We talked to "math rock" OG Pen Rollings and his new partner Brian Metz about their new project Bowl Ethereal, drinking Four Loko for promo pics, and how defining yourself by your sexuality is dumb.
Pen Rollings knows a thing or two about cultivating mystique. Having spent the 80s transforming Honor Role from a boilerplate hardcore group into an acidic post-punk juggernaut, he completely switched gears as the next decade dawned. He invented what genre-obsessed Philistines would call "math rock" with his proudly metallic, whiplash-inducing time signatures and stutters and serrated guitar playing for the largely instrumental Breadwinner and Butterglove. But following a stint as the drummer for the short-lived Ladyfinger, he all but disappeared–though his influence lingered through the 90s via the work of Don Caballero, Drive Like Jehu, and other aggro-indie bigwigs. By 2003, Rollings had come back from exile. Riding a rhythm section borrowed from the technical-doom band Confessor, his inimitable chug helped define the heavier, hypercomplex Loincloth. Yet after that project released its first single, he left and again retreated into the cityscape of his native Richmond, Virginia.
Enter Brian Metz, a local guitarist and bassist who lured Rollings behind a drum set to birth Bowl Ethereal. The duo's debut EP, out now on Southern Lord Records, strings together a half-dozen 60-second songs that paradoxically exude minimalism and economy as they gush with myriad riffs. Each track is a lethal thrust of knotted notes and stainless steel accents that leaves zero room for wasted space, dead air, or indulgent nonsense. The low-budget video for "The Last Minute"—a symbol-laden barrage premiering below—perfectly suits the lean assault.
Over an infernal summer weekend in Old Dominion, we talked to Metz and Rollings about the Bowl's collaborative aesthetic, drinking Four Loko for promo pics, and how defining yourself by your sexuality is dumb.
What's Pen been doing for 10 years?
Pen Rollings: Nothing special. Just working. Soul crushed a couple of times. Got fat again. Lost weight. Need glasses. On high blood pressure meds. Getting old. New apartment.
What happened with Loincloth?
Pen: I just lost the drive to participate. I am beyond happy that those guys had the patience to keep it going, though. The result is some of the most uninviting, claustrophobic, challenging, dense music I have heard. And I respect that immensely. Eternally.
What's Brian's background like?
Pen: Metz is a riff faucet. A song freak. It is exotic to me. I am a one-item menu; he is a grocery store. About a year and a half ago, we were hanging out in back of work, listening to some supposedly heavy band. I said, I bet we could do better. He agreed. I had just gotten a Mac with GarageBand, and he sent me some riffs. I took them apart. I can't really play drums but I added drum punctuation, sent them to him. He added bass, and we had our first song. We were both tickled. We are our biggest fans. And that was the point of it. But it is cool that it speaks to others, as well. And ever cooler when it doesn’t.
Brian Metz: We work together, making copies. Pen is always into some shit, bursting with creativity. I was in a lot of bands. I like tangents and clickety-clack riffage. Influences would be Confessor, Loincloth, Sliang Laos, [Justin] Broadrick, [Jeff] Hanneman, [Robert] Fripp, and many others. I'm into exploration. This is definitely headphone metal.
Pen, do you still play guitar?
Pen: I am interested in being a part of something that puts Metz’s sickness under the microscope. Drum punctuation is the perfect platform for that.
Brian: He has, just yesterday, requested that I return his guitar. So I think it's on. His axe is calling his name and it is using his proper name, Pendleton, so you know it's legit.
Electronic drum pads are an odd choice for a metal band. Explain.
Pen: When I got GarageBand, I got a set of pads. I live in an apartment; using MIDI controllers to track the drums allows me to play day or night. It also means if we ever play live, we won’t need to use mikes or trust a sound guy to create our mix. Brian’s sounds are virtual as well, so our load-in will consist of two guitars, bass, suitcase full of drums, and a laptop.
Brian: That's my favorite part of the Bowl: no amps, just laptops.
Is having uniformly short songs part of some concept?
Brian: It was Pen's genius idea. I would like to say, though, that we have broken the one-minute mark. We should have twurted [sic] it; that would warrant a twurt.
Pen: Our first song turned out to be exactly one minute. Our second song did, as well. I am a big fan of the Residents' Commercial Album [of one-minute songs] and I figured, why don’t we just write more songs at a minute each. Creatively, it was a conceptual, self-imposed deadline. It was a framework to finish a project.
Who writes the riffs?
Pen: Brian. Usually they are presented as one long riff sentence. I chop them up and rearrange the parts into what I think makes sense.
Brian: Our songwriting methodology—as Pen says, "compositional noncompetitive ping-pong"—is the most fun I've had doing collaborative music.
Why not groove or get a singer?
Brian: Two things Pen said early on have stuck with me: He wanted compositions that would behave like an intro to a proper song—like it was ready for the main riff to kick in, then just end. The second is my favorite: The movement of the song would feel like you were falling down steps, just disoriented and topsy-turvy. When there's a brief pause and you start to catch your breath, you continue falling.
Pen: Grooves and letting loose don’t do much for me, they just make me think of jocks and hippies. I am a huge fan of economy. I wish there were more bands that kept a riff budget.
Any opinion of the term "math rock?”
Brian: I think it fits us. Don't worry about the math part. Just take a one and a two or a sixth and a seventh and hit them together rhythmically. It pulses, but it also slices you. Pen: Math rock implies a degree of concentrated effort towards the end result sounding studied. This is just how I enjoy hearing music. I don’t see it as math. I consider it short attention span music, trimmed of the fat and bullshit. Angular music has been a huge part of my DNA since my early teens. Some people think it is far more calculated than it is. I think of this as my language, the way I communicate. I couldn’t count it out to save a drowning dog.
Is the name "Bowl Ethereal" a reference to toilets or pot?
Pen: Bowl Ethereal is fun to say. And fun to hear people say. That's about it.
Brian: I just like the idea of any type of bowl that someone would ecstatically love. A sugary-ass bowl of cereal is probably at the top of the list for a kid. Or for me, a bowl you could sit on for a nice satisfying poop and the RSS feed-reading poop time that goes along with it. And bowling, of course.
You have a song called "Twenty Three Exciter Dreams." Presumably, neither of you had 23 dreams about the '80s Canadian speed-metal band Exciter.
Pen: Actually it was based on a conversation we had about dreaming of the '80s Canadian speed-metal band Exciter. Serious. And the initial riff was conceived on the twenty-third of the month. That's the Behind the Music on that one.
What are you drinking in your promo photo?
Pen: Four Loko. Lemon. That's the kick-start. Then I switch to Coors Light to ride the storm out.
Brian: Stella for me. Or fruity-tooty [sic] beers. Lambics. When I play, I'm generally sober, but some riffs were originated whilst shit-faced. I don't know how altered Pen can get with his drum setup. It looks crazy when he plays it. It sways.
Pen has a bar inside his house?
Brian: His previous location was outstanding. The new place is much more subdued. There were great memories at the old Snooze Bar. One story that sticks out was when I collapsed onto a Sleep Number bed and Pen was trying to make it more comfortable. I was the drunkest I had been in a long time. He was just standing there yelling out numbers: "This is a three! How's that? Ok, now this is 15! Better?" I could barely hold on to consciousness and I was definitely feeling the crazy-ass bed changes. But I have no clue if it was good or not. Fun times.
A decade ago, Pen was psyched about being an out gay man. He was digging the bear thing. How's that been going?
Pen: Still a homo. Still single. The bear thing really wasn’t my thing; the regular-guy thing was, but that has been co-opted by bears. Generally, folks who define themselves by their sexuality are boring, straight or gay. Stupid gay people are just as dumb as stupid straight people. That said, I would totally do Rob Halford.
Want more metal?