Things are not always what the seem with the Baton Rouge-based metal band.
“The Fool Who Thought He Was King” and “Death to the King and All His Loyal Subjects” sound like song titles that might skewer our imperious president. They’re on the new Let Our Names Be Forgotten, a split EP between the New Orleans-based heavy metal band Thou and Oakland’s Ragana, but Thou singer Bryan Funck says that’s not what they’re about. He doesn’t think he’d write a Trump song because he wouldn’t want to be that narrow and on the nose.
“I try to write things that are a bit ambiguous or open-ended so people can put what they want in it,” he says. Because of that, listeners could map their thoughts on the president on the lines:
Servants, lie in debasement
sustained on the crumbs of pseudo intellect
dime store wisdom disguised as politico philosophy.
The illusion of ideology. The imposition of precious ego.
No room for opposition.
One view rules all. One view ruins all.
The song—like many of Funck’s songs—takes the long view as it anatomizes forces and behaviors, something that’s clear when you have the lyric sheet in front of you. Funck delivers the lines with fascinating dispassion even as he screams them over the heavy metal band’s sonic maelstrom. There’s no judgment in his performances as he seems far too invested in the macro view to get bogged down with rooting interests or the small players who appear as data points in his narrative.
And to get that far, listeners have to sort out the lyrics—something that’s not always easy to do when Funck lays syllable-dense phrases over a grinding riff, stretching words out until some threaten to exist solely as anguished sound.
How his words are received is something Funck thinks about. He’s had people take his lyrics in an “absolutely wrong context” and construe the band as right wingers. “Knowing us, I don’t know how people can think we’d have any conservative views,” he says. “I feel like we’ve been pretty outspoken in our political motivations.”
Still, he knows that people simply will misunderstand his lyrics because there’s no way to control how they will process them, even when he’s at his most didactic. “I remember someone years ago talking to us about ’Tyrant’ and telling us how they thought it was a Christian song,” Funck says. “That was the first stuff I wrote in the band when I was coming out of hardcore. I was definitely more on the nose then than I am now. I don’t know if I could have been clearer about a message.
You be the judge: “Hidden eyes judge us from the heavens, unseen fingers choking free will back down our throats / You can never escape the foul presence of Christianity.”
“I don’t get people sometimes,” Funck says.
Thou is serious-minded, but Funck’s background in hardcore punk makes it almost inevitable that he’d try to fuck with his band’s identity in a Whatever you think I am, I’m not way. The contrarian impulse that runs through many punks’ refusal to make things too easy or comfortable for their fans has led Thou to cover Duran Duran and Neil Young. He has written songs that espouse points of view that aren’t his own, and he has borrowed from a source as unlikely as Florida-Georgia Line for his music. He clearly enjoys those eccentricity of tastes and picks up energy while talking about them.
“There’s tons of music that I listen to that you could almost objectively say was bad that I can still find something in it for me,” Funck says. “25 ta Life, a terrible hardcore band. I listen to a lot of modern, pop country. I love it.”
That impulse to veer off unpredictably isn’t simply reflexive gamesmanship. Funck sees it as an extension of punk’s mischievous attitude. The band’s not just antagonistic; it’s antagonistic to make a point. “We’re just as likely to be critical of things we do like,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe that’s why we have so many people misinterpreting us sometimes. We point the finger at ourselves a lot.”
Funck would have to be clairvoyant for the songs on Let Our Names Be Forgotten to speak to this moment. They were written in 2014 and recorded for a split EP Thou was going to do with another band well before Trump announced his run for the presidency. When that project fell through, the band shelved the songs, then resurrected them when the Ragana split disc became a possibility.
The release fueled another misperception, this time that Thou is insanely prolific. It has released four albums this year and now an EP. The releases followed each other so quickly that when Funck and I started trying to schedule an interview, it was because the previous release, Magus, was about to come out. Funck has to back up to explain how it happened.
“We’re really lucky to have a lot of people offer to put out records for us,” he says, among them New Orleans’ Community Records, which released the band’s “acoustic” album, Inconsolable, earlier this year. “That makes it easier.” When the band got offers from labels or from bands to do split EPs, that motivated Thou to write. “We were saying yes to everything,” but while working on those releases, they knew they had to write for the next official Thou album. If they were going on tour, they wanted to record to have something new.
“Now I think we’re more laidback with things,” he says. “It’s more about what we can do that’s fun and interesting for us rather than fulfilling certain offers. I think that’s better creatively, and we tend to take more time now.”
The flurry of activity in 2018 is partly a grand plan, but it’s also the result of a number of projects that Thou has been working on coming to conclusions. Rhea Sylvia started as a solo album for guitarist Matthew Thudium, and Magus took two years to write. “On paper, it looks really impressive,” Funck says, but the output is actually the result of four or five years’ work. “We could have spent more time, really.”
All of that may be true, but it’s hard to imagine Thou songs being things that can be quickly cobbled together. The precise wordiness and conceptual ambition of Funck’s lyrics suggest that he needs at least a certain amount of work and time to get them together, and the songs move with a surprising unpredictability considering the monolithic weight of the riffs and the momentum they build. But the band has a psychedelic side that can detour songs into wholly new places, or allow moments to sit dead still, or drone in a way that messes with the notion of time entirely.
That sound, along with the variations presented across this year’s releases, makes Thou hard to pin down, which limits their reach. Perhaps for that reason, everybody in the band has a side gig or a day job to help pick up the financial slack. Still, it’s clear that Funck would rather work than compromise. He has a point of view that he’s committed to and he wants to get it across, even if he’s chosen to share it in form where the sound often fights back the meaning. To address that, Thou prints the lyrics in the albums’ liner notes, and they’re collected online at Thou’s page on Noladiy.org. He recognizes that in a Spotify/streaming world, listeners might not see the lyrics, but that’s the only way he sees to stay true to himself in the situation.
“I come from hardcore,” he says. “Trying to communicate something is important to me.”