I sincerely hope that everybody reading this piece takes an hour out of their Friday (then several more hours out of their weekend) to soak up the majesty of Pallbearer‘s newest album, Heartless. We started hyping this thing a few months ago in our 2017 Preview Issue (#148, February 2017), so it’s possible you’re tired of hearing about it and how Decibel is all too willing to sacrifice dignity and credibility by bowing to this mountainous record. Listen to it anyway. Find your way to your own opinion. We think it’s extraordinary.
So do Pallbearer, not-so-coincidentally. Here the guys sound off one last time before Heartless becomes the property of music history. Most of our interviews wound up in the cover story, but here’s the bulk of what was cut. Enjoy your deep sadness!
Joe, since you moved to New York and the rest of the band are in Arkansas, what effect did that distance have on the process for Heartless?
Joe Rowland: Honestly, it ended up being a positive change, because it meant a lot more focus went into the rehearsals and writing the album. I would fly down, during the writing process for Heartless, I would fly down almost every month for at least a week. In the windows of time when I wasn’t down in Arkansas, I would be working incessantly on the parts of the album that I was working on. So when I would get to Arkansas, there would be huge chunks of stuff that had been worked on, whether it was the guys down there or me up here in New York.
How long did you work on Heartless?
Brett Campbell: It was pretty much just under a year of solid work. Focus, focus, focus on writing, arranging and then the last two months was really honing it in and recording. Recording was a little over a month and I was there every day through the entire process, because I’m kind of… We didn’t have a producer, per se, we just had an engineer, so I produced it because I’m the most obsessive one of us when it comes to that sort of thing. Obsessive perfectionism. And lots of coffee and weed. That’s how I am. It’s the reason our songs end up being what they are, because I’m extremely obsessive. It was very taxing.
Were the other guys there every day?
Campbell: No one else was there every day, but Devin and Joe were there for most of it. Most of it was hanging out and drinking beer. They would be there if I had some question or I wanted somebody’s opinion on something. Or if they heard something that jumped out, particularly when I was doing my vocals or leads, they would be like, “Hey, I think you can do a better take.” It’s hard to be as objective about your own stuff. And I do the same shit to them, so it’s a little fair play there. But I was the only person who was there for the whole time. And I wanted to be, anyway. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Any particular focus musically this time?
Campbell: There’s synths on this album. We didn’t have any on the last album; we had a little piano. There’s some synths on the first album, and then we didn’t have any on the last one. I wanted to do more, but it ended up being not totally necessary, as well as the fact that we were kind of running out of time. They’re only on two or three spots on the album, but that’s something that’s a little different. I spent this year trying to get better at playing keys. I’ve sort of half-assed it for years, but I’m starting to get where I can play okay. That was something I wanted to do.
Rowland: Over time, all of us have developed this sixth sense on what is Pallbearer material. Every now and then, there will be something one of us comes with and say, “Check this out, here’s this riff that I wrote,” and everybody else will be like, “No, that doesn’t really sound like it fits.” Somewhere along the line, somebody will say, “I don’t know, I don’t think this is really something that fits in the grand scheme of what we do.” Which I feel like that covers a lot of ground within the sound that we’ve developed. It’s not really this strict style of music that you can firmly plant in one particular genre. Especially now, as long as we’ve been playing music together, it’s pretty easy to figure out what fits and what doesn’t. It’s almost at a point where, when I write, I have a hard time not writing stuff that sounds like Pallbearer. Sometimes I want to try to write stuff that falls outside of that, and I can’t. In the band context, that’s good, but it’s a little inhibiting when I want to try to branch out on my own projects.
Mark Lierly: I think we tried to keep the expansive atmospheric element, but also reaching out into some brighter or heavier hitting moments. Just trying to do what felt natural. Instead of being like, ‘Well, this is our new record, another doom, slow-riff record.’ Not that we shy away from that – that’s kind of what we specialize in. But I feel like our sound is changing and expanding. It’s been a fun time writing stuff and recording it.
Devin Holt: I wrote a good chunk of the final song [“A Plea for Understanding”]. It was a collaborative effort between me and Brett. I’m really proud of that one. I had some ideas and he was able to come up with the verse to follow the weird long introduction. That song is probably my favorite of the album in total, not because I had to do with it, just because I love the way that it turned out and the different textures that are on it. I think it’s a cool closer, too. It’s a kind of different vibe than any other popular song that we have, at least vocally. Me and Brett have always collaborated on riffs and stuff, and there’s a lot of times when I’ll have a half-idea and he’ll help me finish it and vice versa. I’ve always wanted to start other bands around town, but I could never find another guitar player that I want to play with. It’s not stubbornness, it’s just we work so well together. We have side projects and we’re all of the guitar players in every one of those bands. We just have a really great chemistry, and also we’re really good friends. We hang out way too damn much.
How much do the songs change through the writing and recording process?
Campbell: There were two or three songs that went through a million iterations before we finally found the best flow. To me, writing a song – particularly the way our stuff works – for the most part, it’s just linear. They go from Point A to Point B. There’s not a whole lot of verse-chorus structure, although there are a couple songs sort of like that on this album, which is different. Like, if you chopped out four minutes of an eleven-minute song, it could be a pop song. There’s some genuinely over the top stuff on this album that I think people are going to be pretty surprised by. I’m excited to see the general public response. On the last album, on ‘Foundations,’ at the very end there’s a fucking Asia/Beach Boys vocal explosion. That was fully improvised. I just did one layer and then the second layer, just one take for each part. It just happened. If I thought about it too much, it might have been something else. There’s stuff like that on this album as well.
Holt: One of the songs, Brett had pretty much finished, and he wrote all of that one by himself. Then a couple other ones, we had ideas, sections, and we’d all come together and jam, and a lot of times the jams – at least on the songs that me and Mark and Brett were predominantly working on most of the time – those would evolve in practice some and then we would send them to Joe and get his thoughts, and then he would come down and we would try out different things. Some of the songs sound almost nothing like their original ideas. The first track on the album, we got rid of like four or five key riffs and it kept evolving until it was where we wanted it. It was this process of trimming off the fat and then adding additional fat.
The guitars on this record really lift everything off the ground.
Campbell: We went for it, man. You’ll notice there are a lot of trade-off solos on here, which really get us pumped up. Sometimes I’ll take the first one, sometimes [Devin] will take the first one, but we always… It’s not like we’re trying to out-shred each other but we’re trying to complement the other. If this is the first lead, how should the next part sound? Should it be more flashy or shreddy or should the second one be more open and melodic? And we also stepped into each other’s territory a little bit. Historically, Devin will do some more noodley shreddy leads, and I’ll do more of the soaring, David Gilmour-type stuff. But on this album, in places, like the first part of “Dancing in Madness,” the intro, that’s typically something that would have been one of my leads but Devin fucking knocked it out of the park. That was a fun challenge, to switch roles, essentially.
Holt: On “Dancing in Madness,” there’s a trade-off: I’ll start the lead toward the end of the song, before the final vocal section comes in, there’s a solo that I play, and then the riff changes and there’s a solo still going, but that’s Brett. In ‘Heartless’ there’s a trade-off solo. We were trying to think what this is going to be like in a live environment, and I’m such a sucker for trade-off solos, like in Judas Priest. Neither of us is half that good, though.
How important was song order on Heartless?
Rowland: We spent a lot of time debating over what the finalized track order would be. It was really difficult to figure out what the clear cut path it needed to go. We had a good idea of what the first and last tracks would be, but everything in the middle was up in the air. And it’s the most songs we’ve ever had on a record before.
It’s interesting that there are some much shorter songs on this record.
Rowland: I get excited when there are shorter songs – that means we can play more songs when we play live, when we have shorter songs, that way people aren’t stuck with us playing four songs and that’s it. I tend to lose all sense of time when we’re working on songs. Coming out at the end of the tunnel and finding out that the song is only six minutes long is nice, I guess. I enjoy that this record has more of that immediacy to it without really sacrificing any of the things that we hold as our tenets of it being Pallbearer. Even the shortest song on the record I don’t think feels any less one of our songs than the longest song. There haven’t been any concessions made to make a radio single or something like that. It’s just how it’s ended up. That’s always the way it’s been. We’ll talk all day about how we should try to write a short song, or let’s do a really long song that’s 25 minutes long… Then it always ends up being what it is. It’s more about us determining if we feel like the flow of the song is exactly perfect to our ears, exactly how we want it, and it feels as natural as possible, and that sort of dictates the length of the songs. Maybe our attention spans are getting shorter or something. Part of it is a byproduct of experience. We’ve been doing this for a really long time now. I think the editing this time around ended up being less of an ordeal than it has been in the past. I think we already had this instinct of how many times was the right amount of times to play a riff. Even in the songs that ended up morphing from one form to another by the end of their writing life, it was definitely a lot more seamless of a process. We would all be on the same page about, ‘Yeah, we played that part too many times. Let’s do it four times instead of six times.’ It was a lot more of everybody was already synched up on whether something sounded right or not. A lot quicker of a process than it’s been in the past.
Lierly: Subconsciously, you sort of pace yourself song to song. Our band plays six-song setlists, so if there’s one that’s five or six minutes versus ten or twelve, you can be a little more explosive and have a little more fun with it. Not have to worry about breathing so much and just go for it.