There are enough qualities that distinguish Salt Lake City’s SubRosa from their doom metal brethren. Aside from ingeniously incorporating violins into their ultra-heavy sound, the quintet excels in songwriting that’s singular in its brutally honest depiction of tenebrous themes. Their new staggering full-length More Constant Than The Gods (Profound Lore) centers around the topic of Death and its numerous implications. Instead of alienating the listener with such a serious subject matter, the album manages to sound visceral throughout, delivering a series of expansive tunes that ebb and flow with admirable precision. Here’s my interview with the band’s charismatic mastermind, Rebecca Vernon.
What inspired you to be a musician? Were there any particular moments in your life when you thought that you couldn’t live without creating music or was the whole process of becoming a guitarist, singer and songwriter more fluid?
Music is my number one passion and has always been in my blood. There are times when I’ve been distracted by other things, but those periods never last long.
I started taking music lessons on violin at the age of 9, then learned piano and drums around age 12. I played these instruments in school orchestras and marching bands, and later, in college, real bands.
Becoming a guitarist, singer and songwriter, though, was very abrupt. I had wanted to start a band for about three or four years before forming SubRosa in 2005, but I didn’t particularly want to play the guitar and I definitely didn’t want to sing in front of people. It took a lot for me to get out of my drumming comfort zone and start SubRosa.
I think it has been a gradual process to realize how much writing music means to me. Now, when people ask me to drum for their projects (and I sometimes do), it’s fun but there is now this whole other part of me that can’t be fulfilled any other way except through my own songwriting.
Kim and Sarah have played violin in several other projects. Sarah also started picking up violin at the same time as I picked up guitar. Kim has played violin since an early age. Andy has been drumming in bands for over 20 years, and Christian has been playing bass for several years and was in other projects in Boise writing his own music.
SubRosa have already made a name for themselves in the realm of underground metal. Yet your music is not very easy to pigeonhole as you operate within many different genres, some of which cannot be really considered metal. Who do you reckon your music is targeted at?
When SubRosa first started, I didn’t think of who our audience might be. I just thought about how I wanted people to feel when they listened to it – eviscerated, hopefully. Gradually, the longer we made music, the heavier the music seemed to become, and the more we seemed to be grouped with other heavy bands and finally, doom metal bands. I think the first time that officially happened was when I Hate Records signed us in 2008.
Now, though, I do picture our “audience” somewhere out there when I’m writing music in my bedroom. I envision this faceless, nameless audience and what the music might mean to them. I often envision our audience as people who pass through a lot of darkness, a lot of struggles.
Another intriguing aspect of your band is a male/female dynamic. Is it difficult to make this combination of different genders, tempers and personalities work in the studio and on stage?
Actually, no. We all get along really well, and we respect each other’s opinion enough that when someone has a strong opinion about something, we all listen and consider it. Being in a band involves a lot of learning how to let certain things go that don’t matter that much, and being strong about the things that do matter. I think everyone in the band understands the importance of working together as a team to bring about a common goal. I lead the band, but we are all equals trying to realize a musical vision. Andy and Christian completely respect Kim, Sarah and me. There’s no sexism or strange gender roles in the band.
It’s always interesting to know how an artist’s music is conceived, especially in your case as your style combines many distinct elements. What does your songwriting process usually look like? Which comes first: the heavy riffs, the rhythm section or perhaps string arrangements?
The heavy riffs come first. I come up with riffs on my own. I usually add vocal melodies and some lyrics at the same time or shortly afterward. I then share the basic skeletons of the songs with Kim and Sarah and they write their parts. Shortly after or sometimes simultaneously, I’ll show Christian the songs and he’ll come up with his bass parts. We then show the songs to Andy and he comes up with his drum parts last. When everyone is finally playing all together, we edit things like structure and transitions.
With No Help For The Mighty Ones, Sarah and Kim wrote the parts together in the same room, for the most part. But for More Constant Than The Gods, Sarah and Kim “led” three songs each. They were the creative directors of their three songs and showed the other violinist how the parts should go, the vibe they wanted for that song. We mostly did this because during the writing of this record, they had very opposite schedules and it was hard to get them in the same room.
More Constant Than The Gods feels like a really personal record. What are the themes you’ve covered this time around?
You are right, it is a very personal album, more personal than any other album. I dug deep into the raw parts of my soul for the lyrics, themes and riffs of this album.
The overarching theme of the album is Death because after writing all the lyrics, I realized all the songs had to do with death in one way or another. Other themes are social, religious and political oppression, regret, sorrow, exquisite suffering, violence against women and humanity in general – all the usual cheerful SubRosa themes. “Affliction” is about a woman named Carolyn Tuft whose daughter was killed in front of her during a shooting at a mall in Salt Lake City (Trolley Square), and then Carolyn herself was shot in the back. Doctors can’t remove all the pellets so she’s going through a slow, agonizing death through lead poisoning. It’s these kinds of things that I write songs about.
As regards the artwork, you once again teamed up with Glyn Smith to startling effect. What’s the concept behind the art for the new album?
The concept ties in with the overall theme of the album: Death. I wanted a personification of Death that portrayed Death as a tender deliverer or psychopomp. It was Glyn’s artistic interpretation to make Death female. Every symbol on the cover ties into the overall theme. For example, the moth in the top right-hand corner represents the “transformation of the soul through death,” in Glyn’s words. Glyn is an amazing artist and it was a pleasure to work with him again for More Constant Than The Gods.
You seem to go in a more progressive direction with every new release. More Constant Than The Gods sports only 6 tracks, but all of them are decidedly large in scope. Does this musical path towards a more expansive sound reflect your personal preferences or is this simply “it’s better for the band” case?
I think it was more of a case of personal preference. My favorite song on the last album was “Stonecarver,” and even right after No Help For The Mighty Ones was released, I thought about how much I wanted to make songs that went more in that direction… songs that have movements, like classical music. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of themes running through classical music pieces that then disappear while the piece opens up into expansive outros or interludes before going back to the theme, or not going back at all.
Your new album is also marked by a more experimental use of strings. What exactly dictated this direction?
Kim and Sarah both got a few new pedals and were experimenting with tones and distortions. This was actually Sarah’s intention from the very beginning with SubRosa, to be very experimental, insanely so, with the violin. But since last year, I feel like that goal has finally been realized fully. Sarah’s new pedals and equipment are helping her push the instrument to its full potential. Kim also has a project called Cicadas where she plays through about 10-12 pedals and three cabs and two guitar heads, and I think some of what Kim is doing with Cicadas bled into SubRosa as well.
In my opinion, “The Usher” (the 14-minute suite that opens the new album) is your biggest artistic achievement, and a defining moment for metal in 2013. What’s the story behind this tune?
Thank you, that is my favorite song on the album. This song was inspired in part by my mom’s death in 2007. Her demise made me start reflecting on the concept, “What if there was no such thing as death?” What if there wasn’t this aging and dying gene in our bodies, which science right now is wholeheartedly dedicated to isolating and eradicating? Imagine a life that goes on and on without end: eternal beauty, eternal youth. Personally, I can’t imagine a more hellish existence. When my mom passed away, it felt very natural. All our life we spend running from pain, sickness, and our inevitable ends. I think this is one of the root causes of human misery.
You reside in Salt Lake City that’s not exactly one of the most liberal cities in the US. What does the music scene in your area look like? Are there any particular bands you’d like to recommend?
The Salt Lake music scene has always been very vibrant and thriving, ever since I’ve lived off and on in Utah, since 1994. Probably the two most well known metal bands are Eagle Twin on Southern Lord and Gaza (now defunct) on Black Market Activities. Gaza’s albums made Decibel’s Top 40 year-end lists in 2010 and 2012, and they toured with Converge several times in Europe and the US. Others include: Cicadas (Subrosa violinist Kim’s project), Spörk (whose founder Bill Frost contributed a second guitar part to “Ghosts of a Dead Empire” and who I used to drum for), QstandsforQ (whose founder contributed the male vocals to “The Usher”), IX Zealot, Moon of Delirium, Visigoth (Metal Blade), Dwellers (Small Stone), Old Timer, INVDRS (Corruption Recordings in Portland), Day Hymns and Cult Leader (both with ex-members of Gaza), Huldra, Die Off, Settle Down, Worst Friends, Oxcross and Döne (who Andy also drums for), Light Black, Sure Sign of the Nail, and the list just goes on and on.
What do you think the future holds for SubRosa? Do you have any specific touring plans?
We are going on tour in a week with Samothrace. We are planning on doing a tour in Europe next summer for about three weeks. Between Samothrace and Europe, I’m sure something else might pop up.
Other than that, we’d like to make a music video sometime in the next few months. We’ve never made one and I think music videos are a very powerful art form. We also have a short documentary in the works about the making of More Constant Than The Gods (it’s 10 minutes long or so). Hopefully that will be done by the end of the year.
The entire album is streaming here: