Singing about death saved the life of Pallbearer's Brett Campbell

Andy Downing

When Brett Campbell formed Pallbearer in Little Rock, Arkansas, a little more than 10 years ago, he did so, in part, to give himself something for which to live.

In 2008, at age 22, Campbell was a hard-drinking nihilist who struggled to see a reason to carry on. He always enjoyed creating, though, and he’d long viewed music as his calling, so he started a band and poured all of his self-loathing, anger and considerations of self-harm into the band’s dark, harrowing debut, Sorrow and Extinction, from 2012. At the close of the album-opening “Foreigner,” Campbell calls out for “a helping hand.” His tortured cries are met by crushing, doom-invoking guitars and then silence.

“Had I stayed in that place there never would have been a second album,” said Campbell, 32, adding that he still maintains some of his earlier nihilistic urges, though now he “hides them better with a smile.” “It’s not like that change happened overnight. I’ve gradually become a more well-adjusted person — very gradually — but all the people wanting another Extinction, hopefully they will never get it, because I don’t really ever want to go back to that place.

“There’s still a lot to write about — that’s never been an issue. It’s just that the absolute void inside, that black hole of nothingness that’s just sucking away the will to live, I haven’t felt that in a long time. And I’m certainly not going to make something up to write about to make it sound like I’m still dark and tortured.”

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Now Campbell draws inspiration from the internal flare-ups that everyone experiences, as well as humanity’s general descent into madness, though the frontman is loath to dwell too heavily on modern politics, since he started Pallbearer with the idea of creating timeless music.

“There are elements of how I perceive things to operate on a humanistic level, and my half-dumb conceptions about how society works, but I try not to be too up-front about it because there are already way too man jackasses talking about how they think the world is supposed to work,” Campbell said, laughing. “I don’t know how successful it is, but when I’m writing, I want it to feel like someone in 20 years can listen to the album and not say, ‘Oh, that’s so 2013!’ … It’s more about analyzing human behaviors on a larger time-scale, which is more interesting than whatever bullshit Trump is doing at the time, or whichever other asshole is in power. It is hard not to take some of that in, though, because it’s everywhere. Every day there’s some new, horrific thing on the news and it’s like, ‘Shit. I certainly chose the right style of music for living in apocalyptic times.’”

Rather than reading as ripped from the headlines, Campbell’s lyrics more often come across as brutal Old Testament screeds. “We crawled from the beginning/Oceans of blood/The price of living/Grasping gold/Always pursuing/Wealth untold/Others abusing,” he seethes on “I Saw the End,” a track off the band’s most recent album, Heartless, from 2017. (Campbell said material for a new album is largely written, and the group has loose plans to go into the studio in November.)

The biblical nature of some of the language Campbell employs can be fitting, considering that the frontman received his earliest introduction to music via the Church of Christ, whose services featured a cappela hymns built around intricate four-part harmonies.

“You get a big room full of people singing these harmonies, and it’s pretty astounding and beautiful, and it’s basically the only positive takeaway I have from that whole church experience,” said Campbell, who will join his bandmates in concert at Skully’s on Tuesday, Sept. 24. “I would pick apart the harmonies and the structures to see how they all worked together. … Depending on how I was feeling on that day, I’d sing the bass part or the soprano part or whatever else, and I think that taught me a lot about harmony.”

Though Campbell didn’t grow up in a musical family — when his parents played anything around him it was either country or the most basic of radio rock — he always had a voracious appetite for the form. He’d satisfy these cravings by driving from his home in the suburbs to downtown Little Rock, where he would browse the “big city” record stores and purchase anything that caught his eye, be it frail Red House Painters albums or heavier, more extreme choices like offerings from Irish metal band Primordial.

Despite Campbell’s diverse musical tastes, however, the songs and sounds that emerged after he obtained his first guitar around age 15 always fell toward the heaviest end of that musical spectrum.

“It’s just something that comes naturally, I think, because there was this ball of discontent that was living in my body,” Campbell said. “Something more subdued wouldn’t have fit, and it wouldn’t have been the right [musical] language to convey the feelings I was having. Anger and despair are expressed well through metal. … It was just always what felt natural to me.”

Skully’s Music-Diner

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24

1151 N. High St., Short North

ALSO PLAYING: Pale Grey Lore, Destroyer of Light