Geoff Rickly of Thursday
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In February of 2004, Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly appeared on the cover of Spin alongside his counterparts in The Distillers, The Darkness, and Interpol. The theme of the accompanying article was “Next Big Things”—and Thursday was painted, for neither the first nor last time, as “emo saviors.” At the time, emo was just breaking through to a larger audience, which only compounds the irony of Thursday’s uneasy career arc; when the band formed in New Jersey in 1997, emo was still an underground, nebulously defined offshoot of hardcore that encompassed everything from gentle, melodic songcraft to screaming, atonal chaos. Thursday synthesized all those elements. And its sophomore album, 2001’s anthemic Full Collapse, thrust Rickly and crew into the spotlight just as emo was seeping into the mainstream, thanks to bubbly contemporaries like Jimmy Eat World and Saves The Day.
After leaving indie Victory Records and signing to Island Records for 2003’s scathing War All The Time, it became clear that Rickly wasn’t interested in becoming anyone’s savior. Nor was his band desirous of being the next big thing. As the decade progressed and emo became even more of a punchline, Thursday seemed to retreat into itself, choosing to record a string of challenging albums that incorporated everything from prog complexity and post-rock texture to lit-major Easter eggs and Situationist sloganeering. 2008, though, saw the band reach a crossroads; after leaving Island, Thursday began recording its most elaborate, accomplished album to date, Common Existence, with famed indie-rock producer Dave Fridmann. Before the album was completed, Thursday signed to stalwart punk label Epitaph. At that point, with the waning trend of commercial emo about as vital as the music industry at large, it would have made as much sense for Thursday to dissolve and fade away as it would have for it to continue.
But Rickly, keyboardist Andrew Everding, bassist Tim Payne, drummer Tucker Rule, and guitarists Tom Keeley and Steve Pedulla weren’t ready to be the next casualties from the class of ’04. With Fridmann again at the dials, they wrote and recorded the entirety of No Devolución—the group’s sixth full-length—in a spontaneous session unlike any Thursday had tried before. The album shows it: Cracked, caustic, and somehow ethereal amid all the corrosion, No Devolución is an about-face from the note-perfect intricacy of Common Existence. It’s also one of the most brutally emotional pieces of music from a band once pegged as the most of emo of them all. And yet, No Devolución falls far outside the mall-punk paradigm, drawing from a broad sonic palette even as it sinks into a withered, world-weary heartache. But, as Rickly tells The A.V. Club, there’s a lot more to No Devolución than meets the ear.
The A.V. Club: No Devolución is the first album Thursday has completely written and recorded since returning to an independent label. Did that have any effect on the whole process?
Geoff Rickly: Yeah, I think that having Epitaph support us so strongly, especially relative to how many records we sell compared to some of their other acts, really helped. They stand by us so firmly. When we were on Victory and then on Island, there was a lot of talk like, “We stand behind these guys. They sell a lot of records.” But it was also sort of implicit that [if] we don’t sell a lot of records, they don’t stand behind us anymore. Having the support of a label that really cares and really loves the records and is going to provide a home regardless of how many records we sell, that made a huge difference. It’s a very stable environment for us, emotionally speaking. Which is good. We’re a six-piece band, and we’re from the New York/New Jersey area, so we’re pretty neurotic. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about on an identity level? Even though the divide between major-label bands and independent bands isn’t as sharp as it used to be, Thursday came up in a DIY climate. Did you feel more like yourselves again after leaving Island?
GR: I think that nails it. With all the labels we’ve been on—especially the major label, which is weird—I never felt like we weren’t free. If anything, we weren’t really encouraged to do what we wanted to do. It was kind of like, “Yeah, you guys can do that, we guess. We were kind of hoping you’d be this band, but you want to be that band.” [Laughs.] Being with Epitaph has made a lot of our choices, which we’d second-guess on a major label, easier. Now we don’t have to worry so much about the ramifications. Like, we’ll be shooting around the idea of giving away a record for free, and Epitaph will say, “Yeah, that would be fucking awesome. Cool, let’s do it.” It’s really weird for a label to say, “We’ll pay for you to give something away.” It makes me feel a lot more like when we started the band. We didn’t have any expectations or a career to think about. It’s very freeing. Epitaph is excited about music instead of just crunching numbers all the time.
AVC: Speaking of expectations, Thursday fans have a lot of them when it comes to your music. And yet, the band always seems happy, even driven, to undermine those expectations.
GR: You say “undermine,” but we always used to say “subvert.” That was sort of our catch-all word. We’ve always been like, “We can give people what they ask, but at the same time give them the opposite of what they ask.” Or at least that’s what we’ve tried to do. But we kind of got ourselves in a position where we became adversarial toward everybody. That was sort of our natural inclination. For a while there—for years, actually, through Island and even past that—if anybody got the least bit heavy into giving us a suggestion, we’d become reactionary and just go the opposite way, I think at times to the detriment of the band.
AVC: How so?
GR: Well, for example, War All The Time is such a pissed-off-sounding record. It’s so dark and claustrophobic. The album before that, Full Collapse, wasn’t like that at all. It was a big, hopeful, young-sounding record. But that was all gone by the time we put out our first major-label record. We knew Island was expecting something more like Full Collapse, something the kids would love. We were like, “Fuck them, and fuck the kids.” We were just on a “fuck this, fuck that” rampage, I guess. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about now? No Devolución doesn’t feel that way at all.
GR: The new record is the first one we’ve made where I feel we didn’t try to play off of expectations too much. Which is weird. While we were trying to be subversive, we thought we were doing our own thing. Like, “This is us. We’re out making our own identity. We’re not following anybody’s rules.” Then you start to realize that once you’ve gotten yourself into an opposition stance, they’re still dictating the terms of what you’re doing. You’re not making any real decisions for yourself. You’re just going against the grain for its own sake. That’s sort of fatiguing for a band to do for a bunch of years in a row. Luckily we got ourselves into a better situation now. Without the expectations, all of a sudden we have to make positive choices and directions for ourselves. There’s no negative pushing back at us. We’re not defining ourselves in terms of the other. I guess that would be the postmodern theory of it all.
AVC: There are also the scenes and trends Thursday has been associated with over the past decade. You’ve influenced a huge number of bands—some of them good, a lot of them terrible.
GR: [Laughs.] That’s almost exactly how I would say it. There are some good bands out there that love us, and that is awesome. But there are a lot of bad bands out there that love us, too.
AVC: That said, the whole mall-punk thing seems kind of passé in 2011, a relic of the last decade. It’s not a relevant way of looking at things anymore.
GR: No, not at all. It’s really weird. I think a lot of those bands got really careerist for a while. I remember hearing this popular phrase at one point in the punk or whatever you want to call it community. You’d be at a basement show, and there would be some loudmouth saying, “I don’t even care. I think it’s more punk to just want to sell a million records.” When I’d hear people say shit like that, I’d find it totally annoying. All these bands followed the guidelines about how to make it big by dumbing things down and making them more immediate and being more pop, but that’s not how you sell records, at least not in the long run. That little formula that they had going just isn’t relevant anymore. So now you have bands left that are still playing in that sphere—something that grew out of punk that isn’t punk anymore, but not post-punk—and they actually love it, and they try to find something to do with it that’s worthwhile. It’s not a way to get famous or have girls after you or whatever anymore. It’s kind of interesting that way. The bands left now are the ones that actually care about the music. A lot of the bands that came in and had hit records and took all the money out of it have disappeared, and it’s become a little obvious what they were up to the whole time.
AVC: Between this shift in the scene and your signing to Epitaph, it seems you had a blank slate to work with going into No Devolución. Did that have anything to do with how much of a departure the album is?
GR: It’s really hard to say if it was as premeditated as you might think. The truth is, we didn’t really have songs ready to record when we were supposed to. We tried to cancel the session with Dave Fridmann, and he kind of called our bluff. He was like, “Fuck you guys. You usually spend a year writing a record, and you over-think every little thing. And by the time I’m recording it, you guys are already moving on past it. No, you don’t get to reschedule. You’re coming up here. I don’t care if you have one song written. You’re going to come and make this record. Just trust me on this. If you blow it, we can try again later. But just come and do it.” Basically we were seven days into writing, and we had a record. I’d finish writing lyrics literally right before walking into the control room and singing the whole song. From the beginning of writing lyrics to having a finished song would take four hours.
AVC: How did that work out?
GR: I think that kind of spontaneity made a lot of difference. In the past we’ve had some similar ideas to what we did on this record, but I would usually say, “Let’s think about it. Is it going to be fun live? Is it going to have enough energy? Does the chorus hit? Let’s make it more angular. Let’s make it more juicy-sounding.” I would manipulate the song until I thought it was a good extension of what Thursday was doing. I think that was a little heavy-handed. So this time, I backed off. I didn’t write any guitar parts. I didn’t go in and try to dictate to the rest of the band what things should sound like. I let them be a band, and I just wrote lyrics for them. I think that was a huge leap forward. There was no musical director. The strengths in every player were just allowed to come out in different ways. I wasn’t in there trying to say, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like Thursday.” Those guys are all really capable players. They’re so good. I just love to watch them in a room and not sing over it, just to see them do what they do. A lot of the album was just letting go of what we thought we should be. It’s funny, because I hear people say, “I knew they would make a change, like Muse or something.” We’ve toured with Muse, but we don’t sit around and listen to them. We’ve been listening to Kate Bush and old 4AD stuff. I guess it’s not what a lot of people might picture the guys in Thursday listening to. When we remove a little of the identity of what Thursday is supposed to sound like, and we go with the music that actually does influence our lives on a day-to-day basis, this is what comes out.
AVC: The influence of early 4AD bands is definitely all over No Devolución. It’s very atmospheric, and your vocals wander around and get buried in the mix a lot.
GR: That’s funny, because half the kids who listen to Thursday will probably think, “These songs are great. Why did Dave Fridmann ruin the mixes?” That’s so crazy. They might not realize that Dave is a total genius. None of this stuff is a mistake. We know how much we’re compressing the drums. If you have great headphones or a great stereo, and you’re listening to it from the real CD, the drums sound unreal. And they’re not sample-replaced. They’re not fake. They’re real. Every mix, we would even watch it on the oscilloscope. Everything would be interplaying so much. It was like, “If you turn up that keyboard and this snare drum and then put the vocals here, and all three of them hit the same note on this chord, they all kind of blend together. You can’t tell what’s a voice and what’s a drum and what’s a keyboard.” We started getting into these complex arrangements of chord-stacking between the instruments. We were using the overall compression of the mix as harmonic distortion, using the studio basically as another instrument to play new chords and new voicings. If anyone says these songs would sound better if someone else had recorded them, I’ll say, “These songs wouldn’t even be these songs without Dave’s recording.” He was a part of the band making this record. Someone might think that, compared to a Muse record, No Devolución sounds shitty. But Dave could have made us sound like Muse if that’s what we’d wanted. We’d do mixes that were super clean, and we’d be like, “This sucks. This just doesn’t move me.”
AVC: There’s also a lot of friction there, too, between that ethereal feel and how raw the album sounds. Just because something is atmospheric doesn’t mean it can’t be—
AVC: Right. Was that contrast something you were going for?
GR: I never really thought about it that way. If we’d had more of a premeditated idea of what this record was going to sound like, then yeah. Maybe Dave did. I know he had a bunch of ideas about how this record was going to be, how it was going to be different. He usually records, like, the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev and MGMT, and those bands all work within the same area, just different sides of it. We’re pretty much the only band like us that he does, so he likes to experiment each time. Once we got into the studio, he said, “Oh, I see what you guys are doing this time. You’re not trying to push it into the post-hardcore-whatever territory.” We were just going with a certain flow, with a certain feeling we were trying to get. I think he just saw what we were doing on that first day, saw where we were going, and he got it. So maybe he was clear about that atmospheric-yet-raw sound more than anything we were consciously going for.
AVC: You mentioned a certain flow or feeling you went with while recording. Is that how you normally work?
GR: No, it’s the opposite of how we usually work. I used to put up slogans and ideas for lyrics all over the studio. Wherever you went, there were these little notes stating the theme of the record, so that everyone was confronted with that all the time. This time, I just waited until the mood was there and kind of picked it out of the air.
AVC: Did that have a bearing on the lyrics?
GR: Yeah. I mean, I knew what I was going to be writing about, no matter what. I just had a few major life changes happening at the time, and I knew it was unavoidable that I’d be talking about those things. I just didn’t know how I’d be talking about them. And then the record sort of decided that it was going to be more subtle, that I wasn’t going to go full, exploratory confessional, where I’m painting every little detail of every little picture. I realized I was going to be doing a lot more subverting story formats. Like, “A Darker Forest” has the cliché about taking two different paths, but then it turns it upside down and says basically, “No matter which path you take, you’re still wandering around the fucking forest. Whatever moral you want to get from that story is a false moral. You’re going to be lost forever.” What does that make you think of? [Laughs.]
AVC: It made me think of The Cure.
GR: Yeah. [Laughs.] After I wrote that song, a friend of mine was like, “Oh, ‘A Darker Forest,’ like ‘A Forest’ by The Cure. Only darker, right?” And I was like, “Shit, that’s funny.” I was born a Cure fan, always will be.
AVC: Back to the lyrics, what were some of the life changes you were going through while working on No Devolución?
GR: Well, I think there are a lot of pretty obvious allusions on the record to a marriage on the rocks. That was a pretty huge source of inspiration. While this was all going on, I really didn’t want to write, like, part two of Cursive’s Domestica. I didn’t want this to be this heart-wrenching record about breaking up. I mean, I love Cursive, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. It’s just such a thing, you know? The breakup record. I hardly ever hear a breakup song and think, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Most of the time I just think, “You sound like a self-absorbed douchebag.” Domestica is one of the few records that gets it. But this isn’t Domestica. This record is about devotion. It’s like being in a desert and writing about water. Even if it’s make-believe water, I’d rather have some of that around than just write about sand. A lot of the songs are about how incredible devotion is, how incredible all the things we care about are. It just became this huge theme for the record. It’s a huge love letter. It became so much easier to write once I realized that. I think I was about four songs in before I realized what the album was about.
AVC: But it isn’t all about the positive side of devotion.
GR: No. It’s like a prism, and we’re dropping devotion into it. We’re going to get all different colors from it. There’s a bar in Fredonia, New York, that one of Dave’s friends owns, a little rock ’n’ roll bar called BJ’s. We were there, and I started telling Tom [Keeley] about what the record was about, and he was like, “Yes, that’s perfect. Now I don’t feel scared about making this album.”
AVC: It’s interesting that you just made a thirsty-in-the-desert analogy, seeing as how one of the album’s standout tracks is “Empty Glass.”
GR: Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.
AVC: Of all the songs on No Devolución, it’s the one most blatantly about the breakup of a marriage. But even then, you’re subverting what’s expected of a song like that.
GR: Right, the two different ways of losing a wedding ring. I like that. Somebody who heard the song asked me, “Did all those things actually happen to you?” And I wanted to be like, “Well, obviously not.” You either lose your wedding ring or you sell it. I wanted the listener to be off-guard. Is this real? Or is this just a song about what it feels like to go through this? I didn’t want people to know whether or not they could take it literally. Like you said, it’s subversion. I wanted to subvert the form of the narrative. You can’t trust the narrator. Those things excite me as a writer. I love it when you’re listening, and you’re right in the palm of someone’s hand, and then all of a sudden you’re given a reason not to trust them anymore.
AVC: It’s also the quietest, sparsest song on the album, so most of the attention is on your vocals.
GR: It’s like you were saying about how the vocals get buried sometimes. But other times, like in “Empty Glass,” they’re so loud, it’s insane. To me, it’s all part of the story. I said that this was a record about devotion more than a breakup record, and it needs to have all the parts of devotion in it. Going through those rough spots, that’s all part of devotion. I couldn’t just leave that out because I wanted to tell a different story.
AVC: You’ve written a lot of songs in the past about religion. Is that one facet of the devotion you’re picking apart?
GR: Not really. Devotion really is such a weighted word that way, though. But I also think real love—the kind that’s far beyond infatuation—is religious in every way. Whether or not I’d say I was a humanist, I’ve always agreed that every person is about as sacred as it gets. I’ve always loved Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain and that whole viewpoint of humanity being a church unto itself. That’s something that probably comes across most on this record, at least as far as a religious aspect. I was raised Catholic, so a lot of our other records have issues with faith and guilt and all kinds of stuff you grow up with when you’re Catholic, all tangled up with sex and death and whatever else. This album is a little less concerned with that. I’m not really thinking about that right now.
AVC: You’ve never been shy about dropping literary references in your songs. In fact, each new Thursday album seems like a chance to see what Geoff Rickly has been reading the past couple of years.
GR: [Laughs.] That’s why I like Twitter now. I know a lot of the time bands use Twitter for, like, “Here’s a good review. Here’s a link to a song.” It’s used as a promotional tool. I love Twitter because whenever I finish a book, I can be like, “Go read this. It’s great.” To me, that’s cool. For so long, I think I was unsure about my voice, so I just dove straight into the literary and lyrical side of things. The written-word part of it was more important to me. If you could read the lyrics and get it, that was always a big thing for me. I didn’t want it to be like, “He’s just singing about some shit.” I wanted people to be able to sit down the lyrics and read and listen.
AVC: Has that changed as you’ve grown as a singer?
GR: I don’t know. I still love the written word just as much.
AVC: Are you cutting back on the overt literary references?
GR: Yeah, definitely. There are more nods than actual references. I think “A Darker Forest” uses details the way Cormac McCarthy might. The lyrics focus on little things that change the movement of what’s happening. The plot or whatever. That’s my favorite part about McCarthy’s prose, especially something like All The Pretty Horses, where there’s seemingly nothing going on. But everything’s happening right under the surface. And “A Gun In The First Act” is obviously a Chekhov reference. I was also reading Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker. I really love how it talks about symbols, how they have the tendency to break down the true value of what they represent. Everything becomes a symbol for something else. A leaf falling from a tree means mortality instead of it just being this beautiful leaf. There were a lot of things like that that went into the writing of this record. It’s weird, though. I think I’ve gotten to this place in my life where I’m not pushing that stuff in our music anymore. I don’t think about it so much. It just naturally comes out in what I’m doing, whereas I used to see something that got me excited, and I’d want to write a song just so I could put some of those ideas into it.
AVC: As for musical nods on No Devolución, the end of “Turnpike Divides” sounds like a tribute to “X-French Tee Shirt” by Shudder To Think. Was that intentional?
GR: Yes! You totally got it. That’s what I was going for with the vocals. I wanted to do this really long, really complex repeating melody, this kind of up-and-down arc. Just like the end of “X-French Tee Shirt.” That’s always been one of my favorite vocal lines. The crazy thing is, I was in the studio, and I started singing it, and Dave goes, “You’re kind of doing like a Shudder To Think thing, aren’t you?” And I was like, “Yeah, man!” And he said, “That’s really weird. I was just recording OK Go, and he was doing that, too. He was trying to rip off the end of ‘X-French Tee Shirt.’ But the ways you guys went about doing it is completely different. You’d never hear your song next to their song and think there was anything in common. It’s just funny that these two records I’ve worked on in a row reference the same 15-year-old song, this song that nobody knows.” [Laughs.] I love Shudder To Think. They were so on their own kick. They had this way of being so apart from even the cult of Dischord Records. They were the weird band on Dischord. Even if you liked Dischord in the early ’90s, you probably didn’t like Shudder To Think because they were too weird for you. [Laughs.] But once you tap into that wavelength, you’re like, “How did these guys comes up with this shit?”
AVC: In contrast to all the atmosphere and allusions and experimentation on No Devolución, the next-to-last song, “Stay True,” is pretty straightforward. It even feels a little like a pep talk. Is the album less dark and heavy at heart than it might seem at first?
GR: Definitely, yeah. To me, there’s a lot of joy on this record, especially in comparison to what we’ve done before. Some of our old stuff is dark, and there are songs on No Devolución that are just as dark. But I think this one is more representative of the whole range of emotions. There’s longing and joy and determination and all kinds of things. Puppy love. Whatever. There are so many weird things we’re trying to fit together on the record. I love the cover art being all white. To me, the idea of white as the combination of all colors is what we were going for. While they were working on the cover, they reversed it so that it was all black, and I was like, “Wow, that looks like a Depeche Mode record. But no. That’s not what we’re going with. That’s not this record.” We’ve been talking about it, and we don’t want to write another record anytime soon. I don’t know what happened while we were making this, but something went right. Usually by the time a new record of ours is ready to come out, I’m already thinking, “What’s the next one going to be like?” [Laughs.] But I just want to keep playing this record for a long time.