By BRUCE DENNILL
Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist Ian Thornley’s journey with his band Big Wreck has been multi-monikered: Big Wreck, then Ian Thornley (solo), then Ian Thornley & Big Wreck and now back under the single banner again. Whatever the finer details, that sequence speaks of (at least) occasional friction between band members.
Is conflict necessary to stimulate creativity?
“No, it’s not,” says Thornley, “but I know what whoever came up with that phrase means. In the first version of Big Wreck, there was some of that. We’d write songs in the bandroom, playing musical tennis, and in that situation, when everyone’s passionate about what’s going on, there will be arguments. When it really works, though, it all flows. Beautiful ideas just drop in and then you talk about it afterwards and decide what to chop.
“I used to be opinionated just for the sake of being opinionated. But the song needs to be the biggest ego in the room.”
Thornley’s long withdrawn from any mindset that would see him try and design a song to be chart-friendly, with Big Wreck’s more recent work featuring long intros and solos. Is there any template at all for the band’s songs?
“No, and if I discovered I was working from one, I’d shatter it,” Thornley growls.
“The last two albums [Ghosts, 2014; and Albatross, 2012] have been such fun – the weirder the better in many ways. It’s been an exercise in joy, with no interference or having to fit the chorus into the first minute or whatever. It’s quite the opposite: we’ve been pushed to see what we can do, and it’s the kind of thing that makes me want to work 18-hour days in the studio. There’s no doubt now. That can ruin the whole thing. but that bubble has burst.”
Thornley has a magnetic stage presence, but the responsibilities of being a frontman don’t come easily, with the singer describing himself as “more Keith than Mick” in one interview.
“It’s not that big a deal,” he shrugs.
“I’m reluctant, but if someone takes a great pic of me on stage, I’ll still be all, ‘Wow! Look at me!’. Most of the time, though, I’m lost in guitar moments, and I’m never sure what my face is doing. It can get quite frightening, I think… I don’t think about it; I just do what I do.
“Rapport with the audience only really happens if everything clicks. I’m looking at them, but I’m wearing in-ear monitors, so I can’t tell if they’re laughing at what I’m saying or not. I just see the audience looking at me like goats look at thunder.”
Big Wreck comes from a Canadian music scene that appears, to the outsider, to be incredibly supportive, whether help comes via government grants or endorsements from those who have hit the big time already (the band were at one point signed to Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger’s label, and share management with classic rockers Rush).
How effective is that system for someone with an indie mindset?
“It’s hard for me to say,” begins Thornley.
“I’ve had a good career. Okay, that’s a stretch, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The support is great. The first thing out of Chad’s mouth when Nickelback broke through was, “I’m going to start a label and sign you.’
“But it’s not all perfect. My dad used to talk about ‘tall poppy syndrome’: when one starts to grow above the rest, everyone wants to cut him down. And there is a bit of that. I’ve never been the tallest poppy, though and I’m not sure I want that level of headache. That said, all the big girls and boys, success-wise, who’ve come out of Canada are all unbelievably polite and sweet.”
What about breaking out of that scene; escaping perceptions and breaking elsewhere – South Africa, for example?
“I don’t know. I’m kind of naive when it comes to all that,” admits Thornley.
“There’s a lot of talk about it. We flirt with progressive musical ideas, so we’re perhaps a little more cerebral than the mainstream, which goes down well in Europe, apparently. But I can’t just call my German roommate from college and set it all up; it takes some doing.”
New album Ghosts is almost as introspective as the titles suggests. And clocking in at over 70 minutes and featuring the aforementioned generous intros and solos, it feels like a record made by Big Wreck for Big Wreck, first and foremost.
“Absolutely,” agrees Thornley.
“The most success we had was when Atlantic bought our demos and released them years ago. We weren’t aiming for commercial gain; it doesn’t work for us. I think that the best of me is yet to come, though – I’m still getting used to this approach. the Albatross album was like getting off a leash; like testing the water [the title track went to Number One in Canada]. Ghosts is about leaping in.”
One of Big Wreck’s standout characteristics is the level of musicianship all the members are capable of. How important is that level of skill in satisfaction and sustainability terms?
“It’s a language that we’re speaking,” smiles Thornley.
“It’s not about the theory, though. We don’t stand around saying, ‘Hey, there’s a minor seventh flat five in there.’ I don’t know that being a good player is as important as loving what you do, though. You can tell by the way someone straps on their guitar and caresses the instrument.”
Big Wreck’s videos, including the promo for Wolves (below) are essentially recordings of the band playing live in the studio or their rehearsal area. That’s a smart money-saving idea, but is it also because the energy the band creates is more important than the concepts behind the songs?
“I’ve always hated videos,” says Thornley, “but you have to do them. The way it used to be, it’d take two or three days and you’d hate your song by the end of it.
“The Albatross videos were easy. We were in rehearsal anyway, so it was effectively killing two birds with one stone. The more recent ones, like for the song Hey Mama, are a little more conceptual.”
“I feel pain for my bandmates when we need to act – ‘Ok, bro; so you’re at the bar and you’re really upset…’ But I suppose getting onstage is acting to some degree.
“One thing: the music must be the centrepiece.”