it would have otherwise. We knew that it was definitely going to work for “Given to the Grave.” In a sense – who’s to say for sure? – but I think that “Given to the Grave” is a little bit of a hint at what’s to come as we continue writing material for our future releases.

To me, that side seemed to have something in common with that old-style Peaceville, British doom, but I guess if it’s coming from prog, do you see that side becoming more prominent in the band’s sound going forward?

Definitely. You’re not wrong about the old Peaceville stuff, though I will say that Paradise Lost has no influence on the band whatsoever. That’s something that’s come up a lot. I’ve seen references to it that all the guitar leads are so influenced by Greg Mackintosh, and that is absolutely not true. We love old Anathema, and old My Dying Bride and Katatonia, but not really Paradise Lost. That use of the analog synth and mellotron on “Given to the Grave,” and then the guitar interplay, that comes a lot more from bands like Camel and Wishbone Ash and stuff like that, and guitar work from like Robin Trower. Pink Floyd, even. We’re really big fans of Pink Floyd. That’s where a lot of the lead work stems from, not so much from the ‘90s death/doom, although we really do love ‘90s death/doom. The harmonies that we try to incorporate are definitely a nod to that stuff.

I know you announced that you’re coming north, and you’re playing Brooklyn with Loss, but do you have any other show plans that you can talk about?

Yeah. We have three SXSW shows that are going to be announced this week. Aside from that, we have another date that I can’t tell you on the record yet, and we’re doing a small Midwest tour up to Days of the Doomed II. Even though we’re not playing Days of the Doomed this year, we’re going to support Mike [Smith, festival founder], and because he’s got a lot of great bands playing this year. That little mini-tour we’re doing is going to be Nashville, Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Louis, and we already have the Indianapolis date confirmed with Coffinworm and Apostle of Solitude, and the Chicago date is confirmed, and that’s with a whole shitload of bands I can’t remember, but I think Apostle of Solitude is one of them and Rituals of the Oak, from Australia, is one of them. I don’t know all the details on that. We just confirmed today that we’re on that. Apart from that, we’re working on getting some West Coast dates. I’m not sure when yet this year, but it’ll probably be late summer/early fall.

Are you interested in touring, in being a “touring band?”

We’d like to tour as much as we can. Unfortunately, due to school and family obligations, we can’t be a full US touring band, but at the same time, I think it adds more of an air of uniqueness to when we play to get people to go check it out, if we’re not criss-crossing the country three times a year. But yeah, we’re not a studio project. We definitely like to play live and are making an effort to get out this year as much as we can.

Any plans for more writing or more releases this year?

Yeah, as soon as we get the chance to record our side of it, we have a split 7” with the doom metal band Uzula. That’s coming out sometime this year. Killer guys, for sure. Really good friends with those guys. There’s another split that we’ve already got our track written for, but I don’t know that I really want to say any more details about it until we get a little farther down the line. Apart from that, we’re already writing material for the second album, and we’re going to keep writing material for the second album until we know what we have is the second album. There is no timeframe on that. The first album is just now out. We’re not resting on our laurels, waiting around for a year and then we’re gonna start trying to write something. We’ve got bits and pieces that we’re putting together until we know that what we have fits the feeling for album two.

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2 Responses to “Pallbearer Interview with Joseph D. Rowland: When Even the Sun Becomes an Offering of Grief”

  1. Metal Dave says:

    Give ’em Hell, Joe ! \m/

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