Ian Thornley of Big Wreck

by Trevor Morelli

Big Wreck frontman Ian Thornley is a master of mixing melodic string arrangements with hard-hitting rock riffs. He's also doggedly determined, always looking to challenge himself when it comes to songwriting in an effort to continuously get better at his craft.

A few years after forming Big Wreck with fellow Berklee College of Music students Brian Doherty (guitar), Dave Henning (Bass) and Forrest Williams (Drums), Thornley and his crew released their debut album In Loving Memory Of... in 1997. The album resonated with rock fans across North America almost instantly, propelled by catchy singles like "The Oaf," "That Song," and "Blown Wide Open."

In 2001, Big Wreck released their much anticipated follow-up The Pleasure and the Greed, but it didn't fare as well. Although the disc sold over 7,000 copies in Canada in its first week, the band faced marketing challenges in the US, and the stress of living up to the hype created by their first album began to take its toll. Big Wreck quietly broke up a year later and questions surrounding the group's demise began to arise soon after.

Rather than give up on his musical journey, Thornley returned home to Toronto and released a pair of riff-heavy discs under his own name: Come Again in 2004 and Tiny Pictures in 2009. Then in 2011, Big Wreck fans everywhere rejoiced when they heard Thronley had once again hooked up with Doherty to write new music.

Big Wreck released their third album Albatross in 2012 and the lead single "Albatross" once again connected with listeners, holding at #1 on the Billboard Canadian Rock Chart for six weeks straight. Determination got Thornley back to the top of his game, and now that he's there again, he's not giving it up anytime soon. As Ian explains, he never thinks about writing hit songs but he's always thankful when they turn out that way.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): You guys just came back from a pretty big hiatus as Big Wreck. The new album is called Albatross. I want to know what that means to you and why you picked that name for the album.

Ian Thornley: The song, that was one of those that took about 10 years to write, but actually fell into my lap in about five minutes. And as it was falling into my lap, I was like, Oh, I don't think anyone's ever done this before. Come to find, of course, that it has been used before, several times.

But I thought as far as an album title, it could lend itself to a lot of cool imagery, and it's a cool sounding word and a cool looking word. It fit all the criteria of what you'd want to name an album after. I mean, it's no Dark Side of the Moon or anything, but it just makes sense, I think.

And I think musically it's sort of a nice centerpiece for the album. I never thought it was going to be a single, let alone the first single. But I always thought of it as a nice grounding sort of centerpiece for the record.

An albatross is a seabird used for literary effect by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 18th century poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner shoots the bird and must wear it around his neck when he is blamed for the rough seas they encounter.

Here are some other songs called "Albatross":
Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green era), 1969
Judy Collins, 1967
Public Image Ltd., 1979
Corrosion of Conformity, 1994
Songfacts: Does that happen a lot that you write certain songs as singles in mind, and then you go to the label and it changes completely?

Thornley: I used to write that way, and I don't enjoy doing that, because I think it does a disservice to the art of songwriting in many ways. At least it does for me, because I know that there are a lot of professional writers who certainly consider what they do art, and on some of them it is. But it's more commerce. It's more like, Well, how can I fool people into listening to the same ship, slightly different word or whatever. You know what I mean? So that's more craft than art.

And I have gone through different stages in my career of writing songs, with that in mind: How can I really hook as many people into this as possible? As opposed to: How can I really turn myself on? With this last record I was just thinking about the latter. I was just trying to make music that I wanted to hear. There was no, How is this going to compete with the latest Bieber release or with whatever is going on at radio? It's not my place and it never really has been. I've been moulded to try and fit into that a couple of times and it's never really worked. So it was nice to break out of that and make a record of music that I wanted to make.

Songfacts: It's been a while now since songs like "That Song" and "Blown Wide Open" have come out. I think it's fair to say that those are permanent songs in the Canadian rock canon. Do you see it that way, or do you see them as songs you wrote in your basement one day?

Thornley: Definitely the latter. I was never thinking of any of that stuff when I wrote those. I just thought they were cool when I was doing them. This is before record deals and money and things like that were ever considerations. Just like, "Well, this is a cool thing to jam on." And then, "Okay, now all the things that I'm doing with my mouth I need to make those into words." It really was that innocent. And I think the best music is usually born that way, in my opinion.

Songfacts: So for Albatross, you weren't thinking about singles.

Thornley: Oh, hell no. I was actually shocked when they said, "We want to go with 'Albatross.'" I was shocked and kind of like, "Oh, right." All right. These guys have some balls. You know, if you're going to play the game of singles, you need to be hitting that first chorus within the first minute. That's the unwritten rule that is almost a written rule at this point. Hit the chorus by the first minute, keep it under three and a half, all these stupid things. And I don't even start singing till one minute of "Albatross." They didn't even service radio with a radio edit. They just wanted the song. So I couldn't be more proud of Anthem and Warner for having the nuts to get behind it.

Songfacts: Now, is that a symptom of what the music landscape is right now or are labels just going, Oh, well, people just buy digital music anyway. Like, We can put whatever out for a single.

Thornley: Why spend the extra time trying to get a great sound when they're just going to download an MP3?

Songfacts: That makes sense.

Thornley: There are definitely a lot of people that think that way. I don't. Because I can get a unique and wonderful guitar sound in just as short a period of time as somebody who just plugs a guitar directly into the computer. It's just a matter of how much time you've spent working on your trade. And I think my trade is not writing consumable hits. I like to tinker around with sound and I like to create atmosphere and landscape and then write over it. As lofty as that sounds, I like the artistry of it all.

Songfacts: So on Albatross, which song do you think is the most challenging for the listener? And also ultimately the most rewarding?

Thornley: That's tough. I don't know. For me personally, I don't find any of them challenging to listen to. And I wouldn't know for the listener, I'm not an average listener, certainly not to my own music. I pretty much know where it's going. Maybe a song like "Time," because it can come across as a little bit cheesy or a little bit too sweet. And it's almost got an Andrew Lloyd Webber thing to it. But for some reason, I'm like, "Okay, I'm into this."

I'm pretty proud of that one, and I think it's pretty close to where I imagined it getting. But still it's hard to ride that line between really beautiful and poignant and totally cheesy.

And there are some heavier cuts on there that might raise an eyebrow. I don't think of it as really challenging. It's not like Meshuggah. It's not challenging to listen to like an Aristocrats record. I can only listen to so much of that. I mean, I love it, and I do get off on it, but it's like, Okayokayokay. I've got to listen to something else! Because you're sort of freaking along with it as opposed to just closing your eyes and getting lost in it.

Songfacts: I hear you. That's a good segue into my next question. Songs like "A Million Days," it sounds like you've got some whammy effects on there. It sounds like there are a few songs on the album that have that. Was that just part of the experimentation process for you or did you write that with that effect in mind?

Thornley: No. Sometimes it's just a matter of what's lying around. So yeah, I've used those sort of effects a lot, and it's a great way to color a guitar part with that sort of high octave, almost synthetic sound. Radiohead used it a bunch. But I've never really used it with the actual rrrrip kind of special whammy effect where it's that U2 thing like what's his face from Rage Against the Machine - Tom Morello - he loves using that. I never really used it like that, because it sounded trick to me.

But lo and behold there it is at the top of "A Million Days," and I'm like, yeah, what a great trick. That just colors. The more bits I can get my hands on, the better, I think.

Songfacts: So the song "All Is Fair," that's one of my favorite songs on the album. And I was wondering what that song was about. It sounds like it's your own personal relationship coming through.

Thornley: Well, a lot of my own personal stuff tends to find its way into the music. And that's how I stay really, really umbilically connected to it. I have a lot of tour writing that's completely third person, like a Bruce Springsteen or like a Bob Dylan - Gordon Downie [lead singer of The Tragically Hip] even is great at that. I have a hard time writing like that. I think that's real grown up writing, and I'd like to be able to do it some day. I'm not quite there yet. So I tend to take slices of my own life and sort of embellish them.

"All is Fair" is a direct result of that, for sure.

Songfacts: Are you the kind of songwriter who is constantly working on these songs?

Thornley: It's always going through my head, for sure. But I tend to think of them both as the same thing, lyric and melody and changes in chords and pace. I think it's all the same thing to me. I've got this thing, I just need this great line for it. And of course that always happens, I always end up with these great musical things - I have melodies and everything - I just need the right angle, or the right motion or the right story or the right line that can open up a story. But to me it's all the same importance. Nowadays in pop music or rock music, it seems like the lyric is the most important thing. I'm not a believer in that. I think it's all equally as important.

Songfacts: So when you sing about love and war in that song and how you don't feel like you can compare the two anymore, is that a symptom of the world we live in?

Thornley: You could take it that deep, but I certainly didn't when writing it. I'm not reinventing the wheel. I think it's pretty well mined territory for writers and musicians alike just how hard a relationship can be and how brutal it can be and how ugly it can get. But trying to stay positive and look on the bright side of things and then realize that you'd rather be nowhere else.

To me the whole outro of "All Is Fair," the argument between the guitars, we were actually trying to make it sound like an argument that was coming to a heated pitch and then comes to and end. But all the songs, almost all of them, are relationship songs. Maybe not necessarily with a loved one or with a wife or girlfriend or whatever, even with a colleague. That might be one of the better ones as far as a romantic relationship, trying to describe it. "A Million Days" is kind of along those lines, too. It's a little more scattered with how ugly and beautiful a relationship can be at the same time.

Songfacts: So is it fair to say that Big Wreck has been positive enough for you to keep going with that?

Thornley: I would say so, yeah. I mean, it feels really good right now.

Songfacts: And you've got a US release coming up, right?

Thornley: Absolutely. In February.

Songfacts: Is there anything that you're going to do differently to promote it that you learned from promoting it in Canada?

Thornley: I don't know. That's not really up to me. I choose to stand aside. Of course, if it flops, it's my fault. But I've found in the past when I do try to stick my nose in, I'm sticking my nose in for the wrong reasons. It's something I'm very passionate about and something I love very dearly. So I choose to focus on the music and the things I love and can control. Not the things that I have no control over, like when people are going to say, "He sounds like..."

Songfacts: When I think of record companies, I always think there are people that only look at the numbers and only care about that part.

Thornley: A lot of this business is based on that. When you look at the overall breakdown of where the money goes, it's pretty amazing. And I think that's just indicative of the way the business was built however many years ago and the fact that it's still going that way, even with things like Youtube and all the things that you can't control. Those are a direct result of people wanting to make music and people wanting to hear music.

Songfacts: And we live in a world where "Gangnam Style" becomes popular.

Thornley: I still haven't heard this. I keep hearing about it, but I still haven't heard this.

Songfacts: It's ridiculous. You've got to see it with the video.

Thornley: I'm always afraid. I remember the last time someone did this to me was whatever that chick's name, she was here, (singing) "The young broad Friday." It was weird. And it had like 300 billion hits.

Songfacts: Oh, yeah. It seems like the same thing. You'll shake your head and say, I can't believe this became popular.

Thornley: Just make sure my daughter's not around when I'm watching it, because if she sees it and actually likes it, I'll be very disappointed. She's just a little kid, so she gets off on a quick hook and a dancy beat.

Songfacts: Is she into your music?

Thornley: As a child, certainly a child in my house, where there's music everywhere all the time, she's exposed to a lot of different things. She absolutely adores the Beatles, which I think is wonderful. And ABBA and really poppy stuff that I wouldn't ever want my child listening to. I can hear her listening to it upstairs, I'm like, "Okay, I get it. I get it." Like Rihanna had some serious hits, you know. And some of it's really good. But I choose not to be like, "You do not listen to that! You need to listen to 'Wish You Were Here' from top to bottom! Yes, I want you to listen to the whole 8 minute guitar solo!" I'm not going to be that kind of dad. Because as a child I loved Supertramp as much as ABBA in as much as the Beatles. I had no taste. I had no way of critiquing, well, I don't like the way they're dressed, so this must suck. You don't really care. You just want something that appeals to you.

Songfacts: You've got the Big Wreck name that's very well known in Canada. I'm wondering if there's anything that can really stop you from continuing with your music career.

Thornley: I've thought about it. But no. I can't really do anything else. And you know what, there have been many times that I wish that I could. But I've only ever done this and I've only ever focused on this for more than 3/4 of my life. This is what I've done, is just get lost in music and try to create my own version of how to get lost in it.

However, the other day, I had the TV going, I think it was the history channel, it was like Treasure Hunters or something, it was just these guys on a boat. I want that. I can't sail a boat, I don't know anything about how to get secret stolen maps, no connections, and certainly don't have enough money to get on a boat and float around. But it looks like a great way to spend a couple of months. Searching for lost treasure. A too tall Canadian pirate kind of thing. That'd be good.

January 10, 2013. Get more at bigwreckmusic.com.
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