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MUSIC SPECIAL: Interview with Thursday's Geoff Rickly

Thursday

NORMAN BRANNON

Guestblogger Norman Brannon is a pop critic, musician, and author based in New York City. He presents a weekly music update here on Towleroad and writes regularly at Nervous Acid.  

Follow Norman on Twitter at @nervousacid.

EXTENDED PLAY:

Thursday__18642_zoom Thursday No Devolución (Epitaph)
Glasvegas Euphoric / Heartbreak (Columbia)

A little less than a month ago, the Chicago band Rise Against released their sixth studio album, Endgame, to critical and commercial acclaim — making its debut at number two on the Billboard charts and scoring the band their first proper Hot 100 single. But what's gone under the radar so far is the inclusion of a song called "Make It Stop (September's Children)," which — perhaps in an unlikely turn for a hard rock band — explicitly criticizes Church-sanctioned homophobia and goes on to list the names of those LGBT teens who took their own lives last September before proclaiming, "Make it stop, let this end / This life chose me, I'm not lost in sin / And proud I stand of who I am / I plan to go on living." Although singer Tim McIlrath is straight, his lyrics take an unambiguous stand in solidarity with the LGBT community. 

Similarly, this week, Scotland's Glasvegas returns with their sophomore album, Euphoric / Heartbreak — a widescreen British rock album that the band is hinging their early success on — but, this time, singer James Allen uses his platform to denounce homophobia on a pair of awkwardly titled songs called "Stronger Than Dirt (Homosexuality Pt. 2)" and "I Feel Wrong (Homosexuality Pt. 1)." Earlier this week, he told Spinner, "Even in this modern day you'd think that people would have more important things to think about than someone's sexuality. It's a shame that this goes on in the world." On "I Feel Wrong," he rues, "God, it's only love."

Glasvegas-Euphoric-Heartbreak What Rise Against and Glasvegas are doing is, on some level, unprecedented: Both of these bands are at stages of their career where they've already sold hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of records around the world; both of these bands have access to radio, international press, and major label distribution. But more relevantly, both of these bands belong to a genre riddled with hypermasculinity and subcultural heterosexism. Considering this, their willingness to pave the way for a queer-inclusive hard rock archetype is arguably more radical than "Born This Way," and for many young kids, more meaningful than "It Gets Better" — because while it's nice to know that things won't always be so hard, it's even better to know that there are people you look up to who are actually doing the work to make it better now

The New Jersey–based Thursday, whose latest full-length album No Devolución also comes out today, are pioneers in this regard: In 2001, they released "Paris In Flames" — a song that tried to convey the isolation of one of singer Geoff Rickly's gay friends and a nod to the movie Paris Is Burning — and then again, in 2003, the band recorded an eponymous tribute to Matthew Shepard for their major label debut. In an attempt to further explore this emerging intersection between hard rock music and gay politics, I spoke with Rickly — a musician whose thoughtful nature and political empathy turns out to be both compelling and authentic.

Thursday - Sparks Against The Sun

Geoff NB: Back in the days when you released "Paris in Flames" or "M. Shepard," you could probably count the number of hard rock bands openly talking about homophobia or gay sexuality on two fingers. But just in the last few months, first with Rise Against and now with Glasvegas, we've seen at least two major rock bands come out and explicitly tackle the issue. What do you think has changed between then and now?

GR: That's an interesting question. I mean, first, I think more people are thinking about this as a civil rights issue — which is what I think it's always been, but I'm not sure it was always couched in those terms in the general public view. And then with the marriage issue, I think it's become much more of a wider discussion, where everyone is involved with it all the time. I've always felt that I needed to talk from the perspective that I have, which is that of a straight white male; I never thought I could inhabit anyone else's thoughts or ideas. But I have all these friends that I see having a hard time with this — because of pressures that the general public or the government or institutions like the Church are putting on them and that's the kind of stuff that drives me crazy. It's not so much that I want to talk about what it's like to be gay; I don't have any idea what it's like to be gay. But I do think it's sort of the obvious human issue of our time. The fact that there's a group that people still feel comfortable making laws for, and telling them what they can't do, and telling them what they're allowed to have. That's just insane. I mean, if we pushed it back fifty years and talked about, "Oh, I don't know about interracial marriage!" (laughs) … You'd be a maniac.

NB: Actually, just this week actually there was a poll of Mississippi Republicans that was released, and I'm not lying…

GR: (Laughs) This sounds like a set up right here.

NB: No, not at all. A reputable polling firm asked a group of Mississippi Republicans: "Do you think that interracial marriage should be legal or illegal?" And the split came out that 40% said it should be legal, 46% said it should be illegal, and 14% were not sure! That's actually real.

GR: That can't be! Wow. So I'm guessing my wife and I aren't going to be too happy there as an interracial couple (laughs). That is so scary.

NB: So OK. I was thinking about how hip-hop generally bears the brunt of the homophobia accusations…

GR: It does.

Thursday_Press Shot SMALLER NB: But at the same time, there are a lot of people who think that gay people are not fans of or involved with hard rock because of homophobia there.

GR: Right. Well, even today, with all the songs that we've released and with all that we've said, people are still totally comfortable coming onto our bus and throwing around the word "faggot" as a pejorative. I find that shocking all the time. People are just saying, "Oh, those dudes are faggots. That band sucks" — as if it's the same thing. As if being gay represents being weak or all of the things a truly ignorant person who has never met a gay person would think.

NB: Do you think that rock artists just assume that gay rights is someone else's fight, whereas pop artists are maybe more sensitive to the diversity of their fans?

GR: I'm gonna say something really cynical, but honestly, in both of those categories there's going to be a little bit of pandering going on to your supposed demographic. I think that in hard rock — like popular hard rock, like Nickelback or something — there's going to be this idea that I have to look like this hard rock tough-guy, and I think in pop, there's a little more sensitivity to like, "Well, a lot of my crowd might be gay and they can be tastemakers for who listens to me." So there's a little bit of that going on. I don't wanna say that that's it, I don't wanna single out any one artist and say they don't care or that they're just playing to a crowd, but…

NB: … But capitalism still drives politics sometimes.

GR: It definitely does. And I think that even some of these people who feel strongly about gay rights are deciding whether or not it's an issue they wanna come out for or not, thinking about how it will affect their career. Pop artists are probably thinking it won't affect them negatively, while rock artists might think it's not a good look to stick up for this.

Thursday - Magnets Caught In A Metal Heart

NB: How much of that is that rock artists are less inclined to discuss gay issues because they're afraid of being perceived as gay?

GR: The crazy thing about that is that [in 2003] around War All The Time, when we were a really high-visibility band, that was the one thing I would read about myself all the time. "Their singer is totally gay." Just because I said something, like automatically, I must be gay — because, like, why would you care about somebody else's life or issues? At the same time, I'd just gotten married to a woman, but I didn't really feel like correcting anybody because, whatever. Maybe if they think that I'm gay they'll be thinking about it. Maybe they'll think, "Hmm, I don't know. He seems all right" — or whatever crazy thing that people who actually care about that are thinking.

NB: I actually noticed that. I was thinking about how you've never really gone out of your way to assert your heterosexuality, and how if you do a search on Google for "Geoff Rickly gay," you just get tons of people agonizing over it. They just don't know!

GR: (Laughs) Well, I would never try to pretend that I was gay. But it's funny that people would go crazy trying to figure it out.

Geoff live NB: When I was thinking about this interview, it also occurred to me that one of the kids in the recent spate of gay teen suicides went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick — where you guys are from.

GR: Yes, I remember that.

NB: Do you ever feel a responsibility to address these topics to your younger fans?

GR: I think that's a really important question, and that there are layers of responsibility. I think that we are all responsible to set a positive example for the younger audience we have, but it's also complicated because it's like, how much of that dictates what your art is going to be? How overtly political are you going to be in your art? And if you decide to just speak about this on the side or from the stage, but not in the songs, does that make it less valuable in some way? Those are things I think about. No Devolución, our new album, is basically apolitical. It doesn't confront a single thing that could be considered a political issue. But at the same time, so much of the record is about devotion and love, and I see that being connected even though it's not specific.

NB: So considering all we've talked about, do you think we've finally entered a point where the gay experience is going to become a matter of hard rock subject matter? Or do you think bands like yours are going to stay on your island somewhere?

GR: (Laughs) I think that even with Rise Against and Glasvegas being two pretty mainstream bands, that's pretty encouraging that that's happening right now. I also think it will become more of the conversation within rock music, but at the same time, I'm kind of hoping that we start moving fast enough politically to where it just becomes a part of everyone's conversation in a way that changes attitudes. I'm hoping that this will move at such an accelerated place that it just becomes a part of every sphere, in a way that you wouldn't even ask about its place in rock music.

NB: To a place where songs like these might seem completely passé and dated.

GR: Exactly. And I believe that they will be.

Thursday's sixth studio album, "No Devolución," is released today via Epitaph Records.

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Comments

  1. "both of these bands belong to a genre riddled with hypermasculinity and subcultural heterosexism."

    Hardly. That hasn't been true since Kurt Cobain wore a dress on MTV. Which is ironic given that Rise Against is little more than a Nirvana knockoff.

    But I will agree that all of this is better than "Born This Way."

    Posted by: crispy | Apr 12, 2011 10:56:51 AM


  2. Crispy, I agree with you – kind of. Mr. Brannon may be a "pop critic" but he seems only vaguely acquainted with the music he's writing about here which, by the way, is hardcore punk not "hard rock" (I think that's AC/DC or something). He writes "But what's gone under the radar so far is the inclusion of a song called "Make It Stop (September's Children)," which — perhaps in an unlikely turn for a hard rock band — explicitly criticizes Church-sanctioned homophobia..." Um, hello? It isn't really that odd for a hardcore punk band - especially one that often criticizes the political right in America - to stand up against homophobia, church-sponsored or otherwise. Just because it isn't "dance music" doesn't mean it can't be gay-friendly. Get a grip, Mr. Brannon.

    On the other hand, Crispy, your assertion that Rise Against is a "Nirvana knockoff" is patently absurd. Nirvana was a grunge band with some garage band leanings. Rise Against is a hardcore band. If Kurt hadn't already blown his head off, he probably would be laughing it off at such a comparison instead.

    Posted by: RyanInSacto | Apr 12, 2011 11:19:55 AM


  3. You're right, Kurt Cobain would be laughing... but because Rise Against only know 3 chords.

    But don't take my word for it. AV Club: "Rise Against's most recent album, 2008's excellent Appeal To Reason, had the kind of blazing guitars and hoarse-throated vocals from frontman Tim McIlrath that can trace their lineage back to Seattle in the early '90s (and Southern California in the '80s)."

    To be fair, I went to Youtube and listened to "Make It Stop (September's Children)" and I really enjoyed it.

    Posted by: crispy | Apr 12, 2011 11:38:16 AM


  4. I don't normally like to respond to comments because, generally speaking, it's opinion — and I encourage you to disagree with me or with each other! That's the nature of the Internet.

    But a few things were suggested here that interfere with fact, so I thought I'd set the record straight on that:

    First of all, Crispy is right to assert that Cobain opened a new dialogue in commercial hard rock that certainly didn't exist in the same way before Nirvana. Absolutely true! Unfortunately, however, sexism and homophobia were not extinguished from the genre post-Cobain. Suppressed in some ways, perhaps, but it still exists. (The part of this interview where Geoff talks about people coming onto his bus and using the word "faggot" is not an isolated incident.) Still, good additional point.

    As far Ryan's comment, I should probably mention that my first real involvement with music was with the hardcore punk scene in New York City in the late 1980s. I was the author of hardcore punk fanzines in the '90s, played in a number of established hardcore punk bands, and published a book about hardcore punk in 2007. I think I'm more than "vaguely acquainted" with this music to discuss it here.

    That said, for all intents and purposes, what Rise Against and Thursday do is not necessarily "hardcore punk." (Bands like 7 Seconds or Negative Approach or SS Decontrol, for example, probably wouldn't have been invited to play the KROQ Acoustic Christmas.) Ultimately, these are bands that are selling hundreds of thousands of records at this point; it's paradoxical to say that what they're doing is "underground" anymore. At some point, these bands took what they learned from hardcore punk and applied it to what is commonly referred to as hard rock — not a perfect term, but it fits for our purposes — and that is the style of music that I am talking about here.

    If you still disagree — if Rise Against is a hardcore archetype in your opinion — then that's fantastic. Argue on those terms. But who I am and what I've done in the hardcore punk scene is well-documented. My observation is valid.

    Posted by: Norman | Apr 12, 2011 12:02:57 PM


  5. @Norman: Thank you for your comments. It's cool that you responded.

    Whether or not Rise Against is "underground" or not doesn't change the genre of music that they play. It also doesn't change where they come from musically. That just strikes me as a run-of-the-mill reactionary punk rock attitude - "my favorite band is selling too many records (or is on KROQ) so now they suck!" Do you agree that they are at least *from* the hardcore scene?

    Second, I still take issue with – and you haven't addressed – the notion that it is surprising for a band like Rise Against (whatever their correct genre label) to vocally oppose homophobia. You seem to be perpetuating a stereotype that many in gay community already hold - that rock music (or anything that isn't showtunes, Cher, or GaGa) isn't for us.

    Also, since you disclosed some of your background, I guess I should disclose that I used to play in this band:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_Revenge

    We never got invited to play KROQ's Acoustic Christmas, btw. ;)

    Posted by: RyanInSacto | Apr 12, 2011 12:26:06 PM


  6. @Ryan Thanks for the note.

    I should mention: I never said Rise Against "sucks" and if they did, it wouldn't be because they were or weren't underground. There are a lot of awesome bands on major labels, and a lot of terrible bands on indies. So hey, no knee-jerking here. :)

    With that out of the way, yes, of course I believe that Rise Against come from the hardcore scene. I'm friends with ex-members of the band as a result of their affiliation with the hardcore scene. We have tons of mutual friends. But being from the hardcore scene and playing hardcore music are two different things. That's all I'm saying. Also, I should mention that my saying that Rise Against play hard rock is not some kind of subversive blow to them. Playing "hardcore" is not, like, a badge of honor or something.

    As far as the last thing, my exact words were that it was "an unlikely turn for a hard rock band." That's true. It might not be an unlikely turn for Rise Against, but in terms of contemporary hard rock music that you hear on KROQ, there is a scarcity of popular rock bands who are explicitly addressing gay rights in song or otherwise. Maybe my prose was clumsy there, but that's all I meant by that.

    My whole point for this piece was to expand the discussion about what kind of music is "gay" or "gay-friendly" — which is, obviously in my own life, anything but stereotypical. But it would be disingenuous for me to say that this isn't a complicated discussion, and because of that, I avoided painting an overtly rosy picture. The nuance is there though, and Geoff (and Rise Against and Glasvegas) are, I think, part of a bigger trend that will see gay people becoming much more of a visible part of this fabric.

    Thanks for the constructive feedback!

    Posted by: Norman | Apr 12, 2011 12:50:18 PM


  7. @Norman: What a pleasant experience: Interaction on a comment board that didn't devolve into either of us calling the other a Nazi. ;)

    All joking aside, I appreciate your thoughtful response and I'm glad that you're someone who is working to broaden the music coverage on this site.

    Posted by: RyanInSacto | Apr 12, 2011 1:06:10 PM


  8. I do have to say... I'm pretty excited that we're talking about rock music! Not a single diva in this column. :)

    Posted by: crispy | Apr 12, 2011 1:14:57 PM


  9. See? Civility is possible on the Internet!

    Posted by: Norman | Apr 12, 2011 2:14:52 PM


  10. Hey Norman,

    I'm loving that you're covering something other than dance music, and your interview with Geoff was great. I also grew up in the hardcore scene - on the west coast, where I think there was more latent homophobia than blatant.

    There were a few punk bands who "crossed over" (or came close to it) that outwardly despised homophobia, and wrote songs about it, and acceptance. Propagandhi, NOFX, Ant-Flag, etc. Probably the biggest example would be Green Day after they had crossed over.

    Posted by: Adam | Apr 12, 2011 6:54:49 PM


  11. Thursday has long been one of my top two favorite bands, since a friend told me to check out War All the Time when we were ub a Philly metal/hardcore music store. Those genres and all their "kids" tied up in my coming out in high school, finding refuge from confusing feelings of sexuality in frakin' hard, passionate music. Awesome to hear Thursday yet again eclipse their previous albums in creativity and plain great music, and also to read Geoff's down to earth, intelligent words of human connection.
    Also, RyanInSacto, was able to locate Starts With You on Interpunk- what a kickass CD! The 28 yo me loves it and wishes the 17 yo me could have heard it.

    Posted by: Chris | Apr 16, 2011 10:48:57 PM


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