Lead singer and scholar Dustin Kensrue took some time out of a hectic schedule to talk to Gen Handley from Punknews about what his reaction was to Beggars being leaked three months early, where the best place to eat in Orange County is, and why all the world is mad.
Congratulations on releasing an awesome new album.
Are you happy with how Beggars turned out?
Yeah, I'm really happy with it. I'm very satisfied and very proud of it - I really like the way it sounds. It just captured the songs and not in a different way from how I envisioned them or in a different way from how we were playing them - I feel that way more than any other record we've done. It sounds like the demos we did, which I like a lot because of the realness of it. (pauses) Actually, it sounds better than the demos. It just has a really good vibe, you know?
Yeah, I agree completely - there's a great feel to the whole album. While I was driving today, I listened to Identity Crisis (Thrice's first full-length) and Beggars back to back. Are you surprised at the musical evolution that Thrice has gone through in the almost eight years since your first disc came out?
It's just weird in the sense that most artists have a couple of bands to figure out what the heck they're doing musically. But for us, it's always been the same band. With almost every record we've been like, "Should we change our name?" because the records have been different. Actually, the funny thing is that this might be the first time we didn't say that - this time we were like, "Whatever, we're just doing our thing now." (pauses) It seems like a lot of people dig our music now, but some won't hear it because they want another Identity Crisis or The Illusion of Safety (Thrice's second full-length). We just try to play good music and we're not concerned with labels of any kind. For me, it's gratifying when people who aren't into scenes or only one genre of music will find our band randomly and be like, "Oh, this is really good." Sometimes these people are into a lot of stuff or they're very casual listeners, but the fact that we can appeal to both sides is something I think is cool.
So what made the Beggars recording process stick out for you?
I think the main difference was a combination of employing what we learned last time recording it ourselves (The Alchemy Index) and the organic way this album was written. It was based on us getting in a room and playing instruments, seeing what happened from there and trying to really capture that natural feel on the record - and not bowing into the arms race of sound. There's such a detriment in music right now that everything sounds big all of the time - like, this wall of guitar, these artisan vocals, these triggered sample drums. It just sounds very lifeless even though it sounds gigantic. So there was a very conscious effort to make this record feel real and to be able to feel the band in the room. Like, getting guitar sounds that you can feel the string movement more than sounding as big as possible - just not nitpicking it to death and letting it just be. I feel that the record is a cool blend of some of the ethos of how records used to be made in that we were never trying to be perfect. There are so many imperfections on older records. If you listen to the Beatles - and you really listen to them - it can be sloppy a lot of the time, but it's good and there's a vibe to it and it works. So some of that vibe mixed in with better recording technologies came into this record and it sounds real, but it doesn't sound old and thin.
So Auto-Tune is out of the question then…
(laughs) Well, we've used it for little points in the past. Like, if there's a take that's really good, but there's one part that gets funky. I don't believe we used it this time though. I mean, it's never been the thing where we'd just run it through a song. For a while now, we've recorded by doing takes - usually four. We put them together and look for the weird intricacies that happen and it's about building the most interesting take rather than the most perfect take.
So the take with the most character…
Yeah. Different things are going to happen. Like, the voice is an imperfect instrument so during a take, you might get some weird rasp on it or something. But sometimes you nail it on the first take, which is cool. (laughs) I really enjoy doing vocals that way because it's a lot more natural. I never go back and say, "I need to fix that line."
It seems like the band spent a lot of time working on customizing Teppei's (guitarist and keyboardist) house to record Beggars in. Was there anything that surprised you during this DIY experience?
(laughs) It was more of just trying to get it on par with a normal studio. There was a bunch of problems with the way that it was built. The studio was basically crammed into the garage and then a little bit was added on for the control room. We didn't really know what we were doing when we built it, but I'm happy with the record we made there.
Where did the groove of Beggars come from? Are you guys a just a bunch of groovy guys at the end of the day?
(laughs) I don't know. We had talked about having an energy, but there are some people who don't feel that this record is energetic. I disagree - energy is not speed and those are separate entities. Energy is something that moves something else and for me, this record moves you more than any of our other records - it makes you want to move your body.
That's what we really like about this album. This energy started when we were putting our demos together and it just came out - even the songs that didn't have the groove started to pick it up just from the way we were playing at the time. All of the demos - even though they came from different spaces - started to pick up energy once we started playing them as a band.
Was this energy a creative reaction to the Alchemy Index?
Well it was a conscious decision to make it more energetic and move away from the sleepy feel we described The (Alchemy) Index as having. Like, we don't use that derogatorily. A lot of music I like is sleepy feeling, but we wanted to do something different.
If you are able to narrow it down, what are your favourite songs on the new album?
(pauses) I like the title track a lot. I also like "In Exile"…
Why "In Exile"?
I dig the way that it just plods along and it has a good backbeat to it. I like music with some soul and I feel like I can dig into that song more than others. This whole record is very natural - especially in how I sing it. Some people feel that it's more affected, but I think that it's less. We just let the song be what it wants to be. It's different not having a producer corralling me into singing just the notes - without natural inflection. So it's something I have grown into - I also sing that way with my solo stuff. I think this way of creating songs, coupled with our experiences on the Alchemy Index, has paved the way for this record to be free in that sense.
You had mentioned something about the songs being affected. Can you explain that?
In the sense of an affectation - like, something put on. So it's very natural as opposed to being forced or contrived in some way.
You and I might have discussed this earlier, but how do you feel about your earlier stuff?
We use the metaphor of a photograph a lot. Records are akin to photographs of different time periods in your life. So it's not something to necessarily judge us as bad or good as much as saying, "Well, that was a different time in my life." So it was also a different time in our musical life. I think there's good and bad in all of our records when evaluating them from my current musical tastes. There are things in them that I think have endured, but there are also things in them that I feel the opposite about. I think that's probably true with most art - especially so in art culture right now because everything moves very quickly through different phases, trends, whatever, and people's tastes change very quickly. (pauses) The fact that there are any enduring qualities in our old records is a good thing. (laughs)
But are you proud of those older albums?
Yeah. I'm proud of them in ways, but I cringe at them in ways too and that increases the further back you go. (pauses) With the cringing. (laughs)
The main reason why we won't play anything off of Identity Crisis is because every song on that record has a part in it that's awful - even if it's a decent song. That's how we see it. (laughs)
How do you feel about fans nagging you to go back to the "old sound?"
(pauses) I feel that the majority of people are glad to be along for the ride and excited about the new stuff. But there's a vocal minority who harkens back to Identity Crisis and it seems more like more people are feeling the same with the Artist in the Ambulance (Thrice's third full-length), which is funny. There are even some who are saying, "Why don't you go back to Vheissu (Thrice's fourth full-length)?" which is really interesting because that record was so divisive when it came out.
That is interesting…
Yeah, it's just funny how everything moves along and it's also a testament to the fact that even though you don't like something at first, but it's good, you will end up seeing that in the end. I didn't like a lot of my favourite records at first. I'd say a fair amount of people who want us to go back to Vheissu didn't like it when the record came out. I just don't get it. I do get that people are nostalgic for things, but I think they confuse nostalgia for good music - like, that they can coincide. I can have nostalgia for something pretty awful, but it's because I liked it at a certain point in my life and I still have a fondness for it. (laughs)
I don't know. Those people bore me to a degree and it's old and laughable. I mean, guys my age (Dustin is 28) will be like, "Man, this stuff sucks and you guys are pussies." (laughs) Really? I thought you were 14. It makes my faith in humanity dwindle. (laughs again) But overall, the response and the reviews of the new album have been really good. I feel like most of those people who don't like the new record want a certain feeling out of it rather than coming to the music with some kind of humility, letting that music speak for itself and then evaluating it. Instead, they ask, "Does this fall into the category I want it to fall into? No? Then I don't like it."
I think you said something really important earlier about simply enjoying the ride…
I think that's the approach that needs to be taken - especially with a band that you like. If you really like a band, it makes no sense to try to stand in judgment over what they've done. You obviously have liked what they've done so far and you should at least give them some amount of trust to live along with them and to be open to what they bring to the table. There's been a lot of comments about the new record like, "There should have been more of this…" That's such a weird perspective. I think the problem is that everyone's a musician now and everyone has their two cents about what should or shouldn't have been done. I think you have to approach music with an open hand and receive it. It is what it is and your approach is vastly going to affect what you get out of it.
It really seems like people are willing to sacrifice honesty for whatever their expectations are.
Yeah, it's the product of a very consumeristic culture where you get what you want - like in a vending machine. I guess some people wanted a Snickers, but they never got a Snickers. (laughs) That's not how music is or how art is - nor how it should be.
I know how you feel about labels, but where do you feel Thrice falls into as far as musical categories go?
For a while, we've described our music as rock and I don't think you can break it down further than that - especially with the last three or four records.
How would you advise someone like myself, who considers himself non-religious, but spiritual, when approaching your more religious, Christian-themed lyrics?
Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by spiritual. I think both of those terms can be very misleading. In a way, I believe that Jesus came to destroy religion and establish something else. So for me to say I'm religious, on one level that's true, but on another level it's almost completely untrue.
I don't know. I guess I am dealing with Christian themes, but I look at Christianity as something that's rooted in fact. I tend to break my beliefs down into a coherent worldview - like, what best describes and fits in with the world I see around me. That includes history, with the things I observe in nature, with everything else. I guess I don't separate what I consider spiritual and religious from the rest of my life because I feel in some ways these are false categories. I think that when they're really accepted as categories, you get people who are very divided and not integrated. I try to write in a way that anyone can appreciate the lyrics and hopefully be challenged by them or is made to think. (pauses) For instance, "The Great Exchange" on the record is basically a metaphor for The Gospel and is presented as a story that I feel has an emotional impact - it's a popular, powerful story. The basic parameters of the song are the same as The Gospel so whether or not you think it's true, you understand it because the story still has power.
Like, you see the story reoccurring in literature and movies and in different ways without people even realizing it. C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) had a term he called "sneaking past the watchful dragons" and the idea is that we have these "dragons" that are basically watching out for this story that we know. Before it can get into our heart and effect us emotionally, we've shut it out and said, "I've heard this before." So these ideas or this story that people might have known, but had lost their impact, were able to be seen in a different light. I try to do that when writing and whether or not you believe that The Gospel is true, "The Great Exchange" is maybe a way to see what the story is about and from there you can evaluate your beliefs. Either way, it's a powerful story that can be shown in many different ways. But for a lot of other songs, I deal with issues on a broader level - like with morality or whatever.
The first song on the record ("All The World is Mad") is dealing with my view, which is the Biblical view that everyone is in sin, that the world has fallen and there's something wrong with it. There are worldviews that disagree with that, but from my own experiences I think that's how it is. If there wasn't something wrong with it and if it was meant to be this way, I don't think we would have this sense of wrongness and rightness. What I see is that there are so many amazing and beautiful things in this world, but right alongside that beauty are parts that are awful. (takes a long pause) I can't deny that there is love or real beauty, but I also can't deny that evil really exists.
I think that's hard to see sometimes living in a society where we're sheltered from it quite a bit - by the law and social standards. We run into it less frequently than in the third world where evil acts rage rampant and awful, awful things are happening all the time.
Yeah, we are lucky…
Well, things do happen here. Like children are molested, but it's stuff we don't hear about a lot. I truly believe that there are things that are objectively evil. People have different perceptions of evil according to whatever worldview they have. But what does evil truly mean to you? Do you use the word to describe something you don't like? Can I look at something like Holocaust and say that it was evil? I find that it's getting to the point where I'll talk to people and they'll be like, "Well, I guess I can't say that was wrong." That blows my mind because their hearts know it's wrong, but maybe your worldview doesn't support evil - or maybe you have the wrong worldview.
So what I'm saying is that I write lyrics that are accessible to anyone and I think that it would be weird and irresponsible that I wasn't talking about this stuff because it is what's at the core of me and I don't think my lyrics would be interesting to anyone if I faked it and wrote something else. I think we should all be able to have a discussion about these common issues and it not be weird. Sometimes it kind of throws people off and they say, "Oh, that band is religious." First of all, we're not all Christians in the band. No matter what a band's beliefs might be, someone with different views should be able to listen to them and learn and engage and vice versa.
I mean, the reason why I asked is because while I do find your lyrics very accessible, I sometimes still have questions in the end.
I try to ride the line between two worlds and let the song be what it wants to be, you know?
Speaking of writing, do you have a certain environment or place where you're truly comfortable putting the pen to paper?
No, it just takes a really, really long time no matter where it is. (laughs) It's kind of a slow process getting little bits of ideas down until I really start piecing the song together and then it's a process of revision after revision until it really gets there. I'm pretty perfectionistic about lyrics and I think about everything - like the mood and the meter. So to answer your question, I don't have any style when writing - it just takes me a really long time. (laughs)
So the only thing you need is patience then…
Yeah. I also do random things to get out of ruts. For this album, after I had been writing lyrics for about two weeks straight before we tracked, I decided to go see the new Star Trek one night. Something creative happened and two songs broke out even though they had nothing to do with the movie - it just got my juices flowing.
What two songs?
"The Weight" and "Wood and Wire".
Yeah, they have nothing to do with anything in the movie - it's just that movies get me excited. I think they get my brain moving and my blood flowing at the same time and it helps my writing.
What else gets your blood going?
I read a lot and that's where a lot of my ideas have their genesis. I don't know, I think the next time I'm writing I'm going to get some movies and then sit down afterwards with a pen and paper and a coffee.
It's really unfortunate that Beggars was leaked almost three months before it was supposed to come out. Well, I feel bad, but I'm happy I could hear it sooner…
…but what will you do differently so that you can avoid a similar situation in the future?
The only thing that could have been done differently was to have stronger security on Vagrant's FTP site. I mean, records always leak, but this was really, really far before so we didn't even have the master copy in our hand…
Yeah. (pauses) The only cool thing about that was people were talking about how much they loved it immediately after it was completed. But, it's frustrating that someone would go so far out of their way to cause a lot of harm to a lot of other people. So many people are involved with working on it and getting it out - it affects people's jobs and livelihood.
What was your reaction when you heard the leak had happened?
I was personally like, "Oh, alright. Now what do we do?" (laughs) I'm not the kind of person who gets upset over things that I can't control. I was still really surprised that it came out so early though.
There are three album covers that came out for Beggars. How come?
Well, the first one of the people eating was the real one and we had to can it for many reasons including legal issues after the leak. The second one of the people fishing is on the physical copy and vinyl and the third of the bars (Thrice logo) was originally created for the record, but wasn't going on the actual cover so we went with that for our iTunes cover amid all of the legal issues.
They're all great covers. What's the significance of the photos? Same photographer?
No, not the same photographer. All of the photos now in the album's booklet were taken by Matt Wignal - the album art was done by Nate (Warkentin). The original cover was taken by some famous photographer, taken of some fairly famous person and it was taken from some old journal - like an old Time Magazine or something like that.
Cool. Ok, I have a cliché question. Who are your top bands or artists of all time?
Man, I'm really bad at this stuff. Ok, in no particular order I'll try. Tom Waits, Radiohead, maybe Ryan Adams and…sorry man, I can't narrow it down.
(laughs) How about favourite places to play?
I played The Wiltern in L.A. a little while ago and that was really nice. There are lots of nice clubs out there. Did you mean clubs or cities?
I like playing in the city of Copenhagen quite a bit…
It's got a very unique vibe to it. We spent a couple of days there last time we were in Europe - you can ride around on public bikes and there are canals and it's just really beautiful.
How about favourite albums of all time?
(takes a long breath) Talk Talk - Laughing Stock, Rain Dogs - Tom Waits, everything Radiohead's done. There's a record called Let Go by Nada Surf that I listen to a lot - just a good hanging-out album. This list will be different every day you ask me.
So what's the future of Thrice looking like right now?
Like the immediate future?
The next five years…
Oh, I have no idea. I'm just taking it as it comes.
How about the immediate future?
Going out with Brand New then heading back towards the west coast with The Deerhunter and Polar Bear Club. Then, we're possibly going to Europe in the spring and then doing another headlining tour maybe.
Any plans for another solo record?
Nothing set. Just been getting ideas together and deciding which ones I'm going to bring to fruition.
Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Yeah, I'll probably write something at some time in my life, but I have no idea what that will be.
Would you ever write fiction?
Yeah, possibly. I have a bunch of ideas that I've been bouncing around, but those are kind of low on my list right now.
What's high on your list?
For creative projects?
I'll do another solo record in the decently near future, but beyond that I don't know.
Alright, last question. Where's the best place to eat in Orange County?
There's a place in Laguna called Taco Loco. They do this rad blackened tofu mushroom burger and it's really good. I liked this burger even before I liked mushrooms or tofu. (laughs)