Interview: Planning for Burial

A lot of records are about relationships and I like to think that 'Below the House' is about my relationship with alcohol and being at home alone a lot with too much time in my own head.

Tim Porter had a chance to speak with Thom Wasluck from Planning for Burial before a show at Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn NY. It was one of the first shows of a tour to support his most recent album, Below the House, which was released in early March. The album is an intimate and pensive look into struggle with isolation, loneliness, depression, stress, while also imparting a touching empathy for the struggles of others, all through an alcohol drenched lens (see our review here). It was conceived during a period of big changes for Thom, as he moved back to his parental home in rural Pennsylvania to start an apprenticeship working in pipe insulation at a nuclear plant.

(((o))): Talk about moving to Wilkes Barre – was it as influential to this record and life changing as the PR makes it sound?

Thom: A little of it PR because that’s an angle they could run with. When I first moved back it was a really quick thing. I took a test to get into an apprenticeship on a Tuesday and literally the Thursday of that week I got a call asking if I was working. I had been laid off from another job, so I said I was available and they said they wanted me to start the next day. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to grasp how quickly my life had just changed. Moving back, a lot of the friends I had growing up weren’t there any more so I fell into a pattern of going to work, going to class, and then coming home and staying in my room – and that’s where this album comes from.

(((o))): Has that changed much since?

Thom: Honestly, not really. I can be pretty introverted. Also, I work a lot of long hours so when I get home I just want to sit in bed.

(((o))): Do people in the area appreciate your music?

Thom: I’m not sure yet. I’ve only played two shows there so far. I played one in December and a lot of people came and seemed to really like it. It seemed like a lot of people that I knew in high school or played in hardcore bands with who had moved on to cooler things have moved back to the area, so it seems like there might be more of a scene developing. Also, Scranton and Wilkes Barre both have colleges. There are some good venues in the area too. Although, now that I’m getting older, I’m not always on top of what’s happening.

(((o))): While your records typically span a wide range of emotions, there is definitely a greater sense of melancholy. Where does that come from?

I think it was just the sounds I was into growing up. It wasn’t because I had a bad home life or anything like that. I liked 80’s ballads and they were always downtrodden minor key stuff. ‘November Rain’ was one of my all-time favorite songs. My parents used to play the Moody Blues at home a lot. I wouldn’t say there was a conscious choice to do what I do. It’s just what comes out.

(((o))): I read you were heavily influenced by Marilyn Manson? (I asked the question while looking at the Marilyn Manson t-shirt he was wearing during the interview) 

Thom: This is an exact replica of a t-shirt I used to have when I was 13 that my mother tore up. It was at the height of all the Antichrist Superstar controversy and my mother didn’t want us listening to it. But we’d already been listening to him for five years and she didn’t even know. The brother of my friend had been giving us tapes. So, when Manson made it really big and everyone started listening to them we were already there. Both Mason and Trent Reznor were big influences.

(((o))): I also hear a lot of 80’s goth influence too. Am I wrong?

Thom: That’s because my oldest sister was really into The Cure when I was a kid. I used to listen to all her albums. It’s funny because my favorite Cure album was Wish, which had a lot of really good songs on it, but when people hear my stuff they immediately assume Disintegration was the big influence – and it was –  but it came later. It just happened that she had Wish and Staring at the Sea, so those were the ones I listened to.

(((o))): What about metal influences? You seem to get classified as metal, but have come at it from a completely different direction than most.

Thom: I think that my metal influences were from the screamo bands of the late 90’s. What I learned of doom was from bands like Pg. 99 and City of Caterpillar that were pushing boundaries and trying new things at the time. I used to think I was a big metal guy in high school, but now when I look back I realize I wasn’t really that metal, haha. I liked things that were metal tinged and aggressive, but weren’t really metal. The metal band I loved when I was in high school was Cradle of Filth. I liked the aggression, the melodies, the speed…they went to shit after that, but they were good on that tour.

(((o))): Take me through your writing approach.

Thom: Sometimes I’ll have an idea that comes when I’m doing some monotonous task at work and then I come home and work it out. But a lot of times the ideas come from me lying in bed with my acoustic guitar strumming away. And I might play a riff for weeks on the acoustic before I get to doing it on an electric and try to write around it. And then I’ll be looping stuff and writing layers around it.

(((o))): Has that changed much since the first two records?

Thom: Not really. I had a nice basement setup when I lived in Matawan, so it was easier to refine ideas. I had all my amps and a drum kit set up, so I could experiment with ideas quite a bit. But, no, it’s basically the same.

(((o))): What about the layering?

Thom: I like to pay different variations of the same chord on top of one another. And that comes out in the looping and listening, doing demos, and listening, and revising, and listening again. When I was young I’d have to do all this on a four track, but now I have a lot more flexibility with loopers. But I might have a song mostly done and play it one way for eight months and keep listening to demos of it before deciding it needs something here or there. Some songs I listen to for a year before I think they are done. It takes a lot of time for me go through that process. For instance, Below the House came out in March this year. I started recording it in March 2015. I was finished with it in June of 2016. I didn’t even give it to the label until mid-September 2016 because I spent three months with it in my car listening to it making sure I liked it enough to do a final master on it.

(((o))): Do you have a favorite song?

Thom: Right now, its ‘Warmth of You’. It was one of the songs where I figured out new ways of looping so that I could incorporate more song structure.

(((o))): How do you translate what you do in the studio into a live performance?

Thom: I have a sampler for live shows and a lot of the synth and drum sounds programmed in it and trigger them for different parts of songs. They don’t always meet up perfectly, though. I’m trying not to use MIDI, so if it’s off a little bit, it’s off a little bit. I don’t want it to be precise. I don’t want to be a band that comes on stage and just plays a record. I really respect bands who can do that, but for me I want to see things that are a slight variation.

(((o))): I stopped going to Radiohead shows because of that…

Thom: That’s funny, weren’t they supposed to be all about improv on Kid-A?

(((o))): I read that you recorded this album in your home…how did you do that?

Thom: When people were gone! Haha. That’s why some songs didn’t happen. My mom is semi-retired and I didn’t want to bring a half stack into the living room and blare the same guitar part for three hours while she was around till I got it right. I’d just wait for people to leave and start pacing the table giving them hints to leave if they were hanging around too long. I used the living room, basement…did the vocals in the bathroom.

(((o))): How’d you know what room to do what in?

Thom: I lived there growing up, and did a lot of recording experimentation in high school, so I had a good idea of what sounded good in what room. It’s a pretty low-fi, process, but that’s what I want. I went to school for recording engineering and did well in the classes but I hated being there. Their answer to everything was “fix it in the mix”. I was like “NOO, it needs to have flaws, it needs to be human!”

(((o))): Did you have anyone helping you?

Thom: No. I’m neurotic about that. I never have anyone helping me. I do it all myself. I even mixed it myself, with a laptop and speakers on my kitchen table. Even my parents don’t know much about what I’m doing. They know it’s a real thing and that I get flown around for shows, but they haven’t heard the music. My dad only recently found out what the name of the band was when I sent him a picture of a flyer by mistake.

(((o))): Where does the name Planning for Burial come from?

Thom: From my grandfather. He was the hardest toughest man I’ve ever known. When I was 13, my grandmother died of a heart attack out of nowhere. At the funeral, he broke down and I’d never seen him like that, never seen him show much emotion. He got diagnosed with cancer shortly after and died six months later. We never knew what kind of cancer he had because he didn’t tell anyone and wouldn’t take treatment. He basically wanted to die. So, during that time he literally planned his own burial. I watched him pick out his own casket and arrangements. At 13, that was the most impactful thing I’d seen. Probably still is.

(((o))): Somehow, we got to the topic of age and the fact that Thom is 33, and that Jesus was 33 when he was crucified, and that genius accomplishments are generally done by people age 33 or younger.

Thom: I’ve thought about that – you know Robert Smith was 29 when he made Disintegration? I show my friends Desideratum and am like “look what I made when I was 29”…so, yea I understand that. I also heard that people stop listening to new music at age 33. They get set in their ways and I’m scared that I’m starting do that. When I was 20 I used to go to record stores and buy tons of stuff and research bands and then buy whole discographies. Now it’s like one band at a time and not much research, haha. But doing shows really helps. There are so many really great bands out there.

(((o))): Let’s talk about alcohol…

Thom: Lets! I have a jack and coke here. And the coke is there just to slow me down!

I was straight edge until I was 27, not that long ago, then I went all the way the other way. In my work, it’s a lot of project work, so I’ll work really hard for a few months and then have a few months off with a lot of free time. During those months, I would go hard and drink every single day. The whole of Desideratum was about how my life was a mess and I was drinking. I can hear in my vocals how drunk I was on that record. But even though Below the House is mostly about drinking, I finished it when I was sober. A lot of records are about relationships and I like to think that Below the House is about my relationship with alcohol and being at home alone a lot with too much time in my own head.

(((o))): Alice Cooper picked up golf in order to stop drinking so that he’d have something to do during the hours he’d normally be drinking.

Thom: I was wondering how he got into golf. But, yea I got up one morning and decided I had to stop. So, what I started doing is making ambient noise tapes for people. I wouldn’t start it until the time I’d normally start drinking. And that went on for three months. I hand painted all the covers, too. And that’s how I stopped drinking…sort of like Alice Cooper with golf. Now I’m much better about being moderate.

Thom will be doing a short tour of the North-Eastern US this spring followed by some West Coast dates in May. If you are in the area, make sure to see him. He puts on a fantastic show.

4/8 – Sidebar, Baltimore MD
4/11 – The Pharmacy, Philadelphia PA
4/15 – Sunnyvale, Brooklyn NY
5/26 – Tba, Las Angeles  CA
5/27 – Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco CA
5/28 – Tba, Portland OR
6/24 – The Middle East, Boston MA

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