Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle: Existential dread, community and what it means to be heavy
Last year in Tilburg, Netherlands, two of the underground’s most respected and creatively ambitious artists performed together. Inside a makeshift warehouse space, thousands gathered to witness the bespoke, never-before-heard music from Louisiana sludgecrushers Thou and LA ambient/dark-folkster Emma Ruth Rundle. Initially commissioned for Roadburn festival as part of Thou’s artist residency (which also included an incredible Misfits covers set in a skate park), the project has since evolved into a full-length album.
“When we got asked to do the residency and decided on a collaborative idea, we were going to do it anyway, but Roadburn was a way to focus us on actually doing it,” smiles Thou guitarist Andy Gibbs today, joining Kerrang! and co-conspirator Emma Ruth Rundle on Zoom. “For Thou, Roadburn’s purpose is to whip us into shape and do a project we actually say we’re going to do. When you have a goal to work toward, it makes it a lot easier to get everyone motivated to get shit done.”
“And you can’t let Walter down,” interjects Emma, chuckling, referring to Roadburn founder and organiser Walter Hoeijmakers. “Walter is our metal dad,” smirks Andy in response.
Our 40-minute conversation is littered with these little humorous interruptions between the two, whether it’s discussing the underground metal scene at large, the sometimes strained writing sessions, or the emotional response from their fans (although Andy prefers not to use that word).
Despite listening to each other’s music for years, and worshipping in the same church of underground music, Emma says the pair only started chatting regularly online two years ago. Andy actually first heard Emma’s music about eight years ago when a friend put one of her album’s on at his then-job of working in a kitchen, but didn’t see her perform live for another three years. By comparison, Emma struggles to pinpoint the moment she first heard Thou; they were just “in the world” at some point, and became an obsessive fan.
Now, this week, these two artistic forces are releasing their breathtaking collaborative album, May Our Chambers Be Full. Eighteen months after the majority of the record was performed at Roadburn, the experimental and ethereal powers of Thou and Emma have been harnessed into seven tracks that explore the spectrum of heaviness, veering from melancholy to madness.
Here, we dig deep into the album’s creation, the relationship between artists, living on the fringes, and if this is just a one-shot deal.
You both make dark music but in very different ways. What aspects do you share that make you work so well together?
Emma: “I think that Andy and I particularly share a love of music from our formative years, we have some essential albums that cross over for us. Some of that essence is left in the music that we make, maybe that makes it easier to identify with one another and relate in that way.”
Andy: “As far as the whole band, even, you could say that ’90s music like Smashing Pumpkins is something that we share. But underneath the surface of that, there’s a more generalised vibe. I don’t think it would occur to many people, but I think there’s a vibe of…”
Emma: “Existential dread (laughs).”
Andy: “Existential dread, but not just complete nihilistic blackness – more of a wistful dread (laughs).”
On the flip-side, some of the best rock and metal albums come from friction between musicians. Were there any differences of opinion when making this record?
Andy: “Yeah, dude, a little bit… Nothing crazy, right?”
Emma: “It goes with the territory of seven people in a room debating a riff, and four of them are guitarists. Overall we all get along, but you’re in a hot room, and the way that we were meeting and writing was very intense. Because of the distance between us, I’d travelled there for sessions [in February 2019] and I came down for five, six, seven days or something? And we were in the room every day, working all day for 12 hours. And every session since then was y’all came here for a day or I came down there, just chipping away at this thing. Other bands I’ve been in it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s practice,’ and it’s four hours max, but this project it was all day.“
Andy: “Not only are we all in the room for seven hours, but we’re also trying to work on a song and everyone has an opinion on it. The friction during the writing just came from people having strong opinions, which happens during Thou practice normally. It’s hard to accommodate everyone and give everyone proper space to voice their opinions.”
Emma: “It was definitely seven individuals, it wasn’t like me vs. Thou. Every song certain people had a little bit more ownership of, some people were more detached from certain things, but it really felt like a band where everyone was involved. And because of that it made it more of a democratic process.
Andy: “For better or worse (laughs).”
Were you all coming at the record from the same angle lyrically, and what you wanted the message or meaning of the record to be?
Emma: “I was scared of Bryan [Funck, Thou vocalist] until the second or third time [we met], but now I feel like we’re fast friends. But the lyrical development started to take shape and come together towards the latter stage, even right before recording where Bryan would come in and share ideas. He and I would go back and forth, particularly on the songs where we both sing – some of those lyrics are mine, a lot of them are his – and I would want to make sure that we’re on the same page in that way. I don’t want to speak for Bryan, but in conversations we’ve had, we were both dealing with stuff with our family, and a constant subject for me is mental illness, addiction and generational reincarnations of that. We talked about some of that stuff a little bit, but Bryan will always remain somewhat mysterious.”
Andy: “He had a lot of ideas like he always does, lots of lyrical ideas and concepts that he’s been collecting for months. When it comes time to add stuff he’ll send us an email like, ‘Here’s all the stuff I’ve been thinking of!’ and it’s links, a paragraph, all this shit, and it’s like, ‘Okay dude, do all that’ (laughs).”
Do you think you could have come together to make a positive, upbeat record, or was it always going to be downtuned, gloomy record?
Andy: “I think it’s kind of upbeat (laughs). Could we have done that?”
Emma: “I don’t think so, man.”
Andy: “We couldn’t have done it while trying to do this as, ‘This is going to be the record of both our bands.’ We could do it if we set out to do a different kind of project altogether; something under a different name. I think we could accomplish anything if we put our minds to it.”
Emma: “I feel like we’d get down on a Sixpence None The Richer album (laughs).”
You’ve mentioned Roadburn, a festival exists as a celebration of the weird, wonderful, esoteric corners of alternative music. What draws you to that world?
Andy: “It’s metal without the shit that I hate about metal.”
Emma: “The toxic masculinity aspects.”
Andy: “Aggressiveness pointed in the wrong direction is something that I hate, and something that Roadburn doesn’t usually have. Even people that don’t like metal could go to Roadburn and see some bands, meet some other people, and wouldn’t think it was just a bunch of dude idiots getting drunk.”
Emma: “It’s much more open-minded and welcoming and the people that go are very much music fans and supporters.”
Andy: “They read books (laughs).”
Emma: “They don’t just go like, ‘I wanna hear that one song!’ People are invested in a community. Roadburn specifically is a community that has evolved over a long period of time, and I think it’s inclusive, it’s trying to be progressive, and for the most-part that community is embracing change and moving forward and is interested in the diversity of the arts that it encapsulates.”
Andy: “We played the majority of [this album] at the festival, no-one had ever heard any of those songs before ever, and we had a big crowd of people that watched the whole thing and were into it. That’s hard to find.”
Emma: “There’s an opportunity to be real and open and vulnerable in an honest way, and have that be a safe thing to do – to express certain ideas through the music that might be awkward to talk about in a conversation like this. When you do that through music and it connects with other people, it can transcend into a cool experience that’s shared. For me, in this world, I feel safe doing that, and I definitely didn’t feel safe doing that as I was coming up as a musician.”
As musicians, do you take some kind of pride in being on the fringes of what is already a non-mainstream genre?
Andy: “I don’t think we’re on the fringe. I understand why someone would say that, and I think it makes sense, but for me, I wish we were fringier in some ways. I wish we were weirder.”
Emma: “I recognise that we exist in a very specific microclimate, and it’s pretty cool that we’re doing this interview; this is probably one of the more ‘mainstream’ in a good way things that we’ll do – in terms of this project getting exposed more. I’m happy living on the fringe and I think that’s because the people involved in it are very dedicated and the people that listen to it are very passionate about it. [On social media], the more into the centre you are of something, the more people feel like you’re dehumanised. If you’re popular or successful, you’re less of a human being and it’s okay to be shitty to those types of bands or artists online, and that bothers me. I’m down to sit on the side and play guitar in the corner.”
Andy: “Okay, in that aspect, I do agree that we’re on the fringe, in terms of not being well-known to people who aren’t in our little world.”
Emma: “We’re at Roadburn, we’re not at Hellfest yet.”
Andy: “When we played Hellfest we played at 1pm… Which is fine. None of us are doing this with grand ambitions of being super-successful. We’re very grateful that we can play shows where people show up. For the rest of our time together, if we just play shows in front of 200 people and that’s as big as it gets, that would be fine with me. If it doesn’t go any bigger than it is then that would be fine because the people that do show up and do care, I like those people. They’re the people I’d be friends with.”
Emma: “We love our community.”
Andy: “I would never say we love our ‘fans’, these are just other people in bands for the most part. They’re just bands we haven’t played with yet (laughs).”
What did you get from working together that you may not have from working on your own project?
Andy: “It raised the bar for me in terms of what we can accomplish with Thou as a band. We’d done collaborations in the past [with] varying degrees of difficulty, and varying degrees of success – not what it achieved, but what I wanted it to be and what it became. The way that this came out and what we were able to pull off raised the bar, because there were moments in the depths of this process where I was like, ‘How the fuck is this going to come together in a way that I will be satisfied with because there are so many moving parts?’ But it did, and I don’t think that hit me until I listened to the first mixes. I knew the songs were good, but I didn’t know if it would all come together on a record and sound like its own thing. Also, I think it gave me permission to step out a little bit in terms of what sound I would bring to Thou moving forward, it gave me some permission to show up with stuff that isn’t just crushing and 13-minute slogs that are hard to listen to.”
Emma: “We definitely got to walk in each other’s shoes. I got to write some heavy riffs that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to play by myself. I got to explore that side of what it means to be heavy.”
If someone hasn’t heard any of your music before, and they listen to this album, what do you want them to take away from it?
Andy: “I’m actually extremely interested in what people who aren’t familiar with either of us would make of what we’re doing. It’s hard for me to listen objectively and hard to categorise in what we’re doing. But what I want people to take away, I would want them to have an emotional experience – that’s all I ever want people to take away from what I do. I’m tempted to send some songs to my mom like, ‘What do you make of this?’ (laughs).”
Emma: “Once you make art you let go of it. I don’t have any expectations. I’m extremely invested in and emotionally attached to it, so I would hope that people connect with it emotionally. If a song reaches somebody and it resonates with them, and they’re able to feel that, that is a successful song. If it cultivates an emotion, a mood, a vibe for a listener then we’ve done something that works.”
Finally, will this project exist in isolation, or do you think you guys will work together again?
Emma: “Y’all are so prolific and doing covers, I’m sure you’ll come and rip a solo on one of my records… I don’t know if we’ll make another full album, but maybe we will. Who knows?”
Andy: “I’m tired thinking about it (laughs). With all of our friends, we’re going to be entangled, even if it’s just touring together… That’s how our band works: we all orbit around each other in terms of who’s doing what. Could another collab happen? I dunno. Will we get together and write a song? It could happen. We will probably come running to Emma when we run out of good ideas (laughs).”
May Our Chambers Be Full is released October 30 via Sacred Bones
Read this next:
The underground’s coolest pairing, Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, team up to bring the sorrowful heaviness once more…
Watch Mick Jagger and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl perform the Rolling Stones legend’s surprise new single, Eazy Sleazy.