Celebrating the landmark metalcore record through the lens of their faceless figure.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
"We all deserve this - to be renewed, to change our ways, to be allowed to choose, so let me build you back up as you're carrying me too."
When these words from Broken Statues rang across the world in 2009, a young band from Troy, Michigan had just embarked on a fulfilling journey that would pave the path towards a prominent and influential existence. This band, We Came As Romans, was driven by an ambition to deliver something new and exciting, but more importantly, to change lives through their driving positivity and lyricism. On November 3, 2009, the band's debut full-length, To Plant A Seed, arrived to great acclaim via Equal Vision Records.
The Joey Sturgis-produced affair came at a thriving time for the "core" genre with that year alone welcoming top releases from the likes of The Devil Wears Prada, Asking Alexandria, Atreyu, Every Time I Die, August Burns Red, and Miss May I to name a few. However, To Plant A Seed stood apart from the bunch with a faceless enigma for a cover illustration that represented very well what We Came As Romans had done through the lens of Paul Romano, who helped illustrate their musical and personal evolution from one cover to the next. As the album title would suggest, To Plant A Seed set the foundation for the exciting set of the years that followed the Kyle Pavone-led unit, a set of years that saw them on the renowned Vans Warped Tour and more. Pavone may have tragically passed away in 2018, but it's through To Plant A Seed that the moving and invigorating spirit present throughout the record lives on. To breathe new life into those early compositions, We Came As Romans look to celebrate their debut through an anniversary tour that finds them playing the album in its entirety for the last time, allowing for band members to look back at their roots in retrospect as they push forth towards a new and explosive era.
We pay homage to the greatness of To Plant A Seed through an anniversary edition of our Behind the Cover series as we welcome bassist Andy Glass and Paul Romano to a discussion of reflection, introspection, and celebration through the arts:
To celebrate your debut the right way, you’ll be taking ‘To Plant A Seed’ on the road this fall and fans will have the opportunity to hear these tracks for one last time via the live setting. Is it bittersweet in a sense to let go of this era of the band?
Glass: Oh yeah, it’s a very monumental record to us. The songs hold a lot of meaning. We wrote them when we were kids and didn’t think that people would react the way they did to them or even turn out the way we imagined them. As you grow as a musician, you always want to keep pushing yourself and make better music, so it’s always exciting to be on the frontlines of something new and create something new, however, you do have to remember how you got there and how everything led up to it. It’s definitely a bittersweet feeling because I love all of these songs and they’re fun to play, but we have to let them go and put them in a vault for a while to make room for some new things.
It’s sad to see them go, but as you get older, you build such a catalog that you can only do so many things with your set. We wanted to make something really memorable for a lot of people and do something pretty big. We upped our production for the live setting to have something special and unique to play these songs for one last time.
With the tour ramping back up this month, exciting times are ahead and we’d be remiss not to recommend hitting up a show. Much has obviously happened since that debut. Your fandom has grown, your compositional capabilities as well, and the contemporary stage of the band is much more refined than when you were still getting your bearings. Would you say that leaving this behind is necessary for growth, to let go and learn from the experiences during that time for the band?
Glass: As an artist, you don’t want people to say, “When you did this, it was awesome.” You want people to say, “I heard you’ve been working on something new and I can’t wait to hear it.” People should want to see the next piece of your growth. You don’t just want to be remembered for the things you did back in the day, but the things that you’re currently doing as well.
When we did these songs back in the day, it was great and all sorts of fun. We’re still taking elements from the past, like lyrics, concepts, structures, riffs, and other elements that we apply to our new music. There’s definitely some elements of the old in there, but you always want to be pushing and moving the needle forward somehow. There are a very select few artists that can get away with doing the same thing over and over again, which is great if that’s your niche. For us, it has always been about trying something new or trying to stay ahead of the curve on some things. We always want to keep branching out to keep things interesting and break the monotony. We joined a band because we didn’t want to live through the monotony of life. As soon as you start incorporating the things that you’re running away from into your art, your art starts withering away. I think that answers the question, right?
It absolutely does. At the core of it all, you avoid remaining stagnant and continuously chase new creative expressions. Looking back at those early years of the band, you were of course finding your footing within metalcore and ended up setting a solid foundation for the years to come. Where do you feel that you and the band are now in comparison?
Glass: It’s funny because looking back at it, we were thinking, “Something is working here so let’s just run with it.” As it gets older, you realize more and more things are in your grasp. You have the ear of more and more people. As the years have gone on, we’ve tried some certain things and really tried to do weird stuff. We tried some radio stuff that was definitely something we and our fans didn’t like. We noticed that off the bat. With our most recent record, ‘Cold Like War’ (2017), we went back to our roots and added what we’ve learned and gathered over the years. The radio thing didn’t work, so we aimed to get our fans back. We aimed to get our confidence, our music back, and really just regain control, which was a huge step for us.
When you have something as severe as the passing of our singer (Kyle Pavone), it changes a lot of things. He was always at the frontlines of making those cool keyboard sounds and programming. He was constantly working on stuff like that. We took a lot of time on this new record and even got some extended time due to COVID, which was a blessing in disguise to really sit down and make sure every single song was handcrafted the way it was. I think we wrote around 35 songs and only a few got picked from the bunch. The newer stuff is us trying to carry on the electronic sound that Kyle had and putting our other vocalist (Dave Stephens) in the role of the frontman. We focused on having his voice fit the music correctly, so there was a lot of reshaping that had to be done to make sure it fit organically. Dave’s voice is very different from Kyle’s, so we had to adjust here and there, but we tried a lot of new things. We dropped lower tunings to extremely low tunings. Some songs are in Drop F, so it’s super heavy. Kyle and I grew up listening to Slipknot and Linkin Park, so we threw in some extra things that we knew he liked. There are a lot of different pieces in mind that I feel are going to resonate a lot on this record, like the lyrical and emotional aspect that we’ve been waiting to get out for a long time. A few of those things alone are why I saw we’re a redefined band.
Definitely, and as you mention, it’s the first full-length record without Kyle. Fans are surely eager to see the direction you’re all taking for the new one and a few singles are of course already available to provide a glimpse. Visually, ‘To Plant A Seed’ was the first of several partnerships with Paul Romano. Among the many stresses with putting together a debut, what drew you to wanting to work with Paul for it? He had quite the resume by that point.
Glass: There’s a band from Davison, Michigan called Chiodos. They had that record ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ (2005), which was a huge record, at least locally in our scene. It put them on the map, but yeah I remember seeing that artwork and Paul Romano had done it. I remember it was the best screensaver I had on my phone when I was a kid. There was this dude on this boat and it was all crazy looking but these colors on it: white, purple, some oranges. It was just so cool to me, I had never seen anything like it.
As soon as we got on Equal Vision, I kept telling our A&R Dan, “Man, I want to work with the dude that did this.” He set me up with a phone call while I was in Connersville, Indiana, calling Paul, bouncing service off the cornstalks since we were in the middle of nowhere recording with Joey Sturgis. The phone kept cutting in and out but I kept raving on about Chiodos. I remember him saying he drew that cover with a ballpoint pen because the band had just gone out of high school and wanted to incorporate high school memories of him drawing on his notebook with a pen. Hearing cool things like that made me think, “This is the guy.” This dude was speaking my language.
The rest is history as he went on to highlight your evolution as people throughout your following covers. It’s worth reflecting upon the moment this seminal metalcore record got put together. Paul, you of course did so on the artistic end, crafting a faceless figure that became the band’s mascot of sorts. What do you recall of this initial collaboration, especially with the band still finding their footing at the time?
Romano: I remember connecting with Andy and he was very excited. I believe he was just a year out of high school. I could hear that wide openness to the world and what it has to offer that comes with that age. It was some time ago, but I always ask new clients what drew them to my work. As Andy mentioned, he was most excited about my work with Chiodos. They were a hometown band for him and label mates at EVR. Andy had some loose ideas about showing the initial growth of the band to coincide with the title but nothing too concrete. WCAR wasn’t even set on their logo at the time. They had the one that everyone has come to know but Andy asked me to develop some as well.
I really enjoy working with new bands. The canvas is blank (pun intended) and I can create a visual identity from the ground up (ie. Mastodon, Chiodos, Trivium, Withered etc.).
Since we're using puns here, what about 'To Plant A Seed' stands out to you among the plethora of seeds you’ve been able to plant with various bands across the spectrum as we look at it in retrospect?
Romano: I suppose I get to see what any of the “seeds” become through fan responses. I will get comments and notes from folks all the time about how they connected with the artwork. This is always huge and validating, even though I don’t create artwork for validation. I don’t overthink this but I do enjoy creating artwork for bands because it gets out on a worldwide level and because it is associated with music, often a deeper emotional connection is made. I know from personal experience, music and art have helped me overcome so many trials and tribulations throughout life. My hope is that these “seeds” fall into the idea of paying it forward and they make a small difference in someone’s day.
I'm certain they have. It's quite neat to see how you've been relied upon for being the "art guy" for several renowned bands. How is working with WCAR unique to the similar partnerships you’ve built with Mastodon, Withered, and so on? ‘To Plant A Seed’ is the foundation of it all and the trees growing from the figure’s palms are of course apt in illustrating that.
Romano: Each band that I work with over multiple releases have threads that carry throughout their catalogs but WCAR is the only band where I created a protagonist with a story told spanning four albums. Mastodon and Withered each have their own aesthetics that connect to each other but each album is thematically its own contained world.
I greatly value every partnership I have with bands. All too often artists are pigeonholed into creating artwork within a limited range of aesthetics and mediums. This is especially true for musicians as well visual artists; you can’t change the product up too much or you will lose fans. There are so many languages in art, why be forced to speak only one? What I’ve created for myself with these partnerships is a way to explore many different languages of art, filtered through the personality of each band. It is truly fun for me to jump from angst-fueled positivity (WCAR) to cosmic wonder and sadness (Mastodon) to very grounding atrocities and inequality (dälek). Each requires their own language to best visually relate to the bands’ sound and message.
Completely agree, and really that's where the genuineness of a collaboration allows for the art to flourish. Is camaraderie in a partnership something you deem as integral in having as much success as you had together over the years, at least in terms of excellence in audiovisual cohesion?
Romano: Yes. There is a mutual respect and trust with bands I’ve worked with over multiple albums. I am very fortunate to have that. I’ve made friends within the music industry that will be with me for life. Having real friendships allow for there to be nuances in the artworks that might not occur otherwise. I have more of the story and know where the music is coming from and it sparks ideas I may not have had. Perhaps this filters through and helps some fans really connect with the audiovisual experience.
Jumping back into 'To Plant A Seed', was the goal always to have this figure be a central element of the band’s visual identity or was it something that came about organically in discussions with the band? ‘Cold Like War’ (2017) of course marked the end of the figure’s appearance.
Romano: Yes, having a growing boy was intentional. I could tell Andy and the boys were very serious about the band and knew WCAR would be around for a few albums. I never know how long exactly a band will be around or even if they will ask me to do their following albums but I do like to plan ahead, regardless. I wanted to establish an archetype that would grow, physically and emotionally with the band and each album. Along with that, minimal color usage and those layers of childlike, calligraphic flora were all part of the WCAR aesthetic from the beginning.
'Cold Like War' was a departure and the band’s choice. I understand growing out of your own skin and wanting a change. It made sense. They started WCAR when they were in high school and are now grown ass men. Ha!
Definitely! Andy, what can you comment about the relationship that you’ve built with Paul over the years? As the art guy in the band, the partnership dynamics have certainly changed since ‘To Plant A Seed’.
Glass: When it first started, I was a bit timid. I was just amped and enamored that Paul even wanted to work with us. It was cool because we would just go back and forth, giving direction. As the years went on, it’s been nice because I would start sending him sketches, concepts, and ideas. With ‘To Plant A Seed’, it started off fairly vague. We were this young band trying to do something impactful.
After that, it turned into the second record after years of touring, ‘Understanding What We've Grown To Be’ (2011). We had this good vs. evil kind of thing because we wanted to be home but also on the road. After that, it turned into ‘Tracing Back Roots’ (2013), which was us understanding more of what this life was about. That’s when I started sending him the sketches of this guy with these tree branches behind him now. Paul suggested having the same amount of branches for as many years as the band had been together, so it was cool to keep these ideas flowing and evolving.
The ‘self-titled’ (2015) was confident and calm, so we had the guy meditating. I sent Paul a sketch of this guy meditating on a mountain and then he would sketch it up in his way and make a few changes.
For ‘Cold Like War’, we figured we should do a tarot card kind of thing. We sent him a very plain sketch of something that turned out to be awesome. From our conversations, he’s stoked when I can give him more stuff to cook with, which is always nice. For me, I know not to overstep my boundaries. A lot of the time, it does end up going like that where an artist gets smothered with direction, so we’ve found a cool and delicate balance. Paul and I are both artists, so we get it and we never breathe down each other’s necks. We just aim to do something fucking awesome. We do this to have fun and we always remember that.
That’s really what it’s about. As a graphic designer yourself, you of course understand the importance of visual representation and you’ve built a visual identity through Paul’s artwork. For example, that faceless figure is synonymous with We Came As Romans. How significant, if at all, do you feel this has been to the band’s growth over the years? One could consider it a mere marketing element, but I’d argue it holds much more weight than that.
Glass: It truly does. Just like most things with the band, it was never intended to happen like that, but it did. Looking back at how the first cover was so sick and how well the record did, we figured, why not do it again and keep him evolving? Iron Maiden has Eddie and we got our little dude. It’s less metal, but still fantastic. A lot of fans have had him tattooed on them. When you look at it, you can relate to it in a way. Our fans have grown with the band. The covers and the faceless figure dude are a reflection of our band and how we were feeling at the time, which is really cool. With all of the people that have followed us along the way and have gone through their own challenges in life, I hope it’s connected with them as well.
We did the faceless dude up until the fourth ‘self-titled’ record. After that, we felt like we needed to break the mold a bit and try something new. That whole faceless figure era was awesome for the four records it had.
What sticks most about it to me is that it’s quite symbolic of human growth. It started off as a child on the debut and slowly progressed into an adult, all while a seed was sprouting into a larger being along the way. Paul manages to incorporate these neat nods that build a connectivity between the first four records. We briefly touched on it just now, but where do you feel that you find common ground with the faceless figure as a representation of the band, especially with you “planting a seed” with Paul on that first record? Would you two say this is representative of the band’s own growth in a sense?
Romano: Definitely. Each time, Andy would come to me with the title and let me know where WCAR was in their thinking on each album. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted the figure to grow and reflect the band as a whole. Around the time of 'Understanding What We’ve Grown to Be', I remember getting the sense from Andy that the band had seen behind the curtain of being a professional touring band and definitely had some apprehensions that weren’t present in their first album. Perhaps this is the theme for every band’s sophomore release. Ha! But on that cover, the protagonist was crumbling and caught between positive and negative forces. With 'Tracing Back Roots', he grows up a bit more and is anchoring more with the positive. Then finally on the 'self-titled' album, he is fully grown and in lotus position, suggesting an idea of self awareness and inner peace.
Glass: I definitely think it relates to how the band was feeling at the time, and how it’s well represented in the music. It’s almost like when people ask me, “What were you doing this year?” I can usually relate the years to what tours I was on. Any time I can recall a tour, I can recall the poster of it, who was on the tour, the colors used, and how I was feeling at the time. Certain years, I’ll look back and think, “Damn, that sucked.” I could’ve been going through a breakup, had a family member in the hospital, couldn’t find my footing, or whatever. Other years, I’ll remember being very free and happy on that tour. With the records, I have a similar experience.
In terms of the cover art, the colors and the posture and state of the figure represents the band as a whole. The little dude was young on the debut record because we were a very young band. He had the trees growing out of his hands and we had just started to tour and embark on our journey. For the second record, we were overtoured and burned out. The debut did so well that they had us on the road for more than half the year, so it got to the point where although it was cool to be so active, we were tired and overwhelmed. We barely had any time to write. Our guitarist (Joshua Moore) ended up writing most of it, and it was a pretty heavy burden on his shoulders. He had bacterial meningitis on the road and almost died, so that whole second record had a darker, more gloomy feel. As I was telling Paul that, he picked up on it and had two broken arms on the figure. He was pretty beat up from being on the road, or at least how I perceive it.
For the third record ('Tracing Back Roots'), we had a big band talk and sorted out all of our shit. We went to a brand new producer (John Feldmann), who brought a new life into the band. The song ‘Hope’ came about and ended up being one of our most popular songs to date. Wounds were sewn up, his arms were back on, and the faceless figure was just like, “Let’s fucking go!” That 2013, we had a great Warped Tour. We were on top of the world.
With the ‘self-titled’, we felt invincible given the last record. We had matured and had a newfound energy, so the faceless figure here was more mature. To be honest, deep down inside that record wasn’t fully us. It’s funny, Paul even put some grey in there to represent that. We seemed confident and full, but there were still some grey areas that were holding us down.
You then have ‘Cold Like War’ where it was new and hard-hitting. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was something “you’ve never heard before”, but it was the We Came As Romans you want but with some new armor. It had a very “out for blood” kind of vibe. The artwork is just constantly speaking about our band and where we’re all at in life.
You both elaborate on it perfectly. It’s the story of going from kids to men, through artwork. Lyrically, positivity was a big driving force for ‘To Plant A Seed’ in 2009. Where do you feel that ‘To Plant A Seed’ stands in today’s day and age? I’d argue it’s quite fitting to the circumstances.
Glass: A lot of those lyrics on that record still hold true to me personally. Josh is the main force behind the lyrics, but I help out with concepts and lyrics here and there. When we were younger, we would hang out in my house and just think, “Dude, we’re going to change some lives doing this shit.” We knew we would try our best to set an example. This sounds corny as hell, but we were like, “We’re going to plant many seeds and have it grow into something that is fucking cool.” That was it. We wrote it down and after that, we kept this idea going. We were all young Christian kids and grew up in Christian settings. I had been on a bunch of missionary trips and just really wanted to always help people.
For as much as we wanted to “save the world” or whatever, we took it easy, but it was a big driving force. There’s a lot of subtle, faith-driven things on that record that we were all exposed to growing up. We didn’t want to put a box around those lyrics. We wanted to make them more about love. Our big thing was “love has no arguments”. We wanted to make a statement about loving each other and loving yourself. You can believe in whatever you want to believe, but putting love at the forefront was our goal. We wanted to keep this theme going without being penned as a Christian band or put in this box with all these stipulations and such. It’s funny because as of now, I believe in a higher power, but I don’t necessarily think it has to have all of these boxes and stipulations. Looking back at something like that after years and seeing that I’m still doing this and feeling this way, it’s pretty cool.
For as crazy and ambitious as saving the world sounds, you’ve definitely left your mark and have changed the lives of countless fans who, as you mention, have tattooed the faceless figure on them. Fan reactions and comments throughout socials are another testament to the ways in which you’ve saved the world by changing lives through your music. Paul, where did you find common ground with Andy in terms of having the art align with the record’s message of positivity?
Romano: It was pretty easy really. I am a fairly positive person overall. Being able to create and being immersed in art most days creates a good amount of positivity for me. Even when I am diving into nihilistic despair with Withered, I am happy because I am doing what I love.
WCAR, at that stage, had a real sense of wonder, as well as vigor and angst that comes with late teens/early twenties. It is just a matter of tapping into my own well of emotions to match up with what the band is conveying in their music and lyrics.
It was just second nature to you, basically. You always look to go beyond a cover illustration to develop a visual experience through the packaging, inner artwork, and more. What does it mean to you to have created an entity that is symbolic of We Came As Romans as a band, a band that has grown in great lengths since the debut?