Oct 01, 2007 Web Exclusive
For their third album, Teenager, Dublin’s The Thrills chose a different approach from their past efforts. Instead of jettisoning to California to record an album of slick, Beach Boys- and Beatles-influenced harmonic pop, singer Conor Deasy, guitarist Daniel Ryan, drummer Ben Carrigan, keyboardist Kevin Horan, and bassist Padraic McMahon decided to change the pace, holing up in Bryan Adams’ own Warehouse studio in Vancouver’s seedy Gastown district. What they came up with is a mature and personal work dealing with themes youth and getting older. Deasy spoke at length with Under the Radar about the new album, its influences, and the endless touring that had previously brought the band to its collective knees.
Under the Radar: Where am I calling?
Conor Deasy: I’m actually in Dublin at the moment. I’m right by the River Liffey, which runs through the center of Dublin.
UTR: You toured for nearly four and a half straight years off your first two albums, correct?
Deasy: It certainly felt like that, because we put out two records [out] back to back. Certainly when you’re making your name and you’re establishing yourselves, the label will tour you into the ground, and as young, wide-eyed fools, you’re happy to be toured into the ground. It felt like five years. It was probably four, a bit more. It was a long time on the tour bus.
UTR: What affect do you see that as having on you, personally and creatively?
Deasy: Sometimes I look at bands who have toured too much and I think it can derail some bands. At first, it tightens you up. When we first started touring, we couldn’t play live. When we wrote those songs, we were always thinking of the Brill Building, great songwriting partnerships, and not worrying about the bullshit, arena theatrics. We just wanted to write great songs. So when we first started touring, it was a little bit of effort to translate it, to make it work. Eventually we got it, but sometimes I look at bands that have been touring too much, and there’s just certain simple generic things that you can slip into that work great in a club or an arena, but aren’t necessarily that interesting musically. It’s certain simple stimulants that people respond to. I often see that with bands that have just toured themselves into the ground. Bands who start out interesting can become generic and formulaic and they kind of dumb themselves down a little bit, or they forget what made them interesting. I don’t know, maybe some people say that about us. I don’t think so. But yeah, touring, it’s a double-edged sword I suppose.
UTR: So you didn’t really take any break between touring off of So Much for the City and going in to record Let’s Bottle Bohemia?
Deasy: No. I remember right before we recorded Let’s Bottle Bohemia, we had just finished a tour. And then we finished recording Let’s Bottle Bohemia, and we went into another tour, because the first album came out later in America and we were still touring that in America. And then we went to mix it in New York after that tour. And while we were mixing in New York, we had two days off for the weekend, and during those two days off we were playing gigs along the East coast. When I look back, it was foolhardy, but when you’re young and excited and when you’ve spent a couple years playing an album to death and talking about it and being praised and criticized for it, the idea of making a new record and releasing a new batch of songs, that’s adrenaline enough. I wouldn’t be overdramatic about it. At the time, we were very excited about it. When I look back, it was a pretty heavy schedule.
UTR: Some felt you had may have lost a bit of your luster on that second album. I wonder whether that was a difficult album for it to record.
Deasy: It was a bit of a fucked up time for everyone, in the sense that no matter how well you think you know someone, once you ride around in a tour bus for a few years with people and they start living out their Jim Morrison delusions and so forth, it can really test young men’s relationships with each other. So I think, personally, that was a testing time. And then we did this thing where, the week the album came out in the U.K., we decided to go out and support The Pixies for six weeks. Most people wouldn’t think of The Thrills and The Pixies as the most obvious of double-billings—well, we were obviously supporting them—but some nights I was surprised. I think most nights actually we either won over the crowd or won over a fair portion of the crowd. I still remember one guy in Florida in the front row who gave us the finger to the beat of every snare drum hit for our 40-minute set. So we definitely had a few passionate haters in the crowd. I think that year, on the second album, there were some great times and some tough times, because we hadn’t taken that break. The danger, you find out, is that when you take a break, it only makes sense that it’s going to take a bit of time to get back into your stride…You can call [Let’s Bottle Bohemia] a lot of things, but it’s not for lack of ideas. There might be too much stuff in there, but we never stopped. We kept going on sheer momentum and maybe could’ve done with the break, but when you take a break, that’s the thing, you have to get back into your stride again. You can take the chemistry of the band for granted, I guess.
UTR: But you initially went right back into the studio to start recording what would have been this album right after a tour, correct?
Deasy: We had done this TV show for RTÉ, which is like the BBC in Ireland. And the sound on the actual television set was fucking shocking. I listened to about 30 seconds of it and I almost got sick, but in the room the sound was great. So instead of rejoicing on the last day of the tour, I had the great idea to have the gear sent back over from London, because this room felt great and start writing songs, to plunge ourselves right back into it. And within five minutes, I think we all were lying on the ground, staring at the ceiling. We hit that wall very early. So then within a couple of hours, it was like, ‘Okay, take a break. Go and see your girlfriends.’ We needed some space from each other and then we regrouped in a few months time. And I’m glad we made that decision. We needed to do that. We didn’t really have the difficult second album. We had the difficult third album, I suppose.
UTR: Did you actively strive to make this album different than the ones before it?
Deasy: See, when you first start writing songs, you stumble across some little tricks of your heroes, whether it’s a little bass line or some melodic flair, whatever it is. Or two chords that play off each other well. And you’re quite excited to have discovered this little trick and you’re certainly quite happy to reference it. But of course, hopefully, that shouldn’t last forever. Eventually, you want to rid yourselves of those shackles. On this album—I’m not implying that there aren’t influences on the album—but we certainly didn’t want to wear our influences as heavy on our sleeve as we might have done in the past. On this record, I definitely could notice it. When you’re writing a song, you’re not over-conceptualizing things, but certainly I noticed on this record, we’d be working on a song, and that comment would come out. Like, ‘Oh no, that chorus is too much that.’ Or ‘That harmony is too obviously a nod to that.’ Those kinds of comments were coming out more than in the past. We wrote about 30 songs for this album, and a lot of the songs we discarded. They weren’t poor songs. They were perfectly good songs, but they were songs that could have fit on the first or the second album a little too easily.
UTR: How long did you spend in Vancouver recording?
Deasy: We spent the summer basically. We arrived very early June and we left, I think, late August. So it was a great time to be there. The weather was great. In the past we’d always record in L.A. and with producers that were based in L.A., which was nice because we have a sense of authority over the studio and the city, but if you want to find out a good restaurant, you go to them, and if the guitar snaps in half, they get the guy in to fix it. So it was nice to go to a city where we were both equally at a loss. Neither side had home advantage. And even Tony [Hoffer, producer (Beck, Air, Smashing Pumpkins)] commented that it introduced an interesting dynamic. No one had a wife there or a girlfriend there, and no one knew where the good bars were. I liked that. The funny thing was, we knew we wanted to avoid L.A. on this record. We were over that and it was important that we avoided that. And then we thought about recording in Dublin, which we hadn’t done before. I suppose it was either one of two extremes, either record somewhere we knew very well—i.e., where we’re from—or we go somewhere very new. And we toured with R.E.M. the year before and they recommended this studio in Vancouver [The Warehouse]. And I just thought, R.E.M. have made a couple of albums in their time, so we’ll take them up on their suggestion.
UTR: Did you realize when you took them up on their suggestion that the studio was in one of the worst parts of Canada [Vancouver’s Gastown district]?
Deasy: No. They left that detail out. So I guess they were maybe taking a cut on the profits. But it was immediately very clear. Put it this way, halfway through the recording sessions, they put up a bin outside the studio that said, ‘Deposit your rigs here,’ and rigs are street slang for syringes. It’s not that shocking, but it is acknowledged. I remember looking out the studio window one day and there was a guy with a syringe hanging out of his arm and the police, they weren’t arresting him, they were just telling him, “If you’re going to do this, do it somewhere private, not on the open street.” Not two o’clock in the afternoon. So they have a very progressive attitude to drugs, which was a breath of fresh air compared to Dublin or Britain or other parts of North America, and it certainly eliminated the criminal aspect. Despite the neighborhood we were recording in, I used to walk home at one in the morning most nights on my own, which you probably wouldn’t do if you were in that kind of neighborhood in New York or Chicago or anywhere else. But I never really felt threatened. People weren’t mugging people or breaking into cars to get money together to get their fix, because it was very freely available, but having said that, there were a lot of unfortunate people just very out of it on street corners. It was a very progressive attitude. I don’t really know what they were trying to achieve or if they achieved it, but it was interesting to see I suppose.
UTR: You didn’t have any dangerous encounters?
Deasy: No, and that’s the thing. We would walk home. At first, I was a little bit wary of maybe walking home at that time of the night, at one in the morning, but it became immediately apparent to me that that wasn’t really an issue. It was fine. It’s odd, because it’s right beside a very touristy district, so you have all these tourists coming down to the Gastown area…and then a block away, it’s obviously very different. I mean, the studio is owned by Bryan Adams, so if anything, my concern was that it might be little bit showbiz-y. And the drum room was huge, perfect for that big ’80s reverb sound that goes on for ten years after the song finishes…We certainly hadn’t heard about the neighborhood until the day beforehand. That was kept from us, I guess for the off chance that it would scare us off, but it didn’t at all. And I liked it. I thought it was interesting. And we hadn’t recorded like that before.
UTR: And I guess if Bryan Adams is okay with the area…?
Deasy: He did return from a European stadium tour and, as usual, we had missed our deadline. I don’t know why we thought that on this album we would meet our deadlines, because we never had in the past, but we were promptly bumped down to the basement studio. Up to that point we’d been on the rooftop studio, but obviously he owns the place, and who am I to argue with the studio owner. But the basement studio was the haunted part of the building. This building, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver, and 100 years ago or so, there was this great fire apparently, that at the time, this was the only stone building, so all the other buildings burnt down and, as a result, this building was used as a kind of make-shift morgue for all the unfortunate victims of this great Vancouver fire. When I first started, I didn’t pay this too much attention, because I’m just not really that way inclined. So I was a little bit skeptical of the haunted aspect of this building, but I have to say we experienced some pretty creepy things, so my skepticism of hauntings and bad spirits, it was rattled a little bit. I definitely was spooked a few times.
UTR: Your last two albums were very much inspired by outside factors—California, culture, etc.Teenager is a lot more personal. What inspired the change of focus?
Deasy: I think most records are a reaction against the ones before, because they become such a big part of your life. Whether it’s the sitting on the edge of your bed writing songs or on the piano, and then the recording, and then talking about it and touring. So it’s hard not to, at the end of that process, want to do something very different. I think this is definitely a more personal record. Having said that, whenever you go into a record, you’re never quite in control of how it’s going to end up. I had the title first. I wanted to call it Teenager. And I kind of deliberately didn’t want to write songs that were any grander than a great early Beatles track or a Spector track. I didn’t want to go beyond those very earnest simple themes about lessons, and I want to hold your hand. And if we had made the album in nine months, it would have stayed there. A lot of songs on the album stick to that initial [idea], but because it became, I guess, a difficult album and took a while to pin down, the theme winds a little bit. It became also a record about growing up and once you get a little bit older and the effect of your youth and how it shapes you. But I think it’s definitely our most personal record to date.
UTR: Was there an aspect of wanting to get beyond all the industry pressure that came along with The Thrills getting big, like returning to a simplicity of youth?
Deasy: Yeah, I think that song titles like “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?” on Let’s Bottle Bohemia, I suppose you could argue that they were a little cryptic. And I like the idea of Teenager as a title. It was so simple and it wasn’t loaded with anything. It wasn’t hiding behind any unnecessary metaphors. And on top of that, when you sell a few records, the record label, they’re willing to write a check so you can get an orchestra in or get a big name brass arranger. But with this record, I wanted us to do a lot. I didn’t want synthesizers used. It’s very organic sounding. And, of course, as you were saying earlier about reacting against your last album, now, with the new songs I’m working on, I’m already thinking about slightly more sophisticated arrangements, the very things we were avoiding [on Teenager]. On this record, I wanted to strip it down, but to confine ourselves and do a lot within that kind of limited palette, which is often I think the way to go about it. When you have unlimited time and budget and money, that’s often when you come up with the least interesting ideas.
UTR: So what’s next for The Thrills? Will you be touring stateside after the album’s released over here?
Deasy: The plan is the album comes out in October. We might do a New York and L.A. show and do a couple of the late night chat shows and then we’re going to come out and do a proper tour in the new year.
UTR: Is there a considered effort to make it a little bit lighter and build in a little more breaks?
Deasy: Yeah. It’s not just that. I think the first two albums, not only did we run ourselves into the ground, we also stretched ourselves very thin. It’s very hard to release a record in America and Europe at the same time. That’s what we did for our second album. If you’re a huge band, it’s one thing. Otherwise, it’s just very difficult and it’s very stressful. And there’s nothing worse than working so hard on a record and then not really feeling you’re giving it a proper chance. So I’d much prefer to delay the release, do a couple shows, and then come back and do a proper [tour]. Just do it right.