Back in February, shortly after the release of the first single, “ Locomotive” from their forthcoming new album, I had the opportunity to sit down with Big Wreck’s frontman, Ian Thornley at a casual coffee shop in downtown Calgary.
Finally it’s August 30th, and after releasing three singles from their sixth studio album; “Locomotive”, “Too Far Gone” and “One More Chance”, … but for the sun dropped today, and the time has come to share our conversation from earlier this year. With a harder, bigger sound, reminiscence of early Big Wreck, all highlighted with Thornley’s stellar vocals and guitar playing, … but for the sun will please long time fans of the band, and surely bring new ones into the fold.
Thirty minutes with Ian Thornley:
Shannon: It’s been 22 Years for Big Wreck, off and on. Did you ever think you’d still be doing this when it all first started?
Ian: I’m pretty lucky. We’ve been at it for a lot of years. I’ve been able to go off and do other stuff, then get back at it, 9 or 10 years later, whatever that gap was, and pick up wherever we left off. There’s more albums on this side of that chasm than there were before. So, it’s been good to me.
Shannon: Why do you think that is? That’s there are more albums since the break, and that now seems like the time of Big Wreck?
Ian: I did a lot of growing and learning in that period. In that time between trying different things. I did a lot of stupid things as well. Sort of came to the realization I wanted to make music I wanted to make. It’s easy to get caught up, in my mid to late 20’s, in the race to make a lot of money, and ‘what’s the formula? What’s the formula?’ I had to sort of compromise artistically. Sort of abbreviating and editing yourself to try and get some sort of smash, or whatever. And that’s sort of soul crushing, but it’s like ‘whatever man, I’m going to be a millionaire in a few months.’ And then when that millionaire doesn’t happen, you’re stuck with a record you didn’t do justice with.
So, I think, coming back to it, and this is starting with Albatross to now, we’re just going to make music that pleases us. Not bend and twist to the marketplace. We do what we do, and we’re lucky enough to have people listen to it, and like it and come out to the shows.
That, and the fact we’ve never had a big, worldwide hit. We’ve never been rich. It’s never been that thing. Maybe I should try something else, maybe I’ve made a vocational error, but I don’t really have a choice. Music has been it for me for my life. Sink or swim, I’m doing music. I think that’s what kept us hungry. And keeps us striving to better ourselves, and to best the last project. I want things to grow. And it affords us a little bit of creative license. There’s no guy in a suit on the other side of a desk saying, ‘you can’t do that; it has to be like this.’
I think the fans are into that, I hope.
Shannon: What was the genesis of the sound of the new record? I hear old Big Wreck.
Ian: Yeah, it’s a foot-stomper, and it’s fun. The record was done with all that in mind. I was going through a pretty dark period during the Grace Street time, and a lot of that bubbled up into the record. I go back and revisit that record, it’s hard, and I skip over a lot of those tunes, because there just so gut wrenching. But I adore it for what it is; it’s a snapshot. It’s honest and it’s authentic. I think once you sort of crawled out from all that stuff that people go through from time to time, once the clouds parted a bit, I was like ‘alright, I want to write something fun.’ I’m really happy with how the thing turned out.
Shannon: On the playing side, you know you are regarded as one of the best guitar players out there. Does that matter? Does it add any pressure when you go out and play?
Ian: Pressure? No. I’ll leave a solo off, if it rubs me the wrong way. I won’t do it. But why hide the fact that I love guitar solos, my love of playing guitar, learning new things?
Shannon: What or who made you pick up that guitar in the first place?
Ian: A friend of mine, Dan Levine, who I lost touch with 25 years ago. He was a great guitar player. I got this guitar when I was 16, I think, and it just sat in my closet. I’d pick it up and learn a couple chords, but it hurts, and I’d drop the pick in the hole, so I just put it in my closet. Then Dan and I became friends, he came over and started playing my guitar, a beautiful player. And he would play something, like Zeppelin, or something we were listening to at the time, and it would sound exactly like the record. I think that’s maybe what get its hooks into you early. I’ve always been one of those people to put on headphones and getting lost in music. To be able to do that, by yourself, with yourself. And I’m still searching for that, but that’s probably what the first time you’re able to play something perfectly, the way it is on the record, that’s a big thing for me. It still is. There’s a sense of accomplishment there. There’s also escapism, once you get that under your fingers it just becomes about the music. But that was the beginning, I guess. That’s when I was 16 or 17, and I haven’t put it down since.
Shannon: Do you play every day?
Ian: Oh yeah. Hours and hours. Some of it’s practicing, some of it’s just play. For enjoyment of it, or just to stay limber, be in tune. It tends to slow down a bit when I’m on the road, but about 2 hours before a show is when I start. Start working out, start loosening up. Same with my throat. About a 2-hour window to get things going. But if I have a day off, and I’m going to the hotel room, I’m taking a guitar with me, so I’m playing every day.
Shannon: Speaking of the throat, and I know you’ve heard of comparison with Chris Cornell before. Were you a Soundgarden fan?
Ian: Yeah, for sure. I liked a lot of the sort of Beatles influence I could hear, and the Zeppelin influence I could hear. It just draws on the stuff I tend to draw from. I don’t really connect with the sort of punk ethos. Vocally, I never really heard it. Maybe in the upper register. Certainly, a great singer. Do I site him as an influence? Sure. But it’s not like I sat there and sang along with the records or anything.
Shannon: Would you site any other vocal influences?
Ian: Well I want to sing like Jeff Buckley. I want to sing like BB King, Freddie Mercury, Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant. You’re stuck with what you’re stuck with. It’s like saying ‘I want to be 6’6”’. You have what you have, and you just work with it.
Shannon: When did you know you had this voice?
Ian: Still working on it. (smiles)
Shannon: Ok, when did you say, ‘oh hey, I can sing’?
Ian: I have a good sense of pitch. I know when things are in or out. So, I knew that I could carry a tune. As far as range goes, well what’s a tenor? I didn’t know any of that stuff. I wouldn’t have cause to. We were actually looking for a singer for a while. There were a few different people, ‘oh that guy has a great voice, let’s get him in’, and it just never fit. It just sort of ended up with ‘you know, I’ll do it’. The first time I ever really sang for real was on that first record. I’d been singing live on stage, but every night was different. So, there was a lot of figuring things out.
Myles Kennedy, the Mayfield Four, we toured with them on that first record, and him and I became fast friends. He’s a wonderful singer and trained and knows his shit. He would always disappear for an hour before a show. He said he would go into the van and warm up. I’d say ‘warm up? What do you mean? You’ve been talking most of the day, you clear your throat, you’re good to go.’ So that sort of opened my mind there was more to it then I was attributing. Then only in the last 2 to 2 and a half years, I started taking vocal lessons. It’s just about maintenance of the instrument, as pretentious as that sounds. Keeping in shape, keeping it loose.
Shannon: Have you noticed a difference in your vocals since you started the lessons?
Ian: Yeah. Just in the longevity, or what to look for. There was a long time, for many years after a show, I would have a frog’s throat. And if I got sick, which is the curse for a singer on the road, and if I pushed my way through, it was over. If I sing a show well, I’m starting to enjoy it, and know what to look for. My coach, Mitch, told me, around your mid-30’s, men, something happens to your vocal range, it actually grows. Because I’m singing notes now that I couldn’t sing. On the first record, I wouldn’t even try.
Shannon: do you think that’s because there’s something physical happening, or is that because of the vocal training?
Ian: I’m sure that’s helping [vocal training]. His point was, something physically happens, and then in my 50’s or 60’s something will happen as well, there’s another one.
When I get off the road, or I’m not in the studio, I don’t do vocal training though. I still play guitar, for hours and hours, but don’t do vocal exercises. I do when I’m getting ready for rehearsals, getting ready for the studio, getting ready to go out on the road. I sometimes feel I should be [doing vocal exercises], I’d probably be a way better vocalist if I sang as much as I play guitar. But I’m just not one of those guys that walks around the house belting out. That’s Freddie Mercury, who can belt opera. That’s part of him, that’s who he is. I just want to find a quiet corner and shred. (laughs)
Shannon: Do you mainly write on piano or guitar?
Ian: Guitar. We did get a Baby Grand Piano we put in the front room. It’s horribly out of tune.
Shannon: And now you have a signature guitar line with Suhr Guitars. How did that come about?
Ian: John Suhr. His guitars, his amps, his petals and his whole company. I think they just nailed it with everything they do. Sort of the best of the best. It’s the best I’ve played, the best I’ve tried. We just struck up a relationship. We have just become great friends. He’s anyone you can go to with anything about guitars. He asked if I wanted to do a signature model. “YES” So, it was about a year of going back and forth about necks, neck shapes, pickups, switching. I did zero designing of anything, it was just picking. It was just like ‘that neck with those pickups and this kind of wood.’ It was just what suits me, this is what feels like home. I couldn’t be happier. It’s the only thing I want to play. When you play it, you know.
With the release of … but for the sun, Big Wreck will be heading out on the road in support of the new album. Be sure to check them out when they hit a town near you!
.. but for the sun tour dates:
September 18 Watertown, NY Exhibition Hall
October 7 Detroit, MI The Shelter