They Grow Up So Quickly
Thank You's Quick And Bumpy Liftoff From Underground Favorite To National Stage
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Meeting a band for an interview is a bit like going on a blind date, with all the attendant jitters. This nervousness is compounded when convening in a public, depersonalized space--say a café or at a show. Far more preferable is connecting with a band in its own element and catching a glimpse of the backstage of musicians' lives. So it was a relief when Thank You, Baltimore's most recent underground music darling, offered up guitarist Jeffrey McGrath and keyboardist Michael Bouyoucas' shared Hampden home. Joined by new drummer Emmanuel Nicolaidis, the trio--all in their early 30s--bypassed the living room in favor of the laid-back intimacy of the kitchen table. As the group settled in, offering orange slices and fixing tea over a cheery vintage stove, they bantered with the ease of old friends.
This casual air betrayed nothing of Thank You's recent upheavals. While Baltimore has become something of a breeding ground for hot new groups, Thank You has remained one of the city's best-kept secrets since forming in 2005. That is, until last month when Chicago's stalwart indie label Thrill Jockey released the group's sophomore album, Terrible Two. In the weeks between the early vinyl release and that of the CD, Thank You has tasted the first fruits of worldwide attention, with the new album already garnering more notice than last year's debut, World City.
Thank You stands out from its peers in Baltimore's current musical underground with a stubborn, slippery difference. While there is some slight kinship with Celebration's otherworldly drama and Ponytail's preverbal epic jams, Thank You has crafted a distinctive, if chameleonlike, sound all its own. Though warmly effusing over the successes of other local musicians who've honed instantly recognizable takes on off-kilter pop or full-on noise, the members of Thank You see their band as a third point between these poles, never content to indulge fully in melody or dissonance. "I think it's something we may never be able to come to terms with as individuals and as a group," Nicolaidis says. "The more you lean toward one side, it's that other side of you that's pulling you back."
It is precisely this tension that drives the group's latest release. Terrible Two captures the band at its best: mighty, feral, and intuitive. The recording is flush with a sense of the unknown, as though the relentless, thunderous drumming, woozy organ, and wending, rattling guitar were dredged up from inky preconscious fathoms. While difficult to pin down, there are brief glimmers of familiarity--a churchy organ tone, a hypnotic Afrobeat-esque rhythm, metallic postpunk guitar. Even the softest bits are needling, as there is never quite a moment of comfort with Thank You, just the teasing, slow build of big, immolating sound.
"We put ourselves out there a little bit more," Bouyoucas says of the latest album. "I don't think, necessarily, that being better at what you do means you polish it up a bit. I don't want to be polished. I always want to have all those . . . conflicting elements in there."
"I think on the first [album] we were more timid," McGrath says, comparing Terrible Two to World City. "The second one sounds more courageous."
Terrible Two certainly offers a more forceful, honed sound--perhaps explaining why Thrill Jockey signed the band shortly before the album was recorded early this year. While Thrill Jockey head Bettina Richards has had her eye on Thank You since being tipped off by Los Angeles lo-fi thrash-pop duo No Age--the two bands shared a bill last June--she didn't immediately bite. The band members say they talked with Richards for months, and then last September they drove to Chicago to open for Dan Deacon for one show only so that she could see them live. As with World City--which eventually came out on local label Wildfire Wildfire--Thank You recorded their latest without knowing just how it would be issued. As it worked out, the turnover between recording and release was a scant few months.
Still, the members of Thank You haven't had much time to revel in newfound triumphs. Last month the group parted ways with original drummer Elke KW. With tour dates coming up, Bouyoucas and McGrath turned to their close friend Nicolaidis. An obvious recruit, Nicolaidis was one of the band's earliest supporters and played with Bouyoucas in the now-defunct carnivalesque prog-rock group More Dogs and in postpunk quartet Haberdasher.
Despite this history, stepping in has not been easy for Nicolaidis, who had a week to learn the entirety of Terrible Two before his first show. He's also struggled with finding his place in a group that was so definitively marked by KW's idiosyncratic, powerful drumming. Admittedly it's difficult to imagine Thank You without KW--her drums are a constant, near-relentless element in the music. In addition to her unique sound, KW was also a focal point, that rarity in the world of rock: a woman drummer. "It's been really challenging for me in approaching this," Nicolaidis says. "So many people like her drumming so much. I sort of feel like the new step-dad . . . like I have to charm the hell out of them because Mom passed away."
Thank You's new lineup knows its most taxing moment is yet to come. It's only played two out-of-town shows in its new configuration, and while it has a number of upcoming performances scheduled, including three East Coast dates with the much hyped Battles, the most looming is Whartscape. The KW-anchored band delivered a fierce performance at last year's festival, and this summer's outing will be the band's first hometown show with Nicolaidis. Baltimore fans can also expect other differences, as the three have been reworking their material.
And the band is confident in its still molting skin. "You can feel the legs of the band--the Thank You creature--getting restless enough to where it doesn't make sense to do what you have been doing," McGrath says.
"A band is a continuous thing, you can't force it to be this thing that people expect it to be or that you think people expect it to be," Bouyoucas says. "A band should be something that is always alive, breathing, and always changing." H
Terrible Two is out now on Thrill Jockey.