By David DeRocco Do you remember where you were when you first heard “That Song.” Not just any song, “That Song” – the one that after 20 years of airplay has now become “that song” for millions of broken-hearted lovers whose memories get triggered every time they hear IAN THORNLEY and his BIG WRECK band mates deliver that haunting melody.
Usually the thoughts “That Song” inspires are in loving memory of someone long forgotten, which explains the name of the album on which you’ll find “That Song.” In Loving Memory Of was the debut solo album by Big Wreck, a masterpiece of Canadian infused, southern-inspired 90s rock that doesn’t reek of dated grunge. Charting two U.S. Top 40 Billboard hits and four Top 40 Canadian hits (“The Oaf (My Luck Is Wasted)”, “That Song,” “Blown Wide Open” and “Under The Lighthouse”), In Loving Memory Of remains one of best debut rock albums of the last 20 years. Now, in celebration of that release, Big Wreck is on tour and performing the album in its entirety, including songs they’ve never played live before. Singer Ian Thornley took that time to talk with GoBeWeekly about the album, the inspiration behind it and why he thinks Big Wreck is a terrible band name.
GOBE: What do you remember most, or look most fondly back upon, when you think of those formative years in Boston prior to the recording of Big Wreck’s debut In Loving Memory Of?
IAN: There’s actually been a lot of that, certainly with the rehearsals and digging into these tunes we haven’t played in so long. I just get these little snapshots and vivid memories of all those years that we were in Boston, sleeping on floors, sleeping on couches, wherever I could. We spent a really formative summer in Portland, Maine and a lot of those songs were written there. I think we were there for two or three months and I had kind of forgotten all about that. Brian (Doherty) had split the band. We were going to slug it out as a three-piece and we did that for a while. And in that time we went up to Portland. The thing is, you keep your head down and you keep creating and try to grow and move forward. A lot of it kind of becomes a blur when you look back. You get different snapshots of different times and different events and places and people, girls that I was dating and writing the songs about. I do look back on it very fondly though. There was a lot of fun being had. We were all in our early 20s. The most important thing to us was writing and making music and playing together. There was always the next step. Getting a gig, getting more gigs, wanting to get signed. It was really a wonderful time.
GOBE: When did you first realize you were onto something special with the collective you had. Was it in the development of the songs or perhaps a successful residency? What galvanized it all for you?
IAN: (Laughing). I still don’t think it has. I don’t know. I’ll never know what’s going to resonate with other people. I’ve learned to not try to write towards that, because it’s not something I can do. There are people who are nine to five songwriters who do that. That’s not my bag. I write primarily for myself as selfish as that sounds. I write because there are things that I want to hear that I haven’t heard yet. It’s never something I’m aiming to do, it’s something that just kind of comes out. I think that’s true for us as a band, the kind of music that we’re turned on by, the kind of music that we like, it’s never attached to one particular scene or one particular time. I don’t want to use a word like timeless, but that’s the only word I can use to describe it. If something sounds dated it’s because it’s attached to something other than music you know? For better or for worse. I’m sure there are things that are very ‘90s about that record, or late ‘90s as the case may be. To me, I don’t hear any sort of grown-ups or suits meddling with the music as I know they’re prone to do, hiring professional songwriters to come in and help fix your tunes. There’s none of that, because the first record was essentially demos that were picked up by Atlantic, so they were already done before the suits got a hold of them. So that to me speaks in my mind to the sort of authenticity of it and how I can still play those songs and feel good about it and stand behind them.
GOBE: I was working in rock radio and remember we were served “The Oaf” and I remember my reaction to it being, wow, this is just such a fresh sound. It sounded so good. What do you remember most about the recording sessions around the songs.
IAN: A lot of laughter. We were joking around a lot.
GOBE: Even given the emotional content of the songs?
IAN: Maybe as a result of that you know. There always is. Well, maybe not always but we’ve gotten back to that. Everyday should be filled with a healthy dose of laughter in my opinion. We had a lot of fun. Basically it was our first real experience in a studio, certainly my first experience really hearing myself sing and just sort of experimenting with that and having fun with it, trying to get past the discomfort you have the first time you hear yourself sing. I remember all that very clearly when we were in the studio. There were no real rules which was great. I’ve learned a lot just in that sense, that if it sounds good it is good. It doesn’t matter if it’s only using one mic on the drum. And because we did the whole thing on tape too. Your focus changes when you’re recording like that. There’s not just “I’m going to throw out 150 ideas and we’re going to pick which ones we like.” You really have to marry the ones you like because you have a brief, finite amount of tracks that you can use.
GOBE: The lasting appeal of the record is that it’s such a personal journey and so relatable given the emotional content of the songs. Looking back was the writing of it painful or cathartic.
IAN: Yes, for sure, and it still is. That’s one of the ways I write. I’m talking about lyrics now. A lot of it is just a great way to blow off some emotional steam. It’s a great vehicle for that. And I think if it comes from the right place and it’s real and it resonates with you, it can be a real great way to purge. The cathartic thing is not just writing it down on the page for me. The cathartic thing is performing it, singing it, and working through that. As a singer the mechanism ceases to work when emotion comes into play too much. By that I mean if I start choking up a little bit and getting teary-eyed, and start welling up, your throat starts to close up. It becomes hard to sing. So for me one of the best feelings in the world is being that close to it and letting some of that energy fuel the performance. But not too much because you fall off, you can’t sing a note. You’re digging deep but it’s really worth it when you come out the other side.
GOBE: I think the best illustration of the power those songs have to move people was when I had you booked as the headliner at the Y108 Rock and Roll Picnic, and the power cut out while you were singing “That Song.” You just encouraged the audience to sing it and the connection was amazing.
IAN: There’s no better feeling in the world for me. When you’re there in that place emotionally and honestly with yourself and the whole crowd is too at the same moment – and this was probably before people had their phones in the air so they were actually engaged going through the moment with us and with me – that’s the best feeling in the world. That still happens a lot when the crowd takes the reigns and starts singing. That’s more than I deserve. That’s a really cool feeling that should just be reserved for Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
GOBE: What are your thoughts now knowing “That Song” has become “that song” for thousands of people, that hearing it inspires so many memories for people.
IAN: (laughs). That’s a bit of trip to think about. Yeah, I never thought about it that it would be that way, that it would be ‘that song’ for other people. If it is, awesome, that’s great.
GOBE: It’s been 20 years now, and you’re far removed from the memories of that period. But what do recall feeling when you first got that CD in your hand, completed.
IAN: You know what, I was probably like ‘what’s next.’ I love the way this sounds, what’s next. How can we make the next one bigger and better. I’ve never been one to sit back and say ‘there it is, I’ve done it.’ Put my feet up and say I’ve made it or accomplished something. I don’t have time for that. It’s just what’s next. I’m sure it was something along those lines. Or just bitching and moaning about songs that were left off the record. (laughing) There is a sense of accomplishment and it’s a pretty cool thing holding something in your hand and knowing this was something we worked for. We did it together. Don’t get me wrong. That wasn’t lost on me or on us. This was our record, it was cool that we could put on our record. That was a big deal.
GOBE: Was the name Big Wreck a reflection of the emotional state you were in – especially given the lyrical content woven into In Loving Memory Of?
IAN: In all honestly I think it’s one of the worst band names that’s ever been coined. It was just, we didn’t have anything else. That was phrase Brian used to use a lot. We thought that was kind of a cool name. I didn’t really think it through. And then that’s sort of what stuck. I’d like to think what’s in a name but we’re too far down that track anyway. Even when I did the other band, I thought I don’t have a name. I think it was Chad that said ‘just call it Thornley man.’ I’m like, okay, that’s really original. For some reason I’m terrible with titles like that, names and song titles. If it’s not born of the song itself it’s hard for me to do.
GOBE: I have a girl friend who has always been intrigued by the line, “It’s always been that way, just a pocketbook Brando.” What are you trying to convey with that line?
IAN: I always liked the way that sang, but I just kind of said it. What I was trying to say was ‘somebody’s trying to play a part, or act like I’m fitting in. I’m cool, I’m having a good time, but I’m not doing a very good job of it. Therefore I’m a pocketbook Brando version of an actor.’ So there you go. And it just kind of rolls off the tongue nice. Now there’s a good name for a band. Fuck, I should have called the band Pocketbook Brando. Where was that!
GOBE: That sounds a little new wave though.
IAN: Yea, it kind of does, sounds a little weird too, like Neon Shades.
GOBE: To borrow a phrase from another one of your songs, did the album ever feel like an albatross, having a debut that was that successful.
IAN: No, not at all. I think it’s great. It’s nice, especially when you’re touring on another record, to be able to pull some of these songs. People know them. I’m not just talking about the singles. But really digging into the record and playing some of these tunes. Some we’ve never played live, and some we haven’t played in I don’t know how many years. It’s cool. I really dig it. I like that when I listen to it and when I’m playing it, I like the sort of fearless nature of a lot of the music. It doesn’t follow the normal sort of rule book of rock or pop songwriting. It’s nice to hear at 23 years old I was sort of doing that, sort of a ballsy move for somebody writing songs that in my mind could easily have fallen off a Supertramp pop tree. There’s a lot of that, how would you say ‘melodic and harmonic sensibiliser’ that I sort of stole over the years from Abba and Supertramp and their very very well constructed slickly written pop stuff. I love the record I really do. There’s a nice rawness to it as well. It’s not too polished.
GOBE: Now that you’re revisiting those memories every night, what’s the one song that brings you personally back to that time in the 90s.
IAN: “By The Way” has to be the one. It’s probably my favourite song on the record. We never performed it. We just never had the tools. Now we do. So it’s been great to sink out teeth into that one.