It took half a decade for Pallbearer to place themselves at the forefront of the doom metal renaissance. Their 2014 sophomore effort, Foundations of Burden, earned near-universal critical praise for its masterful marriage of mood and melody. Their third abum, Heartless, ups the ante, imbuing the Arkansas quartet’s melancholy movements with a new sense of majesty, ambition, and perhaps most importantly, vulnerability. Ahead of their second Australian visit and first ever Perth show at Badlands (supported by Dirac Sea and Ohm Rune) this Friday June 30, MATTHEW TOMICH spoke with vocalist/guitarist Brett Campbell about the recording of Heartless and the evolution of Pallbearer’s process.
You’ve had a few months now to tour the tracks from Heartless in the US and Europe – how are they sounding live?
They’re really enjoyable to play. When we first started touring in the US – our last tour was about six weeks – we started in the US then flew from Chicago to Prague and had like 3 days off before the European tour started. For me, it’s like all one tour. So at the beginning, all the newer songs were kind of difficult to play because they’re a bit more complex, but by the end of the tour they were just as easy as the old songs, and we were having a blast. They were always fun to play but now they’re easy and also fun, so it’s a nice feeling. I think we’re going to feel really prepared for this next tour.
You mentioned the songs were a bit more complex and that was something I didn’t notice until I was a few listens in, when I was reading a review of Heartless and they mentioned something I hadn’t picked up on – which is that the album’s kind of devoid of the traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure. A lot of the songs unfold more like movements akin to classical composition or post-rock. What inspired that shift towards a more classically informed style of songwriting?
Our old stuff’s like that too, it’s the same. I think maybe it’s easy to overlook because the songs are all going somewhere and when you’re listening to them, most people don’t pick up on that. But all of our stuff is actually like that. There are a couple of exceptions but at least 85% of our songs are not linear. They start at point A, they go through a bunch of movements and they end up at point B. Me and Joe (Rowland, bassist) have always been really big fans of just non-traditional – although I guess classical is like the most traditional, but non-rock traditional – styles of songwriting and structuring music and stuff. And I think it fits the type of ideas and storytelling through music that we’re trying to do. It’s more interesting as us for songwriters. Verse-chorus-verse is easy to do, but trying to tell an epic story and write a piece of music that works as a series of riffs one after another that actually flow together and the listener may not even notice, that it isn’t a traditional song structure: that’s the challenge. And it’s more satisfying as a songwriter. And that leads to more emotional… it takes you in a journey.
Is that something that you looked for in music when you were growing up as a listener and as a fan – songs that were more narrative based and more experiential?
Absolutely. And still. I love experimental music in general and people who play around with the format of whatever project they’re in, whether it’s rock or anything else. I was listening to Autechre earlier which is really bizarre, almost incomprehensible to me. It’s so hard to figure out what the hell’s going on. I love stuff like that that pushes boundaries, in art in general, not just music. I like things that try to do new things, trying to do things that are interesting in an idiosyncratic way.
I think for me one of the first artists I came to as a find who did that kind of thing was Type O Negative. One of my most played tracks of last year was your cover of Love You to Death on the Fear & Fury EP. Could you tell me about how you first came to Type O as a listener and how Pallbearer came to cover that track?
I’m from a little suburb in Arkansas and there was fuck all to do. We had a CD store in the town and if it looked like it might be kind of heavy or metal or prog rock or something like that, I’d just buy it. I was a teenager and I just blew all my money on my CDs. I think I literally just bought Life is Killing Me because I thought that was a cool title. You know what, no – my friend burned me World Coming Down on a CD-R. It was awful but awesome. It’s not really awful but at the time I thought it just doesn’t sound like a normal guitar. I loved the overall sound they created and that kind of weird tongue-in-cheek dark vibe. I still do.
We were in town on Halloween and local bands will do a cover set as other bands. And we were in town three years ago or so for Halloween and we thought we should work up a Type O Negative set. This was when we were starting to write for Heartless so I started figuring out some of the songs. We realised it was going to be a whole lot of work and that time would probably be spent writing our own material, because it was going to take a while to do it right. If you’re going to cover Type O Negative, you have to do it right. You can’t half-ass some songs that to me are really, really well done. So we ended up just learning Love You to Death and played at that Halloween show, then played the rest of our normal songs.
That Fear & Fury EP was actually an experiment to check out the studio down the street where we recorded Heartless. It’s about a 10 minute walk from my house. We wanted to see if the studio would be up to par for recording the next album, so we wanted to do that EP to test it out. We recorded Love You to Death because we knew it’s a cool song, and having an opportunity to do a version of that song, unfettered by the necessity of playing it live so we could just go all out on vocal layering and the stuff we couldn’t pull off live, because we don’t have a keyboard player. And as a tribute to one of our favourite bands. And that other song, Over & Over, that was in our set for years so we just decided to finally record that one too.
I’m pretty sure you haven’t played the Love You to Death cover on a formal tour. Is there any chance you’d play that on this Australian tour?
Not on this one. We’ve only played that track once and it’s a bit different to how it sounded – it’s a more stripped down version than our recorded one because there’s no way – like, there are so many layers of vocals harmonies on that thing. I really was just playing around with it and seeing how many vocal layers I could stick. There’s tonnes of stuff in the mix that isn’t really apparent – there’s tonnes of keyboards and ambient guitar stuff. Maybe we’ll do it one day, if we have a keyboard player eventually, which is possible, then maybe we’ll try it. But I really wouldn’t want to do it if we couldn’t do it really well. If we were to do it now, I think it’d be not up to the quality that I think the song deserves. But maybe one day.
You mentioned recording in Little Rock this time around – what was the motivation behind that decision?
There were a number of factors. In terms of actual producing – Billy [Anderson] doesn’t actually think of himself as a producer. He thinks of himself enginear – like engine, a car engine, and then ear, like your ear. He’s really into wordplay. He’s a funny dude.
But we’ve never really had a producer or someone who helps us structure our songs and tells us structuring ideas or musical ideas beyond Billy saying this would be a cool part to add a wash of sound for a transition. He’s really good at that kind of thing. I’m not trying to underplay his input because it was actually really valuable, but when we go into the studio we’ve always had pretty much a complete idea of what we want to do, and the entire time spent in there is just making it happen. It just takes a long time. So we don’t really need a producer, but we did need a whole lot of new equipment, because we were on the backups of our backups and all of our shit was broken. We wanted to be able to record the album with some nice gear, so we saved some money by recording at home and we didn’t lose anything in the recording process by doing it ourselves with some engineers here, and they did a really good job I think. We were also able to spend some of the recording budget on getting nice gear that wasn’t going to break.
One of the core tenets of Pallbearer’s sound is your vocals. They’ve got some of that downbeat Ozzy Osbourne quality to them, but you also have a really remarkable range, especially for a band working with the kind of sound you’re working with. It’s almost operatic. Do you have formal training? What’s your background when it comes to vocals?
No formal training, man. Just played lots of shows. Trying to sing over a 115 decibel wall of amps and not completely suck makes you get pretty good. I recently got in-ear monitors and used them for the last tour and my god, man, it’s made the biggest difference out of any piece of equipment I’ve ever had. The live vocals are actually closer than ever to the way the recording sounds because it’s a controlled mix. That’s the thing – trying to sing live and pull that stuff off when I have a shit monitor mix I can’t really actually hear myself, and still trying to approximate that sound and getting most of the way there – you know, when you get into the studio, then it’s really easy.
All the vocals on Foundations of Burden – all of them – were recorded in one day. The vocals for Heartless were recorded in two days or something and I think I was doing some bits and pieces and some overdubs for a couple days after that. I don’t know, man. I guess it’s a combination of working at it to get better and I guess – my mum’s a pretty good singer, so some of it’s gotta be genetic.