Anthemic Little Rock doom metal quartet Pallbearer began writing Heartless – their third and most striking album – a full year before Americans headed to the polls in November 2016. Throughout the process, though, bassist Joseph Rowland admits to a sense of impending dread, the sense that something disastrous was near. He and vocalist Brett Campbell wrote songs that reflected the feeling that, as he puts it, “we could be headed for some troubled times.”
The seven-song Heartless, set for release through Profound Lore on March 24th, feels more aggressive and immediate than Pallbearer’s previous work. The band moves out of the shadows of mythology and toward an earth riddled with new problems, broken defenses and evaporating futures. The music follows, with hooks that seem sharper and choruses that demand more attention. It’s all on brilliant display on “Thorns,” the first single, which you can hear below.
Rolling Stone talked to Rowland about the band’s new political tack and their love of Boston.
You recorded your second album, 2014’s Foundations of Burden, with Billy Anderson, a producer who has worked with Mr. Bungle, the Melvins, Sleep, and so many other heavy bands. But for this one, you came back home to Little Rock and did it by yourself. Why?
The biggest impetus was not being out of our element when we were recording. When we recorded Foundations with Billy, we loved working with Billy. But we were living in the studio in Portland for a month, and it was madness-inducing by the end. The studio was built in an old warehouse space, and it felt like we were living in a fallout shelter. We were having to sleep on the floor. There were a few couches, but it was just cold and dark. It was difficult for everybody to be able to balance working every day with this weird, creeping malaise.
That was something we didn’t necessarily want to repeat for this record. We wanted to be able to do it comfortably and focus all our energy toward the music and not have these other factors causing anxiety and discomfort. We felt like this was a lot more aggressive and technical than anything we’ve done, so there needed to not be this X factor that might keep us from recording the best album we could.
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Pallbearer’s records are meticulous, with lots of vocal and guitar harmonies. Being comfortable certainly seems conducive for executing that.
We definitely view our work as compositions. It’s not a raw, rock & roll song, even though it might have some elements that drift into that territory. We’re coming at it from this headspace of being a progressive rock band, so everyone is meticulous about specific and minute details. … I know Deafheaven recorded Sunbather in three days, which is mind-blowing to me. I can’t even imagine recording one of our songs in three days.
Last year, you released an EP that included Type O Negative and Black Sabbath covers. That work seems to carry over to Heartless, which is even more radio-ready. Is Pallbearer coming to grips with their pop impulse?
That is something we have grown increasingly self-aware and comfortable with. Our idea of radio-ready is definitely coming more from the Seventies or Eighties era of radio-ready. There wasn’t as much distinction then between whether a band was a pop or a rock band or whatever. Say Boston: You can argue both ways – they’re a hard rock band, but they’re really, really melodic and catchy, too. Every song has so many hooks in it. It also has all these cool ideas that they executed well that are heavy. For all of us, that music is timeless. We’re pulling from lots and lots of eras – popular music, experimental music, and older classical stuff. But more than ever, we’re in touch with this element of, “Yeah, we really fucking like Boston.” Why shouldn’t we aspire to like write music as well as they did? I hope one day we’ll be as good as Boston.
Do you sense that it’s sometimes hard for other metal bands to be that open to “uncool” influences?
There’s nothing to be ashamed about what music you like. It’s completely personal, so why not be honest?
On “Thorns” and on Heartless as a whole, there’s a directness to these lyrics. For the first time, you’re very much dealing with the real world and, it seems, politics. How intentional was that shift?
It ended up being deliberate. Everything felt a little closer to home this time. In the past, our lyrics have been intentionally obscure and written from an otherworldly perspective. This time around, it felt right to have it be a lot more grounded. This is a more aggressive record than we’ve ever done, and the tone of the lyrics is definitely reflective of that. There’s a lot of rumination on the fact that we’re fucking ourselves over these days.
Was that a struggle, to step from behind the curtains lyrically and be more upfront?
It was something I struggled with at first because it was so foreign to me. I’ve always felt comfortable shrouding the lyrics that I’ve written in a little bit more mystery. As time went on, it just grew clearer to me that this was what I needed to write about, and that there was no purpose in trying to enshroud it. In the past, we’ve always encouraged people to find their own meaning in the songs. We haven’t been forthcoming about what the inspiration has been, but not this record. This is the time for people to speak out.
You recorded this album in the summer of 2016, when the presidential election was still undecided. But there was obviously anxiety on your part. Looking back, are you glad you decided to move in this vein?
I absolutely do think that it was the right direction. I can’t look back with 20/20 vision on exactly how the inspiration came together lyrically, but around that time, it was starting to become clear that we could be headed for some troubled times. It feels like the urgency has been ramped up quite a bit. It almost feels like it was reactive. I never considered Pallbearer to be a band that is politically outspoken, because it has never pertained to what we’ve been about, even though we’re all very liberal people. But I feel like this is the time to take action.
In spite of everything that’s happening in the world, and in spite of the real-world gloom that’s written into this record, there does seem to be hope here, too.
I don’t think any of us think we’re living in a world that is unfixable, and that ends up being reflected in the music and the lyrics. It’s coming from observations on how dark things are, but it’s not a record that’s proclaiming, “We’re shit out of luck.” Despite how much madness there is worldwide and in the U.S. right now, surely there is hope for the future. It’s pretty downcast, but there’s still pinholes of hope, light shining in there.