There's something mythological about doom metal. You expect the musicians who play it to be half-human and half-creature or some sort of vengeful deity. In reality, it's usually just a group of young men who've grown up in a scene that encourages individuality and nurtures the darker aspects of life.
When listening to Pallbearer, you can almost imagine yourself on a humid summer night in Little Rock, Arkansas, staring up in the sky in a state of deep contemplation. It might sound unpleasant, or even depressing, but then again, doom metal is about meditation and reflection, as well as a form of aggressive expression. With Pallbearer, the listener gets lyrical content that’s contemplative with a sense of mystical realism, coupled with punishing music that churns and drones.
Their first album, Sorrow and Extinction, was critically acclaimed, bringing a lot of attention to the band. This year saw the release of their sophomore effort, Foundations of Burden, an album that proves it wasn't just beginner's luck. Singer and guitarist Brett Campbell, bassist Joseph Rowland, guitarist Devin Holt and drummer Mark Lierly are touring behind the new album and leaving converts in their wake. Campbell spoke with us about the new album, the creative process and the tour.
After all the buzz about Sorrow and Extinction, how did you guys approach writing the follow up, Foundations of Burden?
We pretty much just did our thing. If it affected us in any way, it's more that we toured so much on it. We kind of wanted to make a record that was a little more interesting to play live, not that we don't enjoy playing the older songs, too, but the newer ones have greater dynamics and tempo stuff. I don't know; we were pretty much writing for something that would be more fun for us to play live and come across a little different but still stay in the same aesthetic — make it recognizably Pallbearer, I suppose. We kind of had a plan before we made the first album for what we were wanting to do for the second album. We're just doing what we planned to do to begin with. We have a plan for the third album, too, which we've had since the beginning. How exactly it manifests, we'll see. After we tour on this and those songs start to develop, we'll see where it goes, but we've always kind of had an idea of what we wanted to do from the very beginning.
How did the writing process between the two albums differ?
At least from my perspective, it comes from a different place emotionally — the songs do. When writing this stuff, I was in a different emotional spot than I was when I was writing the Sorrow [and Extinction] stuff, so ... naturally it'll come across different. It's not a contrived feeling or anything. If the album was morose — I couldn't sustainably live in the mental states that I was at. When composing those songs, it wasn't very healthy — I wasn't in a good place, so this album comes across slightly different. It's still dark, but it's not suicidal, exactly. Instead of a sense of mourning and personal loss — at least from my perspective — it's more anger and frustration and stuff like that, rather than deep sadness. It sounds a little different. Just as the first one was cathartic at the time for us to make, the second one is, too. It's just coming from a slightly different place.
Was there any pressure to live up to the reception of Sorrow?
If I tried to make another Sorrow and Extinction 2, it wouldn't have been very good and it wouldn't have been very honest, for one. I'm not really trying to. To the question, 'Do the expectations or any of the End-of-the-Year lists from the first one affect us?' I'd have to say no, because if you start worrying about that sort of stuff, you can't do anything. If you feel like there's someone looking over your shoulder with expectations ... I couldn't personally work that way, so I just choose not to worry about it.
The song "Ashes" off the new record is a good example of the band's progression.
Yeah, man, that was kind of a curveball. That's a Joe [Rowland] song. He sang and pretty much did that whole song; I just played guitar on it. I think that was cool; it was kind of a "Changes" or something like that. I'm personally excited about it in the sense that there are so many people that are just like, "Fuck Changes!" They think it's some sappy song. I guess there's one on every [Black] Sabbath album, you know? Just a trippy song. I think it was kind of cool for us to do. We enjoy doing pyschedelia, too. There's a big dose of psychedelia across all our stuff.
Psychedelia has a much bigger part in metal than most people realize.
Yeah, especially in slow stuff. It's inherently psychedelic, because it's not like death metal or something that's just hammering you, which is great, but it's more about creating a mental journey you can go on. It's not necessarily straight and to the point; it's something that, the more you spend time with it, the more it'll reveal itself to you. We spent so long conceptualizing stuff; I'm pretty meticulous when it comes to composing and making sure that everything fits just right, cutting where it needs to be cut, extending where it needs to be extended, and making sure everything fits where it should. I've seen some reviews online for Foundations. Sometimes, it's entertaining reading that stuff. One person will say that it's too upbeat and then another person says that it's way too long and drawn out.
Maybe that speaks to the fact that you guys didn't just make the same record.
It's all kind of strange to me. I probably shouldn't even read reviews, but it's kind of hard not to. There's novelty to it. It's just weird; even after all of the stuff from the first album, it's still strange that people give a fuck and will actually go online and talk about something that we made. It's cool. Whether or not they like it, they're still talking about it. Being a dude from Arkansas, I never expected people in Germany to be talking about it.
What bands influenced your sound the most?
Everything that I like or that we all like. Joe and I are the primary songwriters, so we have what we've conceived as a Pallbearer sound, but everything we like goes into it. Must of the stuff that I borrow from as influences don't come through all that much. I'm really into Robin Trower and Camel and stuff like that. Colosseum — I was listening to [them] when I was listening to a lot of the stuff. They don't exist anymore; I guess the front man or main songwriter died. If anything that we've been trying to do, we're trying to take the spirit of [Black] Sabbath in general and put it in our own way without copying. What made Sabbath so great to begin with, is at the time, there wasn't any other band like them. They were not a regular band; they were making up their own rules, and no one else had ever done that before. But they also had plenty of dynamics; they threw curveballs.
How do you write?
It varies. Sometimes I'll just write a whole song, and other times we'll combine riffs and sort of work through stuff, practice, arrange stuff, and figure out how may times to repeat, where everything needs to sit, etc. For my stuff, I usually compose full songs and literally combine stuff. We'll have a section of music and somebody else will come up with a riff or we'll be playing on something we practiced and all of a sudden have a "Eureka!" moment like, "Aha! Hang on guys; we've got a new part. Just give me a second, I have to figure this out" and see if works and try it out. If it doesn't, change it or get rid of it. It's a slow process — it can be a slow process. They take a long time. My writing process is pretty intuitive. It just kind of happens. I don't feel like I'm composing, but I'll have inspiration for some idea — like a silhouette of sorts, then generally try to shed light on it.
Does that apply to lyrics, as well?
Yeah, pretty much. For the most part, I've written all the lyrics. On this one, it was pretty much half-and-half. I wrote the lyrics to "Foundations," "Watcher," and "Vanished." Joe wrote "Worlds Apart," "Ghost," and "Ashes." It was 50/50. I usually just write them in one sitting; it takes like two or three hours usually. I don't really rush to write anything down; I just wait until I get the idea or I'll stew around for weeks or months trying to figure out what the song about.
It goes back to working from the silhouette.
Yeah. If some sort of idea or feeling is in my head, I'm trying to make it reality in the best one it could be — what I would think is the correct form for me. Like I said, some of them can take two days, and some of them could take two years or four years. The second half of "Vanished," I went through six or seven entire songs before it finally clicked. Once we reached a certain point in the song, this riff hit me and then the rest of the song happened in a flash. I just furiously wrote the song in like, two hours. I spent years and years trying to figure out where that song was going. I knew I wanted to keep the first part because I really liked it and knew that was a song we were going to use, but it was only half a song, and it became five different songs before I figured out the real version.
Does that inform the length of Pallbearer's songs?
I don't think of our songs being that long. It's supposed to take its time and reveal itself. It's like the songwriting process; there's something there and you have to be patient in order to discover what it is.
Your songs would not make as much sense if they were three minutes long.
If, one day, we finish a song and it's three minutes long and it's supposed to be three minutes long, then we'll have a three-minute song. We're not going to consciously try to make our songs shorter for any reason. We try to make our songs as short as possible already, and not in the sense that we're trying to cut down a certain minute. We'll just trim the excess fat. We'll feel it whenever it has the correct flow. It's so easy to draw shit out and hammer on one riff for five minutes or something, but that's something we've never really done. Anytime there's a riff that's repeated over and over and over, there's things coming in and out around it: the lead guitar, the vocals, the drums will change. We don't hammer on riffs because they're heavy riffs; the riffs are always serving the larger song. Riffs for the sake of riffs — that's not what we're trying to do. I think of it as more of a stream of consciousness rather than a thought loop. You can evoke a bunch of different kinds of emotions, which is why I enjoy it and play it anyway. You can create this claustrophobic, nightmare, badass scenario through repetition, extreme tone, and a lack of change — and that's really cool. Lots of bands do that really well, but that's not what our goal is. We're trying to take you somewhere — this aforementioned journey — and there can be elements of claustrophobia, anger, and madness, but it's not a single-minded thing.
Pallbearer, Tombs, Vattnet Viskar, 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $12, grog shop.gs.