Frontman Dustin Kensrue offers a behind-the-scenes look into the writing, mindset and theology behind the band’s Major/Minor album.
So how’s the tour so far?
It’s going good. Really good dudes, good bands. I feel like the whole bill fits really well together. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s good.
I heard someone say you are playing eight new songs.
Seven or eight, I don’t know which. Somewhere up in there.
How’s that been going?
Really good. It seems like a lot of the response online was people wanted to hear the new stuff. They were digging it, we like playing it, so we obliged. They’re going really well.
At this stage in your career, no matter what set list you come up with, unless you play for three hours you’re never going to please everyone. How do you pick and choose what to play on each tour and which songs to retire or unretire?
The only song we’ve actually retired is “T & C.” There’s other songs that we just straight won’t play, but we didn’t play those for a while anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. We try to play a variety. We try to play songs that seem like they’re people’s favorites. We try to play a couple that might be interesting to throw out there that we haven’t done a lot.
It’s hard to balance between, like, we’ve done this song every tour. Yeah, people really like it, but maybe they would rather hear something else sometime, so you’re never going to please everyone. I think we’ve got close to 110 songs now, somewhere in there, so it’s impossible to even begin to represent that very well, especially when you’re always going to be stacking a little more with the past couple records. It is not a science in any way.
You’re doing something a little special on this tour where on select shows you’re playing some acoustic songs afterwards. Where did that idea come from and how has that been so far?
It was an idea that the guys at Invisible Children threw out as a way of raising some more money for their newest project they’re doing, which is called the Music Coalition. They’re raising money to build radio towers in the Congo to send out messages to these kids who have been abducted into these armies, telling them that they can come home, that it’s safe to come home, that they’re loved, that they’re wanted back, because they’re being brainwashed that they can never leave, that they’re stuck there. It’s really cool.
We’re not doing it every single night, but we’re trying to do it as much as possible. We’ve done three out of the five days so far, I think. It’s pretty unique. I’ve never done anything in this kind of setting, per se. I’m playing unamplified to 150 people, standing on top of something so people can hear better. It’s really raw and cool. People are singing along, and then I end up hanging out for a while afterwards, talking to everybody. It’s been raising about $500 a night, just doing that, not counting any merch sales that they’re doing, so it’s been good.
Do you still support a different charity with each album?
No, the actual logistics of it is an incredible nightmare. In the end, we were trying to impose these on labels that weren’t set up to do it, so we’ve just been trying to do things more outside of that, like tours and stuff like this.
I noticed in a couple reviews for this album people were saying how this kind of seemed like your first follow-up album that you’ve done because it didn’t completely deviate from the previous album, and I know you’ve talked a little about that as well. Is that something you guys discuss before you even jump into writing? How much is talked about up front?
I think it’s more due to a similar situation. From Artist to Vheissu, you had us really struggling with the fact that we didn’t feel like Artist was what we wanted it to be. It was rushed. The mix got all botched. It’s just all these things, so that really sent us into the writing process with the mindset of pushing against that. If you heard the original demos for that stuff, everything is really slow. Like, really slow. There’s a big paradigm shift for us to where we’re going to do whatever it takes so this it what we want it to be. So then you get a pretty different shift there where we incorporate a lot of things where we didn’t have time to but had wanted to on Artist. It’s kind of an artificial jump there.
Then Vheissu to Alchemy Index was a totally different animal. There’s a big jump there, a totally different kind of project. Then that to Beggars. Beggars was a reaction to The Alchemy Index. We liked The Alchemy Index, but as a band we were like, “We’re not doing that again right now.” It was the complete opposite. It’s very stripped down, much more feel oriented, rather than building the songs in your head or on a computer.
Now we got to a place where we really liked doing that on Beggars and went back into the studio with a very similar approach to making this record. The difference is more of in time, where it’s two years later. The stuff we’re doing was different. We’d been playing for two years on the road in a different way. It’s really some different circumstances of who we are as a band at the time, but the general approach was similar. The only big thing we talked about was we really liked how Beggars moved and grooved. We wanted to keep some of that, but we wanted to make it a little more in your face, more of a rocking record, I guess, both in the writing and in the mixing.
It seems with these last couple of records the band has become more collaborative and democratic. Do you think that has grown over the years and has been key to the longevity you’ve been able to have?
Yeah, I feel like we’ve been doing that from the beginning. The bigger difference in the last couple is that Ed’s been contributing a lot more with actual parts. As far as working stuff out in a democratic way, that’s just always how we’ve done it. I think that does contribute somewhat to our longevity, because that’s contributing to how different everything is. There’s no way that someone’s getting hurt feelings because everyone’s got different things they’re stoked on. It creates something new by definition.
I remember when you were recording this at Red Bull, you had some voice issues or something. Can you talk a little about that?
For whatever reason when I was recording “Call It In the Air,” I just threw my voice out, which is really weird for me. I hardly ever do that. I really messed up my throat. It was swollen. I basically came in the next day and sang pretty much all of “Treading Paper,” and then finally I just had to call it. I was freaked out because I thought we didn’t have any more studio time, which we didn’t. We basically finished the vocals at the producer’s house for the last couple songs.
Yeah, it sucked. It was really frustrating. I think “Treading Paper,” after that day it was screwed up. I think I came back in and tried to sing something else, but it just wasn’t happening. It was really frustrating and not something I want to repeat.
When you listen to that song is that something that bugs you now, or do you think it’s something that adds to it?
I don’t think about it as much now as I did at first. I think some of it on “Treading Paper” actually sounds pretty cool. There’s a different kind of rasp on it than it usually has.
You did three acoustic bonus tracks for the album. Are there any other b-sides or covers that you did for this album as well?
No. That’s it, man. The thing about us is we don’t write extra songs. We spend so much time on the ones that we’re making, it’s a stretch to get more than 11 or 12 songs. A lot of bands turn out 30 or even more songs, but it’s never been how we work. The way we write, it doesn’t lend itself to that. So those 11 songs, those are the songs. We did some acoustic stuff, and that’s it. I don’t know, maybe they’ll be some kind of remixes or something, but not yet.
So I want to talk about lyrics now. You kind of have a little bit of an unconventional style, where you usually wait until after the music is all written before you start working on them. Can you talk about why you choose to do that and if that has always been the case with the albums over the years?
Yeah, generally it is because it is a democratic situation. It’s being built from all our different parts and it is being assembled together. There’s really no way to write that stuff beforehand unless you’re bringing in a whole song. I’d say it’s probably like 5 percent of the songs have someone bringing in a pretty full structure already, and usually that’ll be me. It’s more like we all work on the song together, we craft it, and then I have to sit down and figure out what makes sense to go with it.
Now I’m assuming because that comes later in the album process that there’s more strict deadlines at that point. Do you find that you work better under that kind of stress?
I don’t know if I’d say better, but I have to get it done. It’s pretty brutal every time. It’s a lot, a lot, a lot of hours, for me at least. I’m not a very fast writer. I’m very particular. Sometimes some of the best stuff comes out of that end. This record I had a lot of it done before, but two songs can take me forever. So, I had a lot done before.
We recorded most of it live. I was in a little side room. I’d play through the first take with the guys, and we’d be playing to a click. We pretty much always record to clicks now, and we’ll mess with those if we need to for feel. So I’ll record with them playing and singing, track that, and then everyone gets playback with that track and I’ll go back to the kitchen and keep working on lyrics.
“Words in the Water,” which is the last song I finished and that’s my favorite song on the record, I got pushed into a place where I was writing differently than I normally would, which is cool. It forced me to step outside of my super analytical mindset that it let it hang out there a little more. I’m really happy with the results.
That was one of the songs I wanted to talk about, so I’ll bring that up now. One of the biggest motifs throughout your career has been water and the ocean, and that’s the song that has that on this record. What about that topic brings you back to keep writing about it?
I don’t know, man. That’s just the way I think. There’s some truth to it, but I think the ocean is one of the best metaphors we have in nature for God. It’s beautiful. It’s untamable. It’s powerful and unsearchable. We know less about the ocean than we do about space, which is crazy. I think that’s a huge part about why I come back to it, but I’m not always consciously thinking in those terms.
I can’t even tell you where “Words in the Water” came from. That song is just straight imagery. It’s this story. I seriously can’t even remember the starting point. It was pretty quick, that one, because it was so close to the end. At some point, I just saw some part of it. I guess I saw a river and a book. I don’t know.
Oh, you know what the starting point was? I think it came from that line, “They were honey on my lips, but then a bitter twist in my side.” I think that was the starting point, this idea of something being beautiful but also having this bitterness in it. That was the starting point, but how it turned into that song? I can’t tell you how it happened.
That song kind of reminded me of Paul on the road to Damascus but if that had taken place on the water instead of on a road, just because you are talking about the words being revealed and seeing the light and stuff.
That’s interesting. Have you ever read Johnny Cash’s book Man in White?
No, I have not.
It’s really, really good. It’s kind of historical fiction, I guess is the best way to put it. He’s basically trying to write about Paul, trying to fill in the gaps, being true to the Biblical narrative, but imagining what he’s dealing with. He expounds on this idea of kicking against the goads. It’s a metaphor where he’s trying to drive an ox and it’s kicking against the stick that he’s trying to drive it with. So that’s what he’s told. “Why are you kicking against the goad? Why is it hard for you to resist this?” So in the book, he imagines what this is, and while he’s having this dream he’s fighting against this, so there’s this wave that he’s fighting against. It’s slightly different.
For me, the song is talking about the idea of the Law, which is what God would command. It is beautiful, but it’s also treacherous in the fact that we can’t live up to it. It’s pretty much the difference between the Law and the Gospel. The Law is what God commands and the Gospel is what He gives, and that’s kind of where the song ends, is that transition.
In addition to water, there’s several other subjects that you have kept writing about, like mortality, love and identity. Do you feel like your approach to those subjects has changed from now to when you were writing about them on the earlier albums, or do you feel like that has been able to stay consistent?
I think it would be consistent in the sense that most of the time I can look back at lyrics and be like, “Yeah, that is true. That’s generally what I still hold to.” Sometimes I think there’s a maturing that happens to where I approached one thing when I was 17, and now I look back on it I see all this angst in the moment. I would go back and counsel myself if I could. Be like, “Hey man, that’s not really the way it is.”
That’s just part of maturing. You’re going to see things with different eyes at different times. As far as those bigger issues, there’s been some consistency at least in the general thing that I’m saying. I’ve hopefully gotten better at writing lyrics about those things.
It seems, going along with that, you’ve become emboldened over the years to incorporate more openly different elements of your faith into the songs. I think that really kind of took off with Vheissu, to now there’s songs on the last couple that directly parallel with Jesus. Is that something that has been a conscious choice or do you think it’s something that has naturally evolved?
I think it’s natural, but I think also if you look back at Identity Crisis, that I think is pretty clear on a lot of what it’s talking about. For me, it’s always about writing from an honest place, from a natural place. I’m not trying to impose things into the text. C.S. Lewis talks about writing children stories, and he says it’s dangerous to try and put a moral into your story because it will end up some kind of hollow platitude. Basically, it won’t ring true. If you just write a story, those things most important to you will come out in the way that story is written. That’s the way he approached that, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb for any art.
There’s some disingenuineness or inauthenticity when you see or hear a piece of art or music that you feel like has an agenda. It becomes a commercial in a sense. You don’t want to hear or feel that way, so I’ve never done that. I’ve just tried to write about what’s going on. Sometimes that’s a little more revealed, sometimes that’s a little more hidden, but I try to write in a way that people from multiple backgrounds can engage with at least, even if they don’t agree with it, and that it will make them think. It will make them feel. I can’t control it after it’s out of my hands. I guess my hope is always that it wouldn’t leave someone unmoved in some way. That they would have to wrestle with it. That it would affect them in some way.
Thrice has never claimed to be a Christian band or anything like that, but any time that kind of stuff shows up, even if it is hidden or whatever, it tends to get polarizing responses. Have you encountered any of that?
It’s actually been really cool to see. I don’t think I’ve ever had, and maybe it’s because anyone who thinks this doesn’t come to shows, I don’t know, but I’ve never had a conversation with anyone who is so offended at at least my approach to the lyrics, which is really cool. I’ve talked to a lot of people who disagree, but usually when I talk to someone they’re either agreeable on things, they’re stoked and encouraged, or I find someone who doesn’t agree but is intrigued enough to talk to me about it and see if there ends up being something attractive they want to talk about that they wouldn’t commit to believing. Either way, it’s opening up cool doors for conversation.
I love talking about big issues with people, especially who don’t agree. I feel like sharing ideas is not done very much in our culture. We demonize people we disagree with, and just about everything ends up in two camps. I think crossing those borders is cool and helpful for everyone involved.
One of the other songs I wanted to ask about is “Anthology.” I don’t know if this was on purpose or not, but it kind of has this sense of finality to it, with the song title, the way you incorporate all the different elements of what the band has become into one song, and then you reference older Thrice songs it in. How did that song come about and get written?
Let me think. I went thought a couple versions before I settled on what I was going to do with it. I was really not sure about the whole idea for a while. I didn’t know if it was cheesy. I thought there was a cool aspect to it, but it’s hard to tell being inside of creating it how it’s going to be perceived.
I remember listening to the soft ballad on the last Pearl Jam record, Backspacer. It’s a really sweet song, in the sense that it’s very open and not guarded. I remember listening to it and feeling like, yeah, this is working. I like it. There’s something endearing and inviting about it. That kind of pushed me to finish the song the way I was writing it as this love song, but also a compilation of all these other love songs that I had done. It wasn’t meant to note some sense of finality, but I see how people could get that out of it.
Do you know how many songs you end up referencing?
I think it’s six. Basically, each half verse is a different reference, and then the bridge is a different reference. So there’s two verses, a bridge and a half verse, so it’s six that I’m consciously aware of.
Another song I wanted to mention is “Call It In the Air.” I saw online where you said it was inspired by No Country for Old Men and I couldn’t tell if you were joking or being serious. Is that actually true?
Yeah, I think some of the stuff definitely is inspired by the gas station scene. I don’t think that was the genesis of the song. I don’t know. It could have been [laughs]. I have an awful memory for that kind of stuff. There’s the line about you’ve been putting it off your whole life. I thought that was great, the idea that the guy was asking I don’t know what we’re playing for or whatever, but you’ve been putting it off your whole life. He says, “What do I stand to win?” And he says, “Everything.”
One of the ideas is you have no idea when your life is going to end. You have absolutely no control over it. As much as you want to exercise, take care of yourself and try to be safe in every way you can, there’s no amount of control that you have over it. I guess you have a certain amount where you’re not actively trying to end it, but you still don’t have control. There’s definitely scenarios that could happen where you could even lose the ability to end your life. It’s out of your control, but we like to maintain the sense that we’re in control. We push that back.
The idea of the song is putting off that idea. Every moment you’re putting your life off, in a sense. I guess the focus that brings up is what do you really believe about life? What do you believe about the nature of reality? It matters, not just in the grand scale, but every little thing in every day is affected by your worldview about what you think life is really like. The song is a prompting to examine that.
Some people have made references to Pascal’s Wager, which is not what I was writing about. That argument is usually taken out of context. Usually people say Pascal was saying you can’t really know if there’s a God or not, so you might as well wager that there is since you’re not really losing anything and gaining everything. What he actually said was if in a hypothetical situation all the evidence was exactly equal towards both, is there a God or is there not a God, then you might as well wager, which is very logical. But I can’t imagine a situation where that is true, that you have this purposely-equal evidence, and I think it’s ignoring other issues that come into play that he’s talking about.
I’m using it more as your life is that coin. It’s already spinning. It’s going to fall. You will die, and it matters what you think. It’s preferable to actually think, because we walk through life usually not really paying attention. It’s very easy to be distracted by work and family and a lot of good things going on. But if you’re just going through the motions, it’s easy to ignore what do I think about this? What do I think will happen when I die? Is there a God who cares? What am I doing with my life? Is there not? Is there any meaning at all? It would be a good thing to know, because if you conclude there is no meaning, then that’s going to change how you do things. It’s more of a push, a friendly push, to think this stuff through.
One last song I wanted to mention is “Disarmed.” It closes out the album with the line, “Now that you have been disarmed / We will cross over unharmed,” and then it builds up to that big vocal chorus type thing. I’m assuming it could be interpreted in a couple different ways, and I was curious if there’s anything specific that influenced that song.
Yeah, man. The chorus is pretty much straight scripture. [Looks up verse] 1 Corinthians 15:54: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” That’s kind of what the song is talking about, and it says right after that “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That whole part is really talking about this idea of the vicarious price dearly won, what Christ has won for us on the cross. That sting of death is gone now. We’re passing over unharmed.
The band has been through a lot of family health struggles the last couple years, and it seems to me if any song would have been influenced by that, it would have been “Disarmed.” Do you think, even subconsciously, that that is the case?
Yeah, I definitely wrote that consciously. With everything going on in this period of life, at least on my end, there is this element of extreme trying during that time, fear and doubt, and on the other side of it I see that reality in “Disarmed.” That encompasses, I think, the spectrum of the record, between those two.
So do you have plans to do another solo effort down the road?
Yeah [laughs]. I don’t know how many times I’ve told people, “Yeah, next year.” I don’t want to do it again, but I hope next year [laughs]. I have a lot of ideas for it. I just haven’t had time to get them together and record them.
Are you still working on that worship album as well?
Yeah, I hope to put out a worship record next year.
Is your process different for when you’re doing this stuff on your own versus Thrice, or is it still fairly similar?
I think it ends up being pretty similar because I’m so used to doing it that way. I’ve gotten so used to crafting melodies before lyrics that that’s just kind of my default now. It’s not bad, because it lets the melody really be strong, and then I just have to work hard to craft the lyrics. So in the end, it might work best, but it’s just different. You’re going to come out with a different product, for sure.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk