Last December, I was pretty damn sure I knew what the top album on my 2014 list would be. That may sound unbecoming of a writer and alleged journalist to decide something like this so far in advance, but I had a feeling, and the more I repeated listening to the album in question, the more certain I was.
Here we are, a little more than a year later, and no record that was released in 2014 could topple what I heard on Thou’s unstoppable “Heathen.” Before even digging into the philosophical and lyrical content, before I had a chance to see the band interpret these songs live, there was a sense of specialness you don’t get very often with records from any category of music. This was a record from a band that has slowly, in as calculated a manner possible, built their machine from the ground up. They have poured passion, anger, defiance, vulnerability, and humanity into their picture, and as time has gone on, their vision, at least to me as a listener, has come into greater focus. “Heathen” is their finest hour, and I have no doubt what they do next will conquer this one. It’s exactly what they’ve done from their 2007 full-length debut “Tyrant,” over the course of their myriad split and mini releases, and through four complete records.
Now, digging under the surface of “Heathen,” we get a scene that’s personal, dark, furious, and imagining a new kind of existence. There are the associations with sexual and personal pleasure and gratification, the state of what it means to live as a wanting, needing human in a society full of stop signs and would-be moral codes, and the grasp of this very life we have here, what we make of it, and the fact that this could be the only plane of existence we ever inhabit. What matters is what’s going on right now and what’s directly in front of us.
All of this is delivered with crushing eloquence on the wings of vocalist Bryan Funck’s lyrics that sound like long-lost poetry buried beneath the ages. Dark lines that resonate as much today as ever and will into the future. On top of that, his delivery has an urgency and bloody honesty that’s gripping and bruising. Alongside him are his fantastic band members, who keep one foot in doom’s cavernous haunts but also delve beyond that to color the music with sounds that might scare off other metal bands. Guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium are both elegant and relentless in their playing, while bassist Mitch Wells and drummer John Nee hammer everything home. “Heathen” is an indescribable journey created by these five artists, a record that went wire to wire in my mind and heart as my personal favorite metal album of the entire year. Gibbs and Funck were kind enough to take time from their schedule to answer some of our questions about the record, its meaning to them, and their reflections on the past year. We thank them for their participation and for a record that etched an indelible mark on our psyches.
Meat Mead Metal: We’re naming “Heathen” as our top metal album of 2014. It’s another cataclysmic record, one that runs the gamut of emotions and continues to defy musical boundaries. Now that the record has been out a while and you’ve had a chance to play the tracks live a bit more, what are your feelings about the album as a whole?
Andy Gibbs: Honestly, we had been playing some of those songs for a long time before recording. We played the first track “Free Will” at a show way back in late 2011 and practiced it for a while before that. For me, I tend to view the album differently once we get into the mixing and mastering and I have to listen to all the songs a million times; that’s when the nuances of the recording start becoming apparent and I notice some idiosyncrasies. We try to play songs live for a while before recording so that any changes that come about naturally can be reflected in the recording, though some of the tracks were written right before we went into the studio. Actually, one of the interludes—“Dawn”—was written right on the spot in the studio. Now that a couple of us live across the country, we have less time to demo all the songs and work those kinks out.
MMM: For Thou’s full-length albums, you’ve gone with one-word titles—“Tyrant,” “Peasant,” “Summit,” and now “Heathen.” Has that been on purpose? Why does “Heathen” properly represent what’s going on with this record?
Bryan Funck: I think that when I joined Thou, the rest of the guys were already set on calling that first LP “Tyrant,” keeping it really simple, monolithic. Or maybe we talked about it for a second, and everyone was immediately into the idea. Either way, we’ve always tried to keep the full-lengths wrapped around a single theme. We tend to use the splits and EPs as a means to experiment, and then we’ll take some of those ideas and try to apply them to the next LP.
The idea for calling this record “Heathen” had been banging around my head since we recorded “Summit” in 2010. At the time, we were thinking of working more extensively with Southern Lord, and the rough outline of those first three records was already set in broad terms as a sort of aristocracy/lower classes/subversives or sleep/death/wakefulness. So, thinking that we were going to do two more full-lengths with Greg (Anderson), we wanted to tie them all together thematically. ”Summit” is the very broad strokes for re-envisioning society and civilization, and then the next two—”Heathen” and “Magus”—are meant to hone into the people and ideologies it would take to create this new reality.
MMM: Thou’s artwork always is interesting, provocative, even darkly beautiful. What is it about that style of art you feel represents Thou? Also, the cover of the CD version and the vinyl version of “Heathen” are markedly different. Why did you choose to do that?
BF: When we started putting out records, we were going for something that looked “metal” but through the lens of the older hardcore stuff I was into. The Ire/Seized split, the Tem Eyos Ki LP, that Ereshkigal 7” with the (Paul Gustav) Dore images—stuff like that I thought was perfect for a metal band. We wanted to do something simple, stark, but with a lot of woodcuts. When I first joined Thou, I was writing about a lot of typically hardcore, by-the-books subjects: religion, veganism, sexism, stabbed-me-in-the-back diatribes. All of that 15th and 16th century art got thrown on a lot of those early ’90s metalcore records, so it was banging around my head a bunch. I was using it on flyers. A lot of stuff I just started stockpiling, and then when I joined Thou, I had a pretty extensive library I was pulling from.
In the years since that first “Tyrant” demo and now, I’ve slowly tried to steer us away from the overtly doom and gloom “grim” images. We’ve done our fair share of skulls and wolves and nature images at this point, and I’m drawn to more subtle nuances these days. I also love to toy with the juxtaposition of softer images with the harshness of our music. I still love a good, brutal woodcut or a grainy black and white photo. But I think bands who are really messing around with the metal aesthetic seem much more interesting. Those three Raspberry Bulbs LPs immediately come to mind.
As far as the “Heathen” art goes, we always change it up between the CD and the LP. We could probably have made it work for both formats, but I like having two or three versions to play around with, something like variations on a theme. I like having them offer up something a little different to the audience’s take on the album, though that interest is at war with my extreme hatred for the collector fetish.
MMM: Musically, Thou are tough to classify. Yes, doom could be considered a base. But there is so much more going on beyond that. It’s such a clichéd question to ask about influences, but how did the band come to such a diverse sound that can include doom, indie rock, post-metal, and other styles of music even in one track?
AG: It wasn’t a conscious choice. In my experience, the more you deliberately try to apply different elements to your music, the more forced it sounds. It’s why so many bands sound like “Band X” mixed with “Band Z.” With Thou, we started from a very general base of “heavy melodic riffs,” and then things just kind of took shape from there. Every different turn in our music is the result of one of us sitting at home noodling on guitar and deciding that something sounds cool enough to present to the band. Matthew and I have a pretty good feel for what’s “acceptable” to bring to practice, and that standard is what defines our band, however murky that standard may be. It’s funny, because when I listen to older songs of ours, I often wonder if some of those riffs would pass the test at practice now.
BF: I think part of it also is that we’re all fairly balanced individuals who like a wide variety of music. I think a long time ago we gave up on trying to do a “metal” band in the traditional sense. We just write music that we feel fits with our sound as a whole, regardless of whether or not someone outside of Thou is going to think it’s heavy enough or think we’re trying to add some new dimension to metal. It’s about writing music that we all care about and enjoy and still fits in the Thou box.
MMM: Lyrically, “Heathen” feels like a very human record. A lot of push and pull, encouraging real human experiences both positive and negative, defying guilt that can be associated with pleasure. At least these have been my interpretations. What are you digging at on “Heathen,” and how do these themes interact with the rest of Thou’s songs/albums/releases?
Bryan: That’s great to hear. “Heathen” is essentially about the human experience in the present tense as it’s recognized by the senses, without the weight of self-recrimination or any inner dialogue, pretty much to the point of disavowing philosophy and ideology. There’s definitely a celebration of pleasure throughout the record, but also of pain. And there’s a fair amount of nature worship on there, but mainly as it reveals our relationship with the physical world.
All that being said, the next LP should be in the exact opposite direction!
MMM: “Immortality Dictates” is a particular revelation for me as a listener. From Emily’s vocals, to the beauty and agony musical dynamics, to one of the finest lyrics on the record, “And you know that I love you, here and now, not forever. I can give you the present, I don’t know about the future.” It’s beautiful and sobering. Give some insight into this song and where it comes from.
AG: Musically, it’s something I was just kind of jamming with at my house in Oakland. We knew we wanted to get Emily on one of the songs, and the intro to that song seemed particularly fitting. Emily didn’t record her vocals until a few days after we’d finished the tracking, so the first time I heard her contribution was on a rough mix after I’d already flown back to California. It really went beyond anything I’d had in mind for the song.
BF: Sometimes I’ll start writing a song based on a title I like. That one is a play on an old Earth Crisis song. Lyrically, the majority of that song was probably influenced by Wolfi Landstreicher and Catharsis. Those last lines are a straight up rip off of Eddie Vedder riffing over the end of a live version of “Daughter.” But he might’ve pulled those from somewhere else too, haha.
MMM: Thou were the headlining act for this summer’s Gilead Fest. It felt like such a fitting culmination for a weekend that, to me and so many others, was such a special, communal gathering. What are your thoughts looking back on that weekend?
AG: That weekend was one of the highlights of my life. I’m not sure I can even put it into words, but I’ll try. The main thing that struck me was the realization that this wasn’t just a fest with a bunch of like-minded bands, but rather a real community. I realized that all the bands performing were full of people that I actually enjoyed being around, whose music and thoughts on music were worth listening to. And it’s not just the bands. There were plenty of journalists, photographers, and fans of the music hanging around and engaging with people. The barrier between performers and audience just wasn’t really present. I also realized that the majority of the attendees watched literally every band. The crowd never really thinned out, which I think speaks to the quality of music Adam Bartlett is willing to endorse.
BF: I generally hate shows with more than two or three bands, and fests are the absolute worst. But Gilead has been a wonderful experience both years. Lots of great people involved in every aspect. Andy has it completely right that there’s so much crossover, and it’s fabulous. Adam is around hanging out or yelling at people, Tucker is running sound, Adam’s wife and mom are working the door. It feels much more like a homespun DIY punk festival than a mostly metal thing, despite a lot of the folks’ obsession with wearing exclusively black clothing.
MMM: The band has had a long-standing relationship with Gilead Media, but also a ferociously independent DIY philosophy. First, talk about what the Gilead union means to you. Second, talk about the importance of remaining so vociferously independent.
AG: Gilead consistently reaffirms my faith in DIY labels. I think what makes us a good match ideologically speaking is a commitment to both an anti-corporate DIY mentality and absolute quality control over art. But above that, we just like to deal exclusively with people that we think are solid folks. When we met Adam back in 2008, we hit it off immediately, and I know that I count him as a friend before considering him a business partner or whatever. This is also the case with virtually all of the other labels we deal with like Robotic Empire, Vinyl Rites, Vitriol, and plenty others. Actually, I talked to Bettina from Thrill Jockey for a long time at Gilead, and it made me even more excited to be working with them on the Body collaboration (“You, Whom I Have Always Hated,” due Jan. 27.).
BF: Although I personally love the sometimes militantly anti-capitalist nature of DIY culture, as a band I think it applies to us in a much more practical sense in terms of our control over the music and art as a whole. I never really understand bands who are hands off with any aspect. I mean, a lot of this stuff is tedious and doesn’t necessarily fit everyone’s vision of playing music and “rocking out, bro,” but it’s all part of it. So to give up ownership/responsibility for even something as “miniscule” as an advertisement that’s getting shot out to represent your art, I just can’t even wrap my head around that sometimes!
For more on the band, go here: http://noladiy.org/thou.html
To buy the album, go here: http://www.gileadmedia.net/store/
For more on the label, go here: http://www.gileadmedia.net/