Some bands resemble onions. They possess an intangible ability to become even more intriguing the further you dig into their backstory, while also having the ability to bring a tear to the eye through the sheer beauty of their music. One such band, whom I came across via their announcement for Hellfest this year, are SubRosa. A sludgy doom metal band based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, they blend in haunting female vocals and more strikingly, prominent violins into their enveloping sound. If that weren’t engaging enough, their lyrical topics should raise an eyebrow: the impact of a face cream in India, the US eugenics movement and rather personal tales of death all crop up in the band’s arsenal, and they make these songs all the more sorrowful. It was almost inevitable then, that their performance at Hellfest quickly shot to being one of my favorites that weekend, as you can read about here.
The interview that follows a couple of hours later is charged with the adrenaline of a band riding the thrill of a “perfect” show. The five members are incredulous at the crowd’s raucous applause, all the more because this is their first European festival show since 2008. Violinist Kim Pack comments that the band were “brought to near tears” by the response, while fellow violinist Sarah Pendleton adds “I felt just as connected tonight as I would in a small club.” Vocalist/guitarist Rebecca Vernon, taking the more pragmatic road, was “happy that nothing went wrong.” Being unafraid to experiment, there’s talk among the band members of incorporating a visual aspect to their shows in the future: “We tried to do it before, with moderate success, a projector on a sheet, we’re trying little things like that.”
In line with the sorrow-laden style of music they play, SubRosa embrace the darker side of life, continued on their latest album, the much-lauded More Constant Than The Gods. Fuelled in part by the passing of Rebecca’s mother in 2008, the songs discuss ‘death as a deliverer’ among other topics, and the ubiquity of suffering: “Suffering is one thing that unites people, it’s the one thing everybody experiences.” However, it was not a conscious choice that death be the overarching theme, “the album let me know what the theme was going to be, and I know subconsciously it appeared in all of the songs for a reason.”
That’s not the sole intention of these songs though, to wallow in gloom and misery as some doom bands are wont to do. There is also an underlying current of informing the listener about events in history and present day. With the main lyric writer being female, obviously some of these crop up as female-related issues: “There are a lot of issues facing women that enrage me and that I feel so much passion about,” such as in “Ghosts Of A Dead Empire” which talks about a face cream that Indian girls use to make their complexions fairer. But that’s not the number one focus of the band either, “we’re not Bikini Kill, even though I like Bikini Kill.” One of their most striking songs, “Beneath The Crown”, delves into a dark part of US history: the eugenics movement of the 1930s, which directly influenced the Nazis. “That’s not taught in US schools, it’s not part of the curriculum. But it’s huge. There are so many themes in just that occurrence alone that you could write an album on it.”
With three fifths of the band being frequent readers and/or English Literature majors, the question of which books they’d put on a “SubRosa 101” college course is met with delight, and what is usually a tough question for bands is met with resounding enthusiasm. Sarah is right off the bat with George Orwell’s 1984 and Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel, while she and Kim share a love of Cormack MacCarthy with The Road and Blood Meridian respectively. Rebecca throws in War Against The Weak by Edwin Black in reference to our discussion on eugenics. The two guys in the band, less literary than their female companions, go for the more technical approach. Bassist Levi Hanni jokes “if Andy [Patterson, drums] and I were to put books in there it’d be recording manuals!”, which gets a massive roar of laughter from everyone.
It’s not long before we breach two of the big topics related to SubRosa’s existence: being female in metal and being religious in metal. I bring up an old quote from a Decibel interview which intrigued me, where Sarah stated that “I can’t foresee a day when women are not considered a novelty in heavy music”. While things have changed quite a bit since a few years ago, there is still a barrier that exists, as Sarah comments: “sometimes women feel they have to sexualize the music and sexualize themselves in order to succeed. Sexuality is wonderful, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of your body. If you want to show your body off, great, there’s no shame in that. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to for your music to be successful, because they are two separate things”. Interestingly, SubRosa’s experience of having ladies in the band has been more welcoming in the heavy music scene than in some other genres: “I feel like this is our home”, remarks Rebecca.
The term ‘female-fronted metal’ rears its ugly head, ugly because as Levi rightly points out “it’s lazy journalism”. It seems like a crazy notion to be pigeonholed in a musical box by something other than your music, but in this case it happens on a startlingly regular basis. Rebecca is emphatic about her desire for the term to die out: “I hate it because I can’t even tell you how many times we’ve been compared to L7 or The Breeders. I mean, L7’s angry and they’re cool, but beyond that… we have much more in common with other bands in the sludge metal scene that maybe don’t have a female in the band.”
Which leads us to the final big question for SubRosa. With Rebecca’s Mormon belief, about which she has made no bones, and metal’s natural bias against organized religion, have the band encountered any hostility regarding this? The answer to this ends up more reflective of Rebecca’s own beliefs than of the metal community, as she answers: “The honest truth is […] people don’t make a big deal out of it, but I think it’s also because I don’t make an issue out of it. I accept the people in the metal scene, I love my friends who aren’t Mormon, I don’t care what they believe.”
This acceptance is reflected back in return as the entire band rally round to support her. Sarah firmly states that “you [Rebecca] are one of the least judgmental people I have ever known, religious or non-religious.” Further to that, Andy pops up with the comment that “I was raised Mormon, and I am no longer with the Church, but I think Rebecca’s actually a really good example of what a religious person can aspire to as far as creating bridges between believers and non-believers. She is a great example of ‘Yeah, you can believe these things but you don’t have to be stuffy, you can be in a metal band and also go to Church on Sunday.’” Kim chips in to neatly tie this whole discussion back to the most important part of the band, the music: “That rigidity is what we are trying to express in the music, we disagree with such rigid boundaries that don’t allow you to be open-minded to other things, or to explore other options. Question your foundation, don’t be so rigid.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a motto to live by.
We wrap up the interview discussing plans for the immediate future, and most of them center around tours and festivals. As of right now they just got off from a US tour with Boris and The Atlas Moth, and then have a festival in North Carolina, then a show with Neurosis in Denver in October, a festival in Austin, Texas, and finally a European tour in the works. SubRosa are an incredibly hard-working band making fantastic music to promote worthy messages. Until they come and play in your city, you can content yourselves with picking up their releases from their Bandcamp or record label.
Many thanks to SubRosa for the interview opportunity.
Rebecca Vernon: Guitar / Vocals
Sarah Pendleton: Violin / Vocals
Kim Pack: Violin / Vocals
Levi Hanna: Bass
Andy Patterson: Drums