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Soundcheck ~ Music news, concert announcements and more from critic Ben Wener.

Big grooves emerging from Thrice’s tiny garage studio

April 1st, 2009, 4:34 pm · 8 Comments · posted by Ben Wener

It’s just another typical old house on a typical old avenue in typical old Orange. There’s even a white picket fence bordering the front lawn, like most of the other homes neighboring it.

Walk down the driveway, however, and you notice tell-tale signs that rock stars live and work here.

Things aren’t exactly … tidy.

Kids’ toys litter the path. A comfy, strangely clean couch sits next to a stand-alone basketball hoop. The side yard is such a maze of items, it’s hard to discern which way leads into the house.

But there’s at least one spot that’s now in order: the studio Thrice has built in the garage, which curiously faces the backyard.

You enter and the room instantly splits in two, control booth on one side, recording space on the other, a wad of wall in between to soundproof it all. Greeting you, before you choose a side, is a framed poster promoting Radiohead’s Kid A, the entire canvas filled Warhol-like with perfectly lined rows of those evil-grinning “bear” icons the British band unveiled with that album’s release.

An hour later, after Thrice has played me a half-dozen groove-heavy works-in-progress, I’ll come to realize why that is such a fitting image, so prominently displayed. Right now, I’m struck by the compactness of everything.

Most kitchens are larger than this studio space. Yet everyone has his corner carved out –- so much so that at first I don’t even notice Riley, the drumming half of the band’s Breckenridge brothers, tucked behind his kit, prepping his laptop with a song-structure cheat sheet and a beats-per-minute click-track.

Frontman Dustin Kensrue and lead guitarist and effects whiz Teppei Teranishi face each other, separated by an electric piano -– though once they start to play, Teppei turns his back to all of us, intently focused on nailing these new songs. Initially nervous to have a stranger in the room, bassist Ed Breckenridge stands closest to where I sit on a folding chair, his pedal panel to my left, Riley’s high-hat to my right. If I lean too far in Ed’s direction, I’ll get my skull smashed by his pegboard.

“It’s a good thing you came this week,” Dustin tells me while he and Teppei try to resolve why a vocal amp keeps buzzing. “This place was a mess last week.”

And it’s still cramped, to say the least. But that’s a big part of what makes it such a crucial element to what Thrice is now trying to achieve.

For starters, there’s cost-effectiveness in this do-it-yourself arrangement. “How much would it be to cut this in L.A.?” I ask the guys over berry salads and mu-shu burritos later at a nearby Rutabegorz. “Probably $500,000,” Ed answers.

But with Teppei owning this remodeled house (plus another just down the street), “We keep expenses pretty low. Just buy equipment every once in a while. I remember reading something forever ago about that (local) band Smile, how they got signed and got this advance, but then spent that money on building their own studio and making themselves self-sufficient. They had the ability to make records at that point without any other help.”

“We couldn’t afford to do it any other way,” Teppei explains. “What we would have been spending on a record for a major label is instead allowing us to live while we’re off the road.”

That helps Thrice stay closer to family –- Dustin and Teppei both have children now –- rather than force them to trek to L.A., where they can’t dilly-dally on someone else’s dime. The construction of this home studio, then, has bought the group time to experiment and grow in ways it otherwise never could have afforded.

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Prepping a breakthrough

It also has accelerated an evolution underway since 2005’s Vheissu, Thrice’s fourth album and a career dividing line.

What came before that sonic breakthrough was pro forma power-punk and screamo, peaking with the quartet’s Island Records debut, The Artist in the Ambulance (2003). That disc followed a rawer collection cut for Sub City Records, The Illusion of Safety, before which came a rudimentary debut, 2000’s Identity Crisis — which, despite its creators’ disregard for it now, still inspires weirdly fanatical adoration among young fans who discover it.

Vheissu, however, was a sludgy, moody turning point that landed the band a puzzling main-stage slot at Coachella ‘06. Digitized and darker, the album signaled that Thrice had not only grown tired of the scene it helped popularize, it also had become weary of pigeonholing that comes from staying the same year in, year out. (Above is the video for the disc’s lead-off track, “Image of the Invisible.”)

They matured in a hurry, ditching black-clad fashion, ramping up melodies and diving headlong into multilayered atmospherics. Ultimately, eagerness to explore and expand would lead to parting ways with Island right around the time Thrice insisted on issuing the fragmented, admirably adventurous Alchemy Index as four EPs, much of which found the band in acoustic mode, as in the clip below for “Come All You Weary.” (Indie label Vagrant Records, which put out the Alchemy package in two installments, will release the still-unnamed new album later this year.)

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Now, however, it seems the various sounds Thrice has conjured this decade are finally converging into something special. Something that could push the band onto a whole new plane of creativity while widening its audience considerably.

Something that bears more than a little influence from Thom Yorke & Co. (The covers that follow, by the way, are influences … well, not Ben Kweller’s, but you’ll get to that.)

The new songs only have working titles at this point: “Toronto,” “Swing,” “Beggars,” “Robots,” “WTFOMG.” Dustin still sings place-holding gibberish he’ll later finesse into lyrics that hopefully match the sophistication of the music. The emphasis at the moment is clearly on feel –- of finding a way to retain some of the hazy heaviness that has defined Thrice while providing a different pace and texture to it.

The mightiest moments of “Toronto,” for instance, bring punchy clarity to the band’s onslaught. “Beggars” and “Terrinihead” (if I have that title correct) veer most into Radiohead’s realm, be it the quiet seduction of “Nude” or the clicking menace of “2+2=5.” Each piece is propelled by Riley’s new fascination with loose, lingering, looped beats, roiling waves of rhythm that allow for greater breathing room –- space for Ed’s climbing bass fills to leap out, for Teppei’s guitar wash to echo and resonate, for Dustin’s voice to turn tender and vulnerable.

“I think we learned a lot on the last record by having no producer,” Dustin explains. “We had to really give each other space to play whatever we wanted to play, and trust each other to make it something cool. That has definitely carried over into this: Here’s the basic song, now do your thing –- and all the parts affect the whole.”

What is emerging from that is music far more dynamic and alluring than Thrice has ever made. Suddenly, these guys groove.

“That’s it!” Dustin exclaims with uncharacteristic excitement when I mention that. “That’s what we’re going for.”

But can they track it live?

“The first thing we talked about,” Ed says after the session, “was doing something a little more upbeat and energetic. We sorta felt like Vheissu was kinda … I like the record a lot, but it has a sleepy feeling. The Alchemy stuff was kinda that way, too.”

“But I don’t think we ever really thought more about it after that,” Teppei counters. “I really think that’s just a result of our headspace –- and our influences.”

Their headspace, of course, has a lot to do with their physical space, stuffed into that studio. “It’s helped that this time we’re all in the same room vibe-ing off each other to see what happens,” Dustin says. “It sounds kinda lame,” Teppei says, “but there’s definitely a certain magic that happens when we’re all playing in the same room.”

So much so that they’ve been trying to figure out how to track the album live -– that is, record the guitars-bass-drums foundation all at once, in the hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle, then punch in fixes and extras later.

Extolling the virtues of this approach dominates our lunch chat. I mention Ben Kweller’s On My Way (left), done entirely live in the studio.

“Did they track In Rainbows live?” Teppei wonders of Radiohead’s latest work.

“I would imagine so,” Dustin guesses. “That Ryan Adams album, Jacksonville City Nights, that was done mostly live -– and it’s awesome. It’s got a ton of mistakes on it, but it sounds great.”

Teppei: “I actually just read that (Wilco’s) Sky Blue Sky was tracked live.”

Naturally, the Beatles come up. After all, the Let It Be cover hangs framed in the control booth like a good-luck charm -– ironic, considering how disastrous those sessions were. They remade “Eleanor Rigby” when they were younger (see the circa-Ambulance clip below); now “Helter Skelter” is in the mix for the band’s set Sunday at the annual Bamboozle Left festival at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine.

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The comparatively raw, analog way the Fab Four -– and virtually everyone else in the ’60s and ’70s -– worked appears to be an ideal Thrice is trying to honor. “It’s surprising to me that there’s still this school of thought that thinks that’s not cool,” Ed says. “Everybody wants everything to be perfect and quantized and triggered … every pause is a mute instead of letting some guitar bleed over.”

“Perfection brings problems,” Teppei points out. “We’ve had major problems in the past while recording, because we’ve tuned everything so perfectly that if one thing is even slightly off, it’s glaringly wrong.

“You can’t get away with stuff that people got away with back in the day. If you were to make a record that out of tune, or that had that many mistakes, it would sound like a demo, not a real record. I wish that were different.”

Of course, no matter how this mild radicalization of Thrice turns out, the band is setting itself up for more slings and arrows. If you sound even a little like Radiohead, some haters will never shut up about it. Doing so unconvincingly could be ruinous.

Ed is most keenly aware of this. “It doesn’t sound too much like Radiohead, does it?” he asks moments after I make the comparison for the first time.

Later, after admitting that “I’m very, very cautious about that kind of stuff,” he adds: “The experimental vibe and the grooves … beyond that I wouldn’t say there’s much else that reminds of Radiohead. But, yeah, I am worried about people saying, ‘Oh, they’re trying to be like this.’”

Teppei is more Zen about it: “I feel like I’ve almost totally dropped my guard in regard to that stuff. I don’t care what people say or what they compare it to.”

“But we’ve heard (negative comparisons) a few times now, when we’ve put out other records,” Ed notes. “As long as we personally know where our heads are at, that’s all that matters.”

More on the band:

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8 Responses to “Big grooves emerging from Thrice’s tiny garage studio”

  1. Sector311 Says:

    I am so glad to hear that this album will be heavy. I loved all of the alchemy index volumes, and I would listed to Thrice no matter what sound direction they went in (except for rap) but I really love their heavy side.

  2. Dustin Chuff Says:

    This was a great read. I’m really excited for this album, and am really looking forward to it’s release! You can never get enough Thrice! Keep up the good work guys!

  3. Kyle Says:

    +1 to a great read. Good work fellas.
    Can’t wait, and hopefully theyll play something new at
    Bamboozle Left.

  4. Steven Says:

    Great article. Its nice to see Thrice doing what they love and doing it how they want to do it. Can’t wait for the new record!

  5. Martyn Says:

    great article, great insight into the band - can’t wait

  6. Niyaz Pirani Says:

    really awesome job ben.

  7. gg Says:

    thrice continues to impress me more and more each year. at the same time they have yet to take up my offer for dinner and sparkling conversation. what gives?

  8. ryan Says:

    I wonder why they named a song “toronto”..
    specifically since I’m a toronto dude. :D

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