I absolutely love Subrosa’s latest album, No Help for the Mighty Ones. So should you. I could go on for days about the band’s earth-shaking mix of doom, sludge and vintage alt-rock, but I’d much rather let one of the architects behind this phenomenal recording do the talking. I got in touch with guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon with a little help from the fine folks at Profound Lore, and the following in-depth interrogation transpired.
THKD: For THKD readers who might not be familiar with Subrosa, how did the band get started? What was your initial inspiration?
Rebecca Vernon: I had the idea to start a band like Subrosa, minus the violins, for about three years before Subrosa began. The initial inspiration for me wanting to write heavy sludge music at all was a band from Provo, Utah called the Red Bennies … still the angriest band I’ve ever seen live. They were playing strange, heavy, downtuned sludge with a confrontational punk edge in 1994. They are my biggest influence.
THKD: How would you describe Subrosa’s sound to someone who hasn’t heard your music?
RV: I guess I would call us experimental, melodic stoner/sludge metal with electric violins. I’m not afraid to categorize us. ☺
THKD: What can you tell us about Subrosa’s songwriting process? Is there a “main composer” or do you write as a group?
RV: I started the band with a vision in mind, and wrote most of the parts for the songs for the first few years (except violin—Sarah’s always written her own violin part). But over the last two years, members joined the band who could write their own parts and preferred to … which I welcomed with open arms, because there’s nothing worse than coming up with a great guitar riff, then remembering you also have to write the vocal melody, lyrics, bass, and drum parts. Ugh.
THKD: The song “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes” was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What is it about that novel that prompted you to write a song about it?
RV: For one, Cormac McCarthy is a word-smithing genius. The beauty and pain of his writing is unbelievable, unearthly. His characters’ dialogue, too, is spare and perfect.
In particular though, what I focused on in The Road through the lyrics of “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes” (which is a phrase from the book), is that the silly, banal folk wisdom that we build our lives around, those clichés that appear on refrigerator magnets that everyone clings to desperately amidst the shipwrecks of their lives, are pretty much all transparent lies. Our society has no true moorings, and if and when it falls apart one day, everyone will turn into animals, and I will watch it all, laughing.
THKD: “House Carpenter” is a traditional Celtic folk song. Why did you choose this song to cover? How does folk music tie into what you’re doing in Subrosa?
RV: Well, I used to think I hated folk music. I always thought the people who wrote and performed it were pretentious. But now I know better. There’s something so sorrowful about old folk music written in a minor key … it’s as if the songs, after passing through so many decades, absorbed the pain of all the people it touched, and absorbed the spirit of their times. I’m drawn to any music that smacks of “source” material, not copies of a copy. Sarah and I saw “House Carpenter” performed on The Harry Smith Project Live DVD, and fell in love with it. (The DVD has performances from Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Beck, Sonic Youth and more, covering songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.)
THKD: What are some of the other lyrical themes you’re exploring on the album? I definitely get a similar folk/rustic vibe from songs such as “Whippoorwill” and “Attack on Golden Mountain” as well.
RV: “Whippoorwill” definitely was intended to carry that old-school folk feel, and “Attack on Golden Mountain,” has lyrics that follow a folk-like narrative. I think there’s something powerful about telling a story with a few well-chosen, deceptively simple words. Stories are what our lives are based on, and our love of stories is what makes us human. I guess this is why I’m drawn to folk music and that style of lyric-writing.
THKD: Tell us about the song “Beneath the Crown”. I know it has to do with a book on eugenics, but can you go into specifics?
RV: The book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race talks about a mass sterilization program that occurred in the early part of the last century in America, backed by corporate funding and promoted in academia. It was a social “clean up” of what eugenics enthusiasts perceived as the lower echelons of society—the poor, the diseased, the mentally ill. They felt if they could keep these “undesirables” from reproducing, they could eradicate poverty and disease—and eventually create a master race.
Their philosophies had a direct influence on the Nazis.
It’s a profoundly disturbing book that everyone should read.
THKD: No Help for the Mighty Ones features two violinists. What prompted this approach? What do the violins add to Subrosa’s sound?
RV: My friend, Sarah, was learning violin the summer Subrosa started and so that’s how violins were added to the mix. At first I just visualized a really, really heavy band, and at first I didn’t know how violins would fit into that. But now I’m gladdened by the happy accident … the violins add a depth of haunting emotion to the music that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Kim Pack joined Subrosa in 2009, so now there are two violins—a dual harmonic attack.
THKD: How does the band’s unique instrumentation effect your guitar technique?
RV: I’ve never really felt motivated to play many guitar solos, because the violins take their place. They add the higher-pitched, intense intricacy of traditional metal guitar solos.
THKD: In addition to metal, I hear a lot of ’90s alternative rock (for lack of a better term). I’m thinking specifically of bands like the Breeders, the Pixies, Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey, etc. Were any of these bands or that era in general influential for you or am I way off the mark?
RV: We have gotten that before, but if so, it’s largely unconscious. I was very influenced by the grunge movement when it was happening, but I never directly aspired to capture that era of sound.
PJ Harvey, though, is a major influence on my guitar riffs … her raw, stripped-down approach reminds me that effective riffs are all about simplicity, power and soul. She is one of my top three favorite artists.
RV: Thanks, I’ll tell Glyn you said that. ☺
The album artwork is based on a story that I feel fits in perfectly with the title of the album and the main themes I was trying to capture lyrically—exploitation of the powerless. It’s the story of Tere Jo Dupperault, and the fate of the man that murdered her family. If you Google her name, you can read the details of her story.
The visual side of music is very important to Subrosa; I believe the right visuals can enhance and amplify the emotions and mood of music.
THKD: No Help for the Mighty Ones is your first album for Profound Lore. How did you get hooked up with the label?
RV: Chris and I were in touch since Strega came out in 2008 on I Hate Records. When the co-owner responsible for signing Subrosa left the label, we found ourselves with no one to release our next album. I approached Chris in fall of 2010 with our finished, mixed and mastered album and he said he would like to release it.
THKD: Subrosa is two thirds female. What challenges, if any, do women face in the metal scene? Does the “boys club” mentality of heavy music still exist?
RV: I think women who write and perform heavy music are actually generally respected in the metal scene, even though they are in the minority.
I think one of the biggest challenges women face in the metal scene is the lazy trap of using one’s sexuality to sell or promote your music. It’s a false shortcut.
THKD: Subrosa hails from Salt Lake City, Utah. What is the metal scene like there? Do you get much local support?
RV: It was kind of in a slump, but is coming out of it now. Most of the heavy bands know each other and support each other. We get a lot of support from SLUG Magazine, City Weekly, KRCL and other media outlets that give us air time and exposure. The alternative media outlets in Salt Lake City really support the local scene.
THKD: Salt Lake City is the headquarters of the LDS Church and the hub of Mormonism. How does the religious/political/social climate of the city effect your lives as metal musicians and the scene, if at all?
RV: It has influenced us greatly. The conservative dominant culture has resulted in a thriving counterculture here. There is a certain sincerity in the music the bands in SLC create … writing and performing music is a need, not a luxury.
THKD: Are there any other prominent Salt Lake City bands we should be listening to? Do you have any recommendations for our readers?
RV: Yes … Gaza toured Europe with Converge last summer and I think are touring again with them this year. They are on Black Market Activities and are one of the most brutal bands you’ll ever hear or see. Eagle Twin is on Southern Lord and are touring Australia with Unearthly Trance right now. They toured with Sunn O))) last year. Bird Eater is also on Black Market, Iota is a stoner delight on Small Stone, although lead singer Joey Toscano has set Iota aside and started The Dwellers with Subrosa bassist Dave Jones and Subrosa drummer Zach Hatsis. Gravecode Nebula and IX Zealot offer great black metal, and INVDRS take the cake as loudest band in SLC, on Corruption Recordings in Oregon. Top Dead Celebrity and Old Timer (Subrosa’s bassist Dave’s third band) are great to watch live.
THKD: What are you currently listening to? What books are you reading?
RV: I’ve been playing The Cure’s Disintegration, along with Agalloch’s new record, Marrow of the Spirit. I’m reading a book called UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials go on the Record, by Leslie Kean, and trying to finish The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil.
THKD: Will you be playing any shows or doing any touring in support of No Help for the Mighty Ones?
RV: Yes, there are some tour plans in the works, but nothing has been decided yet. We’d really like to go to Europe. Stay tuned!
THKD: What does the rest of 2011 have in store for Subrosa?
RV: Touring, and I am going to start writing new songs with Sarah starting this week, hopefully. It’s high time we starting writing music for the next album.
THKD: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
RV: Thanks for the interview! I think it’s commendable that you run a webzine all by yourself.
photo credit: Peter Anderson