Serious Business: Geoff Rickly On The Rise Of United Nations, The Fall Of Thursday, And Working With The Former Members Of Lostprophets
The last time I saw Geoff Rickly was eight years ago on the parking lot outside Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Maybe 30,000 impressionable teenagers were watching Rickly, and he looked miserable. Thursday, the post-hardcore band that Rickly had formed in 1997, had somehow catapulted near the forefront of emo during the genre’s confusing commercial peak. Thursday were on that parking lot because they were playing, late in the day, at the Bamboozle Festival, a festival made up entirely of emo bands, and of bands who people were calling emo because nobody knew what else to call them.
The Jonas Brothers, not yet affiliated with the Disney machine, had played earlier in the day, on one of the side stages. So had Paramore. Sonny Moore, still a few years away from adapting his Skrillex stage name, had climbed the rigging of one of the main stages while his metalcore band From First To Last played, and when he told the crowd to throw shit, a swarm of plastic water bottles shot up into the air. Method Man was the only rapper on the bill (unless we’re counting novelty act MC Lars, which let’s not), and when I asked him about it a few weeks later, he said something derisive and homophobic about “these new hair bands.” Thursday were one of the biggest bands at the festival — playing before Fall Out Boy but after the All-American Rejects — but they might’ve been more uncomfortable than Method Man, albeit for different reasons.
Thursday’s unstable buzzsaw style — plangent sung verses suddenly revving into overdriven howled choruses — was easily imitated and parodied, but it was grand and cathartic, capable of soul-shattering moments. A few years earlier, I’d seen Rickly ripping up his heart in front of spinkicking hardcore kids in small Syracuse clubs, and whenever his band would play, he’d seemingly have a deep heart-to-heart conversation with everyone who came through the door. From the stage, he liked to remind audiences that Thursday weren’t coming to their town to rock them; they were there to be a part of something with them. He didn’t tell the crowd anything of the sort at Bamboozle, and if he had, he would’ve been lying.
Thursday had their moment in the sun during the last era, historically, when major record labels were eager to sign young rock bands, and he remembers going to dinner with A&Rs who would desperately offer the band drugs and women. Today, he still sounds confused when he remembers those days, recounting his first vivid what the fuck am I doing here moment, when their stage show first got big enough to necessitate an actual crew: “A whole group of people that sort of worked for Thursday were just standing out in the open with a serrated hunting knife that had lines of cocaine on it: ‘Hey, what’s up man, you want some?’ I was like, I employ a crew; what the fuck is going on? I don’t think I’ve ever seen cocaine before. It was just like, OK, this is my life. I guess this is normal.”
These days, Rickly still looks the same as he did in those Thursday days. He’s still wiry, still floppy-haired, still gap-toothed. Sitting in the office of Collect Records, the newly relaunched indie label he runs, he’s calm and friendly. He’s got on a Cocteau Twins shirt and a baseball cap with the logo of the dance label Ghostly. There’s a laptop on his desk, but there’s also an antique typewriter. Jonah Bayer, Rickly’s bandmate in the roaring experimental hardcore band United Nations, sits nearby, slight and bushy-haired, with a shirt that says “Ian & Guy & Brendan & Joe” — a Fugazi shirt that has the good taste to not announce itself as a Fugazi shirt. Rickly moves aside the thing dominating his desk, a series of framed alternate covers for United Nations’ self-titled 2008 debut album — Abbey Road parodies with all four Beatles on fire.
The Brooklyn office is warm and cavernous, with brick walls and a gorgeous East River view out the window behind Rickly. It’s in the corner of an eco-friendly bloc of offices in an old Greenpoint building — one that rents from month to month, allowing tenants to move to bigger or smaller quarters if things go well or if they go badly. A fellow post-hardcore legend, Texas Is The Reason guitarist Norman Brannon, sits in the corner, fielding phone calls; he’s the label’s general manager. Rickly says that he’s in here most days, whenever he’s not on tour, and he seems calm and at peace.
Things weren’t always this good for Rickly. Thursday had been spinning their wheels for a while when they finally broke up in 2011. “We used to joke around, Tucker [Rule, drummer] and I,” Rickly remembers. “In between songs, he’d do this” — Rickly mimes sticking a punchcard into a machine — “and that would mean he was punching the clock that night. If the guy that’s the engine, in the middle of the band, is like, ‘This is just a job,’ you feel it resonate through the whole band. Alternately, sometimes, I’d be getting water and looking at him, and he’d be laughing and going, ‘You are so not happy.’ When you’re interfacing with the crowd, it’s hard to be the public face. You’re like, ‘Ugh, I have to pretend this is awesome because there are at least 10 people here who really want to see this. And tonight, I really don’t want to do that.'”
Rickly had ideas, creative directions he wanted to push Thursday in, and the rest of the band was not always on board. Once, after the band hit big with 2003’s War All The Time, Rickly suggested recording a relatively experimental album and then giving that album away online. “The band just thought I was totally losing my shit,” Rickly recalls. A few years later, Radiohead released In Rainbows, leaving Rickly wondering what might have been.
All this is hard to hear because, once upon a time, Thursday were a furiously exciting band, one of the best on earth for a little while there. On their early records, 2001’s Full Collapse in particular, they gave off waves of feverish, unstable, cathartic energy, building pathos and then letting it crash into a wave of roaring feeling. And even after they jumped on the major-label bus, they were the rare big-emo band willing to try new ideas, to push their sound in unexpected directions, bringing in Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann to helm 2006’s majestic and ambitious A City By The Light Divided and releasing a split album with the Japanese post-hardcore blasters Envy in 2008. In a sea of bands content to play to their bases, maybe only My Chemical Romance (whose debut album Rickly produced) were as willing to experiment.
When Thursday broke up, Rickly felt unmoored. He released a couple of solo mixtapes and played a few small shows, at house parties or tiny clubs. “I just didn’t know what to do with myself, honestly,” he says. “I was like, I’m actually not good at anything anymore. I dropped out of college to do Thursday. I had no experience, really. So I asked my booking agent to keep me on the road so I could pay my rent while I figured out what to do with my life.”
Rickly dealt with upheaval in his personal life, too: A bad breakup, a hospital stay, a 2013 incident in which he was robbed at gunpoint in Brooklyn. In that robbery, Rickly lost everything from his passport to his rent payment, and no arrest was made, even after the mugger accidentally posted a gang-sign-flashing selfie on Rickly’s Instagram. After reading about the robbery, a fan started a Reddit campaign, and a number of fans ended up contributing money to Rickly via his Soundcloud page. Rickly didn’t solicit the donations, but he was happy to get them: “I’ve seen people saying things, like, ‘This is fucked, this dude asks all his fans for money.’ But I actually never did, and I wrote every fan who sent a few dollars. Like, ‘look, I hope you’re taking all of this music I’m making for free, and I hope you enjoy it and feel good about sending me something. I do appreciate it, and it’s really helpful that I can pay rent this month. It’s really, really great, but I’m not asking for it.’ And now that I’m on my feet, I’ve been thinking: What else can I do?”
Rickly can do a lot. He recently resurrected United Nations, releasing the excellent and furious new album The Next Four Years, a frantic and punishing pileup of screeches and blastbeats and grand, majestic crescendos. United Nations started out as an arty and semi-anonymous side project, one that also included members of Converge and Glassjaw. (They kept their names out of it because they were all signed, with their main bands, to different labels.) United Nations’ self-titled 2008 debut is a hidden gem in Rickly’s catalog, a hurtling blast that could’ve been a Thursday album if they’d gone in a radically harder direction early on. The Next Four Years pushes those ideas even further, turning them into something vast and intense, something on the level of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, an album Rickly gushed about in the Talkhouse.
In fact, listening to the album’s overwhelming opener “Serious Business,” it’s tempting to imagine that Rickly and his colleagues were trying out their own take on Deafheaven’s sound. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around; Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy has told Rickly that he learned his instrument in part by playing along with Thursday records. Talking about what sounds like a black metal influence on the album, Rickly says that it probably comes from their drummer David Haik, who was probably playing grindcore-style blastbeats: “Like, if you put melodic stuff over grind, it becomes sort of black metal.” Rickly also says that he knows plenty of Thursday fans who can’t listen to what he’s doing with United Nations; it’s too intense for fans of a band who were once famous for being intense.
Beyond the ferocity and grandeur of The Next Four Years, there’s a sly conceptual edge to the album that runs through everything United Nations have done. All of the band’s album covers have been parodies, and the new one lampoons a Black Flag early-singles collection. It’s available as a vinyl box set, with various records of various sizes, including one that will randomly play one of two endings to one song. (You won’t be able to tell which one is coming when you play it.) It’s a canny stunt: An album of stark and ferocious punk rock that’s available as a beautiful consumer object. The absurdity of it is sort of the point.
“Once you embrace absurdism, you can look at the world clearly, because the world is so absurd,” Rickly explains. “So I thought we should do that, treat these serious things really flippantly. And sometimes people do get really pissed about what we say. A lot of things we’re making fun of are super serious. But it’s sort of heartening that you can actually say something that people get pissed about. Because that’s the idea. Who really cares about any of this stuff?”
The whole time Rickly has been leading United Nations, his only consistent bandmate has been Jonah Bayer. Bayer used to lead a post-hardcore band called the Lovekill, but he’s also a rock critic — he served as the music editor at Alternative Press for three years — and he and his sister, the Saturday Night Live cast member Vanessa Bayer, collaborate on the video series Sound Advice, in which Vanessa’s aggressively clueless PR-consultant character annoys various famous bands. And Vanessa will sometimes add levels of absurdity to her brother’s band, opening their shows by doing stand-up comedy, taking on a Neil Hamburger-esque character and making fun of the band. “People don’t get it sometimes, and that’s just my favorite,” says Jonah. “She’s like, ‘This is my brother’s band. Get a real job!’ People are like, ‘Booo.'” (She recently did it again at a UN show, and this time, people got it.)
But none of United Nations’ conceptual hijinks detract from the gut-level power of the music, something that’s only increased now that the band has a solid lineup, bolstered by members of the Baltimore band Pianos Become The Teeth. These days, Rickly speaks rapturously about what can happen when he lets his band function as a band. “I went through a weird thing where I was like, ‘Why would I micromanage all these great musicians that I put together?’,” says Rickly. “It wasn’t lost, it wasn’t watered down, nobody went off-message or anything. It was just a more ferocious version of what it should’ve been in the beginning, and that was a really cool thing for me to see. It’s like, ‘Oh, you guys not only get it, but you get it to a level that I didn’t get it.'”
When I ask if United Nations, then, is an art project that became a band, Bayer doesn’t quite agree: “It still sort of is an art project, but I feel like it’s much more of a band now.”
“Right,” says Rickly. “It has a band facet of the art project. Like, one part of the art project now is a pretty solid band.” If that’s the case, then, no art project in 2014 has put out a better album than The Next Four Years, and not too many bands have, either — pretty solid or otherwise.
At the moment, though, United Nations are not the only band that counts Rickly as a member. He’s also the frontman of a new synth-rock band called No Devotion, and that band has a story way crazier than even Thursday could ever claim. The other four members of No Devotion come from Lostprophets, a Welsh rock band that was hugely popular in the UK over much of the past decade. But that popularity came to a quick and brutal end when Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins was sentenced to 35 years in prison for various child sex offenses. Watkins’ crimes are so grisly and disgusting that it’s hard to believe that they’re real. He pleaded guilty, for example, to two counts of baby rape, and he also had a pile of child and animal porn. Two women were sentenced for conspiring to help him rape babies. The whole story couldn’t be more upsetting, and now Rickly finds himself more or less replacing this guy.
Rickly didn’t have an easy time deciding to join up with the former Lostprophets. “I think anyone would have reservations, with their singer in jail and stuff,” says Rickly. “It was like, ‘You guys all still want to play together? That’s crazy.'”
But Rickly is clear that the other members of the band didn’t realize that their singer was a monster. “They had no idea,” says Rickly. “They’re all fathers. I’m the only non-father in the band. And it’s a really scary thought that he could’ve been potentially molesting their kids. Imagine your best friend, who at one point was at your house every day, was capable of doing that to kids… When the real truth came out, they were devastated. They’d thought that maybe he’d been fucked up and like slept with a 16-year-old girl, and that was what it was all about. They thought the other allegations were ridiculous. And then, when he started pleading guilty to really specific things, they were horrified.”
As Rickly tells it, it wasn’t easy for those former Lostprophets to get used to the idea of playing music in public again: “They had to like meet with principals of their kids’ schools and be like, ‘Hey, you’re probably going to hear this stuff about my old band. What do I need to do for you to not be worried about me picking my kids up from school? That’s not me, but you’re going to read my name in the paper next to it.’ It’s a weird thing.”
As strange and unlikely as No Devotion’s story might be, Rickly is excited to be making a kind of music that’s miles away from anything he’s ever done. And thus far, nothing No Devotion has done sounds much like Lostprophets, either. Rickly came on board when the band already had been working on a number of different songs. “When I came in, I really weeded out the stuff I liked,” says Rickly. “I could easily see them as a really grungy, heavy band, and I didn’t want to do that at all. I really loved that they were Brits. I wanted to do something British — something like Creation Records, a little Stone Roses, a little My Bloody Valentine, but with a lot of synths, like New Order, like the Cure… Every song I hear from them gives me a good nostalgic feeling, like I can write a lot of stuff about my life.”
Rickly released “Stay” b/w “Eyeshadow,” the first 12″ single from No Devotion, on Collect Records, his own label. And Collect represents something of a new beginning for Rickly, as well. Rickly first started the label in 2009, “as a little thing to do for fun out of my apartment,” but it turned out to be a money-losing proposition. One of the first things he released was a record from the …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead side project Midnight Masses. But around the time the single came out, Gerard Smith, the TV On The Radio bassist who also played in Midnight Masses, died suddenly of lung cancer. “We decided it was in poor taste to promote the song — it had a lot of stuff about living after death in it — so we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Rickly. “I basically lost $7,000 putting out that record. That’s more than I can afford, by a lot. I kind of shelved the idea.”
More recently, though, a young investor came to Rickly with the idea of restarting the label. “He’s great, very encouraging,” says Rickly. With that new financial backing, Rickly is running a label with several employees, and he’s planning on putting out records from bands like the instrumental D.C. trio Black Clouds and the Brooklyn art-rockers Sick Feeling. And now, Rickly also has the financial backing he needs to actually push the music he’s making. And it’s having some encouraging, if unpredictable results. Like this: As we sit down for our interview, No Devotion’s “Stay” is the #1 song in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, while “Eyeshadow,” its B-side, is in the top 10 in Japan.
A few days after our interview, Rickly will jump on a plane to the UK, where No Devotion will play their first shows in some impressively large venues. After that, it’ll be back the America, to play smaller underground clubs, like Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus, with United Nations. For someone who was paying his rent with Soundcloud donations just over a year ago, Rickly has found new life with a few different projects — projects which don’t seem to have much to do with each other, but which all seem to be working.
But Rickly has a way of pulling personal triumphs out of dark, difficult periods. After the man who robbed him posted that accidental Instagram selfie, for instance, Rickly’s ex-girlfriend caught a TV report about the bizarre story. “The lost love of my life saw it and contacted me to see if I was OK,” says Rickly. “She hadn’t contacted me in a year, and she took me out to dinner. We’ve been together ever since. We live together now and she’s kind of the best thing in my life. It’s sort of like the worst day of the last year turned into the best thing for the rest of my life.”
During one of rock’s weirdest, most incoherent periods, Rickly was a rare ray of light, an endless source of sincerity and positive energy. He went through some bad times, but he’s through them now. His career has gone some fascinating places, and he’s able to look around and enjoy where he is now. “That I can keep on making stuff is still amazing,” says Rickly. “I have friends who tell me I shouldn’t be getting involved with Lostprophets, thinking it’s too much, that I have a good reputation and should keep it that way. And I started thinking of the amount of people who’ve put their necks on the line for me. And if I believe, as I do, that they’re great guys and I’m afraid to help them, that would be a big fail for all the people who’ve got me through.”
He’s been through all that, and he’s come out with his moral compass intact. I can’t think of a happier ending.
[Photo of No Devotion, July 2014 by Mike Lewis Photography.]