How loss and heartache led to Parkway Drive's greatest triumph

How loss and heartache led to Parkway Drive's greatest triumph

The Australian metalcore legends will be touring their latest record Reverence this October/November.

Header photo by Kane Hibberd.

For Parkway Drive frontman Winston McCall, a mess of tangled bodies was the closest he could get to visually representing the horrors of the past few years. The album artwork – a 17th-century baroque piece titled ‘The Fall of the Damned’ – shows Archangel Michael casting the damned down from heaven to hell in a blaze of fury and bare flesh, vulnerable to the torment surrounding them. It shows humanity at its most pained, amidst the tortured and the demonic, and mirrors the unbelievable and incomprehensible pain of loss.

“That was probably why it resonated with me when I first saw it,” McCall explained. “That was the very literal interpretation of what it was like to be us during the process of creating this album because the pain that is in the album literally happened during the course.” 

Prior to the creation of their sixth studio album Reverence, Parkway Drive were riding high on the 2015 release of Ire, a body of work marking the rebirth of the band’s metalcore sound through experimental - and often unorthodox - production and song-writing. They were reaping the success of yet another ARIA chart-topping album and playing highly respected venues and festivals across the globe. It was set to be the beginning of a golden age for Byron Bay’s favourite sons, with McCall saying they had “literally released the most accessible album of our entire career in Ire at that point in time,” although, it was ridden with grief. 

Back at home, the band were dealing with the death of a beloved pet, a partner’s diagnosis with terminal illness, and their good friend Tom Searle from Architects’ long battle with cancer - the latter who would both devastatingly pass away mid-2016. “It was a complete juxtaposition of our lives going on in the very confined environment of eight friends in a touring bus.”

While it’s near impossible to ever fully express what it’s like to lose a loved one, let alone multiple in a short space of time, Reverence gets pretty damn close. As McCall explains, “every time we write a record it’s capturing a moment of the band’s time.” In this case, Reverence journals the process of dealing with loss right through to the bittersweet acceptance. It’s just as much an album that honours the people whose lives were tragically cut short as it is an album that explicitly and shamelessly exposes human vulnerability.

With another stellar album under their belt and ahead of their biggest Australian tour yet, we talked to Winston McCall about the “distressing” yet necessary process of creating Reverence, how Parkway Drive are upping their tour game, and the Australian bands that inspire him.

Parkway Drive has become synonymous with Australia’s heavy scene over the years. Do you remember the first time you realised ‘hey, people really are listening to us, maybe this whole band thing will go somewhere?’

I don’t know if there was any one time. When Deep Blue (our third album) came out, that’s when it all went kaboom and it became the reality of "well it’s not just a maybe now, it’s actually going to happen." We went from playing a couple of thousand capacity venues – which is insane – to 5000 cap venues that sold out across Australia, and that was mind-blowing. I think there’s been a bunch of those points where we’ve been like "oh my god, we’ve sold this many records, we’ve played this venue."

I’m still shocked at where this band has gone. There’s been so many points where we’ve reached that last feeling and thought there’s no way a band like us, sounding like we do, being where we’re from, is going to go any further, and then the snowball slams on through it and we’re left with another "oh my god, it can’t go past this" moment. Then we find ourselves going through that again. It’s been a very humbling experience because we just keep doing what we’re doing, and people keep coming, which is really cool.

There’s always a risk with new releases that people may not like or understand its content. Considering Reverence is such a personal album that deals firsthand with pretty heavy experiences for you over the past few years, did you ever have any doubts releasing it?

Yes and no. [When you’re] making something different, you can never really predict how it’s going to connect with someone, especially when you’re making something you know you haven’t created before. The one thing we’ve always fallen back on in this band is content that we want to make and that we enjoy listening to. That’s been the fall back for every single record we’ve made, so we did the same thing, and it was sounding different, but it still ticked those boxes. We were like "well okay, hopefully people connect because it ticks its own boxes like every other record we did" but that being said, the response to it has been way, way bigger and better than I could’ve predicted, to be honest.

It’s really weird. Generally, it takes a couple of months to work a new song into a live setting but to be able to walk onstage and play these songs, and have it feel like they’ve not only always been there but are the biggest songs we’ve ever written from the word go, is a really crazy feeling. It took me a couple of shows to even realise it was happening and go "hang on; we haven’t been playing these songs for that long." It just feels like we always have, and they were always hits, which is nuts. That’s never happened to us.

From death to religion, Reverence touches on a few heavy aspects of life. Does that ever take a toll on you having to perform that day in day out? I imagine you can always feed off the crowd’s response but for you personally is it hard to touch on what are essentially quite traumatic situations you’ve been in recently? 

It’s interesting because not all of the songs have the same personal weight as other songs on the record. Wishing Wells is the one that cuts deepest of those we’ve been playing so far and we’ve been opening with that, so it is a balance of personal connection and performance. It walks a really fine line and there’s obviously other songs that we plan on playing that are even deeper, but I don’t know how that performance is going to affect me on stage. This is the first time we’ve ever really had to consider that.

I write all the lyrics, so it’s a lot more personal to me than some of the other guys in the band,and it’s something they probably haven’t had to think about as much as I have. This is also the first time I’ve ever written songs where I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the performance or performing these again - I just had to get them out of the studio. Now it comes around to performing, and I want to, but I’m left in the condition where I’ve never been that vulnerable to the actual lyrical content and how it’s going to be to reproduce that live.

How do you feel about the fact you have fans all over the world who have listened to the album, heard the lyrics, and been comforted during similar circumstances they may be going through?

It’s really nice, to be honest. Every time we do anything it’s just created for us - and that’s not meant as a backhand to our fans or people who enjoy what we do or anything like that - it simply is what it is. We never expected anyone to connect with anything we do but we are aware that people do. This album especially, because there are songs which are very specific in what they’re dealing with, and they’re very painful. We’ve had people reach out to us saying "I lost my grandfather two weeks ago and this song has captured what I hadn’t been able to, and it’s helped me get through a very difficult time.That blows me away to be honest, that art is able to do that for someone. It’s more the fact I know that art does that for me, but it’s very strange to be someone who can create something that does that for someone else. Again, it’s really humbling to be in that position. Every time someone tells you that in person, I’m lost for words, to be honest.

parkway drive in article

Parkway Drive. Photo by Kane Hibberd.

How do you determine what can be made into a cathartic song versus what aspects of your life are too personal to be shared?

I don’t think I’ve had a moment where [I’ve thought] it’s something to keep to myself. The writing process for me is not something where I necessarily have a list of topics or anything I want to write about – I literally just write when I need to write and when there’s something that inspires me or something that I need to get out. I can’t remember the precise moment of conception for most of these songs, how a lot of them came up or backing away from anything. I just remember putting things down as they came to me because that’s the way it happens.

For certain songs, there are moments where I definitely know. I can remember very vividly writing the words for The Colour Is Leaving. I wrote those words before there was even a song, and I was like "I want this to be a song, I don’t know what type of song or what music but this has to be a song because this part of my life has to be captured." But it’s never been any other way where I’ve written anything and gone "too personal, step back." I’m yet to reach that line and I don’t know if I’m going to have that with this performance because I’m yet to encounter it.

The Colour Is Leaving also marks a shift in vocals compared to what we’ve heard on your previous albums, especially with that final spoken word section. Was this change comfortable for you? 

It was comfortable in the sense of having the ability. There was no point in the project where I doubted being able to sing or create what we wanted to create. The only discomfort came from [The Colour Is Leaving] simply because of the lyrical content. It was genuinely distressing but I wanted to be there. That was the honest thing that needed to be captured. When it came to the actual variation of the vocal delivery on the album, it came down to simply wanting to be true to the character. An entire aspect of this album was wanting to go to places and realising the character that had to be delivered through vocals wasn’t simply just screaming. You can’t just do one gear of yelling because it’s not going to be true to the emotion or to the concept. It involved a lot of experimentation when it came to the character vocal stylings, and I’ve put a hell of a lot of work into that over the last five years.

It’s interesting that you can pinpoint the maturity and growth of Parkway Drive as time goes by, even down to the album artwork. What were your thoughts behind choosing one of Peter Paul Rubens’ Baroque artworks to represent Reverence?

The last record, Ire, was white - literally the cover was white - and the idea was showing the complete rebirth of the band. [It was] a more upbeat record, and this was the polar opposite. It’s a very dark record, it was written for more mature people who have been through a lot, and there was something about the Baroque era of artworks that resonated with me. When I was working with our design crew for the actual artwork, there was a lot of Caravaggio and Renaissance, and then a lot of darker stuff. It was walking the middle path between the Baroque era and the completely Black Metal looking stuff, to be completely honest [laughs].

I wanted something that carried emotion, but you do have the pieces of light. I didn’t want it to be something that you looked at and that was it. I wanted something that draws you in because I felt as though that’s what the music did. I wanted people to be drawn in by the music and the characters, and the feeling that there’s more to this than simply to flashover.

What was it like the first time you and the rest of the band hopped in the studio to record these songs?

This recording session was probably easier in a sense because on the actual production side of things, we’ve worked out a process now that runs very, very smoothly. We do pre-production in Byron with our producer, then we take three months of each person doing a month in the studio over in Canada, and the rest of us sit at home basically and work on what we’re going to do when we go in. Once we’ve nailed the pre-production down, it’s basically a B-grade version of what the entire album is going to sound like. We then go and create the more polished version, so we don’t have to have the entire band sit there for four weeks while a snare drum gets hit [laughs]. The passion’s cornered by that person without a time limit, which is good. 

The vocal tracking for me was really awesome, other than the very personal stuff which was very traumatic. It’s the first time I’ve ever dealt with that, but at the same point in time, I was very happy to be in that position where I felt as though justice had been done to that material. There’s a very big difference between adrenaline and angst then there is to sorrow and pain, and when it’s a vocal delivery where you have to open yourself up in that way, it’s a lot harder than just getting yourself riled up and screaming a bunch. It wasn’t hard technically; it was just hard emotionally.

You spent a couple of months earlier this year gigging across Europe and more recently touring Reverence around the States. What were these huge production shows like? 

That European tour was the biggest, most accessible tour this band’s ever done. We had just put out Reverence, they were the biggest slots we’ve ever been given on these festivals, and the potential was there for us to play to the biggest audiences we’ve ever played to. The reaction and the size of the audiences that did rock up to those slots was so much bigger than we had expected. The second show in was the biggest and best show we’ve ever played. We played to 80,000 people at the same time as Muse - who were playing on the other stage - and there was literally the same amount of people watching us and singing every word of the new songs. All of a sudden, the songs we were playing, which were released a month ago, were the best of the set. It went from fifth gear to tenth gear very, very quickly and we were all just looking at each other like "holy shit."

Do you think that people in similar bands starting up in Australia need to pay more attention to metalcore bands in Europe?

I don’t think people need to pay attention to anything other than what they’re doing to be honest, because I think the evolution of bands comes at a natural rate and spans far greater  when it comes internally instead of trying to reach out to pull yourself up. Growing organically and then being drawn to other places creates something that people resonate with at a much more natural level. I think music is more accessible these days, especially heavy music, [more so] than any other era. When we first went overseas, it was literally MySpace. That was the only way we got overseas - through MySpace songs - and now you can just stream anything in the world. So, the idea of looking outside Australia is not as hard as it used to be, but the idea of maintaining that and creating something that will truly resonate with people is still the thing that makes a band. That’s what grows a band, [fans] being able to connect with them. Anyone can save up the money and go and tour overseas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a show is going to be good. If you’re just trying to sell something to get overseas, people see through it. 

So just being the most authentic self you can be.

Yep, that’s exactly it! This is just my perspective, but most Australian bands do that in the first place. Australian bands are killing it overseas at the moment - Thy Art Is Murder, Northlane, Deez Nuts - all of these bands that are smashing it, especially in Europe. They’re bands that have distinct personalities, a very distinct sense of self and a very distinct character. They’ve created that for themselves rather than just reaching out and trying to artificially create some kind of hype. They simply are really awesome bands that are now desired in other countries; that’s the way I think it always should be and that’s the way it works. At the moment everyone is looking to Australia for quality, and it’s well deserved. 

You’ll be taking Reverence around Australia for the first time this month, what can fans expect from this tour that maybe they haven’t seen before at your shows?

You’ve never seen Parkway in Australia like this tour! A couple of years ago, Europe took over as the biggest area for this band, which is a very big thing. We reached a large point in Australia popularity wise and, all of a sudden, we did a tour over there where we were selling out the biggest shows we had ever played. That’s been the place where we’ve been breaking the ground with [what’s] basically the new generation of what this band is, and we haven’t been able to bring that to Australia yet until this tour. We’re literally bringing the entire European festival touring show to Australia. It’s going to be mental. This is the tour where there’s literally zero punches pulled, it’s a brand-new album, biggest venues we’ve ever played, the complete Parkway production upped 100 per cent that we’ve established on the biggest stages in the world, and with the biggest supporting bands we’ve ever had. There’s literally nothing about it that isn’t the biggest thing we’ve done in this country. It really will be wild, trust me!

Finally, what do you hope people take away from Reverence?

I just want people to know that it’s honest. At the end of the day I’m very grateful and very humbled that people will spend their time on something that we’ve created, and if they want to take anything away from it then I hope they take away that it’s real and it’s by humans - ordinary humans - that are simply going through life. That’s it. There’s nothing bigger behind it other than people creating because they need and want to create, and if people want to spend their time on that then we’re very happy. Thank you.

Parkway Drive's latest album Reverence is out now via Resist Records. Catch them in Australia this October/November with special guests Killswitch Engage and Thy Art Is Murder - dates, details and tickets HERE.