Pallbearer: “The pain is quieter now. It’s no longer a literal throbbing in my chest”

For 16 years, Brett Campbell has purged his depressions and neuroses into the melancholic music of Pallbearer. Growing older and gaining stability has changed the shape of the emotions swirling within, but even as the Arkansas doomsters unveil quieter fifth LP Mind Burns Alive, there’s still an ocean of bittersweetness at play…

Pallbearer: “The pain is quieter now. It’s no longer a literal throbbing in my chest”
Sam Law
Dan Almasy

Brett Campbell looks back on the beginnings of Pallbearer with the strained eyes and relief of one recalling a void into which they very nearly slipped. Leaving high school to enrol in the University of Central Arkansas, the future frontman was more interested in finding musical connection than any kind of conventional career prospect. And though the colourful chaos of first band Sports was an explosive outlet, he couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of a black hole building inside.

“I was totally lost,” he remembers. “I had a lot of suicidal ideation. I was smoking tons of weed, drinking a lot, basically consuming all of these substances to try and obliterate myself, to escape, as much as I could. I was just running, running from life. Music was like an anchor. I’d think to myself, ‘Well, I don’t really want to be alive, but I do really really want to make music.’ I’d become obsessed with it at that point. I still am. I had ideas. Ideas that I wanted to see through. If I was dead, I couldn’t be in that world anymore, exploring it, working on it – and it was pretty fucking good!”

It’s been a long journey to getting right. Of the 16 years Pallbearer has been a going concern, in fact, Brett reckons it took maybe 10 to be anywhere near to feeling better. In that span, their first three albums – 2012’s Sorrow And Extinction, 2014’s Foundations Of Burden and 2017’s Heartless – wove velvety black magic and some catharsis from the shadow within. But like the hallucinogenic highs of his college years, the blur of life on the road became a route of escape. Only with time off tour – first due to a post-bronchitis recovery period preceding 2020’s Forgotten Days, then COVID – and a kind of home stability did improvement really begin. And only now is he able to truly take stock.

“A lot of elements of my life kind of reshuffled [in that period post-Heartless], meaning I was able to realise a lot of the causes of my long-term grief,” Brett gestures. “There was a long-running problem in my life – a person, multiple people I cared about – that I thought I had agency over, but I didn’t. Once I accepted that there was nothing I could do about it, it felt like a huge weight off my soul.

“It still hurts. But realising there’s nothing I can do to help stops me hurting myself. Add to that other factors like my living situation, basically living in poverty, working incredibly hard without ever feeling like you’re seeing fair reward. My body was wearing out, and I was just fucking broke.”

Teetering on the edge, you begin to see how small changes can make big differences. The “series of coincidences” at the end of that Heartless cycle that began the healing were discussed in press for 2020’s Forgotten Days, but time has emphasised them. Finding some stability in his living situation. Scraping together enough money to do things like replacing a laptop for demos, which had been broken for years. Pumping brakes and finding headspace to make the aforementioned realisations.

In the midst of the Heartless cycle, Brett and founding bandmate/bassist Joe Rowland explained to this writer how their home of Little Rock, Arkansas was the kind of place where most people had three options: work yourself to death, drink yourself to death, or get into religion. Brett laughs at the callback today, insisting that on a certain level not much has really changed. Yet, maturity, peace and perspective have brought the positives of the place into perspective.

Compared to more fashionable cultural hubs like New York, Austin or Los Angeles, Little Rock is the kind of town where one can afford to live reasonably adequately working full-time as a musician in a doom metal band. Local legends like Stan Liszewski of death metal collective Terminal Nation are making the local scene the strongest it’s ever been. And, with Joe having recently moved back to join Brett, guitarist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly in the city, it is now definitively home-base for Pallbearer.

“Plus I just don’t go out as much as I used to,” Brett laughs. “Maybe I’m just getting old.”

To the contrary, fifth album Mind Burns Alive feels refreshingly new. From the gentle fragility of Where The Light Fades and Signals, to the hulking post-metal influence and saxophone-infused experimentalism of the massive title-track and Endless Place, to the almost Midwestern-emo feel of Daybreak and atmospheric closer With Disease, these sounds are simultaneously a natural continuation and striking departure from what’s come before. It’d be misleading to call it the lighter album, but it bears deliciously different fruit from the same seeds as Forgotten Days.

“They’ve ended up as unintentional sister albums,” Brett explains. “Forgotten Days is direct, raw, very riff-centric. We stripped away a lot of the overt extended progressive elements or buried them deep in the songs. Our whole writing methodology on that record was to keep it as close to the original seed of the song as possible. Mind Burns Alive is more measured, with more subtlety and more shades. They were meant to be two sides of the coin. Sun and moon albums. Forgotten Days is all fire and violence. Mind Burns Alive was more about submersing yourself into some pool of water in the cool moonlight. Ironically, it’s the one with burning artwork and a flaming title.”

Originally intended for release during touring for Forgotten Days at some point in 2021, the extra time allowed for tinkering, innovation and Brett’s indulgence of a love for messing with gear.

“I love that insane way that we use technology to translate thought into physics, then physics into emotion as that’s experienced by another person,” he enthuses. “What is that other than magic? Some days I’ll find a new way to route my guitar which just changes everything for me. The other day I I realised that I could route my guitar into three amps in an intelligent way. I mean, that’s stupid. Do you ever need to use three amps? Probably not. But I’m so excited to try.”

Rather than any predictable maximalism, mind, that time and effort saw the music stripped to its sorrowful essence. Brett has always talked about writing by instinct. Years ago, he spoke about being “a slave to my brain… more vessel of arrangement than songwriter”. This is a continuation of that. Like an artist chipping at the marble block, he’s delivered a set of songs with the negative space, eerie airiness and dim lighting that’s a true representation of an older, more settled mind.

“The pain is quieter now,” he nods. “It's more personal, more reined-in. There’s a lot more understanding around it. In my early 20s, there was just so much shit going on in my life. When we were making Sorrow & Extinction, it felt very much like a cry to the heavens. The pain was larger-than-life, it was all-encompassing, and it came in these huge waves. The way the music came out was very true to that lived experience. As I got older, I came to understand myself and the world around me a little better. The emotions don’t arise in the same way that they did. They don’t burn as hot. They’re no longer this literal lump throbbing in my chest.”

So what does that mean for Pallbearer’s future? In the vein of heroes like Agalloch and My Dying Bride, there has always been beauty in the music, but its rueful tug has made Pallbearer the acclaimed outfit they are. Yes, progress and personal recovery are important, not just on a human level, but to the longevity of the project. But might they ever put misery really in the rearview?

“Could Pallbearer ever make a happy song?” Brett ponders the question as if it’d never even occurred to him. “Or a happy song that doesn’t end with some sort of M. Night Shyamalan twist? I don’t know. Pallbearer is built on that ‘sweetly melancholic’ sound. You know it when you hear it. It’s a sound that satisfies me, speaks to me; a sound where I’m able to deliver something unique as an artist. It’s about translating feelings that are hard to put into words into something more: music that transcends language, with a level of obscure poeticism. Of course, sometimes we’d like to write a good old-fashioned love song, but this band sticks to the darker side of human experience.”

Ultimately, see, delving into darkness – confronting it, truly knowing it – is key to finding a way out.

“My life and my circumstances have changed quite a bit from where they were whenever we started the band,” he concludes. “But I still have a pretty cynical worldview. I’m not a fool. I read the news. I go outside… sometimes. It’s easy to be cynical if you’re paying attention. Still, I try to be as upbeat as I can. I’m not a dour person. I’m not a defeatist. And, in the end, this music is more hopeful than that. It’s a reflection of human experience: life’s peaks and valleys.

"Things might feel shit at any moment in time but, for most people, they will get better. It’s just a waiting game. Be patient. Do the work. Try to be strong…”

Mind Burns Alive is out now via Nuclear Blast. Pallbearer tour the UK with Baroness and Graveyard from November 20 – 28. Get your tickets here.

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