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By: Ross Mckendrick
Baton Rouge’s Thou had quite a productive year in 2014. After a period of relative inactivity for such a prolific band they released their greatest masterpiece to date, the double LP Heathen, as well as the companion EP The Sacrifice, and Released From Love, the first collection of tracks from their ongoing collaboration with Portland-via-Providence’s The Body. They also embarked on a stateside tour with said band, culminating in triumphant sets both seperately and together at Gilead Fest in Wisconsin. Considering the band are now spread out across a couple of states, that they managed to find the time for all this is impressive in itself, never mind the consistently high quality of the work.
Thou are one of the most interesting bands currently operating within the sprawling category of metal, yet almost entirely removed from the typical trappings of the genre. I could talk all day about their lyrical concepts, their singular aesthetic, or how they manage to make me go from sad to angry to hopeful within seconds through nothing more than a turn of phrase or the twist of a riff… but I’ll try to reign it in. Well, only a little bit.
(((o))): You had a pretty productive 2014, after dropping off the radar to some degree in 2013. What were you up to during this time? Was it all spent writing and recording the wealth of material you released earlier this year?
Andy Gibbs: Heathen was recorded right around New Year’s Day 2013, but aside from that it was a pretty quiet year by our standards. We did some touring with Cloud Rat and False, a couple fests here and there, and then one day in the studio recording various odds and ends that haven’t been released yet.
Bryan Funck: Andy and Mitch both live in California these days, which is a big reason why we had to slow things down a bit. Most of that year was spent taking a breather. And then once we started mixing Heathen, everyone got reinvigorated, and a few touring options with old pals popped up, so we started getting back at it. We basically took the majority of 2013 off from writing and playing, though we did manage to knock out one new one for the Barghest split and a handful of cover songs for some tributes that we’ve been ruminating on.
(((o))): A lot of people consider Heathen to be the greatest thing you’ve recorded. To me it feels like all the experimental flourishes on previous recordings have now been seamlessly incorporated into your sound; it feels like a culmination of everything you’ve done thus far.
Both musically and lyrically, it stakes out new territory for the band. The introduction of some excellent Sabbath-esque shimmering instrumental interludes to break up the heaviness are some of my favourite moments on the record, they really let you decompress after each track proper, and make the next one hit that much harder. Keep doing that, it’s good. Not that you should feel pressure to ‘outdo’ yourselves, as obviously each record is its own entity, but are you guys worried at all about how you’re going to top it?
Andy: We absolutely feel pressure to outdo ourselves, and for me the pressure was considerable after we did Summit. I honestly had no clue how we were going to follow that record and wasn’t sure how to make Heathen sound unique in comparison. Matthew, our other guitarist, is insistent that a band’s latest record should always be their strongest– otherwise, what’s the point? And while I take a slightly less radical stance on that issue, I do feel like if we’re not pushing ourselves to make the best record possible then something’s wrong. I definitely learned some things after stepping away from Summit and really picking apart the songs; there are parts I would completely rewrite now if I could. So when I was writing my parts for Heathen I tried not to fall into those same conventions.
Bryan: Thanks for all the kind words. Heathen is definitely the record I’m most proud of being a part of, and it feels like the first time we’ve been successful at working a lot of ideas we had into a record and making something that still felt really cohesive. Personally, I’m not too worried that whatever we do next will be, if not markedly better than at least very different. We’re already talking about digging into some deviations on a couple of EPs, writing an all drone record and a quiet, “pretty” record. So I’m sure if we can dig into those projects, it’ll help us push our own boundaries a bit and incorporate some of those sounds into the next full length.
(((o))): Lyrically this album marks a progression in a theme that Bryan has mentioned in interviews before; examining the class system, the oppression of the many by the few, and those willing to break free, to escape that same oppression. Heathen is the first album to offer an actual alternative perspective on a way to live life: a focus on the sensual, the personal experience, and abandoning dense population centres in favour of a return to nature.
This is obviously a little more in the way of ‘food for thought’ than your typical doom release, are you okay with the perception of Thou as… maybe not a political band per se, but one with strong opinions about the world we live in? Are discussions and meditations on these topics something you hope to inspire in your listeners?
Andy: You’d likely get five different answers if we were all to answer that question. I think of us as a political band. I mean, we have some pretty blatantly political songs even if those songs don’t represent the totality of our politics. Really, in my opinion every band is political whether they are willing to acknowledge it or not. Life is political; we’re all caught up in the problems of this world. Every choice we make affects someone else.
Bryan: Yeah, “the personal is the political” and all that. I think if anything, getting folks to be critical of themselves, the world around them, and their place in it is a core theme throughout our music. That’s a big part of why so much our output—in the content of the songs and records, or the ephemera we release for tours—can oftentimes be so contradictory (anti-civilization/-technology slogans then pro-technology, utopian revisionist daydreams in the next breath) or self-deprecating. We’re five guys who butt heads a lot of times on our own politics, so musically, we love playing with different points of view, as opposed to proselytizing a set of commandments.
I mean, I’m glad that people tend to think of us as a “smarter” or more conscientious band or whatever—but we can also be total dingdongs just like everyone else. It’s not like we’re just sitting around reading Stirner and Blavatsky and not spending just as much time laying around playing Chrono Trigger or watching Netflix.
(((o))): An issue I always find with exploring such weighty topics in ‘extreme music genres’ is the delivery system of these messages. Thou has some of the most interesting lyrical content I’ve ever read, but when expelled in Bryan’s feral roar, the words – the meaning – can get lost. Do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the converted to some degree; that you’re not changing anyone’s mind by operating within the genre that you do? Or is the burying of these messages in distortion and mystery intentional?
Andy: I certainly don’t think our goal is to convert anyone to a way of thinking, so preaching to the choir isn’t a great concern for me. As for the delivery, we’re working with what we’ve got! When Bryan joined the band it was with the intention that there’d be screaming instead of singing, though we’ve worked some singing in here and there in the last couple of years. All of our lyrics are readily available both online and with our releases, so in the end nothing is really being shrouded in mystery.
Bryan: It’s hard to feel like you’re preaching to the converted when you’re playing to a heavy metal or even a rock crowd. I’m constantly shocked at how really simple ideas like “feminism” and “equality” are still lost on so many people. For a scene that should be transgressive and “extreme,” it seems overwhelmingly conservative and pedestrian to me most times—like a bunch of macho, white, frat guys wearing black and pretending at being heathens. That being said, we’re not actively trying to change anyone. The songs we write are just expressions of our feelings on certain issues at a particular moment, and like I said, those opinions can oftentimes be contradictory.
(((o))): Your latest release is another collaboration with The Body, which continues what you began with Released From Love early last year. The Body are pretty well known for being serial collaborators, and you’ve had a host of guest musicians on some of your records to a lesser degree. Other than your mutual love for Dungeons and Dragons and making a lot of racket, what was it that led to these ongoing collaborations? Did The Body initiate contact, or was it yourselves?
Bryan: We’ve been pals with these guys for a few years now, since me and Andy booked some shows for them in town. We had asked them to play on a couple of the Fiona Apple covers we were working on, and then Lee brought up the idea of writing a collaboration record together. After we did the first one, we were talking about doing a tour out to Gilead Fest with them, and I brought up the idea of doing it as one single band doing all the songs we wrote with each other. I had seen a few shows of the tour they did with Braveyoung, and I wasn’t super into the two solo sets bridged by the collabo songs; it just made the set feel way too long for my taste. So I kind of convinced everyone to just do the whole thing as a collaboration, and if people expected solo songs, they’d just be disappointed. Before we decided on writing another collaboration, there was a rough idea to learn a few of each other’s songs and play those as well as the mega band, but we ended up getting too bogged down with writing to work on any of that. Maybe on the next tour.
(((o))): Musically your collaborations with Chip and Lee are quite far removed from your usual ouevre. Do they bring out a side of Thou that’s wholly new, or are these sounds something you’ve always wanted to explore?
Andy: Both collaborations ended up being less experimental and outside of our comfort zone than I had initially planned on, actually. We really didn’t know what to expect when we first got together and tried writing songs. Matthew and I had a couple of riffs, but mostly we just wrote everything on the spot.
The second collaboration was a little better planned, and we had more time for writing and practicing which I think comes across in the recording. If anything, they bring out a more bludgeoning and ugly side of our music.
Bryan: I think both records strike a good balance between our sounds, but I do wish we had pushed things even further. Those records could definitely stand to use more electronics, more weird noises, more creepo ambient tracks. Maybe we’ll get it right on the next one.
(((o))): A lot of people would probably still be pretty happy if you were to become exclusively a covers band, having put everyone from Sabbath and Soundgarden to Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana through the Thou ringer.
On You, Whom I Have Always Hated you cover Vic Chesnutt and Nine Inch Nails, two very disparate artists, yet manage to make the songs entirely your own. Would you have covered the NIN track just as Thou, or was The Body’s involvement the impetus for that? Who’s idea was it to cover those tracks specifically? Do they tie into any sort of underlying theme to the record?
Andy: I definitely don’t think we would’ve ended up doing the Vic Chesnutt song alone, as that was Lee’s idea. The NIN track could’ve happened on our own, but it’s particularly suited to The Body since they have a more noise/industrial side to their band. That was Bryan’s idea. One of my initial ideas for the first collaboration was ‘Enjoy the Silence’ by Depeche Mode. Maybe on the third collaboration?
Bryan: …if the third collabo isn’t us finally getting to the Fiona Apple tribute. Yeah, I think both of those covers tie into the records’ themes in a very general sense. Released From Love is more or less an abstract piece about despair and alienation. You, Whom I Have Always Hated focuses on parent-child relationships, so I can definitely see NIN fitting in with that if you look at your parents as some sort of god-like figures (which most of us do).
(((o))): While you’re not exactly working within a genre known for its mass appeal, both yourselves and The Body seem to operate outside of the conventions of even the underground heavy music scene. Are there any other bands who you feel a kinship with, or who you feel are also pushing boundaries in interesting ways?
Andy: There are definitely bands that have become part of our extended family: Moloch, Cloud Rat, and False to name a few. I’m pretty grumpy and jaded when it comes to the metal scene, but every tour we play with a couple of bands that stand out– off the top of my head, Forn, Moxiebeat, Alraune, and Ragana were all excellent bands we got to play with this year. Then of course are old pals like Samothrace, Kowloon Walled City, Seidr, Hell, and Ash Borer who all consistently impress me. This year we also got to do a couple of shows with O Paon, which was a dream come true. I’m really hoping to catch Pharmakon next year– that’s someone I’d love to collaborate with.
Bryan: Fell Voices, and pretty much anything else those guys do. Barghest, Heat Dust, Nightland, the newest incarnation of Lovey Dovies. Hysterics, Hate, Yob. That last Pygmy Lush record is one of the most crushing records I’ve ever heard, and it’s not even “heavy.”
(((o))): It’s pretty well known that Lee from The Body doesn’t fly, which may render my next question somewhat moot, but do you have any plans to bring your collaborative live show across to Europe and the UK? I know you’re playing this years edition of Roadburn, care to offer us even a glimmer of hope?
Andy: Thou will be doing a short tour around Roadburn and there’s a possibility we might be back later in the year for more shows, but I can’t even imagine the headache of trying to make this collaborative tour work overseas. The collaborative tour we did this summer was full of mishaps, so we’re still working on tightening that up. Plus I can’t imagine touring without Lee. It’s pretty hard to play D&D without a DM.
(((o))): Thou has one of the most singular aesthetics in heavy music, with many of your previous releases drawing from stark woodcuts and engravings, and a solely black, red and white colour pallette. However, your latest releases have shifted away from this somewhat, with the Heathen vinyl artwork more akin to the illustrative style of the likes of Aubrey Beardsley or Harry Clarke, while both The Sacrifice and Released From Love are completely different styles as well.
Was there a conscious choice to move away from your tried-and-tested aesthetic? Does the use of illustrations associated with artists sometimes referred to as ‘decadent’ fit with the more sensual lyrical themes on the album?
Bryan: I’ve always felt like the images we use on Thou records—while they’re all very appealing to me and resonate with the music in their own way—are sort of all over the place. The woodcut stuff has always been an easy go-to, and that was the original vision I had when I appropriated the aesthetic duties from our old drummer Terry, but we were using photos as early as the splits with Leech and Salome. As much as I longed for a really cohesive, iconic aesthetic—something like Crass or Iron Lung or Darkthrone—Thou has always seems like the great experiment for me.
But, yeah, the Beardsley stuff on the Heathen was unquestionable used to illustrate the underlying decadent themes on Heathen. There’s more of that (of a different nature) and some Clarke on bat for Magus. The art we used for the collaborations is more in line with the Margaret-Cameron stuff we used on the Heathen cd. With those two records, I was trying to find images that grounded the major themes in my lyrics but also appealed to The Body’s sensibilities.
(((o))): Sort of in relation to my previous question, this is kind of an apology… a few years ago I got bored on my lunch break and threw together some fake Thou album art and shirt designs after a frustrating morning spent trawling distros looking to fill the many gaps I had in your discography at that time. I was checking out your Flickr account months later, and was mortified to find those in the ‘Bootlegs’ folder.
I felt like kind of a dick knowing that you actually saw those, and I just wanted to take the opportunity to let you know that those were done in loving homage, and not by some basement-dwelling forum-lurker looking to put you down. But if you ever need a flyer designed the next time you play Glasgow (hint), I’d be more than happy to make it up to you!
Andy: I thought those designs were brilliant, and I wish more people would do stuff like that. If you’re reading this: please make fun of our band. Call us out for the internet motherfuckers that we are; make fun of our ill-fitting clothes and our armchair-revolutionary lyrics; school us on old metal bands we could care less about. We would do the same for you.