Thou Frontman Bryan Funck On The Summer Of Thou And Magus, The Band’s Towering New Album
There’s a lyric on Thou’s new album that sums up their 11-plus year existence pretty succinctly: “We are vast unknowable beings without the confines of your perception.”
That song, “Transcending Dualities,” is obviously not intended as meta-commentary about Thou. Vocalist Bryan Funck is specifically referring to the mercurial spectrums of gender and sexuality (“Our gender is disorder/ Our sexuality is transgression and transience,” are the ensuing lines). The ever-humble Funck might dispute this, but that brash declaration definitely applies to Thou as well.
Vast? How about the 41 assorted releases and 600-plus shows the band’s racked up in just over a decade. Unknowable? Try boiling down the dense lyrical themes of any Thou album, often inspired by heady sci-fi/fantasy authors like Gene Wolfe and R. Scott Bakker, in just a sentence or two. Without the confines of your perception? Everyone calls Thou a sludge metal band, but they refute that both in interviews and in practice — just look at their collaborative work with the Body, their punk ethos, their recent acoustic EP, or a live cover of Duran Duran.
Thou have been subverting expectations and exploring the limits of artistic ambition for years, but their latest spurt of activity is their most impressive yet. During what’s been dubbed the “Summer Of Thou” by their fans, the band’s forsaken their usual DIY guerilla-style release tactics in favor of a tight, surgical schedule, dropping one wildly varied EP per month between May and July. Arriving first, The House Primordial expanded on Thou’s gruesome noise/drone work with the Body, albeit without the duo’s help; June’s Inconsolable was a pitch-perfect foray into brutally depressed dark folk; last month’s Rhea Sylvia was, as described by the band, “a melodic grunge, Alice In Chains homage.”
The Summer Of Thou fittingly concludes on the last day of August with Magus, the band’s fifth full-length. Although the most in-line with the standard Thou sound — hastily and reductively summed up as punishing riffs, glacial tempos, and stirringly melodic composition — it arguably faces the biggest challenge of all four new releases, because it’s billed as the official follow-up to 2014’s Heathen. Heathen is an absolute monster, a winding, beautiful, unorthodoxly written 75-minute slab that received the best reviews and most widespread coverage of Thou’s career.
Put simply, Magus lives up to its predecessor. Though almost the exact same length as Heathen, the new album seems to take less time traversing between musical movements, streamlining Thou’s songwriting and allowing for more densely packed memorable passages. Compared to the more majestic, traditionally “doomy” melodies on Heathen, Magus feels more pained and cathartic, almost in the vein of the more atmospheric strains of black metal. Thou flirted with that sound on the back half of 2010’s Summit, which, as Funck describes it, was the first volume in a thematically linked trilogy that concludes with Magus.
Lyrically, Heathen and Magus are opposites. On the former, Funck spouts animalistic sentiments like, “We have forsaken the delusions of comprehension as we are born into the certainty of the sensual.” On the latter, his identity’s defined by his psyche: “The intellectual cares not for the approval of the fool,” “Leave behind this useless flesh husk,” etc. By fully, vividly inhabiting conflicting mentalities on the past two Thou albums, Funck matches the ever-evolving compositional gifts of guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium. More and more, each Thou album is a microcosm of deeply-considered extremities that as a whole, serve to illustrate the inner conflicts of everyday existence.
We talked to Funck to get the full story on Thou’s dominant summer, the stylistic detours on the new EPs, and his hyper-compartmentalized writing process.
STEREOGUM: You’ve released EPs and albums in quick succession before, and of course the splits never really stop, so having four projects released within four months of each other isn’t as unthinkable as it’d be were it another band doing this. But even with that in mind, this rollout feels different. Do you consider it a departure from Thou’s usual operating procedure?
FUNCK: Like you said, I don’t know if the quantity is that extravagant for us. One thing is it’s all Thou — it’s not a batch of stuff split up between different-sized splits. We’ve been working on this stuff for a long time. The Rhea Sylvia record was recorded last year. We’ve been sitting on Magus for a little bit as well. The writing and recording were spread out over a few years, but we had this plan to release it in a certain way where it would put more emphasis on the listener to spend time with these EPs before the full-length came out.
But dealing with all of these labels at once and coordinating all of the efforts into a very focused release strategy — I think that’s definitely been different for us. We’ve always tried to be flexible with release dates for labels’ sakes, but we don’t care about this scheduling stuff. We’d rather just write, record, and put it out. Usually stuff’s released as soon as we can release it. But for this, we really wanted people to take some time with the EPs, so we tried to do it in a way that was a little more interesting, and hopefully force their hand with that. If I’d had my way, we would’ve done even less PR and announcements with these releases. We would’ve just quietly put them out and let people talk about them. That, to me, is more fun, because it’s stirring the pot a little more.
STEREOGUM: For a while there you had people assuming that The House Primordial was ‘The New Thou Album.’
FUNCK: That was great! I love that. I wish we could’ve done it with all the EPs. It’s funny, because we’ve done interviews where we’ve said, ‘The next record is called Magus, it’s gonna be this and that, blah blah blah,’ and there was still some confusion. We knew it would be like that, but I wish we’d pushed it even further. But once you get certain labels involved, they have a certain way of doing things, and we try to be flexible with that. As long as we’re not having to compromise on the art, we’re not really concerned about pre-orders and all that other junk.
STEREOGUM: Each project’s coming out on a different label. Was that more of a logistics thing, or were you trying to fit each one in with a label’s existing roster or vibe?
FUNCK: A little bit of both. We probably could’ve found a label that would’ve just put everything out for us, but originally the plan was to not involve labels at all. We were just going to self-release everything — quietly release the EPs on Bandcamp, not even be too concerned about the physical releases, and just raise some money so we could put out Magus on our own.
Then, the further we got into it, we were like, ‘Well, maybe we should try these labels,’ and reached out to a couple labels we were interested in doing stuff with. Then once the thing with Sacred Bones came up with Magus, we were like, ‘Man, we’d love to do something with Sacred Bones, and it’d be great for them to be pushing the next full-length.’
It just snowballed, progressed organically, as far as involving other labels. We would’ve been perfectly happy putting the stuff out ourselves if we could’ve afforded it. The other thing is, we like collaborating with people. The labels we work with are usually labels we really like, run by people we really like, so it’s in the same spirit as a split record or playing a show. That’s kind of how we view the label, more of a collaborator than anything else. I don’t want to say we’d never take a billion-dollar deal with some huge label if they were hands-off on all the stuff we care about, but it wouldn’t be for the same reasons that we work with labels now.
STEREOGUM: Did the distinct stylistic elements of each EP factor into the release schedule?
FUNCK: Yeah, definitely. House Primordial’s pretty noisy, and it’s got some stuff on it that we don’t usually do, but as far the way a lot of metal bands are currently, especially bands that we would associate with, like the Body, it’s not that far of a sonic departure. It seemed like the most palpable one, and we wanted to put that one out first to trick people into thinking we’d gone in one direction. With doing Inconsolable next, I liked the idea of taking it in the opposite direction.
The Rhea Sylvia one is pretty close to a Thou proper record, but it’s a lot more simplified. The songs are very verse-chorus-verse, very melody-heavy, with a lot more of Matthew’s singing on it. In total, it’s closest to a Thou record, but a softer Thou record. All the songs are basically Matthew’s acoustic solo project stuff that we mangled into Thou songs. His vocals are so great on the acoustic stuff — like I probably could’ve screamed over parts, but it sounded so much better with him singing it that we just couldn’t resist.
STEREOGUM: If you follow Thou closely — who you tour with, who you do splits with, who you cover — it’s pretty clear that you guys have eclectic tastes. But if somebody were to just listen to one Thou album or see one Thou show, they might not pick up on that. Within the band, has there always been a desire to mix it up like this and show more range?
FUNCK: We’ve been talking about the acoustic stuff for years and years. We were actually supposed to do a split with Pygmy Lush around the time they were recording [2011’s] Old Friends. They put that off, even until now, and we got sick of waiting on them and were pumped about doing something like this. Then since the last thing we did with the Body [2015’s You, Whom I Have Always Hated], we’d been talking about doing a full-on drone record. I don’t know how House Primordial fits with our original plan for it, but I’m into it. I like the way it came out.
Part of it, too, is being able to do some tours where we’re not playing the traditional Thou set, or even just being able to get on some shows that we wouldn’t have been thought of as an opener before. And we just thought it’d be a fun, interesting thing to do. We first started getting serious about doing a drone EP and acoustic EP before we started working on Magus, and the plan was, ‘Let’s do these EPs, get real wild with them, and then maybe we can take some of those ideas and work them into Magus.’ But what actually happened is that Andy just jumped into writing Magus, so we ended up doing that first, and then took some of the really small ideas we’d had on the full-length and went bananas with it on the EPs.
STEREOGUM: So the ideas for each of these releases were clearly long-in-the-works, but was the actual material written separately with the different projects in mind, or is it more assembled from bits and pieces you’ve had for years?
FUNCK: It’s kind of all over the place. The Rhea Sylvia stuff, we basically just took Matthew’s songs and made them heavier. So he pretty much wrote that record, and we just added to it. Magus basically got written on its own — there’s some stuff we tossed out — but more or less, we wrote it from start to finish over a period of a couple years.
For House Primordial, we did a live score for The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari for the Baton Rouge Museum Of Arts in the city park. They usually get jazz bands to improv a set, but we took a lot of the electronic stuff that Andy writes and mangled that with dronier stuff and me screaming over it. We had a handful of practices where we played the movie and went through it, had a rough idea of what we would do, with some refrain parts. Then after we played that show, we were like, ‘Man, that wasn’t too bad. Maybe we can take this as the skeleton or blueprint for what we want to do with this drone record.’ So Matthew wrote a few more riffs and then we basically banged that one out in the studio.
With Inconsolable, we wrote for a few months, coming up with the basic songs, and then recorded some real shitty phone demos. I took those demos and wrote lyrics and vocal lines, then we recruited people to sing on it. Some of them had a rough idea of what we would do going into it, and some of them we just had to teach in the studio. That’s not normally how we operate. With The House Primordial and Inconsolable, we wrote a good portion of them in the studio. Everything was basically there, but we spent a lot more time in the studio shaping things. Usually when we get to the studio, we know what the song sounds like. It’s more of us having some fun ideas we want to try out on it, or overdubs, but we go in and bang it out. We practice it, we know what it’s gonna sound like, and we do it. But with these two records, we had a much looser approach than we usually do. I think it lent itself to some good experimentation, but it was also pretty stressful.
STEREOGUM: Was part of the challenge playing around with different genres than usual?
FUNCK: It wasn’t so much the styles… Well, maybe it was. I guess with our [usual] stuff, we can hide our ineptitude behind a layer of feedback, but this [acoustic] stuff — definitely for me, with the lyrics and the vocal lines — was definitely a bit of a challenge. But all of the people we got to sing on Inconsolable are great, and a lot of them were able to hear notes, and be on-pitch. They were a lot more professional than we are, sometimes. Definitely more professional than I am.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any vocals on Inconsolable?
FUNCK: I’m actually not on Inconsolable at all. By the time we got to the end of it, we had layered it with so many voices over every part we could think to layer. I probably could’ve done a little singing on it, because I’ve done a tiny bit of singing on some things in the past, but it didn’t really need it. It definitely would’ve taken me some time to get some good takes, and it wouldn’t have been adding anything other than me just having my voice on it to have my voice on it. I probably would’ve buried it way deep in the mix. Artistically, it didn’t make a lot of sense. I wrote the lyrics to every song on there except for the first one and the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover, and I more or less wrote most of the vocal lines, and a lot of the ideas for overdubs and vocal arrangements came from me. So I had a big enough hand in it where I didn’t feel like I needed to be on it to feel like I was a part of it. I felt like I was more of a part of Inconsolable than I was on House Primordial, which I’m actually on.
STEREOGUM: Just in more of a conductor or directorial role.
FUNCK: Yeah… producer. If I had any kind of musical skill I’d probably be a pretty good producer. I think that’d be a thing that I’d have a lot of fun with. But I have no technical training at all. When I talk to the band about music or parts, it’s like, torture for them — ‘Make this part sadder. This riff needs to be bigger.’
STEREOGUM: The musical style of Inconsolable seems to lend itself to very depressing lyrics, but was there anything else that factored into your decision to make it a very bleak project?
FUNCK: When we started talking about doing an acoustic record, my only direction for the band before they started writing it was, ‘I just want this to be the saddest thing we’ve ever written.’ I wanted it to be sadder than a Pygmy Lush record — just this really depressing and dark stuff. I think they just went with that. But those guys, they write what they want to write, so it’s just kind of what came out. I know Andy needs a singular vision for a project to be focused, so maybe that lent itself to it. Some of those songs were definitely riffs Matthew had been playing around with for himself, so it kind of has that vibe to it. But I don’t write any of the music music, so I can only give them basic directions of what I want, and then they take it wherever they want to take it.
STEREOGUM: I noticed a bit of overlap between the new records — there’s the song “Behind The Mask Another Mask” on Inconsolable, and then that’s a lyric on “The Changeling Prince” off of Magus. Are there thematic connections between all the new releases?
FUNCK: Well, I really like the idea of building off of other songs. Part of how I write Thou stuff, in general, is I’ll be inspired by a song lyric, or a line I read in a book, and I’ll take that one little thing — even just a turn of phrase — and I’ll write a whole song from that. At some point I started pulling little bits out of songs that I had written and narrowing down the focus for myself. The thing about Thou songs is that most times, I’m writing about a really specific thing, but I try to write in a way that’s general enough where it doesn’t have to be about that same thing for everybody. But yeah, that’s definitely on purpose, not really to be self-referential, but to be building off of these little pieces. Actually, “The Hammer,” that song off Inconsolable, those lyrics are from this old hardcore band I was in a few years back. I was really into those lyrics and thought that having people sing it, like a really clean, pretty version, would be cool.
STEREOGUM: When you’re honing in on those tiny details to write an individual song around, how do you then start to construct an overarching vision or theme for an album? Most Thou albums seem to arrive with fairly focused mission statements.
FUNCK: I think this is thematic of my life, but I’m more or less working on ten things at once. I’m constantly reading and listening to music and looking at stuff. Anytime I hear something or see something or think of something that strikes me as something I could use or something I could dig into or read about more, I’m constantly writing down notes. I’ll usually have a good chunk of notes for different ideas of projects I want to work on. Like we’ve been talking about doing Magus since Summit, so I’ve been pulling little tidbits for that for years. Every now and then, something gets pulled out of that batch that I want to use for something else, like, ‘Oh, that makes more sense here.’ But yeah, usually there’s a focused theme for each record, or if it isn’t an actual theme like we do on the full-lengths, it’s at least a feeling that I’m trying to get to or some place that I’m trying to access.
STEREOGUM: When you’re putting these Magus lyrics to music, or music to these lyrics, what do you think makes this particular batch of Thou songs fit that theme?
FUNCK: Usually with the full-lengths, there’s like, a song. We start with a song that sets the tone, and the rest of the songs have to loosely fit that feeling. This one didn’t quite go like that. We were probably halfway through before we got the song that, at least for me, really made it click. That’s “Inward.” Andy basically wrote half of the record, and we weren’t really sure if it was where we wanted to take it. When we started, we were still toying with the idea of doing this black metal-inspired record …
STEREOGUM: That’s funny, I wrote in my notes that I get a black metal vibe from some of the melodies.
FUNCK: Yeah. We talked about doing that a million years ago with Summit when Terry [Gulino] was still in the band — the stuff they were coming up with wasn’t exactly that, but there was a certain feeling of menace of anxiety that we were trying to get to. I don’t know if that really came through as much for Magus — as is kind of typical Thou, we dug more into the melancholy. But then when we got to House Primordial, we struck more on that tense, anxious, fearfulness that was more what we were talking about for Magus. It just didn’t come out like that. Another thing is we didn’t want to write another Heathen. We probably could’ve easily done that, and Magus is still very much within that vein, I think, but to me, it feels more like Heathen if you cut all of the fat off, like if it was riffier and less meandering.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I get what you’re saying. Magus seems punchier and has more refrain parts.
FUNCK: Yeah, that was part of it for us. For me, as far as the lyrics and vocal lines go, I had more of a, ‘You know, I’m just going to treat this like the chorus’ thing going on. I just wanted to have a refrain that I could come back to, that was more interesting to me. I don’t know if it came from doing the Rhea Sylvia stuff, or just that Thou doesn’t usually do that, but we definitely did it on this.
STEREOGUM: Now I’m curious to hear your explanation of Magus’ theme.
FUNCK: It’s the other side of the coin with Heathen. Heathen was about celebrating nature, the sensual world, pleasure, and pain. Magus is a rebuttal to that, digging into introspection and self-critique, and more esoteric philosophy, theories, and poetry. The more abstract things, not the concrete physical world. Where Heathen asserted that the natural world was at the primacy, Magus refutes that. And then taking it back, Summit is supposed to be the amalgamation of those two extremes into something that’s balanced and more effective at creating change.
STEREOGUM: I get the sense that some songs on Magus use individualism as a rallying cry and others where self-interest distorts people’s worldview.
FUNCK: Especially because of the times we’re living in and personal experiences I’m having with people revealing their true natures, or being reactionary to a lot of the politics of today, there’s definitely a bit of critique in there about how certain people deal with or don’t deal with introspection or being self-aware. But you know, it’s no more critical than I would be of myself. That’s definitely in there, and is a product of personal stuff I’m going through, as well as shit you see on the news all the time with identity politics.
STEREOGUM: Are all of the songs written from the same perspective?
FUNCK: Well, yes and no. Maybe this is just me, but even within a fuckin’ 10-minute Thou song, it’s impossible for me to write a completely, well-articulated, balanced, nuanced take on these grandiose issues that I want to tackle. It’s much easier, and a lot more fun, for me to just take an extreme point of view with something, or really hone in on one particular thing in one song, and then take the opposite approach on another song. But if you’re a well-balanced person, that’s just what you deal with in your life: finding that balance between all these different extremes. I feel like Thou as a whole is really what’s trying to say something, not one song or album by itself. I’d rather the body of work speak to a bigger or more nuanced perspective on life and politics.