Thou’s Andy Gibbs on brutal new LP ‘Umbilical’

Thou’s Andy Gibbs on brutal new LP ‘Umbilical’

Since their first record in 2007, Baton Rouge sludge metal titans Thou have built a reputation for an unmatched work ethic: their release timeline is studded with countless splits, EPs, compilations, cover albums and collaborations, as well as the ‘mainline’ records. Across those prolific releases, the band has rarely stood still – collaborations obviously invite sonic shake-ups, and their tentpole albums take various approaches to charting experimental depths of heavy music.

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Umbilical is the sixth of those tentpoles, and marks a change in course for the band’s sonic path. 2018’s Magus expanded on 2014’s Heathen: its lengthy songs were built around emotive, pretty chord changes and moments of lightness as much as they were droning, down-tuned sludge and spiralling doom riffs. But on Umbilical, songs are leaner, shorter, faster – Bryan Funck’s visceral snarl is unadorned of any clean counterpart, and there’s little respite from the slabs of thundering, distorted guitars.
In some ways, it’s a return to the approach of early Thou, shedding the more explorative elements and focusing on the hardcore-influenced aggression rather than grandiose doom. The main thing the band explores on Umbilical instead is speed – while punk always informed Thou’s overall approach and aesthetic, they were most often playing to a doom-metal metronome. Here, the foot is much more heavily on the accelerator.
I spoke to guitarist Andy Gibbs about the back-to-basics writing of Umbilical, as well as the band’s wider approach to songwriting, guitar tone and lyrics, the practicalities of extreme down-tuning and that age-old question: what genre are Thou, anyway?
Andy Gibbs of Thou. Image: Andy Rodrigo Delgago Jr
How would you sum up Thou to someone who had never heard you?
“The answer to that question always depends on who I’m talking to. When we stop at customs on the way to somewhere, and they say, ‘you guys in a band? What’s your band sound like?’, I always just say something like ‘oh, Black Sabbath but heavier’.
“But if I’m talking to someone who’s familiar with metal, then… I don’t know. I have a complicated relationship to defining our band in terms of genre. We’re most rooted as a doom band, but I like to believe that it goes beyond that – but it’s the closest thing that most people can understand. Doom is mostly just a lens we channel things through – it’s not the defining feature.”
What’s your role in the band?
“It’s changed over the years. It used to be that Matthew [Thudium, guitar] and I would each bring riffs and then form them into songs. Over the past few years, I’ve been the main songwriter. For Umbilical I wrote, I think, all but two songs – and that’s been kind of the case for a while.
“But when I say I’m ‘writing’ songs, I’m writing the skeleton of the song, I’m bringing it to practise and then we all have a say. I’m not working alone – but as far as the source material goes, I’m doing a lot of that. Getting an outside perspective is important. If I was left to my own devices, writing songs without anyone helping me with the edit process, it probably wouldn’t sound nearly as good – so I have to give credit to the other folks for shaping it into the final product.”
The record occasionally evokes your earlier material – it’s also relatively short, songs are shorter, and there’s more speed and direct aggression on display. What led to Umbilical being punchier, rawer?
“The record we did before this was the Mizmor collaboration, Myopia. Liam [Neighbors, Mizmor’s only member] was someone who had listened to our band from way back and was excited to tap into the stuff that he fell in love with when he first discovered the band. So on that record, we ended up doing the ‘older’ style – slow, more traditionally ‘sludgy’, and just a total riff-fest. That felt good to get back into, as before that, on the Emma [Ruth Rundle] record [May Our Chambers Be Full] and Inconsolable, we were really trying to do different stuff.

“So, that carried on into Umbilical as well. There are a couple of slower songs there – the first and last song, and that’s where the ‘traditional Thou’ thing shines. As for the other stuff – the more aggressive hardcore-inspired stuff – after doing records with 13-minute songs and a million emotive chord changes, I think it’s good to just strip it back down. It makes for a different live show experience, too.
“We’ve been a band for almost 20 years. I think it’s cool to try to prove to ourselves that we can still do something that’s really abrasive – something that maybe our younger selves would have written. When a lot of bands get to a certain point, they either keep making the same record over and over, or they try to innovate in ways that just sound out of touch or too extravagant. So this entire record, it was like we were doing it for our younger selves – we might be in our 40s, but we can still rock [laughs]. I guess we’ll leave it to the critics to decide if we succeeded…
“We’ve also been working on tightening up the song structure to the point where there’s very little ‘fat’ there. We did that on Magus, too, even though some of the songs on there are really long – our tolerance for that ‘fat’ has really dwindled. Who knows, maybe on the next record, we’ll bring it back, but on here, for all of the songs, all of the parts needed to hit. Even when it wasn’t the tight, punchy, catchy thing, when it was the droning shit, we wanted that to be even more painful than usual. Plus, I’ve been interested in bringing a bit of a ‘pop’ sensibility into some of the songs, too.”
The Promise has a bonafide hook.
“Where that came from, the idea was to do something grungy, Nirvana-ish but really fucked up. So I wrote it to be catchy enough, but then it’s tuned way down and it’s gnarly. And then Panic Stricken I Flee was one of the last ones that we wrote – and it was specifically to balance out The Promise, so that it wouldn’t sound totally out of place. That one I conceived as like an Alice In Chains kind of thing – the first riff is kinda modelled after Angry Chair a bit.
“The tension between something being really heavy and fucked up and being catchy is cool – there’s a sweet spot there. That’s why Nirvana was the biggest band in the world – they perfected that tension between the angst and the saccharine, sappy hooks.
“Like I said – doom is a lens. At the end of the day, whatever we choose to do, we’re doing it with severely down-tuned guitars, the gain all the way up, and screaming. When you put things that don’t fit in there, that’s when you start to get interesting results.”
How ‘severe’ is severely down-tuned?
“When we first started writing, we were in Drop B – kind of like every doom band on earth, we wanted to sound like the first Pelican EP or Electric Wizard. But we decided it should be heavier, and in our minds heavier equalled lower – even if that’s not ‘technically’ correct. So Matthew had the idea of taking those strings and dropping them down a fifth. So we’ve played in drop F and drop F# on most of the songs that we do – most of Umbilical is in drop F#.
“There are side effects, like the intonation being off, or it bending out of tune when you hit with a certain amount of force – but all of those things became our features. We didn’t treat them like things we should worry about, but instead as qualities of the music.

“On this record, with the faster stuff, there was a little consideration to the speed – but honestly, we still played real hard on the F# songs. Most of it is happening below the 10th fret, too, so there’s less chance of the intonation being completely out. But even when it is, sometimes it can sound good.
“The Promise and Narcissist’s Prayer are in what would be drop F#, but you take the low string and take it all the way down to E flat – more than an octave below standard. It’s basically a bass tuning at that point. There, you actually do have to be a little cautious about the force with which you’re playing. I can’t bang the shit out of those songs as then it’d be totally off.
“But overall, the out-of-tuneness can give it this chorus effect. And, on the record, our engineer James is real good at making sure everything sounds great and tight, as there are five, six, seven guitars on every song, with re-amping and overdubs – plus a separate bus of distortion that everything is being sent to before it hits the master. So if some notes are a little off, there’s a lot of room for forgiveness!”
What’s the rest of the signal chain like?
“For me, when we go into the studio, it’s my Music Man HD-130 with a RAT – and I have one delay/reverb pedal from EarthQuaker. And that’s it. That’s with a 1977 Ibanez, not a lawsuit guitar, but it’s Les Paul-style. And Matthew will go through a newer EVH 5150 and, if I’m not mistaken, a RAT too. Both cranked to 10, gain-wise.
“For overdubs, we did all kinds of crazy shit. I have this real shitty old Epiphone SG with a super hot pickup in it, and only has 11s on it. We ran that through two RATs and then another fuzz pedal, and some amp turned all the way up, and did a bunch of overdubs with that. We wanted one guitar that was practically indistinguishable. So fucked up you could barely even tell it was playing. We had that going on on almost all the songs on top of the other overdubs.
Thou. Image: Liam Neighbors
“But my initial setup is always really basic. The reason being, when we started this band up, until extremely recently, we literally didn’t have money for gear. I bought the Music Man because I was sick of the maintenance that my 5150 needed, and it was 400 bucks. I got a RAT because a friend gave it to me, and the EarthQuaker pedal another friend gave to me. We just used what we had.
“So as long as it has tons of distortion, we can pretty much make it work. The amp does have to have enough gain – I tried going on tour with a Marshall JCM 2000 once, and it was just a nightmare. There wasn’t enough gain, and I had to turn the treble all the way down and the midrange all the way up – and even then it was too trebly!”
Lyrics make up a large piece of the Thou puzzle, with a kind of contemporary-feeling anger mixed in with more traditionally ‘metal’ imagery. What’s the approach to striking that balance?
“I think what makes it sound contemporary is that it’s saying something – there’s a lot of traditional fantasy metal imagery where it’s not a metaphor for anything. It’s just ‘wouldn’t it be cool if there was a skeleton with a sword?’
“So something that Bryan, who writes the lyrics, always likes to do is take an idea and then twist it to fit our world a little bit. So we’ll have some epic fantasy imagery, but then it’ll be changed to fit with an idea that we’re trying to get across. And then you can derive something from it if you’re looking for it – but if you’re not, then it’s still ‘damn bro, that’s epic.’ [laughs]

“It’s always interesting to me to see that dichotomy, the people who are like, ‘dude this band’s fucking heavy and their lyrics are epic’ – and then the people that dig into it, looking for that more subtle stuff that we’re going for, underneath the facade of all this traditional metal imagery.
“We like to have it so you can do that because that’s the way we came up – listening to the bands I grew up with, I’d sit in front of the CD player with Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy on, reading the lyrics as they were being sung, looking at the liner notes and all that stuff. You can get immersed into the band’s world, instead of just hearing it in passing and forming a vague opinion on whether you think it’s cool or not.
“We really are interested in curating a world – there’s a lot of lore and characters in our larger Thou world so that, if people are interested, they can really delve into it and try and decode meanings, or find out what we’re referencing, or find the lyric we stole from Jim Croce or whoever. But if you’re not – you can still get plenty of enjoyment out of our songs.”
How do lyrics come together with songs?
“I think Bryan’s always got a list of running ideas that he wants to do. When we come in with a song, he’ll match them. Although, because this record took a while to make because of the pandemic and other projects, he heard some tracks before he had any lyrics for them – so he was able to mould some ideas to the songs themselves.”

Thou’s style has developed over the years into its own distinct thing. Were there any defining influences when you started out?
“A lot of the the idea behind the initial style was listening to things like Pelican’s first EP, Panopticon by ISIS, Dopethrone by Electric Wizard, Blessed Black Wings by High On Fire, Akuma No Uta by Boris – and thinking, ‘we like this, but could it be more extreme? How would we do this in our own way?’ Similar to dropping the tuning, really. Going ‘oh this band’s heavy, but they’re only tuned to B. Why would they limit themselves like that?’ I understand now they have very good reasons for limiting themselves, but at the time I didn’t – I just thought, ‘why wouldn’t you want to make it heavier?’
“Nowadays, when I look back to our earlier stuff, I’m really thinking about being a band for 20 years – the most important thing for me is to make sure we’re not completely treading over the same ground. When we do things that sound like things I did when I was younger, I want to incorporate stuff we wouldn’t have thought of at the time.
“So the influences are all over the place, really – and I’m definitely not trying to go, ‘well, my biggest influence is me’, [laughs] I don’t think that’s something that anyone should ever say – I’m just trying to be really self-aware with what we’re doing, and making sure that it’s meaningful to us. And that’s really the only thing I give a shit about, honestly. What other bands are doing in the metal world is kind of no consequence to me – I salute everyone who’s doing their thing, obviously, and I hope that we can stay relevant. But it’s not for me to decide.”
‘Umbilical’ is out now.
The post Thou’s Andy Gibbs on brutal new LP ‘Umbilical’ appeared first on | All Things Guitar.

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