With their soaring, otherworldly violins contrasting with warm, sludgy guitars, and their painstakingly-crafted songs that fuse metal, rock, and folk, Salt Lake City experimental doom band SubRosa is one of the heaviest and one of the most beautiful-sounding groups in contemporary music.
Founded in 2005, the five piece, which is currently comprised of guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack, bassist Levi Hanna, and drummer Andy Patterson, has charted its own path sinces its early days of fusing PJ Harvey-inspired riffs with metal influences and it has only grown more powerful and evocative over time. After years of regular touring and crushing album releases, including the striking No Help for the Mighty Ones in 2011, it found a wider audience and cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative heavy bands in a generation with its 2013 LP, More Constant Than the Gods.
Like many doom bands, the depths and layers of SubRosa’s staggering sound are most apparent when they perform. Onstage, the band is flanked by Vernon’s massive vintage Sunn amps, with a full stack on one side (really, a half-stack on top of a full stack), and a ¾ stack the other that together create a stereo-like effect. Adding even further to the low end, she downtunes the top string of her guitar to a B and uses the heaviest six strings in sets made for seven-string guitars to ensure that there is still plenty of tension on the neck. “We’re pretty deafening when we play,” Vernon says. “We’re not the loudest band you’ve ever heard, but with the piercing violins and the loud guitar, the power of the music is in volume, too. We definitely follow the doom metal philosophy in that way; I totally agree that the louder it is, the more powerful it is.”
Since its release on August 26, 2016, SubRosa’s latest album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (Profound Lore) has been heralded as a career landmark, generating near-universal acclaim and landing the band an invitation to perform it in its entirely at the esteemed Roadburn Festival 2017—an honor typically reserved for albums whose legacy has been established over time.
Produced by Patterson, the album contains some of the most devastating and emotion-packed music SubRosa’s has created thus far, and though it draws themes from dystopian literature, much of its weight comes from true life inspirations close to the band’s heart, especially in its epic closing track, “Troubled Cells.”
The song was written in response to a policy passed by the Mormon Church in November, 2015 that stated it would excommunicate LGBT members who married, and only baptize children of gay parents who rejected their parents’ sexuality. Following the decision, the state of Utah saw a surge of suicides, particularly among LGBT youth. Vernon, one of the few practicing Mormons in Salt Lake City’s vibrant music scene, was appalled by the policy and the ongoing tragedies in its wake, and became committed to taking action against it, even at the risk of alienation from her religious community and others.
To spread their message even further, SunRosa collaborated with Kinetic Pictures’ Danica Vallone and Thomas Dekker on a music video (the band’s first) to accompany the track. Filmed in the Mojave Desert, the piece depicts two children searching for community in a dystopian society. Only one finds acceptance, which results in dire consequences. In an interview with NPR upon the video’s release on November 7, Vallone said, “The chorus of SubRosa’s “Troubled Cells” and the crux of the film’s meaning are one and the same: “Paradise is a lie” if it comes at the expense of being true to yourself, or sacrificing the ones you love.”
Just before the album’s release, we spoke with Vernon about finding the courage to stand up for what’s right, no matter how high the stakes, and using her music and art as a vehicle for protest and discussion. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
She Shreds: Much of your music is influenced by issues in the world that catch your attention. Whether it’s about climate change, terrorism, violence, the election, or how we treat each other in society, there is a lot of talk lately about how “this is going to be the defining moment of our lifetime.” Is that where you got the album title?
Rebecca Vernon: I didn’t really have the current environment in mind when I came up with the title but after the album was written, I realized how much it does tie into the current political atmosphere and all of the social unrest all over the world. I agree with you. I feel that we’re facing one of the biggest moments of unrest and political and global turmoil I’ve ever seen in my lifetime…It does feel like this big crossroads or something, and it feels really strange.
The title, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, asks, “For what do you fight the battle of ages? What is worth fighting for?” It’s such a cliche, but it refers to free will. To me, every battle is the same battle. It’s about people trying to inflict their will on others and trying to control and suppress or oppress other people. And destroy or herd or kill other people. It’s based on the book We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It was written in 1921 and it explores themes of free will versus being controlled, and what is better.
Growing up in a conservative environment, is that something you’ve felt since you were a young age?
I didn’t grow up in Utah but I was a part of Mormon culture growing up. At 14 I started feeling very strongly that the individual is the most important unit of society. It trumps the common good. It trumps the group, always. Happiness and the free will to find that happiness and to live life the way you want to is experienced on the individual level. You can say a group of people is happy, but [happiness] is only felt in individual souls. Honoring yourself, your authentic self, and having the courage to go against the crowd, to buck conformity, go your own path and face any consequences that might come your way. That is the path to happiness.
I see what you’re saying. The idea of being true to yourself, and what makes you happy vs. subverting your emotions, wants, and needs. Women, especially, seem to do that a lot.
Yes. And they do that a lot in the Mormon church and in other religions and churches too. I feel like there are those overtones. It’s a holdover from the 1950s or something. Even though we’ve made so much progress and the feminist movement has made so much progress, I still see women who are afraid to express themselves or follow their dreams.
Are you still part of the church? If so, have you had to reconcile your thoughts about the individual vs. the group? Has that affected you as a musician?
It has affected me. I am still part of the church and yes, I have had to carve my own path. I’ve had to think through exactly how I’m going to be true to myself and the things I believe, and find the balance between those things. At times it has been a struggle because I am basically going against every social group that I know. I’m not making anyone happy, but that’s ok.
Do you think a lot of musicians in Salt Lake City have gone through similar experiences in their personal lives?
There are hundreds of bands here, of all different genres. The music scene and the dominant conservative culture are two different worlds. I am one of very few Mormons in the music scene out of hundreds and hundreds of people. Most people have completely left the church or never grew up in it. A lot of people still have family members in the church and they love and respect their family but they don’t want to have anything to do with the church. [Some of] the people in the church are in bands in their 20s or early 30s, and then they start raising families.
A main characteristic of heavy genres like post-rock, doom, or black metal is this balance of beauty with ugly and harsh music. SubRosa is such a great example of that. How do you view these polarities and toy with them in your songs?
When we started I just wanted to be one polarity; to be the heaviest band in Salt Lake City. I wanted to be brutal, and scare people, and be super heavy. When Sarah wanted to join on violin, I thought, “that is going to completely water down my brutal vision.” And of course, it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to us. The emotional depth the violins bring is amazing. It also creates that dichotomy, those heavy, brutal riffs, played through giant guitar stacks with the beautiful, melodic violins that are practically weeping with sorrow. It’s very ethereal, very reverb-y, like it’s from another world.
It does create this interesting friction, but as a band we feel that the overall effect of the music [should] capture a feeling of dark and despair and also rays of hope. There are moments of triumph, strength, and defiance. Ultimately, that’s what I want when people hear SubRosa—this feeling of strength. I can’t have people feel strong if I keep telling them the world is one big black pit, even though the world is awful.
“Troubled Cells” is about LGBTQ issues within the Mormon community. Can you tell me about how was that song was developed?
I have put my whole heart and soul into this song. It means so much to me. There’s a big issue around LGBTQ suicides in Utah right now and globally in the church. In Utah, it’s the leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19. I think the number of youth suicides in that age bracket last year surpassed six hundred… It’s enormous. Huge amounts of kids are killing themselves, especially LGBTQ.
The four other members of the band are not Mormon or religious, and I don’t consider myself to be “religious” in the traditional sense either. I try to keep [my beliefs] out of the limelight but this issue is so heartbreaking and so important to me that I totally, finally, wrote a song that tackles some of these issues head on.
Last November, the church passed a policy that was really harsh against gay members of the church. There was a huge outcry, in and out of the church. A lot of people left the church over it. When it came out, I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I thought that there would be so many suicides from this policy. And sure enough, there have been over forty since last November. There were five people who killed themselves just a few weeks ago. Five in one week, and I think all of them were under 18. There are all of these LGBT support groups, both in and out of the church, that are trying to get through to these kids.
How could [the policy makers] not see what was going to happen? I have no idea how they can be so far removed for what life might be like for a gay person in the church, or someone who feels different. 40% of the homeless youth in Utah are LGBTQ who are kicked out of their houses because they are rejected by their families. There is all of this misunderstanding and negative messages about gay people. It’s all really upsetting.
Within about a week after the policy changed, I thought, “I need to write a song and it has to be the best song I’ve ever written.” Eventually “Troubled Cells” came together. All along, I wanted a video to go along with it. I just had this strong feeling that I needed to do that, and I needed to have courage to say something. It was not ok to stand by and be silent. It can apply to people who are not Mormon, or not in the church at all, but we’re hoping [to reach] LGBTQ people who are being rejected by their families, or misunderstood, or dealing with oppression. If we can prevent one person from killing themselves that would be pretty amazing.
Image of SubRosa courtesy of the band
Utah is a fairly conservative state, but these kinds of injustices happen everywhere. Maybe someone across the country or across the world could take something away from it, too.
Hopefully it can help them feel they are not alone and there are people out there who care about them. I don’t want the band to be the focus of the video. I have LGBTQ friends who have volunteered to do interviews if there is any interest but we just want to say, “here’s the video” and stand back. I’m trying to make people feel some compassion and empathy for what these people are suffering and the depth of that suffering. If I can succeed in helping people feel some human emotion about it, that will be a success.
I think a lot of people will connect with it and feel glad that it was made to spread the word about the issue, but I think there could be a backlash as well. I’m ready, though. I’ve thought it through really carefully since November. “Am I willing to take this risk and face all of this disapproval? Am I willing to be kicked out of the church?” And yes, I am.
Emergency situations call for big actions. In the music community, including metal, there has been more conversation about social issues recently, both good and bad, and a lot of amazing things are happening. For example, Sunn O))) hired a feminist theorist to write the liner notes for their last album. Are you anticipating conversation in the music community as well as in Utah?
Yeah, and Sleep playing that benefit for the victims of the Orlando shooting. I was so proud of them for stepping up and doing that. I think it is so great when bands in our scene set an example like that, and make a statement, and take a stand. I’ve always tried to sing about things that matter to me and try to spread awareness in an abstract sense about different issues, but this is the first time I’ve written a song that is supposed to make some kind of statement.
Like you said, “urgent times call for big actions.” I have to do something. I can’t face my conscious if I don’t. It’s important for people to stand up and speak out in moments like this. In the metal scene, overall I think people will be accepting of what we are trying to do, they’ll see why we had to do it.
Let’s talk a bit about guitars. What kind do you play?
I have used a Schecter Diamond Series guitar since the beginning and I have never had a desire to play anything else. I walked into a Guitar Center, it was on deep discount and I loved the way it looked, sort of a Mahogany, matte-stained finish that looked kind of brutal, so I got it as my first guitar. As luck should have it, as I’ve played other guitars absolutely nothing compares to my Schecter. I just completely lucked out picking the best guitar for SubRosa’s sound. I was completely shallow in how I picked it, but it ended up being a really good decision. Schecter Guitars are kind of tailored to work with heavy music, especially low-end music.
I kept that guitar up to 2013, when we had our instruments stolen on a tour to California with Samothrace… After that, our friend had a fundraiser for us to replace our old instruments. I got a Schecter Diamond Series Blackjack. It’s not a $1200 guitar, but it sounds better, it stays in tune better, and it’s lighter.
Is your quest for a lower, heavier guitar sound due in part to the interplay with the other musicians and knowing the high end will be filled out by the violins?
There is this interplay between trying to be as heavy as possible and hitting those sweet spots. The violins are so loud they pierce through everything and as they get louder and louder, I’ve felt like I’ve had to become louder and louder as well. It’s like this volume war. One area that the band doesn’t really have, as you pointed out, is the mid-range. We have the higher soprano from the violin, and then the treble, and then the very bass-y bass, and the down tuned guitar. The only place we have the midrange is in the vocals. It is weird how we have the two extremes, and then we’re missing the middle.
Like you said earlier, you wanted “one polarity.” You didn’t want to walk that middle ground with SubRosa. In a very literal sense, that’s what you’ve done.
That’s true. The guitar doesn’t want to compromise their volume and the power and the violins don’t want to compromise what they are doing, so the two make this creation together. I guess it is this weird representation of Utah, too. Like how there are these two bipolar worlds, and never the ‘twain shall meet. There is no middle ground in Utah. And that’s a huge problem. Two sides that don’t understand each other. I feel much more at home in the music scene, but it’s very, very hard that there is not a lot of middle ground. It’s very black and white thinking in both worlds.
If you or someone you know is struggling and needs support, or is having thoughts of suicide, please reach out. You are not alone and people want to help.