I carefully weigh up my words when considering the incredible journey chief of Northampton's indie scene Thane Thomsen has taken. Meet the man who could be one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of the 90/00's. Chieftain Thane O' Northampton meets Third Outing.
3rd: Finally we meet, Thane Thomsen of Northampton's music hall of fame. I found out about you through Rub Wrongways Records. The Figments, Goldwater, Rehab Massachusetts...just how many musical projects have you been involved with?
Thane: Northampton has a very rich music community and I've been living in the area for twenty years continuously at this point, so I've managed to get involved in quite a few projects. I'm the songwriter in the ones you've mentioned, and that list should include Goldwater the Second, which is the project that is currently getting most of my creative attention. It's very different from Goldwater, though I'm still the main songwriter and singer. It's more amorphous, though it always does involve my partner Melissa Nelson playing cello and singing. It’s also the first project where I’m doing all of the recording myself. The list of bands I've played guitar, bass, or keyboards in over the years includes Lo Fine, Haunt, Storm the Ohio, Niceface, The Dingle, The Supreme Dicks, and Sitting Next to Brian.
3rd: I liked the idea behind Rehab Massachusetts as soon as I heard them. In fact, it was the first we ever heard of Thane Thomsen. The record has a specific theme, right?
Thane: I'm really proud of that record, which was intended to be a one off project from the start. Ironically, the idea come out of a conversation around a keg between Terry Flood and Steve Sanderson (both from the band The Drunk Stuntmen) and me. The idea was to write a series of songs based on the 12 Step recovery program, one song per step. I went on to discover that each step worked as a perfect template for a song and in a few months I wrote and recorded demos for four or five of the steps. I began to see that I could incorporate an overarching narrative structure into the whole project. We spent two days at Slaughterhouse Recording Studio recording basic tracks with Mark Alan Miller and then Bruce Tull recorded the overdubs at his house, known as the Woodmont. After the project was recorded and we played a couple of shows people would ask me if I was in recovery. I would often have a beer in my hand when they asked. The answer was no, but I felt very connected to the material through my work as a teacher in Adult Basic Education programs and at the County House of Corrections, where many of my students were in recovery.
3rd: The album really is incredible. The Figments, one of your other major projects, started in 1995. What has changed in the music industry in 20 years?
Thane: Pretty much everything. The Figments first three records were recorded on tape. That's something that rarely happens these days. Also, in 1995 the internet was not being used to promote shows and distribute music. I spent a lot of time hanging up posters. So I see these as positive changes, being able to utilize the digital medium and connectivity for the purpose of high quality home recording and self-promotion. However, as I think most people know, the industry wasn't prepared for these changes and there was an interregnum, where the old industry forms died off before the new forms were born.
The first couple years of our life as a band The Figments had some hope of being signed by a small indie label that would help promote us and maybe even help finance the recording process. By 2001 that hope had completely faded because of consolidation within the music industry. There just weren't many indie labels left, at least not any with substantial resources. At the same time, the means for low-cost, high-quality digital home recording hadn't developed yet, nor had the tools for online promotion and distribution. I think it would be pretty exciting starting up a new band these days and taking advantage of the digital age with fresh energy. That said, I'm a little skeptical of the idea that artists are expected to take care of their own management and promotion these days. Most of the musicians I know are not necessarily managerial types, and the expectation seems unfair to them.
3rd: You released Won't Hurt You in 1997 but All The Gone Days didn't feature until 2001.How come there was such a long gap between the two releases?
Thane: That's a good question. All The Gone Days is really The Figments second full-length record. After recording and releasing the EP Won't Hurt You, we went back into Studio 45 to work with David Shuman again and recorded all the songs for Broken Time, plus a few extra ones. There was an original and longer version of Broken Time mastered in 1999 that we shopped around to a few labels in hopes of getting some support in putting it out. When that didn't happen, we made a couple hundred copies of the record and released it locally, then went to work recording and releasing All The Gone Days.
3rd: When we first listened to The Figments we couldn't help but think of Silver Jews; the tone is the same as David Berman. Are you happy with the comparison? Are they an influence?
Thane: I love David Berman's writing and think the Silver Jews album American Water might have my favourite lyrics of any record to come out in the nineties. However, I don't consider Silver Jews a big influence. Stephen Malkmus from Pavement plays and sings on American Water and he is certainly one of my biggest influences. Another baritone that I get compared to is Bill Callahan, formerly known as Smog, he's one of my very favourite singers and songwriters, so I'm pleased when I hear that comparison.
3rd: The Figments were around at the same time as some of these bands. What was the ambition when you started The Figments? Did you get recognition from your first releases?
Thane: I can't speak for everybody in the band, but I didn't really have any grand ambitions as a musician. I remember kind of joking with Matthew Zapruder, The Figments guitarist, that our supreme goal was to get signed by Chunk Records, which was a very indie, ultimately bankrupt, Northampton-based label. Thanks goodness that didn't happen. Any recognition we received was mainly local, although there was a stint when we seemed to be developing a considerable fan base in New York City.
3rd: But still! How on earth are you not famous? I mean the music is fantastic. Was it not the right time?
Thane: Although fame was never my ambition, I won't deny that I wish that my music reached a broader audience. I feel like I've already mentioned why the timing might not have been right. If I was in need of a journalistic goal, and had substantial funding, I would travel around the United States visiting well known music communities to interview musicians and, ultimately, compile music by artists who never received the recognition that they deserved because of the transformation of the music industry that occurred between 1995 and 2005. Within the Northampton music community alone I can think of bands like Spouse, The Ware River Club, The Aloha Steamtrain and many more, that might have become hugely popular if the circumstances were different. I'm sure the same is true for places like Austin TX, Seattle WA, and New York City, to name a few.
3rd: That's understandable, the great thing is The Figments consistency and a definite style. For me, Blood On The Clouds stands out. Do you have a favourite record?
Thane: It's very hard for me to pick a favourite Figments record, for which I feel fortunate. I would say I like Broken Time, Twelve Belles, and Where You Go equally, but if I had a gun to my head and was forced to choose, I would say that Twelve Belles is the strongest start to finish. If I had to choose the record I was most honoured by, that would be the two CD collection of people covering my songs put together by Brian Marchese for my 45th birthday. Versions by incredible artists were recorded in nine different states. It can be found on Bandcamp under the title Songs of Thane Thomsen.
3rd: And then you're also in Goldwater. We love the Goldwater EP I'm a pessimist because of Intelligence but I'm an optimist because of will. Your protest record?
Thane: As far as my song writing process is concerned, desperation and inspiration are inextricably linked. With the Goldwater record coming right at the end of the Bush/Cheney years, I felt like the title spoke directly to the sense of political desperation I was feeling at the time and that is reflected in some of the songs on the EP. It's a quote from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, written while he was being held as a political prisoner by the Mussolini regime. Despite their less didactic titles, I do think that The Figments records Blood on the Clouds and Where You Go are more thoroughly infused with a sense of discontentment with the political climate than the Goldwater EP.
3rd: What's your relationship with Rub Wrongways Records?
Thane: Henning Ohlenbusch, the head of Rub Wrongways, is a good friend of mine. I'm really appreciative of the support the label has given to the Goldwater records and to Rehab Massachusetts. Also, I play bass in Sitting Next to Brian, which is another Rub Wrongways band.
3rd: So Thane. 1997, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2013...what's 2015 going to be like for you and The Figments? Are you working on another project?
Thane: In the last seven months, three of the four Figments, me included, have fathered their first child. I swear that is not the result of a pact we made when we formed as a band. That, combined with the fact that guitarist Matthew Zapruder lives on the West Coast, means is might be a while before The Figments record another record. But keeping in mind that we've been a band for twenty years and that Matthew, Brian, Trace Meek, and I are still great friends, I have reason to hope that we will record again someday. Goldwater The Second has a big batch of songs in the process of being recorded. There's a good chance that some of those songs will be released in some form or another in the next year.
3rd: Thane it's been a pleasure speaking to you. What a beautiful coincidence it was that Third Outing have found the Thane o' Northampton! Finally, the Third Outing classic, what's your desert island drink?
Thane: If you go into the Northampton bar Hugo’s, for which there is a song named on Broken Time, and the right bartender is working and you order a “Thane,” you will be handed a bottle of Budweiser and a Tanqueray and Tonic. That would serve me pretty good on my desert island, though to be honest, I would prefer a good microbrew IPA to the Bud.
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