Interview: Valient Thorr
Just a few weeks before the release of Stranger, Valient Thorr’s fifth full-length album, TheInertia.com caught up with lead singer Valient Himself to pick his brain on topics ranging from Net Neutrality, hypothetical fights with bands he dislikes, and life’s greatest lessons. While Valient Himself sports a foot-long beard and says he’s currently homeless, he may be one of the few denim-clad rockers who can stake claim to a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts and an illustrious career as an elementary school teacher. Enjoy a few lessons learned from Valient Himself.
Plus, bonus streaming music:
You guys are back with a new album (out 9/14/2010 in the US), and there was a bit of secrecy surrounding the new CD’s title, which you announced to be “Stranger” in July. What’s the story behind the title?
There was a bit of secrecy. There were a couple of other titles that didn’t work. We were going to call it something else, and I’m reluctant to say it here, but the other title was taken by another guy right away – who is a huge dude – and we were like, “Ahh fuck it, we’ll just do something else.”
A huge dude meaning a big person or a very famous person?
Well, I don’t know his music, but apparently he is pretty huge. I’ll go ahead and tell you. It was some guy named John Legend. I think he’s a big R&B dude or rap dude or something. We were going to call our album that, but he used it so we just said, “Fuck it,” and called it something else.
This one works too. Stranger works for several reasons…
Shit, I don’t know if I was supposed to tell everybody that, but I don’t really give a shit so I guess it doesn’t matter. But the reason we called it Stranger in the end is because this is a stranger album for us. The stranger comes with a story. A lot of times our titles mean two different things, and it is an adjective and it is a noun. Stranger works with the concept.
I found a few quotes about strangers I thought I’d run by you. If you had to pick one of these quotes as the subhead for the new CD, which would it be?
“Good things happen when you meet strangers.” – Yo-Yo Ma
“Men always talk about the most important things to perfect strangers. In the perfect stranger we perceive man himself.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
“When a dog barks at the moon, then it is religion; but when he barks at strangers, it is patriotism!” -David Starr Jordan
Ooh. I like that last one. I like that one because if I had my way we would have called the album Eat Shit, Ruin Rabbits, and Bark at the Moon, so I like that sub quote.
One of the biggest changes on your new album is that everyone sings. You were holding that position down pretty well on the last four CDs. What inspired that change?
You can do a lot more when there are more singers. I mean, I’m still singing, but it’s really rad to write other parts. I always wanted to have more than one voice. We started out with a little of it on the last record with some background vocals and stuff, but not everyone was keen on doing it live so we practiced it up. I managed to get them to sing backups on the last album, but now Aidan Thorr had been writing some parts himself – some lyrics – and I was like, “Why don’t you sing your lyrics and I’ll sing mine? And we’ll go back and forth.” And then we got Sadat and Nitewolf to sing and he even wrote a part in Night Terrors, and we were like, “Fuck! Everyone’s singing. Why not let’s practice it and rehearse all these things?”
Also, we were always friends with bands who did it, and we had never done it before. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with a band called Avett Brothers, but we all went to earth college together and those guys do unbelievable harmonies but we had never tried it before so it was cool to have it work out.
We did a lot of things we never did before with this record. There are actually choruses. We said let’s sing the fucking choruses. Let’s have choruses, because, we grew up, you know, listening to punk rock music and they have lots of killer fucking choruses, and we said, “Let’s do it. Let’s see if we can pull it off,” and I think it works well.
If people could have one takeaway message from the new CD, what do you want it to be?
In keeping with all of our other messages, we pretty much have dedicated our lives to bringing people together rather than tearing people apart.
It’s always too hard to explain. The dynamic of the new record shows the link between personal relationships as fiascos in the same way that there can be major fiascos in society like a war or financial crisis. Those things can be as devastating to a society as a breakup or a family crisis can be on a person’s brain. All of those things are important. The stranger part of it tells a story about someone who’s been beaten down by society so much. Maybe he joined the fucking army in the first place to try to make it in life, because they promise to pay and put them through college and make money. So he goes off to war. He ends up getting traumatized. He comes back. His family’s all torn apart. He goes to college, gets out of college, and realizes there’s no money in it any way and realizes the ramifications of everything and realizes how heavy everything is. That’s what stranger is. It’s fucking first blood, man. You come back and look around and realize how heavy everything is. You’re a stranger in your own town, you know? You’re a stranger in your own life.
Are these themes drawn from events personal to you or from more universal sources?
They’re both. A lot of them are definitely personal stories, but are meant to related to other people and to society as a whole. They’re pieces of art that people are able to look at and relate to. That’s why there’s no name on them. We left it kind of vague on purpose.
You’ve been outspoken about your distrust of media, government, and current affairs. Who do you think is a reliable source of information?
It’s hard to say. You can look at what you want, but everything’s biased. All media is biased. It’s hard to get a good news story off of anything. This one’s too far to the right. This one’s too far to the left. Everyone says, “Fox News is bullshit. They’re too far to the right.” Fox will say, “MSNBC is too far to the left. They’re bullshit.” CNN will say, “We’re right down the middle. We’re telling you what’s right.” They leave half of the shit out, because they’re all run by corporations, so we’ll go to BBC. Can I go to NPR? Where can I really get my information from? You kind of half to take a little bit from everything. I’d say the Internet, but if you get Google teaming up with Verizon then there’s no Net Neutrality and then what are you going to do? Because they’re basically selling the Internet like cable TV. It’s rough, and it’s going to get rougher.
Where do I get my information? I don’t know. I try to look at what’s best for everybody. It’s hard to sit and point fingers at people. I try to do less pointing fingers now and instead ask what can we do to make things better.
On this next tour that we have coming up, we’re going to go down there on the Gulf side of Florida and we’re going to clean up during the day and play at night and invite all of our fans to come out and clean up, just to do a little something.
Changing gears a bit, you learned to surf on the North Shore last winter at the Volcom House…have you kept surfing?
The first place I ever went was on the North Shore, and I just got back from two weeks at Hossegor in France on the Atlantic. After our tour I stayed there and surfed. It was awesome.
Has surfing influenced your music?
Well, I’d definitely say it’s influenced my life in these last few years. I grew up in the mountains in the cold, and I was laying in the cold around Christmas on this big long tour, and it’s like noon and I don’t feel like getting up and it’s cold and snowy out, but when I’m in California, I get up at 6:30 in the morning and I go out surfing. There are these 65-year-old dudes that are up and they’re just killing it. And I was like that’s exactly the answer I needed. You know, here I am like half these dudes ages feeling like I can’t even get out of bed at noon in the mountains. I need to live somewhere that I’m going to be getting up even when I’m 70 years old and I can get up that early in the morning and I’ll just live a healthier life. I’ll live a better life.
Regardless of whether people like your music or not, I’m convinced it’s difficult to leave your live show without feeling good. You guys pour a lot of energy into getting people excited to be at a rock show with serious stage moves. If you had to name your three best stage moves, what would they be?
Ha. I don’t know. I don’t really consider them moves. You know you have moves. Even if you don’t plan on them, they come out. I was watching this funny thing the other day about James Brown and he was showing people dances: just him standing there. He was showing people his moves, and I was like, “Damn! I really need to work on my moves or my dances.” I have things that I do, but I feel like they’re unconscious things. So I know there are certain points where we do a big leg kick, but I won’t say that’s a big part of the show. I used to have this one thing where I get everyone down on the ground and stuff, but I don’t know. What are my moves?
Well, you’ve got the no-shirt, double-bicep flex down pretty well.
I do that. Yeah, I guess that’s a move. I don’t know if that’s a move, but it’s more like a pre-gnar, like a “Fuck Yeah!” type of thing. Is that a move? If that’s a move, then I do that a lot. Yeah, the shirt comes off. I flex a lot. That comes from wrestling, I guess. I don’t know…It’s more like one of those things that if we’re going off, I’m so in the moment I don’t want to do anything, I really don’t know. I have certain things that I know I can’t do if it’s going off. I’ve thought about moves that I’ve never pulled yet. A lot relies on crowd participation as well.
Is it true that you were a sixth grade teacher?
That is true.
Where did you teach?
Chapel Hill, North Carolina at Culbreth Middle School.
What was the greatest lesson you ever taught…or learned?
I don’t know. I know I learned a lot of lessons from the kids. I’ll tell you that much. I learned never to shave my beard. I haven’t shaved since I left. Then I learned that I was a lion. I learned that I yawned like a lion. I stopped a whole cafeteria of two hundred kids just by yawning and made the whole room skip like a record. Re-reerch.
I think that I learned an important lesson that the teacher can learn from the students, you know what I mean? As a matter of fact, as a student I stayed at undergrad through grad school at the same school because I felt that there was so much more that I could learn form these professors that I had who had a wealth of information. That’s the same reason we stayed with Jack Endino to make our new record. There was so much more to learn from him. One of the greatest lessons I learned being a teacher was that you can still learn from the students. You learn everyday. There is no end to learning. Just because you’re done with your schooling doesn’t mean you can’t still learn. I learned that the more you learn the better you get along the way in everything in art, in history, in music, in science, all of that helps you through your day. I learned that everyone has a history. Every single person has a history, and the more we work out those histories and focus on those histories the more we learn about what we can do better in the future.
Is it possible to rock and wear a shirt at the same time?
(Laughs). It IS possible, however, I find it difficult to accomplish, so yeah, I think it’d be pretty impossible for me to make happen…
You once said that you would wrestle Amber Pacific, your least favorite band on the Warped Tour, for a chance to play on the main stage at The Gorge in Seattle. You said: “I don’t want to say I hate them, because I don’t hate anybody, but I can’t stand them. They’re horrible. I would just love to fight each person in that band at the same time to take their spot…Suffice to say, rock and roll will prevail over these assholes.” Have you been able to fight Amber Pacific? Has rock and roll prevailed?
Hahahaha. No, I never did get to fight them. And rock ‘n’ roll DID prevail. But, I did just see that they put out a new album, so I guess that they haven’t been destroyed yet. I don’t wish anyone bad luck. I hope they are doing fine. But I would still put my rock ‘n’ roll up against them any day or night of the week anytime… even if I had fucking pnuemonia and I had to fight them blind-folded underwater, they’d come off looking like a bunch of palookas that Popeye had just mangled after imbibing a hearty can of spinach.
(Scroll to 4:14 to watch Valient Himself say his piece about Amber Pacific.)
I feel like Valient Thorr and Andrew WK celebrate similar gospels…spreading rock and roll and festivities to the masses. How is it to combine forces onstage?
We’ve only done it once, but it was a hell of an experience. Andrew is a great guy. He’s a resounding positive force in a super negative world. I look forward to again joining forces with him in the future. I think the world desperately needs people telling them that positive vibrations are what is going to get us through. Instead of sitting on your ass, why not stand up? And while you’re standing there, why not rock?
Where will your final show on earth be? Who will you play it with?
Wow, that’s a heavy question. I don’t know the answer to that. And I have no idea who it will be with. It would sick if it was something GIGANTIC, like under one of the pyramids in Egypt or something like that. With everyone making like a rocknroll pilgrimage there. with Tons of bands playing… and then we all drink the kool-aid…. hahaha…
If you’d humor us, we’d like to end things off with a little free association:
Clementine, veneer: mahogany
1520 Sedgwick Avenue, troubadour: street poets
Denim, plate tectonics: earth-crushing rock ‘n ‘roll.