Mark recently had a pleasure of catching up with Rebecca Vernon of Salt Lake City’s experimental Sludge group SubRosa, and here is how it all went down…
MARK (M) – So your recent trip to Europe wasn’t quite your first, as I saw you at the one off at Hellfest last year. There must be some pleasure in knowing that your efforts have been picked up internationally and appreciated on the radar to get invited over for events such as these? How was the French experience?
REBECCA – (R) It was really great to play Hellfest last year and Roadburn this year, and nice that there has been more European exposure lately. The first label we were on was I Hate Records in Sweden in 2008, and they did a lot of promotion for Strega in Europe back then. Then the tennis ball came back to North America through Profound Lore promoting No Help and then More Constant. The goal is to hopefully have the tennis ball on both sides of the ocean at the same time with the next album, and according to string theory, we can!
(M) And now Roadburn this year. Had you heard of the festival before, and what did you make of the “doom mecca” even if your visit was fleeting?
(R) We have wanted to be a part of Roadburn for a few years and were very honored when we were invited to play in 2015. We had always heard about the sense of community at Roadburn, and we weren’t disappointed. Everyone was friendly and warm, and Walter was very kind and gracious and took time out of his busy day to exchange a few words. I’d like to go back next year as a spectator, just to wander around and check out bands and order some French fries with mayonnaise from the food trucks. I didn’t get a chance to do that while I was there, order those Euro fries with mayo.
(M) Are there any equivalent doom orientated festivals in the US that you’d recommend? By the sounds of it a lot of bands still rely on the “back of the van” long distance touring over there?
(R) Fall into Darkness is a really special festival to us. It’s curated in Portland, Oregon, by Nate Carson of Nanotear Booking (also drummer of Witch Mountain and a swiftly budding fantasy/surreal horror author). Fall into Darkness is smaller than Roadburn, but has the same spirit Roadburn does: Very hand-picked bands, with a very warm and intimate vibe pervading the festival. Kim, Sarah and I have flown up to attend maybe two or three of them. SubRosa played Fall into Darkness a couple years ago, too, and it was a very fun show for us.
SubRosa just played Psycho California and it also had an amazing lineup and atmosphere. Terror Fest is another doom-oriented fest that we played two years ago that is really growing – last year, they had Goatsnake, Neurosis and Sunn O))) headlining. I’ve been to Southern Lord’s Power of the Riff in LA and really liked it. Maryland Death Fest of course is huge. And last but not least, Salt Lake City has a growing heavy music festival that SubRosa plays every year called Crucial Fest, that in 2015 will feature headliners Goatsnake, Royal Thunder, Dead Meadow, and about 50 other bands, national and local.
Yes, you are right about the long-distance touring here. In Europe, you are lucky to live comparatively close to other countries and big cities. Salt Lake City is eight hours from a city that is its equivalent in size – Denver, Colorado. Certain places in the US, though, are easier to tour, like the East Coast.
(M) You went to Russia next, I presume it’s not quite seen as “the evil empire” like it used to be in the States but what where your preconceptions of going, and were they changed?
(R) I had been to Russia in 1996 for a college study abroad program for three months. It felt like St. Petersburg hadn’t changed at all since that time. Moscow, though, felt like it had gotten ten times bigger.
This time, we had heard a lot about how dangerous Russia is currently, so we were on our guard. But we ended up feeling perfectly safe the whole time. We were chaperoned by Vlad from Play It Loud booking the first two days, and then spent our last day in St. Petersburg by ourselves and went to the Hermitage. The Hermitage was packed with tourists from all over the world. Everything felt fine.
Our Russian shows were very cool and unique. The audiences were very appreciative and excited that we were there. They don’t get the huge stream of touring bands that cities in the US and Europe do because of the distance, and trouble of getting visas, etc. It was surreal and amazing to look out and see Russians who live halfway around the world from us singing along with “Cosey Mo.”
(M) When you are on these expeditions does it feel like a family holiday or a work trip with your colleagues, or maybe somewhere in the middle?
(R) Somewhere in the middle, but this one felt closer to a family holiday. This time, we took a few days off here and there to actually see some sights, and everyone in the band loved that. We spent two days in Amsterdam, a day in St. Petersburg and a day in Helsinki. Most of the time, even though tours are fun, they are not very restful, so it felt good to take a few days off.
(M) I’ve been criticised before for mentioning the fact that a band is all-female or fronted by females, in the sense that you should just be viewed as musicians/doomsters regardless of sex, but my defense would be I think the increasing prominence/balance should be celebrated. What’s your take on it?
(R) It will be great if one day no one really thinks about the gender of musicians on stage because the numbers are more balanced, but for now, females are in the minority in the heavy music world and I agree that it is a positive thing to point out that more women are joining the ranks of doom and sludge metal and metal in general. I think women have unique things to say, and so do men, and I believe it’s valuable for both sides to have their stories and perspectives heard.
(M) The initial, perhaps uninformed reaction for me and many on this side of the water to hearing you are from Salt Lake City would be “Mormons”! How prevalent a presence are they at home or do you not come into contact with them in your day to day lives? It certainly seems to have fermented some excellent counter-cultural bands in the area, or perhaps that is unconnected?
(R) I definitely believe there is a connection between the dominant conservative culture that is found throughout Utah and the thriving counterculture here in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front. Salt Lake City is actually an oasis of diversity where there are tons of amazing vegan/vegetarian/organic/ ethnic restaurants and markets, clubs, bars, all-ages venues, theaters, independent film theaters, writing groups, art studios, and of course, bands – hundreds within a 40-mile radius or so, in all different genres. Park City is only a 25-minute drive away, where the heart of the Sundance Film Festival is held every year, and their films are screened in Salt Lake theaters as well. Salt Lake is an amazing place to live, with a ton of cool, open-minded people accomplishing and creating many great things.
(M) I’m interested to know if your wider environment at home has provided an influence to your music? Do you get inspiration from getting out into open spaces?
(R) We all love the wide open spaces of Utah. The deserts in Utah have a desolate but peaceful feeling. There are also numerous canyons just a 15-minute drive from downtown, that are full of hiking trails, skiing, rock climbing, campgrounds, fishing, etc. I think the most beautiful parts of Utah, though, can be found in Southern Utah, with its stark, windswept rock formations, some that look like they came out of Alice in Wonderland on the moon (see picture of Goblin Valley below).
Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon and Zion’s National Park are among those that have beautiful wild landscapes. I don’t know if Utah’s landscapes have directly inspired our music, but I sing explicitly about Utah topography in “Fat of the Ram.” And I often walk along the ridge of a mountain in a nearby canyon when I want to be alone (see the picture of Emigration Canyon below).
(M) Another undercurrent running through your music is a “folk” aspect, where you seem attuned to both traditional music and tales. What aspects of American heritage appeal to you, and in some ways does this seem quite a relatively short period to draw from unlike for us in the “old world”?
(R) You know, I never considered myself a folk fan, and I haven’t listened to that much folk music. But when I hear a true traditional folk song or Appalachian murder ballad performed in a more “authentic” way – no bells and whistles, no trendy obscure instruments – there is something about it that has the magic of music that is close to a source, a wellspring of human suffering or human experience – much like the Delta blues.
I guess there is a part of me that feels some fascination or connection with the Appalachian Mountains region and culture around the 1700s and 1800s. It has a strange, primitive mystique to it. Yes, I think it is a relatively short amount of time ago compared to the length of time of recorded history that Europeans have to draw from.
“House Carpenter” is a traditional Scottish/Irish/Celtic folk tune we covered, also called “The Daemon Lover” and “James Harris.”
(M) As I said in some early communication with you, I had no shame in admitting to welling up with tears of joy from the emotional impact of your set at Hellfest! Do you feel elements of this when you are composing these tunes, that an atmosphere will “click” and you know you’ve triggered a reaction?
(R) Thanks, I’m glad you liked the Hellfest show! To answer your question: yes, very much so. I’ll be churning out an army of crappy riffs, and then I’ll play something that strikes a chord with me, and I will instantly feel an emotion welling up, and know I have hit on something. If you’re not ashamed admitting crying at Hellfest, then I’m not ashamed to admit crying when I first wrote the guitar parts and sang the lyrics to “No Safe Harbor.” I still can’t really listen to that song very much.
(M) When you are writing do you ever feel you have to restrict a songs length, or are happy to let things run their natural course?
(R) We are happy to let things run their natural course, but I did think of this very issue a few days ago. I’ve never written a song more than 14 minutes long or so, but I’m currently writing a song that might end up being around 20 minutes. That does pose some challenges; for example, it will take up a big chunk of any set we play. However, if the song needs to be 20 minutes to do what it needs to do, then it shall be 20 minutes.
(M) Someone could hear one of your songs and think that was a perfectly pleasant and gentle tune. Then listen to an album and be shocked by the contrast of crushing doom! Do you ever consider the accessibility of your music or are you happy being uncompromising in your own vision?
(R) We don’t really care about being accessible in the traditional sense of the word (like, able to be played on the radio, or changing our sound to be “bigger”) – we just write what serves the art of what we’re trying to do – what strikes a chord in us and what might strike a chord in listeners as well. I think the basic hooks do end up being pretty accessible, though, without it being deliberate. I am actually a fan of pop music done well. I am interested in what makes some pop – and music – hooks powerful and others not. Some sound simple in a processed, dumbed-down way and some sound simple in a raw and elegant way. What is the difference? To bring to life the music you have locked away inside you, I think it helps to listen carefully and critically to other music and ask yourself these questions.
Mark and BurningFist would like to thank Rebecca and SubRosa for their time with this interview!
INTERVIEW BY: Mark
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