On the heels of his bands fifth album, Thursdays Geoff Rickly gets a lesson in perseverance from the Flaming Lips
A couple of Fridays ago, Thursday kicked off its U.S. tour behind this year’s Common Existence, the post-hardcore sextet’s fifth studio album, with a sold-out show in the basement of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.
As the band launched its set with an older song, “For the Workforce, Drowning” — the powerhouse track that opens Thursday’s 2003 major-label debut, War All the Time — frontman Geoff Rickly hurled himself into the arms reaching out for him.
As the rest of the group thrashed about the stage, the singer and the fans belted out the lyrics together as limbs and mouths and microphone cord and sweat and joy became one fusion of bliss. In that moment, it was easy to appreciate how and why Thursday has emerged from its humble New Jersey beginnings to become one of rock’s biggest success stories, beginning eight years ago when the group broke through with its second album, Full Collapse.
Ah, but things are a bit different in 2009. Sure, the above-mentioned church basement was packed with fans, but it held only a couple of hundred kids. The other venues that Thursday is slated to headline aren’t a great deal larger, and they’re a far cry from the big halls and arenas that the band used to play.
Sales, too, are much smaller. Thursday is not on a major label anymore. After a lucrative but ultimately demoralizing stint on Island Records, it’s back to an indie (Epitaph, one of the more well-respected indies). And then there’s the elephant in the room: the fact that a not-insignificant chunk of emo-screamo nation continues to relish going on message boards and blogs to denounce Thursday as “frauds” or just plain “lame.”
Over the phone on the afternoon before the Philly gig, the friendly and quite candid Rickly is happy to talk about such topics.
“It’s not like everybody hates us,” he says, laughing. “I’d say we have an active audience of somewhere around 50,000 people, and that’s amazing. We were close to half a million four or five years ago. So it is strange to think that 450,000 people who liked us then don’t pay attention now, or think maybe we’re part of some fad or something.
“And,” he continues, “that everybody else who never got into us now detests us because we’re maybe even responsible for some of the worst music that came along after us. But I do believe that we’re a lot better than most people even realize.”
Common Existence is proof of that. Engaging and exhilarating, the 11 tracks (16 on the just-released digital deluxe edition) range from explosive, angular guitar riffs and walloping rhythms to moody, lovely and damn-near-fragile passages fueled by spectral guitar and keyboard textures. For his part, Rickly rarely eases up on the vocal intensity, whether screaming fervently, pleading desperately or crooning solemnly.
“I love the chemistry of the band,” says Rickly, singing the praises of his mates — guitarists Tom Keeley and Steve Pedulla, drummer Tucker Rule, bassist Tim Payne, and keyboardist Andrew Everding. “I think the stuff we’re writing right now is really sophisticated and interesting. And I don’t think there’s anybody else right now in the world that plays what Thursday does better than Thursday.
“I mean, there probably aren’t too many bands left that play what Thursday does anymore,” he goes on, “whereas maybe three or four years ago, it seemed like everybody and their brother had a band that sounded like Thursday.”
Those simulacra might be flattering to some but not for this singer, even if he has hidden his true feelings in the past.
“I guess I wanted it to seem like I was flattered, but I was pretty fucking annoyed, I have to say,” Rickly admits with a laugh.
He theorizes that because Thursday has never been a pandering hit maker, it was easy for imitators to copy Thursday’s sound and add big, catchy choruses.
Rickly is keenly aware that perceptions are difficult to change, but he’s hopeful that Thursday’s persistence will pay off over time. “I do feel like if we keep going and going and keep making records that we like that are interesting, eventually the stigma will wear off, and maybe we’ll get an honest look and people will be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’ve been making music like this for so long, and it’s so intricate and strange and not lowest-common-denominator stuff.’ “
To that end, he has found solace in the career arcs of two bands that Thursday is close to: fellow Jersey punks the Bouncing Souls, who endured some lean years this decade but have enjoyed a resurgence in this, their 20th-anniversary year, and the Flaming Lips, who really didn’t find widespread success and respect until their ninth album, The Soft Bulletin.
Thursday and the Lips share the same producer, Dave Fridmann, and have often found themselves recording at Fridmann’s studio at the same time.
“They’re the ones who got me a little more Zen about being in a band,” Rickly says of the Lips. “About just being like, ‘Just keep doin’ it. If you can afford to do it, just keep doin’ it, keep having fun, keep making good music. Make that your criteria. Make great records, and if nobody likes them, then fuck them, just keep going.’ “
Knowing that so many other bands have collapsed under the weight of label woes and fan indifference or backlash, does Rickly think Thursday will ultimately be able to stick it out?
“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe by this time next year, we won’t even be a band. I don’t know. I can’t tell you if it’s gonna work. But that’s my philosophy right now: to have as much fun as possible and make some great art that we can be proud of.”