Interview with Dustin Kensrue of Thrice: Reading Into It

To some of The Aquarian’s readership, Dustin Kensrue’s name may not be as immediately recognizable as the name of the experimental rock band he’s fronted for over a decade (that would be Thrice), but Kensrue is responsible for some of that band’s most beloved characteristic. From their hyper-literate lyrics to the restless musical exploration that has led them from fleet-fingered post-hardcore to atmospheric soundscaping and everywhere in between.

This winter, Kensrue will be a key player in the Where’s The Band? Tour, which finds Kensrue and the frontmen of three other bands (The Get Up Kids’ Matt Pryor, Saves the Day’s Chris Conley and Bayside’s Anthony Raneri) performing solo acoustic sets, occasionally together. The Aquarian gave Kensrue a quick phone call to chat about the tour and Thrice’s future plans, as well as to ask for some reading recommendations.

How did the Where’s The Band? Tour come about? Who’s idea was it, and how did you get involved?

I wish I had a better story, but the truth is, it was really just our booking agent’s idea. (Laughs) I’ve always really enjoyed playing acoustic sets, so it was something I was immediately interested in, and I’ve been friends with Chris and Matt for years. I’m not sure if any of us had known Anthony well before the tour, but it’s been great so far. Really laid back, no egos.

I read, and correct me if I’m wrong, that each of the musicians on the tour will sit in and play accompaniment during the others’ sets. How does that work out?

Well, mostly that just functions as a transition between sets. Whoever is on next might come out and play with the current performer in order to ease into his own set, but we’re not playing or singing backing vocals for each other’s entire sets. The four of us do all play together at the end of the night to close out the show, though.

Have you guys gotten together to practice those transitions or the closing numbers, or are you mostly improvising up there?

We’ve practiced together very minimally.

Will your set focus on Thrice songs or your own solo work? Unlike some of the other frontmen on this tour, you’ve released solo albums alongside your work with your main band. Will there be a mix of the two?

The set will mostly focus on solo material, though about a quarter of the set will be Thrice songs, because I know people will be there to hear those, too. And I’ll do a few covers.

Any covers in particular?

I did some solo shows out West recently where I had been playing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” I like that one a lot and I could see myself doing it again for this tour. I haven’t really solidified a list yet. I’ll probably do a few Christmas songs, too, seeing as the tour is in December.

Let’s talk about Thrice. What’s next? Are you working on any new material?

Yeah, we’ve started writing our next album. I was just working on some music in my garage before you called. We have a lot of basic, sort of skeletal frames for songs written and now we’re just sort of expanding or adding to those structures.

Your band has a reputation for constantly expanding its sound, pushing its own musical boundaries, and evolving. In what direction does the new music appear to be heading?

I’m really reluctant to say because the songs aren’t close to being finished, and there’s always a chance that the material will take a turn in an unexpected direction between now and whenever the record comes out.

Additionally, I don’t want to misrepresent the sound of the music by inadequately describing it. But I guess I could say it almost has a ‘90s sound, sort of a grunge-influenced Seattle sound. Lots of major chords where there should be minor chords.

I do have to say, I think the transition between Beggars and this next album will be the least shocking one of our career. The chemistry between the other guys and me—the headspace we were in while we were writing Beggars—was just very enjoyable and relaxed and productive.

Our ideas or our goals while writing have always seemed to converge and come together in a similar way, and I can’t really say why that is. But there was a sense while we were writing The Alchemy Index—and not that I think that record is bad at all—of over thinking every decision and purposely trying to push things in directions that didn’t come as naturally. Beggars was much more stripped down than Alchemy, and I think this next album will be as well. Instead of thinking about how something sounds, we’re more concerned with how it feels to play, particularly live. It’s coming from the gut.

Many of your lyrics contain allusions to or direct quotations from Christian scripture and literature, particularly C.S. Lewis. Are there specific messages you wish to communicate to your audience, or are the references simply a natural outpouring of beliefs and material that you hold close?

I would definitely say it’s always been more of a natural outpouring than a conscious agenda. I’m not trying to preach or force anyone to see things the way I see them. I’ve always just written about what’s important to me. Christ, yes, but also questions about life, the search for meaning, and so on.

I read a lot, too, and that has always influenced my lyrics. Lately, I’ve been allowing the music to inform the lyrics. I’ve always thought that a lot of great music seemed to tell a story even without words accompanying it, so now when we’re writing I try to let the music tell its own story, and then pair it with lyrics that compliment that story and intertwine with the music.

Given that you are, in my opinion, one of the more literate frontmen in modern rock music, I have to ask: What have you been reading lately? Give me some recommendations.

Hmm, let’s see… I just finished reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the second or third time. I know it’s a popular book that a lot of people have read, and maybe it doesn’t make for the most interesting recommendation, but I consider it to be possibly the greatest work of fiction in existence. It is so beautifully told and detailed, and there‘s so much truth in it. There’s a sense of cheesiness that is inherent in some fantasy novels, but Tolkien managed to completely avoid that.

It might have a lot to do with the fact that Lord of the Rings preceded most of the fantasy genre as we know it, directly influencing a majority of it. I actually listened to some of it on audiobook. I can’t remember the name of the reader off the top of my head, but he was incredible. He would actually sing the songs. I don’t know if he pulled the melodies from somewhere else or wrote them himself, but it was beautiful.

I also just recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It won the Pulitzer Prize, I think in 2005. I saw an interview with the author that really intrigued me and went out and found the book. I’ve also been reading a lot of Charles Bukowski. I own a few collections of his poetry, which I prefer to his prose, which is strange because much of his poetry reads like condensed prose. The title of my Christmas album (2008’s This Goodnight Is Still Everywhere) is a reference to his collection What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.

Dustin Kensrue will be performing on the Where’s The Band? Tour Dec. 11 at The Music Hall Of Williamsburg and Dec. 12 at the Highling Ballroom. For more info,