Taking Back Screamo
As frontman of the New Jersey band Thursday, Geoff Rickly helped pioneer many of the main motifs of today's landscape of contemporary punk-inspired rock. From the group sprang a distinctive sing/scream vocal technique, wordy song titles and lyrics, and, well, even the use of the calendar as a source for band names. More than a decade after his band's inception, though, Rickly wants to distance himself from much of what his influence has wrought. "The really liberating thing," Rickly says by phone on a recent afternoon, "is that the trend of trying to be a band like Thursday, which came about six or seven years ago, is so over. So now we're really given the freedom of doing what we wanted to do."
It's hard to overstate the reach of the second- or third-hand Thursday imprint on the current stars of the Warped Tour world. And much of that can be traced back to the band's breakthrough sophomore album, Full Collapse, released in 2001. Up to then, the band, while slowly gaining a cult following, mostly toiled around the Northeastern underground hardcore and punk world. The music bore those scenes' imprimatur in guitarist Tom Keeley's charging, spazzed-out guitar riffs and in Rickly's cathartic wails. Still, the band was the oddball in front of audiences often just waiting for the next breakdown to propel them back into the pit.
And thus came Full Collapse, which, while released on the then-hardcore-centric Victory Records, was a sort of manifesto of turn-of-the-millennium, thinking-person's post-hardcore. The 12 tracks harnessed hardcore's energy but channeled it through more atmospheric, intricate guitar work and into introspective, more complexly observational lyrics. Rickly used his reedy but robust, instantly recognizable voice truly as an instrument, pitching it up, whispering, or erupting in a yell to punctuate his songs' emotional flow. The stories were, to use the overused term, introspective — but they were also almost weirdly literate, drawing on oblique narrative techniques and switching through points of view in search of some universal empathy.
This innovation was popular — really popular, in a nascent, pre-MySpace scene. The record reached number 178 on the Billboard 200, and videos for singles "Understanding in a Car Crash" and "Cross Out the Eyes" seeped into some TV rotation. And this is where things started to go wrong — a lot of kids in upstart bands heard Rickly's vocal play and decided the sing/scream combo was a set formula. They heard his lyrics and decided they were all me-me-me-me. And some of those imitators in the first few rippling waves managed to eclipse Thursday in mainstream popularity without really understanding the original intent.
"I feel like this sort of modern mall emo/hardcore/screamo whatever, we get blamed for all that, because it was such an underground thing before Full Collapse broke out," Rickly says. "I never thought that was fair, because so many bands that came after us who had superficial similarities to us wrote all their songs about girls, which were basically pop songs at heart and didn't do anything new structurally. We always wanted to fit into the footsteps of bands like Jawbox and Jawbreaker and Fugazi. We had a very specific narrative technique. We had all these things that were ours, and when other people started doing them, it felt more obvious than it really was."
And so, in reaction, over its ensuing records, Thursday pushed the limit of its idiosyncrasies even further, hopping from Victory to the major Island and back to independence as no label really got it. And now, in 2009, the band has both achieved a tabula rasa and returned to its roots — its seventh and latest album, Common Existence, was released last month on the punk holy grail label Epitaph.
Its 11 tracks paint a sonic picture of a band finally freed from various constraints — that of label expectations, of audience expectations, of critic expectations — all conspiring to keep them in a neatly labeled subgenre box. Rickly and company have reexamined the essential pieces of post-hardcore, spinning them into a web sticky with British shoegaze guitar textures and a humanities degree's worth of source subject matter.
The album's fourth track, "Friends in the Armed Forces," was the first to gain real internet steam after its release on Thursday's MySpace page, and with good reason. It's epic and instantly compelling and serves as a statement of purpose for the rest of the album. Beginning with easily digested minor power chords and the subtlest synth, near the 30-second mark, the song abruptly goes quiet and then explodes, unspooling Rickly's resignation at "tying yellow ribbons on everything [he sees.]"
It's a deeply personal antiwar statement, but unlike other bands' one-off fuck-you-Bush ditties, Rickly's unique storytelling method attempts to dissect the issue from all sides. Over crescendos and drum swells, fragments of real-life conversations unfold before falling into unexpected, anxiety-ridden guitar syncopation as Rickly tries to parse what it all means.
"I feel like every time people talk about war, they either talk about punk rock and rebellion and fuck everybody, or it's jingoistic aircraft carrier music made for people to go off and fight wars," Rickly says. "Neither of those views really have anything to do with reality, and I just wanted to make something that sort of reflected more how I see life and my friends who are in the service."
And like the subject it tackles, the actual music of "Friends in the Armed Forces" offers no easy solutions — the keyboard/guitar interplay that starts as the perfect pad for screaming turns into a spare backbone without warning. Together, it packs an emotional and intellectual punch that makes it hard for cynics to dismiss.
The interplay of lyrics and music continues throughout Common Existence. "Time's Arrow" takes the reverse-chronology technique of Martin Amis's novel of the same title, describing tears running up someone's face, stitches being pulled out of a wound, snowflakes falling up into the sky. And underneath, a creepy, backward-effect strummed guitar seems to suck everything back into ominous oblivion. (Thank, here, the studio wizardry of album producer Dave Fridmann, whose atmosphere-creating chops were honed with his work for his band Mercury Rev as well as with the Flaming Lips.)
Rickly is glib about his dog-eared personal library and its potential for connection with his favored sonic mode. "Post-hardcore is the magical realism of music," he says. "Instead of trying to strip things down to the bare bones, I think that instead, it sometimes verges on the surreal, the psychedelic. If you're trying to portray the world as you know it, that's almost somebody like Borges or Marquez or another one of the South American writers."
He's eager to point out traces of his favorite writers all over Common Existence. David Foster Wallace's trademark parallel narratives show up in "Circuits of Fever," with its most important story interlaced with the bigger, larger noise of the verses. Barry Hannah and Don DeLillo influenced the interconnecting thematic threads of the album as a whole, Rickly says, also citing healthy helpings of Thomas Pynchon and William Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories.
Under all this too, Rickly's bandmates have also rummaged through the post-modernist's bag of tricks. Guitarist Keeley is an avowed fan of the stoner wall-of-sound waves from 1990s Brit acts like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, and Spiritualized. The nods to these bands come randomly, without warning — "Circuits of Fever" takes almost three minutes to build into an echoing, psychedelic trip to rival the best so-called "sonic cathedrals" of near-yesteryear. It's downright pretty in its subdued squall and will surprise Anglophiles who would otherwise never examine the racket of a bunch of Jersey guys.
But despite all these zigs and zags from the more obvious elements of what gained Thursday its initial popularity, Rickly insists he has never abandoned his hardcore-derived heritage: "It still feels like it's rooted in all these time changes and sort of guitar riffs and stuff that I loved from hardcore music when I was a kid." Rather, he sees his mission as similar to that of musicians who arrived after punk's first 1970s peak — to pick up the pieces, and, à la 1980s post-punk, create a new collage from them. "If more people kind of genuinely put that kind of creativity into something that grew out of hardcore, it would be an amazing thing. Post-punk was this very great movement in music. And I think post-hardcore could be something cool like that."
Those who got what made the band so special at the beginning will continue to get it, Rickly says, citing Sonic Youth as a model for longevity and artistic creativity through the occasional dip into mainstream recognition. "I think that our tastes in music have become more and more oblique and sort of harder to understand in weird, esoteric choices we make," he says. "But I think the people who really love Thursday really appreciate that about us."
Read the full Q&A with Geoff Rickly at miaminewtimes.com.
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