Thrice Interview: ‘I see this record harking back to an era where protest songs were rife’

Many were surprised when the alternative rock legends returned to action after a hiatus of just 3 years. But with new album To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, it feels as if the alt-trailblazers have never been away

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The Independent Culture

You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way.’

Seneca – Extract from Letters from a Stoic: Letter 2

'You're here but it's clear you're just salt and shadow

Here half a world away

You’re here but you’re nearly a hologram

Here, still so far away’

Salt & Shadow, from To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere

Salt & Shadow, the final song from Thrice’s comeback album after a short hiatus, To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere, is a cautionary tale about mankind’s relationship with the distractions that surround us, often at the expense of one-to-one interactions. It’s prescient in a constantly changing modern world, where we have more time for technology than each other, but the quote that inspired the album title comes from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, originally compiled in the collection Letters from a Stoic. ‘Obviously in the time that Seneca wrote it, they were dealing with far less distractions than we do now’ says frontman Dustin Kensrue, sat on a plush sofa on a swelteringly hot day backstage at The Forum, London alongside his bandmate Teppei Teranishi. ‘He was talking to his protégé about investing time in certain books; it’s impossible to read everything, so make sure what you read is valuable. That idea seems to have even more weight with the distractions that we have around us today. It really spoke to me in the way that it's hard to be present in any moment or in any given situation when you’re with other people. It's something that I certainly struggle with.’

These distractions come in many forms of course, but the most prevalent in modern Western society seems to be the proliferation and advancement of mobile phone technology, ironic given the original intention of said device was to aid communication rather than hinder; we seem so intensely drawn to our pocket LCD screens, drowning in a sea of social media, personalised advertisements, selfies, Tinder and Candy Crush at the expense of human synergy. Having access to practically every piece of art ever created in the history of mankind at our fingertips has also desensitised the value that we place on art, whether it be a song, album, film, painting or piece of literature; when the cost is so minimal, does art have any worth to us anymore?

Thrice defy conventions by writing music that has never been disposable, with practically all their output working on a multitude of levels that rewards listeners the more they invest in it. To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is no exception, with a large portion of the record revealing strong political leanings on multiple listens. Black Honey is an allegory for America’s involvement in the Middle East for nefarious means, namely the pursuit of oil, which utilises a striking metaphor of a hand swinging through a swarm of bees to get to a precious supply of honey. Blood in the Sand scrutinizes the propaganda and nationalism that reassures citizens that war is the best course of action, whilst Whistleblower has been linked to the leaking of classified CIA documents by Edward Snowden, as well as Kensrue’s own experiences highlighting corruption within the Mars Hill Church, where he resigned from his position as director of worship once the scandal broke. Generally though, the drive to be political in today’s rock culture seems to be muted compared to the heady days of the 60’s or even the more driving call to arms that saw bands such as Rage Against the Machine or System of a Down lace their songs with political rhetoric and sloganeering in the 90’s. ‘That’s something we talked about with the producer Eric Palmquist before-hand,’ says Kensrue. ‘He felt like rock had lost its sense of politick, that it’s become a bit more amorphous, which in turn takes away its bite. Whereas something like Hip-Hop is constantly referencing real things as metaphors, it's constantly throwing out images that people can relate to, which gives it a power and weight. So that was something I was really mindful of in the writing, trying to connect all the lyrics to something concrete; if I was using a metaphor, I’d choose words that actually connect it to the real world. That was definitely something we consciously thought about, wanting this record to have some bite to it! I see it as harking back to the 60’s, an era where protest songs were rife.’

So are musicians and artists, particularly those in rock, too afraid to speak out about political issues in 2016? There’s a small glut of bands willing to speak out but in a political climate that threatens to put Donald Trump in charge of one of the biggest, most powerful countries in the world, why aren’t there more modern day Dylans, Marleys and Guthries? ‘I think part of it might be that it can be alienating, depending on what you're talking about and how you're talking about it’ says Kensrue. ‘A lot of times, people can take a stance that's so hard that it ends up turning off people who could actually be won over. Sometimes there's things that I might not talk about that because it might be divisive, and instead, I’ll try to approach it in a way that’s more inclusive or at least inviting people in rather than pushing them away.’

Teranishi is unsure though. ‘I'm not sure if that's the real reason,’ he says, ‘It’s a good question but I'm not sure if I have the answer. It seems as if hip-hop, grime and other genres of music have taken what rock music was doing in its earliest form and run with it.’ ‘I think there’s a difference in structure though,’ Kensrue pipes in. ‘The structure of a hip-hop song is more conducive towards making pointed jabs; you don't have to build an entire larger piece around one political statement, you can make a bunch of pointed jibes and create a general vibe of anti-authority or rebellion. But generally in rock music, the songs focus on making a larger point, certainly when it's doing it well, it works that way. That said there are examples in folk and protest music through the ages that defy that; I feel like Bob Dylan was actually doing something similar to what you see in a lot of modern Hip-Hop, where he'll throw out little pieces of rhetoric that are engaging and make you think, but the song as a whole doesn't have to be about ne large issue that might divide people.’

Another song with strong political ties is Death From Above, a song that critiques the US military’s use of drone warfare which draws on various testimonies from ex-drone pilots. Kensrue came under fire in some quarters from members of the clergy attached to the military for the lines ‘One day they sent me to the chaplain when I said I can't go on / All he said was just to shut my mouth and do the will of God.’ ‘A lot of times, when it comes down to it, the chaplains are essentially enforcing army doctrine rather than meeting these people where they're at and helping guide them to where they need to be’ he says ‘There was some push back from some military chaplains about that line but I had some good dialogue with them online just saying, 'Look, I'm not saying that all of you are bad!’ I can see they're in a tough position where they have two masters to abide by. I appreciate it when I can have a little interaction about those things, that way we can learn from talking to each other.’

Thrice have never been a band to take a black and white stance on anything, something that makes their music so compelling and prudently stimulating; the issues they deal with are rarely as simple as good vs evil. To Be Everywhere is To Be Nowhere continues this intelligent outlook at the world, which looks set to continue now that the hiatus is most categorically off; the band seem in a better position than they’ve ever been performing to a sold out London Forum (with a capacity of 2,000) just hours after I speak with them. ‘I feel like for the most part we picked up where we left off’ says Teranishi. ‘As far as the band dynamic is concerned, there wasn't really anything that needed reparation or anything like that, but good things have come out of the hiatus which allow us to be doing be in a band at this stage in our lives. We put a three-week cap on touring because we all have families and we had got to a point where it was getting difficult to balance band life and family life. I think we're able to integrate the two together better now, I'd say that's probably the biggest challenge being in a band at this point.’ ‘There was a lot of heavy stuff going on around the time of Major/Minor (the band’s previous album and last before hiatus) with our families and sickness and death’ adds Kensrue. ‘Comparatively, things are a lot more positive in our personal lives now than they were then.’

Whilst everyone is happy to have them back, many were surprised when they announced they would be returning so soon, with even the band admitting that they had no idea exactly how long they would be away for. With a Brand New concert at the tail end of 2014 providing the catalyst for Thrice to start playing again, and a healthier approach to being out on the road, it seems unlikely that we’ll need to endure the band going away again any time soon. ‘Seeing that show was the impetus to really start talking about reforming the band’ says Kensrue. ‘Teppei and I were there having a blast and it just seemed like a good time to bring it up. My kids were a little older and my life was in a different spot; I was freed up a bit finally to talk about doing this album. That whole time I'd been growing and missing playing with them; it’s a unique good vibe playing with these guys.’

To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere is available now through Vagrant Records.