Interview: Brett of Pallbearer
Interviewed by Paul Hutchings
Pallbearer formed in 2008 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The band comprises lead vocalist and guitarist Brett Campbell, fellow founding member Joseph D. Rowland (bass and backing vocals), guitarist Devin Holt and drummer Mike Lierly. Having released the superb ‘Heartless’ in 2017, the band spent time in the UK appearing at Damnation and Bloodstock festivals alongside a UK tour in 2018. The band’s fourth album, ‘Forgotten Days’ is due for release on October 23rd. After a few teething problems with the connection, Paul spoke with Brett to find out more about the album and all things Pallbearer.
The Razor's Edge: Hi Brett and welcome to The Razor’s Edge. Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with this. I know that you've got a lot of these interviews at the moment, so I appreciate your time.
Brett: Oh, that's alright. Thanks for talking to me, no problem.
The Razor's Edge: Can I get straight onto the new album if you don't mind. I've had the opportunity to have a listen to it and I’m very much enjoying the first impressions that I've had. Obviously, like any album, I want to spend a bit of time living with it to get right under the skin of it and stuff, but first impressions that I've got is that it's a little bit heavier and there's a little bit more groove and stuff there than maybe on the last album on hardness, and I wondered whether that was intentional In the song writing or just an organic development within the band.
Brett: A little of both, honestly. I think we had kind of reached critical mass with the technical aspects of ‘Heartless’, which was extremely orchestrated, extremely layered, and complex. I don't think that we could have moved any farther in the in the technicality direction without just becoming something else. I think ‘Heartless’ was a really interesting experiment and it was something that we needed to do. It felt very natural when we created it, but by the time that we had, you know, lived with those songs for a few years and kind of thought about the experience of that methodology of song writing. I felt like you know we're always the band that's trying to move. Move to another step and try new things. We weren't interested in in repeating something that we'd already done so we absorbed a lot of the song writing lessons that we had learned from the ‘Heartless’ era, and interpreted them through a new a new musical paradigm that became ‘Forgotten Days’, so I feel like ‘Forgotten Days’ is kind of like a mishmash of all of our different ideas throughout our history. As the band just kind synergized together in a in a sense.
The Razor's Edge: OK yeah, that makes perfect sense. The album itself I've read that you wanted to get quite a live feel to it and it certainly has that about it. How did the recording process go to capture that?
Brett: We've always used vintage recording stuff and modern equipment as well. It's just kind of whatever tool suits the need for each like part. There's a lot of useful modern tech that makes recording a less painful process, but you know, there's a certain character that you get from vintage tech as well that you know. I think it's a big part of what we try to achieve, that kind of that warmth, and that that massive sound.
But I think one of the biggest contributing factors towards the live feel on this album was that the very basis of how it was recorded. The drums and bass were recorded together. So instead in the past we do we have done like scratch tracks where we get the drum recording and then one by one, layer by layer we add the guitars and bass and vocals and everything else on top of that drum track? But with this one the rhythm section was captured together so that is one performance. The bass and drums together. One performance for the rhythm guitars, Devin and I played each of our layers of rhythm guitars together, so you're still getting a sound of a band like playing together.
The Razor's Edge: I'm still working with the album, but I've played it several times and you do get that feel. The concept of ‘Forgotten Days’ focuses on quite a lot of personal reflections. I think if I'm right and around loss and personal choices and stuff. How did you guys as a band decide that that was the topic that you wanted for this album.
Brett: Ironically, we didn't really discuss it at all. It just sort of emerged on its own. Joe and I are the main songwriters and we typically write our stuff, and then bring it to the band, and arrange things altogether. Some of the fine details are then worked out as a group, but typically whoever is the mastermind behind a particular song will also write the lyrics, but the lyrics don't come until the music is solidified. That this happened completely in two separate bubbles and when we showed each other the lyrics that we had been working on it, we were kind of amazed at how we had both been preoccupied with a lot of the same themes and overall ideas. It is very strange. Some kind of hive mind shit that you get from working together and being friends for so long. But you know, yeah, it worked out our favour, I guess.
The Razor's Edge: That's really interesting and it obviously demonstrates the way that you've been developing as a band. You've obviously got that kind of symbiosis between you that makes you think in the same way I assume it forms in part from the discussions you would have when you're on the road and everything else.
Brett: Sure, we've always kind of had that. It’s weird musical symbiosis between Joe and me. Even in the band that we were in together before. We just kind of had this link. We listen to each other and have sort of a shared musical vision. I think that's one of our strengths and something I feel very, fortunate about is that we work really well.
In terms of musical vision, I think we were trying to accomplish a lot of the same things and you know, one of us might approach the same general musical concept from slightly different angles and then that will push each other to think in new ways, but we're all working towards the same goal in a larger sense.
The Razor's Edge: And once you’ve scoped out the song, do Devin and Mark have input?
Brett: Oh yeah, they do. Not really on the lyrics unless we ask for it and everybody is always welcome to to input whatever ideas they have. That's something that's important to us is that everybody has a say. So even though Joe and I write most of the music, if somebody has an instrument idea or think that we should play a certain part in a different way. Or you know if they're thinking a certain part doesn't work for them. You know any kind of idea that you might have while writing a song, we always try it, even if you know; I'll be like no, there's no way that this idea is better than my initial idea and half the time I'm wrong. You know, it's like always try it because you never know. You need to remember that we've been playing together for so long, and that we all have kind of a rather good idea of the sort of like vibes that we're trying to achieve. And I think it's important that we all listen to each other and take everybody's ideas into consideration.
The Razor's Edge: You've had a lot of promotion and the band is in the build-up to the album release now. In comparison to how it would have been when ‘Sorrow’ came out, obviously the world has changed in terms of social media and the way in which you do a lot of your album promotion. Even though It's only eight years ago, things have moved quite dramatically, and you've also obviously got a new record label with Nuclear Blast behind you. How much more work to do with the promotional aspects or is it something that you you're always very engaged in anyway?
Brett: I'm not engaged in it at all, but you must be. I’ve got better at doing interviews and It took me a while to kind of learn to vocalise the thought process of creating music because a lot of it is intuitive. I approach music in a very intuitive sort of way and then and then I'll think about it later. The initial spark I think, is something sort of ineffable, but then I'll gradually refine it using the logical part of my brain, but
That can be hard to describe when people are asking questions about like what inspired this or something like broad and vague questions you often get from interview. Or it's like what? What was your inspiration like? Inspiration for what like a result to be a musician or what? What do you mean here? Those kinds of questions would really throw me for a loop. But you know, as time goes on, I've gotten better at that. But yeah, I'm not active on social media that much. In general, I'm kind of old school, I guess. I just prefer to live my life and I feel like a lot of that stuff is kind of its own little black hole and it's kind of a distraction.
The Razor's Edge: In terms of all the stuff that you do put out, though, does the band actually have such full artistic control?
Brett: I wish, but no. With ‘Forgotten Days' yes, well kind of but I don't think we've had that in previous videos. It’s somewhat disappointing to us because we have such an extreme amount of involvement with every other aspect of the band. From artwork on the albums down to T shirts, every single, every single aspect of the band is intentional on our end, but we've not had that same luxury with videos and I feel like they've kind of in general fallen short of what we would consider like vision to be, despite having worked with each director or whatever.
Not to say that they're bad, they weren't necessarily what we would have done had we had the ability to have more of a control of those.
You know we try to keep everything collaborative with outside artists as well too, but we do want to have like a certain degree of control, but with the ‘Forgotten Days’ video. I was pretty happy with the way that one turned out and I feel like that was pretty close to what we could have hoped it would be, especially under the circumstances because it was filmed during the lockdown. I feel the director did a really good job of translating some of the ideas and concepts that we were going for and putting his own spin on everything. But he was also really open to working with us under the kind of visual and thematic elements that we that we wanted to capture.
The Razor's Edge: And what about the artwork on the album, which is very striking from what I've seen. That was done again by Mark's brother. Is that right?
Brett: Yeah, Yeah Michael.
The Razor's Edge: It's a very striking. The package is still particularly important to fans so having the whole package almost designed for vinyl where you can sit and look at the album cover and absorb it as you're listening to it. Is that something that is still important to the band?
Brett: Absolutely. Yeah it is literally designed for vinyl so the ideal physical way of appreciating it would be via the vinyl and even if you never listen to it, it comes with the download code. I think as part of the complete package because I think the art is also an important element of the final design and it's the physical element of something that is intangible. I mean music is not something you can hold. But yeah, the packaging for us is the physical representation of the music itself. So, I think it's important and vinyl by its nature of being the largest available format is the best way to experience that. I think because you can really observe the artwork and you know, even just the texture of the paper and everything, I think it's part of the experience.
The Razor's Edge: I think it's a lot more exciting to have a vinyl arrive in the post than the CD. Talking of vinyl, you've done a couple of videos with the some of your favourite albums from various types of music. You mentioned in another piece that you did about Rush being quite a big influence on you and obviously this year is a sad one with Neil Peart passing in the beginning of the year. If someone came up to you and said what Rush album could you not live without? Is there one that you would say that's your favourite album that you'd want to keep?
Brett: Oh, that's hard. In all honesty, I like even the 80s stuff, you know, ‘Hold Your Fire’ and stuff like that. I love that album. I think it's great. ‘Signals’ is a classic. I probably listen to that one more than most over the years. It was kind of more streamlined than their earlier stuff, but it's got those like Oberheim synths all over it, which I love
‘Signals’ is one of my favourites, but I'd say also ‘Permanent Waves’ is a big one. I’m sorry but I cannot choose one. I think part of what I love so much about Rush is the fact that their entire discography is irreplaceable and that they evolved so much as a band that yeah, any particular album is distinct from all the other albums, but still always sound like Rush. I think that's something that for us that has been the main influence of Rush outside of just their great science, song writing and kind of technicality, while still being musical and not show-offy. I think their ability to evolve while staying true to their core identity is something that we also want to achieve with. You know our discography. As time goes on.
The Razor's Edge: I think saying I haven't got a favourite for a hardcore rush fan like myself is probably the right one because it depends on the mood in your day as to what record you put on.
Brett: Yeah, absolutely.
The Razor's Edge: Merchandise. Obviously, that's very important to you and every band at the moment and certainly in the current times, when you can't tour. You've got a few packages coming out now for the new record. Do you have much influencing or input into the merchandise?
Brett: That's 100% us. We choose the artist that we work with and you know, we're constantly on the lookout for artists that we would be interested in collaborating with. We share with them visual concepts that we'd like to see explored. So yeah, pretty much all the all the visual elements of the band are in some way related to some of our initial ideas.
The Razor's Edge: Sure, and if there was, if there was one piece of your merchandise that you could buy, would there be one in the current package or in recent packages that you would say that's the one I want?
Brett: Oh Man, I see. The tough thing is like I really love so much of our T shirt designs over the years, but I could never wear them. Yeah, so it's kind of a bummer. We always try to make sure our shirts look really cool and then it's like, well, damn, I can't wear any of 'em! There was a shirt that we recently reissued. It's got an enormous cross made from human bodies. It was done by our original artists that we work with. Sean Williams who did the first two album covers and stuff. I always thought that was a pretty evocative image. It reminds me of some stuff from like the end of the Evangelion show. The real kind of post human dream nightmare stuff always like that. We just recently reissued that one, so it's both vintage or classic or whatever you would want to call it. I think it's available right now.
The Razor's Edge: We touched on the fact that you obviously can't play now. How much damage has the pandemic done in terms of your touring commitments or your touring plans this year?
Brett: Absolute full destruction. There is no tour happening, probably at least for a year. I mean, talking to one of our managers and he was saying it's looking like next September, October at earliest, which is devastating because that's how we make our money. I mean, that's what we live off, so we're gonna have to get really creative and figure out how to survive. We really can’t do anything.
I was doing a podcast, a month ago, with Jamey Jasta. And he was saying, I guess Hatebreed was trying to look into potentially booking some shows for March of next year and he was saying that “Well, you're you'll be like number 36 in line for this”. You know for these shows, aside from the fact that it's not safe to play shows anyway right now. Once, that is the possibility, again, it's gonna be like the fucking three stooges all trying to go through the door at the same time. It's like every band is trying to play at the same time!
The Razor's Edge: One of the shows that you are booked onto is the next Damnation Festival in Leeds, a festival which I saw you at a couple of years ago.
Brett: Ah, fire alarm!
The Razor's Edge: Haha! Fire alarm fest. That’s what it's known as now. Apart from the fire alarm, what are your memories of that festival and I saw you at the Bloodstock Festival too, where I've got to be honest, it was more of a spiritual experience than listening to the songs because I think you were on about 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock in the evening. It was at the end of probably the usual heavy day of festival drinking and everything else I remember to stand in there and just almost letting it all wash over me without getting too involved in each individual song. Can you remember much about those festivals?
Brett: That sounds really cool, man. That's the sort of ideal environment. Playing Bloodstock was cool. That was an enormous crowd, and everyone seemed to be really energized, you know, that was that was a fun. A fun set, but the actual experience was less than optimal, since we like didn't get any meal tickets. Like six beers between all of us you know it. Yeah, yeah. So, we ended up having to kind of like scavenge a little bit, so the afternoon was spent like trying to scavenge for food and alcohol. But it was cool. We saw some friends and stuff there. Some of our English friends and it's always good to see some buds.
But yeah, I mean the actual show there, I think was a pretty big success. I had fun; it was just kind of the circumstances around it were sub-optimal, but Jason was really sick.
With Damnation I felt like it was well organised, and the line-up was really cool. It was easy to get from place to place, you know. It's not like a massive outdoor festival. It's easy to go see bands. It’s not like the 30-minute walk between stages. I would play them both again. I would just hope that next time at Bloodstock we would have like basically food and water and beer.
The Razor's Edge: If you are playing, let's talk again, I'll send you my mobile number. At least I can find you a sandwich and a beer.
Brett: That's all I need.
The Razor's Edge: Brilliant, I've got one final question which comes back to your videos? I like the little inserts of the spoof album that you had in between them. So, I want to know how often you listen to ‘Aerobic County’? (If you don’t know what this refers to, check out Brett’s favourite Prog and Doom albums which are on the band’s Facebook page)
Brett: It's my all-time favourite. I mean, you gotta stay in shape man, these are tough times. It’s really good for the cardio.
The Razor's Edge: I'm sure, yeah.
Brett: Yep, get my cowboy hat, and my yoga pants and get to work.
The Razor's Edge: Excellent, that's an image to leave this interview I think right? it's been a pleasure and a privilege to chat to you. I wish you all the best with the album launch, which is coming up on 23rd October.
Brett: Damn thank you. It was great talking to you man, and I'll do that.
Promo photo courtesy of Nuclear Blast
Live photos taken at Damnation Festival 2017, courtesy of Tim Finch Photography