Subrosa | Interview with Rebecca Vernon

Subrosa got a lot of attention in 2011 for their excellent album "No Help for the Mighty Ones", and for good reason. The band's brand of unique heavy music fuses elements of doom and sludge with violins and female vocals. It is one of those albums that once you put on, hooks you in and won't let go. I caught up with band leader Rebecca Vernon to talk about "No Help for the Mighty Ones" and Subrosa in general. 

"No Help for the Mighty Ones" was extremely well received by critics, and even managed to show up on Decibel Magazines Top 40 of 2011 list. I personally also thought it was one of the best albums of last year. You didn't get much press prior to that album, so could you fill in the blanks and give some background on the band?

“Subrosa started in 2005. We self-released our first album, ‘The Worm has Turned’. It's really lo-fi and was only meant to be an internal band demo. But then it turned out well enough that we released it. After ‘The Worm has Turned’, I became friends with the owner of I Hate Records in Sweden, Ola Blomkvist. He liked Subrosa but said there was no way he could sign us; we were too different from what I Hate usually signs. But after I sent him "Strega," our next album, he liked it better than ‘The Worm has Turned’, and somehow convinced his partner to sign us. :) We had a couple features in Terrorizer and Metal Maniacs and some European music magazines, but you're right, we didn't receive as much press as with ‘No Help…’ Definitely no year-end lists."

I've heard Subrosa described as a "Doom" band, yet, to me the label isn't quite fitting as it gives a picture of a band like Electric Wizard, which you certainly are not! How would you describe Subrosa's sound?

“You're right, we're not doom. I generally tell people we're sludge rock with electric violins and some folk elements. That we're low and slow. My pet peeve is when bands say things like, ‘Oh, I can't describe our music. We're really different. You have to hear us.’ And then you hear them and you're instantly like, ‘pop punk’ or ‘acoustic folk.’ No. Even though I do believe Subrosa is pretty original, I'll go ahead and describe Subrosa and not be snooty about it, because everything can be described.”

Is it you who writes the lyrics? How do you come up with them?

“Yes, I write the lyrics. Sarah wrote the lyrics in the bridge of ‘Beneath the Crown,’ though. The line that is growled by her, ‘Born without a coin in my mouth ...’
Usually, an event will hit me emotionally, or an issue, and I'll file it away. I'll know I'll write a song about it later. Or sometimes a line of a lyric will come to me. ‘I separated myself from the Earth’ is a line from a poem I wrote three or four years before ‘No Help…’ was written. I was just waiting for the right song to put it into.”

Who are your influences as a musician?

“PJ Harvey is one of my biggest influences. It's probably painfully obvious. Red Bennies, a band from Utah, was the biggest influence on Subrosa's sound. They were the first time I had heard sludge metal, in 1996 (back when they played sludge metal). But there are so many musicians and bands that have influenced me. Everything from Death in June to Prince to UFOMammut. I have wide musical taste. Sarah and Kim also have wide tastes. Avant garde metal, all kinds of metal really, electronic music, noise, new wave, indie rock, math rock ... everything.”

I've been asking this question a lot: How do you feel about: a. Downloading (without the band's permission for free) and b. Streaming services such as Rdio, Spotify, Slacker etc? Also what do you personally feel is the right solution for artists and fans? Should bands just have to survive off of touring and merchandise sales or should you be able to make a living off of your art?

“I have a pretty strong opinion about free downloading of music, even though I rarely do. I think it's interesting when artists feel they should be paid for their music. They feel very entitled to it. To me, the idea of music was always about spreading the good word. Having your music touch someone or influence someone in some way was always the key objective. Fifteen years ago, bands would have killed for the promotional tools we have at our fingertips right now. Hundreds of people would never have heard ‘No Help…’ if it weren't for free downloading. 
Don't get me wrong, I think physical CDs and physical merch should be sold, but I don't mind if someone wants to pay me for digital copies, and I have Subrosa's albums on for sale. A lot of people don't know how to pirate, or don't want to break the law (as it currently stands), or want to support the band. That's really nice. But I also don't mind if someone downloads it for free. Recorded music has only been a part of our culture for the last 150 years or so, and we have a way of selling and distributing music that was unheard of before 1860. We just take for granted that that's the ‘correct way to do it.’ But we're entering a new era where I think everything is going to be legally free sooner or later. I think big bands have never made much music off CD sales, and smaller bands don't sell enough to make any money. So yes, I do think a band's main focus should be touring and merch, and boutique sale items like vinyl. Making a living off your music is a wonderful thing, but something that very few musicians experience. You have to be a huge band, like Tool, to not have to work a day job any longer. Or play Vegas casinos.
To me, ‘stealing’ means someone passing off your art or music as their own. THAT'S wrong. That's awful, like identity theft. So yeah, intellectual property rights and copyrights are alright by me. Sharing digital music which can be copied infinitely, as long as you're giving credit where credit is due ... I see that as promoting, not stealing.”

This is similar to the last question- Why do you think so many people seem to have a sense of entitlement towards "free" music?

“I think we're moving towards a period of free information in general ... Wikipedia, YouTube ... almost any information you want is free on the Internet. Why not music? It's that sense of communal cultural sharing. It's like the concept of a tight-knit village or commune, where everyone takes care of each other and everyone shares and shares alike, I guess. I'd rather share Subrosa's music for free and in turn receive hundreds of albums for free. Sounds like a very nice exchange. Now, movies ... that's harder. Because it takes so much money to make movies. But that's what overpriced popcorn at theatres is for, I guess."

One complaint as well that I've heard from several musicians is that they feel that just listening to a file of music without the accompanying lyrics, artwork, etc… cheapens the whole experience, whereas a physical product is the ‘correct’ way to experience music. What do you think?

"I still buy CDs and occasionally vinyl; I don't buy digital copies. If I love a band, even if I've heard their album, I'll buy their CD. I agree with the musicians you mention there, that the physical packaging is extremely, extremely important, at least, to me personally. Even if the digital album comes with artwork you can print out. I mean, you get the whole feeling of a band from holding their CD in your hand. This is why I will never be a complete convert to digital-only music. For the same reasons, I probably won't ever buy a Kindle, because I like the feeling of a physical book in my hands.
But again, these are my own personal ideas of what I like, and someone else might have different tastes, and who am I to say what is better for them?”

"No Help for the Mighty Ones" was certainly a leap forward for the band in terms of song quality compared to your previous releases. How did this occur?

“All the previous members of Subrosa have been great. But the lineup that made ‘No Help…’ gelled really well. We also happened to acquire three new musicians within a year of each other, that were like, classically trained musicians, jazz musicians; musicians that had been in bands for years. So their musicianship and songwriting was top-notch. Also, I believe Sarah and I had evolved greatly as songwriters since ‘Strega.’ Sarah and I are the original members of the band.”

What are your plans for a new album and approximately when do you think it will be released?

“We are starting work on it now, actually. :) We would like to release it by the end of this year, but realistically, it will probably be the beginning of next. Our rhythm seems to be about an album every two years. The new album will have a richer, lusher sound. A fuller sound, with more melodies, while still heavy as ever.”

Any local bands or any lesser known bands you would care to recommend?

“We love Salt Lake band Gaza, of course (Black Market Activities), who toured with Converge over the last couple years in the US and Europe. My favorite local band is a band called Night Sweats. They sound like a smoother version of Joy Division with saxophone ... like Joy Division and Morphine.
Old Timer is another great local stoner rock band, and The Dwellers is a band on Small Stone. Dave and Zach, who were on ‘No Help...’ are involved in those bands.
Red Bennies is a Salt Lake band. Red Bennies's ‘angry era’ is what influenced Subrosa's sound the most.”

What are your top 5 releases of all time?

"This is ... really hard. I will just tell you five releases I really like a lot. I don't know if they're exactly in the Top 5.
Red Bennies – Famil
The Cure – Disintegration
The Stone Roses – Second Coming
Electric Wizard – Witchcult Today
Agalloch – The Mantle"

Now being based in Salt Lake City with a strong religious presence there in the form of the LDS have you experienced any problems with playing shows or a bad reaction to your music from locals? To an outsider Salt Lake is generally perceived to be a 100% Mormon city. Correct me if I'm wrong on my impressions.

“Mormons are actually a minority in Salt Lake City ... the rest of the state has a higher percentage of them. Salt Lake is a diverse and open town, and the conservative dominant culture in the state has created a thriving counterculture, a big underground art and music scene here in Utah's capitol.
I am Mormon, actually, but am pretty different from most Mormons. I relate much more to Democrats, or actually, the Green Party, than I do to Republicans. I tend to not talk about my music life to other Mormons because a lot of them won't understand, and I have faced some judgment here and there.
In general, though, I think it's safe to say that heavy rock has not gained mainstream acceptance here like it has in most of the US. Rebelling in Utah through heavy music still carries social risk.”

Have you had any offers from major labels? If not, would you take it if you were offered one?
“No one's ever asked me this before, but I would say, that I wouldn't outright say no to a major label, but I would approach any such dealings with such a label with extreme caution, tip-toeing as if walking among buried landmines, with 40 daggers at the ready. I would insist that we retain all rights to Subrosa's music, and I would never sign a multi-album deal. Only one album at a time. Nothing's worse than realizing you owe a label several more albums, who you are completely not getting along with.”

Subrosa isn't the type of band that the average Joe would listen to while partying and drinking beer obviously. Who do you think your music appeals to and why? Are you writing for a specific audience in mind or are you doing this for yourself and just happy if someone else likes it?
“I think it's a little of both ... I do write with a specific audience in mind and at the same time, I write to make myself happy; we all do. I do feel compelled to put the music out in the world to reach a certain kind of person. I guess the person I always imagine I'm reaching out to is much like myself ... someone swimming in a sea of cultural trash, wishing for something real. Something visceral, true, and real. People for whom life is almost a constant torment. Those are the people I'm singing to."

A lot of your lyrics are very poetic and you have a great talent for putting powerful images in place that greatly enhance the band's overall sound. We had touched upon your lyrics earlier but is there a specific lyricist who has influenced you?
"Another great question no one has asked me. Most people ask if a certain musician influenced me, but lyricist? Honestly, most of my favorite lyricists are from Utah bands, perhaps because I can intimately relate to many of them. I have a friend in a Utah band called Puri-Do (later changing the name to Purr Bats) that I think is a genius lyricist ... Kyrbir. His lyrics are dark, dark comedy, scarred with disturbing tension and irony, all with an undertow of utter rage. I don't know how he does it. He writes a lot about the dark side of Utah culture, the existential absurdity of it. My friend Eli Morrison, who has been a big part of the SLC music scene, is also a genius lyricist. He perfectly captured the vibe of vintage garage rock in his band The Wolfs. He channels something beyond himself when he writes and sings.
Outside the Utah music scene, as mainstream as it sounds, I'd have to say that Maynard and Reznor really appeal to me. Slicing lyrics layered in several coats of meaning; getting obliquely at the truth but delivered with straightforward conviction ... I like that.”

Any good books you've that you would like to recommend to the readers?

“I'm reading ‘Shantaram’, by Gregory David Roberts, right now, and I highly recommend it. It's the story of an ex-con/ex-heroin addict who escapes from prison in Australia and makes it to Bombay, and about the new life he starts there. It's a huge adventure and a great travelogue, and amazing to know that so much of it is autobiographical. I just checked out ‘The Bluest Eye’ (Toni Morrison) from the library yesterday, and already want to write a song around the human race's concept of beauty ... bashing our subjective ideals of beauty. I write lyrics based on books a lot, because I think they are a great inspiration for song lyrics. I'm reading, like, 10 other books right now; I tend to read a lot at once. A great one I finished last year was ‘Wastelands,’ a collection of post-apocalyptic short stories. I can never read enough stories or watch enough movies set in a post-apocalyptic world."

Anything else you want to say?

"We are planning on doing a tour this year in the fall ... we're trying for Europe. Stay tuned." :)

Words: Curt
Photo: Peter Anderson