Subrosa: Welcome to the Dark Country

Photo: Peter Anderson

On March 1, Salt Lake City’s Subrosa unleashed their second full-length album No Help for the Mighty Ones on the nationally and internationally known Profound Lore Records. The band, together for roughly six years, has had plenty of time to grow and progress, moving forward in leaps since their first album Strega. Subrosa has taken standard doom metal and morphed into a monster with bass-fuzzed, downtuned guitar rage, dizzying violins and hallowed, haunting vocals. I caught up with Subrosa vocalist and guitarist Rebecca Vernon to talk about the new album, national/international recognition, the growth of the band and musical and conceptual influences. Subrosa offers any listener a challenge in music and mental cognizance—read on and decide if you’re ready for that challenge.

SLUG: With No Help for the Mighty Ones just released, you must be excited and maybe a little bit nervous for the local and national music community to hear it. What do you think is the album’s biggest strength? Likewise, what do you think is the album’s biggest weakness?
Vernon: I think the album has a lot of strengths. For one, [the songwriting of] Sarah Pendleton and myself (the two original members of Subrosa) has really evolved since Strega. Also, we’ve had the best lineup we’ve ever had making this album, and I think everyone’s strength of playing and songwriting on their instruments really shines through. I think the production is amazing, thanks to Magnus “Devo” Andersson of Endarker Studios in Sweden. We are a hard band to mix, and he did a great job with both this album and Strega. The biggest weakness could also be seen as a strength, but I think will be a weakness in the context of the reception from the national music community. Subrosa is pretty different than standard stoner/doom fare. The reviewers who like strange approaches to a genre will like it, and the ones who don’t will crucify it, like they did Strega.

SLUG: I know you personally have a passion for metal music—especially doom—and the new album definitely sees Subrosa going into more metallic territory with heavier guitar riffing and screamed/growled vocals. What inspired the new material?
Vernon: My first love is stoner rock, but I’ve definitely been exposed to more doom metal over the last three years, especially since being on [Swedish metal label] I Hate Records and just rubbing shoulders with people in that scene. Our friends, melodic doom band Beneath the Frozen Soil from Sweden, have been an influence on us. Sarah’s always been a massive metal head, and she’s the one doing the death growls in the middle of “Beneath the Crown” and in the choruses of “Attack on Golden Mountain.” (Phil White of INVDRS did the death growls at the end of “Stonecarver” and on “Spare me from your kingdom” on “Beneath the Crown.”) Zach [Hatsis] is very influenced by metal, doom and stoner sludge—the heaviest of the heavy—and that’s reflected in his drumming. Dave [Jones] is a huge stoner rock fan like I am, and so that influence is always going to come through in the guitar and bass work. [Violinist] Kim [Pack] has also been exposed to tons of creepy, dark doom and stoner rock since joining Subrosa two years ago.

SLUG: The pen-and-ink, black-and-tan cover art is intriguing—it has the doom and stoner musical vibe as well as a mystical and spiritutal appearance. Who designed it, and is there any particular meaning behind it?
Vernon: Yeah, it has a lot of deliberate meaning behind it. Glyn Smyth of Scrawled Design from the UK did the illustrations and layout. He has done stuff for The Melvins, Thou, Wolves in the Throne Room, Eyehategod and other bands that I love. I approached him for his style. I researched, trying to find the visual style I wanted the most—a stark, pen-and-ink style, very detailed. The artwork is based on the true story of Tere Jo Dupperault. She was 11 in 1961 when she was on a sailboat vacationing in the Caribbean with her family. One night, the captain of the ship went on a murder rampage and killed his own wife and Tere Jo’s parents and younger sister and brother. He tried to kill her too, pulling the plugs to sink the boat, but Tere Jo had the presence of mind to untie a small life raft on the roof of the cabin while the boat was sinking. She drifted on the ocean for four days and was near death when a passing freight ship happened to sight her and rescued her. The captain of the sailboat had already gotten to shore and was spreading a lie about how the ship sank and would have totally gotten away with the murders. When he found out that Tere Jo had survived the tragedy, he was in the middle of a court hearing, and he feigned joy that she was alive, then promptly went back to his hotel room and committed suicide. It fit in perfectly with the title of the album  because I believe there’s no way to shield yourself from your conscience when the chips are down. The title mostly makes reference to people in positions of power, who are arrogant enough to think they can get away with oppression and exploitation of the downtrodden of this world without karma coming around, without retribution, without paying a price.

SLUG: Subrosa went from a very atmospheric, folksy-type album on Strega to something more subversive and much darker on No Help for the Mighty Ones. Do you think this will tap the band into a new audience? Why the unleashing of more darkness?
Vernon: I feel like No Help for the Mighty Ones may ingratiate us more with the metal crowd, but I definitely didn’t do that deliberately. It just happened. As far as the unleashing of more darkness, maybe I’m finally tapping into a darker side of myself or maybe I am better at letting the darkness out emotionally more now through the music. I definitely felt like on Strega I was holding back somehow, and I think it showed in the final result of the album. With No Help, I didn’t hold back—I gave it everything I had, and I know everyone in the band did as well, and so I think the album is stronger, darker and more emotional as a result.

: The voice of Subrosa is distinctly your voice, which shows a lot of vocal strength and the fact that you have a lot of personal emotions invested in the music. How did you initially find your singing voice, and what things have developed it throughout the years?
Vernon: It’s funny how I found my singing voice. When I first started Subrosa, I had never sung in front of other people, besides at church and once at the annual gothic Dark Arts Festival in 2005, singing “Bella Lugosi’s Dead” in Jared Gold’s Misfit Toys band. I was very scared to sing in front of people, and I would even turn away from other band members during practice and halfway face the wall so I couldn’t see them. It was strange how vulnerable it made me feel and how weird. I was used to being behind a drum set in the back of the stage, not singing at the front of the stage. Our first show was at the Violet Run house in Sugarhouse. I was so scared I could barely play or look at anyone. Little by little, doing more shows and everything, I eventually found the confidence I needed to sing freely and fiercely. Eye contact helps and also singing at (not to) the audience like they are my worst enemy.

: The track “The Inheritance” is one of the standout tracks. What’s the song mean to you?
Vernon:  “The Inheritance” is basically about the way we’re completely trashing our planet. We’re putting Earth through some massive changes that I believe are irreversible, or at least, would take Earth about a million years or more to heal from. If you haven’t read it yet, you should read The World Without Us. It talks about some of those irreversible things. In this song, though, I focus on the animal genocide that’s taking place … the wiping out of whole species in the name of development, lazy non-sustainable practices and greed. I believe we are facing the end of the world as we know it if we can’t stop this trajectory. The title “The Inheritance,” of course, refers to the inheritance we are leaving future generations of humans and animals … basically, not much of an inheritance.

SLUG: How would you describe what Subrosa offers to people who have never heard the band?
Vernon: I tell people that ask me what kind of music I play two things, depending on how much they know about music. If they listen to the radio, I tell them I play “heavy rock with electric violins.” And I caution them that it’s really heavy. And they say they want to come to a show sometime. And I tell them again that it’s heavy, and I’m pretty sure they won’t like it. And they insist. And then I just shrug and wait for them to show up to their perfunctory one-time attendance and then never come back. If the person asking has a rudimentary understanding of stoner and doom, I tell them Subrosa sounds like experimental, melodic stoner sludge/doom with electronic violins. It is the electric violins thing that usually makes people excited, even those people that listen to David Archuleta. People like the idea of violins. And there’s a reason for that: violins are AWESOME.

Catch Subrosa and all their beautiful darkness on March 12 at the Urban Lounge celebrating their new CD joined by INVDRS and Blackhole. It’s free to attend and you can snag the album for $5, as well as some limited edition posters screen-printed by Dave Bogart and Clyde of Blackhole and the Copper Palate Press.

Photo: Peter Anderson