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Thursday’s Geoff Rickly Talks Reunion, Getting Sober, Martin Shkreli, and More

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 01: Singer Geoff Rickly of Thursday performs at The Fillmore Charlotte on April 1, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jeff Hahne/Getty Images)

“I’ll take a hippie over a racist any day,” Geoff Rickly tells me. The singer and I have met at a bistro in Brooklyn to talk about the reunited Thursday, who are set to headline the upcoming Northside Festival. Instead, we’ve veered off into a discussion about Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical CEO-turned-professional troll who Rickly was briefly acquainted with. When Shkreli was outed as a price gouger on drugs for rare diseases, he was also revealed the financier behind Collect, a former record label featuring of-the-moment bands like Wax Idols and the Hotelier, and run by Rickly.

Rickly explains his tortured relationship with Shkreli, and it’s surprising that someone like him—a guy with a real zest for playing the villain—could have championed so much of the same music. “It’s sort of these young Republican types who would say ‘All Lives Matter,'” Rickly says. “I’ve seen a lot of that in the more conservative aspects of the hardcore community. You get a band that everybody loves because they sound like Power Trip, but they have different values. If you can imagine it, it’s on its way. I’ve sort of started to think that way.”

Rickly has seen a lot over the last few decades. He was still in college when Thursday blew up at the turn of the millennium, thanks to a diehard fanbase in sweaty basements across the Tri-State area. Their debut album, 2001’s Full Collapse, put them at the vanguard of the then-crystallizing emo movement, leading to a juicy major label deal and placement on magazine covers by the time of 2003’s War All the Time. Though Thursday were around the same age as bands like My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy, they became elders of their scene by nature of starting up a few years earlier. But for all the fervor they accumulated with their knotty, dynamic post-hardcore sound and passionate lyrics, they never broke onto the radio like they were supposed to. After releasing three more records—two after they’d left the major labels—they called it a day in 2011.

Last year, they reunited to perform at Atlanta’s Wrecking Ball festival, and have since performed around the country, including a recently concluded tour. “It’s so much better than I ever thought it would be,” Rickly says. “The band’s closer than we ever were back in the day, and I think a lot of that has to do with us not killing ourselves on the road. We’re taking it a lot slower. We’re not trying to make a career out of it, and we’re not rushing to create. We’re just seeing how we get along—if this is something we can do periodically, or if it was just a one-shot thing.”

When Thursday broke up, Rickly got hooked on heroin, a nasty habit he says he kicked by the time the reunion started. In the time off he was active with acclaimed bands like No Devotion and United Nations, but the chance to perform with Thursday while clear-headed was perfect fuel for their return. “I didn’t want to never remember any of this stuff; it wasn’t what Thursday was about,” he says. “I was a sensitive person, but I wasn’t a tortured artist. I wanted to be there and be present.” Below, read our conversation about the reunion, Shkreli, his relationship with the New York rock scene, and much more. Thursday will perform on Sunday, June 11, at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park as part of Northside.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of drama around your breakup. 

We wrote our breakup letter very carefully to make it seem like a boring, run-of-the-mill thing, but actually there was so much drama. There was an incident that happened that was really out of control, where the cops got involved. There were people not talking to each other. When Tom [Keeley] got married even two years later, half the band didn’t come. It made me really sad. I was really heartbroken at that—not because I was waiting for the band to get back together, but because those guys are by far the most steady friends I’ve ever had, the longest relationship I’ve had. Longer than my marriage, which started years into the band and ended the same time that the band ended. So it was really a lot more intense than we let on, and all I could think to do was to make it just seem like, “Oh, well you could see this coming. They were worn out, they didn’t look happy anymore, the records had been less popular.” It was a very easy narrative to write.

We even thought about going on, despite everything that happened with some other members. We got together for one practice, and I just couldn’t do it. We had been the same band for so long. Our last record had all the same members as our first record. It was too special to me to do it diminished just to keep doing it, you know? And I always believed that we stuck up for each other and that we cared and that if you can’t do it, then fuck you. It’s all of us or none of us.

How far into the future do you have things planned?

We’re doing Northside Festival—that’s our last New York show for the year—and then we’re doing a run up to Canada just so we can play this one big festival. I think we’ll probably do a holiday show in New Jersey. Beyond that, I’d love to play some other countries that we haven’t seen yet. But as far as coming back around again, I don’t really think that’ll happen. I think that we’ll either decide to make new music and do the band more, or we’ll decide that this was sort of the perfect little shows. Everybody that wanted to see us got to see us. I got to do it sober. That was a really important aspect, too.

This second time around with Thursday, are you able to appreciate things about the band that you couldn’t the first time? 

I think the band’s really good now. I didn’t think that for a long time, pretty much from War All the Time on. I felt like once we got successful, we were imposters, everybody else was more talented than us, I couldn’t sing. I just never really knew if we were good or not, and I suspected that we weren’t because a lot of the peers that I connected to, they thought that we were just this terrible band. Back then, I really thought that, “If all these people who I respect feel that way about us, maybe they’re right?”

Now that I’m older, I care about it a little less. Also, this generation of smart writers seems to like us, which helps. All these great bands that grew up on us really like us—bands like Deafheaven. It’s really changed my perspective, and just having that confidence when we play, I sing better and I feel better. I don’t beat myself up about it anymore. I love our old stuff now; at the time, I was always trying to prove that our new stuff was good. It’s amazing what true confidence will do. I would try to convince myself that we were good, and I would try to convince people in interviews why the new record was so much smarter, make the setlist heavy on the new stuff and give more energy. I was really trying to show people that it was good, and it never worked. I feel like if anything, people saw through it. And you don’t have to try so hard. It’s funny.

You talked about going sober. How has that changed the way that you perform live?

I had a lot of friends that couldn’t tell the difference. The people that truly know me, like my girlfriend, they’re like, “You make so much eye contact with the fans, you’re there, you’re present, you’re not just kind of in the music.” At the best moments of the band, I always felt like we could be the best band in the world, or the worst band in the world. That was something that I loved about us. Our booking agent hated it, because we could play Coachella and be terrible. The biggest show of the year and I’d just be spitting up blood and not be great. But that said something about us, you know. We weren’t a machine; we had this connection, this chemistry. And nights when I could gather all the energy of the crowd, all the love and passion of the crowd and reflect it back at them? Those were just amazing nights.

Toward the end of the band, I was just so sick of seeing people who weren’t that into the new songs or opening for bands that I know probably wouldn’t like us, but somebody convinced us to do the tour. There was no energy to reflect back, so I would just go really internal and just try to say I just loved the music for myself or whatever. That’s changed back. I’m ready to be more vulnerable, I’m ready to let people share their feelings with me.

I do think that was a big reason that I gravitated toward a drug like heroin. It was protecting; the pain would diminish. When a lot of people are very passionate with you and share their pain with you and tell you what’s going on, it can be really tough. I’ve always been very empathic to the point where I’ve had many therapists tell me, “You’ve gotta put some space between you and other people. You gotta not be so forthcoming and learn to say no.” I would just do whatever anybody asked of me at any time just because I literally did not know how to say no. So it’s a big difference.

I also looked for a meeting every day of tour. That was sometimes very hard—to get to meetings, sound checks, meetings. The first night was terrible. I was so scared to not have anything in me, even just the shot of whiskey to loosen up my voice. But once I got past that, it was so nice. I felt like I had a purpose. There was such a natural high that came from it, which I had lost when I was just too high to notice any high. It was really different.

There’s a new book called Meet Me in the Bathroom, that talks about all the rock bands popping off in New York at the turn of the century. It’s funny that bands like you, Brand New, or My Chemical Romance were all right there, in the same area, though you’re not mentioned. Did you think about that divide all at all the time? 

We got popular before that wave, so when it happened, I was very aware of it being a different thing. But I was also thinking of it as a little thing, and we were a big thing at the time. If anything, I knew the Strokes and I didn’t like the Strokes. I remember when they would show up on concert flyers and to me, their look was so contrived. I knew what they were going for, but it just seemed like a costume rather than a life. As a DIY punk rock kid, I just thought they were ridiculous. But then Interpol came out, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and bands that I started to actually genuinely like and think were adventurous and cool.

Then yeah, I felt weird about not being included in it even though we were right there. We would hang out with them at parties, I would see them and talk to them. The only one of us who really felt left out of that was our drummer Tucker [Rule] who ran in a lot of the same social circles. I always just felt it was a different thing, I remember the only time I felt nervous and wished I was cooler was when we opened for the first Stooges reunion. It was the Stooges and Sonic Youth and I was like, “Yes, we’re finally in the world that I grew up on, I feel so good about it.”

When we started playing, I looked over and saw Ian [Mackaye] from Fugazi—literally my idol—Jim Jarmusch, Mike Watt, Thurston. I was like so happy and I couldn’t help, but keep looking at them. They just kept whispering and walked away—not like, “Ew, yuck!” but they just didn’t care that much. I felt like, “Ugh, I wish we were cool enough!” But I’m actually proud of us not being cool enough. I think the fact that we’ve endured and that young, cool kids like us now is sort of like… we’re not hip, and it’s way harder to make it when you’re not hip. One of my friends used to say, “Looking cool isn’t just a little thing in rock, it’s the only thing,” and we didn’t look cool.

Even when we were on tour with super young bands that were cracking the Billboard Top 10, that I remembered being in the front row of our shows when we were like really big—they’d come up to me and say condescending things. We were on tour in Australia and the singer of Boys Like Girls was like, “You guys are going on soon, aren’t you gonna get ready for the stage? Oh that’s right, you don’t care what you look like.” He was all done up in this stuff. [gestures at body] Afterwards, I felt like I should tell him that we were there to play music, and it was important to me that everyone realize that there was no separation for us. Do a show! Be a promoter! Fill all those roles, that’s what DIY is all about. All of us are in this together. And then I realized that explaining it to him would be pointless.

You guys came up as part of the last gasp of the major label era, when they were really aggressively scouting bands from your world.

It’s funny because there was this giant bidding war with all the major labels for us and we didn’t really get to see any of it because we were under contract to Victory. The bidding war was just for Tony [Brummel]’s benefit, really. We did a little better on a major label than we did on an indie, but it was no Nirvana, which is what everybody wanted. I produced the My Chemical Romance record, and they didn’t really have a bidding war. They just kind of silently went to a major, and it instantly paid off more than their advance. Whereas I think—and I’m sort of proud of this—that we cost every major we were ever on a lot of money—two million dollar type stuff. That’s good,because I put out other band’s records and used my time to help indie bands. I feel like there was always a little bit of Robin Hood in our motives.

Having been so involved with indie labels now, do you think there’s anything big that has been lost from that major label system?

Bands like Jawbox and Shudder to Think getting massive grants from a corporation who didn’t know what to do with them, but were afraid they wouldn’t have this talent—I kinda miss that. It was great for studios, especially: Small-rent studios would be able to get some real thick projects, totally wasteful. It would pay for their year and they could do stuff that they loved for nothing. It’s funny that I had such a contempt for all of them at the time, even when we were on them. It was literally just that I knew that it couldn’t get worse than Victory when we signed to a major. But now I’m like, “Wow, the good old days, when majors were scared they wouldn’t have a rock band on their label.” Now they’re like, “Rock? Who listens to rock?”

Your lyrics were certainly more mature than a lot of the stuff that was roped in with it. My friend pointed out that she always thought that you guys didn’t have the accidentally misogynistic lyrics that characterized lots of emo bands, even from the very first record.

I don’t wanna sound like I’m some good guy or something. My mom was a professor at Brown; she was an English Lit major and I guess what you call a second-wave feminist. I remember my dad playing me Led Zeppelin, when I was 4 or 5. My mom came in when “Black Dog” was on, and she was like, “The lyrics to this are very bad.” I didn’t understand why, and she sat down and explained it to me and showed me—just really went through the whole thing, not only how I was responsible for my relationships, but not to have those feelings when things don’t go well in relationships. Not to hate somebody or to blame it on them, but to see it as a sad thing, and try to see my place in it and what I did wrong. That was always in me, and I always gravitated toward bands who didn’t talk that way.

I imagine it’s been crazy to watch Martin Shkreli become like the super villain of the day over the last couple years.

Yeah, it’s been really confusing at times. There was a period where I just wished he would just go away and let people forget because it was such a painful period for me. We were just building up to being a really good label. We had finished the Nothing record, we had finished the Hotelier record and didn’t get to put out either of those. Last year, we would’ve had six records that would’ve gotten high up on the Billboard chart—they did, just on other labels.

Martin, when I met him, he was super shy. He never looked me in the eye, he was very fidgety—he was a kid, really. But every so often, he would tell me about something science-related, and the way that he would get an idea and think it was so interesting. Even when we would talk money, I would say, “This is what we’re doing, this is how much we’re making” and he would quickly put together a graph showing me how I could get that to become millions of dollars of profit, and what I could do to help these bands become even more self-sustaining. He even wanted us to become a non-profit as a label and give all the money away.

I found him difficult at times and I found him very arrogant, but shy, weirdly. Super shy and awkward, but super arrogant. He was this very conflicting character, but all the stuff that you see in public now, I never saw any of that until the day it came out. I remember telling him, “I’m not sure how you fucked up this bad.” The day that it happened, I was about to get on a plane to Germany. Collect hadn’t been tied at all, but it had come out that he had made this drug hike. I was like, “One, you gotta change the policy. Two, you gotta get a really good PR agent to help you to apologize because you know this isn’t right. I don’t know who pressured you into this, but…” This is me thinking, “This guy helped turn my life around, helped me out so much,” I was really thinking the best for him. His sister worked for us at Collect and she was a really humble, nice person—his parents were janitors. I remember just telling him X, Y, and Z, and he was like, “No, no, this isn’t music, Geoff. Nobody cares what I’m doing here. I’m gonna get the cover of a magazine for figuring out how to make money off of this.” And I was like, “I’m not talking about the business world, I’m talking about you knowing that this is the wrong thing to do. You gotta change it.”

By the time I landed, Collect had been tied to it and it became this whole thing where all the other labels and all the other bands that we’ve been in business with were like, “I knew it was too good to be true. I knew it couldn’t be that good, fuck you. I’m glad this is happening to you.” And that was really tough. But to watch the evolution of his villainy? That was super confusing. His sister would call me and ask me what was going on. “Do you know what he’s doing or why he’s doing this? Can you talk to him and change his mind?” And I would be like, “Of course I tried to talk to him, he’s not listening. You’re his sister, try harder.”

At first, it didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t get how you could just flip that way. I remember that the one thing that he took his whole company to and took me to was Monday Night RAW at the Barclays Center, the wrestling thing. I’m not into it at all, but he’s explaining to me how, “Oh, this guy’s great because the bad guys in wrestling are way more interesting than the good guys.” He explained to me a heel [bad guy] and a face [good guy]. He told me that there’s a thing called a heel turn, and there’s a thing called a face turn, and  that the best way to gain the public’s attention is to be a colorful bad guy doing everything you can, and then become good. There was a point last year when I started thinking about that and was like, “Oh my god, does he think that this is what he’s doing? That he’s going to become the most famous villain in America and then turn it around and become like the biggest philanthropist or something? If that is, what a crazy diluted idea that would be because this isn’t a game. This is people’s lives!”

It was tough in a bunch of ways. Going through it while you’re also five years into a deep heroin addiction is not easy, either, because your emotions get really blank and then they all catch up and pour out. A times, I would think that I deserved everything that had happened to me at Collect because I was an addict. I felt so wretched all the time. It was a really intense, scary, sad thing for me. I also felt like the 18 years of good will that I had built up all just disappeared in an instant. But I’ve been really lucky that a lot of people stood by me and stuck up for me and testified to the public on my behalf, so to speak. I feel really grateful about that.