Much of what’s toted today as rock music leaves much to be desired in my eyes. Hair gel’d fringes and indie rock sounds aren’t what I consider even remotely close to what rock music is and what it’s about, though most of the youngsters of today seem to dig it. A lot.
Mainstream rock music, let alone heavy metal, has mutated into a different beast altogether, which – though (sadly) inevitable – seems to build up ideas in many young people’s minds of what these genres are and where they’ve come from.
(Happily) inevitable, is that there are and will always be exceptions to this pattern, such as the three youngsters in the heavy rock/doom metal band Pilgrim, signed to Poison Tongue Records (founded and managed by Primordial’s Alan Averill; a man whom mainstream media has begun to recognise as an established name in the heavy metal underground).
It was refreshing in more ways than one when I sat down to talk to singer/guitarist Jon Rossi, otherwise known as “The Wizard”. How often do you come across musicians emerging into their twenties these days, who still revere the legacy and history of their favourite music these days? Well, I haven’t.
It’s impressive how Pilgrim has succeeded in getting signed to a record label after cropping up on MySpace, especially in the Internet’s nature of information overload.
I don’t even know how to describe how lucky we are, that Alan Averill from Primordial heard our music and decided to give us a shot on his label (Poison Tongue). We feel like it was a shot in the dark, since he could have picked any band but chose to go with us instead. We’re totally grateful for that!
Though you totally hit the nail on the head when you said “information overload”; there are so many bands now, and I know a lot of young bands who don’t get the recognition that they should receive. They should be paving the way for new music, but no labels want to give them a chance, because they’re not going to sell many records. If people had a different outlook, then we’d have different music, right now! That’s the total truth!
Whenever it comes to discussing the nature of the music industry, it seems that the conclusion is that you have to put in a lot of love to carry on.
Yeah, that’s what it comes down to: love, patience – a lot of patience – and time.
We started Pilgrim a really long time ago when all of us were still in high school, though at first we went through a lot of different bands, phases and names. Then we took a short little break when we hit a creative lull, but after that I had a bunch of new material that would become Pilgrim.
Together, we tried to put on as many shows as we could, though at the time no one would allow us to play in their venues because they didn’t want to hear our music. So we ended up going to New York where some of our friends (from our home state of Rhode Island) lived, on their suggestion to see if audiences would respond better to us over there. And sure enough, it worked! Pilgrim had spent a whole year going back and forth from New York to play shows. This, coupled with what we had on the Internet, was perhaps why Alan (Averill) was so interested in our band, since we had a little underground following by then (which is cool!)
The rest of that story is now history!
Knowing that you’re all so young, why did traditional doom metal speak to you the most? Most youngsters tend to go for more extreme or modern styles of heavy metal music, like black metal or melodic death metal.
It’s not commercial, as you’ll never see a doom metal song in an ad for toilet paper or something; it’s a very dark music which deals a lot with truth, as well as other things which people no longer care about anymore! Ha ha ha! You know, things like money and evil being in the world – it’s also very horror-themed, which is another of our interests. Though as I said, it’s the truthfulness of the music that spoke to us more than anything else.
Even black metal is a very truthful music, but we happen to like slow music the most. Doom metal is like a progression of 70’s rock that’s just good, pure music! It’s based on riffs and is song-structured, as well as good and heavy, so what else can you say?
Throughout the entire length of Pilgrim’s debut album ‘Misery Wizard‘, it looks to be that the “middle way” of doom metal was chosen – in the rock and metal circuit, doom as a genre often veers towards either the “rockin’ out” sphere of things, or the pensive, sombre side that most have gradually come to associate it with.
People say “doom metal”, and I guess that it’s technically still metal, but the way I look at it, is that we’re a rock band. This also isn’t unlike how (the esteemed band) Pentagram look at their own music – that they’re a hard rock band. Our structures and music are more based on older styles of phrasing a song, like, verse chorus, verse, etc. Progressive music is great, but there’s something that’s awesome about just having a song!
Originally when we made the album, ‘Forsaken Man‘ was supposed to be the first track, but our record label didn’t like that. People listening to it might turn it off and think, “wow, this [opening track] is too slow – I can’t listen to this!” Though the reason for our original choice was that we wanted the audience to feel that, after the invocation of Astaroth’s name, he stayed with you for the entire experience.
Unfortunately we had to move this song towards the end, which gave the whole record a completely different vibe altogether. Though really, it’s about storytelling in its purest form – the music is there, but there’s a cool narrative that goes over it. If it can pull you in and get you into the spot that you’ve described, then that’s exactly what we want to achieve.
How important is it for you that the music matches the story it tells?
Well, for the album we picked the demonology route, and there are a few reasons for that – demonology and the occult in general (along with other things) interest the three of us greatly. I personally think that Electric Wizard and Reverend Bizarre had a huge hand in that for us, since they both introduced us to the whole occult world and inspired what we wrote.
Demonology, the occult, swords and wizards’ sorcery – it’s all good fantasy! It’s a good escape, and the parallel that you can draw from demonology (personally) is almost like a horror story; there is a demon which is always with you to follow you around, and curse everything that you do. We like that as a theme and a relationship to our own lives, y’know? That’s why Astaroth is all over the record, as he’s the demon who follows the misery wizard around.
In a previous interview, I came across the opinion from one particular musician who argued that you should only really sing about the occult if you believe and practice it yourself.
What do you think about this, Jon?
I think for me personally, you don’t have to be a Satanist (to sing about Satanic themes and) make great music, just as you don’t have to be part of any other religion. It’s the way that the themes you’re singing about can be applied to form metaphors. If you worship Satan and write great music, that’s great! And if you don’t, that’s great, as well! All of us in Pilgrim, I’ll tell you that we’re spiritual people, though not religious people.
For me, it’s a story-telling tool; a genre of horror, almost.
Where does the line between spirituality and religion come in, for you?
Well, you know, I’m only a young kid; keep that in mind! I’m still working out my views on the world and things like that, but I believe in something that most would consider “new age” or whatever… things which deal with issues like what happens after you die. That doesn’t mean that I go to church every Sunday, or have to hate a certain group of people just because my religion tells me to. That’s one thing that I don’t like about religion!
Since doom metal deals with the occult and spirituality, how far would you consider it to be a spiritual music for you at this point in your life?
It depends! Some songs deal with stories and similar topics, but others, especially a lot of Black Sabbath’s material deals with life and your own choices and decisions, as well as what you make of it all. So I’d say that doom as a genre is totally spiritual, though in the same way that black metal is. There’s more of a truthfulness in doom metal, though I think that that’s what’s also keeps it spiritual.
I mentioned black metal, because a lot of truthfulness is evident in Mayhem’s later records with Maniac on vocals. Well, there is also that fantasy element as we were discussing, but there’s also a lot of honesty in what he’s saying about the plight of humanity. That’s just one small example of how Mayhem can be as consciously-awakening as Black Sabbath! Ha ha ha!
Not many would probably think of comparing Mayhem to Black Sabbath, but I listen to a lot of music, so that’s why I made that connection!
Of course, like everything, you have to take this music with a grain of salt, because not every facet of it is so pure. I do believe that truth in metal (as a whole) go hand in hand, but there’s also a lot of metal bands who aren’t so honest. It’s just in the same way that I wouldn’t criticise a Christian for being a Christian, because of the stigmas attached to that faith, though it works the same way with metal.
There are a lot of shitty metal bands out there, and when I say “shitty” I mean that as the least intense word that I could find. There are many who are a disgrace to heavy metal, yet the truthfulness varies as a whole. It can define whether a band is worth listening to or not.
As a young group, where would you and your bandmates like to see Pilgrim in at least fives years’ time?
I don’t know, though at a personal standpoint I would like to see that I could live my life around the band Pilgrim, and make it my passion. It is my passion right now, but if we could be on the road, touring from country to country like say, Cannibal Corpse who are always touring and doing something… their lives are based around their band, and I’d love to have that.
At the moment, Pilgrim is the focus of our lives even though we can’t devote all of our attention to it because we still have to go about our daily business as normal. So in five years, I’d love to see us touring heavily, visiting a lot of countries, just making a living off of our music! Anymore than that is just a dream, at this point.
Even when you were in high school, how difficult was it to get together and play shows?
It was very hard, especially in a place like Rhode Island where people listen to mainly screamo and emo music as well as noise rock. There’s not a big focus on metal or even rock music in general over here, so it was incredibly difficult. Also, not to seem elitist, but we didn’t necessarily play at our high school auditorium in front of all the kids that we knew who didn’t understand what we were playing. So it was more like, “we could play shows here, but do we really want to play to people who aren’t going to appreciate it?”
Interestingly, our first show was in Rhode Island, with our friends Nightlore who were the same age as us, in a little refurbished church. It was bad! We were on the bill with a bunch of emo bands, and when we came on stage, the kids in the audience started to leave the room or move as far away from us as possible.
It was a painful experience, but afterward we started playing in New York, which has always been goo to us. It was basically taking a leap from a small town to a city where we could thrive; I think our first real show was with Hour of 13, which was a jump from obscurity to the actual scene that we partook in through buying records. It was something that we always wanted to be a part of yet didn’t have any connections to, so New York city allowed us to have that.
I wouldn’t even go as far as to say that it’s an underground following as it is, since well, people at least understand what we’re doing as a band over there, and they care enough to listen to our songs!
How did you manage to get in touch with Hour of 13, to play with them at their show?
We have friends in the band Natur, which has some members from Rhode Island who knew many of the same faces as we did. So it wasn’t long before they found out that we came from the same state, and thus invited us to come along to play some live gigs with them. One of these gigs was with Hour of 13.
Natur did so much for us when we were first starting out, since they helped us get onto good bills as many other doom metal or dark-themed bands, which was what we needed.
I have to ask – as a trio of young people, how does it feel to interact with metalheads who are at least twice your age?
I guess it’s cool… older people have told us that they really like what Pilgrim is doing and that they envy us for starting so young and trying to be outside of the box with the music we play. Of course, a lot of people also think that we’re boring!
Overall though, it’s mostly older audiences who resonate better with our music than younger audiences, which is a little absurd. Though really, most of the younger people we’ve encountered are listening to Lamb of God or Meshuggah, so when they hear a Pilgrim record, their reaction is “What the fuck am I listening to? This shit is slow, where are the vocals? I’m getting bored,” etc. They have no attention span, to listen to one song of ours.
I remember once when someone had posted a comment on the Internet about the song ‘Astaroth‘, saying that they had to wait five minutes for the vocals to come in. Who cares? Just enjoy the song – you obviously weren’t really listening to it in the first place! Unfortunately, this is the mentality of most of the younger people, who also resort to calling us “hipsters” and “ignorant”. But I think that what they don’t understand is that the music they’re usually listening to is actually terrible!
Of course, while this is a generalisation, as there are indeed younger people who understand and enjoy what we do, from an overall standpoint the younger music audiences don’t care about us.
I’d say that the mainstream metal that’s aired on MTV and so on has everything to do with this! A kid will think that he’s a metalhead when he’s only listening to As I Lay Dying, which as far as I’m concerned isn’t even close to metal (for me). I don’t want to put people off by giving out my opinions on this band, but bands like that… it’s mind-boggling how terrible it is. Not only from a musician’s standpoint, but even from a fashion standpoint it’s terrible, so I’d say that what’s pushed forward as mainstream metal today has everything to do with how people around our ages are responding to us. That “new” style of metal is destroying the last forty to fifty years of rock and metal music. It’s so much about masculinity, and not even in a Manowar or Metallica sense – in a new, modern, weird way, which frankly doesn’t resonate well with me.
I think that this is more of a suburban thing though, when you don’t have a real connection to a real scene, much like we didn’t to begin with. Thank God we have the Internet! Though really, it’s just a suburban thing, which we in Pilgrim saw plenty of while we were growing up because we live in suburbia out here in Rhode Island. People in the city are a little different, since they’re not as clueless. Though you know, there’s a lot of kids living in suburbia who do listen to music and want to hear good things; they’re just not looking in the right places. Or, maybe what they’re looking for isn’t necessarily such a good thing.
Let’s say that one of the aforementioned younger music fans, who only knows Lamb of God and their ilk, were to come up to you and ask you personally to recommend some metal music to them. What would you tell them, and why?
I’ve never actually thought about that, before! I guess, when we first started getting into heavy music, we were very much into stoner rock music (though I wouldn’t really call it “stoner rock”). So I’d definitely recommend Acid King, whom I consider to be cone of the best rock bands that I have ever heard in my entire, fucking life! Ha ha! Acid King, definitely, and bands like The Melvins… even like Nirvana; it’s not metal by stretch of the imagination, but the purity of it is what makes people seek out better music.
Eventually, though a little hard to be begin with, I’d then recommend Electric Wizard to them, and if they can stomach it – which I know many people can’t do – they should go into awesome doom metal like Saint Vitus and Reverend Bizarre; slower, more patient music.
Another tendency amoung young fans is to say that they like metal, but they mean that they only like the extreme side of it.
If one of those people were to ask you for suggestions on exploring doom metal, what would you say to them?
I dunno, I don’t really listen to that much extreme music aside from black metal and early Cannibal Corpse! Obviously there’s nothing wrong these styles, but I think that people need to look back further to know the roots of the music that they’re listening to: they should go back in time to the 70’s to bands like Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Then they should keep going back to the psychedelic music of the ’60’s like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, before going back to get into the blues.
I think that knowing the roots of your music helps you to relate more to the rock and metal genres in general, though I’m saying this from personal experience. True metal absolutely did not start with black or death metal, and even Fenriz [of Darkthrone fame] will tell you that!
K. Ann Sulaiman would like to thank Pilgrim and Poison Tongue/Metal Blade for this interview.