An in-depth dive into the world of Cleveland bruisers Pillärs.
Hailing from the rustbelt of Cleveland Ohio, doom/crust three-piece Pillärs play a rough-hewn take on sludge-infused hardcore that deals outrage and despair in equally visceral doses. Continuing the legacy of bands such as His Hero Is Gone, Dystopia and Rwake, Pillärs’ latest LP, Abandoned, is a devastatingly coherent mixture of punk fury, sludge nihilism and coruscating doom that isn’t afraid of weaponised melody. Stand-out track ‘Pale Horse’ captures the group’s facility with combining genres perfectly, moving from an opening section that comes across like Kylesa trading blows with Iskra, through Matt Pike-esque guitar heroics and finishing with the ride cymbal pattern from ‘Raining Blood’, because, quite frankly, why not?
If ‘Pale Horse’ moves around musically, then ‘Nothing Left’ demonstrates Pillärs at their most disciplined, nailing down an Eyehategod-esque sludge lurch that sits just the right side of falling apart. Pillärs aren’t afraid of ambition either, with Abandoned’s last two tracks both breaking the six-minute mark. Album closer ‘Behind the Wall’, in particular, shows a band brave enough to re-imagine Enemy of the Sun-era Neurosis in a post-crash, post-Trump setting and also demonstrates that Pillärs have the chops to pull it off. Coming off the back of the release of Abandoned, we caught up with Pillärs (under conditions of anonymity – thus the lack of names) to talk Abandoned, Cleveland hardcore heritage and eastern European folk art.
Abandoned’s tracks flow organically and there seems to be a political/allegorical thread running through the album, which suggests a story being told. Is there a narrative to the album?
ZG: I didn’t write any of the riffs or lyrics with a linear narrative in mind. We placed the songs as they appear on the record mostly for the tape-length constraints of cassettes. But to your point, the more I think about it, I’m seeing that in some way all of the songs do more or less have themes or images that relate to the album title. Sometimes things come together subconsciously, I guess. I’m going to do my best at avoiding a soapbox rant here but a lot of what drives me musically is just a lot of anger and frustration with what I’ve seen experienced going on around me over the last fifteen or so years.
I think it’s been an ugly coming of age for this generation. Most of my peers and I were in high school when 9/11 happened and the wars started. I lost some really good friends over there who basically got lied to and ended up getting killed, and for what? That whole “fighting for freedom” line is a bullshit lie, considering what our government does to people here. Tamir Rice was killed by a trigger happy cop a few blocks from my house. Friends of mine are scared that they might be deported because their parents came here to work when they were kids. How about their freedom? You take all that plus the recession that buried pretty much everyone our age; plus the crazy heroin/fentanyl/opiate crisis that’s killed more than one of my friends; plus this shit-clown Trump, his goons and his apologists – what are we left with?
The sense I get from everything that’s happened around here is that people our age are being fucking abandoned: by the system, by older people, by everyone who is putting their heads in the sand or trying to buy us off like we’re fucking pawns or something. So fuck you if you’re on board with any of that shit. Maybe that’s the narrative.
Cleveland is famous for Clevecore bands like Integrity and Ringworm. Do you take any influence from them, and are there any past or present Cleveland bands that mean a lot to you?
MB: It’s pretty mu2[pch heresy to say this in Cleveland, but I never really listened to a lot of Integrity or Ringworm. My top three meaningful bands from this town would be 9 Shocks Terror (every live show was just a complete mess of riffs, fireworks, and Tony Erba yelling and most likely bleeding all over the place, and it was absolutely amazing), Masakari (just absolutely brutal; every single note would just beat you into submission) and Insurrect (an absolutely ripping metal band that came up out of the punk scene; members went on to Skeletonwitch, Howl and Cultist). Seeing those bands live always made an impression on me: get your gear up, play, and get the hell out of the way of the next band. No bullshit, no ego, no hour-long sets. Just rip through what you have with as few breaks as possible and make sure you’ve left nothing standing by the time you’re done.
EP: I never really listened to a lot of those bands either, though I know some people who’ve played in them at different times and they’re good folks. As far as bands from this area go, I grew up on my dad’s James Gang and Damnation of Adam Blessing records, those were the big old Cleveland bands for me. A lot of the Detroit scene was a big influence on me, stuff like the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and Death. My dad saw MC5 play a college gym while he was in the National Guard back in the day and him playing ‘Kick Out The Jams’ for me was a life-changer. I also loved Keelhaul, Megachurch (two bassists & televangelist samples), Craw, and the aforementioned Tony Erba’s various projects over the last few years.
Our college radio culture is really big here, I’ve currently been a programmer for nine years running on the station. I used to fall asleep every night with headphones when I was in my late teens, absorbing whatever was on at some crazy late hour, and it got me into so much great music. I didn’t have that many friends who were into what I was into and didn’t have a car, so I missed out on a lot back then, but I’ve more than made up for it since. Someday I also hope the research done during my day job enables me to find out where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins lived.
ZG: I grew up on the outside of Cleveland, in the Mahoning Valley and in a town called Warren. The Valley had a few towns, Warren; Youngstown, Lordstown, etc. that were destroyed by the demise of the steel industry. If people think things are/were bad in Cleveland, you can just imagine what it was like growing up down there. I know your question is about Cleveland bands but I have to stick up for my hometown, ya know? Rebreather, from Youngstown, was like, the biggest fucking band in my world when I was a kid just starting out, and that got me into a whole bunch of the music I’m still into now.
Of course, as soon as my friends and I could drive, Cleveland was the great escape. It’s only about an hour north on Route 422 but it might as well be on a different planet. A killer music scene and a stable job are big reasons why I moved up here. But anyway, from Rebreather I got way into the Cleveland bands that were playing at the time (late ‘90s, early ‘00s): Keelhaul, Disengage, Abdullah, and Red Giant. I didn’t actually really listen to Integrity or Ringworm until I was older, but I will say that the dudes in Ringworm are just genuinely cool guys. They really do give a shit about the local scene and are awesome supporters of Cleveland heavy music.
As for the present, there are some Cleveland-area bands right now that are fucking killing it. Too many to name here because the area is just churning out amazing music left and right it seems. Instead of a list of band names I’m just going to refer you to the excellent Doomed and Stoned Ohio Comp and also check out the hilarious and bizarre Enjoy Cleveland DVD and the bands associated with it if you want to see a special breed of weirdo punk rock.
From following Beth on Twitter we know that Pillärs’ influences go far beyond the usual heavy metal references and into Eastern European culture, folklore and religion. How do these influences play out in terms of your music, lyrics and artwork?
EP: I’ve been really interested in folklore, art and history in general for as long as I can remember. Besides the loud stuff, I’m also into a lot of very old Orthodox choral music and Arvo Pärt, who draws heavily from those traditions. My background’s Polish and Irish, Zach’s is Ukrainian and when we started playing together, we found out we had some common interests in all of these things, and it’s definitely influenced our music, both thematically and aesthetically. When it came down to design for the new record we wanted to do something that wasn’t already overdone, and really wanted to avoid anything that would get misinterpreted as promoting a toxic political agenda because so much ethnic imagery has been co-opted by nationalist entities that we want nothing to do with. I took the album cover photo in an abandoned warehouse in one of our industrial neighbourhoods that is kind of ground zero for economic distress in our city. The band logo, drawn by Rose at Cryptostylis was inspired by Ukrainian embroidery patterns, and the geometric designs on the album spine are very old Croatian traditional tattoo motifs that I was introduced to by a Bosnian classmate of mine who came here as a refugee in the 1990s. So much of this art has been lost and maybe in a small way, this is our way of keeping some of that beauty alive and out there.
ZG: I mean this is a pretty deep question, honestly, and I don’t know if I can really answer that effectively without giving you a long story. My grandparents were refugees and holocaust survivors from Ukraine. My grandfather barely, barely spoke English, and they lived in New York City when they got off the boat in 1950 way before large parts of it turned into a gentrified mess. And the more I read about the really tragic history of that part of the world and of my grandparents’ own experience, I wanted to do something musically that in some way honoured their memory and their struggle, and Pillärs ended up being the project where I felt like I could do that. Beth and I are really on the same page about that, because she is a big Slav history geek too.
Plus it’s pretty clear at least to me that the whole rock‘n’roll well is running pretty dry. It’s 2018. There are only so many ways to rip off Black Sabbath, AC/DC, or The Ramones, or Motörhead, or any of those amazing bands that are old enough to be your parents or grandparents. There are only so many chord progressions or riffs based in the blues or in “traditional” metal or punk. So for me, a great side effect of digging through my own family history is discovering all this incredibly cool and heavy shit that can be inspirational. Part of the reward for me, at least aesthetically, is to weave these threads through the music and create something familiar, but yet just different enough that it seems fresh.
One last thing on this whole culture thing, particularly because all of us have Slavic roots, and it’s something all three of us are very serious about. It’s really fucking shitty that we live in a time when all the things our grandparents in some way fought against in World War II are rearing their heads again. All these terrible ideas and hate I see being so casually tossed around by people who are mostly spoiled brats – it’s like watching a disease grow and multiply, and anyone who is involved in art or music at all has a pretty serious obligation to make sure that we stand up against that shit.
For some reason, no-one has filled out the ‘Arts’ section under Culture on Ohio’s Wikipedia page. What would you put in there?
EP: For what it’s worth, there are a few lists on there of “Artists from Ohio” and the like, but as for things that deserve a mention, and this is by no means a comprehensive list, I’d definitely put in the art and ceramics made by the Hopewell and Adena Native American groups who left behind giant ceremonial earthworks like the Serpent Mound. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics really capture a lot of the spirit of growing up in Cleveland, working your day job, being depressed, and finding ways to pursue your interests and creative outlets while having a pretty normal life. Locally, I also love Scott Radke’s murals and sculptures, Arabella Proffer’s paintings, and I’ve got flyers and posters framed in my apartment by Derek Hess, Jake Kelly, and John G.
ZG: There is a jersey that lists every Browns Quarterback from the time the franchise got re-booted until the present day. It is a masterpiece of modern art that deserves its own Wikipedia page.
Abandoned is out now. Purchase here.
Words: Andrew Day