Dustin Kensrue discusses his long-awaited second solo album Carry the Fire, collecting old ideas and turning them into songs, approaching love songs from a different perspective, improving as a storyteller, and what it’s like for Thrice to be back.
I’m assuming the biggest relief for this is now you don’t have to answer any more questions about when you’re going to release another solo album.
That’s definitely one of them. That’s my own fault that I had to deal with that. Yeah, I’m glad it’s finally out there.
Live, you’ve been able to play with a backing band for the first time solo-wise. I was at one of the Troubadour shows and it was really cool to see the new songs fleshed out like that, and some of the old songs as well. What has it been like for you to have a backing band for the first time?
It was great. It’s super different than either playing totally solo or playing with Thrice. I think just vibe-wise, not all of it but most of it’s a pretty different vibe than I’ve been doing with Thrice. It’s fun to have a big sound backing up the movements.
In general, it was a blast. I don’t know how else to dig into it. It felt really great, to hear those songs and have them sound like the record, but sound live and big. The Rocketboys did a great job.
On these dates coming up, are you going to have them out again?
Yeah, the Southeast dates they’re going to be out with me on this next run.
So this record has a very different feel and texture than Please Come Home did. There’s a lot more instrumentation, a lot more variety. What were some of you original ideas when you first started to get this one together?
After so long, it was hard to pick where it was going to go. Originally, I had this other project I was thinking I was going to do as well. I was going to make the solo record a lot more stripped down, and it ended up feeling like it was too many things to juggle at one time. I combined some of the ideas that I had for this separate project into the more folky stuff and just let it be a mixture.
In the end, it was helpful to reset what I was thinking in a way. It let me dive into finishing writing all these ideas that I had and have had for a while, some of them. I just started recording to see what happened and was pretty open to wherever that went.
As I understand it, you produced this all yourself and played all, or most of, the instruments as well.
Yeah. So I recorded it and played everything. Not physically playing the drums, but I programmed all the drums. It was a big undertaking, but I learned a lot along the way. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.
Yeah, it sounds great.
I would basically go until I didn’t know what to do. I’d look it up, figure it out, and move on.
You had one of the coolest album premieres I can remember in a while where you did the commentary version on YouTube. Where did that idea come from? What was it like writing those little intro pieces?
I don’t totally know how it came about. Someone had mentioned something about doing little videos, or something, more I think in the beginning of like, “Hey, maybe do a little commentary and we’ll just film you talking about it.” It just seemed like it might be more powerful to treat it, instead of as a little interview, as almost this separate artistic piece.
It didn’t necessarily comment exactly on the song or how it was recorded. It almost just offered supplementary content that would I think shed some light on the songs, but in a less conventional way than just doing an interview.
So yeah, I just sat down and wrote the little pieces. I recorded the voiceover and did the abstract music behind it. I wasn’t totally sure how it was going to turn out, but it seemed like people were really, really excited about it. So, it was cool.
I’m a huge fan of The Road, that’s one of my favorite books, so I was really excited to see you write a song and name the album after that book. It’s been out for a while now. I think it was released in 2006. Was this idea something you had been thinking about for some time?
Yeah. The chorus of that song I’ve probably had since somewhere around when the book came out. I probably read it that year it came out or the year after, I think. I’m not totally sure, but quite a while ago. I had that idea, but never had any other parts for it. I just kept it lying around, and it popped back out for this record.
In the book McCarthy leaves that idea of what exactly the fire symbolizes and represents a bit ambiguous and open to interpretation. How did you approach that concept?
I feel like it’s vague because it’s broad in a sense. I tried to leave it that way, because I think getting overly narrow with it is going to make it less applicable to more people. For me, I identity it with a lot of the things that I’ve written about over time and can always come back to. This idea that there is real good and beauty and truth. To “Carry the Fire” is to hold to those things and to strive for those things.
Even in our current world, there’s things that are going against that all the time. The situations the characters find themselves in in the book really brings out and exposes that in a different way. It brings it to the forefront. I don’t think they’re different issues than what we’re dealing with all the time. It’s just the ways we see it are much more subtle.
One of the other interesting things I found about the album is there seems to be two major sections of it. One is the love songs, with “Ruby,” “Of Crows and Crowns” and “Juggernaut,” and then the other is you exploring darker or more serious subjects, such as on “Back to Back,” trying to console someone who’s lost a loved one, or “There’s Something Dark Inside of Me,” wrestling with the darkness of human nature. Was there anything specific you were going for with that, or is it just how the album turned out?
No, it’s just kind of how it turned out. I almost view it as more of a bit of a continuum, in the sense that even those love songs you’re still dealing with those same root issues that the other songs are talking about, but it’s in a more interpersonal way. “Of Crows and Crowns” is dealing with these fears that we have as we relate to each other.
“Ruby,” in a way, is this love song that’s also talking about how we handle the consequences of our actions when we hurt each other. I can draw a line to those four songs that are in that love camp, and I would put “Back to Back” in there, too. But yeah, I don’t know. It kind of just happened.
I also think part of it might come from the fact that I recognize that there’s a vacuum of love songs out there, at least in my knowledge, that deal with some of these issues in a way that I’m approaching them. I guess there’s probably motivation to tackle that, just having a different perspective on it.
“Of Crows and Crowns” is the song you’ve been playing the longest of these ones, and it’s probably become one of your signature solo songs now. The album version is a bit different than the live version, being that there’s the piano on there. I was curious is that how it was originally written, or just something you came up with in the studio?
No, it was a different approach in the studio. I probably approached it, I think three different times, the whole arrangement, which I didn’t really do with anything else on the record. That was probably because there was already this perception of what the song was.
So I’m trying to wrestle with should I just make that a little bigger. Is there a different vibe that would serve the song better? For a while, I thought about doing a certain version on the record and then doing a b-side that was more similar to the original live version but beefed up a little bit.
I couldn’t figure out where to go with it, so I started building up something that was similar to the current version but was a lot more convoluted. My brother and my wife were both listening to it and were like, “Just take all that stuff out.” I was muting things, and I was like, “Yeah, I like that. That’s it. That’s good.”
So Please Come Home is eight years old now, and obviously “Of Crows and Crowns” is an older song as well. What was the timeline like for the song ideas on this album? Was there stuff that you’ve had bits and pieces of for a while, or was it all relatively new?
It was a pretty good span, in the sense that there’s a lot of pieces that have been kicking around for years now and there’s a fair amount that was pretty recent. “Ruby” comes to mind. That piano part’s been something I’ve been pretty sure I was going to make something from for a long time. “Gallows,” the central kind of groove of that song, has been something kicking around for a while, even though most of that song sprang up pretty quickly during the recording.
I just try to keep a bunch of ideas kicking around. I use Evernote, and I’ll just record any dumb idea that I have. Sometimes I’ll put it in different folders and be like, I think this can work for solo. When it comes down to it, I’m trying to figure out which ones of these I actually want to develop into full songs.
I’m looking at the list now. There’s generally a pretty good mix. There’s pieces of each thing, like I’ve had “What Beautiful Things,” that melody, for a long time. “Juggernaut,” that basic concept and melody, I’ve had for a long time.
A lot of the songs, the pieces of these ideas I’ve been collecting, are not only in a file somewhere but they’re kind of stuck in my head, and they’re coming out every once in a while. I’m playing them in a soundcheck or whatever. After a bit, they’re pieces that seem like they have a life of their own and want to be finished.
In the past, you’ve said you tend to do your best work when you’re on a deadline and your back’s against the wall a little bit when you’re forced to finish up a song or an album. Was that the same case with this as well?
Yeah. I think it’s less that I do my best work, it’s like I’m only able to finish things if I have a strong deadline. I’ll just continue to fiddle with something. There’s a certain focus that a deadline brings, and it’s generally helpful. I think there’s a fine line between procrastinating and actually getting work done because you need to.
I try not to actually procrastinate. No matter what timeline you give yourself for a record, you’re going to use all of it, at least for me. In the end, it just gets compressed. There’s longer hours and it’s crazy. Then you finally finish it and take a breath [laughs].
I wanted to ask about a couple songs on the record that you’ve mentioned. My personal favorite is “What Beautiful Things.” I just really love the imagery and message of that song, and you said that was one of the ideas that you’ve been kicking around for a while. What was that song like to write?
That line “What beautiful things I see” is from an old story of the saints. Was it Saint Dominic, who was a kid? Let me look it up real quick… Yeah, Saint Dominic Savio. He was really sick, and when he was dying he said, “Look, what beautiful things I see.”
I actually had an idea a while ago to write a concept record about a bunch of different saints, which is funny since I’m not Catholic or have any persuasion to really dig into saints. But there’s something interesting about the concept. There’s a lot of interesting stories out there.
I thought that was an intriguing line. It stayed with me and built into the song now, which is approaching that general “Carry the Fire” theme from a different angle. It’s affirming that even though there are undeniably hard and painful and evil things, there are undeniably good and true and beautiful things as well. It’s important to remind ourselves of that.
Do you think you’ll ever do that concept album about the saints? That sounds really interesting.
I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it’s not off the table necessarily. I have another concept record that I would probably do first, if I ever get around to it.
I guess Alchemy Index is the only concept record that you’ve done so far.
Yeah, I guess so. There’s been some that have been loosely themed at different points. I think Vheissu had some larger themes kicking around, but definitely not a concept record. Yeah, I guess it would be similar in certain ways. I think the interesting thing about Alchemy was that it was conceptually both the lyrics and the actual sound of everything happening.
The other song I wanted to ask about is “Gallows,” which you talked a little about as well. It’s an interesting song on the record, in that it’s probably one of the more aggressive songs, but also that chorus is really catchy and has that cool metaphor with the gallows. Can you talk about how that came about?
That whole concept came around very, very last minute, in the sense that it didn’t exist before I started the record at all. I don’t think I could tell you when. It just kind of appeared there, this metaphor of the things that we allow to destroy us are often the things we are giving the power to destroy us, by holding onto things that I think are not necessarily bad things always, but are not ultimate things or things that can bear the weight that we’re putting on them.
For me, it’s been one of those songs where I could articulate this concept but wasn’t maybe connecting with it as personally until after the record was released. I’ve seen that manifest in ways like how my heart cared about how people received the record, or how many people were at a show or whatever. It’s not something I can allow to define how I feel about myself, or even about the record.
That’s one of those things you think you’ve moved beyond, but then it keeps cropping its head and you have to keep dealing with it. Thankfully, it’s not very much an issue in the actual writing process, but it’s hard once you put it out there to not care about how it’s received.
I was listening to that one interview you just did recently and you were talking about how the thing you’ve tried to improve the most on as a lyricist over the years is as a storyteller. That never really occurred to me ever listening to your stuff. Can you talk about what that’s been like and why you’ve felt the need to improve in that area?
I think there’s a power in storytelling. As human beings we naturally gravitate towards and are moved by story. I feel like a lot of the earlier stuff, and some later stuff too that I’ve written, and it’s not necessarily bad, it’s almost more of a mix of a poetic sense and the ethos of writing maybe an essay or something, combining those things.
While I think there’s some cool things that can happen there, I just started realizing that I really gravitated towards story. When I did it well in songs, I think it ended up being a powerful thing. I don’t know. For me, it wasn’t naturally the way I was approaching it, so I think that’s why I’ve had to work to consciously grow in that way. I think a lot of people just naturally approach writing from that standpoint.
The way that I write is always going to be different from the way someone else writes. I think there’s a beauty in that. It’s cool to look at another writer and be like, man, I will definitely never write a song like that. And that’s OK. That’s cool. I get to appreciate that guy’s song, learn from it, but never try to imitate it in that sense.
One of the things with these live shows is you’ve brought in a few new covers this time around. It got me thinking have you ever considered putting all those together into a covers album?
I have considered it, and it may happen at some point in the not too distant future.
Nice! I would really love a studio version of “Down There by the Train.”
What I’m kicking around right now is possibly doing a covers record, but it would be live and recorded well. I think there’s something unique that can happen in the performing of those songs in the live setting that might be lost in the studio. So yeah, more on that to come.
I was really surprised when you covered Miley Cyrus on this last run.
Yeah, I’m always looking for interesting pop songs to cover. I think sometimes there’s more depth to certain songs then we naturally see, depending on their arrangement and who’s playing them. Sometimes taking them into a different context, those things come to the fore.
That one ended up being one where I was like, man, I don’t know. There’s such a perception, especially around Miley Cyrus herself and that song, but as I broke it down it’s actually a really beautiful and heartbreaking song. It had the room for the kind of dynamics that I like to build into acoustic covers.
I remember a long time ago you guys covered that “U.S.A.” song of hers.
Yeah, that was a little more of a joke [laughs]. The discussion in the van on that tour was whether or not that was a genius pop song or a piece of trash. I think we landed more towards the genius side.
So Thrice is back from the hiatus now and you have played a handful of shows so far. What has it like to be active again and see the reaction to that?
It’s been great. The vibe with everyone has been awesome. Yeah, it’s fun playing music again with those guys. There’s a way that you play music with people that you’ve been playing with for that long that can’t really be replicated. So, it’s been cool.
Definitely been a challenge to shake off the rust in certain senses, but mostly that’s like figuring out and dialing into your monitors again at some festival. The actual band working together is something that’s cool to see snap back into place after a long time.
Do you think you missed that more or less than you expected?
Probably more, just because of the time when we were taking a break, it was very much needed. We had been going strong for 14 years or so, so it was definitely healthy to take a break. I definitely missed playing with those dudes and it was good to get back to it.
I saw you are selling T-shirts that say “Play Deadbolt” on them. Has that been a popular item?
I think it was fairly popular, yeah. It’s our attempt to embrace the weird thing that is the perception and the requesting of that song.
I’m amazed that people even shout it out at your solo shows and stuff. Didn’t you end up playing it at the end of this last tour?
Yeah, I basically did it because no one expected me to do it. I felt like surprising people. It actually turned out pretty well.
You guys are going to be playing Taste of Chaos coming up here in a little bit and a few other shows. Do you have anything else planned after that and have you talked at all about doing another album?
Right now, we’re just kind of doing these shows. We’ll see what happens in the future, but we’re just focusing on playing live right now.
And then Modern Post. Do you have anything else planned for that?
I think we’ll be releasing on vinyl the Christmas Modern Post record this year. There will definitely be something at some point new with that, but it probably wouldn’t be until later next year.