Parkway Drive’s Winston McCall: “Put us on any stage on the planet and we will make people remember it”
Time has been kind to Winston McCall. In the past few years the vocalist has been mobbed by fans in Guatemala, leapt into the ocean from the mountainside in Majorca, and walked along the Great Wall Of China. Like Iron Maiden, his band, Parkway Drive, have even made it to India, where he witnessed his guitarists held aloft like heroes by the crowd in Kolkata.
Since forming in 2003, Parkway have grown from modest hardcore beginnings through massive metalcore success, to the point where they can command an audience of 10,000 in London, as they did at Alexandra Palace in 2019. The same year, they topped the bill at Bloodstock, their first-ever headline festival appearance in the UK.
“It’s really nice,” says Winston. “We barely even get that in Australia. But it’s good to see that what we do – being loud, reasonably confrontational and blowing things up – can garner that.”
In his earliest days Winston listened to bands like Arm’s Reach, Embodiment and Day Of Contempt, never even daring to dream that Parkway might one day reach this scale. Today, ever-smiling and occasionally bellowing with laughter, Winston self-deprecatingly jokes that they’ve done so playing “extreme sports metal”, but he’s resolute about their accomplishments. Their live show has become a flaming carnival of affirmation and excellence; a literal fiery monument to the self-belief that has propelled them through the success of their last three albums, Atlas (in 2012), Ire (2015) and (2018’s) Reverence.
These are also albums that have shepherded Parkway through life and death. Winston says he no longer considers himself young, but that during a song like Wishing Wells, he now has somewhere to attack the anger and grief that follows the passing of loved ones. Sure, time has been kind to the Parkway Drive man, but he has also seen many people have their clocks handed to them.
He is candid when reflecting on the death of his friend and Architects guitarist Tom Searle, who passed away in Hove aged 28 in 2016. Ultimately, though, the things he has seen and the people he has met on this trajectory are a source of reassurance, and a reminder to carry on. “When you’re 50 you might look back and go, ‘Damn, I could have held a record in my hand,’” he says. “Or ‘I’ve never been to Melbourne. I could have driven to Melbourne.’ Just do it!”
What do you feel people get from Parkway Drive that perhaps other bands aren’t offering?
“That’s a damn good question. Because after 15 years of doing this, and what the band has given to me personally, it has been a constant evolution. The palette of our sound has been slowly expanding, and over the last couple of records it’s gone, ‘Boom!’ in multiple directions. And that is coupled visually. We’ve taken what we do into very different places, visually. Parkway on record and Parkway live, while they’re dealing with the same core material, the songs receive and elicit different responses. With what we do onstage now, there’s much more to process. There’s a lot to stimulate the brain in a way that you just can’t while you’re listening to a record. Unless you’re sitting in front of your stove, burning and blinding yourself while breathing in fumes!”
Do you think metal bands who put on huge shows like you do – like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slipknot do – get the credit for the levels of production and entertainment involved?
“It’s an interesting one, because metal, it’s abrasive. And when it’s not abrasive, it’s technical. And when it’s not technical, it’s confrontational. It’s very pointy, which is why it’s amazing. But that’s the same thing that will drive people who don’t understand it away, who don’t have a place in their life for it. That definitely does leave room to see it as wacky, or something that can be parodied, or something that’s just big dumb noise. Because metal takes effort to comprehend. It takes intelligent thought. A lot of the time, people don’t listen to music to exercise their brain. They use it to shut their brain off. Look at someone like Iron Maiden: they put on a production which rivals the top levels of Broadway. That is world class, second-to-none incredible. But try telling that to someone who sees Broadway as the highest point of artistic interpretation. Well actually, Iron Maiden are pulling this shit off better than you guys! But it’s what it taps into, in humans, and it’s the part of humanity which people try so hard to deny, and are afraid of. All the things that metal channels, it comes from those aspects that we’re always told to be scared of, to suppress.”
Can you be more specific?
“We’re told, ‘Cheer up’; that happiness is the best thing; to put a smile on your face even when you’re not feeling good; fit in; toe the line; aim for white picket fences and the concept of happy perfection. There seems to be zero point in human history where that has been achieved. And I can’t see any example of a human functioning as a pure beacon of light. There’s always a shadow. The two work hand-in-hand. You can’t have darkness without light. What metal gives people is validation of the darkness, and it’s not scary – it’s just part of you. It’s an outlet, and it’s a place to feel like you belong within that, and there are other people feeling that. And then you can channel that artistically in these wonderful ways that evoke feelings that other things can’t. That’s where I think it fits. Those things that are so scary – isolation, loneliness and self-discovery – are brushed over by the rest of pop culture.”
What was expected of you as a younger man? Who were you expected to become in the eyes of others?
“I’ve never been asked that before. I was very good at riding a bodyboard. Our town, Byron Bay, is a surfing town, and there’s not much money in it, but everyone was like, ‘He can do something with that.’ You can probably make a living, but in a town where surfing is the only thing you can do, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do that.’ I toured Australia and I was doing pretty good, on the cover of a couple of magazines. And that’s all I wanted to do. I worked at a café, I saved my money, and went on surfing trips. I had no-one telling me I should do anything.”
Once you started touring with Parkway you never really stopped. What have you learned from touring over the years, from the sheer number of people you meet?
“About people? I’ve learned that it’s a big old world, and there’s a lot of ‘em! I’ve seen the best and the worst of people. There are some really awesome people and there are some who you could classify as evil – you see all the different faces of humanity. Coming from a small town, you only know certain faces. Travelling the world, you see the catalogue.”
What would you deem as ‘evil’ in people?
“I’ve met people who would do things that are so far off your moral compass that you really can’t comprehend. If you have any sense of morality, when you see it you think, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ So yeah, I’ve seen some shit. But, what I’ve learned about people is that while everyone is so, so different, you start seeing the threads we all share; the commonalities. Because music is an expression that resonates with people, all of a sudden you’re in a room full of those people and you see their similarities. It’s really crazy when you start seeing that on a worldwide scale.”
Do you think there are people so bad in the world that they’re beyond redemption?
“Yes. One hundred per cent. I don’t necessarily believe in evil as a concept being ‘out there’, but I believe in my sense of morality, and in being a good person and wanting to see people not feel pain. There are people out there for whom that concept doesn’t click. Who will, given the chance, inflict pain with no regard. Some people will do it to as many people as possible. Some people will do it because inflicting pain is what makes them feel… whatever. It comes down to whether or not you believe that everyone has the right to feel safe and exist and be happy without another person coming in and taking that right away. Once you start inflicting your beliefs and your feelings on other people in a way that they don’t want, against their will, that’s when you start crossing lines.”
On the flip side, what characterises good people to you? Courage, integrity, keeping your word?
“All of those things, and love. Love is what characterises good people; feeling the need to enrich other people’s lives, and to feel for someone else, and make their life richer through your presence – to give to someone else, selflessly. I think that is goodness. And it’s not a massive thing, but it makes massive differences. That’s what love is. When you find something and you’re willing to sacrifice something about yourself to give to that, or someone that you’re willing to sacrifice part of yourself to give to them, to make them whole. That’s what I think good is.”
In the past couple of years you’ve had some painful personal experiences, haven’t you?
“Oh fuck, man… there have been a lot of ‘em. Losing family and friends. Death has been the worst. It’s hard to compare with that. There has been a lot of stuff. The older we get, the more shit starts happening that you don’t necessarily foresee, and all of a sudden you’re confronted with stuff. That’s the hardest. It’s not even the actual dying side of it, in a sense. It’s how the absence makes you feel. The absence of the person, the friend, the family member in your life that’s no longer there. The absence within yourself that’s left, and how you’re dealing with that. That’s so hard to come to grips with, because you’re left with a definitive full stop. You can’t go, ‘Wait, hold on,’ and make yourself feel a little better. Their part in the act is done. Their lines are finished. You don’t have another chance at that one. But now you’ve got to deal with the consequences.”
Have you ever felt despairing or undeserving that you’re still around?
“Oh, fuck yeah. Like survivor’s guilt. It’s a massive thing, and it’s… Tom [Searle’s] passing away, and us still being onstage. Literally the day we got that news we were playing a festival. We had to step onstage, and my thoughts were that this is one more show than he got. Than he’s ever gonna get. That was very direct, in the sense that we’ve toured together and had many a conversation of how fun gigs are. I saw how much he cared about music. I saw how much he cared about music to the degree of him flying home on tours to get surgery, to get fucking cancer cut out of his leg, and then coming back with staples so that he could keep fucking playing. To stand onstage after getting that news and know the finality of it? Then you have to get through that set, not feeling good about what you’re doing, feeling the guilt of it? And that’s just on the tiny little fraction of playing a gig. Let alone just being… here.”
Have you been able to alchemise that into resilience – the will to continue?
“Definitely. It’s a reality of life. The immediate aftermath is devastation and survival. It redefines what reality is for you. It reshapes and remoulds the person you are. You can’t really go back from it, so you just keep on doing what you do. If anything, it’s one of those things where there’s less sadness involved when you have the revelation that this person would have really enjoyed this moment. I have less, in a way, of feeling guilty and sad, and more of like, well, ‘Yeah, we’ll fuckin’ enjoy it.’ Enjoy life while you’ve got it. They would have liked this, so you should like this. You should be present.”
When you’re performing, are you articulating the same emotion that caused you to write in the first place?
“Yeah. Every time. Every single time. I don’t think I could write something and not feel it. I can’t just sit down with a pen and bit of paper and words come on to a page. It’s something that’s come out of me in the first place, and that then keeps bouncing around in that resonance chamber until it vibrates to the point of reaching a song. And it stays. Once it hits that, it’s like getting that firefly. It goes until that point where it’s burning, and then, ‘Bam!’ It’s in a jar. And that’s the song. It stays there forever and every time that song comes around I open the jar and that firefly comes out for that second and burns. That’s the feeling of performing, for me. It’s channelled. It’s rare that I get a song where I’m not transported to that very distinct, emotional point. And if a song ever loses that spark, I don’t play it anymore because whatever impulse was involved no longer resides in me.”
As a marker of achievement, does something like headlining Bloodstock give you cause to reflect and to possibly even look towards the future?
“I see this as a trajectory. It’s a trajectory which will either be completely infinite and disappear beyond sight, or, it burns brighter and brighter. At this point in time we want it to burn brighter. We have the desire to share this with more people. We want this to grow. You put us on any stage on the planet and we will make people remember it. We will make sure we’re worthy of their time. It’s about finding out where this is going to go, because the trajectory so far has been pretty damn crazy.”
Interview originally published in March 2019.
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