Pallbearer have had an eventful decade thus far. The Arkansas quartet hit their stride with 2014’s Foundations of Burden, on which melodic doom metal clashed with hook-filled classic rock and the windswept ambitions of prog, over which Brett Campbell’s powerful voice soared. In a genre known for brutish, guttural vocals, his clean singing style was the icing on the cake for a band intent to set themselves apart from their contemporaries. With Heartless, they take another great leap forward, their third album full of emotional depth and songs that hit harder and heavier than anything in their catalogue.
Back in February, I had the chance to speak to bassist Joseph D. Rowland, as the band put the finishing touches on their new live set. We discussed personal and musical growth; the band’s place in the wider world of metal, weird and wonderful European tours and Garth Brooks. Yep, Garth Brooks.
Treble: What would you say has been the biggest change for Pallbearer since you released Foundations of Burden a few years ago?
Joseph D. Rowland:. Probably the most easily-pinpointed change between Foundations and Heartless was that I relocated to New York City, while everybody else still lives in Little Rock. This whole record was written over long-distance [communication] except for the times when I would fly down to Little Rock to rehearse with the band. Another thing I could say has changed is that we’re now in a different headspace regarding the sort of music we wanted to write, after the amount of time we spent on the road supporting Foundations. We wanted to challenge ourselves and make the effort to write a record that was considerably more technical than anything we’d done in the past.
Treble: On a number of levels it’s a step up from your earlier albums. Did you set out to write a record that was more technically complex, or was it just how the material evolved naturally?
JDR: It’s been a natural evolution. We’ve spent all this time playing the material we’ve written up to that point, and this time we wanted to raise the bar. As a result, the new album is more complex. Also, we wanted to introduce some new motifs and textures into our music, and move into territory we hadn’t explored yet.
Treble: So Heartless is the band’s newest phase?
JDR: In the grand scheme of things. We’ve had a vision of the direction we wanted to head [in] with the band since really early on, and I think this is the culmination of our vision… at least up until this point. I think we’ve actually achieved what we’ve been setting out to do for a number of years now. Simply put, the new album’s technicality was a natural side-effect of all of these other factors; primarily from having spent so much time playing our older material and wanting to give ourselves a new hurdle to clear with the new stuff. That kept things interesting for us, and hopefully for other people too.
Treble: Heartless is very much the next step in the evolution of the band, so with that in mind, what was it like working with Billy Anderson as producer in the Foundations era, and how does it compare to essentially looking after the new album yourselves (aside from your work with Joe Barresi, who’s produced albums for the likes of Tool and Queens of the Stone Age)?
JDR: We loved working with Billy, and we put a lot of the things we learned during our sessions with him into practice on this album. In particular, one of the things we took away from creating that album was that we definitely didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Honestly we probably could have done Foundations differently. That was a very maximal recording process. It has many, many, many more layers of instrumentation on it than Heartless does. As time went on, we were seeing how frustrating recording it could be, and we wanted to take a completely different approach to our next album.
With Heartless we wanted the recording sessions to be as stress-free as possible. We mainly produced it ourselves, so we were able to dictate our own directions. There wasn’t anybody else prompting us to do this or that, but working with Billy was amazing and had a pretty profound influence on what we decided to do with this [new] record. I’d absolutely love to do another project with him at some point.
Treble: You’ve relocated since finishing Foundations. Did that have any bearing on the recording sessions for the new album?
JDR: There’s a few different ways you could look at that. In some respects it wasn’t all that different than how things have been in the past. I mean, with the current state of technology, musical ideas can spread [between band members] in moments: someone records a riff on their phone when in their apartment or whatever, and within seconds of doing that, someone else halfway across the country can have that and listen to it. Sometimes, that’s like a springboard to another idea; and that’s something that we’ve always done.
There hasn’t been a time in a long time where all of us have lived in the same house or whatever—there was definitely a point in time when we did that—but that’s the way that we’ve worked for years. That added distance didn’t really change much. What it did change was that it led to us sharpening our focus when we all got together in the same room. There was definitely more pressure to utilize the time we had as best we could, instead of getting together for an aimless jam or something like that. We were able to have very specific goals in mind whenever we could get together, so that was definitely something that changed; or at least our mindset regarding that was different than what it had been in the past.
There’s a pretty intense focus throughout [the record]; not as much of the exploratory elements that we’ve had in the past, like the sort that stemmed from us jamming on a riff, or coming up with improv ideas. We spent as much time as we could honing [the album’s] elements to what they ended up being. It’s not as experimental as some of the stuff we wrote in the past.
Treble: You’re headed to Europe on tour soon: how do you think your live performances are received in Europe, and how would they compare to your reception in the US and Canada? I’ve heard from plenty of bands who have told me there’s a difference between the two regions; what do you reckon?
JDR: Oh, yeah, there’s definitely a difference on a couple of different levels, one of which is the… well, the volume limit that’s so prevalent in Europe is definitely problematic! We’ve had to play some shows in the past—I think, like, in Switzerland and a few other places—where we had to turn our amps down so much that you could easily use a normal speaking voice and still be heard over the volume of music. That’s a massive departure from what a normal show of ours would be like, with a, you know, moderate noise level.
That’s a challenge; and there’s also, I don’t know…an, uh, interesting frankness that a lot of European fans have. They definitely don’t have any problems coming up to the merch table and asking us why our second album “isn’t as good as our first one” or something like that. We’ve… had people come up and, like, give really harsh criticism, openly… which I’m kind of respectful of, since it seems like a lot of people will just get on the internet to complain about that sort of thing! That’s definitely different.
Treble: What is the weirdest—in light of that anecdote you just gave me—backhanded compliment the band (or you yourself) have received after a show, hanging out at the merch stand?
JDR: Man, that’s a good question! I remember seeing a tweet this one time that said, ‘the bass player of Pallbearer is on an 8 – we need him at a 5!’ That’s definitely the one that immediately springs to mind, though I’m sure there are plenty of other weird things that have been said. Oh, and that incident I mentioned a minute ago really happened—we were in Finland and a guy came up to the merch table just to tell us that he, like, hated our second album! Honestly, I’ve gotta admire people who devote the time and money to come to our shows just to tell us that they don’t like us!
GO’M: Wow. Well, I guess, at the end of the day it’s their money going on the ticket!
JDR: Yeah, that’s, like, an intense level of dedication.
Treble: Returning to an earlier topic: Nuclear Blast. What led to you signing with them for European releases and promotion?
JDR: Well, Profound Lore had no European distribution, that’s what it boils down to. Basically, we got this constant feedback from our [European] fans that they were excited to buy our records because neither of our previous albums were available [in stores] in Europe. That was something we immediately took to heart, so we tried to be proactive about rectifying that issue.
We were really happy with the deal being offered to us by Nuclear Blast. See, we have no issues with distribution here. Profound Lore has always offered us great distribution deals, so these problems became immediately apparent when we went to Europe. It wasn’t readily available anywhere, so we were shooting ourselves in the foot touring somewhere we had no music for people to buy… other than at the show, I mean. People only having one chance to buy it but not having enough money to buy that night, then saying they’d do it later and then having to spend an exorbitant amount of money getting it imported from North America.
We had to do this out of pure practicality, and we wanted to have the same sort of, or even greater, distribution [over there]. Nuclear Blast is obviously a huge label, and that’s cool. I mean, Profound Lore isn’t a huge label, but they’ve been very accommodating to us, helping us reach a point, right now, where we’re able to get the best of both worlds on different labels.
Treble: I should mention that the European Profound Lore shop doesn’t have a whole lot in it at the moment, even on a cursory browse…
JDR: It’s fairly new; as of even a year ago the label had absolutely no European distribution. Basically, they set it up a while after we had signed with Nuclear Blast, something that had been in the works for a seriously long time. Profound Lore must have got some sort of situation worked out… but yeah, it’s nowhere near the scale of Nuclear Blast’s.
Treble: All the same, it’s resulted in opportunities for your music to reach a much wider audience. Have you noticed, or would you care to comment on, the so-called “crossover” success the band’s first two albums have had, Foundations in particular? It picked up a lot of coverage in non-metal-focused places, and seemed to have a far wider reach than people had been expecting…
JDR: Well, for one reason or another—and this was pretty much right out of the gate—there were people who wouldn’t necessarily have called themselves “metal” people but really liked Pallbearer; and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we consider ourselves to be more than just a basic metal band, or doom metal band.
Most of our influences come from outside the world of metal; a lot of it is from, like, classic rock and stuff like that. I think that because of [those elements] our music has appealed to a broader range of people. I mean, we—all of us—don’t just listen to metal. We probably more of other types of music than [we do] metal, so it makes sense that those sentiments would continue to spread out and imprint themselves upon the music we create.
Honestly, I’m pretty happy about that. I don’t understand the idea of exclusivity in metal. I don’t know… the idea that it’s not cool or acceptable to be into kinds of music other than metal, well, that’s an odd notion to me.
Treble: You say that different influences go into the creation of Pallbearer’s music. What sort of influences or touchstones did you guys draw on to create the new album?
JDR: I’ll just name a handful: Kansas; Pink Floyd; Asia; Scorpions; Brian Eno; Judas Priest; and Garth Brooks.
Treble: Garth Brooks?!? That, uh… that definitely stands out as something I wouldn’t have expected!
JDR: I don’t know if it’s something that we would have expected either, but it’s true!
Treble: I can definitely see why you guys would consider yourselves a “rock” band rather than one rooted strictly in metal. You seem to have toned down the doom elements of your sound in favor of exploring other ideas, in terms of texture and what tempo everybody’s comfortable playing at—moving into more progressive territory (which echoes what we were talking about earlier). The new songs are both your most melodic and heaviest material to date, so did you just feel more comfortable working with relative extremes this time around?
JDR: To a degree. We definitely wanted some songs and sections to be way heavier than others, with the overall atmosphere giving everything room to breathe, in such a way that when a heavy section came in, it’d be pretty suffocating.
We also wanted to apply the sort of timeless production techniques used by the bands from 40-plus years ago that everyone still listens to all the time. There are reasons why that music has stood the test of time, and that’s something we aspire to. At the same time, we’re also, like, slaves to the process. When we’re working on new music, the riffs seem to dictate the direction of the song. They move really closely in step with how they might work together in the grand scheme of a record, in general.
We had this sort of vetting period, like: “Is this tempo or this dynamic fitting in with where we want to take this record?”—that sort of thing. I know there definitely was some time when we were deliberating and trying to decide how things would pan out, but clearly we ended up with a unified vision of where Heartless was headed, sometimes into completely different territory than anything we’d tried before.
Treble: Which song on the album is your personal favorite?
JDR: It changes! I go back and forth between different ones all the time, but the one I’ve been most fixated on recently has been “Dancing in Madness,” the song on Heartless that’s been around the longest… at least, parts of it have been around the longest, but it was also the last song to be completed in the studio and the last to get mixed. It was the one that took the longest for me to get my head around too, I guess, [regarding] what the completed song would be like. I think once it reached its final form and I spent some time with it, I started to fixate on it.
Every song on the album has been my favorite at some point, though. Now I think about it, my favorite will continue to change through the routine of playing these songs live. At different points in time, [in a live setting] we explore different aspects of our songs to create… well, probably yet another form live. That’s the definitive version for us: the songs evolve, even from the recorded version, so when we get 2 years down the road… like, we play “Worlds Apart” completely differently than how we did when it was fresh out of the studio. The songs are almost like living things.