Videos by American Songwriter
We recently spoke with Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly. The veteran emo-rocker told us about Thursday’s latest album, No Devolución (Epitaph), and gave us the run down on his new approach to songwriting, and discusses his old gig writing letters to Penthouse, being influenced by the Beat writers, and how to stay true to your principles and vision in the face of industry pressure.
Going into this album, did you have a thematic concept that you wanted to work towards?
It happened pretty quickly. We wrote the record in about a week. By the time we recorded the fourth or fifth song, I stared to realize what the record was about. It become really clear, which is fun because I usually spend a lot of time developing themes. I’ll write over the course of a year and go through all these different stages of what I think the record should be about, but this time it was like, “Oh! That’s what the records about?” And when we finished it was like, “Yeah, that’s really what the records about.” It’s about devotion. It was a nice process. We had a really good time making the record.
What was your songwriting approach like?
It was quite different from the other records. This time I just said, “I know you guys have a few cool ideas. Why don’t you get in a room and just start playing?” So that’s what they did, and I would hear what they were doing and make tiny suggestions. They just kept bringing me these songs that I loved, and I would take them and write for about four or five hours until I had the lyrics and the vocal melody.
The second I finished writing I’d take the lyrics to the producer in the control room, get in the vocal booth, and track it. It was cool. We’d wake up in the morning with no song, and by the time we went to bed there would be a completely finished song.
So, that was a bit different from anything we’d done before. For one thing, I didn’t write any guitar parts on this one. All I did were vocal melodies and lyrics. It was very hands off for me. Those guys are so much better at their instruments than I am. So it turned out a lot more sophisticated. The skeleton of the song was much more nuanced from the outset.
So were your lyrics and vocals treated like another instrument rather than the driving force?
Very much so. The sounds are what drives this record. Each song was an instrumental before it was anything else.
On this record you had a very automatic style of writing. What about in the past? Was revision a big part of your process?
I mean, I’ve always loved the Beats, and I love the way that Kerouac and Ginsberg talk about letting the flow take over. You know, first thought best thought. But, in the past I was very heavy reviser. I would think, “Oh, I could’ve chosen a better word there or made that line more economical.” This time, though, I didn’t do a lot of that. I really just let it flow. I would maybe fix one or two phrases in a song, but that would be it. It was a leap of faith for me, but now I understand where the Beats come from with their stream of consciousness. I definitely see the benefit in that now.
Do you do any writing other than songwriting?
Yeah. I do quite a bit of freelance writing for different publications from AP to Spin. I’ve even written for Playboy. In college I even paid my bills writing letters to Penthouse Forum. It was actually a professor who hooked me up with that gig. Yeah, they were just long gushy letters about sex. [laughs] You get paid pretty decently for that! And, right now I’m writing a comic book. So, yeah, I love writing in a lot of different forms, but songwriting is just something that’s become a part of my DNA. I love it because you have to be so concise and tell a story in a certain amount of time with a certain phrasing. You know? It almost has a puzzle element, like a cross-word puzzle. It’s like, “Well, how am I gonna say that in this amount of space?” And that’s where poetry comes in. And sometimes you’ll have, say, a great idea for this meaningful bridge, but by the time you’ve written the verses and choruses it takes to get there, you’ve got this new theme. Then you have to say, so what’s more important? The theme in the bridge or the beauty you’ve created in the verses and chorus? I really enjoy that challenge.
What songs on the album are you really excited about people hearing?
I’m really excited for people to hear “No Answers”. That’s just a huge favorite for me. I also love “Empty Glass” and “A Darker Forest”. I just really poured my heart into those three songs, and I’m really proud of them. But live, “Turnpike Divides” is such a smasher of a song. It’s got so much energy but ends on this inward turned note. I’m also excited to play past and future ruins live because it’s just so unexpectedly heavy.
I think “No Answers” is my favorite. There’s a cyclical quality that the melody and harmony and rhythm create. Did you just hear what the band had created and play off of it?
When I first heard “No Answers” they were still working on the beginning, and I noticed that (and I think this is what you meant by cyclical) is that the piano figure at the beginning is in six [6/4 time] but then the drums come in in four [4/4 time]. So it starts to feel like things are wrapping around each other. I really loved that. Then, our keyboard player was saying that for the chorus we could pick it up and play everything in a seven [7/4 time] or a five [5/4 time]. He said that would give it a lift and be really pretty, but my suggestion was that we put the drums back into six [6/4 time] so that the whole things plays together all of the sudden. So, in the verses it’s like everything is shifting around, and you can’t really get a grip on anything cause so many things are changing at once. But then in the chorus I was like, “Let’s really pound it home so everything lines up.” Then it stops being confusing. It stops being a like a labyrinth, and all of the sudden you’re just there.
That song just thrilled me so much. I wondered, “What do I want to do with this song?” And that’s when I realized I wanted to tell the whole song as a series of riddles, which is where the “No Answers” idea came in. Then it all fell into place. So, I’ll tell the story of my love life. Only, instead of giving any facts I’ll just use classical riddles. Like, “What can fasten two but only touches one?” That’s a classic riddle for a wedding ring…stuff like that. It just seemed more powerful to me to make it something the listener has to figure out for themselves.
Who is the song “Stay True” directed towards?
Well, I was definitely thinking about a band I put out a record for called Touche Amore, and a bunch of younger bands that count Thursday as an influence. They remind me so much of myself when I was younger. Totally sincere and earnest, but sometimes totally on the wrong track. But with the best intentions. So, I just felt like I wish I could do something to protect them. I wish I could do something to help them out, and give the all the advice that I wish someone had given me. But then I realized that if they’re anything like me, they won’t listen to a thing I said. [laughs] So then it became a song to a younger self, I guess.
For such an “underground” band, Thursday has had a great deal of commercial success. Has that ever threatened to dumb down the youthful spirit that Thursday was founded upon?
Yeah. Well, War All the Time was a Top 10 Billboard album. So, we definitely had a lot of pressure from a lot of different sources– not just labels — to have a bonified hit single and sell millions and millions of records. It’s just a funny thing, you know? ‘Cause that’s not something that we ever thought was the be all end all. I mean, every now and then we’ll write something that is very poppy, but we all have a lot of pop influences.
To us it’s inconsequential whether or not it’s a hit. You write something you think is a great song, then you move on and write a different great song. Some will be easy to swallow for the masses and some of them aren’t. We just never thought of trying to write a bunch of hits. It became this weird dynamic where we new what the people around us (who depended on us for their livelihood) wanted from us, but…I don’t know. Part of what makes Thursday good is that we just don’t do stuff like that. And you know, you take the good with the bad! I’m not rich [laughs], but I do what I want to do on a daily basis and have been for the last thirteen years.
Do you have a favorite lyric on the album?
I’ve got a few. In “No Answers” there’s one line that says, “I can hear the ocean when I say your name and the yellow hem of the sea’s blue skirt.” I just really like the idea of the sea being a skirt and the beach being a little yellow thread on the edge of something.
Is there an artist who made you want to be a songwriter?
Wow, that’s a really good question. The artists who inspired me the most were younger artists doing what I wanted to do. Bands like Ink & Dagger and Hot Water Music and At the Drive-In. Those bands just made me want to play music, you know? They were just a few years older than me and doing things I thought were life changing and important. So, I was like, “I wanna do that. I want to make music that’s life changing.” Not too much to ask, right? [laughs]
Then after I achieved that to a certain degree, I sort of changed role models. I mean, I still love those bands, but I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. Then I started looking at artists like PJ Harvey who I think is a fantastic singer who follows her own strange muse. I think that’s one of the most powerful things you can be as a songwriter. You know, someone who follows your own guideline. You’re not an iconoclast. You’re not trying to change the rules or break the rules or destroy anything that came before you. You’re just going with your little version of the world. You see the world in a certain way and you show it to other people. I love that. It’s such a beautiful thing, and I thinks that’s why I like people like Nick Cave and Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. They have a vision.
In your opinion, who’s an underrated songwriter?
I think there are a ton of them out there. I think Will Sheff from Okkervill River is one of the greatest songwriters of this day. I know some people rate him well but not nearly as much as they should. And there’s this guy, Autry, who plays with …Trail of Dead. He has a band called Midnight Masses (it’s got a few people from Trail of the Dead and TV On The Radio), but I think he is one hell of a songwriter. He writes these really gospel influenced songs in the mode that he remembers from his father who was a minister. I really wanna hear more of his songs.
What’s one song that you wish that you had written?
[laughs] Man, there are so many. I can’t even tell you. Sometimes I really wish I had written “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine. It’s just…I don’t know. It’s got six verses and no chorus, and each verse is more beautiful than the last one. And it tells this gorgeous portrait of one person’s life. I wish I had written “Bowl of Oranges” by Bright Eyes. That’s a great song.