Machine Music’s Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Thou
[This is the TWELFTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Label: Gilead Media
Favorite Song: “Immorality Dictates”
The Bare Bones: Heathen is the fourth studio album by Baton Rouge doom/sludge outfit Thou. Centering thematically on the relationship between man and nature, it is often considered the counterpart to Thou’s following full-length, 2018’s Magus.
The Beating Heart: Without tripping into the obvious metaphors/similes that have tied heavy rock bands from Louisiana to its surrounding climate and geography, Thou has always been a muddy band, in the best possible way. The thickness of its instrumentation along with vocalist Bryant Funck’s raspy growl have consistently resulted in a sustained sonic slow-drudging attack. But Heathen is that album where the basic blueprint of Thou’s sound was stretched to its limit. Longer, more ambitious songs, slow-resonating passages, and guest vocals by Emily McWilliams, turn the prototypical Thou-ian marsh into a place of eerie mystery and even magic, a surprising ethereal quality that further accentuates their crushing sound. While Thou would never be confused with a post-metal band such as ISIS, Heathen is the closest and most spacious the Baton Rouge collective would get, while still anchored by their signature doomy heaviness.
Before the interview with Bryan, however, I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year, with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. Our aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT. Thank you all for being here, and here's the talk with Bryan Funck.
Do you have a moment that you remember, maybe as a younger person or later on in life, of hearing a song or an album that completely changed what you thought about music up until that point?
Yeah, probably seeing the Nirvana “Lithium” video, I think that was probably my first exposure to Nirvana. And I think that when I got introduced to them it instantly took me from being a more casual music fan to someone who was obsessed with music. It sort of centered my life around music.
How old were you at the time?
Probably 13 or 14, in ‘93, I guess.
Obviously one of the hallmarks of moments like that is that you’re just hit by them, but when you think about it now, as an adult, can you tell what it was about that song that drew you in?
I think it was just the first time that I heard music that was very pop oriented but also had a harsher, more punk edge to it. Before that it was listening to Weird Al, Bon Jovi, and whatever was on the radio. Classic 60s and 70s oldies stuff with my parents and 80s and 90s pop music, and none of that stuff really resonated with me in a more serious type of feeling. I think it was also the fact that when I was 13 I was just becoming a teenager, getting to be a little more dreary [laughs] and into darker and more serious things so maybe it just pinched a nerve, just where I was at, as a kid.
Interesting side note my first CD ever was a gift from an American friend of the family and it was Weird Al’s Off the Deep End, that had the Nirvana parody on it. And for a while there I think I liked Weird Al’s version more.
[Laughs] Yeah. I always joke with the other guys that if we ever cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I’m just going to sing the Weird Al version.
[Laughs] I mean, now when I listen to it it’s pretty horrible, also because my tastes have changed, I guess, but the production on that Weird Al version is super crisp.
Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s just kind of his style. I’m a huge Weird Al fan and I think he’s usually pretty good with the aping whoever the parody is about, but I think on that one he missed the mark on some of the harsher sounds you get on that record.
Not as serious, yeah. One of the things that immediately comes to mind with Thou being from Louisiana is that all these easily clumped together sludgy bands associated with that state, so that makes sense. But it seems, reading interviews you’ve given in the past, that your relationship with that scene was somewhat oppositionary. I think in general you’re relationship with a lot of things is oppositionary, because it seems that was kind of your relationship with the punk scene as well, for different reasons. And while you are not everything in the band, it seems that for you personally there’s been a desire for the band to find a kind of middle ground between things you liked, but didn’t like all the way. Does that make sense?
I mean it sounds like you’re saying I’m a prick, basically [Laughs]
I mean, I am too, so [laughs].
No no, I get what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s trying to find a middle ground insomuch as it is being very critical of the things that we or I don’t like in various cultural scenes.
The music or the sociology?
All of it. The music and the scene politics and social inadequacies. Yeah [laughs], all of it. I think I’ve always been outspoken and critical about the things I don’t like, but I try to turn that criticism on myself as much as possible. And especially, I think, in terms of Thou, a lot of times when we’re writing a song criticizing something or looking at the weaknesses of something, I find that it’s usually more interesting for me to do that through the lens where we, and specifically where I, have fallen short in that. We have a song that sort of takes aim at one of our old members. And it would be very easy for us to write a song that just points out all of his inadequacies I think it was more interesting for us to look at where we failed in the relationship.
In terms of trying to find things to write about that are important to me and also strike the right tone of the band, I think to look at the things that are upsetting, things that we want to complain about. That gives me a lot of fodder for things to take on. But, I wouldn’t want to do that in too much of a hamfisted, on-the-nose kind of way. I don’t want it to be too obvious, I don’t want to be one of those bands that complains about things, pointing the finger outwards. It’s more interesting for me to point the finger inwards.
So, I have a remark and a question about that. The remarks is that two of my favorite bands have written very ugly songs about former members – “The Philosopher” by Death and “Liar” by Megadeth. And the way that comment turns into a question is to say that this practice seems to me to be par for the course in metal. And since I’ve been interviewing a storm lately, I can say I’ve had a similar conversation with one of the musicians I spoke with, about how unlikely it is to find a band loosely associated with the metal scene, that is invested in not blaming people. Because a lot of metal is blaming outside sources for your shit – politics, ex-partners, whatever.
I’d say that’s true of all of music, though. Probably of all art.
Finding someone else to blame?
Yeah. I think it’s just an easy thing to do.
I would think it’s an easy starting point, you feel these emotions and they inspire you to write. But I’m not sure artists in all genres point the finger as easily and as readily as metal artists seem to do. I think I’m about your age, and I think when you reach an older age while listening to metal you can sometimes diffuse some of the reasons you started to listen to metal and its limitations and one of those seems to be “fuck the world, I’m strong.” And going inward isn’t something that seems like a popular thing to do. I mean, I don’t know if popularity is something that concerns you…
No [laughs] for better or worse.
It just seems easier to sell music when you’re blaming someone else.
Yeah, I agree with that. Not that we’re trying to sell music, but I think that in terms of metal and punk and hardcore it’s probably less about trying to sell records and more the personality traits of the people who are drawn to that kind of music.
And who write that music.
So, working our way to Heathen I want to ask something about the splits. Thou famously puts out a lot of in-between-albums releases, which involves a lot of various forms of collaboration – artists, labels, and so on. Is that an ethical choice, like a statement of the importance of working with other people?
I think it’s just a personal choice, in terms of that’s the thing that’s engaging and interesting for us. We’re not trying to make any sort of grand statement by that. When we first started doing a lot of splits and working with a lot of different labels then the original impetus for it was just that we were getting a lot of offers. And we were humbled by all the people who wanted to do stuff with us, and we just said “Yes! Yes, of course we’ll do this thing, yeah we want to do that!” And then it just became a thing that there were certain people or bands or musicians that we wanted to do stuff with, just for our own interests. And so we just kept doing that, and that’s where with it still now.
In a related question, maybe: if you were in a band that started today would you even look for a label? Just because it seems you’re so flexible with labels that it almost makes any specific label not as important.
I guess it depends on what the goal is, at the time. The way we treated labels was more a) people that we wanted to collaborate with in some way and b) it was going to get us to some audience that we hadn’t gotten to yet. In terms of the metal stuff, it feels like, for us, we’ve taken that as far as we want to go, and I think that was part of why we moved to Sacred Bones most recently, to get to a more diverse audience rather than just a one-sided, metal-oriented, or heavy-music-oriented audience.
So, if I started a band today? I don’t know. I do have another band where…. I think my bands are less concerned with the labels stuff and more with aesthetic choices. If I were to push the reset button on Thou I think I would have been a bit more conscientious and uniform with some of our aesthetic choices. I think I probably would have developed a cleaner style for us and kept us on one or two tracks. I feel like other people look at it and they sort of have a sense of our aesthetics, but for me looking at it it seems all over the place and I would have probably cleaned that up a bit.
I did want to get to that, but does this have to do with artwork reset with the back catalogue?
I mean the thing about the back catalogue and redoing the art, and this may be a glimpse into my OCD, but doing represses and stuff like that is always a way for me to look back at something I did and clean it up a little bit or refine it, or fix it, or change it where it needs to be changed. I depends what record we’re talking about, because some of the stuff, say in terms of some of the collections we’ve been doing, I might just drop everything we’ve done in the past and try to look at it with a new set of eyes and do something completely new with it. Or, with some of the represses we’ve done more recently, I’m trying to put a fresh take on it and make it a little nicer but I’m also trying to keep the good stuff that I originally had on those records.
So, can we talk about the visuals for a moment?
Yeah, that’s my favorite thing!
I have a beef with you about the Heathen cover, because I liked the old one.
Wait, which one do you think is the old one?
The one with Julia Margaret Cameron.Is that not the oldest one?
They basically came out at the same time. The CD version had the Julia Margaret Cameron and the vinyl had the Aubrey Beardsley [artwork].
So, yeah, I liked that one, but then I didn’t get why it was replaced with the etching…
You mean the woodcut?
That’s not new, that’s basically the only vinyl cover. It’s confusing because Adam Bartlett of Gilead Media got the CD out before the vinyl because the vinyl pressing plant kind of screwed up. And so basically on the internet and digitally the art for the hardcopy is just that Julia Margaret Cameron photography, which isn’t the case. There isn’t a version of the vinyl that has that art [Note: There is now via the Gilead Media repress]. And we further compounded the confusion by using the Gustav Dore art for all the digital stuff, and so there’s the image of the Dore woodcut but the actual vinyl has the Aubrey Beardsly woodcut.
Part of that is that I like to have fun with the layouts, and having different formats gives me different real estate to play with aesthetically. So theres that. And the other thing is me trying to rewrite history a little bit [laughs] and in terms of the digital stuff have a more uniform aesthetic for everything. So if you look at the bandcamp, all the artwork for all those releases is Dore thumbnails.
But the vinyl for those are still the “un-uniform” versions?
Yeah, we do certain art for CDs and we do ceratin art for the vinyl. So, walking all that back, the Heathen repress that we just did, I think the rest of us are on the same page with you in terms of liking the Julia Margaret Cameron image more than the Aubrey Beardsley image, so the repress we’re about to put out [note: was recently put out] basically looks like the CD version.
OK, good [laughs]. So I had a question about one of those which is the Summit one. The Tyrant covers, there’s kind of a relationship between them, and you could also argue for a link between the Peasant covers. The Summit one is just weird.
Because they seem not to have anything to do with one another. So what was the decision there?
Yeah, I think that when I was doing the layout for Summit coming out of Peasant I wanted to do something that was the polar opposite of that layout I had done which was very…. If you look at that Peasant thing…. But let’s take it back even further. That bat logo we used? One of our good friends made that logo. Basically, when I first joined the band, may take on it, not having a long-reaching strategic plan for the band, was that I wanted to have a very metal logo that was sort of Darkthrone-ish. I wanted something like Darkthrones in that I could slap that logo on anything and everyone would know what it was. And in the first couple of Thou records we really overused that logo and my taste for things gradually became less busy, I didn’t like things quite so busy, and that logo itself was a little too much.
So when we did that Peasant record the layout we had in mind was just the logo on the cover with this black-on-black thing in the background. But the black-on-black thing didn’t really come out so the cover just looks like a black cover with that logo on it. And so coming out of that layout, I wanted to do the things I wanted to do with that Peasant cover with the Summit layout, which was to have something in the background which was hard to see, which is why you have that transparent coat and the transparent image in the background. And I also wanted the polar opposite in that instead of it being a all-black, dark, metal-looking record it would had a brighter lighter look to it. In my head it looked more like a Beatles record, or something.
But going back and doing all the repress stuff we had all this Mervyn Peake art that I’ve been sitting on and that I really loved and that, for me, fit the fanatic tone of Summit a lot more than the stuff we actually used on it. And it also felt like if we were going to do a repress of that record and for it to be a nicely packaged record I wanted to fill it out with things that fit the themes of the songs and contributed to the overall packaging. So that’s why that stuff’s on there, essentially.
And the Summit Dore is just the digital, again?
Yeah. I try to find an image that fits a general mood of the record. Some of that stuff I had kind of used on a whim a million years ago and maybe stuck with that out of a sense of tradition. I love Dore, but we can’t use that stuff on records because that’s just a go-to for so many other bands.
But it sounds like what’s preventing you from using the Dore on the vinyl is somewhat similar to your decision to take out that Darkthrone logo. That maybe it became too obvious for you to be comfortable with it.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s a matter of comfort, I think it’s more a matter of…. If you’re in a band and you’re putting stuff out there then it should be contributing to pushing the art form forward, or pushing the boundaries of it in some way. And doing things that are maybe too hamfisted sometimes…. Sometimes it’s fun, like with the digital stuff, and other times it just seems tedious and not with much value.
Before we get to Heathen just one last weird unrelated comment: We brought up their name as the name of a kind of prototypical metal band, Darkthrone, but I think that they do that with their music as well. Every once in a while they feel like people think they have them pegged and they change their style completely and that’s kind of what has kept them relevant for so long.
Yeah, I love Darkthrone, I just think that, aesthetically, they keep things at a very safe and expected metal place. What a metal record is supposed to look like. And I get that if you’re trying to create a certain feeling, but Thou isn’t trying to a feeling of, I don’t know, “evilness” [laughs] or over aggression or the usual tropes of heavy metal – satanism, paganism, whatever. We’re not really interested in all that stuff.
Funny you should mention paganism, because it seems Heathen is at least partially about that. And I know you’ve discussed the thought process that went into making Heathen in the past, but, if it’s OK, maybe just a few words about what you tried to achieve with that album.
I’d say it’s not as much about paganism as it is about exploring nature and the natural world, the sensual world, the ideas of pleasure and pain. It’s more about divesting any introspection or philosophizing or theorizing and having a more “live-in-the-moment,” “action-over-all” attitude.
That was something you thought about coming into the album? Something that informed the songwriting process?
I don’t know how much I can speak to how the music was written. But, before going into a record, we usually have a conversation about roughly what I’m going to write the things about and so I think in some sense that informs how they come up with the music, but it’s more in how it guides them emotionally as they write than intellectually, if that makes sense.
It does. But it obviously did inform your lyrics.
The lyrics, absolutely. For the lyrics I’ll basically have a main theme or main point I’m trying to make, and usually, especially with the full lengths, we will have a first song that we write that is sort of the musical blueprint for how the rest of the album is going to sound, basically.
What song was it on this album?
“Free Will.” Usually it’s the first song. Up until Magus the first song we write when we’re like “Yeah, this is it”…. You know, we’ll try to write a bunch of stuff and finally we’ll get to that one song and it’ll be “Yeah, this is it, this is what the record needs to sound like. And that for me is something like my thesis statement, where I make all the main points of what the record is going to be about, lyrically, and then the rest of the record tends to be an exploration of some minuscule details of each of those points.
So, I don’t know how correct of an observation I’m about to make, but I’ll make it anyway. I think you guys, as a band, are aware that, other than attempts to intentionally divert the main sound you’ve been working with, you have a very recognizable sound. And Heathen feels like a place where that sound is still there, but it feels like there’s more space. And the reason I’m bringing up “space” – and I mean this even technically, where sometimes there’s a gap between you and the band in the mix. A lot of times when you’re singing, and I don’t know if you like to refer to what you do as singing
But a lot of times when you sing it feels like it’s an instrument in the band, and in Heathen it feels like you’re a singer. And that to me feeds into that idea of space which could tie in with the general preoccupation with nature in the record. Now, I know you’ve said this isn’t something you can speak to, but I was thinking to myself “How would you write heavy music about nature?” and it occurred to me that there are traditions of writing heavy music about nature, such as black metal. But in Heathen it’s, again, this feeling of space, that things have room to resonate. Does any of that make sense?
Yeah, I don’t know how much of that was conscious on our part. It’s interesting that you frame it that way because I always thought it was…. I mean, there’s definitely a focus on nature on that record, but not in the black-metal, pagan nature worship as much as it is Henry David Thoreau, seeing the connection between humanity and the natural world. Or the tradition of Black and Green anarchism. It’s strange and funny to me how we wrote that sort of meandering, grand record we wrote is the one we wrote specifically about cutting away all that grandness and cutting away all that introspection. And then the other record we wrote as a response to that record, Magus, is the one in which the music itself is more direct and has less of that jammy sort of meandering feel to it.
I didn’t mean to say, obviously, that Heathen is a black metal album. But the main thing is that the vibe, which you’re describing as meandering and I’m describing as spacious, I have to say it kind of makes sense to me that you would create a meandering album when cutting away thought. Because, and this may sound stupid, the impulse to stop thinking needs to be fatigued-out.
Yeah. This is really an interesting take, I just never thought of it in those terms, and now that record is making more sense in my head. I mean, there are themes in Heathen of people being very small in our relationship with nature and the cosmos, recognizing us as being very small. So I can see how that makes a bit more sense.
I agree that Magus is more direct, but I think that part of what makes it more direct is that this gap between you and the band – that I may be imagining, wouldn’t be the first time – is much closer in Magus and also the production is quite different. I don’t know if “sleek” is a good word, because you don’t do sleek, but sleeker than Heathen. Heathen is almost lo-fi, at points.
Part of that is us trying to get a certain sound for each record, part of that is us just growing in comfort in the studio and how we approach using the studio as its own instrument. And in terms of Magus, I don’t think it was a great departure from Heathen, but we were consciously trying to do things to make it different than Heathen. Cut off all the fat.
There were a couple of points I picked up on when you described yourself as being a difficult person for your band. And one of the reasons you’ve described yourself as being difficult in the past is by calling yourself unmusical, or not proficient in music. And so you describe things in terms of “vibe,” and frustrate you bandmates. Does that ring a bell?
Oh yeah, yeah. An ongoing problem.
And one other thing I picked up on was that you describe yourself as a person who does a lot of things at once, and who has ideas all the time. And so if I put those together I guess it makes me think that the way you see you place as an artists is largely intuitive. And so I guess my question is: How do you not go crazy?
Because if you’re always coming up with ideas, and have a hard time explaining those ideas sometimes, how does anything get done?
Well, I think in terms of Thou that I am very lucky to be in a band with people who are very musically inclined and are also a bit prolific when compared with a lot of other musicians, and are also very dedicated to the band and willing to see certain ambitions get achieved. If we have an idea for a project or a record they’ll put in the work on their end to make those things happen. I think a lot of times our ambitions are very high and we usually have to scale things back quite a bit.
And in terms of your own personal productivity? Do you have a system that you’ve developed over the years that helps you get a handle on the influx of ideas?
In terms of the stuff that I’m bringing to the table I just take a lot of notes. I’ll constantly have stuff on my phone or in a notebook or a file on my laptop. Usually it’s just ideas for things we’re going to do or ideas for lyrics or lyrics for songs or stuff I’ll want to look at or stuff want to pull from. And so when it comes time to actually write a record I have a pretty good amount of material I’m pulling from.
And do you find that you end up using most of it?
Yeah. With lyrics I’ll usually have a pretty big mealy-mouthed chunk of something that I wrote and I’ll chop that apart to fit a song. But I’m all over the place with that. I’ll just have a line or a word that strikes me a certain way or a title for something and I’ll just have to figure out how to me up with the rest.
Thinking of myself, if I had done that I would lose the notes. It would be very hard to keep track of all the things I’m leaving around. It sounds like you don’t have that problem.
I would not say that I’m overly organized, but usually I have so much stuff that I can just dig through a bunch of notes and pull stuff together and kind of organize it when I need to work on something. Although I would say if you look up Ryan Holliday or Robert Green, they both have these really interesting file-card systems that they use. It’s the same as some computer programs thats use hashtags, so these file-card systems…. They’ll jot something down, a quote from a book or an idea or something, and then they’ll have it labeled a certain way. So when they go to write a book or an article they’ll go to that file-card and ask “what do I have about that topic?” But I’m kind of disorganized still, so one of my goals is to organize my stuff.
Cool. It’s kind of like how certain guitarists save all their riffs and go to that collection when it’s time to write a song. Only with ideas. So, last question. A good chunk of time has passed since Heathen. When you look at that album now, with everything that has changed, is there something about the process of writing that album, or a song or lyric, that you’re especially fond of when you think of it today?
Uh, I don’t know. Probably the stuff I’ve stolen is the stuff I like best [laughs]. I was really happy with how “Ode to Physical Pain” came together, especially lyrically. We recently went back and played “Immorality Dictates” a bunch of times – Emily was with us on tour and was singing the intro and outro stuff – I was actually pretty happy with how my parts came out in that song, I think I was pretty tight and on point with what I was trying to get at. There are definitely parts of “Into the Marshlands” that I really like. I’d go back and fix that intro.
Heathen is one of those records for us where there’s some stuff I would want to fix on it just because a lot of those songs we wrote and recorded before we really played them out very much. I think there were only a couple of songs, at best, that we were playing before we recorded that record. And that’s always kind of weird for us because I think that we tend to find the feeling of the song or how we want to play it a little easier once we’ve played it live a hundred times.
So Heathen was the one you did too quickly?
With Heathen we finished writing it while Andy [Gibbs] was moving to California, and we wrote most of it before he left and we kind of finished writing it when he came into town to record it. So, funnily enough, it didn’t have enough time to breathe and percolate as maybe it could have. But it probably affected me more than the other guys. In terms of the songs I’m personally really happy with how all the songs on that record sound, except for a few vocal flubs I probably would have changed.