The headlines leading into the release of Parkway Drive's seventh album Darker Still have very much focused on the difficult nature of its creation for the modern heavy metal titans. The band's evolution from local Byron Bay heroes presenting the Platonic ideal of what a dyed in the wool Australian heavy band looks like to an entity that with the release of 2020's Viva the Underdogs film is documented as one of the few 21st century bands to headline Wacken Festival is one of modern metal's most gratifying success stories, and yet with the COVID-19 pandemic, their journey hit a jarring stop and under the harsh light of day unearthed a whole lot of relations within the band that needed straightening out.
Talking to us in Paris on an off-day of their first tour in several years, Winston McCall is visibly happy and relieved to be back to strength with a bold new record that can be celebrated for the ambitious spirit that it shows, not just that the band that made it are still kicking. From further questioning what an arena metal band is supposed to be to becoming more unashamedly themselves than they've ever been, this is Darker Still.
Firstly, given that you have spoken quite a lot about how difficult this album was for you as a band to produce, you must feel like there's an incredible weight off your shoulders now that it is out into the world and you're out supporting it.
McCall - Oh yes, massively. We’ve actually talked about that every single day! It was a lot. It’s great being on the road, I don’t wanna say back to normal but when you’re making an album and trying to deal with all that personal stuff while also trying to put together a show with knowing your first tour back is coming up which we’re very hands on with, the last five days of pre-production in Germany was like “Oh, it’s going to take 15 hours a day across five different departments to get this going” and then immediately starting touring as the album comes out, can you even do more things at one time? Now we’re going it’s just all going and the pressure release valve is off. Shit’s rolling, shows are amazing, album’s out, it’s really really nice.
Well with you being on tour right now playing shows after the first time in your career when that was not happening, was this a record of finding it difficult to come out of that?
McCall - We wrote the record during the pandemic and had it all done, but then once the record was done we had to reckon with the fallout of the creative process basically. The record brought some ugly stuff to the surface and at the end of it, we did everything we wanted to do, now let’s figure out what happened during this and why. The challenge definitely was in that instance figuring out how to go forward as a band when things started back up, because the thing triggering it being having our first tour after COVID, no one in the band was psyched to go on tour at that point after finishing this insane process of writing the album because we had some shit to work out before hopping in a bus together because hopping in a bus together like that it was obvious was only going to make things worse and could lead to us going “we don’t want to do this anymore”. We want to keep doing this band and so it was just recognising that there’s gotta be a better way of doing it. Everybody is in the same space and we’ve been doing hard work. We’re coming out of it and it’s awesome to be on stage again with my mates.
From the fans perspective, obviously not privy to all of the individual things that are going on, it was quite tricky to get a handle on the timeline. When bands talk about a record being particularly challenging for them as a group of people to make, you tend to think of the album being the product on the other side that they have to show for it, whereas what you're saying is more the reverse. When Darker Still was announced a lot of fans were surprised because it was only a couple months after the statement that had come out of you guys taking a step to focus on some internal issues, and with people fearing that Parkway might not be coming back, not only are you but a couple months later there's a whole new album and era of music. The timeline of creating the album, taking that step back, and then coming back fully swinging with it is unusual.
McCall - 100% and we knew that was going to happen. We tried to be as open book with what we were going through as possible, and there’s no right timing for it, all you can do is be honest, and if that causes confusion I guess that’s more of a reality check of how things actually work. We don’t wanna couch things, we’ve written an album and want it to come out and want to honour as many of our commitments as we can, and so in order to do that if we have to put a statement saying we’re pretty fucked at this point in time that’s what we’ve gotta do. It’s possibly one of those things where people aren’t used to getting such a blunt statement, and so when we are still doing the work and saying there’s an album coming out it’s confusing. We’re not off doing something else, we’re making sure this keeps going by taking that time off. I know the decisions that go on behind the scenes in terms of when and how you say something, everyone reads into a message with them, but there’s no code in this. We’re just a bunch of guys making some shit.
The album that has emerged from all this definitely takes its foundations from the last two Parkway albums that have seen you transition into this big, festival-headlining band, but with how each of these has moved further down a path and introduced more elements, do you feel like you have something you're working towards with these records in sequence and getting closer to each time or is it a less linear case of exploring different ideas from record to record around a core base?
McCall - It’s a constant evolution. It’s been a constant evolution since the day we started, but the way it’s happened has come from a combination of the experience of playing live and the experience of writing the music, taking on outside influence while gaining confidence in ourselves. It’s a tinkering process of what you choose to bring in that’s new and what you choose to rely on that’s safe. After twenty years, this is essentially the first record where we were disconnected from immediate past experience down to the element of having muscle memory of playing an older song night after night in a setlist, and then going in with that familiar pattern of having written something. By the time we finished this it had been two years since we’d stepped on a stage, and when we wrote the album it was such a place where that memory didn’t exist, and so there was no reason for us not to approach it with the blankest slate possible in terms of expectation and the creative process. The core element of Parkway itself is going to show itself in the purest form, not coming through from the perspective of trying to replicate the feelings of other songs live, or a forward-thinking notion that maybe in the future it could lead to something else. All of that stuff was kinda gone. It could be the last record we’d ever write because live music could have not come back as we’re all stuck in our rooms forever, so you just surrender to imagination and relying on the confidence that you have. In the past we’ve been in that tour-write-tour-write grind cycle for seventeen years, and you get used to taking those steps that influence creativity to a degree, and all of those steps were buried under the weight of the new world. It’s the most honest showing of who we are and definitely the biggest step in showing the confidence in ourselves to go “if you don’t get it, that’s cool, but we’re not gonna filter our personality just to make someone feel comfortable”.
With Reverence having this kind of quasi-religious element with its aesthetic and sound palette, was that something that you were able to feel like you were naturally leading on from in terms of the darker and dramatic side of Darker Still?
McCall - Oh yeah, and it’s interesting coming from a band where we started off as just surfer kids, and the aesthetic of Parkway originally was just exactly who we were then. No aesthetic whatsoever other than what we wear in everyday life, but 20 years later we’re very very different and the artistic spirit of the band has expanded much further out into all aspects of the band. We have much more of an influence in every single aspect of the presentation now rather than the music itself. We know what we wanna create, and it has become almost this neo-gothic thing which runs very counter to the original place where we conceived this band. It is strange and you still see people struggling to grasp the throughline of that journey. At times we struggle to grasp that ourselves but it’s because we are those two people where at the same time both of them can completely exist and this is the artistic result that we really feel at home with. Vice Grip was the first song where we started writing in this very different style, but it’s the most positive sounding song we’ve ever written and it’s something that we kinda don’t feel we can go back to. We write these songs now and we know that if it sounds too happy, it just doesn’t gel with us. The happy part of our life is the part where we are off-stage and the darkness is the place where Parkway feels true, and it’s not a negative thing where it all has to be so miserable and bad, but the darker aspects are the parts I find kinda fascinating and that this is the outlet for. I’ve always described myself as like a surfer goth. I’ve got The Cure lyrics tattooed on my feet.
The surprising thing about the band has been that you've embraced huge European-style anthemic heavy metal but at the same time as you've embraced Tom Waits-style gloom, and those two things coming together is quite singular and without precedent and not just the crowd-pleasing people would expect with a larger more melodic pivot. Has that been a tricky thing to balance in the songs, compositionally and emotionally?
McCall - Not really to be honest. The way that we write comes down to a combination of Jeff’s lead guitar work, Ben’s drumming, and my vocals, and we work these things through. Everything that we do within those different elements is a very accurate representation of the influences that we take, and they are so much broader than just metal. Metal is what we love doing and it’s the way that we speak the Parkway language, but it’s almost like the touchstone and translation point of our personalities outside of the actual sound itself. There is so much that is different to each other in terms of those influences that when it all comes back in, it’s like it’s filtered through the Parkway prism. You can hear the songs that are more lead guitar based and more straight up rock sometimes where Jeff’s guitar hero energy is being channelled straight through, and then you can hear the ones where I like that gloomy singer-songwritery weird gothic shit, and then you can hear the more rhythmically-based songs, and you can hear where one member of the band has driven an idea more and we have all recognised that that is the strongest element of this piece and we can all lean in that direction. It’s all done with the idea of having those dynamics within the album. As much as I love an album which is all hits, even on an album of hits you will still have your favourite three hits and six hits are going to be secondary to those three. We know when a song is a catchy song and we can write a banger, but when we’ve got a couple bangers we’ve done that, let’s write something that goes somewhere else that’s grand, soft, blasting, dirgey. We want an album to surprise and to flow the entire way through. To be honest the entire way we wrote this album was trying to unnerve people to a degree as to the concept of Parkway. The sequencing is such that you get hit with things that you expect and right when you expect something, you get something that you don’t, and it forces you to re-engage, and then you get something else and have to re-engage again. Whether it’s interest or not getting it, we’d rather aim for that than pressing play and having the ability to zone out.
Is that your way of trying to stamp out overfamiliarity when it comes to the idea of the band becoming this bigger, arena metal thing that could just have loads and loads of those style songs?
McCall - To a degree. We enjoy writing different songs to start with, and we do write for an album where we’re not one of those bands where you’re going to get a single every six months When we put our heads to it, it’s going to be for an entire piece of music that flows together and takes you on a journey that’s designed to be consumed in one sitting, though still working with its individual pieces which is the challenge in itself. We realised a long time ago that we’re seven albums deep, and we do still have a connection to a lot of the old stuff that we wrote as a lot of our fans do as well, but when putting together a live set now we could write an entire new album of bangers but there’s seven albums worth of shit that people are gonna wanna hear things from. It gets to the point of thinking more about how to make a dynamic set and what you want to put together on a stage. This is essentially why we started changing at a much faster pace on Ire, because we started to think about if we wanted to write version three of a song that you did on record number one or two. Is that going to be a worthwhile better version of that, or is people’s connection still going to be to version one? You can’t fuck with emotional connection, you can’t fuck with circumstance, when someone hears something that they love they will have that feeling much stronger towards the original thing than they will for the second version even if it has improved on it. Why would you want to keep trying to capture lightning in a bottle over and over again when you can just go and make another storm somewhere else?
On that subject, the title track of Darker Still is something you wouldn’t have been able to do once upon a time.
McCall - Oh fuck no! We couldn’t do this until literally now. We had attempted it two times before. The goal for me when I started my vocal training ten years ago was to get me to a song like this. We’d never been able to do it, and the ultimate idols and heroes of this genre were able to do it, but we couldn’t. The original concept for A Deathless Song was to do something like this, and I couldn’t figure out how to sing it, we couldn’t figure out how to write it, so it got wound back into the Parkway mould, and there was something on Reverence as well that was similar. This was the one where there was no excuse this time not to do it. We had unlimited time, let’s figure this shit out, because as soon as Jeff had that acoustic riff which has the whistle over it, we knew we had to do it. We even tried to wind it back a couple times out of fear thinking we could make a rock song out of this, but every time we did, it didn’t do justice to it. It had to be bigger than that and I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve finally pulled it off and went for it.
The process of constructing it must have been so different because you mention A Deathless Song which was different and more sweeping but is based around a massive chorus, whereas this is seven minutes long and you don’t really get the full extent of the song till the last couple. That gradual building of something around a core motif, is that the thing that this was the first time really committing to something so longform and patient?
McCall - 100%, patience is a hard thing for us to deal with and this entire record was committed to patience. The whole album is at a much slower BPM than anything we’d done before, because we wanted to allow the space for the groove and the power of every note hitting harder. It doesn’t have the frenetic energy but it has the stomp to it, and a lot of this record is based in that 90s groove. You hit the 4 minute mark when you’re writing a ballad like this and realise fuck, you’re four minutes in, there’s still almost three to go, is this too long? You’re screwing with yourself though because it’s impatience just with the concept of time and what is too long rather than the concept of the music and what it demands. We constantly had that battle because we built ourselves off adrenaline, and that adrenaline is always there in us trying to push us to get to the point.
Is that a big change for your approach in playing stuff like this live too?
McCall - Dude, it’s fucking amazing! It’s my favourite thing to do live. It does exactly what we wanted it to do and I have so much fun doing it. I get to pick up a tambourine like halfway through it and I’m there like, my first musical instrument! It was a huge challenge to begin with but very, very fulfilling, and I’m stoked that we’ve been able to undergo the transformation as songwriters to be able to do that, and to commit to those concepts. In the age of music getting shorter, everything’s like 30 seconds with a little lead up and a hook and then it sits on TikTok, no we’re gonna write a song that’s nearly seven minutes long and you don’t get to the really crazy bit until four and a half minutes in. I’m proud of it, I love playing it live and the strings really flourish in that section, and getting to see Jeff on it finally be the guitar hero that I’ve seen him as all these years is a really nice thing because that dude plays with so much soul.
With the projection of emotion in such a grand, epic fashion being such a thing that separates heavy metal fans from everyone else, The Greatest Fear has that chorus that almost feels like a folk music-derived idea singing about a character, so is there this real sense of coming from an intimate place but striving for this mythological, epic scope with which to convey your emotions?
McCall - For sure, you mentioned Reverence which has the religious iconography, the way that I write lyrics is to match the music and The Greatest Fear was just grand in the first place. The religious touchstone is there in Reverence because it’s universal. It’s not about raging at a certain church or saying that I don’t like religion, it’s woven in there because whenever you say God, devil, heaven, hell, death, that’s a concept that can translate to every religion and every person on the planet. These are universal themes of good, bad, a better place, a worse place, and the iconography behind it is the most powerful thing when it comes to language. Me working with those characters, not only does it hit that on an emotional level, but you end up with these very evocative notions of character and of scene-building in your mind. The same way when you read a book and your imagination takes you to a place where you are building a character or a journey in your mind, that’s what I love about music. There are times when I want it to be very personal and people can feel that this is about them relating to them, and times when I want it to bang and extend to a gigantic cathedral or a deity that is about to offer judgement or a journey to a far better or worse place that is your worst fear or your greatest desire. The only way to do that sometimes is by characterisation and capturing those things, and when you put those lyrics together with a grand piece of music, you can have a song that is about the character of death and it will have massive church organs and it’s gonna feel goth as fuck with giant choirs before the beatdown. We’re striving more and more for the worldbuilding with everything that we do. When you see the show now it’s far different from inflatable waves and a bunch of guys in board shorts. You get the theme of what this band is slowly becoming and it translates more now in a much more cohesive way than it ever has, I think.
With you mentioning going to vocal training and the album having everything from Darker Still through to If a God Can Bleed which is the furthest you’ve pushed in that particular direction, you can really see how you as a vocalist have branched out into finding these new and further vocal tones to implement into Parkway records. Metal does have these very defined vocal styles that deviating from can be rejected, and yet in an era when bands have struggled to break through from the underground into the mainstream, Parkway have navigated that more than most without bending to those particular ideas.
McCall - It’s been quite easy for us to think about in that we do whatever the fuck we wanna do, man. In terms of where we sit within metal and stuff like that, it’s interesting because I think it’s all influenced by the sphere in which every music genre sits in. Not only are we in a time when rock music has not been popular but metal music has not been popular. There hasn’t been a massive pop culture metal explosion where you see as a pop artist can do a band release their debut record and then headline festivals off the debut record, since nu metal. Every other band since has had to grow over like five albums to get to the status where that can boom. There are people who have the desire to do that but see the only way to do that is to fit some kind of mould, but the way that you watch a YouTube video of how to scream like X singer or how to do this vocal technique, you’re basically entering a place of mimicry. I’ve never wanted to do that. I don’t want to sound like anyone else, and I want to do things that for better or worse, that’s Winston. I just want to sound like me and it’s been about that adventure of characterisation, because my goal has never been to be the best singer on Earth. We knew from early on, literally from Killing with a Smile, that you’re never gonna be Howard Jones. You’re never gonna be Bruce Dickinson, you’re never gonna be Corey Taylor. That’s never been the goal but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring in melody and you can’t bring in character. The people who I brought into my vocal coach are people who they go “They’re not a good singer. They’re a really good character.” They capture who they are and they emote incredibly well, but they’re not actually amazing singers, and I’m like cool, now I know what my path is. It can weird people out to all hell but fuck, you’re gonna remember it, and you’re gonna remember it for me and I’d rather it be that than trying to be bubblegummy or trying to be Chester Bennington, fuck it, we’re gonna work with what I do and I’d rather be memorable than perfect.
In Soul Bleach there is this sentiment of owning and embodying being not what people want you to be. Is there any element in there of those listeners out there who are very much still expecting Parkway to be what you were 15 years ago?
McCall - Let the past die, kill it if you have to? Honestly, not so much, because I really don’t mind what people expect of me in the first place. Anything I say is not gonna sway anyone on what their music taste is and that’s all cool. If someone likes the old stuff and wishes we did that more, that’s alright, I’m not gonna do it just because you want me to do it but I really appreciate that you liked it in the first place. That song though is definitely about coming to terms with the fact that yeah, people are gonna talk shit on you, people are gonna think you’re a dickhead, people are gonna think that what you contribute is worthless. The bigger you get the harder it becomes to deal with that and that comes into personal life as well. I’ve watched people’s perception of me change with the success of this band, and you slowly realise people think you are the worst person on the planet. That song is about going if I’m the villain in your world, that’s fucking fine, you’re the one that has to deal with it and if I’m the villain I’m a pretty fucking strong one.
Darker Still is now available via Epitaph Records. Get the album – HERE
Parkway Drive finishes their European tour with While She Sleeps and Lorna Shore. The remaining four dates in the UK are set for this week. See the remaining dates below.