Frontman Dustin Kensrue offers a behind-the-scenes look into the writing, mindset and theology behind Thrice’s newest album, Major/Minor.
"I try to write in a way that people from multiple backgrounds can engage with at least, even if they don’t agree with it, and that it will make them think, it will make them feel... My hope is always that it wouldn’t leave someone unmoved in some way, that they would have to wrestle with it, that it would affect them in some way."
Fire. Air. Water. Earth. These four classical elements were identified by the Greek philosopher Plato, who believed them to be the basic building blocks of life. Now over 2,000 years later, they are the subjects of an ambitious four-disc undertaking from Thrice.
At first glance, making a rock record centered on the elements doesn’t seem like a very natural or obvious venture.
"Originally it was Dustin, our singer’s, idea," guitarist Teppei Teranishi explains. "He kind of came up with it randomly, and when he brought it up to us, we thought it’d make a good record."
After expanding their sonic palette on 2005’s Vheissu, which branched out from their punk and metal influences, this step into the unknown required something of a leap of faith.
"At first we were a little apprehensive and weren’t sure if we could pull it off," Teranishi confesses. "If we did [do] it, we wanted to do it right."
The band, which also features Biola alumnus Dustin Kensrue on vocals/guitar, as well as brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge on bass and drums, initially sat down to talk about what each element would sound like, formulating a basic outline for the project.
Teranishi describes the process as locating "the kind of instruments and sounds which felt earthy to us, or airy or watery or whatever [until] we started to come up with ideas which felt like… okay, this could work for Water or this idea could work for Fire."
The band, which hails from nearby Irvine, opted to stay at home and produce the album themselves, which freed them up to work at a pace of their own choosing.
"We ended up doing everything that had to do with this record ourselves. Even the artwork, Dustin did," Teranishi says. "It was challenging, but it was a good experience."
However, the process wasn’t without a bit of strife. While in the midst of the recording sessions, they parted ways with Island Records — who had released their last two studio albums — citing "different visions for the band’s future."
The label was generous enough to let them keep their current recordings, and the band would go on to finish the record. Soon after, they signed with Santa Monica based Vagrant Records, a return to their independent roots.
With their epic endeavor now complete, the band chose to spread it out over two distinct phases.
"We felt like the best way to let people grasp the whole breadth of the project was to split it up into two pieces," Teranishi explains. "It’s 24 songs to give people all at once, and especially with something that’s pretty heavily conceptualized like this record, we thought it would be a little too much."
Fans finally received their first taste last month, when The Alchemy Index: Vols. 1 & 2 - Fire & Water hit stores. Teranishi describes Fire as "all heavy and guitar based" with traces of their older material, but it was the Water half which proved to be a big divergence.
Immersed in a collage of electronics, Water "uses a lot of reverb and subtle modulation to make it seem more underwater. A little more muted tone [with] electronic drums," Teranishi says.
The second half of The Alchemy Index, which is set for a spring release, further ventures into unexplored territory. For Earth, this meant adopting a stripped down approach, complete with an array of instruments such as acoustic piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar and even horns.
On the accompanying side, Air brings the concept full circle. Teranishi reveals it to encompass a stripped down quality, as well as electronics and traditional band aspects, and "everything just ties together with all the songs on there."
Aside from their musical pursuits, the band is also active in a number of charities and nonprofit organizations, including Invisible Children and To Write Love On Her Arms.
"It’s just something we want to do, and I think it’s a personal decision," Teranishi says, describing the band’s involvements. "I think the reason why we even mention more or less isn’t to tell people, ‘Hey, look what we’re doing.’ It’s more or less to just bring awareness to the causes we think are worth supporting."
Along with their charitable work, Thrice donates a portion from each one of their records to a different cause. Blood: Water Mission, an organization which seeks to promote clean water efforts in Africa, was picked for Fire & Water.
"Clean water is something that I think we all take for granted, especially being in a rich nation, but children and a lot of people in this world don’t have it," Teranishi explains. "It’s something that’s very important for health and survival, and we thought it was a pretty cool cause [to be a part of]."
After creating the most expansive effort of their career, what does the future hold for Thrice?
"When we signed to Vagrant, we actually signed for only the two Alchemy Index releases, and then we’re free agents after that. So it’s literally up in the air for us," Teranishi admits. "We’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We’ll see… I guess the music industry is at an interesting point right now."
If The Alchemy Index is any indication, it most certainly is.
The Alchemy Index: Vols. 1 & 2 - Fire & Water is in stores now. For more information, visit www.thrice.net.
This is a phone interview I had the great privilege of conducting with Thrice guitarist Teppei Teranishi. It’s part of an article I’m writing on the band for Biola’s newspaper, which should be coming out later this month.
You guys just released the first half of your album a couple weeks ago, The Alchemy Index, and each disc is centered around one of the four natural elements. How did you guys arrive at that pretty abstract concept?
I guess originally it was Dustin, our singer’s, idea. He kind of came up with it just randomly, and when he brought it up to us a while ago, we just kind of thought it’d make a good record. At first, we were a little apprehensive, we just weren’t sure if we could pull it off... Just trying to figure out ways to do it. If we did it, we wanted to do it right. So we just kind of talked about it for a while.
At first, we actually decided to do it as almost like a Thrice side project… It still would have been a Thrice release. It wasn’t going to be like a traditional record, it was going to be a little more indie. Kind of experimental stuff… Less song based. And the more we wrote for it, the more we started to realize we were actually making some pretty cool stuff. I guess along the way we decided to make the record what it is.
How did you go about creating each disc’s unique sound, and was it hard to get the different styles to feel right?
Yeah, definitely. I guess we sat down first and discussed what we thought each element sounded like to us, and plotted out a basic outline. For Earth, mostly acoustic instruments... The kind of instruments and sounds which felt earthy to us, or airy or watery or whatever. Then we started to come up with ideas which felt like… Okay this idea feels like it could work for Water or this idea could work for Fire.
Then in the recording, we tried to record every element pretty different. With the Water stuff, we used a lot of reverb and subtle modulation to make it seem a little more underwater. A little more muted tone, electronic drums… Stuff like that. Fire obviously is all pretty heavy and guitar based.
Like I was saying with Earth and Air, which are coming out next year, Earth is all stripped… I guess just getting a lot of acoustic instruments, like acoustic piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar, even horn. Air is kind of the most in the middle of all the elements. I think there’s some stuff on there a little stripped. There’s stuff on there that’s electronic. There’s stuff on there that’s traditional band, like guitar, bass, drums… I guess everything all just ties together with all the songs on there.
Just kind of a combination of all of them.
Yeah, that makes sense. [Laughs.]
You guys decided to produce this yourselves and were essentially just working at your own pace. How did this come about to affect the creative process?
I thought it was really cool. We pretty much ended up doing everything that had to do with this record ourselves… Even the artwork Dustin did. I think it just gives you kind of the ultimate creative control… You know what I mean? We were in control of everything about this record, and it was fun. It was nice. It was challenging, but it was a good experience.
You were the main producer right?
Yeah, I engineered the record and was in charge of basically recording it.
Did you find it difficult to handle both that producing aspect and the writing stuff?
Yeah, definitely. It’s hard because you have to have your head in two different places at the same time. While I’m worrying about writing stuff and doing songs, I’m also worried about how to record it, get it on tape and get it to sound good. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s also fun. I really enjoy recording, and it’s something I want to keep doing. So I definitely enjoyed it.
You produced Please Come Home (Dustin’s solo record) too right?
So this is something you can see yourself getting more into in the future?
Yeah, definitely. I like it a lot. It’s fun.
The Alchemy Indexwas originally the title for your guys’ website while you were writing the album. Was it always the plan for it to be the final title?
Yeah, pretty much. I think by the time we ended up making that journal page, we were pretty sure that was going to be the title. But it wasn’t 100% set in stone.
The whole project is split up over two releases. Was this your decision or the label’s?
It was our decision. I guess ironically we felt like the best way to let people grasp the whole breadth of the project was to split it up into two pieces. It’s 24 songs to give people all at once, especially something that’s pretty heavily conceptualized like this record, and we thought it would be a little too much. We wanted people to take their time with each record and really grasp each one, and we thought the best way to do that was to split it up in two releases.
One of the things I most admire about your band is how you support a number of charities and different causes. You donate a portion of the proceeds from each record to a different organization, and the one for Fire & Water is Blood: Water Mission. What are they all about, and what made you pick them?
They’re an organization that raises money to go to Africa to go build wells in communities. Clean water is something that I think we all take for granted, especially being in a rich nation, but children and a lot of people in this world don’t have it. It’s something that’s very important for health and survival, and we thought it was a pretty cool cause.
We like the way they do things. They go into communities and instead of just erecting a big building and kind of westernizing the society, they try to integrate themselves into the community… They help do sustainable wells that will be dug by the people and run by the people. They also collect clean blood for blood transfusions and whatnot.
Having been blessed with your musical success and the fan base and influence that comes along with that, do you feel somewhat responsible to get involved with things like this?
I don’t think it has to do with being in a band or anything like that. It’s just something that I think we’d be doing even if we weren’t in a band, or in some other type of public place. It’s just something we want to do, and I think it’s a personal decision… I think the reason why we even mention more or less isn’t to tell people, "Hey, look what we’re doing." It’s more or less to just bring awareness to the causes we think are worth supporting.
How’s the new tour going? Is the new stuff getting a good reaction?
Yeah, it’s been awesome. It’s been a lot of fun, and the shows have been cool. All the bands on the tour are super rad, and all the people on the tour are super rad. So we’re having a really good time.
After the tour’s finished, what’s next? Are you going to be doing a headlining tour any time soon?
We’re trying to figure that out. I think the rough plan is to release the next record sometime in the spring, and then do a headlining tour after we release the record.
The whole Radiohead thing from last month got a lot of people talking about the future of the music industry and the role of major labels. Now that you’re back on an indie, where do you think music is heading, and how do you see Thrice fitting into that spectrum?
I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. When we signed to Vagrant we actually signed for only the two Alchemy Index releases, and then we’re free agents after that. So it’s literally up in the air for us. We’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We’ll see… I guess the music industry is at an interesting point right now.
Can you see the band releasing something yourselves without a label?
Yeah, I think that’s definitely something that at least we’re considering in the future.
With each of their respective discographies, Brand New and Thrice have constantly reinvented their sound and pushed musical boundaries, leading them to become two of the most respected bands in today’s music scene. Last weekend, they each brought their dynamic live show to the Wiltern for a three-night stand — the first two of which I saw — and, with help from indie rock guru mewithoutYou, put on arguably the best concert I’ve seen this year.
MewithoutYou’s unique sound, which oftentimes consists of more speaking than singing from lead singer Aaron Weiss, translated remarkably in the live setting. Over the course of half an hour, the band’s high level of energy amid fine musicianship was clear from watching Weiss and his unpredictable behavior, which ranged from running wildly around the stage to playing an assortment of instruments, including tambourine, maracas, accordion and acoustic guitar. The songs, about half of which were from last year’s Brother, Sister, frequently blended into one another, feeling like a series of separate movements in an epic composition.
Orange County’s Thrice was simply flawless. Playing a shade under an hour, they showcased a nice mixture of old and new material, including five songs off of last month’s The Alchemy Index. The new songs sounded fantastic, from the blazing “Firebreather” and “Burn The Fleet” to the airy electronics of “Digital Sea” and “Open Water,” which was particularly impressive to see pulled off live.
Former Biola student Dustin Kensrue’s voice was spot on, and the entire band never missed a beat, revealing their exceptional skill as musicians. Fan favorites “Deadbolt,” “Stare At The Sun” and “The Artist In The Ambulance” were all precisely executed, with other standouts being “Silhouette,” “Red Sky” and “The Earth Will Shake.” The latter was the perfect song to end with, and its intense finale was a sight to see.
Closing it out was Brand New, who went for 90 minutes and were expectedly incredible. On the first night, they played everything from 2006’s album of the year, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, and only three old songs — “The Shower Scene,” “Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t” and “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot.” For the second night, they played everything off of Devil minus “Welcome To Bangkok,” as well as “Tommy Gun,” “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades,” “Jaws Theme Swimming,” “Demo 1” and “Play Crack The Sky.”
Night two turned out to be a definite step up from night one, with the band sounding tighter over the improved set list. Highlights included “You Won’t Know” and “Limousine,” along with “Jesus Christ” and the moment when singer Jesse Lacey brought out his acoustic guitar for a solo performance of “Demo 1,” segueing into “Play Crack The Sky.”
Lacey was more talkative on the second night too, and his vocals were especially strong, from his delicate whispers to his raw screams. The select usage of two drum sets, which they employed on their last tour, was again carried over, and helped in the creation of a power-charged atmosphere. Guitarist Vinnie Accardi furthered this factor, providing solid backup vocals while tearing into certain songs with an untapped ferocity.
The band chose to encore with “Untitled,” an unusual decision but one which paid dividends. Accardi first came out and played a few riffs, looping them over one another, and then Lacey came out, adding a few more. This produced a cacophony of tones until eventually the rest of the band joined in, culminating in a raucous jam session. It was unlike anything I had seen before, and a potent display of their avant-garde nature.
Not only do I consider these three bands unbelievable live performers, I also rank them among the most innovative artists writing music today. They demonstrated both facets each night, even though Brand New didn’t quite match the power of their performance from earlier in the year. In the face of the vapid landscape known as mainstream music, mewithoutYou, Thrice and Brand New prove that if you venture below the surface, not everything is barren.