Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue talks process and vision behind ‘Horizon/East’
With their eleventh album Horizons/East, Thrice continue to push themselves to new levels of artistry and expressiveness. The new record incorporates musical techniques from jazz and other styles alongside a wide array of deliberate experiments. However, the innovative approach never overshadows a basic goal: creating meaningful and sonically appealing music.
Ahead of the new record, we connected with bandleader Dustin Kensrue for a deep dive into the project. Kensrue detailed the vision and the process that led to the album's creation. He discussed the ways the band challenged themselves to develop innovative approaches to songwriting, the deep themes at play on the release and the moments of chance that led to the most unique aspects of each song.
AGAINST STATUS QUO.
Few bands have transformed themselves as much over the course of their career as Thrice. Even fewer have been able to reinvent themselves as successfully, charting new territory with each new release. “It didn’t seem exciting to continue to play the same kind of music over and over,” Kensrue says. However, artistic evolution wasn’t so much an afterthought for the group as it was something baked into their DNA. “There are a ton of stories of bands trying to shift and losing momentum,” he continues. “I think a lot of times that happens, they’ve done the same thing for a while and then tried to shift. For us, we were trying to do it from the beginning. I think it’s the consistency of commitment to the ideal. For a lot of people, it starts to build a relationship where you can trust where the band’s going.”
RISE TO THE CHALLENGE.
Even so, the band didn’t let pure instinct take the wheels. On the new record, Thrice set out to challenge themselves. Quite literally. The quartet developed creative constraints, rules or goals that forced them to think outside the box. Kensrue sees the challenges as “weird things to bounce ideas off and impose some boundaries or walls to run ideas up against and inspire creativity.” That might mean using quartal chords (built on fourths instead of thirds) or constructing tracks around continually shifting time signatures—both techniques inherited from jazz and other avant-garde traditions. At the end of the day, Kensrue sees this approach as a means of pushing the group to achieve something unique. “Whatever you’re trying to create, it’s going to basically make problems for you that then you creatively solve,” he says.
ALL IS ONE.
On Horizons/East, the band always use their compositional approach in service of the album’s themes. The record’s closer “Unitive/East” perfectly encapsulates the process. The track is constructed around a series of cascading time signatures, starting in one, representing unity, and ascending to 11—symbolizing the band’s 11th album. More than something musically interesting, the structure underscores a key notion. “I basically had this idea thinking through interrelatedness, which was a huge theme on the record,” Kensrue says. “The way everything’s connected and thinking through the idea that as much as everything is separated. We have our experience; you have your experience. We’re also all intimately connected, and there’s not really a hard line between anything. There’s a unity in the universe.”
On Horizons/East, songs evolve organically, spinning out from germinal cells into something larger. They ebb and flow. Along the way, the tracks develop significant contrasts, moments of stillness and quiet juxtaposed with the powerful, emotional peaks that have been the hallmark of the group since their earliest releases. Kensrue characterizes the careful, measured pace of their songs as “cinematic.” It’s an apt description, calling to mind a narrative structure standard in film but not always expected in music. “That’s definitely connected to a bigger piece of, over time, us learning the effectiveness of ‘You don’t have to play all the time,’” he says. “There’s something bigger happening in a song than any of its individual pieces.”
ORDER AND CHAOS.
Despite the thoughtful planning that goes into many of the group’s songs, their process isn’t strictly driven by rules. In fact, key moments of the new record came out of a simple form of improvisation. “Something I’ve done more on this record than I’ve done anywhere else is incorporate pieces of ideas that come out randomly as I’m demoing the songs,” Kensrue says. “I’ll sing nonsense words and try to find the melodies. Sometimes, I’ll end up saying something that’s actually weird or strange or cool.” That approach helped generate the chorus to the album’s lead single “Scavengers.” “I wrote that chorus for that purpose and ended up being like, ‘This is the chorus. I like this.’ I think it’s tapping into something deep and subconscious in me, and then I built the song around the images that were inspired by that.”
This article appears in issue 398, available here.