Heavy music in Arkansas has come a long way, baby. From progressive metal to anti-fascist hardcore to sludge and stoner doom, the Natural State’s carved out a name for itself in the world. Unlike Arkansas figures in other genres — Justin Moore, Bankroll Freddie — the state’s major metal players tend not to garner as much attention in their own backyards as they do elsewhere, despite rigorous international touring schedules and fiercely devoted fanbases in far-flung places. We get it; metal, diverse as it is, is not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who love it, Arkansas has become an epicenter of creativity, if an undersung one. We brought together two of the state’s chief movers — Stan Liszewski of Terminal Nation and Brett Campbell of Pallbearer — and asked them to interview each other ahead of their respective appearances at the Mutants of the Monster Festival, a three-day heavy music fest held at Vino’s and the historic Dreamland Ballroom. Here’s that conversation, abbreviated slightly for clarity.
Liszewski: What is the writing process like for you guys with Joe [Rowland] living in New York? Do all the members write on their own, and since you guys are now all in the same room for a very limited time, does it put a sense of urgency on writing and rehearsing?
Campbell: Joe and I write the majority of the material, so it’s not as big a deal as it could be, because we all use Logic, just to do demos and stuff. It was a game changer. I went several years without a computer because my computer broke, and I could never really afford another one. But back in the day, I used to record into GarageBand and tap out the drums on the little shitty drum machine. They’re hilarious. I wish I could find any of them. But they did get the point across. Now, Logic’s got the smart drummer, so you can really craft demos that are at least good enough to show the dudes. So Joe and I do that, and Devin [Holt] and Mark [Lierly] and I get together and practice pretty regularly. Devin has written some material, and a couple of songs that we have not yet recorded. It’s pretty much me and Joe, but the other guys have plenty of arrangement input. So by the time Joe comes down, we’re typically pretty familiar with everybody’s stuff, and then there are other things we discover when we have four of us in the room. Even with 75% of the band, you can get a lot done, but it’s not complete. Joe came down a couple weeks ago and we practiced every day for two weeks. There are songs we’ve been playing for two years now — some of our new material — and after playing them for a day we come up with new ideas. They’re transforming.
Campbell: You don’t leave any room for doubt when it comes to the sociopolitical content of your songs, and especially in the red environment we live in, your lyrics could rub some people the wrong way. Your song “Cop Drop,” for example, isn’t likely to be popular among the Blue Lives Matter/Punisher skull truck decal types. Have y’all ever had anybody say anything crazy or threatening to you?
Liszewski: I’ve definitely gotten some negative feedback. There’s been one fellow in particular told me that his father was a police officer — and he’s seen [Terminal Nation] quite a bit — and he told me that every time we play that song, he steps outside. You know, I’m always open to have a dialogue as long as you come at me respectfully. He wasn’t like, “You’re an asshole,” or anything like that. He approached me and told me his side of things and I gave him my perspective and at the end of the day, we agreed to disagree. Online, there’s been a number of things. I think it’s easier there. There’s a cloak of anonymity where you can say whatever you want consequence-free. So we’ve gotten some harsh things online, some folks upset with us, maybe trying to put our personal information out there because they don’t like some of the content. I guess that happens. We’re a band that’s intense and confrontational, to a certain extent. So that’s expected. Nothing that’s been too alarming. But I’m also one who can easily brush things off.
Campbell: Nobody’s trying to kick your ass, like come up and say, ‘I’m a cop and I’m gonna show you exactly why —”
Liszewski: It’s funny you say that! I think there was a particular gentleman who was maybe part of some sort of right-wing militia, and who I think came to a show to confront me after talking about it online. I tend to forget this — because I am myself — but I think some people don’t realize if they haven’t seen me in person that I’m maybe a little more physically intimidating than they might perceive just looking at pictures online. This guy came to the show, I think, to talk to me but dipped out pretty quick.
Campbell: Seems pretty typical. A lot of bluster.
Liszewski: For sure. A lot of cowardice kinda comes with the territory.
Campbell: There’s a police officer from Nashville — I assume that’s what he still does — who’s a pretty young guy, and had been in some branch of the military — who’s come to tons of our shows. Like, I know the dude personally at this point, I’ve talked to him at great length. And we’ve had plenty of discussions about why, like, we don’t like cops — I don’t like to generalize anything, but the organization and how it operates in the U.S., I have a lot of problems with. But he was open to listening, and I think he’s changed his mind about a lot of things. I’d be surprised if he’s still a cop. Maybe he is. I like to give people a chance on an individual level.
Liszewski: For sure. In our world, there’s a lot of people who don’t like to meet others in the middle. It’s easy to write people off as being, you know, inbred, hillbilly, mindless, whatever. But when you engage in conversation, you understand where they’re coming from. Maybe it’s a part of their environment, how they grew up, things they were taught when they were younger. And maybe they’re a little hardheaded and staunch, but you might be able to break through a little bit and give them a different perspective to consider.
Campbell: Yeah. And I think when people feel like you’re listening to them and are open to what they have to say, they’re probably gonna be more open to hearing what you have to say.
Liszewski: So Pallbearer is a band that’s proud of being from Arkansas, and from Little Rock specifically. How has being from Arkansas impacted Pallbearer? Did you find it difficult to gain any sort of notoriety being from a smaller city or state, or has it been something that in a weird way has helped the band?
Campbell: I think it’s probably helped and hindered in different ways. We’re definitely Arkansas through and through, and when we were kids going to shows, seeing the dynamism of the bands here, and the variety and the camaraderie that still existed between all these different kinds of bands, was really exciting as a fledgling musician. I was previously unaware that there was music here at all, and then discovering that we have a really vibrant and unique music scene was really exciting. We might be way off most peoples’ radar, but we’re still incredible. Seeing Rwake and stuff like that when I was a teenager was transformative. So I was already a fan of metal and progressive music, and I was like, “Well, I can do anything. There’s an audience for this here.” So I think that attitude of being proudly unique or different was something that was instilled by the Arkansas scene. Also not having strict genre boundaries, because hardcore bands, metal bands, rock bands, noise, country, punk you name it — we’re all playing together, we all know each other and we’re all part of the same scene. That’s definitely stuck with me. But as far as getting well-known? I think if we hadn’t toured so much, we probably wouldn’t be as well-known. We pretty much toured constantly for six, seven years, until right before the pandemic. Going into it, it was like, “OK, take a year off and physically recuperate,” and then it was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be more like three or four years.” It’s weird, though, going into your 30s and thinking, “Touring’s not as easy as it used to be, take a break, but when I go back on the road I’m gonna be, like, 35 or something.” It’s quite a gap. But yeah, I think on some level we got lucky, that our demo reached the right people. A lot of success is hard work and luck mixed together. There’s no formula. A lot of bands work hard and never go anywhere. So I don’t know. I truly don’t know.
Campbell: So Hate5Six recently did a video on Terminal Nation and the Little Rock hardcore scene. How did that come about?
Liszewski: So a few months back, I received an email from a promoter that said that a band called Sanguisugabobb and 200 Stab Wounds — a couple of death metal bands from Ohio that people are excited about — they needed a show in July. Back when things in terms of the pandemic looked like we were coming into the brighter side of things. I had seen shows pop up in California, and in New York, Chicago, bigger cities, and I was like, “It’s time to do a show.” And we’d released our record “Holocene Extinction” last year, when of course we couldn’t play a show to celebrate the release of that record, and with our first full-length being released in the middle of a pandemic, it was a little disheartening to release that and not be able to play a show. So we thought, let’s do one almost one year removed from that release. There’s a newer band, Second Life, I’m friends with some of those guys, and they hadn’t played a show yet. We did it at the drummer’s house and said, you guys hop on the show. So it all worked out well. Hate5Six is Sunny Singh, and he documents hardcore, metal, punk shows all over the world. He’s got a lot of notoriety online and he’s filmed us a couple times when we were on tour and always said he wanted to film us in our hometown. So I said, “Hey, what would it take for you to come down to Little Rock? I’m happy to help get a plane ticket, whatever you need.” We exchanged emails and within two days, he had bought his plane ticket and was coming down. I expected him when he came down to film the bands, but we drove around the city a little bit and I talked to him about some of the history, and he’s like, “I would love to do a documentary on this city, because I feel like in the hardcore scene, Little Rock’s not known as a hardcore mecca, and I would love to showcase that. So I did an interview with him and he interviewed a bunch of young people at the show who were like, “Hey, it’s my first show,” which was really cool. The delta variant really started picking up in the weeks leading up to the show, so that was a little rough. We worked through it, and he talked to some younger folks. I know kids wanted to come out because he was there, like “Hey, I wanna be in a Hate5Six video.” And he wants to come back when things are more normal.
Liszewski: OK, say we’re in an alternate universe and Pallbearer doesn’t exist. You decide one day that you want to start a band. What kind of band do you start? Would you keep it in the heavy, metal-leaning realm or would you try something totally different?
Oh, that’s great. I’ve never had that question before. Man. It’s hard to say. I make a lot of electronic stuff on my own. Experimental, noise-y, Krautrock kinda stuff. I’d love to play some shows, but I don’t know if there’s any kind of audience for that here. It’d be fun as hell to do. Psychedelic, synth music. I started doing a more rock-oriented record at the beginning of the pandemic, and wrote five or six songs and then thought, “Some of these kinda sound like Pallbearer, but just more rock.”
Liszewski: Oh, man. Would love to hear the Brett Campbell rock record. [Laughs].
Campbell: I’ll probably do it! I’ve still got the demos. But I don’t know; I think one of my favorite things about playing in Pallbearer is that we cover a lot of ground and if we have something we really want to do, we can make it work in the context of our style. Nowadays up at our practice space, Devin has set up basically a full recording studio. There’s mikes on everything. So now when we get together we can just jam and have all that recorded in really high quality. We’ll jam and it’ll be like, funk or space rock or noise rock. That ability to shift and morph into different styles is something we’re really lucky to have as a band. To have the language to improvise, and the ability to anticipate where the other guys are going and create movement on the fly. So I think whatever I did, it would lean heavily into improv.
Liszewski: Very cool.
Campbell: OK. We all had to take a forced, extended break from performing live, thanks to COVID, and things are slowly starting back up again. What changes, if any, would you like to see in the Little Rock scene, post-pandemic? How do you think the scene can be invigorated, or does it even need to be?
Liszewski: Hopefully, as things start to unfold, I’d like to see people excited about music again. I think we have that now, I would like to see more bands start up. We have such a rich music scene. I would love to see more contributors to that.
Campbell: I agree.
Liszewski: We definitely have people who have the motivation and creativity, who aren’t doing it. They just need that little missing piece — finding the right people to work with, or finding the style. But there are several people who are not far off from starting the next big Little Rock band. I’d like to see newer bands, younger bands, bands really pushing themselves to try and get their name out there. As it pertains to attendees of shows, I’d love to see more of a welcoming environment. I started going to shows when I was maybe 13 or 14, and now it seems like some folks are in college before they go to their first show. Everyone finds their niche at a different time. I get it.
Campbell: How do you do that, though? How do you get younger people to come out? And how do you get people who already like it to come out? I’ve been to dozens — and I’m sure you have, too — of shows for great bands, often touring bands, who I’m so fired up to see, and there are like, ten people. Or six people. Why? That’s the eternal question.
Liszewski: Yeah, it’s rough. I think at more of a national level, though not so much in Little Rock, there’s maybe an over-saturation of bands. Too many bands for people to keep track of. … Some stars have to align for it to be a good show. But if we get more bands here, there can be torchbearer bands.
Campbell: Yeah! People don’t really realize how inspiring they can be for younger attendees. You start a band and maybe you don’t think you’re that great, but you change some kid’s life.
Liszewski: For sure. If you’re in high school or junior high and you go to kids who are like, the outsiders, the outcasts, and you’re like, “Hey, my band’s playing at Vino’s on a Tuesday, and it’s $8, and what else do you have going on on a Tuesday?” And then everyone loads up in a couple cars and they all go. You might not have that big of an audience, but if you brought 20 people and they all posted it on their Instagram stories —
Campbell: That was all of us. That was me in high school. That was one of the inroads to discovering what was going on in Little Rock ‘cause I’m from Bryant, which was dead as a place, entirely.
Liszewski: OK, are there any band bucket list things that you’ve accomplished so far that you’re particularly proud of, or that you haven’t accomplished yet but want to?
Campbell: Well, some of the big ones … probably playing in Europe for the first time, when we played at Roadburn, which was super intimidating at the time.
Liszewski: I bet.
Campbell: ‘Cause it was our first show in Europe, and at a festival that we were all —
Liszewski: At THE festival.
Campbell: Right. And we were playing to a much larger number of people than we’d ever played to before. That was really intense, but satisfying. We had such a good response we ended up playing another unscheduled show later on.
Liszewski: I love it when Roadburn does that.
Campbell: And playing in Japan was really sick. It was a place I’d always wanted to visit. All the food there was out of this world and all the people there were hyper-welcoming. The streets are clean, there’s no trash, but weirdly, there’s also, like, no trash cans. Where does it go? I don’t know. And anywhere you go, there’s grass and foliage. Even in Tokyo, this megalopolis, there’s still these little pockets of nature just kind of hidden throughout the city. I wish there was more of that in the Western world. As for future stuff, I’ve always wanted to play on TV. It’d be fun as hell. The last couple records, it’s like, well, we’ve got a couple of 5-minute songs. It could happen.
Liszewski: So what are we talkin’? Elaborate on that. Like late night?
Campbell: Like a fuckin’ late night show! Why not? Some of the smaller late night shows occasionally have, you know, Torch played on Kimmel. But all this new stuff is long as hell, so I doubt it’s gonna be happening anytime soon. We had a song on the last album that was three minutes, and of course, we got into the studio and added some repeats, and there’s another two minutes.
Get tickets to see Pallbearer and Terminal Nation at Mutants of the Monster, Sept. 10-12 at Vino’s and the Dreamland Ballroom.