An Interview With Joel Thibodeau of Death Vessel

Before his show at Rock and Roll Hotel on March 21st, Joel Thibodeau of Death Vessel sat down with us to discuss the making of his new record Island Intervals, Icelandic folklore, and playing Newport Folk Festival.

photo credit: Sub Pop
Photo credit: Sub Pop

WRGW: How did you spend the years since your release of Nothing is Precious Enough for us in 2008?

Joel Thibodeau: Well, my record came out late in 2008 and I spent the years on and off the road. Then in 2011, I went over to Iceland for a trial session and because of scheduling issues, we actually started the record a year later in 2012.

So you went to Iceland with the intention of creating an album?

Yeah, I mean the first time I went there it was to make an album, but it was also the first time I had worked with someone new since the first record. I’ve been working with the same person recording all my records since like 1999, so it was kind of like getting a feel for that.

How did you end up in Iceland? Did you know that’s where you wanted to create an album?

Well, no. I wanted to go elsewhere to make a record and I wanted to go about it the same way I approached the first album where it was all in one studio. And I also wanted the added advantage of being on location and being immersed in the studio for the day to day. All my records were made in this disjointed fashion–where I would go down to Philadelphia and go back and it would go on for a year or so. The reason I ended up in Iceland specifically was that I had met Jónsi and I was the support for his solo album “Go,” and Jónsi wanted to make a song together and wanted to work with me. So they invited me over there and that was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

When you recorded Stay Close, you talked about the sound of church bells influencing you. With Island Intervals, was there a specific sound that influenced you and was that a change from how you acted previously?

I don’t know about sound specifically. I mean Reykjavik is the capital city and it is where the majority of the people of Iceland live; it’s like two thirds of the population that live there. But despite it being a metropolitan area, it’s completely different from most American cities I’ve ever been too. I think I maybe heard a siren twice while I was there. There’s a general sense of ease. There were fewer distractions like church bells that influenced it and it’s really just a reflection of the vastness of the country. We went for a more open approach and kept the songs with a more simple structure, which allowed for more instrumentation with the acoustic guitar which is how most of the songs go about.

With the rise in popularity from music blogging and the recent mention by NPR’s All Songs Considered, do you feel like that impacts the perfect discovery listeners had with the album Stay Close because they were listening to it because they wanted to instead of being told to by a music site? Do you think that’s changed the way people view your music?

Well I don’t know even since the last record came out, social media was not as strong in 2008 as it is now and it was nonexistent in 2003-2004 when my first album came out. I feel like word of mouth has become stronger nowadays and people are discovering music from their peers instead of it being forced upon them. Even internet radio in a way. NPR streamed the album too, but that’s something you have to actively seek out, it’s not like you are going to be just driving down the road and stumble upon it. I don’t know, itss always a weird way people have found my music or even perceive it. I feel like people who usually have the strongest reaction to it in a positive way are those who have found it through someone else. Maybe a few people have found this record through the Sigur Rós connection that maybe wouldn’t have heard it otherwise and that’s fine. I don’t know if I really have a direct answer to that question.

What’s your intention when you go into making music?

Well I mean I’m really just trying to make songs that I want to hear and I haven’t heard yet. I think from song to song, from album to album, I’m just trying to challenge myself to do things that I haven’t done or get better at things that I feel like maybe I’m flawed at, and hopefully making really good songs that I would want to listen to more than once.

So if you had to give more weight to lyrics versus the music, how would you divide that pie chart?

It’s a complicated one for me because I feel like lyrics aren’t something that make or break music and it’s not something that I ordinarily go to first when I’m listening to music. I really feel like it’s the sound that really draws me in. The way that music comes to me is really impulsive. The idea will come and then I have to take the reigns and find a way to turn that into a song and lyrics is something I approach later. Sometimes it seems like I’m spending almost an unnecessary amount of time just to get them to a place that just feels right. I don’t know if they’re right for anybody else, but it’s something I have to prod at and I always know when it isn’t right, but I don’t always know how to get to the right answer for it. As far as putting the time into it, sometimes I spend more time on the lyrics. As far as the importance though, I think that it’s all important and at least for the music that I do, it’s all relative. I don’t think the songs would be the same with different lyrics, and the lyrics are important for the specific melody of the song. So I feel like it would be an equal pie chart–maybe fourths or eights, however you divide it.

Do you listen to your old records?

Well I have to when I’m recording. I don’t necessarily set out to listen to my old records I guess. But especially with this new band right now, we have to revisit old stuff–it has always been the case that people playing in my band weren’t there to record with me. The group with me right now is really great, they’re all friends of mine from Providence, so we have to listen to the stuff again just to learn it. For enjoyment, I can listen to it every now and then but it’s not something I’ll actively go out with the intention of doing.

What other artists do you listen to?

I found this record recently that I’ve been into, Clark Huchtenson, A=MH2. I wish I had more information on it. It’s this instrumental record from the late seventies and it’s really great. It’s this psych rock instrumental record. I don’t know, I kind of just listen to stuff friends tell me about. It’s always great to go back and listen to old stuff.

Have you noted any differences with crowd reactions on this tour?

Well the tour is just kicking off, this is like the third night. But yeah, it’s hard to tell. There have been some people that have been out that have heard the record, and there’s some that haven’t heard it–I mean we’re one of three bands, so they’re here for the other bands. I think there have been a few people that we have won over. I think it’s cool, the reaction has been really good. I feel like people have enjoyed it. I feel like one of the things I haven’t had in previous line-ups but I do on this new record is a lot of singing and backup vocals. So everyone is singing; there’s five of us up there and everyone is great. I love singing with other people and it’s something that I really don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. Just one person would do it and it was just less to work with I guess.

So you’re from Rhode Island and you’re playing Newport Folk Festival this summer. Did you ever go as a kid or envision yourself playing Newport?

Well I never went as a kid. I feel like as I started getting into music when I was about 18. I had been doing stuff prior but my brother was in a band and he was 21 or so and we were up in Maine and his band was going to New York and I was really envious at the time. I wanted to be doing that thing, I wanted to be playing in a band, playing shows, playing festivals. I probably couldn’t even imagine doing something like that at that point. It’s really great to be playing. It’s becoming really cool–well, it’s always been cool–but it seems like they’re less focused on a specific type of music. They’ve really expanded and I feel that as time kind of goes on, it’s harder to categorize things unless you’re doing something really derivative, but it’s hard to categorize what folk is and what a folk festival is. So it’s great. I was there last year, not so much as a feature performer. I was with Low Anthem and they curated a stage that was all Rhode Island bands, so we played that. But this is more of us playing as a featured performer.

On the track “Ilsa Drown,” you talk about this Windigo kind of monster. Is that something you’re very interested in and how did you get to writing about it?

It was an interesting project doing this with Jónsi. He approached me the first night of the tour with him and said I want to you to sing with me, and I was like alright. I wasn’t quite sure though, I thought he meant that night but it turned out he had this song idea and wanted me to co-write with him and write all the lyrics. So I was up for the challenge. I don’t know if he had done something like that before, I sure hadn’t. I mean, I had a band with my brother and we co-wrote, but it ended up being each of us writing our own song that had lyrics and most of an  arrangement and we’d support each other. This was more of a collaboration in the sense it was really interesting writing lyrics for someone else’s melody and it was interesting seeing him sing these words that have never come out of his mouth before. So I think I respect the fact that he was up for the challenge, and it was a little bit of a joust of us trying to trip each other up. For that specifically, I was in Iceland and I picked up this book of folk and fairy tales. It was an older collection that had been reprinted in paperback. I was trying to get a sense of elves over there and I was fascinated by these Icelandic folk tales. Growing up in Maine I, had this high school music teacher who taught us, basically sang us, old folk songs from the roaring twenties and he also wrote folk songs based on local folklore. So I guess I was kind of going for this bit of a folktale type song and it’s kind of a hybrid of Icelandic and North American and Maine folk songs. I was fascinated by that monster, the Windigo, it seems like this kind of elusive thing that takes various forms and I thought it would be a great character for this song.

If you could collaborate with anyone on a record past or present who would it be?

That’s tough. I don’t know if I’ve thought of that. That’s difficult in that you never know the results you’re going to get. It could be a terrible collaboration, you could just not get along, or the ideas your bringing along just don’t work.

Is there any song that has some specific significance to you?

Every song, truthfully. All the songs, despite them referring to other things or having different subject matter, I feel like they’re kind of all built on something very personal and with a special perspective on things. That’s why I feel like writing lyrics can be so excruciating, because you’re going in and it can be problematic and also open up doors to places that you didn’t expect.

This interview was conducted by Maddy Wolpow-Gindi and Ryan Call.

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