At first, the concluding song on SubRosa's For This We Fought The Battle of Ages feels like the haunting denouement to an arc largely inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 dystopian novel We. When the album was released this past August, "Troubled Cells" was revealed not only as a departure from the primary source material but as a bold, extremely personal statement by singer/songwriter/guitarist Rebecca Vernon and the Salt Lake City doom-metal band.
Although based in the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vernon is one of only a handful of local musicians who is of the Mormon faith. And while the push and pull between conservative Mormon teachings and the more liberal views of the artistic community can present a struggle, that was amplified one year ago when the church announced that gay members of the church who marry will face excommunication. In addition, the new policy also forbids children of gay parents to be baptized until they turn 18 — and then only if they formally disavow their parents' lifestyle.
As a firm supporter of LGBTQ rights, this hit Vernon hard, and as she dreaded, the suicide rate among LGBTQ Mormons escalated in the wake of the announcement. Partially inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," she wrote "Troubled Cells" in an effort to spread awareness about just how threatened and ostracized LGBTQ people in the Mormon community feel. "Troubled Cells" is a somber track that taps into the atmospherics of early Black Sabbath ballads, Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and 1980s gothic rock for sonic inspiration; violinists Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton provide gorgeous accompaniment. Vernon doesn't hold back in her condemnation, capping off the song with the line "Paradise is a lie if we have to burn you at the stake to get inside."
Now, SubRosa has collaborated with Los Angeles filmmaker Danica Vallone to create a beautiful and heartbreaking story, filmed in the Mojave Desert, for the track. Vernon says, "Our video is focused on outreach to LGBTQ youth and spreading awareness and changing people's minds and hearts." She and Vallone spoke with NPR about the song and video.
What has the reaction been since you came forward with your struggles with the Mormon faith and its stance against LGBTQ people?
Rebecca Vernon: Well, I've always had struggles with my faith since I was 14, mostly centered around how basic and simple things can become so twisted and far removed from their original intent, thanks to humans.
There has not been much of a huge reaction in my personal life because 95 percent of my friends are not Mormon and they all see eye-to-eye with me on this issue. So almost all the reaction I have gotten has been positive and supportive so far. I expect that to not so much be the case after the video comes out.
For those of us who lack the perspective, just how difficult is it for a Mormon in Salt Lake City to take such a public stance against something the church says?
Vernon: It is actually not at all difficult in a general sense. There is plenty of diversity in Salt Lake City, plenty of freedom of expression and of the press, and Mormons are in the minority here. There is a thriving counterculture, with a huge music and art scene, restaurant scene, several prominent alternative weeklies like SLUG (Salt Lake UnderGround) Magazine, Salt Lake City Weekly and QSalt Lake Magazine (Salt Lake's LGBTQ news, entertainment, arts magazine). And surprisingly enough, Salt Lake has a very strong, supportive LGBTQ community and, in a recent New York Times/SCRUFF survey, was ranked as one of the top 5 "Surprisingly Gay Friendly Travel Destinations."
Where most of the band will encounter difficulty is among Mormon members of our families being upset with us for taking a stand. Four of the five members of the band have at least some Mormon family members who might disapprove, and could face this difficulty. I don't want to make my own family upset on purpose, of course, but the band still felt it was very important for us to do this.
Why did you choose Danica Vallone and Kinetic Pictures to make the video? How did you learn about her?
Vernon: We met Danica Vallone one star-crossed night at Psycho California fest in Santa Ana in May 2015. She came up to us after the show and said she wanted us to be involved with a theater project she was working on. We instantly liked her and clicked with her and stayed in touch. When I told her a year later that our initial plans for the video were falling through, she called a few filmmaker friends to see if they were interested in directing it, and she finally landed on Thomas Dekker, with Danica herself as co-director and producer.
I can't say enough good things about director Thomas, co-director and producer Danica, co-producer Connor Sullivan and all the rest of the film crew, who donated 100 percent of their time and energy for this project. They saw what we were trying to do and believed in it so much that they were willing to make huge sacrifices to make it happen. I was blown away by their passion, hunger for excellence and perfection and work ethic. And it is amazing the way Danica can inspire such commitment and action from people.
How much input did you have regarding the video's concept?
Vernon: Kim [Pack] and I came up with the basic idea of the video narrative (the children traveling in the desert, the wood carver) while we were on a hike one day. We were really agonizing over the video concept for quite some weeks, and then the idea just burst upon us that day. We shared the narrative with Danica, thinking she would laugh at us because the storyline is very simple and straightforward — not abstract, sophisticated and artsy like some other great music videos she's worked on. But she seemed to instantly grasp the narrative, was able to visualize it and offered tweaks to the storyline that made it even better, like expanding the wood carver's part in the video. It was such an incredible experience to have her comprehend our vision so quickly.
How well do you think the video turned out?
Vernon: We feel like the video turned out better than our greatest expectations. It was such an odd, exhilarating feeling watching actual scenes Kim and I had pictured and talked about coming to life in front of our eyes in the Mojave Desert during filming.
Anything we had pictured or envisioned as the final project was more than surpassed by the actual final project put out by Thomas Dekker, Danica Vallone and the whole Kinetic Pictures film crew.
What kind of pushback, if any, have you seen against the Mormon church since you took your stance?
Vernon: There has been quite a big pushback since Nov. 5, 2015, from many different groups since the policy came out (not since we took our stance, though; we don't have that big of an influence here). Many different LGBTQ support groups, those affiliated with the church and those who aren't, seemed to instantly grasp the damage and the danger such a policy could cause to the lives and mental well-being of one of our state's most vulnerable populations. Many LGBTQ people and allies were galvanized to action like I was, to speak out, to volunteer and to do something, anything, to voice disagreement and alarm in small and big ways.
There has been plenty of pressure on the church leaders [to retract] the policy, with face-to-face meetings, tears, pleading, education and advocacy. However, so far, nothing has changed formally at the highest levels of the church.
I have no idea if our video will have an influence at that level. Our video is focused on outreach to LGBTQ youth and spreading awareness and changing people's minds and hearts.
Danica Vallone, how much freedom did the band give you, as far as the video's concept went?
Danica Vallone: I've wanted to work with SubRosa for some time. The Ursula K. Le Guin short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," upon which the song was inspired, was already a personal favorite and the message resonated with me. Since our tastes align so well, it was very easy to establish a solid rapport and basis of trust that easily transitioned into complete freedom and fluidity of expression. They knew my heart was in the right place and quickly saw that the level of execution that my team could deliver was enough to set any fears or reservations to rest.
When I told them I wanted to bury an 8-year-old child alive in a sand pit in the desert, they smiled and said, "OK, Danica. We trust you. It'll look great!"
Can you explain the video, and how it correlates with what Rebecca wrote about in the song, to readers?
Vallone: The story centers upon two children traveling through a desert wasteland in search of paradise. Everyone in their world bares a symbol on their chest, but the younger traveler's symbol sets him apart as an outsider. At every encounter we see him ostracized and punished for this difference, culminating in his final and ultimate rejection from the gates of paradise. Rather than calling out and denying his brother's chance at Utopia, he walks away and allows the desert to swallow him whole.
The chorus of SubRosa's "Troubled Cells" and the crux of the film's meaning are one and the same: "Paradise is a lie" if it comes at the expense of being true to yourself, or sacrificing the ones you love.
What was it like filming the video out in the desert? What challenges were you faced with?
Vallone: From the start, we knew we had an incredibly ambitious shoot with very little time and even less money. Even still, the scope of the project continued to grow. We were dealing with harsh physical environments, grueling heat, forest fires sweeping California — forcing sudden changes to shooting locations and a myriad of schedule conflicts. But the cause was so great and the emotional investment so large, we knew there was no turning back.
How satisfied are you with the end result?
Vallone: One of the most impressive things about this project is the human element — the crew itself. Every single one of us donated 100 percent of our time and resources to make this video possible, forgoing our usual rates and declining all other jobs.
Each and every one of us was somehow connected in a deep and personal way to the message. Many of us are members of the LGBTQ community, many of us grew up under the weight of religious repression and many of us have been deeply impacted by the devastation of losing someone we love to suicide.
Never before in all of my years working in this industry have I seen a crew band together with such purity of conviction — without which this film would not exist. That is what I am most proud of. It's easy to think that we live in a cynical, money-driven, apathetic world. Projects like this provide us the opportunity to believe otherwise.
I can easily say this is one of the most worthy projects I have worked on and I am honored to have been a part of it. We were paid in scorpions, rattlesnakes and mosquito bites. Oh yeah, and love. Lots of love.