Thursday Atones for the Sins of Emo
As frontman of the New Jersey band Thursday, Geoff Rickly helped pioneer many of the main motifs of today's landscape of contemporary punk-inspired rock.
From his group sprang a distinctive sing/scream vocal technique, wordy song titles and lyrics, and even the use of the calendar as a source for band names. But more than a decade after his band's inception, Rickly says he wants to distance himself from much of what his influence has wrought.
"The really liberating thing," Rickly says by phone on a recent afternoon, "is that the trend of trying to be a band like Thursday, which came about six or seven years ago, is so over. So now we're really given the freedom of doing what we wanted to do."
It's hard to overstate the reach of the second- or third-hand Thursday imprint on the current stars of the Warped Tour world. Much of that can be traced back to the band's breakthrough sophomore album, Full Collapse, released in 2001. Up to then, the band, while slowly gaining a cult following, mostly toiled around the Northeastern underground hardcore and punk world. The music bore those scenes' imprimatur in guitarist Tom Keeley's charging, spazzed-out guitar riffs and in Rickly's cathartic wails.
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Then came Full Collapse, which, while released on the then-hardcore-centric Victory Records, was a sort of manifesto of turn-of-the-millennium, thinking-person's post-hardcore. The 12 tracks harnessed hardcore's energy but channeled it through more atmospheric, intricate guitar work and into introspective, more complexly observational lyrics. Rickly used his reedy but robust, instantly recognizable voice truly as an instrument, pitching it up, whispering, or erupting in a yell to punctuate his songs' emotional flow.
This innovation was popular—really popular—in a nascent, pre-MySpace scene. The record reached No. 178 on the Billboard 200, and videos for singles "Understanding in a Car Crash" and "Cross Out the Eyes" seeped into some TV rotation. But this is where things started to go wrong: A lot of kids in upstart bands heard Rickly's vocal play and decided the sing/scream combo was a set formula.
"I feel like this sort of modern mall emo/hardcore/screamo whatever, we get blamed for all that, because it was such an underground thing before Full Collapse broke out," Rickly says. "I never thought that was fair, because so many bands that came after us who had superficial similarities to us wrote all their songs about girls, which were basically pop songs at heart and didn't do anything new structurally. We always wanted to fit into the footsteps of bands like Jawbox and Jawbreaker and Fugazi. We had a very specific narrative technique. We had all these things that were ours, and when other people started doing them, it felt more obvious than it really was."
And so, in reaction, over its ensuing records, Thursday pushed the limit of its idiosyncrasies even further, hopping from Victory to the major Island and back to independence as no label really "got it." And now, in 2009, the band has both achieved a tabula rasa and returned to its roots.
The band's seventh and latest album, Common Existence, was released last month on the punk holy grail label Epitaph. Its 11 tracks paint a sonic picture of a band finally freed from various constraints. And, on it, Rickly and company have clearly re-examined the essential pieces of post-hardcore, spinning them into a web sticky with British shoegaze guitar textures and a humanities degree's worth of source subject matter.
But, despite all the zigs and zags from the more obvious elements of what gained Thursday its initial popularity, Rickly insists he has never abandoned his hardcore-derived heritage. Rather, he sees his mission as similar to that of musicians who arrived after punk's first 1970s peak: to pick up the pieces, and, à la 1980s post-punk, create a new collage from them.
"If more people kind of genuinely put that kind of creativity into something that grew out of hardcore, it would be an amazing thing," Rickly says. "Post-punk was this very great movement in music. And I think post-hardcore could be something cool like that."
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