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Music Scene: Salt Lake City’s own SubRosa

Sarah Pendelton of SubRosa. Photo By: Justine Murphy

Salt Lake City’s SubRosa are the living embodiment of contradiction. Their music, being filled with crushing, down-tuned and overly distorted guitars with the emotional respite of silky and tranquil violins weaving its way in and out like a beacon of light and beauty. Thunderous drums and bass; holding down the slow-moving rhythms while vocalist and guitarist Rebecca Vernon’s lyrics speak of emotions and the phases of life that are central to all of us engaged in the human experience, while using a delivery system that reminds one of the vocal style of Dinah Cancer from the early 80s death-rock band 45 Grave. These contradictions, however, have not been so drastic as to make their music unlistenable. In fact, it’s through these extreme dynamics that their 2013 release- “More Constant Than the Gods“- was named in Rolling Stone magazine as one of their “Top 20 Metal Albums Of 2013” (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/20-best-metal-albums-of-2013-20131211/subrosa-more-constant-than-the-gods-19691231). But after talking to Rebecca Vernon it is clear where these contradiction stem from; her.

Kimberly Pack of SubRosa. Photo courtesy of Justine Murphy.

To create a band like SubRosa, and to be its primary song-writer, to pull such an astonishing mix off, takes someone who has within themselves a constant tug-and-pull over not only what life has to offer, but what they themselves can translate in a meaning and powerful way. Having been raised a child of the military, Rebecca’s early life experiences were filled with traveling the world and meeting many different types of people and cultures. And for someone who was raised with a very religious upbringing, this allowed her a perspective on the world that not many have been able to share. But it was also through these life events that she was able to understand that although her spirituality has stayed intact, she never wanted to bludgeon people over the head with it. When I asked her how she’s able to keep a balance of writing lyrics that are key to what she feels about the human soul but not alienate her listeners she said- “I try to sing about things that are universal to the human experience, and if I do feel something that might be more specific, I usually still universalize the way I’m communicating it. So in a way that everyone can relate to.” And, on the musical end of the songwriting, with so many talented artists in the band, and she being the primary songwriter, how isn’t it a train wreck and everything comes out so beautifully in the end? “I think we have a really good balance because, I don’t run every little tiny thing,” she says. “I’m the one who writes the riffs and who has the vision of the direction of a song- here’s the riff, here’s the lyrics, here’s the basic structure- and then I hand it over to Kim and Sarah and they’re almost completely autonomous in their parts. They write their own parts and what I think they do is incredible. I think they’re both geniuses with what they do.”

For someone to live in Salt Lake City, be a part of a religion that has come under scrutiny for it’s perceived intolerance’s, and to have the foresight to understand her audience and write in such a way as to not alienate them, is something, that to many who live in this area, could be found as the definitive concept of contradiction. But this is not surprising. SubRosa, from moment one, was about re-defining what their musical genre; sludge or doom-metal, is all about. Having been dominated by big hairy guys for decades (sorry Andy (Patterson; drums/producer extraordinaire), no offense meant), they took a wildly different approach and when you see them walk out on stage- which I have had the privilege of experiencing many times, dating back to my first SubRosa show in 2006 at the Urban Lounge with other Salt Lake City acts of that time; The Wolfs and the Purr Bats– another contradiction comes into full view. Immediately you are shocked with the image of three stunningly-beautiful women (Rebecca, raven haired with a mystique that harkens back to a gothic Stevie Nicks; Sarah Pendleton, violinist who emits an aura of nature, balance, and yet, at the same time, a taste for songwriting that brings a certain beauty and melancholy to the group; and Kim Pack, blonde haired violinist that takes one back to the 1950s, but only if that decade hid a shroud of darkness and a talent for melodies second-to-none). And finally, let’s not forget, Levi Hanna, bass, adorable in his own right, and from what I’ve been told, quite a nice addition to the SubRosa family since January of this year.

Even the musical choices set up from the beginning illustrated an internal contradiction. Prior to SubRosa, Rebecca was a drummer. Playing in such local acts as Violet Run and Stiletto. And although she loved playing the drums “I prefer (playing) the drums to the guitar because they have just that power; that brutal power.” she admits, she knew that if she was going to be fulfilled on a larger musical level, she was going to have to move over to the guitar. “I started learning guitar just to start SubRosa, because I wanted to lead the songwriting of a band “. The first hurdle this band had to overcome was set into motion right from the get-go; Rebecca didn’t know how to play the guitar. This, coupled with her love for the genre, is where the idea to form a doom-metal band came into play; “With (writing) simple, loud, primal riffs, I could get by with having very minimal skills”. To start a band on an ideal, a concept and to not have had any prior experience in songwriting the way she was about to jump into, that, in and of itself, would deter many a musician from wanting to make this kind of band their dream; however this was just the beginning in what many, myself included, would see as disastrous turns of events that would repeat themselves over and over again in the entirety of the history of the band. Events that would have normally crushed the spirit of any human being, but no matter the mountain placed before her, Rebecca Vernon and her bandmates refused to let anything stop the SubRosa machine.

The list as follows; Levi is their 9th bassist since the inception of the band. Although they have gone through a lot of bassists, they have always left on good terms according to Rebecca- “Most people that leave SubRosa, it’s amicable. Usually, it’s genuinely some kind of life circumstance or they’re making a big life change, or they don’t want to tour, which has always been our goal.”, this lingering “Spinal Tap effect” could have killed any band, but not SubRosa. They have had record deals fall through, line-up shifts, Rebecca, in 2011 going through such a personal crisis she put down the guitar for a year and wasn’t sure she would ever pick it up again. The sabbatical, though, only helped fuel her fire and many of the writing sessions that followed her musical vacation ended up becoming a large portion of the “More Constant Than the Gods” album. But the biggest blow came last year, November 4th, on tour while stopping for a bite to eat in Sacramento, California, while on their way to a show in Oakland, California, their tour van was broken into and much of their equipment was stolen (two violins, an electric guitar, and a bass guitar among other things). They reached out to their fans, via online donation, and was able to recover most of the losses. When I asked her why- with all the years of adversity, with their musical journey, at times, teetering on the brink of disaster- not call it a day? “Sarah and I, through the years, have just come to the conclusion that SubRosa exists for a purpose, if no other purpose then to give us something that we can get excited about, that gives us meaning, and because we’re maybe trying to do something inspiring; this world is against that type of thing. And unseen forces are against that type of thing, and they always seem to operate against us.”

And this passion comes out in their music. From their first release, “The Worm Has Turned“, to “More Constant Than the Gods“, Rebecca Vernon and her band have found a way to take a style of music that is traditionally morose, dirgey, and a wall of sound so thick it feels like molasses cascading in your ears and make their own, that is no only all of those things, but adds their own spin to make it truly beautiful as well, at the same time. So please, go over to http://subrosausa.bandcamp.com/ to hear their music and head over to https://www.facebook.com/SubrosaSLC and give them a “Like”; trust me, you will not be disappointed. And although Rebecca says that the Salt Lake City venue, the Shred Shed is her favorite to play, there are many others they can be found at (Bar Deluxe, Burt’s Tiki-Lounge, The Wood Shed, etc.) just check the links above for upcoming shows.

Good day, fine inhabitants of southwestern Wyoming. My name is R.G.B. Robb and I have been commissioned to write a monthly column for SweetwaterNOW.com, about Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s nightlife and music scene. You may be asking why would there be a need for an article about a city in another state? The answer is simple; when I lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, I found that most of my friends and family would vacation in Salt Lake City, and often times they would rave about the skiing and other tourist attractions, but found that their other entertainment options would fall by the wayside, simply because the information about those other options wasn’t readily available; and that’s where this column comes in.

This will be a way to allow those of you who visit this metropolis to have some insight into what is available here when you are either done on the slopes, or looking for something to do, other than sit in your hotel room being stuck watching movies. So, I hope for those of you who read this column, it not only opens up a new world of opportunities, but it also gives you the chance to be introduced to some musicians and artists that you may not have otherwise had knowledge of.

So please enjoy, and I would highly recommend that if you are indeed either planning a trip to Salt Lake City, or love to be introduced to new music, you take some time out to explore, and listen to, what our city has to offer; I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

R.G.B Robb