Thom Wasluck’s grandfather knew he was going to die soon. This somber, reluctant recognition of the ephemeral moments in which we live was the inspiration behind the Pennsylvania native’s solo brand of bleak, guitar-driven drone and noise soundscapes, as well as his acclaimed debut.
Cross Sections is a series which offers a track-by-track commentary on the cult records that are surrounded in as much mystique as the artists that created them. In this first instalment, I sat down with Wasluck for an insightful narration of his 2009 sleeper hit, Leaving.
“Wearing Sadness And Regret On Our Faces”
So, what was the writing process for the first track here, was it one of the earlier songs you wrote?
It was the earliest song for the record, or at least the one that made me think “I need to write a record around this one”.
So this is one of the earliest Planning For Burial tracks?
Not even close. I think this was started in late December 2006 but wasn’t started to be recorded until early 2007. I had been writing material under the name Planning For Burial since August 2005 that I’d let my friends listen to or just throw up on Myspace.
What did the earlier versions of this song sound like? Did it change much before being recorded for Leaving?
It wasn’t so much that were earlier versions, the basic foundation of the song from the start is the very same. I just added and subtracted things as I went along. From what I remember there was a slightly longer intro with a reversed guitar part but it didn’t do anything to really add to the song. The basic foundation was recorded in 2007 for this song and I was layering and mixing all the way through early 2009 at various stages.
Do the lyrics take you back to a certain event/person/time in your life?
It’s not clear to me now what was actually the catalyst for the lyrics themselves, but I remember sitting on my bed playing guitar and singing along to it. I think maybe I was disillusioned to a relationship I was in that had lasted for a few years longer after this than it should have.
Is that how a lot of the lyrics on Leaving came about? Just coming to you somewhere out of the ether based on some transient feeling at that time in your life?
Yeah, I would say so. Most of the songs are barely a line or two long that I just liked to repeat. The overall idea of Leaving became wanting the sound of everything to show exactly how I was feeling during that time period, and it wasn’t so much based on the lyrics.
“Memories You’ll Never Feel Again”
The next track I always thought was a weird odd one out in the Planning For Burial catalogue because of the odd waltzing rhythm it has. It sticks out a lot since your songs usually have a really slow, crawling tempo.
This one started how a lot of my songs start, which is walking around this house strumming my shitty acoustic. So I eventually I brought it to the electric and looped it, and would run over and play drums along to it. I like playing in 3/4 a lot but it doesn’t always happen within my music. This song was also finished over the course of a year or two just working on it little by little as time went on. There were parts of other solos for it that were “better”, but the overall performance wasn’t exactly right to the feeling, so I kept deleting and replaying it until I got the performance on the record.
Did you lay the groundwork for a lot of this material just by looping riffs like that?
On this record it was working out parts from loops and then figuring out transitions to next parts. It was mostly so I could play drums along to them and write other parts where I used to do that with a 4-track and need to have a lot of the base figured out so I could record it and then write other parts on top of it. Being able to play along to something I had just wrote on the spot felt a lot more organic, and I could work with stuff for a little before I tried getting it to the point of recording. Though a lot of the other little things and layers that happened throughout time came about the old way just playing a long to what was recorded and figuring it out.
This song’s always reminded me of that one Pg.99 song that’s in 3/4.
Oh, definitely. I think that’s where my love of 3/4 timing comes from.
“Oh Pennsylvania, Your Black Clouds Hang Low”
So what kind of records were you listening to when you were writing “Oh Pennsylvania”?
I’m not really sure. I think the song has the metal stuff, drone and noise elements. I was obviously listening to a lot of doom and more riff based stuff but again i think it came out of me just coming up with the riff and loving to play along to it on drums.
What about the latter half of the song? Did that just come about through usual kind of organic looping and writing?
Yeah, I knew it needed to have different parts so I wrote that separately, then got them to work together before recording it.
What kind of emotions or feelings were you trying to convey with this sound? I mean, obviously, there’s lots of screams and loud guitars so it can’t be very positive.
I think the feelings are more in the extra things going on. The somber plucked parts at the end, the “crying” type lead guitar, the organ chords on top of power chords on the guitar…
So, if the feelings are in the little instrumental details, what does the main “sound” of the song mean to you? like, where did that song come from when you were writing from it, emotionally?
Sometimes you just want to play loud heavy things. Just being young and still feeling some sort of angst and aggression.
“Humming Quietly”’s main ‘riff’ has a post-punky vibe to it. Like a Peter Hook-style bassline but transposed for a doomy guitar. It sounds like something from Closer.
This was the last song I wrote and recorded for the album, same with looping and then building within the recording program. I finished it only a few days before I sent it off to be mastered. There are earlier versions that are a lot more thinner-sounding. I added some underlying drone for the first half and just did little things to give the song more oomph.
You’ve only recently started playing this live, right?
Yeah, I’ve maybe only played the song live twice still because it’s about figuring out how to get everything to kick in and line up the way I want them too without playing to a pre-recorded song.
Is that a common issue you have with songs from this record? Since they’re a bit more “studio”, rather than the tracks from 2012 to Desideratum which are more suited to play live?
Exactly. These songs were written essentially the same way with use of loops to help me write, but then assembled. I never actually use loops when recording. Everything is played 100% live regardless if the part is repeated a million times
Must’ve been a pain when you were recording the 16 min closer to your last record.
You don’t even know.
“We Left Our Bodies With The Earth”
So what kind of effects were used on “We Left Our Bodies…”? It’s a very guitar-driven track, just straight up fuzzy drones, sort of like Earth 2.
Yeah, mostly fuzz, and a little bit of delay on the lead guitar part. This was actually heavily influenced by Old Man Gloom’s Christmas album
Trying to go for that crunchy Kurt Ballou sound?
It was more about the riff itself. The ending drone section was accidental, things got caught in a longer delay. I keep a lot of “happy accidents” in my songs. This stuff was recorded live, exactly how you hear it just trying for something and seeing what would come out. Obviously there were other layers added on, but there were no click tracks so it had to be done by feeling.
“Being A Teenager And The Awkwardness Of Backseat Sex”
So, “Being A Teenager…” has become a weird fan favourite in your discography, which is kind of strange for an 8 minute drone which is mostly repetition, why do you think that is?
Honestly not sure. I almost didn’t put it on the album. For whatever reason I just didn’t think it was a strong enough song at a time. I know I’m mistaken now. The little ending section was added awhile later. There’s a lot of stuff going on this song that’s super hidden too, there are sections of playing a tape recorder with myself talking saying “is this everything you’ve ever wanted out of life” and rewinding it quick for effect.
Any more little details like that hidden in the record?
The opening sound of “Oh Pennsylvania” and the end is my voice. But I think its easy to get caught up in repetition and let it wash over you and have subtle extra things build up. I have said to a friend in the past the ending is like what I would imagine some acoustic artist from the early 2000s would do if they layered shit and had their crowd singing along. I wasn’t going for that sound, but it’s how it worked it out.
You should start doing that at shows so people can sing along. Anyway, speaking of singing along, anything you want to say about the lyrics?
It was written around the time my girlfriend at the time’s father died. He died super suddenly, and it was more thinking about [how] there isn’t much to life. But the title of the song also plays in too, because I like to do things with double meanings. Instant gratification isn’t always that great.
“Seasons Change So Slowly”
The outro dialogue of this track is probably one of the most harrowing parts of the record. Could you explain the significance of it?
It was honestly something I found on PostSecret years and years ago, but it felt completely right. It reminded me of a story my grandfather told my father and I when he was dying (which this whole situation was what birthed the name “Planning For Burial”) about his brother, and how he had loved this woman he had dated, and he went away to war and came back, and she moved on and he never stopped loving her. That story has always crushed me, and maybe has shaped the way I think about some of the loves of my own life. So when I saw that, it had hit a chord within me and I knew I needed to use it somehow. The lyrics to the song are super simple too: “I think about you enough to know that it’s too much”.
Was there a particular record or producer’s sound that you had as a reference when recording Leaving?
No, not at all. I have said it a million times, my number-one love since I was at least 5 was always music. I had begun collecting music since I was about 10 and I listened to so many different styles that its hard to pinpoint. It’s a culmination of being a lifelong music addict.
So Planning For Burial’s sound has always felt super natural to you? Has its sound changed much since you started recording under that name?
Yeah, I think some of the earlier stuff may have been a little straightforward metal, but I was also working on some of the slower, more layered stuff too. But it was always a progression, even when I was a teenager playing in shitty metal and hardcore bands, I was sitting home by myself using a 4-track, recording weird songs.
“Verse Chorus Verse”
“Dress me in my best suit, I want to look good in my coffin”?
How you want to be remembered when you die.
Would you be proud to be remembered with these recordings when you pass away?
Yeah. It’s one of those records, to me at least, that after being so far removed from it and looking back after time and listening that I’m proud of. Something that could’ve only been recorded naturally and organically, making music for yourself because its just something you do, then getting lucky people caught on to it. I could, and will, never be able to make this record again in my life.
Even without the context of being the last “proper” song on the album, this song has a very final, dirge-like quality to it. Was it inspired by any particular incidents perhaps involving a passing? I mean, so much of the album seems to be inspired by the passage of time.
I was told a very close friend of mine from high school had passed away, and a few years earlier when I moved away to college, her boyfriend was killed in a car crash. The day she died I recorded this. I played it out, and once the real drone of it kicked in I just sat on my basement floor with my headphones on, letting the drone die out, and thought about them and how I’d never see them again. I always swore if I went to a high school reunion-type situation, it would be to see the two of them. People lose touch over time but it doesn’t mean their passings are any less significant.
So, the last track, is it just you on the organ? It feels like there isn’t any overdubs or anything, just a really natural, organic drone.
It was a synth into a few delays, recorded mono. No overdubs, nothing. The only reason it was recorded in mono was because I just set everything up super quick and needed to get it documented somehow.
Was there much of a writing process for this song, considering the immediacy of you wanting to “document” the sound?
Not at all. Maybe played it for a minute or two, stopped and got everything set up quickly, then went in, and then let a longer analog delay capture the ending drift.
Do you see it as more than just an “outro”, and more of an actual composition despite that? Usually intro and outro tracks can be more of an afterthought or a throwaway.
Yeah. Well it wasn’t a throwaway, but when I was listening back to the first sequences of the record it was helping me drift into sleep, And I kinda wanted the final track to take that idea home. So as an outro it felt natural.
Is that a common thing? Do you try to give your music an immersive quality that affects the listener in some way with your material?
I don’t really overthink my music too much. Again, it’s hard to think about Leaving, and what I was really feeling and thinking at the time. I was 22 when I started writing it, and I’m almost a decade removed from that person now. I didn’t have people asking questions about the album for many years after it was even released, so I never really had to think about it too much. It was a labor of love, because I was constantly working on it off and on for years without ever thinking anybody besides a friend or two would actually listen to it.
Leaving is available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.