May Our Chambers Be Full: A conversation with Andy Gibbs of Thou
For those that delve deep into the DIY metal scene, the name Thou will be one that is all too familiar. Currently based in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the sextet employs a crushing and heavy-as-all-hell strain of sludge/doom but their style and sound are not just defined by mere genres. In fact, if Thou have taught us anything is that they are as genre-bending as they are heavy, always trying to bring something different to the table in regards to sound, composition and lyrical themes, something that is ever-present in their vast and varied back catalogue. Born through Sacred Bones’ Alliance Series, May Our Chambers Be Full is the latest in that long line of great releases by the Baton Rouge/New Orleans sextet and is one that proves to be their toughest challenge yet. Having joined forces with Emma Ruth Rundle, a brilliant singer-songwriter based in Louisville known for such stunningly beautiful solo records as Marked For Death, Some Heavy Ocean and her latest, On Dark Horses, as well as her work in Marriages and Red Sparowes, Thou took the opportunity to deliver us something that is decidedly different from what both artists have done in the past.
With early reviews describing this new collaborative record as being “memorable from the first to the last second” and “narrating a distilled tour-de-force with the little but unwavering humanity it so affectionately praises” – we collaborated with our friends at Wav for this interview and review, the latter from which these quotes were taken and which you can read in full and in Portuguese here -, we talked with guitarist Andy Gibbs about the circumstances in which this collaboration came to be, the recording process and goals of the record, as well as videogames as an influence and the current state of the live music industry.
May Our Chambers Be Full, Thou’s upcoming collaborative record with Emma Ruth Rundle, will be dropping at the end of this month. Can you give us a little history lesson on this new record: how did this collaboration came to be, how was the recording process and what did you want to achieve with it that you hadn’t done with your previous records?
So, the whole thing started, I think it was 2016 or 2017. We met Emma at Northwest Terror Fest, in Seattle, we shared a green room together. That was the first time we met; I had been aware of her before but that was the first time we actually got to hang out. We got along pretty well and I got to see her perform for the first time, which was really striking. From there, we talked about wanting to do a collaboration with her but not really having a plan for it. And then, we got offered to do the Roadburn residency and that was a good way to focus that intent into an actual collaboration. They offered us four sets and they wanted one of them to be collaborative and we had already talked about doing something with Emma, so it was a natural fit. The process of writing all the songs was extensively to have them to perform at Roadburn. We knew we were going to record them and all that, but the main thing was that, we have a gig coming up and we need to have songs to play.
So that happened and we got together; she lives in Louisville, Kentucky and it was kind of like, we would have to make trips up there and she would make trips down here for us to write, and all the writing came together in those sessions. We would send each other stuff back and forth over email, then we would get together for these sessions and we would have a marathon band practice where we would just write, write, write. After we did that, we demoed some of the stuff to get an idea of what the recording process would be like and then, after Roadburn was done, we came back and wrote a handful more songs. We went to the studio here in New Orleans and I think we spent less than a week maybe, I can’t remember, might have been five days, just knocking everything out in the studio, playing most of the stuff we played live and then we went back and did a bunch of overdubs and all that stuff. It was a pretty involved process with a lot of different mixes.
As far as your last question, I think if you asked all of us it would probably be a different answer but for me, I was really excited to use the collaboration with Emma as a way to do some things that I probably wouldn’t be able to do with Thou otherwise. Like some of the riffs I wrote, they wouldn’t fit on a regular Thou record. A lot of them were just not our usual style and so, it was a good opportunity to work in some new styles and also introduce this element with Emma’s voice, which really brings in this real emotional component that we don’t get to have in that specific way. Her vocal style, her lyrics and her general vibe brought a lot of emotional weight that I was really excited about incorporating as well.
(…) it was a good opportunity to work in some new styles and also introduce this element with Emma’s voice, which really brings in this real emotional component that we don’t get to have in that specific way.”
Having listened to the record, I have to say that it really feels like a completely different record than both Thou and Emma would do, but is also the perfect blend between both artists’ sounds, they really come well together.
Thank you for saying that. That was definitely one of the challenges and we weren’t really sure how that was going to work, if it would just end up being some songs sounding like her and some songs sounding like us, but I think we did an okay job of melding the styles and I’m glad that came through.
The first single you guys released, entitled “Ancestral Recall”, really reminded me of a certain tabletop game called Magic: The Gathering. I don’t know if you are a Magic player…
I’m not! [laughs] Our singer Bryan [Funck], though, he is the one that is the most familiar. It’s funny, he always does this thing where he will take a name from a book he is reading, a videogame or a comic, and he will take concepts from those things and sneak them into the music. So that was one of those things where I saw the name but having never played Magic, I wasn’t familiar with that so I didn’t put it together. And after the song came out, I noticed people online were talking about that and I looked it up and was like, oh, that’s a Magic: The Gathering card.
I was one of those commenters on social media, that is why I asked you about it, because I thought you were one of the members of the band that actually played.
Well no, not that. [laughs] I mean, I’m a dork in a lot of other ways though. I like to play Dungeons & Dragons, that sort of thing.
I want to pick up on that, actually. You mentioned that you don’t play Magic, but you play board games like Dungeons & Dragons and I assume videogames as well. Are those mediums an inspiration for you personally when creating music?
I grew up playing videogames, they used to be a really big part of my life when I was a teenager and I do think that a lot of the music from at least a few of those games was a big influence, and that is something that Matthew [Thudium] and I talk about a lot. Specifically, the game Chrono Trigger was a huge influence on both of us, the soundtrack of that was a huge influence. I even went back and played that game a couple of months ago and was taking notes on some of the songs, thinking about ways to incorporate those sorts of melodies, because there are a lot of really, for a lack of a better word, nostalgic-sounding melodies in that game, they just evoke a certain mood that really touched me when I was younger and I would love to find a way to do that. But yeah, it’s not something I think about. I don’t sit down and write a song and be like, I’m going to pull from Castlevania to write this riff, but it’s probably something that seeped into my subconscious, having been so immersed in videogames when I was younger. Certainly, I can call it an influence. I think Bryan is the one that probably pulls the most from that realm as far as the way he writes lyrics, he uses a lot of that just like he did with “Ancestral Recall”.
What other mediums inspire you outside of gaming?
I don’t know, that’s a good question because I’m not really a huge movie person. I like to read but I don’t know how much of that could really affect my songwriting. So, for me it’s really just music and the different ways I think about music. There is some music that I enjoy but I would never think to pull anything from and there’s other music that I’m specifically listening to for stuff that I think I can use in some way, like a concept or a mood or something like that. The older I get, I’m trying to be a little more varied in my intake of mediums and, like I said, I’m not much of a movie person but I am trying to explore the more visual side of things. I have more of an interest in visual aesthetics now than I did five or ten years ago, it’s something that it’s kind of new for me to be thinking about. So, I don’t know, maybe in the future I’ll become a film guy.
Picking up on what you said about the visual aesthetics – and being more of a personal curiosity for me than anything else -, your records feature different cover art in their physical and digital releases, which range from photography to cut pieces of illustrations by Gustave Doré, respectively. Why is that?
I view, and I think Bryan views, the physical records as an almost separate experience from the digital ones and so, we want to emphasize that difference in as many ways as possible, whether it’s adding something extra, you know, like if we do a CD, maybe we’ll add an extra something because there is room. And also, as a way to just mess with the format. If we do a CD, because the layout of a CD and the way you have to design the CD is going to be different from the way you would design an LP, we want to do something that reflects that difference and utilizes all the strengths of each format. So, the digital thing is just like, Bryan had a lot of these woodcut type images and we were talking about having a really unified aesthetic for the digital stuff so that everything looks very official. But in my opinion, it’s also a good way to get people interested in acquiring the physical format because I think the imagery is superior, so it’s kind of a bonus for people who get the record. You get this nice, much more involved and much more intentional artwork and that’s like a treat for people. But I know it confuses people a lot, for sure, I’ve definitely seen that. [laughs]
Do you have a preference between using photography or an artwork piece as the cover of a record?
I very much prefer photography. I think that some years ago I was definitely trying to be more vocal in that preference because I thought that more and more metal bands were starting to use the woodcuts and I wanted to make sure that we were doing something that looked a little different and Bryan did a really good job in seeking out some old photographs that were good to use during Heathen. We also commissioned this photographer, Ellen J. Rogers, we asked her to license some pictures for Magus and that was also just a really cool way to work with this photographer that we both really admire. Hopefully, if we can afford it, maybe one day we can actually commission her to do some original photos for us, it would be great. But yeah, I think the photographs definitely do a better job in evoking the kind of mood that I would like our records to have. They are much less metal looking, they are little more expansive and more open to interpretation, rather than just a brutal woodcut of a guy getting decapitated or whatever, you know?
“I think the photographs definitely do a better job in evoking the kind of mood that I would like our records to have. They are much less metal looking, they are little more expansive and more open to interpretation, rather than just a brutal woodcut of a guy getting decapitated or whatever, you know?”
Having now collaborated with Emma Ruth Rundle and The Body, do you have any artists in mind that you would like to collaborate with in the future or that you may be collaborating with in the future?
I’m trying to think if we actually do have anything… [laughs] We kind of have a collaboration on the horizon, maybe, but it’s not finalized so I don’t want to speak on it yet. But it’s definitely not something I’m seeking out. We spent about a year on this Emma Ruth Rundle record, so I’m very much eager to get back into the business of writing Thou originals, I’m ready to delve back into that and focus on that. Collaborating is cool but it is definitely a challenge, especially us collaborating with people that don’t live here and people that we can’t just collaborate with digitally. It’s a challenge and requires a lot of logistics, you know, everyone has to take off work for a week or so, stuff like that. We always have in the back of our minds a list of people that we want to work with but I don’t think it’s anything we are pursuing right now. We are always on the lookout for who would be cool to tour with, do a record with or be friends with, we just kind of have a running log of that sort of thing.
But when it actually happens, it’s more of a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing that you guys decide to pursue, so to speak.
Yeah, like it did for Roadburn, if the opportunity presents itself in a really obvious way then yeah. The Body collaboration was just something we did that was kind of like, hey, what if we did this, but I think after we realized how much work it is and how challenging it is, I think that made us a little less eager to come up with something like that.
Lyrically speaking, your songs oftentimes deal with themes such as societal collapse, revolution, fighting against racism and inequality. Do you feel like your music could be interpreted or even used as an anthem or “weapon” in these struggles and causes?
Maybe in some small way. I think it’s good to have political music, it’s good to get your point across in that way, it’s good for inspiring people sometimes. I don’t put a lot of faith into music’s ability to actually bring about social change, just speaking realistically and cynically for a second. Ideally, sure, I would love if one of our songs inspired someone to work towards these things, that’s great. But I think, especially nowadays, there are so many reasons to get involved and change things, you don’t even need music to see that. The more time goes on, it’s just becoming more and more apparent in everyone’s lives that they have to take a side and get involved with things going on. But obviously, I’d be flattered if someone took that away from our music. I think we try to not make anything too obvious, we appreciate there being some sort of subtlety or some sort of nuance to our lyrics to where they are political but it’s not just ham-fisted, black and white, like punk. It’s not a Dead Kennedys song, you know? We want to make sure we keep the artistic element there and not just appear like a mouthpiece to anyone’s point of view, especially because there are six of us in the band and while we are all roughly on the same page, none of us are going to line up 100% politically. It’s hard to get one view out of six people, you know what I mean?
Currently the US is living a really tough situation, not just because of the worldwide pandemic, but also due to the presidential elections that will be taking place next month. A lot of people are saying that this is the end for the US and there could be a civil war coming regardless of the elections’ results. In all honesty, what do you think is going to happen in November and what will that entail for the US in the next four years?
I’m certainly no expert but I keep up with things. I don’t know, I find it hard to make any sort of real prediction. I don’t think that we are on the verge of a civil war because I don’t think the average person here will get out of their houses and go into the streets and inflict violence on their neighbour. I think they will show up to places like protests and inflict violence there, but even the people that will do that, I don’t believe that is as large a number as the Internet leads us to believe. I think people are really fed up and they don’t know what to do about it, and that goes for the Trump people too, I think they are upset about a number of things and America does not give you a lot of outlets to do anything about that aside from casting a vote or trying to go into the streets. People don’t feel like they have a voice really, so they resort to making threats online and whether they will follow through with that in real life, who is to say? Probably not.
So, I don’t know, I don’t have a clear prediction for the elections. I have been following it very closely since it began and I still don’t know where we are at. I always keep a real cynical and stoic view because I don’t see a lot of good things happening, so I’m just prepared for Trump to win again. I don’t know if that’s really going to happen but I’m expecting that to happen for my own mental health and I think that this whole entire year and all the things that have happened, the police killings and the way that our government refused to provide us with the basic necessities of life when we are all just stuck in our houses, I think that those radicalizing events, while neither of them are new to this year, and there are parts of struggles that have been going on for a long time, now they are much more visible and there are more people feeling the effects of them, even if we are not feeling those effects to the extent that someone in South America might feel them, for instance. We are stuck for America, it’s the first time for a lot of these people that they are feeling the effects of the government’s lack of compassion for our basic well-being. I think that is a radicalizing factor and there are more and more people I’m seeing that are moving left. And I also do think that this election cycle has really laid bare the absolute futility of the democratic party and I think there are more people who used to consider themselves democratic that are moving further left, because they are just seeing how futile that party is at enacting change and how willingly they will just roll over and let the republicans shift things to the right. I think that is also something that is going to affect things in the next year, the further shift of people to the left. So, I don’t know. After I vote, I might just stay home on November 3rd and hide out in my room in case there are Trump militias in the streets, who knows?
In regards to the pandemic, the live music industry has been hit quite hard, with cancelled shows, tours and festivals plaguing the year. Did you guys have any plans for this year that had to be rescheduled or cancelled altogether? Do you think bands and artists will be able to tour next year?
This year there is definitely nothing, nothing is happening this year. Now it’s really just a question of if anything is going to happen next year. We are making plans for next year but it’s all very tentative. We might end up going over to Europe next year, we are kind of trying to sort that out, but I don’t know if that is really going to happen because I don’t know if we are going to be able to travel out of the country, I don’t know when that is going to happen. We are looking at doing stuff either next Spring or potentially next Fall, just hitting some festivals. We were supposed to do the US tour with Emma this year and we weren’t able to do that, so hopefully we will do that, we definitely want to tour with this record. We toured with Emma already, but we didn’t have all the songs written yet, there is a couple of these songs that we haven’t even played live, so I would really like to get out and do that. If we do anything next year, it’s going to be focused on doing stuff with Emma, I think, unless we can get a lot of writing done and have some new songs to play, because going out and doing more and more tours with the same material gets really old for everybody. [laughs]
And it’s not just a matter of being able to leave the country, it’s not just a matter of us being allowed to be close to one another again, it’s also if the venues will survive, you know? There is already one major venue that we play at all the time here in New Orleans that is already closed and I know that is the case for a lot of places around the States. So yeah, it’s really if the venues can be opened and then after that, it’s if the promoters have any money to guarantee people. We have done plenty of tours without guarantees before, but this tour we were doing with Emma, we were using her booking agent and he was starting to put out feelers for stuff, and this was at the beginning of the pandemic and people were already saying, “well, now we kind of don’t know what our money situation is and if we will be able to book these tours so far in advance or with the money that was previously agreed on, we are not sure we can pay artists what they are used to be paid, because we don’t know if the money is going to be there”. So yeah, there is like a million questions – will the people that come to the show be more willing to come to the shows or will they have less money because they have been unemployed? There are just so many factors.
Hopefully, we will be able to see some shows next year and if there is a Thou tour in Europe, Portugal is waiting.
We really want to! [laughs] I have been wanting to go there for a long time now and I know that we have wanted to play a festival there, Amplifest. That’s something that has been on our radar for a while and we were asked to do it a couple of times but we weren’t able to do it. It’s a matter of if we can get our tour routing straight, but yeah, that’s a dream of ours, we are always trying to go to places we haven’t been before, especially places that are beautiful and places that are unlike the rest of Western Europe, you know? I don’t need to go to any more towns in Germany, I know what they all look like. [laughs] We have met a lot of people there, we have a lot of fans there, the money is good and they have a lot of venues. It’s the routing, honestly, the routing is the main thing. If we can get a good routing and some good shows on the way, that would be an absolute dream, I would love to do it.
“It’s a matter of if we can get our tour routing straight, but yeah, that’s a dream of ours, we are always trying to go to places we haven’t been before, especially places that are beautiful and places that are unlike the rest of Western Europe, you know?”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Illustration by Marta Rebelo
Photo by Craig Mulcahy, courtesy of Thou