Interview: Thought Industry

THOUGHT INDUSTRY
interview by mike bushman


The Thought Industry is the type of band that makes critics stare at their computers screens in search of adjectives to do the sound justice. Genre mixing and generic label dropping puts this band in some art-metal-jazz-progressive-punk-electronic-studio-tricked category. Exemplifying the best aspects of all while not embracing the whole of any. It’s intelligent and crafted. It also has a new album called, ‘Short Wave On A Cold Day’. Moody and diverse with lyrics crafted from snapshots of experience (song credits are often accompanied by locations of inspiration as well as a snippet of prose to explain the piece. “Pine River, 2002, How a moment becomes a Monument” which precedes the song credits for ‘Lovers In Flames’.) That is the spark that makes this band worthy of your attention. The amount of sheer thought and spontaneous inspiration that goes into a The Thought Industry release truly is a testament to the bands name logging in over a decade of touring and multiple full lengths to their credit. Technology allowed me to catch up with singer, guitarist and general musical tweaker Brent Oberlin in a parking lot somewhere in the semi-rural Midwest, where truckers where anticipating a night of steak dinners and Thought Industry.

Bushman: “Short-wave on a Cold Day” marks a 5th album mark. How do you maintain focus?
Brent: I never understood why people quit. I’ve had many friends that will have four different bands in five years. I’m at a point that if I was gonna put out songs that I wrote, it was going to be Thought Industry. And that’s why even though it’s changed a lot of members, it’s still Thought Industry. And I love it. That’s probably the biggest reason. I’m obviously not doing it for the big money or my face on the cover of Rolling Stone. As long as I enjoy doing that, I can’t see any reason to stop.

What does the snowy cover (from new album) with the kids represent? It looks like something from a kid’s book.
Jeff Till. He lives in Boston. We used to be roommates in college. And I couldn’t think of anybody better. The title of the album was pretty much in place. He did an enormous oil painting (like 5 feet). We liked it a lot.

You are the only original member, and with only pre-Short-wave member in Mike Roche (who engineered and produced Outer Space is Just a Martini Away and Black Umbrella). How has this affected the sound of The Thought Industry?
It certainly does. I think makes it interesting. The is the variation of someone else performing the parts. I’m really lucky to be able to pilfer people from other bands. Everybody else was playing in something else in the state of Michigan when I gave them a call to come around. The drummer came from a ska band called Bad Butchers. Jeff was in a band called Supercopter (that he originally played drums for). That’s one of the best things about this band is the very eclectic talents. The members can play anything. We keep the best things that happen regardless of who plays it.

That is a unique situation; to have an engineer/producer, actually end up being a contributing member. How is his creative input in the writing process?
A lot. Mike and I talked about this arrangement years ago. He would track songs all by himself in his studio, and I would track things out in my studio. Then we started adding members. So it was a lot of tape trading going. There were over 30 songs that were done for this record. Some are not that finished. As soon as the idea ran kind of ran dry, we stopped and didn’t try to beat it into the ground and make something happen. I think a lot of bands do that. They write 12 songs and all 12 make the record. And not really to have time, budget and freedom to have the liberty of recording in long blocks. We didn’t have a deadline. We could have spent forever. We could have taken another two years for that matter. But it was done, it had to be over. We had to get it out. We are back in now and working another album. We are hoping to have it out on the year marker.

Where does this album bring The Thought Industry that they weren’t previously?
Musically, there is a cohesion I don’t think was there before. There is such a mutual respect for everybody’s playing. We really enjoy ourselves playing it live. I don’t think we could always say that. We always had turmoil in the band, in the beginning, everybody’s vision of how many shows we wanted to play. Some people just don’t like to play live. At least with this group, we do like to do that. I think we are the best live band of any incarnation of Thought Industry for sure. We are broader. In the past we couldn’t represent the experimental things we did on albums.

There is a tangible sense of neurotic paranoid tension that underlies the Thought Industry delivery. Where does that come from?
That’s a good way to put it. Christ, I don’t know. I had a terribly rotten year again. Bad things happen in my life, y’know, sucks. Nothing that happened to me as much, as much as people around me. A lot of those lyrics were written when I was in Europe. Like in the jacket, when it says it was written in Prague, it was written in Prague. I wrote on the train a lot. So the lyrics were so spread out. Because of the length between records, it varies from song to song. I really couldn’t answer that completely. There are words that are as old as ‘96 on the record, and things that are as fresh as this year.

The Thought Industry is known for its dramatic and original sense of tempos and song construction. Where does the inspiration to create a song on so many levels come from?
We’ve always tried to approach every record differently. You get a theme for how you are going to go about a song. We’ve taken 13-minute epics, where you give the listener something they have to come back again and again and again to figure out how the changes go. With this album, I think it’s the most bizarre texturally album we’ve ever done. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint if you are listening to a guitar or whatever, there are a lot of things happening. But arrangement wise, I think it’s very simple. We intentionally went for this verse/chorus/verse/chorus/something happens kind of thing. We didn’t worry about intros or outros, we just kinda jumped right in. It was all about brevity and have it remain tense. No waiting around. No building tension. I think we’ve achieved that. I’m not saying we will do that again on the next record, actually I doubt we will. We’ll probably do something different.

Do you find it hard to get new members on the same level to achieve the vision?
It’s not hard to find people who are good players. There are a lot of people who don’t actually pay a lot of attention to the how they actually sound. Their tone. But to get it on that level, it takes time.

Is The Thought Industry a Brent Oberlin vision, or the vision of the members involved during the respective phases?
Maybe it is my vision, but it is something that will always be shaped by the participants. Y’know, I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing half the time. I admit it. It’s not like I know what the finished product is going to be. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting to see what happens at the end. I prefer to keep it a little more like a train wreck. And look through the rubble at the end.

*Brent digresses to describe the sign out front of the venue the Thought Industry was playing that night.

The sign out front here says ‘Steak Dinner’ and underneath it says ‘Thought Industry’. Steak Dinner is the headliners, and we are opening for them.

Jason Newstead (Metalica) had some affect on your career. Describe.
A long long time ago. Jason used to be a band called Flotsam and Jetsam and grew up outside Kalamazoo, Michigan. We were playing shows around town. He started coming to the shows and we got a friendship going. He was like, ‘Give me some press kits and some shirts’ and I think he set up some of his friends at various labels. It was a long thing and it wasn’t as simple as Jason walking in and going ‘Please sign Thought Industry’. We had to do a whole ‘nother album and it took a year for contract negotiations to make it really happen. For a while we’d go to shows when he came by. I haven’t seen him in a long time. So don’t misunderstand, he’s not like my hunting buddy. I’m more likely to drive 30 miles to meet Ted Nugent.

Another of Michigan’s more well known musical exports. So you hang out with Ted?
I met the Nuge a couple of times. He lives like 15 minutes from my parent’s house.

Is he out slaying animals near your parent’s house?
I don’t think he cares much about my opinions. We certainly don’t see eye to eye, me and the Nuge. But he is part of this area, no doubt about it.

What’s the best part of being involved with Metal Blade?
That they go through Red distribution. And Red is a large company so I can find the album pretty much anywhere. There seems to be a little bit of difficulty with the older records. “Songs for Insects” sold out and they haven’t repressed it yet. And the fact that if you don’t see it at the store, it’s not hard to order it.

There is always much insight to the lyrics. Your website and album sleeves show descriptions, and quotes, which give hints and direction to their interpretations and inspirations. Is that important to you? (That people have a sense of understanding of what you are saying?)
It must be. Because I do that. It’s not real intentional, and I like being kind of vague.

The lyrics themselves can be very cryptic, I’m referring to the linear notes and explanations and inspirations for where the words are coming from.
I like to steer people in the right direction. Give them a setting. It’s real hard to do short fiction in a song. When you are working with three verses, how profound can you become? It’s a difficult thing to do because it’s such a structure. I don’t write lyrics and write songs around them. I write music and put lyrics to that. If I were to do it in the reverse order, it would be enormous. This album is already 70 minutes long, I couldn’t be doing it the other way. It would be a two-song record. 30-minute epics like Jim Morrison doing poetry over a funky jam kind of thing. I think somebody should shoot me if I do that.

Do you feel you’ve been misunderstood often?
Sometimes. Like ‘Black Umbrella’ came out, an awful lot of people wound up saying it was a very misogynist record. I didn’t really feel that way. I mean, yeah, it was an album based on a relationship, but they didn’t look far enough into it. Sometimes the words can come across real simple and just because they are in your face, doesn’t mean it’s coming from first person view. I shouldn’t expect that much out of the listener anyways. I don’t write it for other people, that’s for sure. There’s certainly a therapy to the whole thing. It’s like, once the album comes out, I can just forget about it and never have to worry about it again.

Technology and progressive thought seems a central ideal. Explain?
That’s just an extension of the people in the band. It’s not that I couldn’t talk about fast food, it’s just not very exciting. We aren’t trying to change the world, that’s for sure. There’s always an underlying philosophical sense of humor.

Do you fear or embrace technology?
A little of both of course. I am certainly a slave to it. I love my laptop. I love my cell phone. I love my palm pilot. I have become very used to all this. My livelihood essentially needs it all. My power was out last night. Its kind of interesting sitting there trying to get a candle bright enough to read a newspaper. Sometimes I do want to disappear up north and become a survivalist. And three years later, people will find I was eaten by a bear. And that’s all right. I would like to get to that point where I can do that. Everybody wants to get eaten by a bear in the end. Being alone in a cabin and die by bear mauling.

What happened to the angst? Is Thought Industry a happier band?
We are the least happy band in the world. I think we’ve never been more unhappy as people who are having a good time being unhappy. Nothing is duller than somebody who just takes a Prozac. Who cares? I don’t want to be dull. I want to be happy when something good happens, and I want to be really sad or angry when something bad happens. I don’t want to do anything in the middle. That’s where all the good things in life are. I can’t see any reason for just being blah and not caring. And I think being mindlessly happy is the same thing.

How is that Kalamazoo Michigan music scene lately?
I wouldn’t say it’s the shittiest it’s ever been, but it’s not that great. I think the shows are better, but the local scene itself is not. Really, it’s still supported by the some of the same bands that have been around for a long time. There’s about three or four of us that have been together for a lot of years and we are still the same bands people are coming to see. Nobody will come around to take away the crown. It’s certainly not a competition, but I’d be glad to see somebody do something else.

Art-metal. Do you (or did you ever) wear that label?
Naw, I hated that title. I hate the idea of being ‘progressive’ even. Anything that’s a little out of the normal is suddenly ‘progressive’. Some guy said we were ‘Satanic-Nu-Wave’ and I thought that’s all right. When I think of ‘Art-Metal’ I think of early Fates Warning records. It’s like taking Yes and Rush and adding a real metal flair to it. I think it’s a genre that we aren’t any part of.

Why did you choose music as opposed to any other artistic outlet?
It was kind of by default. When I graduated high school, I was playing in bands. I had some aptitude for it, but I didn’t care that much about it. I wasn’t singing or writing lyrics, just playing bass in a band. It was fun. I was 16 and meeting girls. That’s all great. And I end up going to college and the band just kind of stayed together. I went to college to write. I’d rather be staring at my book in Barnes and Noble right now to be honest, but maybe that’s because I’m doing nothing in a parking lot right now. I’ll never be happy with one or the other. I’d like to get both going. Writing would be my first choice to do something outside music. I was never aggressively after, “I wanna be a rock-star. I want to put out albums.” Or anything like that. We just made this demo and we were serious about the band. I started to mail them out to magazines, but I didn’t expect it. It was out of nowhere. It doesn’t take long and you get sucked into this world. And it’s hard to escape it because you like it. It’s fun. I can’t imagine waking up and going, ‘aww, I’m not going to play’. That would be terrible.

You seem well read. How much of your creative process do you attribute to reading? Since it seems, the art of reading for enjoyment has been steadily decreasing.
A lot of it. Not so much nowadays. I think now I’m a little more selective about what I read. I don’t like everything I read like I used to when I was a teenager. There was nothing to do. Morning, noon and night I was reading. It was all fiction. It wasn’t like I was reading the Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt. It was fantasy novels, fiction, science fiction that kind of thing. And formulated a lot of early opinions in life for sure.

What’s a relevant issue on your mind you’d like to discuss?
I think the biggest travesty going on right now with the war in the press, is the idea of good vs. evil. It’s not the case. You just can’t make absolutes like that. There’s evil everywhere and there’s good everywhere. But mostly there’s just a bunch of gray people that kind of reside in the middle. There are people who are great fathers, who are rapists. Instead of turning it into some sort of holy crusade, which I think a lot of this is becoming from both sides. There are a lot of ultimatums being leveled on people. Your government is trying to say it’s a war against ‘evil’. It’s not that. It’s a deeper issue. I hope it resolves itself in a nicer way than I think it’s going to. I don’t want to get on that tangent. Especially since it’s such a fresh issue. By the time you print this, I’ll probably sound like a moron. But it is fresh on my mind. That’s such a big issue, the only other thing I care about is the fact of how terrible the Detroit Lions are this year. Why are the Detroit Lions 0-5?

When and where can people see this art-metal extravaganza?
(laughs) We are leaving on tour November 15th. We are doing a lot of Midwest dates and east coast. Heading south hopefully as far as New Orleans. Then come back home and do the Christmas thing and let the weather get better for a couple of months and then probably go out again in March and go west. Our booking agent is now doing the Breeders and they have a new album coming out so hopefully we’ll have another month of touring with them. The only thing for sure about all of that is the November dates are all booked.

Leave the people with something to think about.
That the Chimi-Changa is really a deep fried burrito. They can think about that. I can’t possible say anything profound because I’m not feeling pretentious right now looking at this steak dinner sign we are billed on. There are a lot of trucks with winches on out front.