On a rainy November Sunday in Leicester few people are abroad. A city that has suffered diminishing prospects of bands coming to town thanks to its proximity to Birmingham, Nottingham and Wolverhampton (all of which act as magnets for overseas bands), Leicester has a lively local music scene but rarely sees tours pass its way. However, at Firebug, a rock bar and venue tucked away in one corner of the city, something evil is stirring. Due to a cancellation at a Birmingham venue, the mighty Pilgrim are lurking in the darkness, revelling in evil-smelling drinks (which apparently contain a potent brew of caffeine, sugar and vodka) and awaiting their turn to take the stage as chief support to Windhand. The venue is quiet enough downstairs, but upstairs a sea of denim points to the fact that most of Leicester’s doom-worshippers have managed to catch word of the gig despite the somewhat last minute nature of the change – clearly local promotions company Evil Wizard got the word out to those that mattered.
Also braving the elements on this dark and fortuitously foreboding evening, SonicAbuse are out to interview John Rossi, Pilgrim’s softly-spoken singer and guitarist, and, having found the man in the company of the tour manager, we grab a beer and a quiet corner of the pub to find out what Pilgrim have been up to since the release of their acclaimed debut release ‘Misery Wizard’.
Well firstly we’d like to ask the somewhat predictable question, it’s the third night of your first lengthy European tour – how’s it gone so far?
It’s been awesome. Especially awesome because Windhand are really good friends of ours and they asked us to come on tour with them, so it’s been super-fucking amazing because we’re all really tight already, we all know each other really well and we’ve been wanting this to happen for so long that it’s really exciting. That said, I expected every moment to be kind of jam-packed with excitement, but it’s really just like sitting around all day – sitting in the van and then sitting in the venue, so it’s kind of boring and I’m trying to get used to the boredom of it all…
Your touring in a number of European countries I think – the tour takes in Belgium, Germany, France…
[interrupting]… we’re definitely going to ‘take in’ France!!
…are you going to take the opportunity to get out and see some of the places or are you stuck to the venues for sound checks and so on?
We’ve done some city searching, we went to Venlo and Antwerp and we went to see the sights – some Cathedrals and castles – it was cool. Yeah, we always try to see the sights, for example tomorrow I think we’re going to see John Bohnam’s grave because it’s only like twenty minutes from here [he’s buried in Rushock] and we’re all huge Led Zeppelin fans.
The perception is that there’s more of a doom scene here in Europe than there is in America, did you anticipate or have you found that there’s more of an audience for Pilgrim over here?
I don’t know, so far (and we’re only like three days in) but it’s pretty much the same. I met one guy with a Pilgrim patch on his vest and that’s pretty flattering, but I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I definitely do think that doom metal has more of an established thing here in Europe, that’s for sure, because in the States it’s all pockets of people, spread out, but over here I think it’s stronger in Europe as far as our band goes, but maybe it’s too early to tell. Ask me again on date 24 of the tour, I’ll be able to tell you.
One of the things about playing in an underground band is balancing out the commitments of work and home with those of touring in a band – is that something you find challenging?
Yeah man, it was hell to get here! Me and Nick both – I got a job at a restaurant because this friend of mine likes my band and she works at this restaurant and she got me a job and then I got Nick a job, so we both work at this restaurant for, like, fifty hours a week to save up for this fucking tour – it was hell dude! We worked all summer long in this hot kitchen as dish washers, it was a fucking nightmare, but we got through it, we saved up enough money and we’re here now. Was it worth it? probably yes! So yeah, that sucks, it’s probably my least favourite thing ever but – fuck it, the future’s bright!
With ‘Misery wizard’ you recorded a large part of it in your basement, and then the label came in and you had to re-record a large part of it in the studio…
Yeah that’s right
… and this time you were going to come over with a new record… but it’s not ready yet…
I’m so glad you know that because that’s all we’ve been talking about this whole time – it’s like ‘fuck man! If only that fucking record was ready and everybody would be able to listen to it then this’d be the best tour ever…’ But yeah, that’s exactly what happened, we’ve recorded this fucking amazing record…the next record… Pilgrim 2… and it’s so good man, it’s so much better than the last record. We’re really happy with how it came out, we’ve got a great engineer and we’ve got the perfect tone and everything about it is solid, and if only we could have had it out in time, but what happened is like Metal Blade has a waiting period, so we’re stuck in that and it’s unfortunate this tour didn’t happen a few months in the future because we really wanted to bring it here.
With the first record a lot of the lyrics are fantasy themed in that great metal tradition, is there scope there for a concept album?
Yeah, I always try to do that. On both ‘Misery Wizard’ and the new one (I think it’s called ‘Void Worship’ but we’re not sure yet) I started off writing a concept record, but they sort of haphazardly turned into just… songs, you know? So , yeah, I always try to do that but it never works. I’m not focused enough to do that, I just can’t pay attention to one idea for that long, I’m scatter brained! But yeah – wouldn’t that be great? We talked about this idea of having different EPs and we have this new song called ‘The Paladin’ and we wanted to release an EP called ‘the paladin’ that would be this whole story about this knight that goes through an adventure… so yeah, it’s the perfect medium right? Or you’d think it would be… Our records kind of have that… there’s always an overarching theme for sure… I keep saying ‘our records’ – the second record should be fucking out man… it should be out… But yeah, the first record has a solid theme but it jumps a lot. I think if you listen to it enough you can tell where it ties in at certain points – it all has a theme.
We talked about fantasy – is it more gaming or literature?
Yeah – well, Krolg is a huge literature guy – his fantasy book collection is enourmous – but for me, personally, it’s more about video games that I played when I was growing up, like Legend of Zelda and the Final Fantasy games and all that stuff. So for me it’s more the video games, but for Krolg it’s all literature and we try to mix and match: I show him games he might have missed and he tries to get me to read books which I never fucking read because I have no attention span! But I have this awesome book with me right now which he gave to me for… a Christmas present… and I haven’t read it yet! It’s a Warcraft book – the first Warcraft book – it’s called ‘day of the dragon’ and I haven’t read it yet!
Another thing I loved about ‘Misery Wizard’ was the artwork – I’m a huge artwork fan – how do you guys go about getting artwork for your music and what ideas have you got for the new one?
Well the first one was a very focused idea that I’d had for a very long time and it came out more or less exactly how we wanted it – we wanted it to be an amalgamation of everything that encompasses our band and at that time and it’s sort of changed to a bit now, now that we’re getting close to releasing our second record – but at the time of ‘misery wizard’ it was like Medieval fantasy mixed with a space theme and classic doom metal, so yeah, I just wanted to make an amalgamation of everything. The second record has a much more focused perspective, so, I don’t know, for that cover (which is being worked on right now) it’s much more simple and focused. It’s going to be an oil painting and it’s going to look awesome – I haven’t seen it yet – but it’s being worked on…
Is there going to be a vinyl release of the next record?
Yeah we’ll have vinyl and CD this time.
You do sound like a band that should be on vinyl
Yeah, we like vinyl more, I mean who doesn’t?
Are you going to be playing new songs on this tour?
Yeah – if we could have picked we would only be playing the new songs because the old songs are just so… we’ve played them to death, we’ve played them way too much. So, yeah, there’s a mix, about half and half. Hopefully people dig it because I know what it’s like as a fan to go to a show where they play new songs and it’s like ‘this is cool, but I want to hear songs I like’ – so I hope people understand and dig this new material.
One of the big debates in this modern era is about the internet and it’s uses / issues – but obviously you were signed as a result of Myspace…
What a fucking tale right? That makes us like the poster child for internet star searching!
But there’s also this idea that it takes away some of the magic of being in a band – the art work, the physical presence and so on – what’s your take on it?
I don’t know, the internet is such a short attention span thing – you can check out a band for five seconds and instantly judge that band – you know if you don’t like the vocals or the guitar sound you just delete it and it’s gone, it’s not like you have to sit down and listen to the whole record like you do on vinyl… so the fact that someone listened to our music online, which, by the way, was in horrible demo format, the fact that someone listened to that and they saw the shining gem that was there, I find that really flattering and I do that all the time with bands I haven’t heard before… so the fact that that happens is a good thing. I don’t care what fucking people say, the internet has its ups and downs and it sucks, but it’s fucking awesome dude – you can hear music from all over the world. All it takes is for someone to record it first and then you can hear what they made. I mean It also leads to a lot of bands sounding the same and a lot of shitty music… but that comes with the territory, it’s something you have to accept to have those opportunities.
One aspect, perhaps, is that it takes away a lot of the mystery of bands – is that a down side?
Yeah… I don’t know though. All my favourite bands are really upfront about who they are and what they’re about – they don’t try to be all serious, even though there are some bands like that, that I enjoy… and even our band gets like that sometimes… but I would much rather have somebody be upfront about who they are and let the music speak for themselves. You have to remember that all the people that make music are real people, so fuck it – if you want to act like a shadowy figure… nobody’s like that! Just don’t fake it, you know.
Doom metal and black metal seem to be two of the only scenes left where there’s no real commercial direction to go, so doom metal artists do seem to be more passionate in general about making and listening to music…
Right, I think about that every fucking day. Have you ever seen Headbanger’s ball?
Some clips, I think, with Nirvana…
I said it today, if only there was a show which spotlighted doom bands and which was on network television, it would explode but no one can see that for some reason. I don’t know, it’s a really big kind of music, why keep it inward when it could explode out into something beautiful? Of course, when something explodes, it dies and gets shitty, but that’s part of the fucking process, that’s what happens. I see huge commercial appeal to it, but whatever. I’m not trying to be a money grabbing asshole, but I don’t think enough people know about this amazing music and that’s why I’m so excited for Windhand, because they do seem like they’re getting… They’re called ‘doom’ but they’re really more of a rock band when you get to know them and really listen to the music. I feel like they could be the Nirvana of our time. They have that kind of… everyone should listen to doom metal is what I’m trying to say – if only it was that easy!
It seems like a very wide genre
The moniker of doom is a very weird thing, I was born in 1991 so I can’t fucking talk – I can only speculate, I wasn’t there, but it seems like it was very streamlined – like people had a very simple idea of what doom metal was. Now it’s whatever – ‘it has a minor riff – it’s doom metal!’ – I don’t even know what to say about it, there’s a lot of shit. which is too bad because I don’t really like all of it either!
You can’t like a whole scene
Yeah, that’s true. I’ve never really liked the melodic stuff, I’ve always liked the straight forward traditional doom, the rock doom… real rock ‘n’ roll. Even though they call it ‘doom’, it’s really just rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the same thing we do really.
Any final words
For UK fans specifically: You guys are pretty fantastic. We get a lot of messages from people in the UK and it’s definitely the country we were most excited to visit. We couldn’t wait to get here. Now we’re here, it’s kind of a wacky place, but it’s cool. I’m just so happy to be here and the UK rules, even though it’s only our first night, and I really appreciate everybody who’s listened to our record, and they should stick around for the next one because it’s going to be fucking amazing. I promise, it’s so much better than ‘Misery Wizard’!
And with that John grabs his evil smelling brew and disappears upstairs into the already crammed room where Pilgrim are set to decimate the stage in little over an hour.
Live Review: Pilgrim & WIndhand 03/11/2013 @ Leicester Firebug
Man – it’s hard to get to the front through the mess of amps and discarded equipment from the opening band and the army of doom fans waiting by the stage, but get to the front we do. The tour is a simple one, harking back to the underground gigs of the early to mid-90s when the alternative bands would cram themselves into some tiny bus and hand to mouth it around Europe (check out Henry Rollins’ musings on this if you want to know more about indie tours) and it’s notable that the people here aren’t interested in waving their goddam phone all over the place or standing at the back talking through the show. There’s an aura of anticipation as Pilgrim take the stage, John plugging in to a battered Marshall stack, Krolg seating himself cautiously behind the drum kit and the bassist, shorn of hair and topless, looking for all the world like a young Phil Anselmo. With feedback tearing from his amp, John launches into the first song, his guitar making a monstrous noise that rolls over the audience like a Panzer attack, the thunderous bass and percussive assault of the band adding to the sense of being drowned in sound. What makes Pilgrim a better than average band, however, is John’s voice. A strange cross between Messiah Marcolin and Ozzy Osbourne, he veers between a metallic whine and full-throated proclamations of doom and although the vocal PA struggles to compete with the sonic devastation of the band’s back line, his voice still cuts through where it counts. The highlight of the set is a mighty rendition of ‘Misery Wizard’ opening track ‘Astaroth’, not because it is necessarily better than the new material (for that it is too early to say, although the new songs sound fine indeed) but because it is the point at which many people heard Pilgrim for the first time and it therefore has a magical power that can’t be beaten in the live environment. It is a short, powerful set that pilgrim play, and we can only hope the band return to the UK soon to support their forthcoming release.
In interview John was not unstinting in his praise of Windhand, the headline act on the tour, and as the band take the stage it’s not hard to see why. Fronted by Dorthia Cottrell, the five piece just about fit onto the <ahem> cosy stage in order to play songs from their recent release, the epic ‘soma’. The songs are huge slabs of sound, molten guitars poured fourth upon a measured backdrop of seething bass and martial percussion, but the PA had seemingly given up by this point and Dorthia’s voice all but disappeared into the mix, an issue that was not helped by her insistence on delivering the majority of the set with her back to the audience. This awkwardness of delivery detracted from the music because, although you don’t expect a show when it comes to doom metal, the ability to communicate with the audience comes from some level of interaction and the band, shorn of such interaction, faltered when it came to the (sometimes lengthy) gaps between songs. That said, even with the PA struggling bravely against the band and with a barrier present between band and audience, Windhand’s music spoke for itself, and it was clear that something very special indeed happens when these five musicians get together (for evidence of this see ‘soma’ or the band’s self-titled debut) and the enduring memory of both shows will be of a sea of metal fans head-banging in slow motion to music that could only be described as pure and driven, and which sounded like Armageddon taking place directly in front of you. Doom tours are few and far between, and this particular double header proved to be a powerful reminder of the spirit and drive of the genre.