Pallbearer: “Metal Shouldn’t Be This Secret, Exclusive Club…”
Every day is a funeral. Some unfold in rain-swept darkness, others in barren sunlight. Over five decades, doom metal has traversed those extremes: from Black Sabbath’s tolling church bells and horror movie schlock, to Pallbearer’s stark melancholia and sun-bleached desolation.
Across time and space, misery endures. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
“There are dark thoughts I have to keep under control,” sighs the young pretenders’ frontman Brett Campbell, unpacking his catharsis, “for my own sake. This music is a form of therapy. Negative emotions, fears, regrets, self-reflective tendencies: I try to put those things in songs and leave them there.”
Ten years into the Arkansas quartet’s fittingly funereal ascent there are twinges of discomfort beside the triumph in looking back and taking stock. They’ve outlasted the post-millennial ‘doom boom’ from which they emerged. Now they march onward, bearing their melancholy, shoulder high.
“There was a lot of personal hardship going on when this began,” explains bassist Joe Rowland, with the wistfulness of a decade passed. “My mother was terminally ill. She had reached the point of no return. We fell into a self-destructive state of mind – and needed something to pull us out.”
Stumbling from a socially conservative upbringing into the momentous rug pull that is adulthood – 2008’s financial collapse was still around the corner – but by high-school graduation in 2005, Brett was already disenfranchised and directionless. Bands like My Dying Bride and The Body had stoked his musical ambition. “I went to college not knowing what I wanted as a career, but thinking I’d at least have a better shot at meeting someone I could start a band with there than in the suburbs.
“Joe saw me on campus wearing an Anathema T‑shirt,” Brett laughs, remembering their initial meeting at the University Of Central Arkansas. “It was back when you still needed a college email to sign up for Facebook. He sent me a message to ask if I wanted to come jam.”
Original band Sports (“A vehicle to explore the outer extremes of sound and performance,” explains Brett, “like an extension of those same drives I was using psychedelics for – to find the outer edges of my own personal reality and understanding of self and the universe…”) established their “instantaneous rapport”, but that tide of personal tumult forced them down a darker path.
“We hit on this dark headspace,” Brett explains. “Those were desperate times. We needed a different outlet. Pallbearer started as a way of channelling the stresses of that period into something positive. Over the years it’s continued to be that when life seems to get difficult, which seems to happen over and over. Perhaps [this lifestyle] creates its own problems…”
Guitarist Devin Holt was conscripted to round out the line-up while still in high school, after hopping on a road trip to Saint Vitus’ New Orleans reunion show in 2009. The revolving door of “friends on drums” didn’t settle until Mark Lierly claimed the stool in 2012.
A band of brothers setting out against the cultural isolation of America’s flyover nowhereland proved both a blessing and a curse.
“There’s fucking nothing to do in Arkansas,” half-winces Joe, reflectively, “except destroy yourself.”
“It’s not a place with many distractions other than getting into drugs, working yourself to death or church,” chimes Brett. “Little Rock gets overlooked because it’s not really on the way to anything. People just skip over it. But that [fosters] a really supportive local scene. No matter what the genre, people will come out. Even without the really good bands we have, there’s not much else to do.
“There’s this unique atmosphere. It’s a place that never changes. I can head out for a year on the road and come home to find that nothing’s different – that’s happened now for several years in a row.”
Spaces like Downtown Music, a DIY “hole-in-the wall venue/record store” set up by local sludgelords Rwake in the district skipped by gentrification, offered the chance to catch local acts like Deadbird, and Shitfire alongside upcoming touring bands like Weedeater, Bongzilla, even Eyehategod. “I’ll never forget that attitude that they had towards music,” says Brett of the latter band, “that fearlessness. The things they were doing with song structure, the feeling in the room when they’d perform was very much a whirlwind of terrifying, creative energy. It was like a spell being cast and you could see people being overwhelmed by it. That idea of music as a magic spell has always been very powerful to me.”
It took early forays further afield among metal’s more regimented musical scenes – like Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Days Of The Doomed (“All vest doom,” reminisces Brett, fondly) and extremist extravaganza Rites Of Darkness in San Antonio, Texas – however, to realise they were on to something exceptional.
“We were just trying to do our own thing, to make music that was different and interesting to us,” says Brett, “but I realised early on that we kinda stood out a little bit…”
The years since haven’t exactly seen Pallbearer fall into line. Their 2012 debut Sorrow And Extinction showcased one of doom’s brightest new lights. Foundations Of Burden, from 2014, was a quantum leap forwards, and 2017’s Heartless was the work of a band edging close to realising their full potential.
A certain brand of elitist, however, has railed against the melodic bastardisation of metal’s original – and most stylistically strict – sub-genre.
“I openly embrace that we could be a metal band that appeals to people that don’t like metal,” grins Joe, defiantly. “I’ve never understood why metal should be this secret, exclusive club into which only the truest of the true should be admitted. In two songs we could write one that’s influenced by Judas Priest and another by [Scottish post-punks] Cocteau Twins.”
“I take it as a compliment,” agrees Brett. “Pallbearer has never been about being as metal as possible. People would be surprised about the depth of our metal knowledge, but I don’t really care about my ‘metal cred.’
“We only viewed ourselves as a doom band for a short time at the start. It’s built into the URL of our website, yes, but as soon as we were finished writing our first album we were already trying to inject progressive, melodic tendencies into what we were doing.”
“You’re not creating if you’re recreating,” says Brett. “We’ve always wanted our music to keep morphing and growing like a living organism.”
Covers of Type O Negative’s Love You to Death and Dio-era Black Sabbath’s Over & Over (on the 2016 Fear & Fury EP) nodded to a growing willingness to play fast and loose. The almost Pixies-esque grunginess of latest single Dropout (“It reminds me of Starflyer 59,” counters Brett), however, confirms they’re limited only by imagination.
“I was at my girlfriend’s house,” the frontman remembers, “and the verse riff popped into my head. I was like, ‘Oh shit,’ and started learning that riff. It went from initial conception to fully realised demo within about four hours.”
“We’ve had these big ideas from the beginning,” interjects Joe, modestly, “we just weren’t good enough to pull them off at the start. The biggest part of our musical evolution has been how hard we’ve worked at getting better.”
With that graft comes reward. They still struggle, though, to comprehend how far they’ve come.
“When we first started,” reflects Brett, “we never thought anyone would give a fuck. Our biggest goal was to maybe play a European festival one day. The last time I counted, two tours ago, we’d been to over 30 countries. As a dude who started out without any means of travel, that’s amazing.”
So, how far can the procession continue?
“I want to elevate this to even higher levels,” pitches Joe. “There’s no ceiling. I want to deliver the most enveloping experience possible.”
As a parting thought, we wonder whether, beyond simple brilliance, Pallbearer’s success is as a reflection of these troubled times.
“I’m just a slave to my brain,” says Brett, “more a vessel of arrangement than a songwriter…”
“If there’s zero hope, then what’s the point of going on?” ponders Joe, pointedly harking back to Pallbearer’s cathartic origins for the final word. “You need something to strive towards. Life itself is filled with tragedy, but there is hope to exist beyond that tragedy and continue living.
“Yes, the world feels like it’s falling apart, but maybe by some cosmic chance, we’ll make it through. That’s the essence of it.”
Words: Sam Law
Photo: Grizzlee Martin
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