Geoff Rickly may be in love, but War All the Time is Thursday’s most violent and conflicted album yet. The lead singer talks to Spin about relationships, war, and record labels in this one-on-one exclusive.
SPIN: Let’s talk about the tour that you just did.
GEOFF RICKLY: Yeah, we’d been off six or seven months, writing the record, recording the record. It was weird because I had completely forgotten what it was like. It was actually so much like starting over, because we decided we were going to do small shows and get back in our old van and just do it that way. It was actually so much more stressful, but in a good way, because I think when you’re playing big shows, it’s really easy to avoid each other if you don’t want to talk about anything. When you’re in a van, you can’t avoid it and you can get at each other’s throats–especially since we’d been away from that situation for so long. We really kind of exploded at each other in Lincoln, Nebraska. We were also still close to having finished the record and I was just saying that I didn’t know if we did anything worth listening to at all, full-stop. And we got into this crazy big argument. Then later that night, all the Cursive kids came out and brought us up to this bar and were really sweet to us. And then after a few drinks, we all got sappy and made up and had a big ol’ love fest the way we used to. It was really awful from an outside perspective, just like “Oh God, look at them,” but it was really good for the band.
Why did you make the decision to jump back in the van and play pizza parlors and churches after being signed onto one of the biggest labels in the world?
Really it’s more about the personal dynamic, learning the songs and just doing it at a level where it was going to force us to confront each other and get to just have fun. The fun is a different kind of fun, we have to work harder for it. So much has changed since we recorded the record. You know, members getting married, members having families, going through stuff, and it’s just really good to get back there and re-establish our fanbase.
So let’s talk about the process. You’ve already said that recording War All the Time was arduous. There were stories that it was unpleasant for other reasons–like the label was giving you pressure or sending you back.
It’s funny because I’ve heard so many stories about our band being sent back to rerecord, but it was more that the label had allowed us to carte blanche do what we want to do. They never asked us for demos. They never asked us for anything. They approved Sal and Tim as producer and mixer without really knowing whether or not it was a good idea. They just let us do it. I couldn’t write lyrics for these three songs. I just kept doing different takes of each song. Different lyrics. Different melody. So we rehearsed it and came up with “Division Street” and “Signals” and they weren’t on the record. It was this really weird decision because I felt like it’s been way too long since we put out a record–and at the same time I felt like there was something missing on the record, something I wanted to write. While we were there, we wrote this song called “Brought To You By A Falling Bomb,” and we just recorded it on the spot and I sang that song almost like a free association thing. It’s really weird because in some ways, I think it’s the most poignant and political song on the record. We’re about love in a lot ways–especially the war-themed songs are about love. And I’m actually head over heels in love so I got to sing this song to this girl who I’m in love with. I just wanted to be with her and not have to deal with all this other stuff, and not have to deal with the real world and all the problems that keep coming up. So “Division Street” and “Signals” wouldn’t have been on the record and they’re not songs that [the label] said “Okay, write this.”
How would you characterize the relationship with the label?
It’s very friendly and respectful. They really give us so much say that sometimes I have to ask for their opinion. They’ll be like “What’s your gut?” and I tell them and they’re like “Maybe we should just go with that.” And I’m like “Maybe I should ask them their opinion before I give them my gut, because I need some advice.” I feel like people are lucky to be on our label.
What themes did you want to address while creating the record?
Before “Division Street,” “Signals,” and “This Song Brought to You” were on there, I thought it was a more claustrophobic record. I sing a lot more on it which means there’s less space, which means it’s faster. I’d been listening to a lot of frenetic stuff, more on the punk side of things–this more high energy [beat], just go go go. And I was sure that it was a really claustrophobic record until I heard it after the fact. Then I realized this isn’t really claustrophobic at all. I think it has a lot to do with what order the songs are in. When I was moving out of my apartment with my girlfriend at the time, we were having a really hard time. There’s this Leonard Cohen song “There is a War” and it was about two lovers and it hit me really hard. And the next thing that I saw was “Life as War” and I started thinking about that over again. I saw graffiti on the wall in a foreign country, I don’t remember which country, but it said “I’m at a personal war.” And I thought that was just really beautiful. I really wanted to hide from singing about love and the easiest way to do that was to sing about war. It’s not really about war, but a record that uses war for love–hiding behind love with the idea of war. It’s just always been something I’ve been so scared to talk about. Initially, I always said that it was such a clichéd thing. All these bands talking about girls breaking their hearts. I thought it was so trite. And then one day I realized I wanted to write about the stuff I’d been going through with other people. It wasn’t like this little trite thing and maybe I wasn’t doing it because I was so afraid of talking about it. I have so many weird things tied up with love and salvation. All these things I tie up with love is just really scary for me. So it made it much easier to have that violent theme stand in the way and be so bold and glaring, it was protecting me.
But the violence doesn’t preclude the love. I’d say you are constantly moving forward and retreating.
It is very much about that, which scares me too–like falling in and out love. Like how it can be there and just go away. I almost wish I wasn’t falling in love. All this falling in and out makes me think that maybe there’s a problem with me and I just can’t stand love. Like maybe these people are all perfect for me. Obviously they can’t be, but I don’t know. But definitely the falling in and the good stuff is part of the war.
Is it easier to make an album about a broken heart and get attention for it?
Oh definitely, I think so. It’s one of those subjects that’s so universal. There are plenty that seem universal, but that’s one almost everybody can relate to on some level. So it makes sense as basic human condition that someone can write about and it also makes sense as something that can be easily exploitable. I also kind of think it’s one of the hardest subjects to talk about truly because there are so many complexities involved in it that don’t seem to be there. People just believe them the way things are. Like “Love will set you free.” There are all these sayings, but I don’t really think there are definites.
So we are setting up a tent. This is Thursday’s relationship record.
Definitely. In some ways when I was writing, I was thinking this is along the lines of–I mean I don’t consider us to be anywhere in the same league as PJ Harvey–but I feel like this is our own little version of “Mansize.” This is our own little conflicted sexuality song. Everybody else reads it as I may be compromised, we may all be compromised, but this is still real to me. This still matters to me, and it’s not wrong. It’s not untrue that that sentiment is in there, but I mean it’s funny how closely related those two things are. I guess that in some ways the sex is the radio and the love is making the music. Going from the past tense record, I had this perspective and I had endless amounts of faith in something–in so many things. I had faith and I had distance from the subject matter so I had this perspective and I felt like I was fixing things in my life to fit. Now here they are, and now this part of myself makes sense to me. And with this present tense record, I found myself losing faith in everything and being confused by everything, and it just was the opposite. It was like everytime I finished something, I just felt like I lost. There was more question, less answer, more question, everytime I finished. The sense of trying to get closure from that is unbelievably hard. I feel like it was a huge transition in my life where I stopped looking for the answers, you know? On a small level, it’s like how I thought if I was ever in a band that I loved and that was doing well, I imagined how great I would feel about myself all the time. I feel so not at all like the cool, collected guy who’s doing this great thing.
I could be wrong, but when you’re talking about war, you’re not only talking about romantic relationships.
Oh no, all relationships. In a lot of ways the more militaristic the song, the closer it is to romantic love. But the reason I was able to go with a title like “War All The Time” for the whole record was because it’s about any relationship–about any interaction. And the title track “War All The Time” is mostly about growing up. It’s about growing up in New Jersey. It was originally actually titled “In the Shadow of the New York Skyline,” about growing up in this big shadow of something huge and being able to think that you’re unaffected by the huge craziness of the city, but instead find yourself pulled into it and just lost because you’re not even part of how big it is. The only reason that we changed the title from that to “War All The Time” was because I realized that those sentiments were the center of the record and that I needed to draw the record to there. I needed people to realize that that was what the record was about and to me, it all boils down to one line in that song that if you don’t have the lyrics it’s easy to miss. It says “The pieces fall / It’s like a last day parade / And the fires in our streets start to rage / So wave, to the people that long to wave back / From the fabric of a flag that sang / Love all the time.” That’s the last line of the song. Everybody always thinks it’s just another “war all the time,” but actually it’s “love all the time,” and to me, there is love everywhere–there’s passion everywhere. So much of our last record was about just a general passion too. Especially in the song “Hole in the World,” where it has that refrain “love is love is love is love.” It’s definitely about all kinds of love. Too many people only recognize love as romantic love and even the basis of Thursday having the dove as the symbol. For me, since the dove has been about so many different things, it’s such a loaded symbol. What I thought it should mean, like the best possible meaning for a dove would be passion. If there is one pure aesthetic value that I wanted to represent in a living thing, it would be a general love, you know what I mean?
It also means peace.
Sonically, that’s always been what Thursday’s been about: violence and grace next to each other. And lyrically, I’ve always tried to juxtapose gentle things with the most blatantly jarring and violent kind of things too. I think it’s unfortunate if it’s dismissed as being just a political record. In a lot of ways, I really don’t know enough about politics to make a political record. Obviously everything is political–it’s definitely there enough that we pushed the record back a week so it wouldn’t come out the week of September 11th. Talk about misread, enough people will already read the lyrics for “The World First Drowning” and be like “Oh, it’s [about] falling from the top floor” and this and that. To me it just seems so clear that that’s not what it’s about. But I think that in a way, if it gets people talking about that–even if they’re wrong. Maybe it’s good that they’re even talking about it. Because what scares me the most right now is that nobody thinks it’s a big deal, it’s just [something] on TV all the time. That’s the thing that sort of scares me the most is all this stuff could go on and nobody would notice. Or they would notice, but it might as well be a movie, you know?
What are your expectations for what the next few months will bring and what do you feel is expected of you?
Sometimes I think people expect us to get huge and do something super important. That’s just what a lot of people have been saying to us recently, but I think a lot of people expect us to break the genre in a certain kind of way. To me, after making a record like this, I almost can’t imagine it being popular. It’s almost too important to me to imagine it being accessible to that many people. Really, my only expectation for this year is to play and turn the new songs into songs everybody wants to play. My gut is to play the new stuff, but to not be as concerned with holding it up to the old stuff. Other than that, I’m just kind of excited to see.
How do you measure success?
I already feel like we’re successful, so that’s not a concern for me really. But I am interested to see what happens because I think it could either be this really amazing thing where we start doing all these new things and there’s all this positivity around us, or it could be like “They’ll never do anything as good as Full Collapse.” Either way, you know it’s going to be really interesting. I feel like when the record happens, there is going to be some kind of a bang and it’ll either be like a “Bang! You love this!” or like a “Bang! You guys are done!” And even if it’s a bang-you-guys-are-done, we’re going to keep going anyway, keep making music, but it should be a pretty big bang.