Interview: Thrice

More often than not at all, in ascertaining the reasons surrounding why I thought it would be a brilliant idea to name this blog, and indeed as consequence this company I find myself directing, Killing Moon, the typical follow-up relates to asking how long and indeed how intensely I’ve been a fan of Echo & The Bunnymen, who it turned out had a very popular song of the same namesake. The rather big twist here is that, like a lot of people my age (I ain’t that old, but unfortunately I’m not that young anymore either), I only really discovered that band and indeed the song in question when Donnie Darko was doing the rounds way back in 2001. This year proved to be quite pivotal for me in a rather coincidental way. I was in sixth-form college at the time, or rather had just started, and I still to this day have it pegged down as the definitive confusing time in my life whereby a lot of people around me seemed to be adulting at an exponential rate and I, well, quite wanted to stay a child for a while longer. The first time I had read about Thrice that year was of course in Kerrang which featured the band in a breaking-capacity, and beyond their solid-dressing tight-tshirt and big-belt-buckled volcanic ensemble causing me to follow suit aesthetically with them for about, oh the next decade or so, the album they released that year, The Illusion Of Safety, would not only serve as the basis of my core melodic-hardcore musical tastes that I still ashamedly/unashamedly rock out to on the reg to this day; but also would push the boundaries of metaphor-laden lyricism purveyed by vocalist Dustin Kensrue to the same sort of limit that I was only becoming accustomed to Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio (and now Blink 182) fame doing at the time.

The follow up to this album – 2003’s The Artist In The Ambulance – arrived in similarly poignant fashion relating to my circumstances at the time. I was (still) very much a confused and outwardly unhappy person, seemingly able to reconcile any differences I had with my ostensible confusion and the realisation that I was somehow socially inept (I’ve since learned that this is rather typical when one is going through this thing called adolescence). Owing to this and several other circumstances, some self-imposed and others not so much, my obsession to be in a touring band to escape my hometown of Ealing, West London grew. The furthest we got from London was Southampton, or possibly Cambridge as I’m not sure which one is actually further from Ealing. The other clearly-remarkable thing that happened that year is that during my A-Level exams – which for our non-UK audience means the exams you have to do here to get into university, which under the New Labour government we had at the time was what everyone was meant to do of course – I suffered a spontaneous hypertension pneumothorax. Or, to most people, a collapsed lung.

I nearly died; and there has been some suggestion since then, due to a great deal of reckless behaviour from myself ever since then, that the insinuation in my head that I very much should have has been touted around. Truthfully, I have only just this year acknowledged that it did happen, rather than deflectively joking that I survived a street fight to anyone truly lucky enough to see the keyhole surgery scars on my left chest to avoid dealing with my own clearly-fragile mortality. But what seemed way worse to me at the time (like I say, I was a rather confused little boy at the time, with the associated priorities pretty much all screwed up) was that I was stuck in hospital for several months, and had to stay behind in Ealing the following year whilst my friends at school all largely completed their exams and were soon to go to their respective educational institutions of choice. Boo frickety hoo indeed. The good bit is that, because they didn’t have things like Spotify or generally an inexpensive non-dial up modem connectivity back at that point, all I had was a neat selection of my CDs that my parents would intermittently replenish me with whilst I was bed-bound in Ealing and/or Hammersmith Hospitals.

The Artist In The Ambulance, for want of a better description, helped me deal with my life confusion and the inevitable frustration that would ensue, and due to the inherent subject matter conveyed about rationalising what is actually important to me in stark defiance of what I was left with the impression of what I was supposed to give a shit about, it started to train my mind to more ambitious and abstract thinking in terms of what I actually wanted to do in life away from the rather clinical and scientific upbringing and education I’d had thus far. Did I even want to go to university? Do the subliminally-expected thing of me by becoming a doctor/lawyer/accountant/[insert reportedly stable vocation here]? Is that what I wanted? Did I even know what I wanted? Does anyone, really? Or would I “stare straight into the sun, and [not] close my eyes till I [understood] or go blind” as pondered upon by my guy Dustin in the track Stare At The Sun?

Either way, the track Under A Killing Moon very much stood out for me as the nudge I would very much need then and intermittently throughout the rest of my life since then – and I suppose that’s reflective as to how dearly I needed the help – to genuinely stop giving a fuck what anyone thought of what I was doing, and who I am. It encouraged me to have an identity, whereas before all I wanted to do before was fit in, mainly because I didn’t feel like I did a lot of the time. It seemed right to name the company after this; I’m not sure I would have ever been brave enough to start my own music business, something I had been dreaming off since being a child (but for fairly obvious reasons didn’t make a big point of this to many people of consequence), if it wasn’t for Thrice.

Much like what I would synonymise with a protector, or a guardian angel of sorts, Thrice would continue since to release albums that appeared entirely relevant to the then-snapshot of what was my life at the time. Vheissu came along just as I was about to finish university (got there in the end, didn’t I? Law was a fun degree, for what its worth). Beggars tipped up during my diminishing relationship of the time due to the growing geographical (and probably other) distances between us. Major/Minor rocked up when half of my company was bought by, well, a major one, which threw my particular brand of indie gospel into disarray. To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere landed while I was seriously fucking pissed off at the EU Referendum result and the uncontrollable anger that ensued. I imagine those reading this right now might indicate to me that humans in times of stress or pain, we will often salvage ourselves through observations of patterns that we delude ourselves into believing will act as our salvation – sort of like seeing the face of a loved one in the clouds overhead when that person has recently passed away (that one also happens to me). That may be the case here. But if it is a delusion, it is a very much coveted one as far as I’m concerned. It is good to have something positive to believe in, especially in this day and age I find. Faith. Hope. That kind of shit.

The other main thing this band has taught me is that change is inevitable; again, I am only just starting to appreciate this rather than outrightly ignore it, given that like a great many people, I can be very afraid of change. Not only just served by the dynamic lyricism I’ve been banging on about above, but more bluntly Thrice have seemed one of the few bands that entertain an ever-changing sound and approach to studio production as a matter of course in tandem with being one of the few alternative rock bands that can seemingly get away with it, again as a matter of course.

Which brings me to this year – or specifically, the album that Thrice are releasing this year (this week, in fact), their tenth studio album entitled Palms. Suffice to say, once again, delusional or not, I (like to) think its about me. My work has taken me to some interesting places and led me to do some cool things I never thought I would ever get to do. Drooling at this band on the side of the stage at Download Festival this year was at that point the closest proximity I thought I was ever going to get. Then a kind person decided due to said-drooling that it might be cool to talk to one of the principals of a band, singer Dustin Kensrue of all people, that I have no doubt I will love until the next pneumothorax gets me. I’m kidding. I guess I should really stop kidding about that.

Thrice (from L-R): Teppei Teranishi (guitars), Ed Breckenridge (Bass), Dustin Kensrue (Vocals/Guitar), Riley Breckenridge (Drums)

It went a little something like this:

KM: I absolutely love coursing over the musical lineage of your band, ranging from its melodic-hardcore origins to what we’re hearing on Palms presently, which for me signifies a band stepping up from a cult status onto a much bigger platform. For example, your recent performance at Download Festival was likely the most confident I have seen Thrice on much larger stage than I was previously accustomed to. Was stepping up to a bigger platform an intention behind creating your new album Palms? Or do you see it simply as a natural progression from where [your last album] To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere left off?

Dustin Kensrue, singer/guitarist: It definitely wasn’t specific in trying to step into anything “larger” in that sense – in terms of how different the record sounds, in my opinion, was really down to the way it was mixed. In terms of specifics that’s something that we just really wanted to do, trying different things in the recording process and see what happens. We wanted to work with (Grammy-winning producer/engineer/mixer/writer) John Congleton in this respect as he has a really interesting resume as far as the stuff he mixes is concerned, and he doesn’t have a generic sound that he just does as a matter of course which really appealed to us. John’s positively all over the place in terms of exploring sounds in the mixes, so everything from him comes out very bespoke and unique to that particular project. So that’s a huge part in explaining the difference in sound on this record. The other thing is creatively letting things being pretty broad and stretching the different sonic spaces. We decided to let the recording process be sprawling, and trying not to rein it in too much.

KM: Was the record written in situ whilst in the studio with John Congleton? Or did you guys already have demos already knocked together all ready to go to track?

Dustin: It was a kinda hybrid approach. John didn’t come into the picture to work on this until the mixing stage. We had a pre-production form of the songs and took them to a producer we had worked on previous records with called Eric Palmquist who worked on the drums and vocals, whilst we did all the other instruments on our own in a different studio. I think it ended up being a really good approach. We liked recording the instruments on their own and just having the freedom, time and space to do what we wanted, and not feel the pressure of someone waiting for you to deliver something by a certain point, usually because they’re paying for the studio time. So we borrowed or cheaply rented a friend’s studio in advance of the recording to get the sound we wanted and encapsulate the energy we specifically wanted on this record.

KM: What’s the significance of the album’s title, Palms?

Dustin: It’s something that sort of came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up from a dream that wasn’t really related, but the image of a palm or an open hand as a symbol was just stuck in my brain. I think it can be seen as a broad metaphor to represent a lot of different things, and I started to write a list of what this could mean to different people; whether its friendship, non-violence, a personal connection, being open to new ideas. I thought it would be interesting to have a record where all of the songs on it are spokes around a hub that was literally this palm. I sat on it for about a month, then spoke to the guys about it. They seemed to dig the idea and started to add their own interpretations as to what a palm could represent. So everyone was really excited about the idea and we just went for it.

Album artwork for Palms

KM: One of the aspects I adore about Thrice in particular is your songwriting-ability to create music that seemingly has infinite meanings depending on who is listening to it, particularly in the landscape of metaphorical lyrics that have appeared on every album you’ve ever released. I suppose it’s what makes your music so inclusive. For me personally, the aspects I can relate to the most stem from what I perceive as your personal struggle for individuality, a sense of purpose and I’ve always had you guys pegged down as just ongoingly trying to do the right thing in any situation, not least of all evidenced by how your band donates a proportion of album sales to a different charity each time you release one. On Palms, particularly with the opening track Only Us and recent single The Grey, it feels as if you (Dustin) seem way more certain of yourself these days than before. Is that the case?

Dustin: Interesting! That’s accurate in a certain sense, and that sense is that I’m way more certain of not knowing a lot of things – and being happy with that, or at least content. Before this, I feel like I had different things in my life that I needed as a bedrock to who I am. A constant of sorts that I’d just hold onto without really knowing why. I’d feel threatened if anything ever obscured them or twisting them, which in turn made me feel uncomfortable. So yeah. In a way, I’m more comfortable with myself now than before.

KM: Does a worry ever crop up in the songwriting process itself, given your ongoing propensity to change sounds and sentiments on each occasion, that you may in fact lose some of your “core” fans upon releasing each record? Or do you perhaps feel that your fans are of a particular ilk where they seem to grow or change with the band in that respect?

Dustin: I think there’s a broad spectrum when it comes to our fans. There’s definitely a caucus of people who are always excited about the next thing we do in anticipation that it will sound different. Then there’s the fans who are die-hard, but nevertheless are desperately in search of the “singles”, alongside those that really just want us to make The Artist In The Ambulance again. It really does crop up from time to time. But overall, what I love about our fans is that you just know they’re generally in for the long-haul. I suppose it can be difficult for some people to understand that when they’re listening to any piece of art that arrives at a point where the music will, in their interpretation, be tied to what’s going on in their lives at the time – and you can’t really just keep re-creating that. Once we realised that, we try not to worry too much about it and just make the most of what’s in front of us and interests us at that time.

KM: Palms seems to have arrived at a time where I am myself personally and professionally questioning whether everything I have and indeed everything I am doing is what I really want out of my life, much like your previous records have in past manifestations of myself. In that sense , one of the tracks on this record that really sticks out for me in particular is Everything Belongs. It sounds to me like you have found some sort of peace within yourself or an acceptance of just how things are, which I am only really getting to grips with myself. Often these musical contexts relate to social and political issues ongoing at the time of you releasing them. Do you feel Western society is changing for the better? Are you happy with those changes?

Dustin: There’s a lot of positive changes happening, but there’s a lot of fear as well which I think is pulling people in different directions. A lot of the problems we as a society run into are rooted in certain people having a limited view of the world, a more contracted view of what it means to be a member of the human race. I have personally had that sort of tension within myself in the past, and now I’m very happy and content in a much broader view of what it means to be human and to be a part of everything that is happening right now. You can look back at major events that have taken place in the last two years and realise that somehow everything is connected, which is broadly what Everything Belongs is about.

KM: As ever with your records, there is a sense of contrast. For example, the track Blood On Blood sits rather neatly next to Everything Belongs, but seems to have an entirely different holistic take on what’s happening in the world…

Dustin: I think on the whole this record stems more from personal motivations, compared to previous ones where there are some specific political-leaning connotations. This record is more about getting to the very heart of things rather than just observing things on the surface as we may have on previous records. Blood On Blood is probably the furthest out there on Palms in this respect, trying to get at the centre of those fears that motivate us to do a lot of negative things.

KM: Which track on this album are you personally the proudest of?

Dustin: I think Beyond The Pines. Not for any super specific reason other than I feel it just came together really well. I love the lyrics, and certain songs inevitably end up being more intricate [than others]. That one was constructed that way, and it just turned out beautifully. It is just an amazing feeling when all of these elements seem to come together by themselves but also intentionally.

KM: Let’s talk about streaming, seeing as invariably we have to if you’re a band in this day and age. From speaking with your UK agent directly and from what I have seen myself, streaming has undoubtedly benefited Thrice overall and inferably has enabled you to reach a larger and younger audience. Did the arrival proper of DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music and “playlist culture” play a role in your decision to return from hiatus prior to releasing To Be Everywhere…?

Dustin: No. From our perspective, throughout our whole career the music industry has been changing. I feel like we came along when the first big “upheaval” started – the main problem being at the time you had pre-streaming sharing platforms like Napster which educated its users to see music as not having a monetary value. It’s been a constant change and so we’ve just learned to roll with the punches along the way.

KM: Do you see streaming platforms as either a good or bad thing, therefore?

Dustin: In theory, they’re fantastic. I love using them to discover new music. The main problem is, as ever, the payment system is fundamentally broken, and currently the way it works with major labels in particular results in huge swathes of money that never arrives with the artist simply because they control the relevant rights [KM: at this point, we have a semantic debate about ostensible middle-manning, which audibly seemed to bore the crap out of Dustin so I won’t write it up here]. On the other hand, it has seemed to have wiped out music piracy which can only be a good thing, but I think there’s still the problem of the majority of users of these streaming platforms going for the free version, which in turn still causes a problem for the artists as this results in far less money arriving with them than they otherwise might get. I think if people understood that it costs a lot of time and indeed money to make music, they’d be more happy to pay. I would easily pay twice as much for a streaming service right now, if it meant that more was going to end up in the hands of the artist rather than their label.

KM: These platforms have been specifically set up around the idea of having access to a lot of catalogue instantly, which I feel in turn has put pressure on artists to release more frequently than they otherwise would have become accustomed to. Do you feel this creates a pressure by way of feedback to accelerate the frequency of releases from bands such as yourselves?

Dustin: Probably the medium for us that would have any bearing on creative decisions within the band would be vinyl. In that context we’re thinking about the length of the record, how are we going to split it into two sides, that kind of stuff. So streaming in itself hasn’t really had an impact in that way with us yet. The hardest thing about writing music for us is deciding what the record is going to “feel” like, because we enjoy doing and creating so many different things, and each record ends up with about a hundred contrasting ideas that we’re trying to figure out constantly.

KM: How’s the experience with Epitaph Records so far? And given what we’ve just spoken about, what incentivised you to sign with a record label rather than releasing this record on your own?

Dustin: Epitaph have been great – I particularly like how well connected they are with Europe and the whole set up just seems so robust than what we’ve experienced in the past. That probably was the biggest reason for us wanting to sign with them, although we did look into the idea of doing it on our own. I think for certain bands, depending on what their situation is, releasing records on their own can make a lot of sense. But for us, we felt it would just be creating an ad hoc label just for us, then there’s the marketing and financial elements that can take you away from creating music and songwriting. Epitaph know what they’re doing, we trust the people, and it just a great partnership that we feel very comfortable in. They just get on with what they do best, and that allows us to as well.

KM: Any immediate plans to tour the album in the UK? And if so, what can we expect from the live show versus what we’ve seen before from Thrice, considering the different sound elements present on Palms?

Dustin: We’re hoping to come over in the Spring (2019) at some point. Coming over from the US to Europe can be expensive, so we’re trying to travel lightly whilst reflecting the new sound of this record. So we’ll be bringing over a keyboard and other aspects to accommodate the new tracks that we’ll be playing.

KM: I love you.

Dustin: Cool. Peace.

– Ach

Palms, Thrice’s tenth studio album, is out today:

Special thanks to Hayley @ Little Press for making my dream come true, and Mary Cadbury for somehow transcribing my endless monologuing.

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