Interview: Thou

I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel, but there’s some incremental refinement with everything we put out. I think the goal is more to take what we’re doing an improve it with every release while still managing our desires to experiment and expand our sense of creativity.

After a series of brilliant EPs released earlier in the year, Thou return again with their majestic new album Magus which is a stunning, expansive and thrilling listen that more than lives up to the bands previous works. Gavin Brown caught up with guitarist Andy Gibbs and vocalist Bryan Funck for an extensive chat about the album, its creation and themes that was both insightful and fascinating as well as covering topics such as their vast discography, playing at Roadburn Festival, working with The Body, dream collaborations, the early days of Thou, their thoughts on the extreme music scene in New Orleans and the ongoing influence of Nirvana. Check out Magus when it is released on August 31st, its such an immense record as inspiring as it is crushingly heavy and a firm favourite already.

E&D: Your new album Magus is out at the end of this month. Can you tell us about the album and its creation? 

Andy: We formed the basic idea behind this and the other albums almost a decade ago, our next few albums would be called Summit, Heathen, and Magus. All three would focus on a different theme and feature a different variation on our usual style. The writing process for Magus took a long time because of some logistical issues, but once the songs were written, we were able to get things recorded pretty quickly. We tracked all the basics in one day then spent a couple days on overdubs, vocals, and building the interludes. After that Bryan and I came back for a couple long days to finish mixing alongside our engineer James Whitten.

E&D: What does the title of the album refer to?

Bryan: A personal focus on magick and esoterica, philosophy and theory, abstraction and self critique.

E&D: What inspired the lyrics on Magus

Bryan: Dispelling the enchantments of the physical world. Social culling. The victory of reasoning over emotions. Ending the capitulation to ingrained societal dynamics. Ligotti, Ciorin, Bakker, the Me Too movement, trans and non-binary ascendancy.

E&D: You have released three EPs in prior to the release of Magus, do those EPs follow a pattern resulting in the music of Magus

Andy: That was the initial idea, but it didn’t end up working out that way. When it actually came time to write all of this stuff, the first songs that came out of Matthew and I were more suited to the style of Magus, so we just rolled with it and started working on that album first. Now having written and recorded Inconsolable, though, I have a bunch of ideas that I’m excited to incorporate on our next batch of material.

Bryan: It’s more like we took very tiny aspects of Magus and expanded those elements into full EPs — Inconsolable and The House Primordial. Rhea Sylvia is something of an oddball because it’s really just Matthew’s solo material mangled through the Thou lens. But it’s an interesting link in the chain to see a more overt influence from the darker grunge stuff like Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.

E&D: Do you feel that your music is ever evolving with each release?

Andy: I sure hope so! That’s definitely what we’re aiming for, though I think our evolution has been far more incremental than I’d originally hoped it would be. Eight or ten years ago I was ready to make really drastic leaps into more experimental territory, but I don’t think I actually had any idea how to do that. We’ve gotten much better at translating our ideas into actual songs now, though given our style of music, we can only do so much without sounding like a completely different band. That’s part of why we did Inconsolable, to see how far outside our style we could push ourselves while still retaining the essence of the band.

Bryan: I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel, but there’s some incremental refinement with everything we put out. I think the goal is more to take what we’re doing an improve it with every release while still managing our desires to experiment and expand our sense of creativity.

E&D: Emily McWilliams again features on the album. What does she bring to the sound of Thou? 

Andy: A much needed contrast to all the abrasiveness and shrieking and wailing. Also maybe some softness and vulnerability, things that aren’t always readily apparent in our music but for me are always there, even if we hide them behind a pile of distortion. Another thing, on a more practical level, is her melodic sense. While we work really well together, her melodies are always such a nice surprise for me because she’ll pick intervals and rhythms I would never think to write. She really helped steer the ship with some melodies on Inconsolable, along with KC Stafford and Melissa Guion. Working on harmonies with those three folks was the highlight of that whole recording process for me.

Bryan: Most of the time, I’ll have a really vague notion of a part for Emily. She’s incredible at taking a poorly articulated, primitive idea and really going to town with it. Even if we’re just using her in a shorter part or song, I feel like she steals the show. The interlude she does on Magus is probably my favorite part of the record.

 

E&D: You have just done a video for the song ‘The Changeling Prince’ from the album. Can you tell us about the video and what inspired its gothic horror look? 

Bryan: Well, there’s a lot at play in the video. The look of the “band” and the crowd, specifically, was an attempt to push a less metal aesthetic or, at least, to soften and subvert the more banal uniformed crowds we’ve gotten accustomed to. Likewise, we wanted to have people moving and singing along in ways that seemed fun and engaging, the things we’d love to see at our Actual-Shows, rather than the sad little stationary crowds or any sort of push pit knuckle-draggery we might get. We had some of the newer Thou members (KC and Tyler) playing with some band outliers (Emily, Derek, James, and Melissa), and that also helped to soften the phallocentric look of the band a good bit a helped with some befuddlement. The more “recognizable” band members (me, Mitch, Andy, and Matthew) played the more typical bored Thou audience. We had the fun-loving crowd turn to stare at us in the same way our Actual-Audience blankly stares at us when we play shows. I also had us dressed up in white polos, so we doubled as something of polar opposites to the dark, metal guises of the audience, hinting that maybe these costumes are meaningless and also sort of playing off the sense that Actual-Thou doesn’t really fit in with the standard metal tropes. The whole thing was meant to be confusing and/or funny for people who know us and, hopefully, even more confusing for people who don’t really knows us! I basically wanted people who don’t have much of an idea about us to just assume that the band in the video is the actual band, so I could play with newer folks’ concepts of Thou a bit more—something I probably should’ve thought to do earlier in our career if I had had any sort of foresight. There was also an impetus to tie in all of this impish mayhem with the actual content of the song—the idea of stripping away the layers of social posturing, recognizing one’s own core values and desires, and letting those shine. And we had to do all of this in such a way that it also looked “cool,” hahaha!

E&D: How has the new material been received so far? 

Andy: So far pretty warmly as far as I can tell. The House Primordial got some mixed reviews, but I think part of that is because people thought that was our new full-length, and it really doesn’t work in that context. It was more of an exercise in seeing just how bare we could lay our ideas and how extreme we could push the production, whereas we try and be much more thoughtful and thorough with our full-lengths. Inconsolable probably confused some metal patch-vest dweebs, but by this point they should really know better than to look to us for the same-old doom-by-the-numbers stuff. We’ll see how Magus stacks up. Hopefully no one is expecting Heathen II. We’ll save that for when we’re older, even more washed-up, and ready to cash out.

E&D: Your musical output is so impressive, with a multitude of albums, splits and EPs. What inspires you to keep on creating and putting out such vital music? 

Andy: We put out a lot of stuff, but I think what’s more notable is how little the average band puts out. I look at some bands’ discographies and I’m like, 2 albums in 10 years? What are y’all even doing? Especially the bigger full-time bands who don’t have pesky day jobs! I love writing. I’d be doing it whether this band was together or not, or whether we “needed” to put out another full-length or not. We’ve just been really lucky to get some opportunities to have our music heard by a lot of people. We almost always have some writing project waiting in the wings (right now I can think of at least a handful) and so that’s always a motivating factor on days when I don’t feel like working on stuff.

Bryan: I don’t know why a person would be in a band if they didn’t enjoy creating art that they gave a shit about. Shows are generally not fun for me. A bunch of people standing around as still as possible staring at us? No thanks! Touring? “Oh, I can spend a few weeks sleeping on floors and not get to see my girlfriend or my dog?” No thanks!

E&D: Who would Thou live to do a split with in the future and why? 

Andy: Rage Against The Machine. Fiona Apple. Any other artist whose style and spirit is buried deep in the crevices of our band. For obvious reasons.

Bryan: Zola Jesus, but would prefer it to be a Pretty Hate Machine pop industrial record collaboration instead of a split—unless we’re covering each other’s songs. Lingua Ignota, Dreamdecay, Null, any of our pals from Salem, Oregon (current citizens and ex patriots included). Samothrace and Pygmy Lush is they’d ever write their sides. Zao if we cover each other’s songs.

E&D: You released your full length debut Tyrant back in 2007, how has the music of Thou evolved in that time? 

Andy: God, where to begin? Listen to the records and tell me! To me there’s been a seismic shift in our songwriting style and we’re getting much better at coming up with smart arrangements and effective transitions. I feel like we’re paring away all the superfluous stuff as we go along. But who knows, it’s impossible for me to be objective about it. You have to understand that when we wrote Tyrant we had no idea what the fuck we were doing and absolutely no idea anyone was ever going to hear those songs outside of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I was in my early 20s when we wrote that album. Nearly every aspect of my life is different now, we’ve gone through a couple lineup changes, and have written like 50 songs since then. I hope the evolution is apparent!

E&D: Do you feel that the darkness and bleakness of your music is a cathartic experience for you? 

Andy: Not as much as it used to be, but that’s probably because I’m not as angry as I used to be and feel like I have less to prove to anyone. At this point, I’m just writing whatever comes out. I think a lot of people imagine guys in doom bands sitting down with their guitar going, “ok, time to write the most brutal and bleak riff of all” which at least for me is so far from how it works. I try to imbue all my stuff with some level of vulnerability, sadness, or some other emotion that isn’t pure spite (though that is still present of course). That isn’t to say that our music isn’t still cathartic for me, though. Expression is always cathartic for me. I also get some catharsis out of performing, and from being part of a unit that comes together to accomplish something.

Bryan: I used to have a blast playing shows, but it’s become a bit tedious these past few years. The crowds are just so tame and tepid. It actually makes it a lot harder to get in the right head space when we play. That was a big reason why I stopped facing the audience—it was just so uncomfortable playing this kind of music, which to me has a lot of energy and emotions, and then seeing a sea of motionless blank stares. So for me, any sense of catharsis while playing usually only comes from going completely inside myself. It’s hard to do in front of a crowd of people! So it’s few and far between these days.

All of that being said, I feel like it’s still extremely helpful for me, emotionally and intellectually, to dig into my issues and process my feelings strictly through the work we put into the art. Writing and recording, and all the art that goes along with putting this music out, those “tedious” procedures are where I’m finding the most personal growth and satisfaction.

E&D: You played Roadburn in April in a live collaboration with The Body, how did that go? 

Andy: I’m probably the wrong person to ask, being our resident control freak. When I look back on it, I remember it being fun. In the moment it felt like an unmitigated disaster. It was hard to see each other on that big stage with smoke and lasers everywhere, so we missed some cues and played a little sloppily. Overall I think we pulled it off, and since we played so late I’m guessing a good portion of the crowd was pretty sloshed at that point so it probably wasn’t a big deal. We LOVE Roadburn though. It’s everything a metal fest should be. Best of all, we got there a couple days early and got to hang out with our friends.

Bryan: It seemed like a mess from the stage. All I could hear were the two drum kits and Chip! So I was more or less playing by instinct. But everyone has said it sounded fine. I definitely had a blast hanging out with old friends and taking it easy between those two big tours we were on. It was great getting to see Zola Jesus and Mizmor again. Mania at the Cul de Sac was awesome! Bummed I was too jet lagged to stay up late enough for Hexis and Sangre de Muerdago. We love Walter and Roadburn!

 

E&D: You have collaborated with The Body in the past on the crushing You, Whom I Have Always Hated album and the Released From Love EPs. How did that come about and how was the experience?

Andy: We’d been friends for a few years and it just seemed like a cool thing to do. That’s the simple answer at least. Fusing two bands together is not the easiest thing in the world, especially when you just have a few days to write a record. I’m happy with the end result of both records though. It definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and was a fun challenge.

Bryan: We asked them to play on a couple of Fiona Apple covers we were working on. When that fell through, Lee suggested the collab. We wrote Released From Love in a couple of days as we were finishing up Heathen and lumped it into that recording session. It went ok, but we thought we could push it further, and The Body really wanted to do one at Machines with Magnets. So we ended up getting together a year or so later, spent more time on the writing, toured for a few weeks, and recorded You, Whom I Have Always Hated. We absolutely love those guys. Even if trying to write together had been total garbage and we trashed it, it would’ve been worth it just to spend more time with our BFFs.

E&D: Will you work with them again? 

Andy: Hard to say. I love working with Chip and Lee but would only want to do another collaboration if one of us had a really cool idea that pushed the collaboration into new territory. I’d have no interest in doing the exact same style as the last two, nor would I want a new collaborative record to just sound like a Thou record or a The Body record.

Bryan: And we also have to create something that stands out from their other collaborations and full lengths. A tall order with those guys!

E&D: Playing live with them, is that something you’d do again? 

Andy: Again, hard to say. It takes a lot of work to get us show-ready; coordinating all of our schedules, getting the songs tight after relearning them, and being able to perform them well. Not ruling it out but we have a lot of other stuff on the horizon.

Bryan: Only if we’re doing an even fuller line-up with six Thous and three or four Bodys and maybe a couple of extra people and the Assembly of Light Choir. I feel like did those tours and got what we wanted out of them, so we’d only really want to do it if it was some really interesting opportunity or pushed the art in some way.

E&D: Who would Thou love to collaborate with in the future? 

Andy: Zola Jesus. Lingua Ignota. Pharmakon. Elizabeth Frasier. Fiona Apple. Enya.

Bryan: Jessica93. Dreamdecay.

E&D: Will you be touring in support of Magus when it is released?

Andy: That’s the plan, yeah.

Bryan: We’re heading to the west coast sometime in November/December, then Midwest and east coast sometime in March/April, then a short Europe run in July/August. Doing a few one-offs in between those. Maybe more if cool stuff pops up.

E&D: What have been some of the most memorable shows and tours that Thou have done and what made them so memorable? 

Andy: Wow, so many. Touring with Moloch in the UK in 2009 and becoming friends for life. Touring Florida with Cloud Rat and False in 2011. September of last year with Dreamdecay and King Woman. Any tour where we’re with people we really love. Shows are good or bad, but hanging out with our friends is what it’s really all about. All the old basement and house shows we used to play with drunk crusties crashing into us. Playing with SubRosa at a weird fest in Belgium and being goofballs on stage. A million shows I’m forgetting.

Bryan: Every show at Burial Grounds in Salem, Oregon. The Black Lodge shows in Seattle. Some of the later days ABC No Rio shows. Basement show in Boise last summer. The New Orleans show we did at KC’s old apartment the Triple Six Klubhaus. All the shows where people weren’t afraid to touch each other and move around and have a good time without it degenerating into a Neanderthal weenie fest mosh pit.

E&D: How did Thou start and what are your main memories of that time? 

Andy: In short– Matthew, Mitch, our old drummer Terry, and I started the band around 2004. I had known all those dudes for a long time, Matthew being my oldest friend (we met in preschool). My whole life at that time was pretty much going to band practice 3 or 4 times a week, hanging out at our practice every day with whoever was around, listening to Isis and Electric Wizard, getting fucked up, playing guitar, working a shitty kitchen job, going to shows. That was it, really. We practiced the hell out of those songs, and by the time Tyrant came out those songs were old news to us, since we wrote most of it in 2005.

E&D: New Orleans, where you’re based has a rich and varied history when it comes to heavy music. What is it about NOLA that creates such great music? 

Andy: Bryan is the only one from New Orleans, being that he grew up in the suburb of Metairie. The rest of us are from Baton Rouge, though most of the band resides in New Orleans currently. Honestly I don’t find that the heavy music down here is very varied. There’s been a zillion Eyehategod or Acid Bath or Crowbar clones over the last 15-20 years. The punk scene has had a little more variation for sure, though. What is it about NOLA? I don’t really know. I think for the longest time (and maybe still, to a degree) people down here haven’t felt like anyone is really paying attention. Before [hurricane] Katrina, pretty much no one gave a shit about New Orleans or anything that was coming out of here outside of the EHG/Phil Anselmo related stuff. I do think there used to be some amount of freedom that came from that, which again I’d argue was most noticeable in the punk scene. There definitely isn’t any kind of magical swamp vibe coming out of here like so many people think. If anything it’s more of a sense of hopelessness that no one is ever going to care about your city, your band, or whatever, and that in 50 years or less New Orleans isn’t even going to exist because it’ll be underwater. But now you’ve got so many transplants that are here for 5 years or less, so who knows how many of them feel that vibe or care.

Bryan: Great music down here springs from the constant war an active person must wage against the indifference, apathy, and the hedonistic lifestyle that permeates everyone and everything. It’s Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. If you don’t like to struggle, move to the west coast.

E&D: Were bands like Eyehategod, Acid Bath and Crowbar a big influence on Thou when you were first started out?

Andy: I mean yeah, to a degree but not nearly as much as people think. We didn’t have any illusions about trying to be like those guys, we just took what we liked from the music the same as we did with any number of bands. I definitely liked those bands a lot and still do to an extent. The only thing I don’t like is how every person on the planet thinks that that style is the only style to ever come out of Louisiana. There’s been so much good music besides those bands!

Bryan: I had been actively avoiding those bands when I joined Thou. I was drawing more from bands like Earth Crisis, Culture, and Abnegation.

E&D: You have covered many Nirvana tracks in the past. What is it about the band that makes their music still resonate today?

Andy: I don’t know. They rode a perfect line between abrasive and catchy. They have been my all-time favorite band since I was 10 or 11. Nostalgia is powerful.

E&D: Are there any other Nirvana songs would you like to cover in the future?

Andy: Yeah, sure. ‘Big Long Now’ or ‘Paper Cuts’ would probably be my top choices. Let’s do em all, fuck it.

Bryan: ‘Moist Vagina’, ‘Old Age’ (along with the superior Hole version), Bleach in its entirety. Everything else.

E&D: Are you fans of the other grunge bands that were out at the same time?

Andy: Of course. Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam etc etc. All of it was important to us growing up.

E&D: What music are you feeling at the moment? 

Andy: In the middle of a huge Cocteau Twins binge. Victorialand is the album I’ve been obsessing over this month. Right now as I type this I’m taking a break from that to revisit that two-disc Selected Ambient Works album by Aphex Twin. In the evening I sit on my stoop and listen to old reggae. Haven’t been checking out a lot of new stuff, but this band Winkie that Bryan turned me onto the other day is pretty cool.

Bryan: Emma Ruth Rundle discography, MJ Guider, Silver Godling, Hand Grenade Job. Hell, Mizmor, Moloch, Ragana. Nirvana, The Smiths, Avail. Random, old mixtapes I’m finding at garage sales. Top 40 pop country from within the last year or two.

E&D: What have been the highlights of your time with Thou so far? 

Andy: I don’t know, probably making lifelong bonds with my bandmates and the people we meet along the way. The fact that anyone cares about the music is a nice bonus too. Getting to travel is cool and a huge privilege of course.

Many thanks to Andy and Bryan for such a great interview, Craig Mulcahy for the photography used and Lauren and James at Rarely Unable for hooking the interview up.

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