Pallbearer: “We’ve been blessed by having lives full of f*cked-up people, and being f*cked-up ourselves. It’s an easy thing to write about”

Illness, struggle, recalibration, saxophones: Pallbearer’s Brett Campbell lifts the lid on the Arkansas prog-doomsters’ challenging new album, Mind Burns Alive…

Pallbearer: “We’ve been blessed by having lives full of f*cked-up people, and being f*cked-up ourselves. It’s an easy thing to write about”
Nick Ruskell
Dan Almasy

Last week, Pallbearer released Where The Light Fades, the first look at their forthcoming fifth album, Mind Burns Alive. Although taking a more quiet tack has long been part of their palette, the song's pared-back guitars and low vocals nevertheless indicated new ground for the Arkansas quartet.

It's a feature that pops up regularly through the record, a more thorough exploration of a side of Pallbearer that's always been there, but rarely so centre stage. Elsewhere, there are moments where the other, heavier end of the band's spectrum is pushed beyond what's gone before. There's even a saxophone at one point.

It's Pallbearer alright, but looking good and hard at what they're doing and, as singer/guitarist Brett Campbell puts it, "honing everything". Coming four years after 2020's excellent Forgotten Days, a time period that included a pandemic, a break and something of a change of perspective on the band after total burnout, the album, he says, is the result of circumstance and having time to breathe.

"Sometimes I won't come out with anything cool for months, but then there's a period of about two weeks where I'll come up with 10 songs, and we might not use all of them," he says. "We were able to to take a very long time refining specific drum parts or certain dynamics. More so than the actual writing, we spent a lot of time perfecting the arrangements, or voicings, chord phrasings, really subtle stuff."

It's also a record that focuses on "being unwell", in myriad forms, frequently reaching hopeless conclusions in the lyrics, and a taking in "isolation, neuroses, poor mental health, depression and sickness".

Ahead of the full release in May, Brett leads us into Mind Burns Alive, to uncover its themes, creation, and how it found them reassessing what it means to be Pallbearer...

The album’s got some of your quietest material to date, and you’ve lead with Where The Light Fades. How did you start exploring that side of Pallbearer more?
“We started writing those songs kind of in conjunction with some of the Forgotten Days material. At the end of the Heartless touring cycle we were just burnt out completely, to the point where I didn't know if I wanted to tour again. I went to the doctor, and the doctor was like, ‘Yeah, you've had bronchitis for some time.’ I had an entire respiratory infection, I was exhausted, and we were like, ‘We need to take a year off.’

“After I got some rest, it spurred this incredibly fruitful writing period, and I was writing tons and tons of material. Maybe due to my living situation at the time, which was actually pretty stable for the first time in a decade – I could be really creative and unencumbered. I found that a lot of the material was really aggressive and kind of straightforward. But then there's this other batch of material that was really quiet. And so early on, we decided to just kind of split the material into two different batches and really hone in on those qualities.

“Forgotten Days ended up being almost traditional, by our standards. And then we took the seeds of the songs that were to become Mind Burns Alive, and focused on that quieter element being more to the forefront. We've had stuff like that, particularly on Heartless, but we wanted to push more in that direction. That just felt right. I write whatever I'm feeling, whatever catches my interest when I'm just playing. I’ll get a cool riff and see where it goes, kind of a stream of consciousness, and eventually you start to feel like, ‘Okay, maybe this is what an album could be.’ We always want to have consistency within an album; it needs to have a particular vibe.”

At the other end, there’s a song like With Disease, which is one of the heaviest things you’ve ever done…
“Yeah! So, on the on the demo for that song I had more aggressive vocals there at the end. When we got to recording it properly, it wasn’t hitting as hard as it needed to. Devin [Holt, guitar] lives, like, 10 houses down from me, we live on the same street. I called him and said, ‘Dude, you need to come over and lay down some vocals.’ We did it in an hour, and it sounds really intense. I was standing right next to him in my small room where we were recording, and just hearing him belt out those monstrous vocals, I was trying not to laugh at how intense it was. Some people do extreme vocals and it sounds like that, but it's almost at speaking volume. He was absolutely screaming at the top of his lungs. It was very hard for me not to laugh and ruin the take.”

Where did the title, Mind Burns Alive, come from?
“That song came first, and it encapsulated the overall themes of mental unease and people being unwell. It felt like an appropriate bow to tie on everything. We’ve been blessed by having lives full of fucked-up people, and being fucked-up ourselves, so it's an easy thing to write about. What's strange is, Joe and I wrote our material and wrote about the subject matter completely independent of one another. When we started showing each other the songs we were like, ‘This could be a themed collection of short stories,’ because they're all dealing with neuroses, or depression, or isolation, or manic breakdown delusions, or getting caught by dangerous ideas that lead you down that path. I don't know exactly why, other than, unfortunately, those types of situations have permeated my life, and people in my life have exhibited a lot of these problems. I've certainly dealt with depression and other kinds of issues throughout my life. Luckily, I'm relatively stable nowadays, but still, just living in today's world it's kind of hard not to be struggling.”

You had a few goes at getting the album recorded – what happened?
“We were going to secretly release it while we were on the road touring Forgotten Days. That never happened. We originally planned to record in March 2020 and release it in the beginning of 2021, or end of 2021 or 2020. Lockdowns happened when our time for the studio was scheduled. So that didn't happen, but honestly, that was for the best because we had time to refine the material, and it wouldn't have been as good of an album without it. For our second attempt, I got COVID when we had studio time booked. I wasn't able to be there, and that hampered the recording process, and then they were getting sick, too, and what we’d got recorded didn’t sound right. But that gave us the benefit of being able to listen, really, critically, to actual, you know, nice quality recordings. I think by learning what didn't work, it really helped us hone in on what ended up being the final one. It was so smooth because we had already, I don't want to say made mistakes, but we had gone down paths that led us nowhere. So when it came time to actually do it properly, we knew what to do.

“Also, Joe [D. Rowland, bass] moved back down from Brooklyn where he's lived for nine years. He has a pretty extensive studio in his house, and we all live within, like, three miles of each other, so that allowed us to do a lot of secondary tracking at his house. When you’re not on the clock and paying for a studio it’s great because you can try stuff and afford to fail, or go, ‘I don't like that, let's try something else,’ or spend an entire day experimenting with mic and speaker combinations. That's a luxury you don't have when you’re paying for a studio, unless you're Metallica.”

There’s some surprise saxophone on there as well. Where did that come from?
“It was just a moment of inspiration. We’d got the basic track done, the four of us were at our neighbourhood bar, and somebody suggested, ‘What if we had Norman play a sax solo?’ We all just looked at each other and went, ‘Let's do it.’ He's our friend from Little Rock, and he's not connected to metal or anything at all, he normally plays in experimental post-punk and does a funk band and stuff, but he was like, ‘Sure.’ He came into Joe's spot, did four or five takes, and we picked the one we liked the most. It was pretty casual.”

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