Diving into the illustrious heart of the group's ongoing audiovisual partnership.
Genuine connections are sometimes looming in the midst of your surroundings. For artist Michael Lierly, who spent years going to shows in Little Rock, Arkansas, it was just a matter of time before he found himself in charge of album covers for the quartet of PALLBEARER despite being the brother of the band's drummer Mark Lierly. With brilliant covers for Heartless (2017), Dropout (2018), and more to speak for their partnership, it's clear that this was written in the stars, leading up to today's subject, the mighty Forgotten Days.
Arriving this Friday, October 23rd via Nuclear Blast Records, Forgotten Days harnesses from past tribulations for a doom metal effort drenched in heart. Every solemn passageway comes paired with a hard-hitting riff driven by the profound lyricism of songwriting duo Brett Campbell and Joseph D. Rowland, making this one richly layered affair. To welcome listeners to the full-length, PALLBEARER have once again entrusted Michael Lierly for cover art duties, further strengthening what began with 2016’s Fear & Fury EP. Needless to say, Forgotten Days is a year-end contender on all fronts.
We talk to PALLBEARER frontman Brett Campbell and Michael Lierly about the making of the beloved family portrait that represents this impactful record:
Much has happened since the landmark achievement that was 2017’s ‘Heartless’, resulting in such an introspective and reflective ‘Forgotten Days’. It’s melodic at heart and features some of your strongest lyricism yet, making for another heart wrenching experience. Seeing as the record began taking shape well before the pandemic, where did you look to take the record thematically?
Campbell: The themes just sort of arose on their own since wee typically write the music first. Once the songs have sort of formed themselves musically, we try to find subjects that fit the feeling of the songs. These end up being things that have been on our minds, as you can see addressed in the songs. We don’t discuss any of this stuff beforehand. I just go and write songs separately and then bring them to the band.
It seems that whenever Joe and I showed each other the lyrics to the songs we had for ‘Forgotten Days’, there were some conceptual threads that were similar. Our subjects were somewhat related, which was kind of weird, but it worked out. It’s almost a conceptual record, but it’s not. There are a lot of themes that run throughout it that are similar fixations.
The beauty of it is really how organic it all came together.
Campbell: Yeah, it did. A lot of Joe’s (bassist, songwriter) lyrics were him ruminating on the effect that his mother’s passing had 10+ years ago when we first started the band. He felt that he had never really come to terms with it. Between writing and that tragic event, he had spent a lot of time finding ways to not deal with it. He went through building up personal walls, drinking, or just anything to not deal with that. It felt like it was the elephant in the room, so to speak, of his life since it was something he never really dealt with. I guess he felt it was time to address that.
In the past, we’ve dealt with a lot of personal concerns with our lives and the world around us through lyrics. Writing lyrics can be a great way to focus on a subject while trying to convey those thoughts and feelings into an avenue that forces you to consider them in an unusual way. Joe was using the platform of songs to deal with those issues. There’s a lot of themes regarding the passage of time and personal change through the concept of family.
On my end of things, lyrics were also inspired by things that were going on in my family over time, so I was ruminating on how my perspective on things has changed. I was looking at the past and how the past changes color as you grow. You look different and you feel different. Sometimes the past seems different than how you remember it. There was a lot of retrospective viewing of our lives in the subjects on this album. There’s a strong theme of family, which poured into the concept of the cover artwork.
Despite having access to an artist with Michael being Mark’s (drummer) brother, you kicked off your discography with Sean Reynolds Williams. What inspired the transition to working with Michael, which began with the ‘Fear & Fury’ EP?
Campbell: At some point, Mark showed us some of Michael’s stuff and we were like, ‘Holy shit, this is your brother?’ We’d never met him at the time since Michael was on the west coast. We might’ve met once at a show, but I didn’t realize he illustrated. We had felt that with ‘Heartless’, we were kind of exploring some new ground and we kind of drifted apart a little from Sean Williams. We thought, ‘Shit, let’s see if Michael is willing to do some work for us.’ His art is really fantastic and it has a sort of emotional, visceral quality to it that we hadn’t really had in our art before. It was a good match for what we were trying to convey.
The styles are definitely distinct and it’s a complete departure from Sean’s work, which as you mention, fits the band really well. Michael, in some ways, you were pretty much indirectly involved having heard and interacted with the band during those early years. Did you feel it was inevitable that you’d end up working with the band at some point?
Lierly: I don’t know that I thought anything was inevitable, but I was excited when Mark hit me up. In some ways, I was in the Little Rock music scene for a long time. I’ve seen hundreds of bands come through Little Rock, but Pallbearer was on another level the first time I saw them. It was very similar to when I first saw Neurosis, not fast Neurosis but the slow and powerful Neurosis. You couldn’t really explain it in one or two words. Being in the punk scene, a lot of the bands were really forgettable. They were fast and exciting at the time but then you just go home and don’t really think about it much. On the other hand, Pallbearer really stood out to me the first time I saw them. It was a deeper quality of music, just given the way that the lyrics are and the way that the music is layered. It’s what I would expect out of a really quality band that you don’t know the members of that are coming here from New York or something. That’s just sort of my first impression. I wouldn’t have been presumptuous enough to think they were going to call me at any minute. But yeah, I was excited to get a chance to work with the band.
Campbell: We felt the same excitement about Michael’s art. There’s a unique quality to it and it’s immediately distinctive. In the same way that we want our music to be distinctive, we’ve always wanted that same quality in the visual aspects of the band, not just in our album covers and album art. We’re involved in contacting artists for our shirts and providing concepts and whatnot. We’re involved in every aspect of the representation of our music, so when we became aware of Michael’s art, we felt it was a perfect match for what we were trying to do.
You’ve entrusted Michael from ‘Fear & Fury’ (2016) onward, so it’s evident you struck a good chord here. When approaching Michael for ‘Forgotten Days’, what were you looking for visually?
Campbell: Joe and I discussed the concepts for the cover at great lengths whenever the songs started nearing the stage of near completion. We started having an idea of what everything was going to be in terms of sound and lyrics. We started discussing the themes and tried to find an appropriate way to convey those themes visually. We had the idea of basically having the cover be a sort of family photo. I don’t know if you’ve seen the back cover, but he had the idea of a fire wiping everything away. We talked to Michael about it and explained our concepts, which he interpreted through his own artistic lens. It was definitely collaborative.
Michael, your art style is pretty defined. It’s very organic. A very neat quality of your artwork is that you can see the brushstrokes in your painting. They’re basically living, breathing paintings. From an artistic standpoint, how did you look to interpret the record’s themes and concept in your manner?
Lierly: My first version of the cover was a bit too literal, so I wasn’t really happy with it. I showed the band some preliminary bits of it and they just preferred for me to do it my own way. Their first description was too literal and I just wasn’t really having fun with it. I thought it was a very interesting visual idea. The front cover is this ambiguous, family get together where you don’t know who’s who and they’re all degrading in some way.
When I lived in Austin, Texas a long time ago, I collected pictures that I think were from the 30’s or 40’s. They were about a dollar each and were all very random. They were in a barrel at this thrift store that I would pass by while walking my dog. I would pop in there and grab some photos. I had a little collection of them. They were really strange pictures. It seemed like nobody knew what photography was back then. They just didn’t realize that they were being captured doing what they were doing. Some of them were very creepy and some of them were more awkward. Unfortunately, I lost all of those pictures during a move. I don’t know what happened but I was actually happy that I couldn’t find them since I painted the cover based on my memory of some of those pictures. I tried to remember the ones that were more striking and used those as a faint reference to my painting. I like using faint references in my painting because I don’t like looking directly at a picture while I’m painting. If I’m just copying a reference photo, it can become a one to one transmission, which I think is kind of boring. I’m sure the painting doesn’t look like any of the people on the pictures I lost.
The idea of the back cover, which is a candle that just got put out in a window and behind the window everything is burning down, is quite neat. On the wall in that back cover, there’s the same picture that is on the front cover but now it’s framed onto the wall. I just thought that it was a poetic way to talk about time and how Brett mentioned that even the past is changeable. As you try to remember things, you can see it in the light of new life experiences. Everything is different.
Campbell: That’s pretty cool, man. I actually didn’t know that. That’s appropriate that you were painting a half remembered concept of these photos. It’s like an extra layer of this theme about the past.
That’s neat. It’s really up to interpretation isn’t it? You gave this whole background in how the cover came to be when I myself formed my own opinion of it. To me it’s like you mentioned, it’s a family photo where every individual is slowly decaying, as if to interpret what once was. The less you pay to what really matters, specifically family, friendships, and relationships, the more these golden moments start to fade away, hence ‘Forgotten Days’.
Campbell: Absolutely! You’re spot on.
That’s just my take of course. It may seem insignificant to some, but there’s definitely some significance to color choice. In terms of the color palette for ‘Forgotten Days’, you went with a fading red outline and good use of muted yellows and blue hoes. What inspired the color choice?
Lierly: It’s hard to say in a sentence or two. The color choices were coming from what they were looking for and the atmosphere of the music. I don’t think it would be appropriate to have pastel colors or plastic-like bright colors. We went with earthy tones, which in particular feels like something that has been around for a long time. It makes the cover feel like something is degrading, sort of like how paper turns yellow after it ages. That said, we wanted to have colors that speak to degradation over time.
I don’t think of color in a very logical way. It’s more of a constellation of vague feelings that lead to specific color choices. It’s kind of like guitar chords. It’s a vague idea with a lot of trial and error to capture the right feeling. It happens indirectly, so to speak.
Got it. From inception to completion, about how long was the process of putting the art together and what tools and techniques were used?
Lierly: It’s an oil painting on board. It’s wood and I normally just schlack it, beat it up a little bit. I then sketch it out and start painting it. Honestly though, I don’t know how long it took.
Campbell: It was just a few days, wasn’t it? It was pretty quick.
Lierly: Yeah, it was pretty quick once I got the go ahead to not be so literal. That’s when I jumped onto it because I got more excited about it. Let’s just say about a week.
It was pretty quick then once you got the green light. You have an ability to convey emotion with your signature caricature style in such melancholic color tones, pairing well with the emotion riding with each Pallbearer riff. In analyzing your partnership, where do you feel that you two find common ground when approaching a new project?
Campbell: Other than discussing the concepts with Michael, there’s not a whole lot of extreme direction in terms how he interprets our ideas. What we’re looking for is particular style and his own interpretations. If anything, it’s more of a partnership. We conceptualize things and leave it to his own feelings about the concept because if you look at the works Michael produces on his own, it has a surreal and visceral, dream-like quality to it. Fortunately for us, that’s the kind of thing that we’re looking for and it doesn’t require much direction. We trust his artistic instincts.
Lierly: Also, if I’m going in the wrong direction, they tell me, which is great. It’s the right amount of direction. They don’t micromanage and they give me strong ideas that I can work off of. That’s the best way to work as an artist. I teach art too and my students do well without pummeling them with direction. If you think about every little thing, you squeeze the life out of it, especially if it’s an extremely directed assignment. It’s nice to have a direction, but not anything that suffocates and forces you to adhere.
One can say then that you’ve both built some incredible trust. There’s direction but it’s mostly free roam. A very interesting trait about Pallbearer album covers is that they’re a deviation from what one would consider a metal album cover. There are particular things to be expected when looking at death metal art, black metal art, and of course, doom metal art. You’re not really a metal artist, so to speak, and covers in general are really not your typical line of work. Is your approach to conveying Pallbearer’s music any different to that of your personal projects?
Lierly: Yes and no. I want my art for them to be something that I would feel good enough to put on my website or on a gallery wall. What you just said about what people expect from really any genre of art could be a problem if you look for artwork that sounds exactly what you’d expect it to sound like. I’m sure people like that because it’s comforting in a way for music or art to not stray from expectations, but it’s boring. I feel lucky to say that the band let me do my thing. They never ask me to design a skull on fire or whatever.
Campbell: I'll be asking you for a skull wrapped around in a barbed wire (laughs). That’s kind of why we went with Michael. We don’t want to be like other bands or adhere too tightly to tropes. It’s all about personal expression rather than something that’s based in some external set of rules.
Lierly: That’s why Pallbearer stands out. They don’t sound like everything else. You haven’t heard one and think that you’ve heard it all. It’s far from predictable.
I’d agree, which is really a huge draw for the band. For folks who pick up a Pallbearer record on cover art alone, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see what it sounds like, which leads me to my next question. Do you recall a time that an album cover made you pick up a record or changed the way that you engaged with it?
Campbell: Man, I don’t know. Most of the time, I hear the music first. There have been times where this has happened at a record store. Some stores are not as organized as others, though. There’s a record store across the street from where I live that is awesome but damn, they just have piles of unsorted records around. Sometimes, I’ll just go pick up something that is like 5 bucks and just pick it up because it has an interesting cover. There have been some occasions where I bought something because it had a hilariously bizarre cover. You never know what the music is going to be. It can be fucking anything. That’s one of the joys of browsing through music the old school way. I’ve heard lots of records that I never would have heard otherwise because it’s a little outside of what I would be looking for normally. I’ve discovered so many records that I enjoyed based on an eye-catching cover, so I always felt that it’s a good quality for an artistic approach rather than trying to adhere to some standards for a style of music. Sorry that I don’t have any specific things (laughs).
Lierly: What I was thinking when you asked that question was the first time I listened to ‘Master of Puppets’ (1986). This was probably in the early 90’s or maybe late 80’s. I was a kid. Seeing ‘Master of Puppets’ and ‘And Justice For All’ (1988) was different than what I expected. To me, ‘And Justice For All’ does feel like a marble colored album in a weird way. ‘Master of Puppets’ has this warmth to it and this kind of scary, red sky kind of feel to it. I hate the word synergy, but this is where I felt that music and art strengthen each other’s emotional resonances.
To this day, those covers are still introducing a new generation to the power of Metallica.
Campbell: Definitely. It’s interesting that you say that the record feels marbled. It’s always felt like a cool toned record to me, partially because of that cover. It’s a very hard edged sounding production in general. It has that marbled quality and I have to wonder how much of that is due to my impressions of it based on the cover itself.
Lierly: Right? Now you can’t separate it out. Would ‘Master of Puppets’ sound reddish if the cover wasn’t reddish? Would the music have the warmth to it? Probably, but it’s hard to say. You can switch the color of the covers but who knows if it would sound the same afterwards.
Haven’t really thought about it, but yeah! You’re right. In closing, Pallbearer’s music is truly relatable and heartfelt with audiences from across the world having expressed how your music has gotten through tough circumstances. ‘Forgotten Days’ is really no exception with tracks like ‘Riverbed’ and ‘Silverwings’ causing one to look inward. Seeing as the music serves as a conduit for yours and Joe’s own tribulations, how does it feel for you as a musician to have this kind of effect on a person?
Campbell: It’s the greatest feeling when people come up to me after a show or hit me up online to tell me their stories. I’ve heard so many stories at this point from people who have gone through some unimaginably horrible struggles in their lives. They’ll say that a record helped them get through it and helped them find musical sympathy for what they were going through. I’ve had people tell me that it helped them stay alive. It’s a pretty astounding statement to hear from somebody that I helped save their life, and I don’t take that lightly. It's a great honor. There’s nothing more profound for me than the ability for music to do that for people. If I can be a part of creating something that does that for people, nothing would make me happier.