Interview with Dustin Kensrue from Thrice: Making A Major Impact In Minor Rock Straits

Surviving and thriving as a band in 2011 is like walking a tightrope over alligator-infested water—risky, nerve wracking and death defying. Few acts from the ‘90s have managed to stay relevant, and more importantly, sell records, but even more discerning is the challenge to garner mainstream attention without “selling out”—whatever that means.

On Thrice’s eighth studio album, Major/Minor, the Orange County, CA-bred quartet brings back a taste of pre-piracy ‘90s—a surge of convoluted guitar and bass lines that serve as the safety net to hard harmonies and gut wrenching lyrics. In an inundated industry, this is a refresher. Current mainstream music is a compilation of saturated, sticky pop and tough-to-sift-through lyrics that, frankly, mean nothing but a chicken wing to the aficionados of the scene.

Thrice, comprised Dustin Kensrue (guitar/vocals), Teppei Teranishi (guitar), Eddie Breckenridge (bass) and Riley Breckenridge (drums), took its high school connection from the neighborhood skate park to the punk/alternative scene back in the late ‘90s. Eight studio albums later, the band is staking its claim back on the charts, debuting at number 18 on the Billboard 200.

Thrice is similar to other bands in that they wail hard, and they rely on their cult following to sustain their intermittent bursts of fame. But the band’s general success hinges on its overall positioning as the antidote to the mundane music slump. Dustin Kensrue leaves no room for lyrical guessing games. On the 11-song album, and throughout the band’s 13-year history of songs, he pours his heart out. Songs off Major/Minor like “Yellow Belly” and “Cataracts” evoke emotion with lyrics that delve deep into Kensrue’s disturbing vehemence. It’s as if Kensrue talks through each sentiment with vexing vocals that explore his innermost thoughts. Major/Minor is a compilation of the band’s next-generation approach to music making.

New approaches are encouraged and even necessary in today’s under-fire rock landscape, as bands are increasingly challenged to create compelling works that can satisfy the masses and delight the airwaves. Following the release of 2009’s Beggars, which peaked at number 47 on the Billboard charts, the band didn’t subscribe to any particular creative strategy, according to Kensrue.

“What we learned doing Beggars is this idea of the energy going on and the way that we’re all playing in a room together that transferred over as a groove and movement to the record,” Kensrue says. “I think we ended up wanting [Major/Minor] to be a little bit more ballsy and in your face. I think it’s a little more aggressive than Beggars on a lot of different levels. I don’t think [the album] is necessarily forging new ground—I just think it’s good. It feels good to play… It rules and rocks in a way we’ve never done before. And so that’s exciting to us.”

Kensrue wears his heart on his sleeve in tracks like “Treading Paper” and “Words in the Water,” both of which channel genuine lyrics and deep-ended metaphors to paint barely literal tales of soul searching and finding.

Tracked and produced by longtime friend Dave Schiffman at Redbull Studios in Los Angeles, Major/Minor channels the grunge age with complex rhythms, angry bass lines and guitar gusto. It’s evident that the band has been pushing toward progression since its 1998 inception. When Thrice debuted Identity Crisis in 2001, the four-piece was widely acknowledged for taking the initiative to fuse metal with punk.

Each of Thrice’s albums has garnered respective attention. And in 2002, The Illusion Of Safety marked the band’s last licks at Sub City Records, before moving to Island Records.

In 2003, it was with the major label that Thrice recorded The Artist In The Ambulance, which peaked at number 16 on the Billboard 200, as well as 2005’s Vheissu, which peaked at number 15.

Then and now, one could compare Thrice to its timely, equally innovative counterparts like Thursday, Brand New or Taking Back Sunday, but the band never really considered itself tied to a particular sound segment.

“We hit a peak on the weird swell of whatever people were calling ‘emo-core-scream’ or whatever idiotic titles there were that we’d never felt like we were a part of,” Kensrue explains. “We just got lumped in there. There’s a little bit of riding that and the record industry hadn’t started tanking yet.”

During the recording of Thrice’s four-piece concept album, The Alchemy Index: Vol. I Fire and Water (2007), and Volume II: Earth And Air (2008), the band announced its departure from Island Records. The band went on to record its seventh studio release, Beggars, with Vagrant Records.

And while Thrice came along at a treacherous time for rock bands, the group managed to consistently release quality material, which Kensrue says, is a habit based on necessity, and not so much a luxury.

“If money and time weren’t an option I think we’d spend longer [making albums],” he muses. “There’s just an urgency because we basically live off playing live and being on the road. That’s not to say it’s why we make music, but that’s why it happens at the frequency and speed that it does.”

Ultimately, Thrice has gotten its groove back by finding a home and creative freedom with Vagrant Records.

“We’re kind of in a sweet spot where [the label] is big enough to get certain things done, but not big enough to where it’s this giant machine that you’re disconnected from,” Kensrue says. “We were really small fish at Island [among] Mariah Carey, Jay-Z and all this craziness. Vagrant’s been a great spot. They’re a good size and in works out well.”

Competing In Dire, Digital Straits

The digital decade gave birth to a slew of new challenges for musicians. The acts that have stood the test of time are in many ways off-putting, as some of them have become jaded by a musical career driven less by the art and more by necessity. And while Thrice has stood the test of time consistently packaging quality music, the band has felt the disheartening impact.

“[Piracy] has definitely had a large affect on us and the way we make our livelihood,” Kensrue explains. “You can’t do a lot about it other than to try to embrace new mediums and kind of let the technology work for you even as it’s working against you. I think we’ve done that in making a couple of records on our own and making the records we wanted to make.”

But, as Kensrue notes, bands’ monetary gains are less reliant upon record sales. “It’s more in how you structure your deals.” Leading up to the release of Beggars, the band dealt firsthand with the realities of Internet piracy, when a promotional version of the album was leaked in July 2009. The band then opted to move for a digital-only release in August 2009, with a physical release following in September.

“Part of the DNA of our band is that we have to keep challenging ourselves—we have to keep pushing forward, whatever that looks like. It’s a ‘sharks keep swimming to live’ kind of thing. That’s just how our band has always functioned. That’s what makes it work for us. We just wouldn’t be happy or excited to make music if we weren’t challenging ourselves.”

It’s Kensrue and company’s ability to innovate that has kept Thrice thriving, and the lyricist and singer draws largely from his Christian faith to create meaningful, powerful songs that resonate with the masses.

“I would hope that my life has integrity in the very literal sense that there’s a wholeness and oneness to it that I’m the same person in any of those circumstances [singing; founding a church], but I have different jobs I’m doing and it’s all flowing from one place.”

Thrice will play Sayreville, NJ Oct. 14, 2011 at Starland Ballroom and New York City at Irving Plaza Oct. 16, 2011.