Heathen, due out March 25th through Gilead Media (with vinyl being handled domestically by vocalist Bryan Funck’s own Howling Mind Records and internationally by Vendetta Records) is Thou‘s densest work yet. If you’re familiar with the band, then Heathen won’t surprise you immediately, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a surprising album. Heathen, unlike previous Thou albums, takes a bit to get going. The opening track, “Free Will” is the 14 minute equivalent of waking up earlier than your alarm and laying there, slowly coming to until it finally goes off. Not saying “Free Will,” or any track here, is as jarring as your awful alarm, but the album has a sense of inevitability. So much attention is focused on the density and layers of the album’s sound, that there are many times where things aren’t all that heavy, but there’s still a lot going on; and that’s quite alright.
As Heathen found it’s time of day in my daily listening, it spawned a lot of questions, and thankfully Bryan was kind enough to oblige me (the photo to the right is from our interview. He insisted on yelling everything at me). My first thought about Heathen, without having listened to it, was it’s name and how it connected thematically with the previous three albums, two of which were particular castes (Tyrant and Peasant).
“In my head, Summit [the band’s third album] definitely referred to a person too. The overall theme I’ve been working on has the first five records all related to each other: Tyrant, Peasant and Summit as a from-the-hip critique of the dominant social order and class system, and then Summit, Heathen and Magus being a manifesto for the destruction of that system and the creation of something new. Essentially, Tyrant is about the ruling upper class, Peasant is about the lower classes, and Summit is about the outsiders, criminals, anarchists bent on destroying the class system. The two following Summit are meant to focus on the personality extremes of the type of person I’m thinking about—that is, Heathen is focused on the senses, experience, Nature; and Magus is focused on the esoteric, philosophy, Magick.
Admittedly, there’s a lot more going on than that, and we all have different ideas about those records. Tyrant is also about sleep, being unconscious, unaware. Peasant is about death, being inextricably chained to servitude and anguish. Summit is about the possibilities within and outside of those limitations. Heathen is about waking up to and making use of those possibilities.”
Heathen is Thou’s first release in roughly two years, a fact that might be common to other bands, but an anomaly for this quintet as they have twenty six releases under their belts since 2007. Asking about the album itself, Bryan didn’t mince his words.
“I think it’s the best record we’ve ever done. It’s everything I wanted Summit to be: consistent, coherent, catchy (as catchy as we get, that is), and heavy. Our goal is always to do something different or better than whatever we’ve done before. We were definitely hoping to cultivate more material for this one than we had for other releases. We’ve always had it in our heads to overwrite for the full lengths, so we could distill it to songs that fit just right together. We’ve never been able to do that in the past because we’ve always seemed to rush to record as soon as we had just enough material to fit on an LP, usually so we’d be able to get it out for a big tour. Or we’ve had a number of other commitments we were trying to fill at the same time (splits or EPs or whatever), so songs would get split up and parceled out a bit. We had a clean slate this time around, and with Andy having moved, we didn’t really have any looming tour plans on the horizon. So the writing process was a lot more focused, and our schedule was pretty flexible. I think all of those things really helped us. After we recorded, we focused on mixing the stuff for The Body collabo and The Sacrifice EP (thinking we’d hurry up and get those out, hahaha!). So we had a bit of distance before we dug into mixing Heathen. That was really good, getting fresh ears on the record. I’m not sure if we would do that with every record, but I definitely think it helped with this one. We were all pretty excited when we got back into it and started finishing the record.”
Beyond it’s craggy and dynamic production, Heathen shows Thou in their most eclectic suit; seamlessly blending somber tones and more aggressive moods into an album that flows purposefully and naturally. In between ten-plus minute dirges and shorter, yet equally heavy tracks, the album is bridged together by a handful of instrumentals.
“Early on when we started writing for Heathen, we talked about having interludes that could be songs onto themselves but also serve to bridge all the other songs together, so the record would seem like one big piece. The stuff we came up with ended up being a little shorter than we originally envisioned and acted more like stop-gaps between songs. But it worked out pretty well, I think, because all of the songs on Heathen are fairly long and dense, so it definitely serves to break up the hour or so of doom and gloom. We’re still talking about doing a record of quiet songs at some point or, at least, doing more of this on other records. And we haven’t given up on the split with Pygmy Lush even though those turkeys have been putting us off for years.”
Bryan’s mention of the fabled Pygmy Lush split brings to mind the band’s loquacious attitude and their penchants for touring, gigging locally, and releasing material. And, while the band hasn’t released anything since their split with Oregon’s Hell, they have kept busy with numerous tours throughout 2012, including a European stint with Resurrectionists and Grinding Halt, the alluring Gilead Fest, and a Midwest tour with False and Cloud Rat. These events have pop marked the band’s writing process for Heathen, a process that was already relaxed with guitarist Andy moving out to Oakland and other projects, namely a collaboration with The Body, requiring the band’s attention.
“Chip and Lee [of The Body] came down for a week at the tail end of us writing Heathen. We spent a couple of days with them hippy jam session style working on a few songs together and learning a Vic Chesnutt cover. Then we recorded everything at the Living Room in Algiers with James Whitten before we dug into the Thou junk. All that stuff should be coming out right after Heathen. We’ve actually been sitting on it for a while. (Sorry, Daniel!)
We’re going to be getting together with The Body again in June to work on a second record. This time around, we’re going to record up at their pals’ space Machines With Magnets in Providence and try to give them more of the reins. That first set of songs we did definitely sounds like a good mix of The Body and Thou, but I think the recording is definitely eschewed in our direction. We’re going to try and get more out there with the second one, try to make it really exxxtreme and br0tal. Or maybe it’ll just end up being noise and Marilyn Manson covers.”
Whether the Manson cover’s a joke or not, Thou’s a band that internalizes so many different influences, many of which would surprise a listener who doesn’t know the band too well. When talking about these influences, I asked Bryan if the band ever had to shelf an idea or skip over something because they thought it didn’t fit Thou’s mold.
“Right after we did To the Chaos Wizard Youth, we were going to do a Fiona Apple tribute LP. We learned about six songs, I think. But we just couldn’t figure out where to go with them that didn’t sound hokey or over-the-top or like we were having a laugh. We wanted them to be serious, since we’re all serious fans of Fiona Apple. That idea has been put on hold for a while, but not completely abandoned no matter what some members of Thou might claim.
Also with the material for the Cower split, originally we had intended for those songs to be a lot more in the vein of Cower or Iron Lung or something along those lines. Short, fast, hardcore songs essentially. When we first started writing for that, Andy was playing drums and Josh playing second bass. We actually wrote earlier versions of a couple of the songs that made it to the split and maybe a couple more songs that were nixed. It just wasn’t gelling, so we went back to classic Thou instrumentation and style. But we have talked about taking another stab at this idea for a different project.”
And, going a bit further into outside influences, and me harping on Bryan’s earlier words I had to ask about Magus.
“Magus should, hopefully, be the next full length record we do. It’s always been my dream to make that one the black metal Thou record, whatever that might mean for us. We haven’t started writing for it yet, just been talking about different ideas. There are all kinds of directions we could possibly go in for the next few records—quiet/pretty songs, fast hardcore, more deliberate drone. Most likely, we’ll do what we always do and write a few EPs worth of stuff before the next full length, so we can experiment with a few ideas then try to incorporate some of that into the next big record. So we’re probably a long ways off. I doubt we’ll even start writing anything new until after the collaboration tour with The Body this summer.”
Returning to Heathen, lyrically it is an album focused on “corporal existence” and “Nature, the sensual, [and] the present.” Having borrowed heavily from Thoreau, Bryan aimed “to not make it about Nature worship or deification, [but] more about liberating yourself from social constructs and also recognizing your insignificance in the face of the universe. There are songs about sex, songs about pain, songs about absconding from the arguments of armchair philosophers. Heathen is about recognizing one’s ability to confront reality in a tangible and prescient way and then taking action and fully experiencing life, all its pleasures and pains.”
As for the lyrics themselves: “It can be hard not making them too melodramatic or mealy-mouthed. I’m not always as positive with the results. But I’m a lot better at writing these kinds of lyrics than writing ones that are more straightforward. For me, I’ve always loved writers who could say something straightforward but also had a high level of wit—Sam McPheeters, Joseph Gates, Damien Moyal, Chris Colohan. The real viscerally acerbic social-political stuff is what I’m drawn to. I think my writing strays too far into a bottomless pit of adjectives and big words most times. I also enjoy straight up stealing lines or phrases from other songs or literature or wherever, especially if I can present them in a new context that completely warps the meaning. Too many Crimethinc books when I was a young man, I guess.”
Closing out our talk, I asked Bryan about their approach to shows. I was fortunate to catch them twice in the span of a week back in 2011. At a bigger venue they played a very cerebral and heavy set that fit the large stage well. At a smaller, DIY venue they focused on more explosive and shorter songs that got the crowd moving as they merged with the band on the floor.
“We’re generally able to play a good chunk of songs at any given point in time, so we always try to play songs that we think will work with the venue or crowd, or just what we personally feel like playing on any given night. We’ll also do really slow “pain” sets if we’re annoyed with a crowd, people are being too violent, whatever. It’s still crazy to me that people would even know any of our songs, but when that happens and people ask, we try to play those if we know them (unless it’s a Black Sabbath cover). These days we’ve definitely been digging into the Heathen stuff a bunch, but we’re also trying to re-learn a lot of our older material.”
Thou’s put together a string of dates, notably a West Coast tour with Cloud Rat, and some shows later down the road with The Body. Be sure to check out everything Thou at their website. Pre-orders for Heathen are still going over at Gilead’s webstore.