Interview: Josh Thorne
I first met Josh Thorne in Asheville at an All Hell show in the winter of 2015. A huge, gregarious presence, both physically and in personality, Josh made an instant impression and we quickly bonded over mutual loves of bestial war black metal and smooth R&B. Cut to 2016, and I see that Josh has released an album under the eponymous monicker Thorne. I expected something closer to conventional black metal, but was surprised when the music turned out to be “blackened trip-hop,” like Erik from Watain as a guest musician with Portishead. That record, Laudate Reverentia, grew on me, and when Josh hit me up asking if I wanted to talk to him about it, I couldn’t pass up the chance.
And boy did we talk. We spent nearly a half-hour discussing musical and spiritual influences, the role of spectacle in music, personality as performance, and more. It is my pleasure to present the sum of our conversation to you, edited for clarity but certainly not for content. If you haven’t listened to Thorne, now’s as good a time as any, and even if you don’t care for the music, I have no doubt you’ll still find something special in our interview.
Let's start at the beginning and go into the history and whys and wherefores of the Thorne project.
Thorne, as serious as it currently is, was initially meant entirely as a joke. Several years ago I was playing in a thrash metal band called Paralyzer, and I'd been playing in metal and hardcore bands for most of my life. Just as a joke between me and my friends, I started this joke hip-hop project. I will keep reiterating that this was a joke: I love hip-hop but me doing hip-hop was just one of the funniest things anybody could fathom.
I put out one track as something to entertain myself and to get my friends off my back, and then, surprisingly enough, that track started to gain some traction, which was really weird. It put me in a really peculiar place, like do I want to ignore this or do I want to actually give it a shot and see if I can do something with it? Sort of like Ill Bill or Vinnie Paz, two obvious metalhead rappers. I tried that for a little while, but quite honestly it wasn't me. That scene wasn't meant for me and what I was feeling, it was more about competition than actual artistic merit, and was at the end of the day just stifling and suffocating.
A dick-measuring contest.
Absolutely. That's all it is. It's just a bunch of people saying "I'm better than you, I'm the best ever." I never set out to be the best ever, I just wanting to do something that made me happy, that fulfilled me as an artist. In late 2014 I started working on an EP called Desolate, and it was the first part of a trilogy. I put that out, and ever since then it's been sort of like, "Well, I can have my cake and eat it, too." I can have this project be simply for me to be able to put out something that I, personally, would enjoy listening to, and I guess more people than myself listened to it and it really struck a chord. It started out as something wholly humorous and then became what it is now, which is the focal point of all my creative energies.
So you're a metalhead who went through hip-hop to get to what Thorne is now. What exactly would you call what you do now?
It's really interesting, I never once had even the slightest clue of what to call myself. A friend of mine from Sweden actually was one of the first people to hear Desolate and she said "I think the best way to describe this music would be to call it 'Neodeath.'" I've been calling it "Neodeath" ever since, because for some reason that term just sort of fit. With the way the newer material has turned out it makes even more sense: the next record is going to be almost a straight fucking metal record, it's heavy, and it's the direction in which I've been heading. Yeah, I would call it "Neodeath."
I always thought of it as sort of like "blackened trip-hop," like Massive Attack but filtered through Young And In The Way.
I think that's more than accurate. I think "blackened trip-hop" is definitely a good way to describe it. Obviously, Massive Attack is a huge influence on me. I grew up in the '90s, so I came up during the time when trip-hop was really starting to get more noticed. I loved Massive Attack, the first Portishead record is still one of my favorite all-time albums. In England there was just so much cool shit coming out, so much extreme music that was extreme without guitars, without blast beats, without anything like that. I definitely took a lot of inspiration from that. So "blackened trip-hop" I don't feel to be an unfair summation at all.
Going off of that, in what ways do you think this project is metal? In what ways does Thorne borrow from the broader umbrella of metal and and in what ways does it stand apart from it?
My first love was metal, and it remains the centerpiece of everything, especially black metal. Black metal is something very holy to me and very spiritual. I think the spiritual element of black metal is something that definitely translates through what I do with Thorne. As far as what separates me from metal, it's the fact that I refuse, like so many bands do, to stick to one thing.
I was always influenced by the way David Bowie did things: not one single Bowie record sounds the same as another Bowie record. He was constantly reinventing himself and doing different things, and that is a lot of what added to his longevity and his merit as an artist. You couldn't pigeonhole him, the moment you felt like you could he would change the script again. So I think that's what separates me from a lot of metal artists, I just don't do the same thing twice.
When I mentioned Laudate on the IO Mid-Year piece, I mentioned that your music seemed to fall somewhere between black metal and Prince, in the sense that you have an artist who knows what he wants and is reinventing himself repeatedly while still sounding of a piece.
Honestly, when I read that, I was humbled, because most people don't realize that the first album I ever owned and ever resonated with me was Purple Rain. My mother gave me her cassette, and it was the first album that ever touched me on a level beyond just what I liked hearing on the radio. I've owned that record at least four or five times throughout my life on different formats because I keep wearing it out. That was one of my favorite things about Prince, too: he was maybe the least compromising artist. Until the day he died, Prince did everything and anything that he wanted to do, nobody told him what to do. I think every artist should bow down and respect that.
Speaking of uncompromising artists, and hearkening back to your influence from the "spiritual" side of black metal, you often claim much inspiration from Jon Nodtveidt from Dissection. How does his particular brand of Gnostic Satanism factor into Thorne's music?
Insofar as I am a Satanist, that is a huge factor in my music. To me, there will never be another band in black metal or in any other metal genre that will ever mean as much to me, spiritually and musically, as Dissection. To me, the fact that Jon was recording things like The Somberlain and Storm of the Light's Bane when he was so fucking young, and the lyrics he was writing and the energies both spiritual and physical that he was channeling through his music, was unheard of for someone of that era.
That continued on into Reinkaos; I think that album will stand as the testament to his true genius because only now are so many people starting to look at the album and see the actual genius behind it. Without Jon Nodtveidt, there is no Thorne. That's as simple as I can say it: without Dissection, without his music, I never would have been as into black metal as I am and I would never have started following the spiritual path that I follow. Jon Nodtveidt was the most profound of all my influences.
Describe your Satanism in more detail. What does that mean for you personally and what does that mean for Thorne both aesthetically, lyrically, and musically?
It's interesting because, to me, my spirituality is, hands down, the most important part of my life. It's the most essential part of my being. To me, Satanism is about freedom, it's about liberation, and more than that, it's about evolution. The way I view it is in a completely theistic sense, no bones about it. There are people who call themselves "Satanists" who permeate the scene, even beyond metal and into hardcore and punk, who take our holy symbols and use them for their merchandise, their albums, and they don't even believe. There are people who call themselves "Satanists" who believe in neither God nor Satan.
To me, the most important part of Satanism is the evolutionary part of it. To me, Satan is evolution, that is where faith and science go hand in hand. It's all there: man was created as beast, and here's this enlightening force, this being that we call "Satan," who inspired us even in the early stages of mankind to go from being beasts to being able to walk upright and think for ourselves. Because of other factors that have come into play in the last 2,000 years, He has been portrayed as the ultimate villain, and it has brought evolution to a grinding halt. To be a Satanist is to break free of those chains, to free yourself from that hindering false light that only seeks to stifle. It also enables you to seek that next step of evolution, beyond what we are now.
As far as how that factors into Thorne, Thorne was never meant as a religious ministry for what it is that I believe in. I respect any band that wants to go that route, like Watain. I consider what they do to be ministry, and they are evangelists, in a sense. But for me, Thorne is just a reflection of who I am, and with my beliefs being as central as they are to my life, they will permeate and manifest through the music. Thorne is a way for me to channel what it is that I feel as opposed to converting anyone to my way of thinking. If someone wants to know more about Satanism or talk to me about it as a result of my music, I am more than happy to do that, but it's really more about who I am.
That's a pretty Satanic way of going about your music. It reflects the idea of being unhindered by conventional morality and putting yourself out there in a profound way, not stifling your emotions.
Absolutely. A far as "conventional morality" goes, I think there's common ground that can be found with anyone. Most people have this warped sense that all of us are sacrificing goats and children and that we believe in the exaltation of every evil thing under the sun. That couldn't be further from the truth. Some of the most kind-hearted, warm, loving, genuine human beings I've ever met in my life are Satanists. At the end of the day, all of us should have a core sense of morality that we follow; not something as stupid as saying "you're going to go to Hell if you swear or if you drink or if you have premarital sex." More along the lines of morality as: be good to one another, don't judge one another, let everyone seek their own happiness in this life without being hindered.
Now, that happiness does not apply to rapists, it does not apply to child molesters, because those things are looked down upon and should be looked down upon by all of us. If there's something wrong with you, that's something that I definitely point out. If you're Christian, if you're Muslim, if you're Satanist, there are some things we can all find common ground on and say "no, that's fucking wrong." And at the end of the day, all we can do to survive and coexist in this society is to find common ground. Find things you agree should not be, and work together to change them. If someone wants to be a Muslim, someone wants to be an Atheist, I am more than happy to allow anyone to do whatever it is that makes their life happy or more fulfilling, just as long as they're never trying to stifle or stop me from doing what it is that enables me to feel that happiness.
When you are creating music as Thorne, obviously it is a manifestation of your emotions, but is there a point at which it becomes Thorne instead of Josh Thorne? Are the two 100% the same, or are they two different facets of a greater whole?
Honestly, that's something that I've thought of numerous times. There is definitely a difference between Thorne and Josh Thorne. Like, Laudate, for example: the first half of that record, from "Firstborn" until "Excommunicate," that is Thorne through and through. I definitely feel that Thorne is a literal manifestation of my more malevolent side, if you wanna say that.
The second half of the record, beginning with "Angels Die" and ending with "Love, Lead Me To Hell," that is Josh Thorne. That is a much more personal look, it's more like me having conversations with myself. But at the end of the day, the two work and balance each other out. You can't have one without the other. But even in my personal and professional lives, there are people I know who are far more familiar with Thorne than they ever will be with Josh. The people who are familiar with Josh are a select few and that's how I prefer to keep it. The person who I am throughout the day, the person that I am not putting out, that's the person I'm most looking out for. I'm really glad that you picked up on that.
The way I saw it, listening to the latest record, is that Thorne is the performative side. I've always liked the idea, going back to Jung, of everybody having a mask versus an interior life. When you have a project that is the same as your name, it strikes me as the epitome of the performative part of the person, while behind that there is always the personal life.
The way I've always related to it, and I'm not comparing myself to him by any means even though he's one of my favorite performers and has been a huge influence on what I do, but I always compare it to the difference between Vincent Furnier and Alice Cooper.
When I first discovered heavy music, Alice Cooper was one of the first that really sent shivers down my spine. It scared me to death in the best possible way. I always found that dichotomy so interesting: on the one hand, there's the Alice, who is completely and totally Vincent Furnier, just going by the name "Alice," and then you have the other Alice, doing the beheadings on stage. You have this morbid clown prowling around the stage and singing songs like "I Love the Dead." I find that so fascinating. And he even said that for years it was a struggle for him to turn it off and to reach that point where he was able to do both. I think that's the balance we all need to seek, because if the Thorne onstage ever compromised the Josh offstage, that wouldn't be such a good thing. (laughs)
Has the way you create music for Thorne changed from Desolate to Laudate? Have the materials you use changed? The songwriting process? How did it work for either album?
With Desolate, I had no idea what I was doing. None. Desolate was such an alien concept for me that I had no idea where I wanted to go with the music. It was really more of an experiment than anything else. So for Desolate, I just went about contacting people that I knew who made instrumentals and who I knew could deliver. Then it was a matter of finding things that sounded like what I wanted it to sound like, something that I could sing over. I would write to these, and then I would go into the studio and record it. After Desolate was finished… the funny thing about Laudate is that it was supposed to be an in-between gap filler between Desolate and something else.
However, as I continued to work on Laudate, and the actual writing of that thing took longer than anything I'd ever done before, I spent a year writing it and in that year started to figure out what my sound was. I would find people, like-minded people who made things that sounded good to me, and I would simply contact them and ask them if there was any way they would like to work with. Most of them were, and that's how I ended up compiling everything I had for Laudate. For that one, and this is the first time I've ever said this publicly, the Laudate that came out was not the original album that was going to be recorded. The original Laudate was a far, far different record, a much more bleak record, if you can believe that.
That's a saying a lot.
I had that finished in March, and I was like "great, we're ready to go." And then a series of events happened that ended up making the B-side. It was one of those things where the more I went with the original and started rehearsing for the studio, I started thinking "something isn't right." In early March, as a sort of back-up plan, I started rewriting the second half of the record, and when it came time to record that half had completely changed into a story about what I was going through at the time. I can tell you that the songs "For Victoria" and "First Sight" were written the day before I went into the studio. They were written that quickly and both of them were one take.
Now that I'm writing with a full band, that's changing the dynamic a lot since it's been so long since I've written anything with other people. It's so much more rewarding than just doing this all by myself, which I have done for so long. I'd gotten so used to being the hermit who stays inside and toils away at this mystery music, it's been really cool to have other people's input and actually feel the music breathing. That's something I look forward to sharing on the next record. That's the only way that it's changed, though, because everything else pretty much stayed the same.
What spurred you to play with a full band above doing everything yourself? In what ways could you theoretically allow for the interpretation of your music by other artists?
The decision came after I had played my first show in support of Laudate, which happened just months ago. That was really when it took hold; it was something I'd mulled over, but not something I was sure about at the time. What spurred it was being onstage doing what it is that I do. It's still very rewarding solo, but at the same time I came from playing in metal and hardcore bands, so there was always a part of me that just missed playing with an actual band. There is nothing that compares to that. I remember a few years ago, in 2014, I filled in on vocals for my friend's band Manic Scum (Manic Scum rips, by the way - Rhys ) and that night was the first time I'd played in a band in I couldn't tell you how long. It just felt so good, and after that it was always in the back of my head. As far as the vision for it, the reason I took so long in picking who the musicians were going to be was because it's never been my intent to be standing over anyone's shoulder like "no, you're gonna do it this way or that way."
The Frank Zappa method.
Exactly. I wanted a group of musicians that I trusted and that I knew were talented and could bring something to the table. I don't feel like anyone in that position should surround themselves with people who aren't going to be anything more than robots. That defeats the whole purpose. If you are surrounded with people who are as creative as you are and have as many musical ideas as you do… for the record, I'll always maintain control over the concepts and lyrics, but the actual musical part of it comes from being surrounded by people that I trusted. The guys I've been working with are doing more than that. It's gonna take a lot of people by surprise but I'm really excited about sharing it with everyone when the times comes.
I'm stoked to hear it, especially because it's a more metal approach than previous material. It'll be interesting to see how that reflects on the previously electronic nature of the project.
Desolate and Laudate are part of a grand trilogy… well, it may not be grand, but it's a trilogy. This is the point in that trilogy where I realized that I was going to need to be heavier. The final song on Desolate is called "Lost," and that song and the album as a whole are about the series of events that led to me becoming a Satanist. "Lost" is the full sentence of that. Laudate begins with the song "Firstborn" which was the last song I received for the record. That was an instrumental done by my friend Nate Garrett, who is in Spirit Adrift on Prosthetic. Nate is a hell of a guitarist; he and I kindled a friendship years ago and I messaged him and said "would you be willing to do the intro for this album?" He said "yeah dude, absolutely," and he had it to me in a week.
"Firstborn" begins where "Lost" left off. It's about me becoming a Satanist, being born into that, and the first half of Laudate is about the events that followed that birth. It's about me seeing with clarity who was down and who wasn't, starting to really see people's true colors. Particularly in the Bible Belt, once you come out as exactly what you are and have been for years, you see how quickly people can change. Of course, the second half of Laudate is a very different animal. "Love, Lead Me To Hell" is actually a very direct statement. The next record we're doing is about that Hell, and I knew immediately that it had to thus be a heavy record. That was a lot of the reason for choosing a full band, to make that straight-up heavy fuckin' monster of an album.
Why did you decide to perform live initially, prior to the band? Was there a need to perform this music in front of people outside of the mere pleasure of performing?
There was, for Laudate in particular. After Desolate was released I performed a few shows, maybe three? But I wasn't really happy with any of those gigs, because even doing what I do live, something was still missing. When I decided to perform live after Laudate, considering the nature of the material on that record it was more about catharsis than anything else. The first show I did after it came out I did at the Summit City Lounge in Whitesburg, KY. I'd already told people "you need to expect that you're gonna see some things tonight that you won't see again. This is going to be something to remember."
No one really knew what I was talking about but they got a pretty good idea when they saw me come onstage with my arms cut and bleeding, blood all over me, and in full corpse paint and the stage set up to be a full altar. At the end of the night, I considered that a victory, because there was less "oh my god he cut himself" and more "holy shit he is literally giving us everything he has to give. This is fucking art." For this material especially, it was so much about catharsis, about being onstage and getting those emotions as far out of my system as I could, and I accomplished that. With the new band, that's gonna be taken to even further extremes. Not in the sense that I'm gonna be cutting myself on stage anymore, because I don't want that to be my schtick. I know Niklas Kvarforth dealt with that for years: what started out as something holy and very true to him turned into a sideshow.
Because people who don't understand it will only view it as spectacle, and then you become tasked with having to do that again and again.
I guess you could say that the same thing happened to GG Allin. There are so many people who view GG as nothing more than a spectacle.
People remember him as "that dude who threw his shit at people" without understanding that the idea was not the shit-throwing in and of itself but rather about creating a dangerous environment, making rock music dangerous.
You nailed it, right on the head. There's people I talk to, whenever I wear my GG Allin shirt in public, and they're like "isn't he that guy who smeared shit on himself and fought the audience? Why would he do all those awful things? There's plenty of other ways to get attention." My argument to that has always been that I don't think GG was trying to get attention. I think what he was trying to do, and he even says this in the Hated documentary, was portraying onstage with his body the true ugliness of society and making himself a vessel for something else to come through. He wanted that ugliness to be in front of everyone by smearing feces on himself, by cutting himself, by getting in fights with the audience members and having an absolute lack of regard for his own well-being. He was saying "look at me and you're looking at the world you live in." Strip away all of the illusions and bullshit and this is where we are.
Earlier you mentioned the idea of bandmates as collaborators. As a thought experiment, name two current artists that you would want to collaborate with Thorne in a way that would bring out the best of both Thorne and their contribution.
Number one on that list, always, is Justin Broadrick from Godflesh. I would literally kill someone to collaborate with Justin Broadrick. That's a huge fucking life goal. Godflesh has been a massive influence on everything that I do; anytime someone says "your music reminds me of Nine Inch Nails" I say "it should remind you of Godflesh, because that's the real influence."
Now that you say that, Thorne is in many ways a lot like Godflesh taken to its most melodic extreme. All those early '90s British Earache artists had a lot of influence from techno and dub, like Scorn and whatnot.
Hell yeah. In terms of those British bands, the best blending of that cold industrial sound with just beautiful melodies was Killing Joke. To this day, no one can fuck with Killing Joke. I can listen to Adorations and Brighter Than a Thousand Suns and enjoy them every bit as much as I enjoy Fire Dances and the self-titled. For me, Killing Joke is a flawless band.
Getting back to Godflesh, I've heard all the things that Justin has done through the years, whether it be Godflesh or Jesu, and I just long to collaborate with that guy. So, Justin, if you're reading this by any chance, please hit me up because I would literally fucking kill someone to work with you.
As far as another collaborator… this is two people but they were in the same band so I'm gonna put them as one answer. I would kill to work with the Ahman brothers, Pelle and Gottfrid, from In Solitude. I miss that band so much already. Sister was to me the best album of that year, it's one of the few albums of any band that I can listen to from start to finish and never have a desire to skip a single song, it still sounds as powerful to me now as it did when I first bought it on the day that it came out. I was at the store waiting for it to open so I could get that record. I would love to collaborate with those two, especially after hearing their other project with Erik from Watain, No Future. It's totally different from In Solitude but still so good. It's like The Velvet Underground and The Birthday Party collaborating.
Is there a drive to keep your music DIY so you can exercise complete creative control, or is getting the message and idea and even the notion that one person can do something like this out to the world more important?
That's an interesting question. It's something that I do think about quite often. I think every artist would love to be able to live off of their music. I would never turn that opportunity down. As a solo artist I tread a fine line between promotion and arrogance and I don't know where that is. You don't wanna be the guy who's like "yo I do this check it out," that's why I don't even have a bio or press releases because fuck that, I'm not writing about myself. I'm far too awkward of a person to do that.
But there's a difference between arrogance and assuredness, knowing what you want to say.
I look at some of the statements made by, say, Erik from Watain. There are people who think that Watain are an arrogant band, but reading what he's said I've never once thought of Watain as arrogant. I see a band with a lot of confidence and which knows what it is they want. But there are people who can take what you do on any given day as being arrogant. For me, that's one pitfall I've tried to avoid, especially being a solo artist since I don't have the band to fall back on. I'm out here alone doing this.
If it was under the right circumstances I would never say no to a label because, even though I'm not a fan of the band, you look at a band like Ghostwho signed to a major and are still doing what they want to do and are highly successful. The same goes for Mastodon. If you had told me when I first heard Remission that Mastodon would be signing to a major and would be what they are now, I would never have believed you. It doesn't sound like old Mastodon, but they're still doing what they want to do.
And they're not getting complacent, they're not rehashing what they've already done. They're moving on to something else they want to try.
Exactly. I think that's always been a misconception. There's people out there who think that if you sign to a label they're gonna have total control over what you do, but I think those two bands more than prove that that's not always the case. If a label ever came along, any label, and offered to support what I do as it is and enabled me to live off it, I wouldn't say no. Hell no. I'd much rather do Thorne as my job than go to work shipping and receiving at a retail store. And if anyone else can say otherwise, come meet me and prove me wrong.
What does the term Laudate Reverentia mean, and how does that title tie into the finished album?
In Latin, "Laudate Reverentia" roughly translates to "praise and worship," and originally that title was given because of the inverted quality of it. It sort of morphed into a life of its own: you look at the album cover with the dancing girl next to the burning church and it's almost a celebration of the end. It's a celebration of the destruction of one thing and the birth of another. As far as the "praise and worship" part of it is concerned, it's more about the praise and worship of what we have to figure out of ourselves, because that's the main thread of Laudate. It's an album about me coming to terms with me. It's about the praise and the worship, whether of gods or a person, of that which helped me come to terms with so many things that I had ignored for so long.
How far out do you plan for this project? You have another album in the works, how much further ahead of that are you thinking?
As far as going beyond the next album, which will be titled The Grave of All Hearts, I have absolutely zero plans. This is a first because I have no idea where the project is going. However, for the new album, the one goal I have is that once everything in the band is solidified and ready is to start playing places I have never been before. I wanna play anywhere and everywhere.
Well shit, come to Asheville.
If I can find a way to get booked there, man, I will. But that's the goal, to get the music to more people because it's a little difficult when you're one dude working on your own to do this. I hope the fruits of this project are their own reward, not just in the spiritual sense but in the sense of being able to do this on a more serious level and really make this my life. That's what the endgame has always been, and if Ghost, as a band of nameless ghouls and a Satanic priest can go where they are, I think maybe we stand a chance. Just maybe. And that also plays into what I believe in: you should never put a ceiling on what it is you want to do or achieve. For so many, there is no ceiling for what they want to do, and if you work hard enough and stay true to what you are, sky's the limit.
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Post-Scriptum: Since this interview was conducted in September 2016, Josh Thorne has put his live ensemble on hold due to a falling out with one of its members. Undaunted, he has begun work on a new album to serve as a bridge between Laudate and the third album of the trilogy to be tentatively titled Nothing Was Beautiful And Everything Hurt. In a follow-up conversation Thorne said, it will be so bleak as to "make Laudate sound like Maroon 5." Recording begins in winter of 2016.