Five Questions with Thursday's Geoff Rickly
The New Jersey post-hardcore band Thursday is a case study in the difficulty of navigating the lines between punk and pop. In the early aughts, when every major label was scrambling for new rock saviors, Thursday took the occasion to make an acrimonious split with indie Victory Records for Island Records, who hoped the band would usher in a golden age of arena-ready emo. But Thursday's byzantine riffing and singer Geoff Rickly's feral yelps on the 2003 album "War All the Time" and its 2006 follow-up proved a touch obtuse for mainstream rock tastes, and now the band is set to release its newest and possibly densest album yet, "Common Existence," next week on Epitaph Records. We talked with Rickly about dizzying label politics, how growing older changes your taste in hard music and imagining a Thursday tribute to avant-garde jazz saxophonist John Zorn. The band plays the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday as part of the Taste of Chaos tour.
Your band has been through a lot of career cycles in recent years: buzzing underground act, the big rock hope of a major label, a later return to an indie label. Has it been difficult to keep your bearings on songwriting given these big swings in label politics and expectations on Thursday?
It's a funny thing. We've always maintained a very strict stance of, "It's our music. No label politics or business pressures should have any influence on how we write." This seems to be a pretty common ethic that most "punk" bands live by. The thing that you never hear about, though, is the way your writing naturally changes when you even acknowledge pressure from outside sources. You become self-conscious. You start to write from a reactionary position in which you lose a lot of your own drives and concentrate on not becoming what other people want you to.
"Friends in the Armed Forces," off your new album, "Common Existence," deals pretty explicitly with the horrors of war. How do you think that an Obama presidency, which many musicians view more sympathetically than the Bush administration, might affect the way you write or think about the subject of war in your songs?
It's hard to say how the shifting political climate in our country will affect the general zeitgeist. We all hope that an Obama presidency will at least strive for a measure of sanity and restraint in foreign policy but will all of the people we care about come home tomorrow? Probably not. Will all the National Guard members come home and get back to doing the jobs they signed up for? We can only hope at this point. If anything, I hope this presidency sets a tone of discourse where you can be anti-war without being "anti-soldier" and "anti-American" because that political savagery has been going on for too long and it's a lie.
Has maturing in both your taste as an artist and as a person changed the way you write and play openly aggressive, confrontational music today?
Absolutely. On the one hand, you want to grow. You want to add all of the beautiful, subtle techniques that you've learned over the past decade and make something unique and thoughtful. On the other hand, after 10 years you realize that often times technique can neuter aggressive music and clutter it with the pretensions that punk/hardcore was created to destroy.
I find it engaging to try and subvert that relationship: to make something that's more dangerous and more clever at the same time. To us, that power has always rested in a kind of radical (maybe disturbing) transparency, where every motive, lyric and compromise is laid bare for public scrutiny.
These seem like equally miserable yet promising times for a young, experimental new punk band: there are plenty of new avenues for promotion and distribution, but breaking even on small tours is near impossible and you're essentially shut out of mainstream radio and licensing. As a band that's seen both major-label support and DIY by necessity, what do you think young bands need to be most savvy about today, from songwriting and production to promotion and touring or signing deals?
I think young bands need to be honest with themselves about what they really want. If they want to make a ton of money, they should probably look for a day job that gives them some time to rock on the side. If they want to have a career and be taken seriously as artists, they should try and use all the new avenues of promotion in a tasteful way, always keeping your creative vision in focus.
They should also try and surround themselves with people that genuinely "get" what you're doing. It helps. It's hard to make an honest living in music so make sure it's your passion... but, if you're just in it for attracting the opposite sex, downloading won't change anything there!
It's obvious that Thursday has a huge and diverse range of influences beyond punk. At this point in your career, does it ever cross your mind to throw caution to the wind and make, say, a minimalist electronica or a metal or an avant-garde noise record someday? Or are you still committed as a band to working within a post-punk framework for these ideas?
The idea always sounds nice to me: I'd love to make a "Confusion Is Sex" for the hardcore kids but I always try and keep in mind the underlying goals of the band: setting forth new and exciting songs that are challenging in narrative approach and interesting in composition terms without leaving behind an emotional urgency. I'm not sure Thursday's tribute to John Zorn would be much fun for anyone except for us.
Thursday photo by Brantley Gutierrez
Taste of Chaos tour with Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. Sat., 6 p.m. $24. (323) 962-7600.