The existential arc of Thou

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Thou interview

Thou are architects of a uniquely epic and melancholy permutation of sludge metal, imbuing crushingly heavy dirges like 2014’s “Free Will” with a sense of both sadness and triumph that they’ve made their signature. Thou are also the DIY bruisers responsible for shorter and more abrasive and activist bursts of raw power like 2008’s “Smoke Pigs,” a scathing critique of law enforcement that they’ve called, with only the slightest bit of irony, their “hit.” Thou are also the subtler, poetic group behind the dreamy and understated 2018 EP Inconsolable, which scarcely resembles metal at all.

Thou are prolific, cryptic, scathing and sometimes wryly funny (their “feedback” page is amazing). They’re avowed fans of Fiona Apple and prolific performers of the lion’s share of Nirvana’s catalog, as much grunge as metal, as graceful and sorrowful as they are aggressive. Yet as the group approaches the release of their first non-collaborative, non-video-game-soundtrack, non-covers-comp album in six years, Umbilical, one year out from their 20th year as a band, one question still lingers for the group’s members: What is the quality that makes their music, ultimately, Thou?

“That’s a huge question,” says guitarist Andy Gibbs over Zoom. “That’s been a question in my life since the second record (Peasant). I’m very picky about music and I’m very conscious about the way our music exists in the world and in people’s minds. Whether I try to block that voice out, or not, it’s just a concern. It’s really important for me for every record to stand on its own while maintaining the spirit of the band. So that’s a tough tightrope to walk for nearly 20 years. That’s why I didn’t want to do another Heathen. We could have, and a lot of people could have loved it and it would have been a big deal. But it wouldn’t have been satisfying to tread over the same ground without bringing something new to it. It’s difficult in extreme music when you only have a few tools at our disposal. There’s a set of characteristics that are the tools at our disposal, so when you have limiting tools, it becomes difficult to innovate with those things.”

Umbilical, their proper follow-up to 2018’s Magus, presents only the latest of many unexpected yet characteristic transformations for the band since they formed in Louisiana nearly two decades ago. In purely practical terms, Thou have experienced change at a molecular and logistical level during that extended span, having undergone lineup changes as well as splintering into different parts of the country, with its members spread out in Chicago and California as well as their homebase of New Orleans. Yet as they’ve regrouped for their sixth full-length, out this month via Sacred Bones, the band sound rawer and more aggressive—still identifiably Thou, but leaner, nastier, more punk.

The group first performed three of these songs back in 2021 as part of the all-virtual Adult Swim Festival, their faces entirely obscured as they ripped through “The Promise,” “Lonely Vigil” and “The House of Ideas.” Each song showcased a more abrasive and blistering side of the group’s sound—like an even nastier permutation of the grunge influence they’ve often displayed throughout their career. But as the pieces of the album began to come together, the members of the group—Gibbs, vocalist Bryan Funck, guitarists Matthew Thudium and KC Stafford, bassist Mitch Wells, and drummer Tyler Coburn—faced more uncertainty about their direction than they did with past recordings.

“We’d get together, we’d write, we’d do some things and everyone was kind of ambivalent about if this was it, or if that wasn’t it,” says vocalist Bryan Funck. “We did different demos and listened to the demos and would tear apart the demos and rework the song and change it completely, and then change it back to how we had it.”

“There was a much more rigorous editing process with this record, and that’s something we hadn’t really done before,” Gibbs adds. “Most of the time I hadn’t even heard the song outside of physically playing it until we hear the mixes. Summit, Peasant, Heathen, Tyrant—all that stuff, I’d have no idea what the song sounds like because I’m only hearing it through the playback in the studio. It’s only when we get the final mix that we’re actually considering whether it’s good. We had a lot more time [with Umbilical], for better or worse, to deliberate.”

The discomfort and uncertainty in arriving upon an album the group is satisfied with—which they are, despite the circuitous path in getting there—finds a parallel in Funck’s own lyrics, which largely wrestle with self-critique and meditations on living up to your own standards or ideals. As with all Thou records, it’s as much personal as political, an intertwining of the two in a way that’s less about directives than reflections on navigating the world we live in. Funck, 44, jokes that it’s his “midlife crisis record,” though as a band whose members come from a DIY punk/hardcore background and are unambiguously opposed to systems of oppression and fascism, it can sometimes create challenges in a universe of heavy music that skews escapist or apolitical at best and all too often reactionary.

It’s not hard to get a sense of the band’s politics, the evidence of which can be found on several of the t-shirts that bear their name and logo. One depicts the face of World War II-era German anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl with a quote from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, while another reads “No binary gender, no binary sexuality.” That said, their music is sometimes still misinterpreted or misunderstood. They briefly considered setting the record straight once and for all, correcting the record in a digital world that obscures or obliterates context. But ultimately, they decided against it. For better or for worse, it just wouldn’t be, well, Thou.

“I have to remind myself sometimes that we’re writing these songs, and it’s a privilege to have this canvas to express something”

Bryan Funck

“When Andy and I started talking, content-wise, for the record, we wanted to have this grand mission statement or line in the sand where we clearly express our social and political views or something,” Funck says. “As direct as we try to be when we do interviews or when we interact with people or the stuff we’re putting on merch, it seems like a lot of times the core politics of the band goes over people’s heads way too much to be comfortable. So we were going to be like ‘here it is, you can’t mistake this.’ I’m not good at writing this stuff, but I don’t like to proselytize. I don’t like to push our agenda and it feels hokey and disingenuous to me. We’re hypocrites just like anyone else. I just couldn’t write that record so I had to turn it in a way where it was more palatable for me to write in the way I typically write lyrics.”

“I also don’t think it would have been a very interesting record,” Gibbs adds. “It wouldn’t be in the spirit of our band. It’d be a big departure in the songs themselves. We’ve been really direct with some things, in my mind, like the merch choices. In terms of the music, we’re not at our best when we’re so obviously straightforward like that. We’re at our best when it‘s a bit more obfuscated and you have to dig just a little deeper for the meaning. That’s just a little more interesting to me.”

After two decades of honing and shaping their uniquely heavy yet melodic and often unpredictable style of music, Thou acknowledge that their catalog has grown to be somewhat challenging to navigate on its own. Funck brings up the idea of someone hearing Inconsolable as their first Thou record, and the incongruity that might create for a listener as they dive deeper. And Gibbs adds that even Umbilical itself might be a curious introduction, given the shift away from the sound of their previous few records, though the depth of their catalog provides a lot to explore for those who keep on going.

“Being a band for this long, I never know with which lens someone is coming into this record. This could be the first record someone hears by us. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone to come into this record and have it be your entry point. You might look at the rest of our records in a different light than what we intended,” Gibbs says. “One thing that’s cool, though, I think about us, is if even someone’s not along for the full arc and they decide to go back and look at it, we reward that.”

In a sense, Thou have been in a state of continuous change throughout their existence. But over time, some changes stand out more than others; Gibbs points out that early on, he once quit a job so they could go on tour. Now, with the band’s members in their forties, they have more commitments, but they’re also a bit more self-aware. What remains constant is that they don’t take it for granted, and for as challenging as it might be at times to define what Thou is, they’ll never follow the easy path of worn-out tropes to get there.

“I have to remind myself sometimes that we’re writing these songs, and it’s a privilege to have this canvas to express something,” Funck says. “So I can’t just BS and write some fuckin’ D&D-inspired metal allusion bullshit. Whether or not people get what I’m saying, for me it’s important to say something.”

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