Photo by Chris Martindale
Doom metal and dystopia have always made for morbid bedfellows, and Salt Lake’s SubRosa have been proving themselves to be remarkably adept at putting apocalyptic warnings to mournful music since 2005. The band—led by guitarist and vocalist, Rebecca Vernon, alongside violinists/singers Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack and the rhythm section of Andy Patterson (drums) and Levi Hanna (bass)—have dipped into science fiction’s morbid visions throughout their four full-length albums. On their latest LP For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (out 8/26 via Profound Lore), the five delved deep into sci-fi novel We for inspiration. Written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921, the book describes an alarmingly familiar future wherein human imagination, desire, and revolution are oppressed. SubRosa use science fiction to “universalize” the issues that are important to the band, says Rebecca, but never have they chosen to write a song that she would like to directly lead to positive change—until now. For This We Fought the Battle of Ages ends with a song that takes a turn away from the central sci-fi theme, and instead looks at a much more personal and immediate issue.
In November 2015, the Latter Day Saints church in Utah set out new directives that rocked SubRosa’s city to the core. According to the New York Times, the change in the official church handbook now says that "the 'natural or adopted' children of parents in same-sex relationships — whether married or cohabiting — cannot be blessed as babies, baptized or ordained into the priesthood (if they are male), nor can they serve as missionaries. They can join the church after age 18, but only if they move out of their parents’ home, disavow same-sex unions and receive permission from the church’s top leadership, the First Presidency."
On For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, Rebecca made the difficult decision to go public about her Mormon faith, and wrote a song specifically speaking out against these directives and offer support to both the LGBTQI teenagers stuck at the heart of this controversial morass. Titled "Troubled Cells," the song serves as the final track of an incredibly haunting and emotion-driven album.
For the first time, Rebecca has revealed to Noisey what drove her to lift the veil on her private life to help raise awareness of this difficult and devastating topic that lies so close to her heart.
Noisey: Thank you for talking to us about the themes behind this incredible song. Could you explain why this particular church directive has been so controversial?
Rebecca Vernon: Sure, I was hesitant. I just didn't know whether to talk about it at all. I was torn about whether to do interviews. I usually don't mind talking about my lyrics, but when they're really personal I do tend to get more vague and then with this, it's so personal and it's been such a source of pain and heartbreak.
So, the Mormon church came out with a new policy last November that really hit a lot of people the wrong way, in and out of the church. Because of how the church has been about gay people, I didn't think there would be any who would be interested in having their children baptized, but as a matter of fact ,there are quite a few gay members who have this beautiful faith, and they would like to have their children baptized. I think most of them can sense there is a bigger picture, and [that] Mormon theology is missing pieces. That actually bothered the most people, that children couldn't be baptized. It felt like total exclusion of children and that really made a lot of people upset. The second part and the part that upset me the most is that gay people that get married will be excommunicated. With that directive, it kills hope for change, and hope that maybe one day a gay person could get married in the church. You're facing those two paths, 'Do I leave my faith to have companionship or do I stay in my faith and go without companionship?'. It's an impossible decision.
What prompted you to write something so personal to counter this policy?
The dialogue in the Mormon church about LGBTQI issues has been negative, it's been toxic. I hoped for change one day, even had faith that things would change one day and there were signs that things were changing. I have never seen anything like it in my lifetime; being in the church, I've never seen something upset so many people. It was a really weird moment for me, because it was the first time I actually felt connected to other Mormons. I actually feel very disconnected and it's always been hard to fit in, so I've been content to be aloof, but then that policy came out and I connected with all these people being upset. It felt like this connectedness that I'd never felt before.
In the days after it came out, I was so traumatized. I was shaking for the first 48 hours, because I knew it was going to lead to so many suicides. I could relate so strongly to what it feels like to be so different in the church and it's been so hard for me to walk that path, that was why I felt so connected to the LGBTQI people in the church and I could feel their opinion so strongly.
This is not necessarily something that will speak only to LGBTQI people in the Mormon community, too.
Absolutely. The thing about this song and about the video we're making, is that it can apply to LGBTQI people in any religious communities, or just ones that are just rejected by their family or bu society in general. You're right, it is important to talk about it, and I'm starting to realize that more and more. I don't want the focus to be on the band, I want to bring it into the light and then step back but if we have the opportunity to talk about it we should and no matter if it's uncomfortable or not. I have to because it's so important.
It's been said that often art that incites change, is that something you believe?
Oh gosh, I've written music and lyrics all throughout SubRosa, spreading awareness and expressing myself about social and political issues and problems, but I've never actually written a song that I actually want to directly lead to change. I deliberately, unashamedly made this video to try and get people to be aware of what's happening and have some human feeling about it. I hope that art can change the world, that's what we're trying to do.
When did you begin to work on the song? Were you already finished writing For This We Fought the Battle of Ages?
I had all these ideas of getting involved and volunteering and doing what I could to stop this or to spread awareness. Within about a week of the policy being announced I had the idea that I should write a song, and it had to be the best song I have ever written. And the idea of making a video to go with it came soon after, I was just really passionate about it. I fashioned the lyrics around a short fantasy story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, it's only four pages and you can find it on the internet. Anyway, sure enough, since November, there have been more documented suicides of LGBTQI Latter Day Saints in the wake of the policy change. Even one suicide is too many, and the number keeps increasing, and a lot of them are young, under 19, and it's really devastating. A lot of people are really heartbroken, and so many outreach groups are trying to reach these LGBTQI people and their families, and trying to get people to wake up and to reach the leaders themselves. I don't know what's going through their minds. I couldn't believe they could be that ignorant, to put out a policy like this and not know it could cause so much damage. There's supposed to be a new handbook coming out in October, and there is a rumor they're going to be softening the policy, but there needs to be a complete rewrite of our entire narrative and there needs to be a place in Mormon theology for gay people. There needs to be respect and equality.
How has the church reacted to the song?
I haven't told that many people because, like I said, I'm not that close to that many Mormons, but there is a gay man in my ward―the church is divided into smaller, geographical parts, so he's in my ward―and he's the leader of a LGBTQI support group in Salt Lake that's neutral in their position, they're neither for or against the church, they're just there to support. Some support groups will just parrot what the church's official standing is and others are against the church, but [his group] Affirmation is squarely in the middle and I feel really comfortable there, that they're not just going to just vomit back what the church says. I met with him and told him about the song and video; it's an artistic statement that we stand behind and believe in but I still wanted to make sure we weren't saying or doing anything insensitive, and I met with the leaders of the Mama Dragons, which is a group of mothers of LGBTQI youth in the church. I told a couple of other members in my ward who are more liberal and they're excited—and then I started to tell my family.
My family is more conservative, but they know this is a huge issue for me. I told everyone in my family except for one brother. I'm willing to face any consequences because I just know I have to say something, and I have to reach out to those people who are suffering, and no matter what happens to me, it doesn't matter, because there are so many people who are in pain. So, I'm willing to be kicked out of the church, I'm willing to face consequences, but with my family, that's the hardest part. Just the idea of being estranged from them or them being upset at me_but I can't let that stop me because all these LGBTQI people, especially the youth, are being rejected by their families and being kicked out of their houses. Forty percent of the homeless youth in Utah are LGBTQI, it's awful.
Do you believe this policy is at odds with your faith, which ultimately is based on compassion and forgiveness?
A lot of churches and faiths are based on compassion and Christianity is based on the figure of Christ who is this example of unconditional love and courageous love. The leaders will say, "Of course we love gay people, of course they're welcome, of course they can come to church," but the stipulation is they have to be celibate for life, and then if they do marry and have children their children, cannot be baptized until they turn 18 and disavow their parent's lifestyle. [Under this directive], the very core parts of who you are cannot be expressed, you can never hope for companionship or romance in this life, or sexual fulfillment, all of that is denied you—and they're not understanding what that does to someone's psyche and how that hurts. No wonder they feel trapped. It's heartbreaking.
This is the first time you have openly talked about your beliefs, was it a difficult decision to put your faith out there?
Growing up in the Mormon church, in a religious culture in general, I definitely have experienced a lot of people wearing their faith on their sleeve and so because of that I have this bad taste in my mouth about being outspoken about what I believe in. It's been so personal that I do tend to keep it very much to myself and I purposely don't put it in my lyrics. I'll universalize things I might be singing about, because I have trouble with people who try to shove their ideologies down my throat. At the same time, some bands are really good at it and are respected for it, like Wovenhand. That's the perfect example, he's much more outspoken about what he believes in. Wovenhand is absolutely respected and I think that's because he is who he is and doesn't try to hide it. I'm not ashamed of who I am eithe,r but I have this weird mental block about people making sure everyone knows how devout they are and how pious. I just wanted to keep it to myself. And there is so much black and white thinking in the metal scene, everything about religion is bad—"There is not one redeeming thing about it, it's all a lie, it leads people astray, there is no higher creator”—and it's really hard when I encounter that way of thinking. All I see is grey, I see complexity and there is truth in the church but yes, some people get it wrong and there is man-made parts to religion that can be oppressive. It's complicated.
Did the band get behind your idea behind this song?
Yes, but I knew that this song was different than any song we'd written and could elicit such a strong response because there are so many emotions around this issue right now in Utah. I did consider, "Do I do this under the SubRosa umbrella or under my own name?" At first, I was going to do it personally, and then I started talking to the members of the band and they said they'd be honored to be involved. I realized all of them were on board and all agreed 100 percent. None of them are Mormon—I'm one of the only ones in the whole music Utah scene out of hundreds of people.
In Salt Lake City, to what extent is the church's presence felt?
Put it this way, there's a long shadow cast. However, there's a huge counterculture in Salt Lake, and Mormons are actually in the minority in Salt Lake City. There's this amazing music scene, art scene, food scene. There's actually a huge LGBTQI community—it's considered one of the most LGBTQI-friendly and positive places to live. It's a fascinating place to live because of all these weird tensions, but when I first moved here 15 years ago, it was much more bipolar. And it still is bipolar, with the church on one side and counterculture on the other, and there's very few bridges. The position I find myself in isn't that comfortable all the time, because I have to create my own path. I'm just making it up, but there have been some more bridges and more openness as years go by and even with the LBGTQI community, there have been some bridges.
The church was actually behind a non-discrimination policy against LGBTQ people for housing and employment. And a lobbyist from the church was just invited to become the head of Affirmation, that LGBTQI support group I was talking about, which is a huge deal, to have someone who is so involved in the church and still a church member being on that board. He has talked about this change of heart in dealing with LGBTQI leaders over the years, and how gracious they are and how compassionate and patient, and how it changed his mind over this issue. Things like that are happening, and so I guess one way to look at it is that in the middle of a crisis, there's also an opportunity for change, because things have come to a head so terribly that it can be a catalyst for people to take action.
When will the accompanying video be ready, are you working on that at the moment and what are your hopes once it has been released?
The video is being filmed by this super-legit film crew from LA; we're leaving Psycho Las Vegas a day early to be part of the shooting. It's supposed to come out the first week of September, and my vision for it is to stab people in the heart. My vision is for this to be spread far and wide, and I would like thousands and thousands of people to see the video and I want it to be comforting for people who have been hurting and feeling alone, whether they are gay or whether they are Mormon, whether they are not Mormon. I want it to be a song that reaches people and makes them feel the way I do. I want it to be a tool for outreach, we're going to have a suicide hotline at the end of the video. I'd like it to open a dialogue. I'd like for more people to feel that they can speak up.
If anything in this article has affected you, SubRosa are working with The Trevor Project. Their trained counselors are here to support you 24/7.
If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline now at .
Louise Brown is on Twitter.