Joseph D. Rowland of Pallbearer on the transportive powers of psychedelic doom metal
Pallbearer has been making waves with its psychedelic doom metal. Rather than relying on excessively repetitive riffs, however, the quartet employs actual melodies into its music, as well as simple yet intricate dynamics and rhythms that give the songs more actual sonic heft than grinding away at a single chord for several minutes at a time. Sorrow and Extinction, the band's latest effort is heavy and dark, but it is also imbued with a dreamlike atmospheric resonance that buoys up the spirit after slowly, even gently, stirring it. We recently spoke with bassist Joseph D. Rowland about the outfit's previous project, SPORTS, the influence of Popol Vuh and taking listeners into a headspace beyond the mundane.
Westword: Growing up, what kind of access to live music did you have?
Joseph D. Rowland: Virtually none. I guess a show I went to on my own that was underground music was when I saw Living Sacrifice when I was in high school. I drove up to Little Rock from Louisiana to see them.
How did you get started playing bass?
Actually, my dad was a professional jazz bassist in the '70s, and that kind of inspired me to pick it up when I was younger. My first instrument was piano. I'm a classically-trained pianist and didn't pick up bass until later on.
Who inspired you initially as you picked up bass?
Definitely Geezer Butler and Geddy Lee. [They have] interesting and creative playing styles and interesting technique. I generally play finger style instead of with a pick, and both of those guys do that, as well. I'm drawn toward creativity with the playing.
The members of Pallbearer played in various heavy metal bands in the Little Rock area beforehand. How did you get introduced to that style of music?
Central Arkansas in the early 2000s had a pretty thriving underground metal community. [There were] a lot of awesome bands from here and coming through as a tour stop. There was a venue called Downtown Music that a lot of bands would come to, kind of like in the earlier days of Weedeater and Eyehategod; [those bands] would come through, and [so would] Lightning Bolt.
There were a lot of killer bands from here. I'm sure you might be aware of the band Rwake on Relapse. They're from Little Rock. There were some other great, somewhat lesser-known bands like Shitfire, Seahag, Deadbird, stuff like that, that was pretty inspirational to all of us in our formative years. I got to see a lot of those bands in pretty intimate environments.
Presumably you played different kinds of music before Pallbearer. What kind of stuff did you get into?
The main band that Brett [Campbell] and I were in was a kind of heavy, psychedelic band before Pallbearer. It's still concurrent with Pallbearer, although we haven't actually played in a couple of years now. We were always interested in free-form, heavy psychedelic music and progressive music.
In an interview in Sleepy Shaman, you mentioned that band, SPORTS, and you mentioned you used something like fourteen heads.
Yeah, we had the kind of full wall of sound set up. We built a wall of guitar cabinets and amplifiers when we would play. In Pallbearer, we've had a more traditional set-up.
What sparked the idea to use so many amps and cabinets, especially for live shows?
The main reason is that it creates a kind of maelstrom of sound, and that was really our intent. The more inputs we had to put other instruments, like analog synthesizers and other devices, the more we could build on the sound. So we would keep adding more and more elements and more and more amplifiers as time went on. So it was pretty much impossible to transport it all or keep it all in working order.
Was it a two or three piece band?
It was a three-piece. Although toward the later days of performing live, we would sometimes add other people playing with us. Our normal configuration had no drummer. But sometimes we would play with a drummer or maybe have two drummers playing.
Did you use a signal splitter, a mixer and a sampler, or did you chain the heads together or something like that?
It all depended on what was running through each thing. Usually it would be one instrument per head and maybe chain that out to another head. A lot of times it would be a synthesizer going into a head, another synthesizer going into another head, get a loop going on one, set it, a loop going on the other, and set it so they're all playing together eventually -- just stacking the sounds.
Were you able to perform that live at regular venues?
Yeah! There were a few venues that were pretty accepting of us doing it, although it wasn't that often. Maybe once every couple of months.
For Pallbearer, what did you pare things down to?
The kind of typical full stack for each guitar and Ampeg bass stack with an 8X10. Nothing out of the ordinary for heavy rock amplification.
Your band is often referred to as doom, but you don't really have the sludgy vibe a lot of that music seems to possess. What do you feel is different about this band compared to some of the doom bands you've seen?
Well, we're pretty focused on the songwriting aspect of it. We're interested in creating a sonic headspace so that the listener can be transported to their own imaginative realm while listening to it. It's a specific sound we've developed that has a foot in a doom metal area but also a lot of melodic, progressive rock-leaning direction as well. A lot of psychedelia there, too.
We try to transport [to] another place when we're playing it, and hopefully everyone experiences that, as well, without relying on what I think a lot of bands do and fall into the same pattern of playing a heavy riff over and over. That's not very interesting. If you've had a few beers and smoked a bowl before the show, that's cool to watch, but it's not very engaging and not a compelling listen. All of us are looking to do something a little more creative rather than just getting up there and jamming on a riff or two.
For Sonic Cathedrals Vol. LVIII, you curated a mixtape of material from Popol Vuh. How did you discover that band?
Man, Popol Vuh is one of my favorite bands of all time. I'm not really sure how I came across Popol Vuh years ago, but they have consistently stuck with me as one of the most atmosphere-filled music groups that's able to conjure up such an incredible feeling, a meditative feeling, [with] simple but with awesome melodies, hypnotic.
Obviously you've seen the Werner Herzog movies for which they did soundtracks, like Nosferatu and, of course, Aguirre, The Wrath of God?
Yeah, [sure did]. The music is so evocative of this mystical feeling that they're able to conjure up. I admire that to an incredible degree.
In what ways would say that it has impacted your own music, and what it can do?
It's definitely pushed me toward looking at the subtleties of creating an atmosphere in songwriting. Not to say that Popol Vuh is simplistic at all because there's obviously a lot of composition that goes into it; it conjures a primal melody. I don't know how to describe it other than to say it's full of mystical feeling.
The introduction of "Given to the Grave" had shades of that kind of thing.
Yes. I hope to imbue that feeling even more in our future material. There's a little bit of that atmosphere on Sorrow and Extinction but probably not as much as I think we might be capable of in the future.
You've said in various interviews that the band and this music has helped you to get through some of the hardships you've been through in your personal lives in recent years. What about that music gives it the ability to alleviate that kind of pain?
I think music has a lot of ability to draw out emotion that may not be able to manifest in any other way. I guess for us Pallbearer is a vessel for that feeling to go out in the world, instead of just remaining inside. It seems to me that a lot of music today doesn't seem to place much emphasis on feeling. There's still plenty of lyrics that have a tendency toward emotions, but it doesn't seem like there's a lot of music that puts out that feeling as much. It feels like there's less emphasis on emotionality in the music itself and more in the lyrical aspect. We try to hearken back to what centuries of composers and musicians have been doing but in our own fashion.
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