With the release of their second album, Foundations of Burden, Arkansas act Pallbearer pushed their doom metal sound to new levels under the guidance of producer Billy Anderson. Before the band’s Portland show, we sat down with bassist Joseph D. Rowland to talk about heavy music, vegetarian food and bad show etiquette.
Last time you came here, you played Rotture and didn’t come on until midnight. I made through one song before I had to bail because I had to be up at six the next morning. I’m glad you’re going on at 9:15 pm tonight. Is going on late something you guys like to do?
Later than 9:15 is more our style. We don’t like to play super, super late anymore because we’ve been on tour since September 1st. The wear and tear of going on after midnight can get pretty intense.
Yeah, and your songs are long too. Are they longer live than on record?
It depends on the song, man. We honestly play a lot of the songs faster live than on the record so they are shorter.
You recorded your new album here in Portland. Are there any spots or restaurants that are special to you now?
Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of it. The very first day we got into town to record, we went to this bar close to Rotture and they had the best vegan barbecue sandwich that I’ve ever had.
Are you a vegetarian?
Everyone in the band?
Is it difficult being a vegetarian on the road?
It can be, but if you put a little effort into it, it’s not anything too crazy. I try to avoid eating junk food. I just look around for places that have healthy stuff to eat.
Do you guys bring your own sound guy when you tour?
Yeah, we have a front of house engineer that we bring on tour with us. We didn’t used to, but at this level, we have one and a tour manager and stuff like that.
A lot of your music relies on some pretty intricate guitar.
It makes a massive difference having the same sound guy who understands the music, and we’re not at the mercy of a random person who has no idea what we do.
It seems like you get asked the same questions in interviews: Why do non-metal people like your music? What do the songs mean? One thing that struck me that you said is that songs on the second album are more personal and introspective than the first one. However, the songs on the first record are about mortality. How can you get more personal and introspective than that?
Mostly in the sense that what is talked about on the first album is on a grander scale, so it’s a little less personal in that sense. The lyrics I wrote for the new album, because I only wrote half the songs, are extremely personal and relate to very specific things.
You had some stuff going on with you?
Yeah, both albums, but different things.
Is there an overarching theme to the new music?
There’s a lot of focus on letting go of regret. A lot of what Brett wrote about, at least from my perspective, and I am sure there are a lot of nuances that I couldn’t even begin to get into, is about the general downfall of humanity. The weight of the past that is crushing humanity into its decline.
Is it possible to do your type of music and be upbeat?
We have our moments.
Not to pigeonhole you, most metal bands seem pretty dark in their material.
Do you mean upbeat musically?
Ah, man, it’s really not as dark as you might think. Some of the stuff I wrote about is actually not dark at all. It’s all perspective.
As 2014 comes to a close, what are your favorite albums of the year?
My favorite album of the year is Are We There by Sharon Van Etten. That album blew me away. There hasn’t been another single thing this year that I think comes close. To Be Kind by Swans is awesome. I didn’t really get that into The Seer. I’ve been a Swans fan for a long time but The Seer felt overlong, in not a great way. The new one has similar structures and length but it was a lot more engaging. The newest Martyrdöd album, Elddop, is my favorite metal album. The new Wovenhand album is fantastic. I liked that Sun Kil Moon album.
He is really making an ass of himself now.
It’s pretty entertaining. Some of the lyrics are so stream-of-consciousness that it’s like funny. Like he’s singing about eating at Red Lobster and stuff. It’s like unintentionally funny, I feel like but it’s also really amazing.
Can you imagine memorizing all those lyrics and playing it live?
He actually doesn’t play it. I saw him at Fun Fun Fun Fest and it looked like he was doing a stand-up comedy routine. He was walking around with a hand in his pocket. It was weird, man. He’s a fantastic guitarist. He has been all his life. Every project Mark Kozelek has done has killer guitar work. I only saw him play guitar on one song. I didn’t watch the whole set. It got too weird. It seemed like he was singing karaoke or something.
Don’t say anything else or he’s going to about you guys.
Bring it on. I would actually love that. His album came out early in the year, not that it wouldn’t be relevant, but he’s been in the headlines and being talked about more for this than when the album came out.
A lot of the albums and artists that you are mentioning are all pretty dark.
Yeah! I have pretty much, invariably gravitated towards melancholic music all my life. That’s what inspires me and I enjoy listening to that pretty much more than anything else.
The difference between Pallbearer vs. Sun Kil Moon is if you look at the lyrics sheets. Yours are so tiny.
The inverse from what he does (laughs). The way a lot of the solos and the guitar leads are written are really lyrical. It’s in place of the vocal line, basically.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “The Legend.” It sounds like it builds off this one repetitive lick. Is that how all your songs come together?
It’s different from song to song. Brett and I write the majority of everything between us. Everyone contributes, but he and I are the primary songwriters. We usually compose the song skeleton separately. I like to write with a theme and variation in mind. At least for this album that’s how it worked out. Every song is a little different in the composition and the development of the composition.
How do you translate your sound into the live show, especially when you’ve upped the stakes for the new album in the studio?
We already had that vision in mind before we went into the studio with Billy (Anderson). We went out of the studio trying to replicate the dynamics the record had. Maybe not be as full bore all the time. Have sections where we will use a pedal where it’s not totally saturated all the time. We’ll still have the peaks and valleys of the record but with only two guitars and a bass and not with all the layers. There are some points where we have to pick and choose. We can’t do every layer that we did on the record, so the live presentation is a little different. But I still think it’s a good representation of the way the songs sound on the record.
Do you think you guys have grown as performers from the first time around?
Unquestionably. We’ve played like well over 140 shows this year. It’s been a good portion of the year. When put out Sorrow and Extinction we only played out of state a few times. We did like a five day tour and played these really underground metal festivals. It’s like a night and day difference. For all intents and purposes, this is what we do professionally, except for once we’re at home. I work at a pizza place when we’re not on tour.
You still do?
I may not go back. I’ve been gone for months. They’re good about letting me pick up shifts when I’m at home. But I am thinking about moving and I may not go back to it.
When I interviewed Hutch Harris from the Thermals he said the goal nowadays isn’t to be rich, but just not to have a day job anymore.
I haven’t had to have a day job in that sense for a while. I live pretty frugally. I used to work for PBS before Sorrow and Extinction came up and up until the fall of that year. I had been working for PBS for quite a while. I really don’t want to go back to that sort of life again. I was a producer for PBS. I already did the career thing. Once I had been in it for years, I didn’t feel like that life was for me. Then I had the opportunity to do this. Like American Beauty. You’ve seen that movie, right?
Obviously, I’m not middle-aged, but there is something about working in that environment and then moving to something that’s way less responsibility and a lot less stress, I’m okay with sacrificing the comfort and the money I used to make. It felt like it was taking up so much of my headspace and my sanity having to do that kind of thing. Being able to spend a lot of time working on music and then having an easy job that I don’t even have to think about when I’m not there is great.
What about health insurance?
Eh. I will just die early.
Talk to me about your album covers. There is some pretty scary stuff going on there.
It’s not intended to be scary. It’s like otherworldly, like a dream-realm kind of thing. A lot of our lyrics are drawn from that area of the mind.
Are you guys fantasy fans?
Brett is a massive hard sci-fi fan. I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami. It’s not really fantasy, but there is magical realism. That’s a huge influence on me.
Since you quit the day job and have taken up the touring life, have there been more magical elements to your life?
Yeah, sometimes. I see it from time to time. I don’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole with this but I’ve definitely experienced stuff that’s not easily explained within the confines of science.
I’ve interviewed the guys from Wolves in the Throne Room and they see magic in nature. I don’t see that in your music so much.
No, it has nothing to do with anything you can look at or that’s there right now.
What is it you hope people experience at your shows?
It’s my hope that people will connect with the music in a cathartic way because that’s what I feel when I play it. It’s really hard for me to quantify what someone else might feel. It’s super hard for me to look at it objectively. It’s so incredibly personal to me. There is constant outpouring of emotion for me no matter how many times I’ve played the songs. I don’t know what it means to another person. I don’t really see the audience much. If someone is on their phone and texting right in the front row that’s like…It doesn’t really make me angry. There have been a couple of times when I’ve said some shit to people talking really loud. We have a lot of quiet parts. When we get to that and they obviously weren’t expecting that and they are still talking really loud.