The post-hardcore powerhouse are about to head Down Under for a tour celebrating 20 years of ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’. Before they do, let’s head back in time with frontman Dustin Kensrue...
2003 was a wild year for pop-culture.
At the movies, we experienced such cinematic masterpieces as Finding Nemo, Pirates Of The Caribbean, and Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. Unmarred by the egregious bigotry of its author, Harry Potter was still in its prime with The Order Of The Phoenix hitting – and promptly flying off – bookshelves. And with the Internet finally embraced by the mainstream, digital music sales were exploding: 2003 introduced us to the iTunes store, where we all downloaded the shit out of Linkin Park’s Meteora, Let Go by Avril Lavigne and Deja Entendu by Brand New.
This was arguably the golden age of alternative music, and undoubtedly the golden age of post-hardcore. One of the biggest bands to soar in this timeframe was Thrice, who in February of 2002 caught their big break with The Illusion Of Safety. Their second studio album, it was an underground smash-hit all around the world (thanks in no short part to the instantly iconic Deadbolt) and fast caught the eye of Island Records.
In a blink, these four pit-splitting maniacs from Irvine, California were major label hotshots, promptly thrown into the studio (with Battery legend Brian McTernan, who also worked on Illusion) and whipped into shape to mint some gold.
Though it was a little rushed, the end result would blow Illusion far out of the water, both commercially and in terms of its critical acclaim. The Artist In The Ambulance, released in July of 2003, spawned three of Thrice’s biggest singles: All That’s Left, Under A Killing Moon and Stare At The Sun. And some 20 years later, it remains the band’s most popular release.
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Reflecting on the album today, frontman Dustin Kensrue says Thrice weren’t exactly burdened by the weight of pressure from Island, or the mounting swarm of fans they had eagerly awaiting their next move. But that isn’t to say they didn’t feel pressure – just that the pressure they felt was all their own.
Kensrue tells Kill Your Stereo, “We were always trying to push ourselves harder than anyone around us. Everything we did, we went into it like, ‘Alright, this is the biggest thing we’ve ever done!’ Like, everything felt ambitious, every opportunity we had was a new opportunity to stretch ourselves... I think it still feels like that now, but definitely in a less intense way – there’s a stability to it where we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve been doing this for a long time, what can we do that’s new?’ But in 2003, there was just so much energy and momentum, and everything was new, so it felt so much more intense.”
Part of that intensity was owed to a time crunch – Thrice were given just two months to write songs for The Artist In The Ambulance, and they had major label A&R breathing down their necks the whole time. Recording for the album was also famously fraught, with songs being re-structured on the fly, band members clashing over their parts, and McTernan being way out of his depth with the newly “studio-legitimised” process.
“I think that’s why [Thrice’s fourth album, 2005’s] Vheissu seems like such a tonal shift in a lot of ways,” Kensrue muses, “because we really wanted to make sure we had enough time to do everything we wanted to... But you know, while it sucks, the time crunch is always going to be a piece of the puzzle – it doesn't matter how much time we give ourselves, we're always going to run out and run ourselves up to the last second.”
In the 20 years since it dropped, Kensrue has thought a lot about The Artist In The Ambulance, and what it means to him as this cultural touchstone and seminal moment in in post-hardcore history. Particularly as the band celebrate its bidecennial with a world tour – on which they’re performing the album in its entirety – he’s enamoured by the fans’ enduring love for the record, choosing to look at its success with an altruistic mindset.
He says: “There is an aspect to it where I’m like, ‘Yeah, I worked really hard on this record, I put a lot of myself into it, I’m proud that I made it!’ But then there’s this whole other side to [the album’s success] that I think is absolutely based on random luck – you know, where things were [in the state of pop-culture] at that certain point in time and how it resonated with people in the moment. And I don’t think you can manufacture that. So I’m always vacillating between a sense of pride and a sense of feeling humbled and grateful.”
Thrice are no strangers to the art of the album anniversary, having doled out a lowkey merch reissue for 2000’s Identity Crisis when that hit the big two-zero, and last December, a four-show stint at the House Of Blues in Anaheim for Illusion. Those latter shows were somewhat of a prelude to the Artist anniversary tour, which kicked off its first leg back in May and has thus far sprawled over 29 shows. They’ve got two dates left on that North American leg, both part of the touring festival Is For Lovers. Then they’ll take the run Down Under for their first tour here since 2019 (when they were still plugging their tenth album, 2018’s Palms).
It’s unsurprising, but worth noting that of all the Australian tours Thrice have embarked on since their first in 2004, none have received as much vehement fan excitement as this fast-impending run – all but the second of two shows in Naarm/Melbourne (itself announced after the first sold out in a flash) have sold out... Hell, they even managed to sell out not one but two gigs in Boorloo/Perth... Heroin really doesn’t have shit on nostalgia.
Unlike some frontmen in his scene, Kensrue doesn’t look down on the fans of his unwilling to unsheathe from their rose-tinted glasses – hell, he too wears his proudly. And throwing back to 2003 has been special for him and his bandmates because at the end of the day, their fans’ excitement is the key to their own.
“This first leg of the tour has been a tonne of fun,” he says, beaming. “Just being able to connect with fans over this record has been so special. It’s obviously such an important record for us, but I think it hit a lot of people at a really important time in their own lives, too, so it’s been really cool to see them again and talk to them about it, and see how much it means to them that we’re playing it live. Their energy is what energises us – I mean, touring is always fun, but there’s just something extra fun about revising this record and playing it in its entirety. We’ve had a lot of fun doing it so far!”
To be taking the Artist anniversary tour Down Under is a full-circle experience for Kensrue, given it was shortly after the album’s debut that Thrice first made it to our shores. It was February of 2004, a co-headline tour with Alkaline Trio that had one of Kensrue’s own favourite bands, Hot Water Music, down as the national support. They played to packed-out theatres in Eora/Sydney, Meanjin/Brisbane and Melbourne, where thousands of giddy moshers yelled back their every line with visceral enthusiasm.
“The record was really blowing up,” Kensrue remembers, “and it just felt so crazy being halfway across the world and seeing it get such a cool response. We’d been touring the States for a few years before then, so it was kind of a slow groundswell for us at home, but going over to Australia and seeing so many people excited about our music, it was like, ‘Woah, what is happening!? There’s actually people over here that like our music!’ It was just a very exciting time. And it’s always been exciting to come back – [Australia is] a beautiful country and we’ve always loved coming down there.”
Over the past 20 years, Thrice have played well in excess of 1,000 shows, and every single setlist has featured at least one track from The Artist In The Ambulance. As such those tracks have evolved in subtle ways, with new atmospheres and the band members’ own energies constantly rubbing off on and shaping how the songs are performed. So when Thrice revisited the album properly to gear up for its anniversary tour, they realised that over time, those subtleties have compounded and made for some very different songs to the ones they initially released. Cue: a dedicated re-recording of the entire 12-track effort, which arrived back in February.
“We'd talked about remixing it a few times [over the years] before,” Kensrue says, “and while I think that could’ve been cool, it wouldn’t’ve fixed everything we didn’t like about the album. We were still very much new to what we were doing as a band [in 2003], and the way we actually played those songs, physically, is so different to how we play them now – the original recordings feel a bit stiff to us now.
“I know for everyone else it probably sounds fine, because that’s all you’ve ever heard of the record. But for us, playing the songs for 20 years, you really find the groove in them, and you learn how to push and pull them in different ways. That’s where this idea came from, to revisit the record and try to capture how it is we look at the songs these days. In the end, we tried to keep it so that it would feel very familiar, but also have this sort of newness to it – almost like déjà vu, where it's like, ‘This is happening for the first time, but I remember it happening before...’ And I think we got pretty close to that!”
In revisiting the Artist recordings for the first time in years, Kensrue and co. found themselves reflecting on what influenced their younger selves – for better and for worse. “There were some aspects where we were like, ‘Oh man, that part was weird, I wish we didn’t do it like that,” but there was also a lot of looking back and going, ‘Woah, that’s really cool – how did we even think of that!?’ We were trying to put ourselves back in that headspace and really think about how we wrote those songs.
“You know, we would never write [The Artist In The Ambulance] now, regardless of whether we think it's bad or good, because we’ve changed a lot since then. But it’s so interesting to look back and appreciate what we did 20 years ago. Like, ‘Yeah, 20-years-younger Dustin, that was cool.’ It’s a weird thing... And then it’s also just surreal to think about it actually being 20 years ago.”
The new version of Artist is much more than a straightforward re-recording of the original album. For example, six of the 12 tracks feature new guest vocalists, like Andy Hull (of Manchester Orchestra fame) on Stare At The Sun, Mike Minnick (of seminal Vegas metalcore band Curl Up And Die) on The Abolition Of Man, and even McTernan on Hoods Of Peregrine. Kensrue says these additions mark “these fun little easter eggs” for the band and their diehard fans, with each guest vocalist having a “strong personal connection” to Thrice. “It’s not just like we went, ‘Hey, let’s get all these people on the record so more people listen to it,’” he asserts, citing the new take on Blood Clots And Black Holes – featuring Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan – as a prime example.
“We came up in our scene playing shows with Hot Water Music,” he says. “Like, our first national tour was the Plea For Peace tour with Hot Water, Cave In and Alkaline Trio – so that’s deeply embedded into who we were as a band back then. And I think the Hot Water guys especially felt like older brothers to us – even though looking back, they weren’t that much older than us! But it just had that feeling, you know? Like, we learned how to be a touring band from them. So having Chuck on that song made a lot of sense – especially since that chorus was very much inspired by Hot Water Music.
“And then there’s someone like Sam [Carter, frontman of Architects, who features on the new recording of Under A Killing Moon], who grew up as a big fan of our band, and is now in a massively successful band of his own... It’s a fun little tie-in there. And it was so cool to work with Ryan [Osterman] from Holy Fawn [who appears on the new recording of Paper Tigers]; we toured a lot with those guys when we were younger, and Ryan actually contributed to some of the music on this one. At the end of Paper Tigers, there’s this kind of orchestral bit, so we had him re-do some of that with the tape-loop stuff he does, and that was really fun.”
Thursday August 31 – Naarm/Melbourne, Northcote Theatre*
Friday September 1 – Naarm/Melbourne, Northcote Theatre* (SOLD OUT)
Saturday September 2 – Eora/Sydney, Metro Theatre* (SOLD OUT)
Sunday September 3 – Meanjin/Brisbane, Princess Theatre* (SOLD OUT)
Tuesday September 5 – Kaurna/Adelaide, Lion Arts Factory** (SOLD OUT)
Wednesday September 6 – Boorloo/Perth, Badlands Bar*** (SOLD OUT)
Thursday September 7 – Boorloo/Perth, Badlands Bar*** (SOLD OUT)
supported by Wifecult
* supported by St Judes
*** supported by Shangrila