In the following phone interview Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue offers a behind-the-scenes look into the writing, mindset and theology behind the bandís newest album, Major/Minor.
So howís the tour so far?
Itís going good. Really good dudes, good bands. I feel like the whole bill fits really well together. Yeah, I donít know. Itís good.
I heard someone say you are playing eight new songs.
Seven or eight, I donít know which. Somewhere up in there.
Howís 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. Theyíre going really well.
At this stage in your career, no matter what set list you come up with, unless you play for three hours, youíre 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 weíve actually retired is ďT & C.Ē Thereís other songs that we just straight wonít play, but we didnít play those for a while anyway, so it wasnít that big of a deal. We try to play a variety. We try to play songs that seem like theyíre peopleís favorites. We try to play a couple that might be interesting to throw out there that we havenít done a lot.
Itís hard to balance between, like, weíve done this song every tour. Yeah, people really like it, but maybe they would rather hear something else sometime, so youíre never going to please everyone. I think weíve got close to 110 songs now, somewhere in there, so itís impossible to even begin to represent that very well, especially when youíre always going to be stacking a little more with the past couple records. It is not a science in any way.
Youíre doing something a little special on this tour where on select shows youíre 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 theyíre doing, which is called the Music Coalition. Theyíre 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 itís safe to come home, that theyíre loved, that theyíre wanted back, because theyíre being brainwashed that they can never leave, that theyíre stuck there. Itís really cool.
Weíre not doing it every single night, but weíre trying to do it as much as possible. Weíve done three out of the five days so far, I think. Itís pretty unique. Iíve never done anything in this kind of setting per se. Iím playing unamplified to 150 people, standing on top of something so people can hear better. Itís really raw and cool. People are singing along, and then I end up hanging out for a while afterwards, talking to everybody. Itís been raising about $500 a night, just doing that, not counting any merch sales that theyíre doing, so itís 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 werenít set up to do it, so weíve 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 youíve done because it didnít completely deviate from the previous album, and I know youíve talked a little about that as well. Is that something you guys discuss before you even jump into writing and how much is talked about up front?
I think itís more due to a similar situation. From Artist to Vheissu, you had us really struggling with the fact that we didnít feel like Artist was what we wanted it to be. It was rushed. The mix got all botched. Itís 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. Thereís a big paradigm shift for us to where weíre 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 didnít have time to but had wanted to on Artist. Itís kind of an artificial jump there.
Then Vheissu to Alchemy Index was a totally different animal. Thereís 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, ďWeíre not doing that again right now.Ē It was the complete opposite. Itís 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 itís two years later. The stuff weíre doing was different. Weíd been playing for two years on the road in a different way. Itís 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 youíve been able to have?
Yeah, I feel like weíve been doing that from the beginning, the bigger difference in the last couple is that Edís been contributing a lot more with actual parts. As far as working stuff out in a democratic way, thatís just always how weíve done it. I think that does contribute somewhat to our longevity because thatís contributing to how different everything is. Thereís no way that someoneís getting hurt feelings because everyoneís got different things theyíre 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 ďCall It In the AirĒ 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 ďTreading Paper,Ē and then finally I just had to call it. I was freaked out because I thought we didnít have any more studio time, which we didnít. We basically finished the vocals at the producerís house for the last couple songs. Yeah, it sucked. It was really frustrating. I think ďTreading Paper,Ē after that day it was screwed up. I think I came back in and tried to sing something else, but it just wasnít 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 itís something that adds to it?
I donít think about it as much now as I did at first. I think some of it on ďTreading PaperĒ actually sounds pretty cool. Thereís 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, thatís it, man. The thing about us is we donít write extra songs. We spend so much time on the ones that weíre making, itís a stretch to get more than 11 or 12 songs. A lot of bands turn out 30 or even more songs, but itís never been how we work. The way we write, it doesnít lend itself to that. So those 11 songs, those are the songs. We did some acoustic stuff, and thatís it. I donít know, maybe theyíll 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. Itís being built from all our different parts and it is being assembled together. Thereís really no way to write that stuff beforehand unless youíre bringing in a whole song. Iíd say itís probably, like, 5% of the songs have someone bringing in a pretty full structure already, and usually thatíll be me. Itís 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 Iím assuming because that comes later in the album process that thereís more strict deadlines at that point. Do you find that you work better under that kind of stress?
I donít know if Iíd say better, but I have to get it done. Itís pretty brutal every time. Itís a lot, a lot, a lot of hours, for me at least. Iím not a very fast writer. Iím 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. Iíd play through the first take with the guys and weíd be playing to a click. We pretty much always record to clicks now, and weíll mess with those if we need to for feel. So Iíll record with them playing and singing, track that, and then everyone gets playback with that track and Iíll go back to the kitchen and keep working on lyrics.
ďWords in the Water,Ē which is the last song I finished and thatís 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. Iím really happy with the results.
That was one of the songs I wanted to talk about, so Iíll bring that up now. One of the biggest motifs throughout your career has been water and the ocean, and thatís the song that has that on this record. What about that topic brings you back to keep writing about it?
I donít know, man. Thatís just the way I think. Thereís some truth to it, but I think the ocean is one of the best metaphors we have in nature for God. Itís beautiful. Itís untamable. Itís powerful and unsearchable. We know less about the ocean than we do about space, which is crazy. I think thatís a huge part about why I come back to it, but Iím not always consciously thinking in those terms.
I canít even tell you where ďWords in the WaterĒ came from. That song is just straight imagery. Itís this story. I seriously canít 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 donít know. Oh, you know what the starting point was? I think it came from that line, ďThey were honey on my lips, but then a bitter twist in my side.Ē 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 canít 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.
Thatís interesting. Have you ever read Johnny Cashís book Man in White?
No, I have not.
Itís really, really good. Itís kind of historical fiction, I guess is the best way to put it. Heís basically trying to write about Paul, trying to fill in the gaps, being true to the Biblical narrative, but imagining what heís dealing with. He expounds on this idea of kicking against the goads. Itís a metaphor where heís trying to drive an ox and itís kicking against the stick that heís trying to drive it with. So thatís what heís told. ďWhy are you kicking against the goad? Why is it hard for you to resist this?Ē So in the book he imagines what this is, and while heís having this dream heís fighting against this, so thereís this wave that heís fighting against. Itís slightly different.
For me, the song is talking about the idea of the Law, which is what God would command. It is beautiful, but itís also treacherous in the fact that we canít live up to it. Itís pretty much the difference between the Law and the Gospel. The Law is what God commands and the Gospel is what He gives, and thatís kind of where the song ends, is that transition.
In addition to water, thereís probably 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, ďYeah, that is true. Thatís generally what I still hold to.Ē Sometimes I think thereís 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 ďHey man, thatís not really the way it is.Ē Thatís just part of maturing, youíre going to see things with different eyes at different times. As far as those bigger issues, thereís been some consistency at least in the general thing that Iím saying. Iíve hopefully gotten better at writing lyrics about those things.
It seems going along with that youíve 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 thereís songs on the last couple that directly parallel with Jesus. Is that something that has been a conscious choice or do you think itís something that has naturally evolved?
I think itís natural, but I think also if you look back at Identity Crisis, that I think is pretty clear on a lot of what itís talking about. For me, itís always about writing from an honest place, from a natural place. Iím not trying to impose things into the text. C.S. Lewis talks about writing children stories and he says itís dangerous to try and put a moral into your story because it will end up some kind of hollow platitude. Basically, it wonít ring true. If you just write a story, those things most important to you will come out in the way that story is written. Thatís the way he approached that, and I think itís a good rule of thumb for any art.
Thereís 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 donít want to hear or feel that way, so Iíve never done that. Iíve just tried to write about whatís going on. Sometimes thatís a little more revealed, sometimes thatís 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 donít agree with it, and that it will make them think, it will make them feel. I canít control it after itís out of my hands. I guess my hope is always that it wouldnít 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?
Itís actually been really cool to see. I donít think Iíve ever had, and maybe itís because anyone who thinks this doesnít come to shows, I donít know, but Iíve never had a conversation with anyone who is so offended at at least my approach to the lyrics, which is really cool. Iíve talked to a lot of people who disagree, but usually when I talk to someone theyíre either agreeable on things, theyíre stoked and encouraged, or I find someone who doesnít 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 wouldnít commit to believing. Either way, itís opening up cool doors for conversation.
I love talking about big issues with people, especially who donít 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 ďAnthology.Ē I donít 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 didnít know if it was cheesy. I thought there was a cool aspect to it, but itís hard to tell being inside of creating it how itís going to be perceived. I remember listening to the soft ballad on the last Pearl Jam record, Backspacer. Itís a really sweet song, in the sense that itís very open and not guarded. I remember listening to it and feeling like, ďYeah, this is working. I like it. Thereís something endearing and inviting about it.Ē 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 wasnít 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 itís six. Basically, each half verse is a different reference, and then the bridge is a different reference. So thereís two verses, a bridge and a half verse, so itís six that Iím consciously aware of.
Another song I wanted to mention is ďCall It In the Air.Ē I saw online where you said it was inspired by No Country for Old Men and I couldnít 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 donít think that was the genesis of the song. I donít know. It could have been [laughs]. I have an awful memory for that kind of stuff. Thereís the line about youíve been putting it off your whole life. I thought that was great, the idea that the guy was asking I donít know what weíre playing for or whatever, but youíve been putting it off your whole life. He says, ďWhat do I stand to win?Ē And he says, ďEverything.Ē
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, thereís no amount of control that you have over it. I guess you have a certain amount where youíre not actively trying to end it, but you still donít have control. Thereís definitely scenarios that could happen to where you could even lose the ability to end your life. Itís out of your control, but we like to maintain the sense that weíre in control. We push that back.
The idea of the song is putting off that idea. Every moment youíre 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 Pascalís Wager, which is not what I was writing about. That argument is usually taken out of context. Usually people say Pascal was saying you canít really know if thereís a God or not, so you might as well wager that there is since youíre 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 canít imagine a situation where that is true, that you have this purposely equal evidence, and I think itís ignoring other issues that come into play that heís talking about.
Iím using it more as your life is that coin. Itís already spinning. Itís going to fall. You will die, and it matters what you think. Itís preferable to actually think because we walk through life usually not really paying attention. Itís very easy to be distracted by work and family and a lot of good things going on, but if youíre just going through the motions itís 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 thatís going to change how you do things. Itís more of a push, a friendly push, to think this stuff through.
One last song I wanted to mention is ďDisarmed.Ē It closes out the album with the line, ďNow that you have been disarmed / We will cross over unharmed,Ē and then it builds up to that big vocal chorus type thing. Iím assuming it could be interpreted in a couple different ways and I was curious if thereís anything specific that influenced that song.
Yeah, man, the chorus is pretty much straight scripture. [Looks up verse] 1 Corinthians 15:54: ďDeath is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?Ē Thatís kind of what the song is talking about, and it says right after that ďthe 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.Ē 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, weíre 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 ďDisarmed.Ē 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 ďDisarmed.Ē 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 donít know how many times Iíve told people, ďYeah, next year.Ē I donít want to do it again, but I hope next year [laughs]. I have a lot of ideas for it, I just havenít 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 youíre doing this stuff on your own versus Thrice or is it still fairly similar?
I think it ends up being pretty similar because Iím so used to doing it that way. Iíve gotten so used to crafting melodies before lyrics that thatís just kind of my default now. Itís 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 itís just different. Youíre doing to come out with a different product for sure.
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.
Are these floating around anywhere? They sound really, really interesting.
Really interesting interview, I have followed this band for many years now and feel as if I have grown up with them. To me they not only play great music, but also are true artists and I love that as they have matured and not been afraid to experiment and be creative , my musical taste has matured with them. So I have been and still am able to appreciate them, and will continue to do so. Simply wonderful band.
P.s the 'groove' Dustin's mentions is the reason I love both this record and Beggars, Vheissu. Can't wait to see them in Chicago!