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Heathen! An In-Depth Interview with Bryan Funck of THOU

Photos and Interview by Teddie Taylor

It was nearly three years ago that Baton Rouge sludge/drone/punk/doom metal band Thou released their brilliant, forward-thinking fourth LP, Heathen. In the seemingly long time since then, though, they’ve collaborated twice with fellow genre-evaders The Body, put out half-a-dozen various splits and EPs and become legendary Internet memes. Their punk ethos and penchant for the unexpected (covering Duran Duran or repeatedly playing Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” over the venue speakers) has kept them from being stereotypical in any way; whether on social media or at a live show, predictability is rare. With a new full-length in the works and another set of Nirvana covers on the way, we talked to vocalist Bryan Funck about the past, the present and the future of Thou.

A while ago I was reading something online about favorite sludge bands and the most mentioned groups were Thou and EYEHATEGOD. Is there something about this area that lends to that sound since there are so many sludge-y bands in Louisiana?

Bryan Funck: I don’t know. We get this question a lot. I don’t even really think of us as a “sludge” band. I think of us like more of a punk band or a grunge band. It just happens that we’re playing heavier stuff. When we started playing heavier stuff it was just a natural progression, it wasn’t like, Alright, now we’re gonna just be heavy. Before I joined the band, when they were writing stuff, they just started writing heavy riffs. I guess they were listening to more Agents of Oblivion or Crowbar or something at the time. Really, Thou has always been Matthew (Thudium) and Andy (Gibbs) as chief songwriters. The direction has always gone wherever they were going musically. When I kind of snaked my way into the band a year or so in [laughs], it was right after Katrina and I had just moved back and I was doing shows and looking for bands to do shows. I kind of knew Andy and he mentioned, I’m in this band Thou, too. Check us, we’re like a metal band. I listened to them on MySpace and was like, This is pretty good except I hate the singing. [Laughs] The original singing was very Acid Bath/Dax Riggs sounding and I was like, Yo, kick that singer out. Let me sing. Let me just scream and this band would be awesome. And it was Matthew, our other guitar player, who was the singer. [Laughs] Somehow I worked out that he didn’t really want to sing anymore, so I ended up doing it. I can only do the one thing and it kind of lends itself to a certain style, so that is a limitation of that.

The five of us are all fairly well-adjusted – not an over-abundance of emotional or psychological or financial stresses. Obviously, we’re pissed off about the way the world is, but that could just as easily be the recipe for a good punk scene or a good hardcore scene. I think the reason why there are probably so many sludge bands in New Orleans is because of bands like EYEHATEGOD and Crowbar. There were a couple of bands that were really out of the box for the time and there have just been people aping that shit for years and years and years. Every now and then, there will be some people who come up with a good heavy band, like the guys that did Rat in a Bucket and Haarp and Gristnam now. All that stuff people look to and think is the “New Orleans style” is really the Metairie style. All those people in all of those bands are from Metairie, which is fine – I’m from Metairie, too. It’s always funny to me how there’s this sort of outside romanticization of New Orleans. Most of those people aren’t from the city. They’re not from downtown. That’s what irritates me about that transient transplant culture. It’s not just that side of Canal Street. Did that answer the question?

Yeah, thoroughly. [Laughs] Is it difficult to create something new when you’re working on new material? Do you ever feel like you’re just repeating yourself?

B: Yeah, all the time. Me and Andy were recording stuff and had this conversation the other day. That’s a big part, for us, of why writing has been so slow-going for the last couple years. Partially because we haven’t all, the five of us, lived within an hour of each other for four years, but also because I think when we wrote Heathen I feel like we finally wrote a record that everybody was happy with – like, immediately happy with. Usually it takes a little while. We’ll write something in the practice space and by the time we go to record it we usually hate the songs and then record them anyway and it takes a little bit of time before we go back and listen to it and think, Do we have something that’s passable? We wrote that record and it was the only one we were really happy with.

Now we’re desperately trying not to repeat that or too many of our songwriting tricks. We kind of give ourselves a bit of breathing room with splits or EPs or whatever, but with the full lengths it’s always been like, This has to be better than the last one we did. It has to be better than the last one. We’ve kind of painted ourselves into a bit of a corner. We’re not really sure where to take the next one. I mean, we have ideas, but it’s always hard to tell in the practice space. So, yes, that is a big thing weighing on our minds. But also, we’re not on a deadline. We’re not on a label calling us every day looking for a record. We started self-releasing again, so we aren’t really beholden to anybody as far as a schedule. We have plans to tour this summer and we’re hoping to be done with a lot of this stuff before that. It might happen, it might not happen. We’re of the mind now we’re just going to write, we’re going to record and we’re going to see how it sounds. If it’s not where it needs to be we’ll use it for something, but it might not be the record.

The next record, too, we’re doing a little weird. We’re 4 or 5 songs in, that’s maybe half of a record, and we’re going to record that half and see if we like it or not and want to keep going in that direction or go in a totally different direction – which we usually don’t do. Our old way is to write a ton of shit, as much stuff as we possibly can, and record a ton of stuff all at once. Especially with the full lengths, it’s always been to write more than we need and can cut stuff and come up with something that’s coherent. We’re not doing that this time. It’s just hard because Mitch (Wells) still lives in California and we’re just unsure of ourselves. [Laughs] That is something on our minds – trying not to repeat ourselves. It makes it a little bit worse, too, because a lot of the ideas we’ve had over the past few years, as far as trying to add things or change things and do things a little differently to be outside of the box, our friends’ bands are already doing. The Body does all kinds of stuff and they get to it a lot quicker than we do. They’re more willing to go in with some third party and let them take the reigns and push things in a certain direction or dictate how things go a little bit more. We’re control freaks. Not even that, it’s just that we have a very rigid way of doing things and it’s hard for us. We’re not an organic jam band. They can’t come to practice with a riff and we just jam on it. They used to be like that. Before I joined it would be, Let’s just drone out on a riff for three hours. They used to practice five days a week for hours and hours. When I joined it was like, Let’s go on tour. Let’s put out records. Let’s do this and this and this. Now it’s also a bit of work and there’s a little bit of pressure and people have lives outside of the band. You’ve gotta maintain that stuff. Plus, you gotta have jobs. Yeah, so don’t want to repeat ourselves too much.

Why is being DIY and doing everything yourselves important?

B: The thing about it is that it probably isn’t as important to me as it was when I was 18 or 19, but it’s important in the sense that it’s practical. Part of why we stuck with this punk aesthetic and the DIY approach to things for so long was that it makes a lot more sense logistically. We’ve had offers to work with booking agents before and we’re working with a booking agency now and seeing where that will go, but we’re still doing stuff ourselves, too. The booking agencies can do certain things and open certain doors that we can’t, maybe, but we don’t need them to do the stuff that we used to do. I don’t need them to book a tour that I can book on my cell phone in an hour via text message. We don’t need them for that. We got approached by a management company to take care of the t-shirts and blah blah blah… It’s like, we’ve been doing that for seven years. I can call up my dude that lives in Slidell and he’ll bust out the t-shirts in a few days. You don’t really need people to do that kind of stuff. I’m always amazed with bands when they want to let other people do those things for them, like really basic, simple things that don’t take a whole lot of effort or brainpower. You want to pay someone else to do it? Not to mention, when you add another person to the mix that isn’t in the band, you lose so much in translation. A lot of things with booking agents is they’ll ask for things that you don’t really need or care about and they’ll fight. This is my perspective as a promoter. They’ll fight you tooth and nail for some deli tray or whatever. Towels. The booking agents want it and the band shows up and they don’t care. I’ve had so many times where booking agents will fight me about having to get some amps or this and that particular thing the booking agent thinks the band needs and the band shows up and they’re like, Hmm we don’t need that, this is fine.

We’re definitely one of those bands that tries not to be, whenever we end up playing some club show or something that got set up by somebody else, a festival or something like that – we’re not big takers. We’re not crying about stuff. We try to be very gracious and accommodating to the people who are hosting us. I feel like the DIY stuff is more of us doing the very minimal things that need to happen to make your art happen. Being in a band and playing shows and all of that, for us, is about having real relationships with other people. It’s fun, sometimes, to play some big show in front of a ton of people, but it’s also way more fun to play some house show that’s packed with a lot less people, but where you can actually interact with people. I value relationships and having a real relationship with people. And again, the control thing, for us, has always been really important. We don’t need some other turkey that’s not in the band that may or may not understand what we need or want when we go out on tour or play a show. It’s not going to get us on Jimmy Fallon or anything.

I’m in a weird place right now because within the last year or two I wouldn’t say I’ve retired, but taken a drastic step back from a lot of the things I do in the band, as far as booking and logistics. Not to get too into the frustrations of our inner dynamic, but there are a few things over the last years that rubbed me the wrong way, so I’ve had a little burnout on that. Andy’s actually stepped up a bit with that kind of stuff. Like I said, we have a booking agency that we work with to try to get on as a support band on bigger tours or do bigger things or stuff where for whatever reason we don’t want to handle the logistics or if we seem to think something is outside of our realm of power. The tour that we’re doing for the booking agency this summer is actually more of a DIY tour. It’s us and Moloch and Cloud Rat and False. It’s all friend bands. DIY punk bands. We have the booking agency booking it because it’s four touring bands and you need to get paid pretty well every night to make it work, just because every one of those bands has at least one or two people who have harsh financial realities where the bands have to come home with a little bit of money or else people will get evicted or whatever. And Moloch is coming over from the UK, so there’s a lot of overhead with that. For me, if I were booking it, when we go out I don’t like dealing with all of that shit, guarantees and all that, and I never have. When I booked the tours, I can just book them in two seconds with people I’ve known for a million years that I trust and I know they’re going to treat us fair and do their best for us. We don’t have to worry about that. We can go out and we know it’s going to be fine. Things are a little bit different with this, so you get the booking agent. We’ll see how it goes. We’ve only ever done one other tour with a booking agent and it was a nightmare. It was kind of why we haven’t since.

Uh oh…

B: It wasn’t our booking agent; it was another tour we got asked to be support on. It was garbage. Just a typical zig-zag booking agent route where they zig-zag you all over the place. You might have a guarantee, but the shows are still crap. We’d rather play an awesome show and not have a guarantee or get paid a little less and play an awsome show that we have a great time at than worry about making $200. Let’s start this tour in Poughkeepsie. You guys need to be there at 3:00. And you don’t need to be there at 3:00. Load in’s at 3:00 and you HAVE to, MUST be there. No one’s there. We’re there before the promoter. Club’s locked. Freezing cold. That’s the other booking agent thing. Loading 100 hours early. It’s people who don’t go on tour, who aren’t in bands. They just have a way of doing it. This is the way we do it, blah blah. You can fight them to try to do it your way and some of it gets through and some of it doesn’t. Our guy we use because we’re friends with him. We like him. We know him outside of that realm and we like him as a person. He kind of gets it and kind of doesn’t. Especially for the level we’re at – we’re not a typical band. We like to cut through a lot of the BS and are willing to go out of our way to make certain things happen. The booking agents don’t always understand that. We’ll see how it goes. I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m sure it’ll be great.

What has kept you away from the cliches over the years? From becoming a cliche metal band – as far as artwork and everything?

B: Oh, you mean like devil stuff and 666?

Yeah, the spikes, leather…

B: Spikes, leather, skulls, wolves, blood, death… I mean we all come from punk. All of us are punk dudes, essentially. It’s funny. When Thou plays, Matthew is the most metal looking of the five of us. You know – looks like kind of a metal person in the context of the five of us. I went and saw Barghest a couple of years ago when he was still in the band, and he’s the least metal looking dude of those four/five/however many it was at the time. They were opening for Absu or something, and then they didn’t even look like a metal band compared to these black metal turkeys playing. We’re just regular dudes. I don’t know, I’m put off by that stuff. I think everybody in Thou kind of is. It’s not that it’s cliché, it’s that it’s very farcical. It’s not what this band is. I’ve even tried to get us a little bit away from the woodcut stuff over the past few years because that stuff is such the “metal” thing to do now. Woodcuts or some wilderness photo. Aesthetically, I definitely try to push us to something that doesn’t look quite so metal. Lyrically, I just write the stuff that I write. I think it’d be silly to try to write about the devil or… What do metal bands write about? I don’t listen to a lot of metal. A lot of the metal stuff I listen to is probably the anti-civilization, eco stuff or other metal bands that have come from hardcore or punk. Stuff that’s a little more politically charged or emotionally charged and not trying to craft some dark… I’m trying to think of another band that does goofball stuff. Goatwhore maybe? I haven’t dug into a Goatwhore record in a long time, but I feel like that is maybe what I wouldn’t want Thou to be, and EYEHATEGOD is a little bit closer. Outlaw Order probably more than EYEHATEGOD. I have a certain way that I can write where it’s not horrible and it’s like I’m kind of stuck doing that. I think if I could I would write stuff that was even more straightforward, you couldn’t not understand what I was saying lyrically. I’d write more like Born Against or something like a hardcore band if I could.

The other thing is, with Thou, we have five guys that don’t agree on a lot of things. I could write some song about veganism and get away with it because 90% of the world isn’t going to realize what I’m writing about. We had people that confused Tyrant as a pro-Christian record, even though it’s so obliquely ham-fisted. That’s a whole other thing. What was the question? How do we stay away from it? Why do we stay away from it? Just because it’s fuckin’ cheesy. Metal, in general to me, is kind of cheesy. Wearing all black… I appreciate people being genuine and being themselves and I kind of hate the punk or metal trying to wear a uniform and fit into a certain context. What I like about music that isn’t mainstream is that it doesn’t have to fit into a certain context. You can just push it in whatever direction you want to push it in. I feel like that’s why Thou has been somewhat successful. We’re not trying to just do a certain thing. We have a sound that we’ve crafted over the years and we’re trying to push other things and mangle it through that sound into some direction. I’m not too worried about metal clichés. It’s really easy to avoid: don’t use blood, death, wolf, skull, corpse, that kind of stuff. I mean, we use that stuff. There are plenty of skulls and a couple of Thou records with nature images on the covers. You gotta just be tasteful. That’s the thing. It comes with having a good sense of aesthetic or being a ding-dong, and a lot of people are just ding-dongs. Thou has put out tons of stuff that looks real bad. I’ve definitely done tons of fliers and other things we’ve used that look really bad. It’s a learning curve. Some people figure it out and some people just keep doing real dumb stuff.

The past year being crazy politically – has that influenced the new record?

B: The stuff we’re writing right now? Not really. I mean, that stuff is always there. The political things in the US aren’t that crazy to me. I’m always more intrigued by the minutiae of stuff. Self-critique. Looking at the punk and anarchist scenes. Stuff that irritates me about that. I’ve always just been more interested in writing stuff that sort of celebrates certain ideas while also being super critical of them. I’m also, especially with Thou, interested in being more self-critical more than anything. I feel like it’s too easy to…

…write a record about politics right now?

B: Yeah, most of that stuff people are upset about, we’d just be preaching to the choir. It’s just too ham-fisted. Maybe things will change. For the new stuff, the new record, I’ve barely started writing stuff. It could end up going a different way thematically or fitting some of that political angst into some of the themes I’m already trying to work in. The one song that we have written is kind of about identity politics and some of my frustrations with that. It seems that the people who don’t want limitations also apply a lot of limitations. As a person who identifies as an anarchist, I detest certain broad limitations over things. I don’t want any limitations unless it’s something I’m purposely putting in place on myself to focus on something. I feel like people get upset about the wrong things. People get upset about things that are not important when they should be getting upset over things that are life-threatening or freedom-threatening, which I think is why we’re in the political crisis we’re in in this country. People were busy crying about microaggressions instead of seeing the bigger picture.

Is there certain stuff on this record that you are going to do differently than on Heathen?

B: Musically, or what?

Musically, altogether. Do you have a set list of “We do want to do this, we don’t want to do this?” It was so well-received…

B: I kind of wish it hadn’t been, that would’ve made things a lot easier. [Laughs] We’ve talked about stuff, but as far as writing goes… We can talk about stuff for a year and when it comes time to write it there’s no telling, because it’s kind of whatever comes out of Andy and Matthew. We didn’t want to write Heathen again. We could probably write three or four more Heathens pretty easily with the same formula and the same melody. We didn’t want to do that. The new stuff – we’re four-and-a-half or five songs in. Some parts are a little too Heathen for me and I’m trying to push us away from that. It’ll probably be a little Heathen-ish. The new stuff is a little more riffy than we usually write. I guess the main thing is we’re trying to cut away a lot of the frills. Have a lot more meat to things instead of meandering around the way Heathen did. We’ve got a couple of ideas for new tuning and overdub stuff that might change the sound drastically. The second half of the record, if we go in the sewer, sub mutant direction were talking about going with it, might be way different than Heathen. There’s no telling. We talked about writing our next record as our black metal record, but maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I originally talked about it when our old drummer (Terry Gulino) was still in the band, so I wanted to write a straight-up black metal record mangled through the Thou lens. I like Darkthrone, old Ulver, Burzum… and I like newer stuff, too. The post-rock. Wolves In the Throne Room. All the Salem stuff. The Cascadian shit. There’s a lot of stuff like that that I like, but when I go put on a record I don’t think, Oh, let me put my Ash Borer record on. I really want to listen to Ash Borer right now. Even though I have all those records and I listen to them, it’s like, that’s not the thing I think. I think, Oh I’m gonna put my Angel Olsen record on. I want to put my Fiona Apple on. My Smiths record. My MJ Guider record. Maybe it’s from being a little older. I don’t even think it’s from being old. It’s from touring, from being in this band and touring, that I don’t want to listen to heavy music. We go out and play shows and I have to sit through six metal bands. I’m just burnt out. I want to hear something that’s different than that, whatever that is. If it’s Wagner or Solange or something. I want something different. What was the question? Is the record going to be different? We’re trying to make it better than the last record. The thing is, the outside perspective of what our sound is vs. us… We are very particular. This, to us, sounds way different than this. To somebody else, all of Thou’s stuff probably sounds the same. We’re trying to make it sound different, but we’ll see what happens.

All of the Nirvana stuff that you guys do, are all of you big Nirvana fans?

B: Yeah, hell yeah.

At the show with Miserable, the backdrop was a Kurt photo with “I died for your sins.” That was great.

B: That was sick. We had t-shirts with Kurt Cobain with a gun that said “Live In The 90s, Die In The 90s.” Yeah, we love Nirvana. Nirvana and Fiona Apple are probably the only two things that all five of us agree on. Probably the other grunge stuff. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, some of Alice in Chains. We just recorded 10 more Nirvana songs. We’re going to do a split with this band HIRS from Philadelphia, who are awesome and also huge Nirvana fans. We’re just going to do all Nirvana on both sides of the LP. Twenty Nirvana songs. Eventually we’ll get through all of them.

From Joshua Nee, drummer of Thou:

“I spent the better part of three weeks after the flood driving around neighborhoods looking for homes to help out. Every day after work and pretty much all day on the weekends was spent gutting damaged homes. A practice space we had been sharing with a slew of other bands was totally wrecked, and countless bands I know had their spaces and equipment destroyed.”

When Mitch was getting this benefit together, he asked what organization would make sense to donate to. I told him the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, as they had been really amazing and helpful during the aftermath of the flood, and they themselves had even been completely flooded out.

I was thrilled to have so many local Louisiana bands on the compilation. All of those bands come from the same DIY community based background. Punk, pop, metal, whatever. They represent all kinds of music, but they all come from a similar, supportive culture.”

Certain tracks were mastered by metal extraordinaire James Plotkin, while the whole compilation features mastering donated by Keith Souza and Seth Manchester at Machines With Magnets. Artwork was donated by Becky Cloonan, renowned for her work with DC and Marvel Comics.

FRIENDSHIP TOUR with Moloch, Cloud Rat, and False

06.26.17 – DC

06.27.17 – Philadelphia

06.28.17 – New York

06.29.17 – Portland at Space Gallery

06.30.17 – Boston at Once

07.01.17 – Providence (MATINEE) at Aurora

07.01.17 – Albany at Upstate Concert Hall

07.02.17 – Detroit

07.03.17 – Chicago at Subterranean

07.03.17 – Chicago (late night show)

07.04.17 – Minneapolis (ALL AGES MATINEE)

07.04.17 – Minneapolis

07.05.17 – Kansas City (ALL AGES MATINEE)

07.05.17 – Kansas City

07.06.17 – Denver

07.07.17 – Denver (ALL AGES MATINEE)

07.07.17 – Colorado Springs

07.08.17 – Boise

07.09.17 – Seattle at High Dive

07.10.17 – Tacoma

07.11.17 – Portland at Analog

07.12.17 – Salem

07.13.17 – Eureka at Vets Hall

07.14.17 – Santa Cruz of Sacramento

07.15.17 – Oakland

07.16.17 – Los Angeles at Echo

07.17.17 – Orange County

07.18.17 – Phoenix at Rebel Lounge

07.19.17 – Albuquerque

07.20.17 – Dallas

07.21.17 – Austin

07.22.17 – New Orleans

 

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