SubRosa have been making some of the most intriguing, unique music for years now. Yes, they are identified as metal and certainly have made the doom sub-genre even more compelling, but their immersive, intoxicating brand of music, led by heavy, dramatic strings and Rebecca Vernon’s expressive storytelling, has risen above everything else and established this band as one of metal’s most special acts. Their last album “No Help for the Mighty Ones” was a landmark release for the band, one of the most unforgettable records of 2011, yet they’ve pushed things even further with their new opus “More Constant Than the Gods.” Vernon took time to answer some of our questions about the band, their new record, and some of the meaning about it, and as she is wont to do, she gave us way more than we hoped for and gave us plenty of perspective for her and the band’s–violinists/vocalists Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton, bassist Christian Creek, and drummer Andy Patterson–creative process. Great record, incredible band, and one hell of a thought-provoking interview, which you’ll read now.
Meat Mead Metal: Congratulations on your new record “More Constant Than the Gods.” It’s a really powerful, heavy statement. Are you happy with how it came out?
Rebecca Vernon: Thank you. Yes, overall, we are happy with how it came out. At the same time, I think all of us became a lot pickier on this album, and I think I’m still overanalyzing some parts. I was completely buried in the writing, recording, and mixing/mastering process of this album for 10 months, fully focused and pretty isolated, not going out much, not taking many breaks, every spare moment devoted to it. Kim, Sarah, and I went over and over parts and analyzed them from every angle. I rewrote numerous parts and sometimes entire songs, and we re-recorded many parts as well. To emerge from that period and finally hand the album over to Chris Bruni felt very strange, like, “Can we possibly be done?” I used to not understand other musicians when they’d say, “Sometimes you’ve just got to find a stopping point, declare an album done, and stop obsessing over it; it will never be perfect.” Now I understand what they mean
MMM: Glyn Smith did the artwork, as he did for “No Help for the Mighty Ones.” Why did you feel comfortable going with Glyn again, and what is the concept behind the album art?
RV: Glyn is amazing to work with because I feel like he’s a genuinely inspired artist, and he cares very deeply about every piece of work he does. He also was very picky about the cover art for “More Constant than the Gods,” like we were with the sonics. In fact, he ended up redoing the cover completely–he had another piece almost finished that he’d been working on for months, and then discarded it and started over (on the current cover) about three weeks before Chris needed final artwork.
I give Glyn initial very broad concepts, and he has intuitions about how best to approach the ideas and interpret them. He does a lot of background research on the symbols he uses to convey the original concepts in a layered, powerful way. It reminds me of being told, in fiction classes I’ve taken, to write pages and pages of background material on a character who might only appear for a few lines in a short story. But in those few lines, you get a sense that there’s a lot more to that character than meets the eye.
For this album, the artwork is based on the idea of death as a welcome end to a life that has become unbearable. The concept was mostly inspired by the death of my mom in 2007 (from ovarian cancer). I wanted there to be a personification of Death on the cover, but it was Glyn’s idea to make Death female, and all the symbology on the cover as well is from him and ties into the overarching concepts. For example, the moth at the top represents the “transformation of the soul through death.” (Glyn’s words)
MMM: Thematically, what did you draw upon for this record? The songs sound even darker than previous work, and it feels like there’s a sense of searching for something (I base this on the few listens I’ve had since getting the promo, so maybe I haven’t just fully absorbed yet). Is it darker to you?
RV: A couple other interviewers have also asked me why this album is more personal and darker than other albums. After thinking about it a little more, it might be because after “No Help for the Mighty Ones” came out, I went through a low time where I felt lost, I doubted myself, and I didn’t know if I wanted to create music any longer. I actually didn’t even want to listen to music at all, I would try to listen to something and just have to turn it off. So, maybe going through that period, I subconsciously brushed against something darker, deeper and more personal within myself that came out through the music on this album. Other members of the band also went through some really hard times between “No Help” and “More Constant.”
MMM: “Cosey Mo” is the first song that the general public got the hear, and it’s an incredibly emotional listen. What can you say about the song, what’s behind it, and where this story is from ?
RV: Cosey Mo is a character from Nick Cave’s book “And the Ass Saw the Angel.” She’s a prostitute killed by the local townspeople in a fit of religious zealotry. Some of them were her customers. The song is about her, but on a larger scale, it’s about violence against women. The actual violence and the seeds of violence; the mindsets that foster it. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
MMM: “Ghosts of a Dead Empire” is another interesting one, and perhaps this is off-the-surface assuming, but it feels like sort of an epitaph for modern society, as so many walls seem to be crumbling down upon people? Is that part of the inspiration, or is it something else?
RV: Well, I intend certain things when I write the lyrics, but maybe you’re picking up on an extra layer of meaning that is buried there, waiting to be discovered. I wrote “Ghosts of a Dead Empire” about a face cream, actually. A face cream that Indian girls use to make their complexions fairer. In India, fairness is equated with beauty, and whether an Indian girl is fair or not significantly affects their ability to get married and advance within Indian society. I watched a documentary that conjectured that this equating of fairness with beauty and power might have started with the British Empire colonizing India in the 1800s, because whites were in power. Wherever it came from, I think the concept that fair is beautiful is racist and self-defeating, and I think many beauty standards all over the world are ridiculous and damaging.
MMM: The male/female dynamic always has been a big part of SubRosa. There is symbolism that speaks to both genders, and on the song “The Usher” we have a mix of female/male vocals. What about this dynamic is so important to the band?
RV: That’s a good question. I guess I never wanted SubRosa to be a girl’s club, not only because I didn’t want Subrosa to come off as a gimmick, but because I appreciate the male energy in the band. If I were to stereotype, I guess there is a mixture of “aggressive” energy and “delicate” energy in the band, coming from both genders.
The person singing the male vocals, by the way, is my friend Jason McFarland, who is in the Salt Lake City band QstandsforQ.
MMM: The band always has had classic folk and chamber music elements, but that really comes to life in “No Safe Harbor.” What can you say about that song, both thematically and how it came together musically?
RV: Well, I can say that that song almost gave me a hernia several times while we were trying to finish it. It was definitely the most loosely arranged and least prepared of all the songs on the album when we went into the studio. Over the course of several weeks, we’d work on additional parts a couple days before a studio date, and then lay down those new parts when we were in there. I more than once thought we might have to cut “No Safe Harbor” from the album, because it just wasn’t coming together. But once the flute was laid down and Kim laid down her cello parts and Sarah laid down her violin parts, the layers upon layers finally started to flesh out the song and make it sound more complete.
The lyrics are about love lost; and how the pain of losing someone you felt a strong connection with can change your inner world and the course of your life.
MMM: “More Constant Than the Gods” has the fewest songs of any of your albums to date– just six. But they’re all epic length. How did these songs come about compositionally, and what has led the band down this path to longer, more involved songs?
RV: My favorite song off “No Help” is “Stonecarver,” and even right after we were finishing up that album, I was interested in creating more songs that were almost suite-like in nature. I liked the idea of making the songs more like a journey with shifts and turns down unexpected hallways, with a loosely connected feeling or theme, just like a classical music piece.
Compositionally, Andy, Christian, Kim, and Sarah all help with the huge struggle of finalizing the structure of the songs, editing parts, and creating transitions. I think Kim and Sarah’s violin-playing also contributes to the more involved feeling of the songs on “More Constant.” They experimented a lot more with new pedals, tones and techniques to achieve the violin sounds on this album.
MMM: What are your touring plans for the record? As an East Coaster, here’s hoping the plans are extensive.
RV: Thanks, we do want to make it to the East Coast sometime during the touring for this album! We are playing Southwest Terror Fest in Tucson, Arizona, on Oct. 12, and doing a West Coast tour in November. We’ve put our name in for Roadburn next year, and if we make it in, we’ll do a European tour.
MMM: Is there anything else you want to say about the record, the band, or whatever that we didn’t cover?
RV: Chris has announced that he’s going to start putting together a vinyl version of “More Constant than the Gods”Mo in September, so, stay tuned.
For more on the band, go here: http://subrosa.cc/
To buy the album (on sale soon), go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/
For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/