Pallbearer: How A Band Born Out Of Grief Became A Vehicle For Positive Change

It's taken 12 years, but Pallbearer are finally opening up on new album Forgotten Days. Brett Campbell explains why…

Pallbearer: How A Band Born Out Of Grief Became A Vehicle For Positive Change
Nick Ruskell
Jacob Slaton and Ebru Yildiz

Brett Campbell has always had an obsession with the passage of time. It’s something that’s often come up in the guitarist’s lyrics for Pallbearer songs – “time and metamorphosis and the nature of memory” – a source of inspiration, being something that affects each individual by the very dint of being alive.

Right now, time is passing very differently than it normally might for the Arkansas doom quartet. After a decade largely spent on the road, at the end of the touring for their third album, Heartless, the band decided to take stock and take a rest. Vibe out. Write a new album. “We were pretty burned out,” notes Brett. Doing north of 200 shows in a normal year, then going straight in to make an album, then going back out for 200 more gigs a year will do that to you. Even if it has made you one of the most celebrated doom bands of your time.

Still, Pallbearer expected to be back on it again by now. Brett says touring probably should have started for their fourth album, Forgotten Days, a couple of months ago. Instead, thanks to COVID forcing everyone indoors, he admits, “I’d be very fucking surprised if we play a show before 2022.” Though he ponders the possibility of having to deliver pizzas to make ends meet at some point (“I’ve spent a decade specialising in something really, really narrow, so I guess I could deliver pizza!”), as a man who confesses to not being the most sociable person in the world, his current assessment of staying at home is: “I honestly fucking love it.”

“I like being at home, ironically, which is hilarious because my job involves being surrounded by people constantly,” he enthuses from his home in Arkansas. “I do miss touring and doing shows – I love that – but I don’t really enjoy being on the road for months and months at a time. I wish maybe we could do it for a month and then have a month off, but that’s not really reality. What’s weird is that we had basically a year off between the end of the Heartless tour and recording Forgotten Days, and at that point I was like, ‘Man, this is the longest we’ve been off the road ever.’ It felt great and I was loving my life here, but when we start up again, it could be two or three years since we played, which to me is mind-boggling. Going from 200 shows a year or something to zero is fucking insane.”

COVID or not, the decision to take time off had already had an effect on the members of Pallbearer. And time, its passing, and the inevitable change that comes with it played a part. “For the first time, in a weird, synergistic way, we all kind of had a stable environment back home,” Brett says. “Often we’d get off the road into even more chaos. But for the first time we had places to go where we could actually reflect on our lives and be chill.”

But this decompression allowed for a much deeper level of reflection than maybe anticipated. Around the time Pallbearer started in 2008, bassist Joe Rowland’s mother was gravely ill. When she passed away, a touring bubble where you’re constantly moving on each day was an easy place to which he could escape. But without the unreality of touring to escape into, things started to come up for Joe. “The way he’s explained it to me is that he’s spent the last decade kind of running from that fact,” reveals Brett. “He never spent the time to kind of examine the effect of that on his life. It happened to him in his early 20s, and it was a transformative time for all of us. As for most people in their 20s. Joe graduated college and then we started Pallbearer and started touring pretty heavily not long after that. So his life situation changed pretty drastically, and it was pretty easy to just kind of run. So, I guess he felt like he was kind of ready to examine that.

“Joe’s mother’s death had a huge impact, that’s part of why we started the band,” he continues. “We were both dealing with difficult periods of life. And as a result of starting Pallbearer, as kind of a means to deal with that, our lives got way better. So it is kind of strange that something born out of grief and essentially a coping mechanism became a vehicle for positive change in our lives.”

This self-analysis found a home in Joe’s lyrical contributions to Forgotten Days. Without having discussed such things with one another, however, Brett found himself having a similar moment of deeper reflection, looking to things happening in his own family and unpacking them with his lyrical pen. “It’s like one of those weird cosmic [things],” he ponders. “I had written the song Forgotten Days, inspired by my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, using it as a jumping off point to talk about the ideas of memory, losing your identity, memories changing as you get older. As you lose your memories, do you also lose your soul?”

This isn’t an easy thing to do, opening up like this. That’s why Brett says the men of Pallbearer have partly used the band as “a way of running”, and refers to it as having been “a coping mechanism”. Though they haven’t been quite as direct as on Forgotten Days, Brett has learned to deal with these deeper things being out there via his lyrics. He’s learned that it can ring a bell for other people who have seen and felt far worse than he, and helped bring a bit of levity.

“I used to have micro panic attacks every time I’d write a song because I knew that it was personal in some way,” he admits. “But it’s gotten easier over the years. People have come up and said their songs have helped them through various stuff, some of it so unbelievably tragic that I can’t believe they didn’t kill themselves – people’s lives just completely falling apart. So if I have the possibility of putting something personal out there that someone else can relate to or are going through dark times, I shouldn’t be too worried about being open.”

Brett says with a smile that this is “not very metal”, where the usual tools are those of anger and thinking with your fists (“Plenty of bands can do anger better than me, and they’re great!” he laughs). But it’s this emotional intelligence that gives Pallbearer their identity. It’s why a lot of people like them.

“I really am not interested in writing angry songs,” he says. “I think there is sometimes anger in some songs, there’s definitely things I’m angry about, but I think there’s a much wider spectrum of human existence that’s much more interesting to write about than just being angry. I’m not a particularly angry person. And I think I’d rather approach a song from a place of empathy or kindness.”

One effect this has had on the friendly man who talks to us today in his charming Arkansas accent is that it’s made him, “more open as I’ve gotten older, because I’ve found that in general that’s a positive attribute. It’s helped in my relationships with people and stuff to say what I feel and what I mean.” Almost everyone has had to take a break this year, and for many that has led to a similar time of reflection and re-evaluation. And for many, the common conclusion is that kindness and understanding are actually far more important things in the real world than they’re often given credit for.

“As dark and seemingly hopeless as it seems, that doesn’t mean kindness and understanding are not valuable,” says Brett. “Well, maybe it is all hopeless and life is essentially meaningless, but we’re still here. And if the world collapses in 20 years and there’s climate collapse and societies fall apart and whatever, if that happens it happens, but there will always be a place for kindness and understanding in the world.

“No matter how dark things get, it’s important for people to remember that.”

Pallbearer's new album Forgotten Days is out now via Nuclear Blast

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