Lead singer Geoff Rickly divulges on the band’s new album Common Existence, why it’s the best thing he’s ever written, experimenting in the studio, side project United Nations, and the major flaw of the label system.
Are you excited about the new album coming out in a couple of weeks?
Yeah, it’s coming out February 17th. We’ll be on tour for seemingly forever after it comes out [laughs].
It’s called Common Existence. How did you end up choosing that particular title?
Well, we wanted to sort of undercut some of the drama of our past releases by trying to put a lot of the subject matter of the individual songs into a context. Despite whatever seems urgent or world shattering, it’s an interesting thing that everybody else is going through in their own ways. There’s tragic comedies going on in their lives, and we’re no different. In a way, it plays down a little of the drama in the music, which I felt was an interesting contrast. It also refers to the shared nature of our existence.
I really like the cover art with the picture of the two nuns. How did that come into play?
It was a good friend of ours, whom my lady works for, who’s a fashion photographer. He’s good at what he does, but I’ve always been like, whatever. I don’t care. It’s fashion photography. Then he showed me his personal collection of candids that he takes in the streets of New York and Tokyo, and I thought they were all fantastic.
When I saw the nuns picture, I found it to be really captivating because it says so much. It seems so heavy with symbolism, but at the same time it’s an actual scene. It’s something that really happened, and I think that’s interesting, too. I think Thursday’s music has always strived to maintain a balance between theme and symbolism, and stuff like that, but also having it be fairly heavily based in realism.
You worked with Dave Fridmann for the second time, who I know has a different approach than most producers. How did that go?
He’s fucking crazy, which is ultimately totally thrilling and kind of scary to work with. He has a very specific vision of a song. He’ll be like, “Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just use one microphone to record that.” And you’re like, “Really? I want it to sound good.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just not doing anything for me right now.” He’ll just say these crazy simple statements about what is and isn’t working. “OK, I don’t want you to actually sing into the microphone for this one. I want you to go over there.” You’re like, “OK, you’re worrying me [laughs].”
There’s no too crazy for Dave. You know what I mean? You know there’s not a baseline level that you can at least know you’re going to get from a song. It could be anywhere from crystalline, perfect and clear, like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, to totally insanely distorted, like the last Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record, where it’s like I can’t even fucking believe this is on a major label. I think that’s a good thing, though. Not knowing what you’re going to get keeps you a lot more on your toes.
I heard you guys did a bunch of subtle things with the production, like on “Time’s Arrow” you played the tape backwards.
Yeah, we had this song where the idea was about regret and wishing you could do things over. At the end of the song, Dave was like, “Well, for one thing this is like the shortest song I’ve ever heard. Why don’t we turn the tape around, and then you can actually undo the shit that you’re doing? You can do things differently. You can play the song differently over it.” That seemed like a really interesting idea. Those are the kinds of things that Dave is great for.
Did you guys do any other weird stuff like that on the record?
Yeah, there’s a bunch of weird stuff. I don’t know if you can tell on “Circuits of Fever,” but we would have pieces where we just grabbed the tape and make it slow down and stuff like that. It would change pitch and sound like all of a sudden my voice is going in and out of key.
Then we would leave big holes in songs where we just didn’t have anything playing. We were like, “There’s nothing there. What are we going to fill it in with?” Whereas usually as a band sits there enough for as long as we have, you try to focus on crafting a song that works together as a whole where all the parts go together. It’s really kind of dubious to say, “We’ll figure something out later.” It’s not even going to be part of the song yet. We have to imagine it with this hole and something in there. Then we get in a room and all chant together, or do something crazy like that. That’s just a very different approach then you usually get.
There’s also a song that didn’t make it to the record, because it ended being 10 and a half minutes long, called “Stay True” that I hope we release some day. The band always warms up when I’m not there. They were warming up with this really amazing, beautiful piece this one day, and so I started recording it. It was like three minutes, and it had no structure whatsoever. It was just one part that they kept playing. So I said, “Every day I want you to warm up with that same piece.” And it would change so much every day.
Then when we got to Fridmann’s, I just said, “Yeah, it’s about halfway there. When we hit tape this time, I’m going to sit in here on the microphone and talk to you guys, and you’re going to keep playing.” They ended up improvising the last five minutes of this song, and it was already pretty improvised. So, there was some cool stuff like that, and that was really rewarding. I do wish that song had made it onto the record despite its enormous length.
I hope you release that sometime soon. It sounds really cool.
Yeah. It also gave me all this room to tell a story and then leave huge passages of long instrumental stuff. I couldn’t stand to hear my voice going continuously for 10 minutes over something [laughs].
When describing your last two records a lot of people have been tossing around the term “experimentation.” What are your thoughts on that label and if it’s accurate or not?
Sometimes I think it’s kind of silly, the whole idea that you can quantify the experiments that went on in the recording process, that you can hear at least. I think that’s sort of a fake idea, like, oh, it’s so experimental. If the band does weird avant-garde noise, pop, jazz every single record, is that really experimental for them anymore, or is that just what they play? You know what I mean? As far as experimenting with the forms, anything that Philip Glass or John Cage hasn’t done 50 years ago would be surprising at this point.
I don’t know. It’s strange. I think that to a certain extent you can say that the producers who produce Britney Spears are experimental, too. I don’t think you can really keep track of it the way people pretend. It’s a little bit pretentious to even talk about experimentation. We did plenty of experimenting in the studio. I don’t know if you can always hear it. We tried to only keep the stuff that made the songs better.
At the same time, I’m sure they’ll be tons of people who don’t notice it and just think it sounds exactly like every other Thursday record that’s ever come out [laughs]. Like, “Oh, your voice sounds the same,” or whatever, and that’s the only thing you even have to notice.
The first single is “Resuscitation of a Dead Man.” How did that song come into being?
Well, where I live in Park Slope, I live on a corner where people are constantly getting into car accidents and hitting people in the bike lanes and stuff. I woke up one morning in the middle of summer. My window was open and some guy had gotten hit by a car. The ambulance was there and they were trying to get his heart to start beating again.
I think it was probably just being woken up in the middle of a dream, but I started actually thinking about how strange it is that we do that. I don’t know if that’s a thing every animal does for its other animals, to try and bring them back to life. It just struck me as so strange. We all bag on human nature so much, and say it’s about war and injustice and all that, but at the same time when somebody all of a sudden gets hurt, every stranger drops what they’re doing and tries to bring them back. It’s one of those simple things that you never think about that’s really powerful.
I thought your voice and Tim’s [from Rise Against] fit really well together on the song, too.
Thanks, man. Yeah, it’s funny. I think they mesh together so well that people don’t realize how much he’s on the track. Every chorus is a call and answer between me and Tim. People are like, “Yeah, he just does that one screaming part in the middle.” It’s like, well, no, actually he sings the first chorus. He sings in the pre-chorus [laughs]. He’s all over the song.
Did you record that part when you were on tour together?
Actually, no, it was quite a bit before that. They were on the tour with Thrice, Gaslight Anthem and Alkaline Trio. They played a few shows in New York, and we were doing some add guitars and a few backup vocal parts in Steve’s brother’s studio. Steve’s brother works at a studio in Harlem.
So, we were just fucking around in Harlem, and I was like, “Dude, you know you’re going to be here an extra day. You should fucking come in the morning and lay down some shit on the new Thursday record.” He was like, “Yes.” So I was like, “Oh, shit. I didn’t even really expect you to say yes, but it’s going to be fucking great.” I went and looked through all the songs and was like, ah, this is the song that Tim would fit best on. I just hear him, you know?
One of my favorite songs from the new record is “You Were the Cancer,” and I saw where you wrote online and said it was your best song lyrically. What’s the origination of the song?
Well, the thing that’s interesting about that song is it started out – the idea for it, the title for it – came with the music, and the lyrics weren’t a part of the title. The title came first. I had this idea about somebody in my life that I really wanted to get out of my life. Then as we were working on the song in the studio, I still didn’t have any lyrics. When I started writing them, Steve and Tim had a family member who was actually dying of cancer while we were making the song. It changed my perspective on saying that somebody is a cancer.
It’s a song about the flaw there is in life that everybody has to say goodbye to the people they love the most. So it became more of a song about that, about that crack in the fabric of everyday life. The lyrics to that song is where the album title Common Existence came from. There’s a line that says, “It’s a slip of the surgeon’s knife/In the darker crimes of common existence.” When I wrote that line, everybody was like, “Holy shit! That’s a good line. That really says a lot about a lot of different things in a tasteful way.” I just kept thinking like, man, maybe something with that feeling should be the title of the record.
I also didn’t want to make a really long-titled record, like A City by the Light Divided. I don’t want to keep on doing the same thing over and over again. I feel like then it would be kitschy. You expect Panic! at the Disco or Fall Out Boy to have these long joke titles, and I didn’t want to become that. Not necessarily that there’s anything wrong inherently with either of those bands, it’s just that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I think as far as if you would read them aloud, and took it as a poem without the music, I think that’s the strongest thing I’ve ever written.
Are you the type of person who is constantly writing or do you wait to figure stuff out in the studio?
I’m constantly writing. I keep a bunch of notebooks, but because I’ve been in a band for so long, I have this tendency that all the best things I write I end up taking out of what it’s originally from and putting it into a song. I have a really hard time writing other than Thursday because I end up cannibalizing all my best thoughts to become parts of songs.
So, if you were to read my last 10 years worth of writing that’s not band related, you would see all these lines from our songs. It would probably seem cheesy, because you’d think, “Oh, he used lines from his own songs.” But it goes the other way, actually.
At the end of last year, you released that little split EP with Envy. How did that come together?
Basically, it just started from us being huge fans of the band. I think they’re one of the best fast, emotional hardcore bands out there. My favorite thing in music is storytelling. I love folk music. I love the art of a narrative. I have no idea what he’s talking about, ever, and yet it still hits me on a very real, emotional level. I think if your music can tell a story without you even having lyrics, then you’re already ahead of everybody else.
Common Existence is your first record for Epitaph, who seems to be signing a ton of good bands these days. What made you decide to join with them?
It was a combination of things. We met with a ton of other labels and they were the coolest. Also, I really respect that after the major label thing Bad Religion went through, they were able to go back to Epitaph and have some of their best records. I feel like in the ‘90s so many bands would go to a major, like Jawbox, Jawbreaker and Shudder to Think, and when the major label was done with them, they were destroyed. They never put out another record.
I think it’s really cool that Epitaph has seemed to be able to take bands that had a weird experience on a major label and keep their career alive. That was a big factor, being loved where you’re going more than where we came from. Brandon in particular said, “A City by the Light Divided is so much better than your other records. If you guys are going forward, then I’m interested in working with you. If you guys just want to go back and relive the glory days, then I don’t know. That makes it less attractive.”
To me, that was a really cool sign because I think a lot of people would consider our earlier records to be more important. He thought that City was more interesting, which we had thought as we released it, too. Although, I think this record is so much better than City. I like it a lot better.
After you ended your relationship with Island was there a moment where you thought Thursday might be done, or did you always plan on continuing?
Yeah, we definitely talked about splitting up. At some point, it’s like you sold a gazillion records, you toured the world so many times, that it’s nothing new. There’s nothing new about being in a band anymore. It’s the same people. We’re headlining Taste of Chaos. We’ve played Warped Tour so many years. It sort of all blends together a little bit in your mind. You know what I mean?
For us, it was like, well, we’re still best buds, so we’re probably going to see each other. If we keep seeing each other, we’re probably going to want to play music. I don’t know. Let’s hang out for a while, and if we write anything good then we’ll make a new record. The very first night we were hanging out, we wrote the song “Subway Funeral” for the record. We were like, well, shit, that’s pretty cool [laughs]. Maybe we should keep jamming.
Having been on numerous labels over the years, what have you learned about the business side of things?
It’s hard to be a label whore, man. It’s hard. You’re looking for your next paycheck, and instead of getting a decent sized paycheck from one label, there’s six different labels you have to chase down for smaller checks [laughs]. That kind of sucks. It’s definitely weird to have all these different records at different homes because you feel like you belong nowhere. Everybody’s taken a piece of you but nobody really takes you as a whole band. That’s a little weird.
I’d have to say the thing that’s so difficult about major labels is that when you get signed to a major label, the people there love you. It’s so rad. You have such a good experience. Then they all leave the company and end up somewhere else, and you’re stuck on a contract with a label full of new strangers that don’t give a shit about your band.
I think that’s the biggest flaw in the system. If you sign to one place, without even knowing it you end up on a different label. It’s got the same name, but it’s completely different. The thing about indies is a lot of people running them are the owners, so it’s like the devil you know. You know what I mean? It ends up being somebody that you know.
It’s a lot more stable, too.
Yeah, unless of course the person that runs it is totally unstable. We’ve experienced that, too [laughs].
In addition to Thursday, you’ve been doing a little side project called United Nations. How did that get started?
That one started out with a bunch of friends from different bands talking – we started this maybe five years ago – about how nobody played the kind of music that we had been a part of when we started out. I used to do basement shows before Thursday, and there was a very specific type of music going on at the time. We were just kind of saying, “Wow, it’s really died out. Nobody plays like Reversal of Man. Nobody plays like Orchid.”
We were just like, “It’d be great to play in a band like that. To have some fun and write some super-short songs.” None of our other bands will want super-short, super-fast songs, so you don’t have to decide which song goes where. It’s very clear if it’s going to be for this type of stuff. The funny thing is, because we were always on tour and the other bands were always on tour, it was forever before we actually got to record the record.
In that time since we first had the idea to start doing stuff like that, there’s been a real revival of that style of music. Portraits of Past has done a reunion. There’s all these bands, like Raein, La Quiete and La Dispute, that are doing that stuff now. It’s interesting. All this cool shit has come out. In the meantime, we’re totally stuck in the ‘90s version of it. We grew up on that mid-‘90s screamy shit, and there’s all this new stuff that I love. It’s exciting to see all these band that are influenced by my first love when it comes to punk.
What does the actual United Nations think of you guys?
They’re thinking they can make our lives a living hell until we decide to ditch the whole United Nations thing. I kind of think that they’re harassing us. There’s no way you’re going to try and call the United Nations or become a delegate to a CD. You know what I mean? There’s no confusion. We don’t have a hotline. We don’t have a headquarters. It’s an obvious parody, so I don’t really understand. I think they were just pissed that we got the United Nations Facebook profile first. I think that’s what pissed them off. I think if it weren’t for Facebook and MySpace, they never would have even given two shits about us.
They’re plenty of bands, like Interpol, which is an actual international police organization. Nobody’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course Interpol got sued.” Nothing like that, but for some reason everybody’s like, “Of course United Nations sued them. They named themselves after it.” It’s weird that nobody seems to recognize that everybody has done that in the past.
You played your first show not too long ago. How did that go?
It was fun. Being in D.C. on Inauguration Day was a blast. The energy in the air was incredible. People out on the streets everywhere. The show itself was a lot of fun. I had never played guitar in a band in front of people, so that was totally nerve-wracking for me, but in the best way. Yeah, it was great.
Thursday has been around for over a decade now. Is that weird to think about and wrap your head around?
Yeah, it totally is, man. I’ve been in this band longer than I was at college. Longer than any job I’ve ever had. Longer than any girlfriend I’ve ever had. By the time it’s done, I will have been in Thursday my entire 20s. So when I look back on my life, and the 20s are like the golden days or whatever, I would have been in a touring band on the road for the entire length of that. It’s just weird to think about, you know?
Where do you see Thursday progressing?
I have no clue, man. We’re about to promote a new record that I think is probably the best chance of us having a career for a long time, but we’re promoting it right in the middle of the worst recession I’ve ever known. We’re going to be out on tour in probably half-empty clubs where people can’t afford to come out. We’re going to be selling T-shirts that people can’t afford to buy and selling a record that people can’t afford to get [laughs].
I’m not saying nobody can afford a record, obviously, but if I think about do I really want to go to a record store and spend a bunch of money tomorrow, I think I don’t. I think probably our diehard fans will go out and pick it up, although it’s already leaked and people are already downloading it. As far as a lot of new fans, I think they might be like, “Well, I don’t really want to spend the money on something new right now.”
So, it’s kind of funny. I think it’s our best record we’ve ever done. The reviews so far are all saying it’s our best record, but what does that amount to? I have no fucking clue, man. I have no clue.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press