How Death, Grief and Rage Transformed Parkway Drive
Three years in hell led to 'Reverence,' Parkway Drive's most ambitious album ever. We spoke to Parkway lead singer Winston McCall about the pain that spawned the metalcore five-piece's triumphant sixth album.
All photos by Naomi Lee Beveridge
Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece “The Fall of The Damned” hangs on the walls of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, one of the oldest art galleries in the world, in a heavy gilded frame. The 397-year-old painting depicts dozens of bodies falling, cast out of heaven by the archangel Michael and plummeting through orange clouds of sulphur straight down to the flames of hell.
“As soon as I saw it I was like, that's it, that’s the one,” Parkway Drive singer Winston McCall tells me as we walk through a room of 17th and 18th century oil paintings in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria. McCall first saw the painting during a tour stop in Germany, which found the Australian metalcore five-piece playing to the biggest crowds they’d ever seen outside of their home country. It was the end of the band’s touring cycle for 2015’s Ire, and fittingly, it sparked the beginning of something bigger for the band.
Each member of the band (McCall, along with guitarists Luke Kilpatrick and Jeff Ling, drummer Ben “Gaz” Gordon and bass player Jia O’Connor) has a designated role in the creation of their music and the running of the business, and McCall is in charge of vocals, lyrics, and coming up with the concepts for the band’s album artwork. He points out a few rejected reference works on the gallery walls as he explains why “The Fall Of The Damned” was the perfect choice for the cover art of new album Reverence.
“Our album artwork has always been reasonably simple and this time I wanted something that would draw people in, but also fit the seriousness of the lyrics. And really, with the themes, it was just so fitting.”
The past three years have been the most personally difficult in the band’s 15 year career –– their own plummet towards the depths. You can see it in the band’s promo photos. The kids in board shorts and band t-shirts have become grown men with greying hair and trimmed beards, wearing funeral black and proper trousers.
“I’ve always thought that at some point in time I’ll feel old, but I don’t,” says McCall. “You just reach a stage where you are more susceptible to physical injury. Once I turned 30 my I noticed my body stopped healing the same, and we all started having to take care of ourselves. I used to get on stage and just do it, and now I have an hour of warm-ups and stretches.”
Ire marked a dramatic change in the band’s sound as they cast off breakdowns for stadium-friendly choruses. It was a commercial success, landing them their first #1 album in Australia and spots on the top end of massive festival bills across the US and Europe.
But all was not well within the ranks of Parkway. McCall’s beloved boston terrier died unexpectedly, touring buddies The Ghost Inside were maimed in a horrific bus crash and close friend Tom Searle from the British band Architects had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“We were playing a festival with Architects when Tom [Searle] told us about his diagnosis,” McCall tells me. “It was really fucking gut-wrenching. We’ve toured with them more than we’ve toured with any other band and were like, that’s shit, but you’ll beat it, right?”
Then a band member’s partner was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. “It was like a bomb getting dropped on our world,” says McCall. He is visibly emotional, and pauses to take several deep breaths before continuing. “We had to start dealing with what that meant to all of us — not only as humans, but as a band, like what are we gonna do?”
The band kept on touring, subbing in replacement players as needed. They shared club show and festival bills with Architects as Searle went in and out of treatment, and were in the middle of a European festival run in August 2016 when they received news of his death.
“We were playing the biggest shows we’ve ever done to tens of thousands of people with that hanging over us, and we still had to get on stage. I can’t even explain what that felt like,” says McCall.
At their performance at Lowlands festival in the Netherlands the night after Searle’s death, they dedicated “Home Is For The Heartless” to him. Video of their performance shows McCall weeping, his voice breaking as he screams the song’s refrain while people in the crowd hold up “RIP TOM SEARLE” signs.
A week later, the band member’s partner with cancer died, on the night of the band’s performance at Reading Festival. “That’s why we pulled out of Leeds Festival,” McCall explains. “We just went straight to the airport. I felt helpless, seeing it happen and knowing what other people were going through.”
This emotional climate of death, grief and rage was the catalyst for the themes and motivation behind the creation of Reverence. “We were all hit with the reality that sometimes it doesn’t get better. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and you can’t point at something that made this happen. It’s shifted everything in the band. That’s why you end up writing a record where you don’t give a fuck about anything you’ve done before, because who cares about other people’s opinions on what we should do?”
And there are plenty of opinions. The reaction to Reverence’s first single “Wishing Wells” was mostly positive, but follow-up singles “The Void” and “Prey” have been panned by fans who prefer the band’s early albums. Comments heave with conspiracy theories about the band being pushed into a more radio-friendly sound by music industry forces. In reality, Parkway Drive are still on the same independent labels they signed with for their 2005 debut album Killing With A Smile and are co-managed by guitarist Kilpatrick and their Australian label boss Graham Nixon.
“We pay for those videos,” says a slightly frustrated McCall. “We’re still a self-managed band. At no point have we given up anything that will give someone the leverage to say “Now you must do this.” The team has expanded but the control is held by us. Anything we’ve ever wanted, we’ve had to make it happen ourselves. Even at the beginning we had to essentially create a venue [at the Byron Youth Activity Centre] because we couldn’t play in pubs.”
He’s sympathetic to fans who say they they wish the band would write music that sounded similar to their early work, but questions whether that is really what they actually want. “For the most part, people want the feeling that they got when they heard Horizons for the first time,” he explains. “That can’t be replicated, because you can’t separate emotion, place, context from the consuming of the music, so why try? The idea of reaching back for something is self defeating and doing it because you know you can, because you’ve done it before ... that's stagnation.”
“What we write now might not be as technical, but technicality doesn’t equal interest for me or any of the guys in the band. We started the band by creating something that was interesting and new for us, and it started out as adrenaline because we were young. We’ve always written music that we enjoy listening to and is interesting for us to play and it just happens that those elements change as you grow as a person. I was 21 when we started this and I’m 36 now. The amount of life I’ve put into this band and the things I’ve experienced since then totally eclipse the human that I was at 21. I hadn’t toured the world yet, I hadn’t lost friends, I hadn’t had to dig a grave.”
Right on cue, we enter the room containing sculptor Ron Mueck’s Mass, where 100 super-sized skulls fill the room. McCall is visibly awed by the work, and inspects the detail of the skulls carefully as he talks about his collection of animal skulls in the home he shares with his wife and cat back in Byron. I tell him that I attended their recent shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of Horizons and loved how their beefed-up stage production and the fact that they still look as though they’re having fun on stage made those old songs sound fresh and vibrant. “That’s because we are still having fun on stage!” he says, laughing.
“We’re the same group of people wanting the same connection, but now we’re playing very big rooms with big possibilities, especially in Germany. It’s our biggest market. You get to a certain size of stage where you can either just walk out without amps, or put on something that really makes people feel … more. This is the first time we’ve really had ambition. We can come up with concepts like a spinning drum cage and go ‘Can you build this?’ Germans are amazing. They can build anything!”
That drive to go bigger and harder and more dynamic is the defining characteristic of Reverence. McCall has long been a fan of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits (he briefly had a side project named Rain Dogs), and their influence on him as a lyricist and vocalist is clearer on this record than anything else Parkway Drive has done. “You can hear a lot more of everyone’s personality in everything on this album,” he says. “When you hear the guitars they have more Jeff, and when you hear the drums you hear more of us just letting Gaz let loose.”
“What Parkway is has been reduced to a basic concept of what we like to play and what we like to listen to. We want it to be melodic and convey the emotion of connection, but this time around there was no ‘It’s gotta have blast beats and breakdowns or otherwise people won’t like it.’”
Reverence does have double-kicks and breakdowns, but its best and most intense songs are the ones with strings, synths, choral vocals and acoustic guitars. “Shadow Boxing” has all of the above, and the strings-driven “Cemetery Bloom” is so lyrically complex and menacing that it seems impossible that it was written by the same musicians who wrote the 2005 mosh anthem “Romance Is Dead” (The pit call “Cry me a fucking river, bitch!” has not aged well.)
“There's so much on this record that is way outside what we've done comfortably and involved a step of confidence. We had to back ourselves and back our imaginations because it wasn't as simple as writing a couple of riffs and sticking them together. It meant executing so many things that were alien and then committing 100% to them, because if you half ass it it's not gonna work,” says McCall.
One of those alien concepts was McCall singing. Not huskily speak-singing like he did on Ire, but actual melodic singing. His performances on “Shadow Boxing” and the heart-rending album closer “The Colour Of Leaving” are the result of five years of practice and lessons, and he seems proud when I ask him what it was like to hear his voice back through the speakers for the first time.
“There was a moment going in the studio to execute these ideas where I was going “Is this going to work?” I was expecting it to be harder than it was and that the studio would expose all the flaws I couldn't hear or see. But we got to the point where we were three quarters done and I was listening back to it going “Holy shit, this is actually going to happen.” To listen back and realise that I can hold pitch, I'm in key and it's just me... it was liberating.”
We’ve come to the end of our gallery visit, and before we say our goodbyes, I ask McCall what about Reverence he is the most proud of. He pauses to think before answering.
“It was nice to believe in each other. It’s funny, because we all failed at school and we were still judging ourselves on the fact that we’re not actually musicians because we don't know music theory. In reality, we should have been trusting ourselves the whole time.”
Sophie Benjamin is a writer and musician in Melbourne Australia with a soft spot for pit calls and breakdowns. Follow her on Twitter.