By Rob Barbour
For drummer Riley Breckenridge, an early sign that Thrice’s reunion was going to be a success came in August of last year, at London’s Forum. The show had been upgraded from the Electric Ballroom – doubling its capacity to over 2,000 – and still sold out. But the audience weren’t just there for the hits.
“Right out of the gate, some of the biggest singalongs were for the new songs” he recalls, surprise and humility in his voice. “I remember being onstage and thinking ‘how are so many people singing along with this?’”
“That was pretty wild.”
Breckinridge, along with frontman Dustin Kensrue, is sitting backstage at Camden’s Koko prior to the first of two UK headline dates that Thrice are performing this year. Though somewhat jetlagged, both men seem relaxed and content. Kensrue in particular looks happier and healthier than he has for years: fresh-faced and at ease on one of the venue’s garish pleather sofas.
I’ll admit to some apprehension regarding how this interview might go. Possessed of a stoic, bear-like stage presence, Kensrue the performer is a man of few words. But in the flesh he’s charming, affable, and irritatingly handsome.
Thrice reunited in 2015 after a hiatus which may have been relatively short – 4 years – but which came on the back of dwindling critical and fan interest. Victims of the double-edged sword that is artistic evolution, the band’s star had been waning since 2005’s Vheiussu, when they started to move away from the punk-metal hybrid with which they’d made their name. By the time of 2011’s hit-and-miss Major/Minor, Thrice had become a band who people were surprised to learn were still going. As Kensrue explains, that’s a challenge they’re still overcoming today.
“Random people will say to me ‘Hey man, you used to be in that band Thrice, right? I’m a huge fan.’ So I’ll tell them ‘Yeah, we’ve got a new record and we’re touring’ and their response is often ‘No way!’ It’s strange that in the age of the internet, people wouldn’t know that – but it happens.”
It’s one thing to remind the world you exist by disappearing, but another thing entirely to manage a full-blown career resuscitation. 2016’s comeback album, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, was exactly that. A triumph by any metric – chart position, critical acclaim, fan response – the record returned Thrice not just to the public conscious, but to relevance.
“It’s definitely been pleasantly surprising,” says Kensrue of the album’s success. “It’s great.”
It’s vindication, too, for the band’s uncompromising approach to their career, and to their art. At a time when it feels like more and more of their contemporaries from the 2001-2004 post-hardcore cohort are coasting on former glories, the California legends are one of the few ‘legacy’ acts about whom people are actually excited.
“It’s not just nostalgia,” agrees Kensrue. “I think the way we’ve done being a band has helped because we’ve never stayed in the same spot. I don’t think we’ve ever been able to feel like a nostalgia band in the strict sense because for us, it’s always been about wanting the next thing we do to be completely different and rad.”
Another difference with this post-hiatus album cycle is that both Thrice and the industry around them have had the chance to cleanse their palates and approach the record – its writing and its reception – with more open minds.
“We’ve always been a bit reactive to ourselves and the last record we’ve done. So we’ve done THIS,” the frontman explains, gesturing to one side of the room, and then the other. “So now we want to do THIS. With the new record, there was enough space [between it and Major/Minor] that it wasn’t really reactive to anything. In that sense, I think it ended up feeling more balanced than a lot of the other records.”
Kensrue feels that the media, too, are giving Thrice more attention now.
“It feels like, having taken a hiatus, publications who might not have listened to the album are approaching it with a fresh ear.”
Isn’t it possible, though, that this is simply because the album is so good (and it really, really is)? Kensrue and Breckenridge disagree. They think that taking a break allowed the band to shake off the baggage that came from being seen as part of the ‘emo’ scene.
“[Some bands] embodied this one thing at this one time,” Breckenridge explains, “Then went on to make not-as-good versions of that for a little bit, and then stopped. It felt like there was a scene at a certain time and that those bands killed it in that spot, but we never felt comfortable in any of those spots. We’d get lumped in with it, but that’s not who we are.”
For Kensrue, it’s about getting distance between Thrice, a rock band in their mid-30s, and Thrice, the teenage ‘screamo’ band.
“We’ve been doing this for so long – I was 17 when we started – so all of our development has happened out in the open. We’re still the same band – same four guys, still called Thrice – but maybe even I wouldn’t like our early material now. But people may not have heard the stuff that was made 15 years after that. It felt like we weren’t getting a fair shake of the dice, and it feels like that’s been reset.”
“It seems like people who wouldn’t have cared before, or had never heard of us before, are hearing us now.”
As countless floundering reunions have shown, riding a wave of nostalgia can only carry a band so far. Thrice are smart not to have pinned their hopes on the idea that people would simply be happy to have them back. It’s obviously something the band have thought about a lot, as evidenced by Breckenridge’s analysis:
“A lot of the bands that I guess you could say some from the same scene as us, have also gone away and then come back later. And it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ Are you paying respects to an old album? Is this a reunion tour? Are you going to keep playing shows? Are you making a record? Whereas we made our plans clear: we’re back together, we’re making music, we’re touring. We’re doing this again. It’s exciting for people to know what’s going on.”
Exciting for them to know what’s going on with the band’s career, perhaps. But less so for them to see the minutiae of the band’s day-to-day activities. Acknowledging that social media is harder for them as they “didn’t grow up with it”, the band are also wary of embracing it too wholeheartedly.
Having hired someone to post photos to social media, Thrice decided “they were doing a great job, but it just didn’t feel like us.” As a band who’ve always been synonymous with sincerity and authenticity, it’s not surprising that this experiment didn’t last long.
“There are bands – successful, but not wildly successful – and you think, how the hell do they have a million followers? How does the drummer from this band have 800,000 followers? But it’s because they’re constantly online and constantly giving people information. Whereas we don’t want to feel over-exposed. Nobody needs to see what we ate for dinner tonight, or what shoes Dustin is wearing right now.”
“Ideally, we just want to communicate the journey that we’re on,” expands Kensrue (who, for the record, is wearing a stylish pair of tan ankle boots). “Giving people glimpses – when we’re on tour, when we’re in the studio. The stuff that I’m interested in about bands that only used to come in a zine or something, but it can now come straight from the band. That’s great.”
19 years into their career, and having managed to drop back into the groove exactly where they left off (if not slightly further ahead), what’s next for Thrice? And how can this momentum be sustained?
According to Kensrue, limiting their touring is the key.
“We’re probably gone for 4 weeks on the Deftones/Rise Against run but we’re shooting for never more than 3 weeks. In the past we would – for the sake of opportunity or whatever – just plough into a wall. And we’re trying not to do that!”
As for the nostalgia circuit, Kensrue explains that he wouldn’t be opposed to “doing things that are celebrating things that we’ve done before.”
So we may get those The Artist In The Ambulance album shows, after all?
“I definitely don’t want it to ever be like, ‘That’s our band.’ It’s a fine line sometimes.”
Given the response of the crowd at KOKO to a set which both opens and closes on songs from To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, Thrice are a long way off having to drag up their past. Appropriately for a band whose album title alludes to the modern affliction of spreading oneself too thin via technology and failing to appreciate the moment, Thrice are very much living in the present.