Thrice Are Family Guys
*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.
Grief has its own way of bringing you to an altered mind-set, creatively, or at least help more feeling come out. Eddie says the song "Cataracts" is proof of that, born out of noodling around in the studio. "It's hard to let [emotions] out verbally or physically," he says, "but if you have an instrument in your hand, it just oozes out of you."
If there were a song that was written because of the loss the band members were feeling, it's "Blur," which was inspired by an email Riley sent to his bandmates while tossing around ideas for album art. He had started taking slow-shutter photos of lights while driving. "I was fascinated by how it was an attempt to capture a moment in time, but because of the way the shutter's set up, you can't focus on what's in front of you," he explains. Everything, even items close up, seemed out-of-focus to Riley. "It made a lot of sense to me. With all the awful stuff that was going on, that's how life felt: getting crazy, life-changing moments piled on you and not having the time to process them or even understand them."
* * *
Thrice evolved from a crop of screamo, metal-punk bands of the early 2000s to produce an Iron Maiden-meets-NOFX sound that no one had really done before. They shed the screamo label years ago in favor of a more mature, sophisticated term: "experimental post-hardcore." But, as Teranishi notes, "People never felt like we fit into any OC music scene when we were coming up." Irvine, where the band grew up, could actually be the missing link.
"Thrice is one of the loudest bands I've ever seen, and they're one of the cleanest bands [tone-wise] I've ever seen," says Scott Heisel, music editor of hardcore/punk/rock bible Alternative Press.
Irvine is so neat it's almost antiseptic; maybe there's a subconscious, underlying influence of that in Thrice's music. It's here that Kensrue and Teranishi started playing music together when they were 17.
Eddie, who skated with Teranishi, learned to play bass to fill out their sound. Originally, they recruited Riley, who was five years older than everyone else, to play drums for them "while looking for someone [permanent]."
Thirteen years and seven albums later (eight, if you count the Alchemy Index EPs as two), they're all still together. And other than Teranishi's recent move to Washington, they still call Orange County home. (Riley and and his girlfriend, Jennifer Shaw, live in Orange; Eddie's house is just minutes away.)
In a way, it's odd that Thrice's personal lives are at the forefront of all the talk about the new album because they've always been known as low-key, family-oriented guys. It's not a secret that Kensrue and Teranishi, who are Christian, got married in their early 20s and have been juggling their families and music careers for close to a decade. The Breckenridges are a tight unit as well; they've always spent every Sunday night with their parents (now just their mom) for family dinners. Kit lights up when telling a story about how she and her husband, Hugh, were watching a Thrice show in Ireland when some teenagers began making fun of them for being fans—until they mentioned they were Riley and Eddie's parents. Then the teenagers were flabbergasted, declaring, "Thank you for giving birth to your sons!"
It helps, obviously, that they're not crazy Keith Moon-types, and that's also why this past year and a half has seen the band so quiet. There have been no onstage dedications, no milking of sob stories for the press. "Some people want to party or be famous," Eddie says. "We just want to make music."
* * *
Kensrue, 30, is the only Thrice member who still lives in Irvine, and a week after hanging out with the Breckenridges, I've joined him in his living room, surrounded by his wife and their daughters: Sailor, 4; Piper, 1 1/2; and newborn Lucy.
It's a cute two-story house on a residential street. On my way in, I pass a plastic play house in the yard, alongside a swingset hanging from a tree on the front lawn. Inside, I find shabby-chic furniture, with only a few clues to indicate the presence of children (a stray pacifier, Disney DVDs). That changes over the course of the hour or two I'm there, as the girls play quietly and scatter Barbies on the floor while dad gets interviewed.
Of everyone in the band, it seems Kensrue is the one who has the most going on outside of Thrice. He puts out solo records, is the sole breadwinner of the family, and is a worship leader and the musical director for Mars Hill Church. Quite a bit to juggle, but Kensrue's calm, collected demeanor betrays not even a hint of stress. As his 18-month-old crawls over him, he holds his firstborn on his lap while he talks about how he manages his time. "Once the record comes out, there's going to be a lot of stuff lined up all at once, but it's all good," he says.
"I feel like we captured something in that small amount of time with different moods to it. There are shifts in mood and dynamic all throughout, but it makes sense altogether," Kensrue says. "But it feels like there's more excitement about it than any release we've had."
Album releases used to make him nervous, he says. And now? "I'm too busy to feel anxious about the record coming out," he says, smiling.
Over the phone, Nick Bogardus, Mars Hill's pastor and Thrice's former manager (from 2000 to 2008) describes Kensrue as an "amazing family man. He's a husband and dad foremost. Then he's an amazing front man, singer and worship leader."
Both Kensrue and Teranishi, Bogardus says, are "two of the most loyal and sacrificial men with their wives that I've ever seen. To be married and tour for months at a time takes a special kind of man—and marriage. It's a testament to who they are as men."
Kensrue met Shadlie in middle school. "We were friends for a long time before we started dating," Shadlie says, adding, "I bought the first Thrice CD from Dustin's backpack."
Bought it? She laughs. "Well," she says, "he didn't like me then!"
Now that they've been married for nine years (and together for 12, almost as long as the band have been around), Shadlie, who used to be a nurse, is an old hand at being a touring band member's wife, but it doesn't make the long stretches of time that Kensrue's away easier.
"When we only had Sailor, it was easy to fly out and meet them in different places on tour," she explains. "With three kids, that's pretty much impossible."
It changes the way they tour. Unlike their early days, when they could tour non-top, Thrice now take about six weeks each quarter. And Kensrue's as happy to be home as he is to be on the road.
* * *
In August, Thrice played a sold-out show at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. It had been awhile since the band had played locally, and friends, family and hometown fans came out in full force. An electric feeling of anticipation thrummed in the room, akin to the feeling you get when watching a famous band's reunion show. As soon as "Yellow Belly" came on, three concurrent mosh pits started on the floor, with kids swirling up and down—now onstage, now off-, now crowd-surfing, now singing their hearts out.
Backstage, Teranishi's son Miles, 4, was taking it all in—while wearing his noise-blocking earmuffs, of course. Weeks later, Teranishi says, "My kids love Thrice's music—they really do. Every once in a while, they ask me to put on 'daddy music.'" He laughs, then adds, "And Miles, who is learning to play piano now, too, really likes aggressive songs. He calls it 'mad-guy music.'"
Teranishi, 31, moved to Washington to try a different lifestyle for his family. "My wife and I had been thinking about moving from Cali for a long time," he says. "I appreciate nature, and I always liked the Pacific Northwest; it's a lot less mowed-over, unlike Southern California."
After their second child was born, the decision was cemented. "They're energetic boys, and we live on a couple of acres of land. So it's a lot more open and free for them to run around and be boys."
The only difference for Thrice, he says, is that he's flying a lot more to go to practice and play shows. "But once the album is out and we're on tour, it will be like cruise control."
Sometimes, Thrice feel like the most underrated band to ever come out of Orange County.
Despite producing consistently good-to-great records and never imploding over creative differences, despite avoiding felonies and overdoses and nefarious dealings that come with a degenerate lifestyle—and despite keeping it real (have you ever seen a photo of anyone from Thrice in eyeliner?), the band flirted with mainstream success early in their career, but they never quite had it.
Instead, they've collected loads of rabid Thrice super-fans, kids who started listening when their debut album, Identity Crisis, came out in 2001 and have stayed loyal through the years.
Scott Heisel of Alternative Press is one of these devotees. "From the beginning [of Thrice], there was nothing to get behind other than the music—no larger-than-life personality or crazy antics. The band didn't ever come off too self-involved; it has always been about the music. That is what is so exciting about them." He pauses, then says, "If you're a fan of Thrice, you're always going to like them because they're always going to deliver consistently fantastic albums."
And yet, this could also be why Thrice have never achieved superstardom: They've never been interested in whoring themselves out for fame. That's not to say they don't have an enviable career; they make the music they want, release it when they want to and tour when they want—and their fans will always be there.
Jason Tate, founder of the site AbsolutePunk.net, says that Thrice have grown up with their fan base. "They evolved with their listeners; as members of the band got older, people listening to them got older, too. . . . I don't listen to Illusion of Safety today, but Major/Minor still speaks to me on that same level."
Or it could just be that all four members of Thrice are good guys.
Hopeless Records founder Louis Posen released Thrice's first two albums, Identity Crisis and Illusion of Safety, under the Sub City imprint. Part of what attracted Thrice to the label was the Sub City concept; the Van Nuys-based company donates proceeds of the album sales released on that imprint to a charity chosen by artists. "Thrice was an early supporter of the Sub City concept, and their two releases raised more than $180,000 for Orange County's Crittenton Services and South Central Los Angeles drop-in center A Place Called Home," Posen explains. "Even then, they wanted to make a difference with their music."
* * *
Lately, we've been hearing possible breakup/hiatus rumors from people close to the band. That's understandable, given all of the recent life changes and family commitments—and considering the length of time Thrice have been around. Bands who've been together for less time have been hounded by more than just rumors.
If Thrice took a break, says Tate of AbsolutePunk, fans would be devastated. "It would arguably be the biggest news since Blink-182 went on hiatus, and it would be such a big blow to the [punk] community."
So, do these rumors have any merit? For most of the band, the answer is some form of cryptic no-but-you-never-know-let's-wait-and-see.
"I think we'll continue making music as long as we can. I don't know," Eddie says. "I'm so lucky to do this; it's such a gift to me that I'll do anything I can to keep it going."
"I hope they don't break up—I love that band," Heisel of Alternative Press says. "They are aging as gracefully as anyone can hope to in the contemporary rock scene."
This article appeared in print as "Family Guys: After nearly two years of tragedy and triumph on the home front, Irvine's Thrice work it all out with their new album, Major/Minor."
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