Thursday’s Geoff Rickly: “I Wasn’t A Natural Singer. For Years People Used To Call Me ‘Tone Geoff’ ”
It’s the voice that’s the thing. Be it the anguished yawp reaching towards heights that speak to the grimmest of life’s depths, or the feathery swoosh that’s imbued with humanity and yearning, Geoff Rickly is instantly recognisable.
You can even hear echoes of it in the scores of facsimile not-quites who’d follow in his influential footsteps in the years since Thursday broke through around the turn of the 21st century. What was once novel and new, however, quickly became so commonplace and copied that the credits due to him and his New Brunswick cohorts have remained somewhat elusive. When the band split in acrimony in 2011, it was such a crushing conclusion to the 14 years that preceded that it would ultimately leave the vocalist hooked on heroin and wondering what his worth was.
Along the way, on what’s been a most colourful and singular journey, he’s packed a lot in. He helped give a leg up to a little band from his home state by the name of My Chemical Romance, thanks to his production nous on their debut album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, in 2002. At one point or another, he’s been one of the shadowy figures who make up hardcore collective United Nations, a band so mysterious even he’s not quite sure if he’s currently in the mix or not. In 2010 and 2011, he filled in on vocals for the charitable reunion of notorious cult heroes Ink & Dagger. He’d later found and become embroiled in the controversy of Collect Records – an episode so headspinning and complex it merits a separate discussion in itself, thanks to the involvement of controversial hedge fund figure, Martin Shkreli. But perhaps most poignantly of all, Geoff helped five men from Wales perform and record music again, under the name No Devotion, releasing the 2016 K! Award-winning album Permanence, following the devastating dissolution of their former band.
Today, we find him back in the fold of a reformed Thursday and in the midst of saying a proper farewell, while tentatively glancing towards a future that for now appears intriguingly unwritten. We don’t even get to the part where he got mugged twice in the space of a couple of years, or his recent mental health-focused podcast ventures, such is the breadth of subject matter to cover. But there’s only one place to really start…
What’s it like being back in Thursday again?
“It feels good, man. It’s like rejoining the circus; you fall into a rhythm, where you almost know what each person is going to say next.”
Because things ended on a sour note in 2011, has this 20 Years Tour offered the chance to put that right?
“Absolutely. To do a 20-year tour is something that I didn’t expect for Thursday. It’s been really shocking, but more than anything, gratifying and humbling for the band to still matter. I think less than it being that we wrote some perfect piece of art that’ll hold up timelessly forever, it’s more that people made that music the music of their youth, tied in with so many memories. Because those people made us a part of their lives it’s lived on for them. And as more than just music.”
Does it feel like the closing of a chapter in your life now that you’re nearing the end of the run?
“It doesn’t feel that way yet, because we have a bunch of shows left.”
In the midst of all this reminiscence, has it stirred up any old feelings you’d buried?
“Well, there was a lot of tension in the band when we split, which is obviously why we split. Everybody kind of couldn’t stand each other anymore and needed to get away. There are a couple of us in the band who are only children, like myself, and like, without the band I don’t have brothers. And it feels kinda corny for me to say that out loud, but doing this has been more important than just music.”
What’s been the biggest difference this time?
“Touring sober. That’s a huge change for me. We used to stand in a circle and pass a bottle of Jameson [whiskey] around before it was time to go on and that would ease me into the first song. Because we are such a physical band, I’d be shaking with adrenaline and I’d need a drink to calm me down, pre-show. So now I’ve been having to see it with no filter, no drink, no drugs, no nothing; to just get up there and be present with everybody, in the moment.”
Is it scarier sober?
“Fuck yeah (laughs)!”
When you look back at the body of work, and the experiences being in Thursday has afforded, what’s the abiding feeling of it all?
“Gratitude. I can’t imagine my life without Thursday. I can’t imagine where I would have ended up. The plunge that I took with Thursday was uncharacteristic for me. I was much more timid and less outgoing before. If Thursday hadn’t been the thing that I took a chance on, then I probably would have led a much quieter life. I don’t know if I would have shared my art with anybody. I probably would have had a nine-to-five reality. It’s hard to untangle, or to imagine where life would have taken me otherwise. And even with all the ups and the downs: having a record label, being hooked on heroin and getting sober, I feel so lucky that I get to live this way, to have made stuff with people that I care about. It doesn’t really get better than that. And to have people care about that stuff; to know it’s connected. There’s all these bands out there that are like, ‘We grew up on your music,’ and now they’re making my favourite records. I feel super lucky that I got to be a part of the chain, somewhere between, say, The Cure and Deafheaven. That we got to have our little piece of it.”
What were you like as a younger man, before you were ‘Geoff from Thursday’?
“Well, music became the dominant force in my life pretty young. My parents started it off by taking me to shows from the time I was three years old. I saw Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Dire Straits; Eric Clapton and Jefferson Airplane. And then everything changed when I first heard The Cure, The Smiths and that gloomy Brit stuff. Then it was Nirvana’s Nevermind. That was huge, too.”
Were you a stereotypical angst-filled teen?
“Oh yeah, I was a really lonely little only child. When I was in school I had a Walkman with me, so I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I used to get beat up because I was the punk rocker kid.”
How did you get into punk?
“Probably through Nirvana. And then I got into Helmet and then came Bad Brains and hardcore. That led to industrial as I got older: Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and Coil. And then I started putting on basement shows.”
How did you make the switch from promoting to playing?
“I initially thought that maybe I could be a drummer. My favourite thing is a really good drummer. It was more by default I ended up a singer, when I met the Thursday guys.”
Did it come naturally?
“Well, writing the lyrics felt natural, but I certainly wasn’t a natural singer. I didn’t have an inborn talent. For years people used to call me ‘Tone Geoff’. I was just lucky that it didn’t seem to stop the band. I always wanted to be a good singer and I worked hard on it over the years. Now I know that I’m a good singer, I can hit the notes and I have an expressive voice. That’s the thing I’ve worked the hardest on.”
When this wraps up do you go back to the record label game or are you done with all that?
“The end of that [Collect Records experience] was so traumatising that I don’t think I’d be able to start that rodeo up again. Right now I’m looking for what comes next and I’m trying not to be blindsided this time. I’m looking to see what I can get involved in, where I can make inroads.”
So you’re keeping your options open?
“Well, they’re somewhat open. I mean, they were more open 20 years ago. I’m overly specialised! Sometimes it’s like, ‘Whoa, this is quite a path I’ve walked,’ and I remember my parents saying, ‘Are you willing to be a starving artist?’ And when I was young I definitely was, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a decision that’s gonna last? Huh…’”
Does it feel strange to be saying goodbye to some of this?
”Oh yeah, but it was a lot harder after the original split, because that sort of happened without warning. One day at practice it was just over. And then I spent a lot of time on my own because I was having a hard time with drugs. I spent a lot of time using and thinking about where it all went wrong, and whether I’d ever do anything that mattered again, or if I even had anything left to say… at 32 or 33 or whatever it was. That was a terrifying place to be. Now I’ve gotten past that and a lot of the work that I’ve had to do to get sober has helped me see the forest for the trees. I’ll keep making art and even if it’s never recognised the way that Thursday was, it’s okay because it’s a crazy fluke that anybody gets recognised as an artist at all. And that doesn’t diminish the fact that I know I have something to say, I have my own voice, I know how to express myself and I’m going to continue to do so. Looking back over it now is a lot more rewarding, because I’m proud of it and I don’t have any regrets.”
When you went public in 2017 about your heroin addiction it came as a huge surprise, because you don’t exactly embody the stereotypical rock star ‘type’. What happened?
“Right?! And most rock stars don’t wait until they’re 15 years into their career to develop the problem either! I’ve always been pretty well known as a timid person, and I think that reflects the overall nature of the epidemic in America now. For me, it started through pharmaceuticals and through doctors, and there are a lot of kids who don’t even realise they’re getting into hot water with that stuff. By the time I was hooked I could barely understand it. I just knew that I couldn’t stop. And it was very destabilising, as were the years I spent trying to get clean. I didn’t just decide to get clean and then I was clean. It was years of struggling and not understanding why, no matter what I did, I could only go a week or two at a time…”
Was there a moment of clarity or a breakthrough that made recovery possible?
“Well, I did some experimental treatments that seemed to work, but the most important part was putting everything else down and saying, ‘Until I figure this out, I’m not going to worry about a single other thing.’ I got rid of my phone, I started going to 12-step meetings daily, I got a sponsor and surrendered to the fact that the only thing that mattered in life was getting through it. I made the decision that, no matter what, that part of my life was over. There was this thing that a therapist said to me that I hated because it’s such a cliché, ‘You only have to change one thing: everything.’ And like, that’s fucking stupid and I hated him for it, but I kind of got it.”
There were rumblings that you were writing something literary a couple years ago – is that something you’re still working on?
“Well, I have an agent and I’m definitely writing, but we’ve been keeping it under wraps until we’re ready to shop it around. I will say that I’ve been throwing myself into it wholeheartedly. Hey, I’ve found the one job that seems to pay less than music, so I’m happy (laughs)!”
What advice would you offer the young man who started out on this journey 20 years ago?
“I’d tell him that if your main concern is making a living, having some kind of status or being appreciated for your work, then it’s not a great thing to get into. But if you want to make things, to connect with people, and you can live modestly, there’s nothing that’ll give you a better life. I can’t imagine anyone having a better life than me, man. Like, if this was all a simulation and at the end of it it’s like, ‘Game over, go again’, I’d be like, ‘Put me back in.’ I’d literally take this over anything: being a king or Genghis Khan, or whatever crazy fantasy anyone could imagine. No, I’ll be a mid-level rock band singer every time.”
As you’ve been busy looking back on the last two decades, do you have any concept of what the next two might look like?
“I’m always looking to do new things that I find gratifying. Musically, the biggest thing would be to make an ambient record at some point. Beyond that, I want to write a movie, and I want to do this and do that. The one thing I can say for certain is that I want to mentor younger artists, especially musicians, like I did in my role as a producer for My Chemical Romance when they were first starting out. I want to do something pure like that again.”
Is there any prospect for another No Devotion record ever coming out?
“Well, I have hopes about No Devotion. I’ve been talking to those guys again. That’s the one thing about getting sober, too: I’ve had to start making amends with the people that I’ve wronged and the people that I’ve wronged are the people that I love. So, like, I have to call them up and be like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and grab a coffee.’ So, I think that that in and of itself means that a lot of the projects that have been inactive… well, we’re speaking again and we’re hanging out. The one thing I can say is that if we finish a new No Devotion record it’ll be so different. The songs that we’ve written since the last record are just, like, they’re my shit: they’re way deeper, way darker, way more sad, more textured and nuanced. I’m drawn to the darker recesses…”
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