SubRosa’s Rebecca Vernon Asks: Who Wants to Live Forever?
When Rebecca Vernon flew to Ohio for Thanksgiving in 2007, she knew her mother was dying from ovarian cancer. But actually seeing Helen Vernon—by all accounts a vibrant, selfless, social woman—reduced to a sliver of the person who’d raised her daughter shook Rebecca beyond grief. Watching someone so familiar turn unrecognizable, Vernon says, “It made me think, ‘What if there wasn’t such a thing as death? What if Mom kept going on and on like that—what if her suffering never ended?’” Helen was buried a week before Christmas, but the younger Vernon returned to the thought again and again: Once disease sets in, who wants to live forever?
Six years later, Vernon and her bandmates in Salt Lake City group SubRosa band are exploring the bittersweet impact of death’s release on More Constant Than the Gods, an epic album of experimental sludge-doom that counters our culture’s obsession with youth and beauty, adopting a melodic/aggressive dynamic and potent lyrics that deftly dismiss immortality’s allure. The fourth and arguably best release by the Salt Lake City quintet is arranged as a sonic pendulum—three tracks progress toward a crushing climax before the remaining songs arc down to a merciful hush. More Constant is also the most personal SubRosa record to date, supported by Vernon’s backbone of emotional purging, which on previous albums was subsumed in sociopolitical narratives. As an artist, she’s never been so exposed, at least not since the first SubRosa show, which took place at a modest house party in fall 2005.
At the time, Vernon was better known as a drummer and as a member of the alternative press; she stuck to supporting roles that largely transpired behind the scenes, adjacent to, but always far enough from, the spotlight. Though she genuinely enjoyed keeping time for others, a nagging impulse to create and transmit music beyond Utah’s borders catalyzed an internal erosion of self-imposed boundaries. “I always wanted to be in a band in serious way,” Vernon explains. “I didn’t think I was going to make any money off of it—I just felt this urge, this voice in my head saying, ‘This is not your ultimate path.’” However, she suppressed that instinct until devastating heartbreak forced her to act. Following what she has previously described as the worst summer of her life, “I hit bottom and it was like, ‘It’s now or never!’”
Vernon hunkered down in her “haunted” basement, spending a few months writing riffs and lyrics with violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton before blindly swinging a musical axe above ground. The night of SubRosa’s debut, she stepped to the front of a cramped SLC bungalow’s makeshift “stage,” standing firmly in place, wound tighter than a spring. She stared daggers at the wall and tore through a set of demos that, while rough, left a powerful and promising impression on the audience. Those who witnessed her rocky emergence marvel at Vernon, who today seems every bit the natural-born leader. Honestly, she’s as shocked as anyone: “What was I thinking? I had never written songs before really, I’d never played guitar, I’d never sang [sic] in front of people, I’d never led a band…I had to do all of those things because I wanted to realize a vision—to achieve the kind of energy I wanted to put out there.”
Though proud of her own massive leaps and bounds, Vernon is quick to note that SubRosa is absolutely a team effort. Along with Pendleton, Vernon works with violinist/vocalist Kim Pack, bassist Christian Creek and drummer Andy Patterson, the latter of whom steered the recording of More Constant and SubRosa’s third effort, No Help For The Mighty Ones (Marduk’s Magnus “Devo” Andersson mastered and engineered both records). Their contributions are equally critical to the group’s success, says Vernon who credits Patterson and Andersson for fine-tuning SubRosa’s overall sound quality, and Pack and Pendleton for taking the initiative to adopt a different approach for laying down their parts on More Constant. On No Help, they plugged directly into the soundboard, yielding a noise closer to trumpets than electric strings. For the new album, they returned to tried-and-true amps to manipulate their instruments for improved clarity so that every stroke sears like molten iron. In fact, every element of More Constant one-ups past recordings, a testament to improved abilities and grace under pressure. Vernon imposed a strict deadline on herself and the band to turn their finished product over to Profound Lore label owner Chris Bruni in under 10 months.
To hold up her end, Vernon embraced a routine similar to the one she held as a MFA student at the University of Utah. Getting her graduate degree in creative writing taught her the value of staying on task, no matter how many social invites came her way. “I’m so busy and my job is so demanding—sometimes I work 40 hours a week and sometimes it’s more like 60—so when friends were like, ‘Hey let’s go camping,’ I’d say, ‘I can’t. I have to stay home and write,’” she says. “I was stressed all the time. I can honestly say I put every ounce of myself into this album.” In addition to honing solid time-management skills, Vernon’s studies helped her dig deeper into the songwriting process.
“If you’re into literature and fiction and language, you understand the abstract nature of language and the symbolism of language—that’s going to transfer to your lyrics,” she says. “It’s amazing how many bands just sing [breaks out into a cheesy croon], ‘I feel so sad today / You broke my heart and took it away’—it’s so obvious. There are no layers. Lyrics are so important and I don’t know why more bands don’t take them more seriously.”
SubRosa does not take lyrics lightly. Each of More Constant’s six songs reflects the album’s collective theme while presenting its own self-contained story, complete with footnotes provided in the liner notes. “The Usher” stems directly from Vernon’s powerful awakening to death’s value when faced with her mother’s suffering (“Come lay down your head / Rest in my arms / You’re free tonight”). “Affliction” recalls a gruesome Valentine’s Day mall shooting in Salt Lake City, and is dedicated to the mother of one of the victims (“It gathers chessmen and loaded guns / It snuffs the candles out one by one”). More Constant’s heaviest track, “Fat of the Ram,” is linked to an excerpt from Vernon’s MFA thesis, a work of fiction called “The Takers.” It takes time to process the album’s many interwoven texts, just as it takes multiple listens to fully digest the incredible sound that washes over you when you play it on decent speakers. More Constant is a slow hurricane that destroys preconceived notions of light and dark.
“In the music world, there’s this sense that everything’s been done, but it’s not hard to be unique if you have a certain vision in your mind,” Vernon says. “There are still things to be said in only the way you can say it.”
Photo by Brandon Garcia