Interview: Thursday Frontman Geoff Rickly
"We always just wanted to be Fugazi, but people saw us otherwise."
Thursday: Geoff Rickly is the one in the middle
It's been almost a decade since Thursday released their breakout record Full Collapse, the album that launched the "post-hardcore" band into a major label contract with Island Records. Once very much from New Brunswick, Jersey--they've cited fellow locals Lifetime as an important influence--frontman Geoff Rickly now lives in Park Slope. They've since left Island for Epitaph, and their first release on the new label, Common Existence, comes out this week. And though they still sound much too literate for the Warped Tour, they're headlining the Taste of Chaos Tour this month, which even Rickly admits is "kinda the same thing."
We spoke with Rickly over the phone, the day after fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen played the Super Bowl. Rickly swore he didn't watch the game, but made sure to catch the Boss at a local bar.--Mordechai Shinefield
Your new album is called Common Existence. What inspired the title?
It occurred at the end of the record. I think there're some records you start with the title in mind. War All the Time [the band's sophomore album]--the title came before the record. City By the Light Divided [the band's third] came while I was writing the first batch of lyrics for the record. This one came while I was recording the vocals for the last song. There's a line, "It's the slip of the surgeon's knife/Darker crimes of common existence." I thought that I really liked the image and sound of it.
I can't help but feel like there's something hopeful about the title, moreso than the last albums.
That's interesting. We recorded it right in the thick of it looking like there was a chance Obama might lose. I don't know. I don't think hope had caught up with me yet, though I'm definitely feeling it now.
It's funny about you saying it's a positive title, in that there are two different perspectives. One is an older person, like my age or older, who thinks the title is inspired and upbeat. Whereas all the young kids think that it's depressing, that we're saying life isn't that special, that it's common, that there's nothing spectacular about it. I think that's an interesting litmus test.
They're seeing Common Existence as 'normal existence?'
Yeah, like whatever. It's common. Who cares? Who gives a shit about your stupid life.
That's interesting. I read you saying in an interview about signing with Epitaph Records that "It's a great feeling to have a label encourage you to be more socially conscious and politically active."
On Island, when all the people left Island, and we were left there with the second string staff that came in, they were very much like, "You guys are a band, man. Do your thing. Make music. Don't worry about that other stuff. Leave it up to the politicians.'"
Like, "Shut up and sing."
When we met with Brett [Gurewitz, Bad Religion guitarist and owner of Epitaph], he was just talking about how much he missed that stuff from us. He missed us being involved with different organizations and saying things on stage about human rights and gay rights and gender equality and stuff like that. It's been missing from us. It was really refreshing to hear a CEO--a boss--say, "You guys need to get involved again." It felt really nice.
What kind of involvement do you guys have planned?
We've been involved in a few organizations. One is Men Can Stop Rape. We think that's a really cool thing because it's sorta like a masculine approach to preventing rape and making our society less sexually abusive--making young men have respect for themselves as men without treating women as objects is a really cool thing. I constantly feel like even journalists always ask me about groupies and shit like that.
Another one is a human rights campaign. I think it's insane that things like Prop 8 exist in this world. The fact that we're still going through a Civil Rights revolution and we're going to deny rights to people because of their sexuality... it blows my mind. In 20 years there's going to be gay marriage everywhere. In 50 years we're going to think that anyone who's the slightest bit homophobic as being a crazy bigot.
Going back to kids interpreting your album title differently--do you still have a lot of really young fans?
I think a lot of really young kids are interested in us and hear the older kids on messageboards talking about us and want to see what we're all about. I don't know if they're going to pick up this record and be all, "Yeah, I'm all about this." It's not really punk enough to be rebelling, and at the same time, it's not poppy like Fall Out Boy.
Would you guys still feel comfortable playing an event like Warped Tour?
[Laughter.] Well, we're headlining the Taste for Chaos tour, which is kinda the same thing. It's smaller and it's more heavier bands than the Warped Tour. But yeah, I feel comfortable. I think catering to who you specifically think your niche demographic is shortsighted and not really that cool. I'd rather play for whoever I can play for. Have people throw beer at me some nights, and other nights I blow some kid's mind.
Thursday has a very young niche, but their fans have been growing up with them. How does that dynamic change?
It's a weird situation to be in. If we just relied on our fans growing up to have a career, it would be impossible. We'll be playing in a town and go out for dinner that night and the waitress will have a Thursday tattoo and be like, "Oh wow, I don't go to shows anymore or buy albums, but I still love you guys." And it's like, it's nice that you still love us, but you're not coming to see us, or getting our record. I'm sure we have a lot of fans who have since grown up and still have a soft spot in their hearts. But generally I think older people get less and less involved in music. Cause when you're younger, it's your whole culture.
I think it would be great if young kids were digging us, because, I don't know, maybe I could pay rent next month.
Do you remember a few years ago when you were featured on the cover of SPIN Magazine with, like, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
Yeah, of course I remember. An event in my life: I've been on the cover of SPIN.
Was that just an aberration? You guys seem to have less and less in common with those kinds of bands more and more.
It's hard to say. I feel like after that we toured with Interpol. I don't feel a total disconnect from that band. I could see that we probably don't share many fans. I think our fans probably listen to them, but I don't think there's a huge chunk of their fans that listen to us. I think that's what happens when you're at the forefront of a musical movement. A lot of the bands you don't have anything substantially in common with. We get the backlash for a lot of things we don't represent.
What kind of things?
A lot of people are like, "stupid, corporate, screamo, emo," all that other, "matching hoods and hoodies that sing about girls." All the things people say when they're L.O.L.'ing over Thursday. Generally have nothing to do with the band. I can tell whenever it's someone who has never listened to us, they just think we represent some paradigm of mall punk.
Like, you get blamed for Hot Topic.
Well, they were around long before we were a band. They've sold our shirts, Interpol shirts, Against Me! shirts. But Against Me! and Interpol don't get blamed for Hot Topic. We do.
Why do you think that is?
I think it's probably because at a certain time, 2002-2003, we were a poster boy for this new, upcoming punk movement. And then all these bands like the Used stylistically called us an influence. I never even really got it. It's a weird perception. We always just wanted to be Fugazi, but other people saw us otherwise.
Let me ask you about a couple songs on the new album. On "Resuscitation of a Dead Man," that's the first single, I hear some musical allusions to some of your older songs, like "For the Workforce Drowning," and "Understanding in a Car Crash."
I agree with you there.
Yeah! "Workforce Drowing" is in a 3/4, it's almost like a heavy waltz, which is something we've done a few times--that's sorta Thursday's trademark and is typified by the "Workface Drowning. " And the guitars do a pull-off thing similar to the one we did in "Understanding in a Car Crash."
Do you feel it's a thematic return to older material? Like an intentional return? Or does it just seep back into the band's music over and over again?
I don't think there's an intentional thematic return. I think it was more like, we kept pushing for more and different stuff. Eventually we got to a place where we also wanted to be the band we are. There are some things we enjoy doing. I wrote that song one day in my bedroom. And I was like, I kinda dig this. This is sorta like some of our other stuff. I wonder what'll happen when the band plays it. And we started playing it live and to me it had an unmistakable, familiar, good feeling.
How about "Subway Funeral?" In addition to "Resuscitation of a Dead Man," and really--you know, I've been following you guys forever--and I've noticed you talk a lot about people dying.
Mm. Yeah, "Resuscitation of a Dead Man," the Dead Man is misleading. It's not about someone dying. It's about how strange it is that people drop everything they're doing to save someone from death. It's like riding on the subway. When I was younger and I'd come into New York from Jersey to ride the subway, I'd be scared of the people there. Like they were evil, or something. They're crazy. But now I can just barely believe how compassionate people are. Just the thing--when someone's hurt, they drop everything to help. It's a little miracle--but without religious connotation, because I don't have any use for religion anymore.
I did want to talk to you about that.
In some ways, it's definitely a topic we touch on. But I think there's a lack of something deep about mortality in music. I feel like you either just talk about it, say how sad you are, and mourn it, like we did in our earlier songs--like "Porcelain" off Waiting which is about mourning the dead. But when we wrote "Car Crash," it was inspired by Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, and this idea that when you're close to death you see things differently.
It occurs to me that you wrote "Understanding in a Car Crash" while you were still living in New Jersey, and on this album you write "Subway Funeral," so the transportation illustrates...
Transportation is huge in our music. I think the thing no one realizes is that so much of our music is about transportation. I think that's an important post-modern theme. Not like, "Look at me, I'm so smart," but more that we're hurdling through life at speeds that are unhuman, or inhuman...
Your song "High Velocity" speaks to that.
All that stuff. It's a strange fucking thing. Something so strange and alien to us and we accept it. We just accept it that it's there and part of our lives. "Subway Funeral" marks that reflection in the change of [geographic] venue of where this album was written.
In both songs, "Subway Funeral," and "Understanding in a Car Crash," there's always someone dying. That carries over from New Jersey to New York.
Yeah. The interesting thing is that the car was the cause of the death. The subway is the place where the mourning is done. After my grandmother passed away, for some reason I couldn't stop getting on the 7 Train and going to Shea Stadium. When I was a kid my grandmother was a huge Mets fan and she'd take me to Shea to see games. That song is about looking for someone, looking for something. Trying to hold onto those pieces of memories about someone. That place was the 7 Train.
Do you write on the subway?
I sit on the subway with headphones and listen to music. I keep a pad with me, and I'll every so often, while humming in my brain, hear the right lyric or line and make a note of it. I'm not like Eminem in 8 Mile, though. I'm not sitting there going crazy writing line after line.
Last time we spoke, we talked about religion and how struggling with religion influences songwriting. And now your new cover has nuns on it.
For me this record marks more than a struggle, but actually turning away. Although there's so much to have faith and love in, aside from religion. There's something holy about the human condition that's just not represented by a religion. For me, I can't find inspiration in the sacred texts at all anymore. I still feel the need to go out and help somebody. Some of the things Kurt Vonnegut said about being a humanist speak to me, though I don't think I'd call myself a humanist.
It's funny because a lot of people think the nuns [on the cover] are turned away from the camera. They're turned away from the city. I think it'd be interesting to think if we had staged the photograph, but it's actually a candid. The whole album booklet is a whole thing, a series of candids from New York City. That's the thing I love about the picture. It appears to be a symbolic work of art, but it's actually a real picture of nuns walking into scaffolding. I love that dichotomy--almost magic realism.
The last time we spoke you were more struggling with religion. So it could almost be you disappearing into the city.
Do you think there's something about New York that makes it easier, or changes your perspective on religion?
Yeah. It's a fairly godless city I'd say. But it also has its own kind of ethic quality, like you're in a Cathedral the entire time you're in New York. There's these grand monuments to human excess and humanity and you feel that same sense as being in a Cathedral.
My favorite song you guys have done is "Sugar in Sacrament."
I love that song too, man. I can't believe that people don't like that song. People actually started writing on message boards, I hope they stop playing "Sugar in Sacrament," live, or "I'm sick of that song." Probably we won't play it at Taste of Chaos because it's such a long festival driven night. But I can't wait to add it back into the set list.
For me it's something about the relationship between sex and religion that speaks to me.
Yeah. Absolutely. I'm glad that it does, cause I've always had them tangled up that way.
Let's talk about Bruce Springsteen and the Super Bowl. Cause I love Bruce, and I know you do too.
I think like a lot of kids from Jersey, my experience of Bruce was at a 4th of July fireworks with "Born in the USA." I always thought, being a kid, Bruce, Bon Jovi, whatever, American hacks I had no need for. But I got older, and one of my friends was like, "Dude, are you fucking into Bruce Springsteen or what?" He was reading my lyrics and he was like, "YOU LOVE BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN." I was like, "Nah, man. I don't give a shit about Bruce Springsteen." And he gave me a book of his lyrics. An actual book of lyrics. So I sat and read them and was like, "Holy shit, I can't believe 'Born in the USA' is such a fucking downer." Then he gave me Born to Run and a collection of songs. It blew my mind, man. He's my hero. New Jersey and just beautiful. I love his songs. Great voice, great band, he's got it all.
When I listen to "Counting 5,4,3,2,1," [about a teen trying to escape his small-town life in Jersey], I can't help but think it's your response to The River.
It is! It is! And people never got it. People would say "Counting" is really shallow. And I'd say, "Counting" is like my attempt as a Bruce fan. I know we're a different kind of band, but Jesus. It's not just pop either.
You both write so much about being stuck in Jersey, but as artists you've both escaped that.
[Laugher.] I have a friend who's really close with Bruce, and I still haven't met him, magically, even though I have mutual friends with him. And my friend said, "You know what makes Bruce great? He always keeps tragedy close to his heart." Like no matter how far he gets into a good life. It's always there, the pain is always right there in his heart. It keeps him driven, focused, writing truthfully from the heart. That's the thing with Jersey. You keep it, no matter where you are. You never get out.
You guys will totally play the Super Bowl when they ask you, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, we'll play the hot dog stand outside the Super Bowl anytime they ask.
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