Coming to us live from his home studio – or as he’d rather call it, his “little underground doomsday bunker” – Parkway Drive’s Jeff Ling says with a forced chuckle, trying (and immediately failing) to shelter his anxiety: “Honestly, I’m scared of this room. I spent a lot of time in here over the last few years, so now I only come here when I need to escape the noises of my kids and everyone else upstairs. I call it the ‘trainwreck studio’ because I’ve got two young children, and life has just been so busy that it hasn’t been vacuumed in like five years, so there’s stuff stuck to the walls and all over the floor… It looks really sad in here – but it gets the job done!”
It’s in this place of chaotic privacy that Ling – and the rest of the nigh-on iconic Byron Bay crew – have completed their latest job, masting the art of brutalising metal on their seventh studio album, Darker Still. The album has it all, running the full gamut of metal from Southern to thrash, all the way to glam. It also offers hints of Floydian prog and brooding industrial like Nine Inch Nails, popping up on songs that frontman Winston McCall says the group has never had the courage, time or understanding to attempt… Until now, of course.
Reaching musical seventh heaven is an achievement in which the band have placed immense pride – and rightly so. Arguably, Darker Still marks a type of ascension for the metalcore outfit. When Parkway announced the album, McCall said that when the group started out some 19 years ago, they “were trying to push ourselves to do more than we possibly could”.
“What you hear on Darker Still,” he continued, “is the final fulfilment of our ability to learn and grow catching up with the imagination that we have always had.” The past two decades have been one hell of a ride, to say the least – but seven albums, an EP, three films and a book later, Darker Still shows that Parkway still have it in them to evolve. For all its in-studio turbulence, it marks a landing on solid ground – for Parkway and for the fans who’ve invested in them for all these years.
As a guitarist, what were some of those ambitions you were finally able to realise?
One of the few good things that came out of this whole thing with COVID, with bands not being able to go on tour, was that we had more time to focus on writing an album than we ever have before. And that sort of translated to refinement, because we could try some more challenging things due to all the extra time we had. There’s a song in there that is a proper ballad – the title track, ‘Darker Still’ – and we’ve always sort of nudged towards that on our previous albums, but they’ve never quite been proper ballads. But this one’s a proper ballad – it took a long time and a lot of head scratching, and a lot of f***ing around to get that song to where it is now. It was hard work – and new territory – but I think we pulled it off!
Your part in that definitely stands out with that very bluesy, almost prog-esque fingerpicking. Was that a cool thing to experiment with?
Yeah. I mean, as a musician, I just can’t sit still with my legs crossed. I probably really annoy a lot of our fans with it, but an idea pops into my head and I just sort of latch onto it, and I have to put it to the tape. And I never plan for it to end up on an album, but then the guys end up liking it, and I end up liking it… It is, weirdly, still within the confines of what Parkway can do – but at the same time, kind of stretching it. We have a thing where we go, “If it feels good, let’s do it.” That’s kind of our mantra – it doesn’t matter how strange it is, or what genre it sounds like, if we’re all feeling it, and we’re into it, we’re gonna track it.
We’d be remiss not to talk about ‘If A God Can Bleed’, too, because your playing on that track is unlike anything we’d ever heard.
That’s an interesting one because a lot of that direction came from Winston. He’s like, super arty. He has these crazy ideas that, you know, they always end up so cool, but they’re hard to grasp onto at first. That song really took shape in the studio, when we were all getting really creative with it. It feels like a trailer to some wild TV series or something like that. It’s one of the most out-there, but like, cool-in-its-own-way tracks that we’ve ever done. It’s fun to listen to – that’s my view on it [laughs].
But yeah, there’s a couple of really odd things in there. I used a talk box – I don’t know if you can hear it, but over the chorus, that’s what I’m using to get that guitar effect. And it’s not like I’m overly familiar with them, I was just like, “Oh, those things are kind of cool, I wonder what it would sound like here?” And I basically played the chorus melody with the talk box, and it actually adds to it, you know? It has this strangely lounge, smoky, kind of atmospheric sound.
But then there’s ‘Soul Bleach’, which feels very much like old-school Parkway Drive. Was that intentional?
Yeah, definitely. You know, we always like to touch on our old sounds as well, because we obviously know it so well. We don’t tend to do too many tracks like that anymore, because in our minds, we kind of mastered it to best of our ability back then, and we don’t feel as confident with that sound as we did in those days. That’s the heaviest track on the record, for sure.
Does it get harder to keep pushing yourselves creatively, when each album is a step up in ambition?
That’s a really good question, because… Yes, it does. You’re putting pressure on yourself because you genuinely want to create something that everyone perceives as bigger and better, but then you have the pressure of, “Well, how’s it actually gonna be received?” If you spend years of your life working on something, it can be pretty crushing to get ridiculed online all the time. But at the same time, thankfully, we play these songs live, and they absolutely demolish our old songs.
It’s a little bit of “a proof in the pudding” scenario there, because if a song sounds super huge live and you see everyone singing along to it, and you feel that energy lift – which is what happens with those new songs – then you know, “Well, that worked.” But you’re taking that risk, and you’re teasing the mold, and it’s scary. There’s a little bit of heartache with some of the comments we see – which, obviously, I have to have thick skin about these days, because that’s all a part of it.
To be totally honest, because of all the extra time we had, I was a lot more involved with this record. I don’t usually have that much time to work on my side of the writing, but I did [with this record] – so trying to juggle all the crazy stuff that was happening – COVID, floods, families and such – with the process of writing an album… I’m still so drained from it. We tracked the last song on January 12th or something like that, and I’m still absolutely fried by it. I’ve never been so fried from a record. I’m really proud of it, for sure, but yeah, it killed me. I don’t know how I’m gonna do another one, to be honest.
I want to bring up that quote from Winston, where he talks about this album being “the final fulfilment of [Parkway Drive’s] ability to learn and grow”. Is he implying that this might well be your last album?
Honestly, we like to not put too much pressure on ourselves in that respect, or put our own expectations out there, because if you do that, you’re instantly putting yourself in a hole to some extent. We write music because we really enjoy it, and we get a lot of fulfilment out of it. And we still love playing live shows, and we love the crowd element, so as long as we still enjoy writing music together and the crowds still appreciate what we’re coming up with, we’re probably going to keep going.
But at the same time, you know, if that enjoyment starts to drop off a bit, then yeah, who knows? I wouldn’t guarantee either side, really. Because once this record was finished, we were all really burnt out as people. So we’re starting to talk about ways that, if we do attempt something like this again in the future, we make it far less draining and more fun. If we do go again for another round, we’ll have to figure out a different system.
As a creative person, you can’t force greatness.
That’s so true. We’ve had that pressure in the past, where a manager or label or someone has been like, “Right, we need a record on the 27th of August, blah, blah, blah – this exact timeframe...” And it’s like, “Well, hold on – that’s only possible if we, the creators, are feeling it.” You know, if we’re feeling inspired and pumped on our material, yeah, I’m sure it’s possible to rush it out and have it still be great. But what if your life gets turned upside down, and all this crazy stuff happens, and you can’t mentally pull that off? And then you’ve got to deal with that pressure of, “Ah, am I letting my bandmates down? Am I letting our labels down? Am I letting the fans down?” There’s all those pressure-cooking factors that you sort of have to keep at bay, if you can.
On a more positive note, let’s talk guitars! What was the arsenal like for Darker Still?
We used quite a few guitars for different moments in the songs. For the majority of it, we still used Luke’s and my signature guitars, with the usual [EMG 81 pickups] installed. We did, however, experiment with putting some of the Fishman Moderns in the bridge pickup area, and they were really cool – they just had a really nice, rich tune that sat in the mix really nicely. And then for the guitars, one of the most surprising ones I used was this Les Paul Personal... Have you heard of the Personal before?
I can’t say I have.
That’s right, no one has! But anyway, I tried this guitar, and I wasn’t really that stoked with a lot of the other E standard guitars that we had for the song ‘Darker Still’, so we ended up switching out the pickups in this guy and putting in a Fishman Classic, and it just sounded so rich and smooth and amazing. Because that song is so exposed and open, any kind of tonal stuff is really noticeable. [The Personal is] a big beast – the resonance on it is amazing, and we used it for everything – we used it for solos, leads, rhythms, riffs… It was a real workhorse. So that did ‘Darker Still’, and then my Les Paul Custom was the other one that kind of surprised everyone.
Once again, I wasn’t digging the sound of the traditional humbucker in it, so we ripped it out, put a Fishman Modern in it, and... It just ripped. It sounded a bit more raw and it was very prominent in the mix, compared to our other guitars with Fishmans in them. So this guitar sort of took the reins, really. It did a lot of the riffs, a lot of the rhythms and most of the breakdowns. And then I use my my signature guitar for all of the leads and solos, because it’s just really creamy for some reason.