Look up the band Big Wreck on Wikipedia and they are described as Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Post Grunge and Progressive Rock – in other words, Wikipedia doesn’t have a clue what they are!
Interrupting his morning bike ride to chat on the phone about his band’s new CD release, `Ghosts’, Big Wreck front man Ian Thornley is amused at the comparisons.
“I don’t think any of those terms describe Big Wreck. I am not sure we even know ourselves,” he laughs. “Critics may try to pigeon-hole our sound yet I’ve never been afraid to try different directions even at the risk of failure, so long as I’m moving the yardsticks forward”.
At a time when new music is all about instant hits, sound bites and downloading tracks on ITunes in a random order, Big Wreck’s music demands patience . “I guess I’m asking a lot of people to listen to an entire record or at least find the sweet spot,” explained Thornley. “People are not going to get this album in one listen. It’s purposely designed to not be that instantly accessible. It’s supposed to grow on you like peeling back the layers of an onion.”
A major fan of progressive rock, Thornley and musical partner, lead guitarist, Brian Doherty decided to form a band during their second year at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1995. Both he and Brian were heavily influenced by Charlie Sexton on the Arc Angels record and by King’s X. The rage at the time was grunge yet Thornley and Doherty didn’t get what all the excitement was about.
“That grunge stuff didn’t resonate with me,” admitted Thornley. “We were such guitar nerds that it was hard to get past how people could release a record when their fucking guitar was out of tune. What! Why didn’t someone in the studio say something? Like do we really need to hear this guitar solo for three minutes if he only knows one fucking lick?”
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Obviously aiming for loftier musical goals, Thornley and Doherty with musical colleagues, bassist Dave Hemming and drummer Forest Williams released their debut record `In Living Memories Of’ on the Atlantic label in 1997. Powered by a strong radio and consumer reaction to the single “The Oaf”, Big Wreck got off to a promising start but eventually ran into resistance from their US label over Thornley’s lack of ability to record radio-friendly singles with subsequent tracks; “Blown Wide Open” and “That Song” not performing as well as their initial single.
“Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language of singles and their `wham, bam, bumper sticker lyrics,” confessed Thornley. “I’ve never been good at it and I don’t want to falsely try to impress people by trying to create something that’s not authentic. My songs mean something to me and I want them to mean something to other people.”
Thornley freely admits that with the band’s 2001 follow-up, “The Pleasure And The Greed”, he went against his better nature and was wrongly influenced by the label to record an album neither he nor Doherty were happy with.”
“It started in the right place but sort of got turned around and started to follow the wrong direction, “allowed Thornley. “Our label had no patience with us. It was like, `where’s the singles?’ I was very confused by the whole thing. It was like I was wearing a suit that didn’t fit.”
Big Wreck fell apart in 2002 with Thornley pursuing a solo career with only marginal success and Doherty developing a music teaching career near Sarnia Ontario. Inevitably Thornley and Doherty drifted back together in 2010 and in their conversations Doherty said “Do you ever think that if we had just stuck to our guns we would have been okay, white-knuckled through the difficult period and been better off in the end.
“I had to agree with Brian,” acknowledged Thornley. “At least I would have a catalogue of music that I wouldn’t cringe when I crossed over some of the shit stains on the record.”
Fortunately, Anthem Records, the label that is home to Canada’s chief non-conformists, Rush, had faith in Thornley and Doherty. . “Their M.O was, okay Ian, go and do what you want Man,” recounted Thornley. “With that kind of freedom, Brian and I started to work together , we recorded `Albatross’ in 2012 and decided it was a Big Wreck record.
With his creative juices rejuvenated after Albatross had gone top 5 in the Canadian album charts, and again given the freedom to indulge in recording the type of record he always envisioned, Thornley has again joined forces with Doherty, producer Eric Ratz (Billy Talent, Corner Bats) and the rest of Big Wreck to record 13 songs that if not conceptual, are certainly thematic.
“We had a ton of ideas, recorded the best of the bunch and the resulting demos are basically what you hear on the record,” explained Thornley. “The record starts and finishes with a track called “Place Called Home, the ending tag being a happy accident. We had recorded the original track and then I laid down acoustics on top of the chorus. When I played it back, it
didn’t fit sonically but then when we recorded Tom Robinson’s “War Baby” we wanted that towards the end of the record because it’s such an important track but needed a final tag, and then I thought, `Wait a second, I think I have an idea”.
Covering Tom Robinson’s “War Baby” is something Thornley had wanted to do through his entire career but had never been happy with previous efforts. “That song is so important to me, his version has been choking me up since my pre-teens and I really wanted to pay tribute to that tune. So we took another run at it, added some Pink Floyd-like vocals and drums and I’m sure we’ve pissed off Tom with our version but I hope he likes it.”
Despite his aversion to singles, Thornley has released “Ghosts” as a Canadian single and “Come What May” as a U.S radio track and he is committed to getting his band on the road for a fall Canadian tour.
The band performed Ghosts from the new album whilst appearing at Kitchener Ontario’s recent Big Music Fest Concert where Big Wreck performed on a bill with Kim Mitchell, Slash and Myles Kennedy & Conspirators plus headliners Aerosmith.
“It was great for our confidence to be on a big stage in front of 30,000 people, that doesn’t happen every day,” laughed Thornley. “I got to hang out with Slash, Myles Kennedy and Todd Kerns and it sort of reminded me of some of the concerts we did when the first record broke. “So in September we are going to hit the road in Canada and hope that we keep on playing and keep on travelling. There are so many places I want to visit and hope our music is accepted by other countries.”