There isn’t a double-edged sword sharper than hype. Sure, it broadens your appeal and gets you a few new fans but more often than not, it’s a recipe for falling hard. Thankfully, there are bands out there like Pallbearer, capable of making emotionally and sonically devastating doom that pleases critics and fans alike. With Heartless, their most aggressive and daring record to date, on its way, we spoke to bassist Joseph D Rowland about resisting hype and why dad-rock will never die.
How are things for you and the rest of the guys?
They’re good, just mentally gearing up for being really active again. Most of 2016 was spent writing and recording an album, apart from a few shows we did with Baroness so it’s been a while since we were out on the road like we will be this year. Also, just excited that the album release is on the horizon.
How did you find the writing and recording of Heartless in comparison to those first two albums?
It’s definitely a more aggressive record. The writing process was a little different this time around because shortly after the release of Foundations Of Burden I relocated to New York City and everybody else still lives in Little Rock, Arkansas so our writing and rehearsing sessions were a little more restrained this time around as we had to rely on the schedule of when I was able to get to Little Rock to rehearse with everybody. I felt like that contributed to this urgency this album has that maybe our previous albums didn’t have as much. Overall, I think the other albums have more of a glacial nature than this. I was thinking earlier today that when someone asks us in layman’s terms what our band sounds like, we’ve always likened it to Black Sabbath while this record is more Pink Floyd meets Metallica. Overall, it’s a different mindset and application, including the fact that the way that we wrote the record was different in some ways to how we had in the past.
Did your surroundings and the relocation to New York help to shape this more aggressive sound?
I suppose that’s possible, but I think that more than anything was giving the space for us to work because Brett and I have always been the primary songwriters for the band and this time around, Kevin and Brett worked pretty closely on a few songs on the record, so that was an opportunity that hadn’t really been afforded before when we mostly would work separately, writing riffs at home, but would get together constantly just to fill the songs out. It was a separate process, and the pieces of the songs would determine when we would get together. So I don’t think that New York itself shaped the record, it was just that our rehearsals hadn’t really been filled with the purpose of getting the record done in the small windows of time we were in the same room.
There’s an emotional and dynamic range on here that you had always hinted at but never quite dove into this fully. Was there a sense that this was the kind of album that you had wanted to make from the very beginning?
In a sense, yeah. In some senses, this album fulfils what we were trying to do with our previous album but didn’t quite hit the mark. I love that album but in terms of it being as emotional or immediate, and in terms of the broad range of influences we have, they really gelled much better on this record; last time around I feel like we were sort of headed in this direction but we weren’t quite there yet. So I think that emotional breadth you’re talking about was the result of us having played stuff from our previous albums on the road so much, developing this greater sense of how we perform as players and as people. We tried to step that up because every time we make an album, we always say that if there’s one goal in mind, it’s to make it our best album that we’ve created so far. There’s always a sense of trying to outdo ourselves because if we don’t, what’s the point? That’s how we never become lackadaisical and just write the same album over and over again. It has to have a different feeling or point or musical competency.
Are there any constants to Pallbearer’s sounds, aspects that will always remain no matter how much you evolve?
I’m thankful for those things that help to give us a singular sound. No matter what directions we head I feel that there will always be the elements of how we play as individual musicians and how we play together. We’ve been together almost ten years now, and then Brett and I played together for three years before that so I feel like, at this point, we know exactly what our sound is and we’re always trying to explore and push the boundaries of it, but I wouldn’t want to shy away from the things that work for us; like really intense melodicism is a cornerstone of the band. We’re not a dissonant-sounding band – all of the compositions aim at this high melodicism. Also, Brett’s singing ability – he’s really developed his own voice, for lack of a better word; he’s completely come into his own. Especially because after years of touring, he’s starting to understand what it takes to be a professional vocalist and I think that this is definitely his strongest vocal performance.
What about yourself? How do you feel you are coming along as a performer and writer?
Well, I would say I have become much more proficient as a guitar player over the last few years, even from Foundations of Burden to now. I spend most of my time in composition playing guitar – even though I play bass live in the band, I very rarely play it outside of the live scenarios – so I think developing this keener understanding of the differences between them, playing music on guitar for my contributions on the album and then shifting that over to bass has really changed a lot of my perspective, because I’ve always approached playing bass a little differently than most. Playing guitar so much has definitely helped me think about it a lot more broadly than I have in the past. Also, this record has the most amount of my vocals; Kevin and I did quite a bit of vocals on this record compared to a little bit on the last record and then Foundation has maybe one line that I did. Pretty much everybody, minus Mark, stepped it up in adding a lot of new elements in that aspect.
Was there a greater sense of confidence that allowed you to step forward in this regard or was in simply a case of necessity?
It’s really on a song-by-song basis. If we feel when we get to that part of the process that it serves the song in a way that makes sense, that’s what we do. I guess there is a higher sense of confidence but it’s also like trying to broaden the overall sonic horizons of the band by everyone contributing more creative elements than we have in the past. There are also more synthesiser elements on this record than there has been. It’s been about exploring more fully the microcosm of what is possible with Pallbearer without stepping too far out of what we’ve already established so that it’s not the same sound as before.
“There’s always a sense of trying to outdo ourselves because if we don’t, what’s the point? That’s how we never become lackadaisical and just write the same album over and over again. It has to have a different feeling or point or musical competency.”
I’ve heard you saying in the past that you’re big fans of, for want of a better term, ‘dad rock.’ You can feel that influence creeping in on this, both in the melodies and in the solo work. Was this something you always wanted to bring into your sound?
I think it was less of a conscious choice really early on but once we had a better sense of where we wanted to take the band, even before Sorrow And Extinction came, those ideas were present in our minds and I think we just honed in on how to execute them better as time went on. But yeah, we’re massive, massive fans of Kansas and Asia and Boston. There’s a fine line between dad rock and some of the proto-metal bands like Judas Priest and Scorpions.
I was curious about your use of lyrics in Pallbearer – they seem to straddle personal experience, fantasy and social commentary. Is there a conscious effort to encompass all of these facets rather than be tagged as a band that focuses solely on one?
The lyrical approach on this record is quite different and I don’t necessarily agree about the fantasy element, at least probably not what a lot of people would think of as fantasy. In the past, there’s been a lot of emphasis from our end writing songs from the perspective of the otherworldly. When there would be a song written from a first-person perspective, it would be something that was relevant to human nature or emotion or something like that – it wasn’t taking place in our reality, per se, but I think our record is a pretty big shift away from that. We’re still using a lot of the same language but it’s a lot closer to home, a lot more raw and real. Not to say the other things weren’t but on this, we were all pretty troubled about the political climate in the world as it stands, so there’s a lot of foreboding in our midst right now. We took a step away from what you were saying as the fantastical elements and wanted to write around how we’re feeling about the state of things. There’s sorrow on the record but also a sense of anger that we haven’t really touched on in the past.
You can really tell that on a song like “I Saw The End”. It feels like one of the most confrontational things you have ever written. Is there still a sense of optimism left with you guys?
It’s tough to say. It’s not feeling very optimistic right now and I think there’s a lot of apprehension over what is possible because right now it feels like we’re almost in a state of chaos, like everything that’s happening is a step in the wrong direction but I guess we’ll see. That’s sort of what the record’s about in some ways, not in a whole overarching context but a rejection of all of these corrupt elements that are being promoted to higher statures in the world these days.
On a lighter note, even going back to the first album you guys got a lot of fantastic press and that was stepped up even more on Foundations… How easy is it to shrug off the weight of expectation and shut it all out when writing?
It’s really not difficult. We started this band because we wanted to play shows with other bands that we liked in the Little Rock metal scene and also because Brett and I were both going through some difficult times in our respective lives. There was never this lofty goal that we were going to get big and tour everywhere, so really we just maintained that concept throughout our careers. Don’t expect anything and whatever’s going on, just roll with it. But it’s exciting. I feel very thankful to have been afforded many of the opportunities that we have so far and I’ve gotten to see so much of the world that I wouldn’t have had even a few years ago, so I still view it as a very exciting thing but I don’t have any expectations about it. It could all just stop one day and life would go on. There’s no pressure other than amongst ourselves to make an album better than anything we’ve ever done. People are going to have opinions on it no matter what and we have no ability to change that one way or another so it doesn’t even factor in. It’s just our internal goals to make an album that we’re proud of and that’s timeless in its own way.
It’s interesting because the more people you reach, the more interpretations of your music that you’ll be receiving. Have you encountered any that were so wide of the mark that they were a million millions from what you’d intended?
Sure – haters gonna hate. I think there’s a common misconception that we’re a band who are incredibly influenced by the band Warning. It seems like that comes pretty often but I don’t really understand why people seem to believe it. There are plenty of opinions out there but I guess thanks to the internet, everybody’s a critic in some way.
Congratulations on signing with Nuclear Blast, by the way! How did that come about?
We learned after touring Europe a few times that our records weren’t getting the distribution they needed to in Europe and the UK so we met with a few different labels that were interested about doing a co-release as we still had one record left in our contract with Profound Lore in North America. We really hit it off with Monte (Conner), who’s one of the head honchos at Nuclear Blast. He’s a big Type O Negative fan and worked with them back in the ‘90s, and us in the band are major followers of them, so that was the sign for us that this was a good direction for us to go in, and it’s been great so far.