Winston McCall can’t remember exactly when things got so dark, because they’ve been pitch black for a while now.
From the outside, the last few years have been a series of rolling victories for the Parkway Drive singer and his bandmates. Since the release of their game-changing fifth album, Ire, in 2015, the Australian band have muscled their way out of the metalcore ghetto and into the mainstream. Ire cracked the Top 30 in the UK and the US, and gave them a Number One hit back home. Their career upswing was capped with a stellar show at Brixton Academy last year.
But privately, things were very different. During that same timeframe, the band were battered by a string of agonising personal tragedies. Death has hovered constantly at their shoulder, casting a shadow over what should have been the most triumphant period of their lives.
Parkway have distilled those experiences into their new album, Reverence, a record that’s angrier and bleaker than anything you’ll hear this year. Its 10 tracks are the sound of a band screaming at an unforgiving universe, trying to make sense of everything they’ve endured.
“The last few years have been the most traumatic thing we’ve been through,” says Winston. “It was just the most fucking vicious time of our lives.”
It’s early evening and we’re sitting in London’s Camden Underworld. The club is empty and eerily quiet. Winston is wrapped up in standard-issue Antipodean armour to keep out the cold British winter weather: gloves, scarf, woolly hat. Given the amount of shivering he’s doing, it’s not working.
Parkway last played this venue in May 2008, six months after they released their second album, Horizons. His abiding memory of the gig is of a crowdsurfer kicking an air conditioning unit off the ceiling. “It was fucking crazy,” he says.
The band are back at the Underworld tomorrow night for a low-key show, though ‘low-key’ applies to the size of the venue and the lack of pyrotechnics up onstage rather than the intensity in the room. And, given everything Parkway have been through, there’s a lot of intensity to burn off.
Over the next 90 minutes, Winston will explain just what the band have been through together, and how it shaped Reverence. There are times when it’s clearly tough for him. He pauses frequently to collect his thoughts. His voice cracks more than once.
“It’s going to be hard, but I knew it was coming,” he says of opening up about what the band have been through. “There has been loss. A lot of loss.”
Reverence begins with the sound of cawing crows, traditionally the harbinger of death. It’s an appropriate choice given the circumstances that surrounded the making of the album, and one that isn’t coincidental.
In the summer of 2015, Parkway Drive were ready to unveil Ire on an unsuspecting world. It was a deviation from the metalcore blueprint they’d followed since their inception in Byron Bay in 2003, and they knew not everyone would come along for the ride. But they were buoyed by the sort of confidence a decade-long upwards trajectory gives a band. And anyway, they didn’t give a damn what other people thought.
The band released Vice Grip as the first track from Ire in June 2015. Not long after, they played a show with Architects – a band the Australians had been close to since supporting them almost a decade earlier. It was then that Architects guitarist Tom Searle told them that he was battling cancer.
“We’re like, ‘What the fuck?’” says Winston. “But there’s a constant thing of, ‘That’s fine, he’ll get past it.’”
Stunned but hopeful, Parkway got on with the duties of promoting Ire. They played Australia, then the US. But at the end of their American tour, the band received more devastating news: one of their partners was diagnosed with cancer.
Winston’s voice audibly cracks with emotion as he relates this. He pauses for several seconds to collect himself. “It was just horrible,” he says quietly.
Winston won’t disclose which band member it was, or the name of their partner, to protect their privacy, but it hit the whole band hard. Once again they dealt with it the only way they knew how: by throwing themselves into their work. “It was the same thing: we do what we have to do, as a band.”
They carried on playing, pouring their frustration and confusion into their shows. In January 2016, Parkway Drive toured Europe with Architects in support. Halfway through, Tom was forced to drop out to go and have treatment. “You think, ‘Fucking hell, this is serious,’” says Winston.
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When the European tour finished, the band returned to Australia to give their battered psyches a break and attempt to make sense of the last few months. For Winston, it was a chance to spend time with his wife, their cat, and their bull terrier, Monty.
As the singer tells it, Monty was as close a friend as any human. Winston and his wife had rescued the dog a few years earlier, and Monty even sat in while the band demoed Ire. “He was fucking awesome,” says Winston. “He was the scaredest little dog, but he’d protect us to the end.”
It was while Winston was back in Australia that Monty was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He becomes visibly emotional, struggling to fight back the tears as he tries to explain.
“They said, ‘He’s got two months to live,’” he says eventually. “And my family unit is my wife, my cat and my dog. It was like, ‘Fucking hell, everything’s happening.’ Then two weeks later, he ran down to the gate and just lay down. He passed away while I was holding him.” He pauses. “I had to dig that grave.”
He takes a deep breath. It’s hard enough dredging the reservoir of emotion associated with two cancer diagnoses and the death of his dog. But what’s coming next is even harder.
Parkway Drive’s Main Stage appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals in August 2016 were supposed to be the high points of their year. They were already in Europe in the run-up to the shows, hammering the mainland festival circuit.
Then just under a week before they were due to arrive in the UK, they received the news they had been dreading: Tom Searle had passed away.
It hit Parkway Drive hard, but they battled through their grief. On August 27, they arrived at Reading for an intense mid-afternoon set. It was a victorious performance, fuelled by a mixture of anger and loss. But their triumph was punctured by more devastating news. The band woke up the morning after to the news that the band member’s partner who had been diagnosed with cancer had passed away.
“That was fucked,” says Winston. “We pulled out of Leeds. We were sitting there, going, ‘What can we do? We could physically play, but there’s no way we can stand up there…’” He trails off.
He won’t go into specifics of the death, but the news understandably poleaxed the band. “We were like the walking dead. It hit us so massively. You’re in the most isolated situation you can be in – you’re a handful of people stuck on a bus while fucking shit goes as wrong as it can around you. And then at the same time you’re stepping out onstage and going, ‘Here we are!’ to thousands of people in front of you. And that wasn’t the end of it.”
Since then, he says, there hasn’t been a period when they haven’t received a phone call to say a family member or friend has been diagnosed with cancer or has died from the disease. The last time it happened was a few days before they arrived in Europe for this promotional trip.
“You have a recovery period, then there’s another thing that comes along,” he says. “It’s heartless to say, but it’s now normal. I’m used to the grief process. How fucked is that? You’ve just got to sit there and reflect on who you’re not going to see again, and think about the impact these people have had on your life. And you’re still here,” he adds, not bothering to keep the tang of irony from his voice. “Lucky you.”
There are several startling moments on Reverence. The spoken-word intro to opening track Wishing Wells evokes Winston’s great hero, Nick Cave, a comparison that prompts him to crack a grin. Then there’s Cemetery Bloom, a slow-burning electronic goth song that’s loaded with menace and imagery of death.
But the most startling moment is the album’s final song, The Colour Of Leaving. Musically, it’s stark and stripped down. Lyrically, it’s an unvarnished howl at the futility of life and the unfairness of death. At one point in the song, Winston’s voice begins to buckle and it sounds like he won’t be able go on. It’s tough to listen to. It must have been tougher to record.
“It’s fucking blunt,” he says. “I wrote half of that song after Monty passed away, and half after what was going on with Tom and that week of fucking hell. But I didn’t know if I could actually perform it in whatever way.”
In the end, he decided that he had to record it. The first time he spoke the words, he broke down. He managed just four takes of the song because it was so tough. The one on the album is the only one where he holds it together. “I’m laying it down as a marker,” he says. “I’m saying, ‘There has to be fucking something – you’ve taken everything from me, but I’ve got words. Fuck you for taking everything from me.”
This defiant mood bled across the album. He insisted on performing Wishing Wells in the dark. “The lights are out, I’m taking my fucking shirt off, pulling at my face, fucking spit everywhere,” he says. “It was pouring the frustration of everything we can’t answer into song.”
That frustration courses through Reverence, but Parkway have inverted it, refocusing it into a blazing anger. While several of the album’s songs inevitably deal with their experiences of the last few years, others turn their rage outwards, taking furious aim at everything from the modern culture’s constant need for shallow validation (Prey) to I Hope You Rot’s takedown of the child abuse scandal currently engulfing the Catholic church in Australia, partly inspired by a friend who experienced the horrors of institutionalised abuse.
“It’s not, ‘Fuck you, God; fuck you, religion’ – believe in what you want, I don’t mind,” he says. “But if you’re going to be a moral authority, if you’re going to ask us to put a fucking pen on a Bible in a court of law, and then you have a legal loophole where the people who have been raped by your priests can’t legally sue you, where you hide your wealth within our community, how else do you describe evil?”
The song’s title, I Hope You Rot, doesn’t pull any punches. He looks pissed off that it’s even worth mentioning.
“No. Fuck it. Seriously, what the fuck else was I supposed to do?”
If Winston McCall has learned anything from the past few years, it’s that everything matters and nothing matters.
“If there’s ever been a time when your mortality is starkly placed in front of you, it’s when a friend or family member who is perfectly fit, who is a wonderful human being, gets the clock handed to them,” he says. “And there’s no reason that you can grasp why it’s happening. You try to find something to aim at.”
Winston knows that Reverence will be just as divisive as Ire was, that the people who didn’t come along for the ride back then aren’t about to jump onboard here. He knows, and he doesn’t give a fuck. He puts on an ironic whine.
“‘Motherfuckers don’t have breakdowns any more. Rest In Peace, Parkway, you’re dead.’ It’s like, ‘Whoa, shit went south quickly.’ But you sit back and go, ‘Fuck it, there’s all that stuff and then there’s what’s real.’ And this record’s a reality check.”
Reverence offers little in the way of optimism, meaning what few glimmers of light it does offer stand out all the more. ‘And through it all, we wore the pain’, rages Winston on one track, In Blood. ‘We held our own / through the darkest of our nights.’” It’s hardly a party banger, but it does display a grim satisfaction that they’re still here after all they’ve been through. It’s a strange kind of victory but it’s a victory nonetheless.
“I wrote it as a testament to the fact we’ve been able to survive,” says the singer. “I was proud of the band, I was proud of what we made. I was proud that we made it.”
Was there ever a chance that Parkway Drive might not have made it? That everything you went through might have ended the band?
“No, it brought us closer together,” he says instantly. “I know these people. They’re my fucking family. I’ve spent 15 years of my life with these people. We’ve seen some shit together. Not just what happened in the last few years, but right from the start. And there’s no way we’re giving up after all that.”
There’s still a long way to go, and some things are never going to be the same. But Parkway Drive are slowly walking back out into the light, one step at a time.
Originally published in Metal Hammer 309