By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
*This article was altered on Sept. 15 and 19, 2011.
One sunny summer day in Irvine, I drove beyond the wide-open, not-quite-freeway that is Jamboree Road, past the double 99 Ranches and manicured lawns, and up the hill to a split-level house with a gray-shingled roof to meet brothers Riley and Eddie Breckenridge, drummer and bassist, respectively, of Thrice.
We're supposed to talk about Major/Minor, the band's latest set that comes out Tuesday on Vagrant, but I'm also there to meet their mother and get a glimpse of how Thrice have grown up since they formed in this tranquil, ultra-safe city 13 years ago.
Kit, a slender, beautiful woman whose shoulder-length white hair is the only indication she has kids in their 30s, greets me with a hug; her cockapoo, Buddy, a gift from her children, bounds toward me and starts licking.
The button-cute brothers—Riley is 36, and Eddie is 31—share the same dark features and piercing gaze. They're wearing collared shirts and jeans and look pretty wholesome for members of a post-hardcore band. We sit on the patio, which overlooks the Strawberry Farms golf course and a reservoir. Close to University High, parks and the recreation center, the Breckenridges' childhood home seems an idyllic place for two boys to play catch and run around. But when we start talking about the album, the mood quickly turns melancholy.
Since 2009's Beggars came out, the Breckenridges and their bandmates—quietly charismatic front man Dustin Kensrue and guitarist Teppei Teranishi—have dealt with a wave of life-changing events.
"It's weird because I can't really put my finger on how the experience informed the writing process at all," Riley says.
What he calls "the experience" began in January of last year, when Teranishi's mother died of cancer. During the band's spring 2010 tour with Manchester Orchestra, Kensrue's dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Kensrue had to go home, and the band canceled the rest of the tour.
In the middle of the writing of Major/Minor, Riley and Eddie's father was battling cancer as well. This past January, he passed away. If that weren't enough, a month later, 80 percent of the band's music gear—a custom-made drum set, rare guitars and keyboards—was stolen from their storage space.
Some also-major-but-good stuff managed to throw itself onto that heap of goings-on as well. Last spring, Teranishi and his family packed up and moved from the city of Orange to Washington state, specifically Vashon Island, where he and his wife are raising their two boys. And just two months ago, Kensrue's wife, Shadlie, gave birth to Lucy, their third daughter.
So, yeah, there's the unshakeable expectation that their personal tragedies influenced this album. It also happens to be Thrice's best album to date.
"It was hard to focus [on making the record] because there were a lot of distractions," Riley says, steadily. "We were all in our heads in our own way."
* * *
The title Major/Minor wasn't intended to refer to all the heaviness that was going on in the band's lives. It was the working title for "Yellow Belly," the collection's first single, so named because of the way they used major chords where you'd normally play a minor chord in a given key. (It's a trick that was big for a lot of '90s indie bands. Nirvana did this a lot; see "Lithium.")
So when Thrice started trying out titles for the album, they found that Major/Minor fit not only the way the record sounded by way of shifting melodies, but also its lyrics—and what was happening in their personal lives. "It ended up being a recurring theme for the songs on the record," Riley says.
The process of working on Major/Minor was definitely therapeutic, Eddie explains. "I was a little worried that it would be super-depressing [because] everybody was definitely having rough times. Making the music almost felt like an escape."
In a later phone conversation, Teranishi says that, musically, Major/Minor isn't as dark as you'd expect it to be. "I don't know if that's a testament to us being able to keep our heads above it all or what."
Indeed, the album is a brash rock & roller that alternates between nuanced riffs, punk melodies and aggressive stickwork. The 12-song set feels loose and amped-up, more in-your-face than Beggars, harder and more organic than the Alchemy Index EP, and more sophisticated than Vheissu.
The songs, as they say in Spinal Tap lingo, "go to 11." It's an intense collection that would be perfect for blasting on a road trip. "Yellow Belly" pounds out with a primal, caveman-like beat; "Anthology" is an emotional sing-along that draws you in lyrically, as well as melodically. Even as "Promises" thunders forward and opens up with intricate fretwork, it drips with feeling. And, like most of Thrice's catalog, even when there's a wide sonic variety in the album, it's also a cohesive set.
The band attacked the songwriting on Major/Minor like a day job: They went into the studio at 9 a.m. and left for home at 5 p.m. At a time when they were all preoccupied with other things, "music was such therapy because we were going out and taking out our aggression—or depression—on drums, on bass and guitar," says Riley, who also writes for OC Weekly's music blog, Heard Mentality.