Behind the Mask: The transcendent dualities of Thou

Treble staff
Thou 2018 interview

There’s something almost mythical about Thou. The Louisiana metal band’s aesthetic is one of austerity and mystique, with a series of black-and-white medieval illustrations adorning their massive catalog: Five full-length LPs, 11 EPs and 15 splits/collaborations in 13 years, averaging out to a little over two new releases a year. They almost never appear in standard-issue publicity photos, their DIY ethos finding them mostly avoiding a typical press cycle altogether. They’ll also never be seen slathered in corpse-paint or strapped in bandoliers, but their theatricality comes out in other ways. In the new video for “The Changeling Prince,” from their upcoming fifth album Magus, “Thou” is depicted as a band of vampires in capes and made-up faces, the cheeky image of a New Orleans Lestat stereotype.

Thou, the real-life band of mere mortals, appear in the video as well, a group of bewildered looking dudes among throngs of doom-loving goths. The truth about the band is somewhere between these two depictions, for while their music is massive and devastating, the band comprises five hard-working musicians with prolific tendencies and an unlikely accessibility (much of their back catalog can be downloaded for free via their website), with an aesthetic that’s always changing and evolving. After three years, one of the longest periods in their career without any new releases, Thou reemerge in 2018 with a huge new batch of music comprising three EPs—The House Primordial, Inconsolable and Rhea Sylvia—and a new full-length, Magus, totaling almost three hours of music. Where most bands would probably dole this amount of material out over four or five years, for Thou, it’s par for the course. Back in 2014, for instance, they paired full-length LP Heathen with the Sacrifice EP, a collaboration with industrial-sludge duo The Body and then, less than a year later, yet another collaboration with The Body.

At the outset of beginning this latest, overwhelming quartet of material, however, the gears began to grind a bit. Guitarist Andy Gibbs and Mitch Wells had moved to California while vocalist Bryan Fucnk, guitarist Matthew Thudium and drummer Josh Nee (since replaced by Tyler Coburn) remained back in Louisiana. This geographical division didn’t halt the writing of new material, but it did slow them down.

“We’d get roughly one song in place every two or three months, so we were looking at it like, doing the math, it’s gonna be six years before we finish this record,” Funck says. “There was like a year or so where we didn’t do anything. We weren’t working on new stuff. We weren’t really pushing to do a bunch of work. I don’t know if I’d do that again. We’re the kind of band that needs constant motivation, we need something to work toward or we’ll just end up farting around.”

Over time, Thudium had built up what Funck refers to as a “wellspring of material,” and by the time Gibbs moved back to New Orleans, Magus had already begun to take shape, which quickly transitioned over into the creation of its companion releases. This new batch of releases presents the full spectrum of Thou. The first EP to be released, the drone-based The House Primordial, came out of a show in which the band live-scored the German silent-horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while the next, Inconsolable, found them performing primarily acoustic songs with a range of female vocalists in lieu of Funck’s abrasive rasp. Rhea Sylvia, entirely composed by Thudium, finds the band flaunting their grunge influences, particularly on the highly melodic standout “The Only Law” and the surprisingly catchy “Deepest Sun.”

Those EPs were meant to be a starting point—a series of roundabout paths that were meant to somehow lead them back to what would eventually become Magus. The album, in many ways, finds the intersection between all of those sonic approaches—all-encompassing sonic hugeness, melodic accessibility and subtle ethereal undertones. These qualities all present themselves in first single “The Changeling Prince,” as much a natural choice for a single as any song from a Thou full-length. But there are nuances to be dissected in even its most crushing tracks, from the titanic opening track “Inward” to the muscular grunge chug of “Transcending Dualities.” Magus is recognizably Thou as much as it is a step forward, though all four showcase a band whose music is a lot harder to encapsulate than simply “metal” or “doom.”

“Part of why we did all these EPs was, by virtue of the kind of music we play, it’s hard for people to conceive of us liking things outside of a certain spectrum, or being accessible to other scenes outside of that spectrum, I’d love for that conception to change and be challenged a bit with people,” Funck says. “It’s like anything, with music people are drawn to playing a certain style because they like that style. But for me, and I think with the other guys too, it’s been more about trying to get to a certain feeling that you care a lot about and you’re certainly invested in, more than just like ‘That riff isn’t doomy enough. It needs to be sludgier.’ I don’t think we ever really cared about that. It’s just, ‘is it good or is it bad?'”

Thou’s musical influences are varied, from Louisiana metal bands such as Eyehategod and Crowbar (which the band covered on Rhea Sylvia) to Nirvana and Fiona Apple, who they’ve said are two of their collective favorite artists. On a more thematic level, however, the band’s taken to some less obvious and obscure sources of inspiration, including magic, esoterica and “harsh self-evaluation” as Funck describes it. He also cites specific authors as playing a role in their conceptual approach, including horror writer Thomas Ligotti and Canadian fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker. It’s perhaps an oversimplification to say that their music is political, though it does reflect the outside world as Funck navigates it, often coming across as intense and nihilistic, like when he screeches, “Our legacy adding up to a heap of meaninglessness” on “Greater Invocation for Disgust.”

There’s also a streak of defiance on the album, as when Funck declares on “Elimination Rhetoric,” “Yes we have hatred…a callous disregard for ignorance.” And there’s even hope amid the despair and self-flagellation on Magus, as heard through the closing lines of “In the Kingdom of Meaning”: “We have sung our anthems of pain/We refuse to exist in our despair/We will find inner sanctum/And so we shall prevail.” For Fucnk, above all the intent is to create something with an intense emotional resonance, though he admidts that how people perceive Thou’s music is not always the way he hears it.

“I’m so close to it that it’s hard for me to figure out if we’re hitting any of those marks or to have a non-biased opinion about it,” he says. “I mean, definitely with Inconsolable, when we were talking about writing for it, my watermark was that it should be more depressing than the last Pygmy Lush record (Old Friends). That could be the standard that we’re trying to push past. When we were writing it, we were going through some dark stuff down here and listening to a lot of Jim Croce and Emma Ruth Rundle…her last record with Marriages—stuff that I thought was tugging on certain strings. I definitely think of Thou in terms of being more of a sad band, a melancholy band, than an angry band.”

With Magus, Thou have partnered with Sacred Bones Records, and with their three latest EPs, they’ve aligned with several other labels, including Deathwish Inc. This isn’t necessarily new for the band—they’ve worked with the likes of Thrill Jockey, Southern Lord and Gilead in the past, though the group still self-releases much of their music and has been working to keep everything in print, even on vinyl. Yet Funck says that maintaining a DIY ethos is largely about preventing the wrong decisions from being made. As convenient as it might seem—and for how much larger a platform as it might give them—handing over the reins completely isn’t really an option for the band.

“It is a lot of work, but I don’t know if necessarily having people run things for you would be less work unless you’re willing to give them a lot of control and do whatever they’ll have you do,” Funck says. “The ideology aside, we’ve latched on to that for so long because it makes the most sense. Trying to articulate your desires can be a tricky thing, and if you’re not in it, it’s hard to understand what someone’s trying to tell you sometimes. It’s hard for me to imagine doing it another way other than letting someone else do a lot of the work for me, and then not getting it where I want it to be and then being aggravated with them.”

Thou interview new album Magus 2018

Thou are a serious band, and as much elbow grease as they put into their work, they’re not as austere as some of their most devastating music might suggest. One of their underrated qualities, for instance, is how funny they are. There’s an absurdist streak in the way they do things, whether it be through the memes posted on their baffling number of social media accounts (at least two Twitter and Instagram handles each) or selling tie-dye t-shirts with their friends in The Body with Oscar the Grouch. So perhaps Thou make melancholy music—and crushing music—but emotional devastation is just one small piece of the greater whole. Even if acknowledging that does, in some way, fracture their mystique.

“We’re a bunch of different really radically different people that are all friends and get along and share fundamental ideologies, but I think we all have different needs and wants in the band that all need to be met at certain times. So there’s a balancing act of trying to get everyone what they want at some point so everybody’s happy. And doing it in a way where people don’t feel like they’re compromising or giving something up, and not sacrificing the overall Thou vibe—the, uh, obnoxious little prick,” Funck says, laughing. “Not sure what our vibe is. A lot of our humor is usually in a self-deprecating, trying to remind people that we don’t take ourselves super seriously all the time. It’s OK to laugh and have fun.”

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