Interview: Thrice Guitarist, Vocalist Dustin Kensrue Opens Up About New LP, ‘Horizons/East’

What do you do when you’ve done just about everything under the sun— concept albums, sonic changes, hiatus and reunion— but still want to create? When you’re legendary Californian rock act Thrice, you challenge yourself to just have fun with friends. There’s a loose interconnectedness that ties together their warm, effervescent eleventh record, and shadows of past records can be found within these 10 songs. It’s arguably the band’s best collection of songs in a very long time, and one very well worth taking the time and effort to let soak in its musical rays. 

So, when you’ve done it all and wonder what’s left to do, where do you go from here?

“It’s so hard,” guitarist and vocalist Dustin Kensrue answers. “Because we like so many things, and we, I think, can pull off a lot of different things, and it’s hard to choose a direction to actually go in for a record. Because you could go anywhere, really. And yeah, sometimes we kind of find an anchor hold on a direction to go. We were looking for and we have been looking for another Alchemy Index kind of idea for a while just because that was a blast to do. But we haven’t found any other themes that work quite as well, and so, we haven’t got there yet.”

“A lot of this record started with collecting what we were calling challenges of just random stuff,” he continues. “Like, ‘hey, what if we did this? What if we did that? Let’s try to do this,’ and so a fair amount of the initial ideas came out of those challenges, which were purposefully all over the place. Aside from that, there’s not a musical direction that we really felt. And I don’t know, it’s weird because I think later sometimes you can look back and be like, ‘oh, it was doing this thing.’ And when we were making Major/Minor or something, we definitely were leaning into some of the chord changes that felt kind of grungy or something. And yeah, that was not something we always did. But this one, I can’t put my finger on anything it’s trying to do. It does feel pretty diverse and all over the place, but, somehow, I do think it has cohesion as well.”

“What was really fun about Alchemy, and anything really, it’s fun to have parameters to be creative within when you’re growing up or just starting into something,” he continues. “You think like, ‘oh yeah, I just want ultimate freedom.’ But ultimate freedom is very difficult to work with. And so, a lot of artists learn to essentially self-impose constraints, and that actually pushes your creativity.” So yeah, it’s fun doing that with something so structured like Alchemy, but I don’t know, we’re always constraining ourselves in smaller ways, depending on the song or whatnot. Or Beggars was constrained by saying, ‘absolutely nothing is happening on this record except what the four of us were playing at the same time.’ So there’s zero layering. But yeah, it’s definitely why we’re searching for another theme, is just to change the fun and hopeful, and the completely open sandbox is overwhelming at times.” 

It seems like Kensrue and company put extra pressure on themselves to have some uniting factor, but as we’ll see later on, sometimes the journey is as fun as the destination.

“There was a weird pressure,” Kensrue answers. “Especially after something like Palms, where’s it’s like, ‘oh my gosh, I had this dream, and I saw this symbol doing something in my hand.’ It’s nice to have a thing when you’re talking to people about your music because it gives you some direction of what to talk about. And there’s someone I was just talking to, but in writing it, you feel that pressure of like, ‘oh man, what’s the thing?’”

“And I want to push back on that too,” he continues. “And be like, ‘there doesn’t have to be a thing.’ At least I don’t think that’s how we operate or want to operate. We love making music. I think we’re good at it as a group, and it’s really challenging and really rewarding. And I don’t know, I don’t want to get sucked into that idea of everything has to have this overarching story. I think with music, with an album, you’re telling a bunch of little stories. And if you’re thinking in terms of a collection of short stories from a novelist or something, they don’t all have to really tie together. They all stand on their own as these short stories. So, I don’t know, I’m glad that the Horizons theme kind of came into being for this, but at the same time, I’m aware of that feeling in myself of the pressure to find that thing, and I don’t want to find it just to have a talking point.” 

Kensure is being bashful without realizing it, but sometimes the thing is just the great music, not anything else. Thankfully, Horizons/East delivers. 

“I guess that’s what I’m getting at, but trying to be self-aware about it is saying, ‘I don’t want [a theme or story] to be running the show.’ I don’t want to be chasing that first in order to be able to make art, because it’s not the way that I think it has to work, and it generally doesn’t. Especially because being that we write so democratically, if I start out with a certain thing, it’s going to get changed a whole bunch by the end. So, I’ve got to hold that in an open hand as well.”

His point is maybe tied into the interrelatedness aspects that the record delves into. Also, being in a long-running band is a lot like a long-term relationship— you have to be in love with the versions of yourself over time, but you have to be comfortable with organic growth that happens (hopefully) with humans over time. You have to be open-minded and comfortable with being rejected/accepted from a place of love, right?

“Yeah, that’s a great analogy,” he concurs. “I think there is a cost to relationality, but there is I think a greater wealth to be found by staying in that and by paying those costs. For the band, it is so much harder to make group decisions when there’s four people all intimately involved. And you have something that’s like your baby and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, they’re killing it,’ and it’s hard. So, you learn over time, both in a relationship or band or whatever, ‘what are the battles worth fighting?’ You slowly learn that almost all of them, six months later, you literally won’t remember what you were even thinking.”

“So it’s a slow process of learning that,” Kensrue adds. “I was thinking when you were talking about having that thing to talk about or whatever, I think part of it is it’s easier when it’s your second, third, fourth record. This is our eleventh record, so at a certain point, I think even the burden of like, ‘All right, people are going to try to write about this, talk about it, what’s the angle? What do you possibly say 11 things in?’ There’s no category for that, so it’s got to be something else. But yeah, I don’t know. I really like the record. I love making music with these dudes, and I’m glad we get to do it.”

So, I think that gets to the whole point – shouldn’t that be enough? The reason that people are going to gravitate towards this record is because the relationship they’ve built as a fan for so long will be rewarded by a group of people, and I think that’s why. When you think about the albums you’ve made over time, you can still hear The Illusion of Safety in Horizons/East, but are you going to hear the same core progressions, riffs, tempos? No. But the reason that you like that whole progression is because you’re in a trusting relationship. It’s like the relationship between fan and band. True fan, and I hate to be… fans are fans whether they’re perfect or not, none of us are, but it’s that relationship of trusting. Kensrue concurs:

“And trust that there’s something there, but also that whatever is there might end up not being your favorite. Or it might totally change the way you think about music as a whole, and it becomes your very favorite. But yeah, that trust is what gets you kind of through either one of those situations. And I think as an artist, you’re learning too. It’s hard because there’s a balance. You are creating and sharing this thing, and the sharing is a part of it, and to try to deny that I think is missing part of the picture. Just the creation process itself is rewarding and is valuable. We are intensely social creatures, and we want somehow to be understood in the making process and in the sharing process, and so you do want that interaction, you do want to somehow know that people are responding to this thing.”

“Here’s the other weird part about it,” he adds. “When you start realizing that there are songs that you have made or whatever art, whatever art you’re doing, I know that there are songs that I have written that are better than and will continue to be better than most things I ever write again. And I can’t control that, and I can’t will it out of existence. There’s not this perfect progression to better and better things that you make.”

“There’s so much accident and inspiration and all these things wrapped up into how a song actually happens, or how any piece of art happens,” Kensrue says. “And so, I can look at something like ‘Beyond The Pines’ and be like, ‘shit, man. I nailed that. Those lyrics are perfection for what I wanted to do in that song, and the recording went great,’ and then I’ll make something else and it’s like, ‘I’m not making that song again, and there’s no reason I should be comparing it.’ But I have to fight that like, ‘oh man, it’s not that.’

“And it’s like, ;No, nothing is anything else,’ and the same holds true with records. If you can understand that in your own work, you’ve got to understand that, ‘yep, people can’t like all your stuff the same.’ Even your best, most trusting fans are going to be like, ‘kind of like this one better than that one.’ That’s just normal and doesn’t mean that you failed or something. You’ve just got to keep going, and you find things and hit on things, and sometimes a thing that hits someone doesn’t hit someone else. Who freaking knows?”

Palms, as I was writing the record, I had massive kind of upheaval in the way that I saw and thought about the work. So, I’m writing as that’s happening. With this record, that’s not the case as much. And it’s not that I’m in a spot where I’m settled and unchanging, but kind of have found new and more open frameworks to think in and through. So, some of the record, I feel like, it’s looking back at the times before those changes happened and looking kind of forward to what those changes can bring, and what they mean, rather than the process being in the middle of them, I guess.” 

This isn’t in the middle of the earthquake; it’s almost like the aftermath as you’re reevaluating. Kensrue agrees:

“I think both ‘Scavengers’ and ‘Robot Soft Exorcism’ are pushing that same idea of separating the person from the position, the place they hold, the system they are in or running. And that title, ‘Robot Soft Exorcism,’ and the theme of that song is borrowed from a friend, David Dark, who’s one of the most interesting people on Twitter to follow because he’s just constantly pushing for clarity for people pushing, prodding, asking them to step out of these systems and machines and whatever that are hurting people, and distinguishing that human being inside them from the harm they cause, from the benefits they reap, whatever that is. And it’s always inviting them to come out and to change.” 

“And so, in light of that and in light of understanding those differences, I have hope for people to change,” he continues. “In light of my own life in a variety of ways. I sometimes imagine trying to talk to myself at earlier points in my life. And how intensely frustrating that would probably be for current me. But I know from experience that change was possible there, and actually, now I’m not certain, but I’m fairly positive that I could time travel to 20-year-old me in a crisis of faith and talk to him and be like, ‘Hey, these two options that you think you have, those aren’t the only options. And let me show you some cool shit,’ and that’s all it would have taken to send me on a wildly different trajectory, because I know that that was the hang-up. I know that at that point in my life, I had no access to these other life options. So, I made a binary choice, and it’s different for everyone whatever that thing’s going to be that changes their mind. But it exists for people, and it’s hard to snuff out, it’s hard to guess at what it might be. Usually, it’s not yelling at them.”

“And that’s a hard one to learn when you’re frustrated,” Kensrue says. “Berating people doesn’t usually change their mind; that usually entrenches them. And so, this idea of an invitation to something else I think is important. You have to be able to empathize with what brought someone to where they’re at and what keeps them there, and if you can’t understand what that is, I’d say one, you are probably guilty of demonizing them, really. You no longer look at them as a person that has real fears, and loves, and motivations, and as two-dimensional as the kind of royalty that they hold up, the system that they embody can look. There’s still a person there. And I will say, I think that the longer you have and give yourself to certain ways of viewing the world, you do dehumanize yourself, but I don’t think that anyone’s ever truly lost. There’s people that I could not imagine how they could change, but I have to believe that it’s possible.”

Part of that is tied to pride and fear, right?

“Yeah. People are afraid of changing their mind because it means admitting that you were wrong before. You literally can’t change your mind unless you’re like, ‘Oh, well shit. I was wrong.” People don’t like doing that. Part of that’s pride, and part of it is fear because if you were wrong before, you could be wrong again. And that feels unstable and uncertain, and people really don’t like uncertainty. So yeah, I think we have to be open to, well, really to both things, but we have to open and hopeful for other people to change. We also have to remain open to change ourselves, otherwise we’re no different.”

Well, it’s the pot calling the kettle black. We have to practice what we preach, which is arguably the hardest thing in human existence. 

“I always try to delineate and say it’s really not wrong to think strongly and believe strongly about certain things,” Kensrue concludes. “There’s a Chesterton quote where he says, ‘It’s not arrogant to believe that you’re right; it’s arrogant to be unable to imagine how you could be wrong.’ It’s something along that line, which I think it’s helpful because we all operate from convictions, and there’s no way around that. And the greatest things in the world come from strong convictions, but you’ve got to be open to change and to outside information, because the worst things in the world also come from strong convictions.” 

Watch the video for “Robot Soft Exorcism” here:

For more from Thrice, find them on their official website.

Photo courtesy of Thrice

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