Big Wreck’s Ian Thornley on chasing new frontiers of “fuzzed-out, messed-up” sounds with Page-inspired riffs and super-heavy slide guitar

Big Wreck
(Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

“If I’m going for a real fuzzed-out, messed-up sound and it just sounds like we’ve used it before, it’s like, ‘Okay, we have to trip this up somehow.’”

This is Big Wreck singer-guitarist Ian Thornley digging into the tones behind 7.1, the first of three new EPs from the long-running, Toronto-based hard-rock troupe. 

While, certainly, the five-song collection homes in on Big Wreck’s familiar bedrock –think mammoth, Zep-sized riff-play and vocalist Thornley’s room-rattling tenor – the guitarist nevertheless brought new color to the canvas this time around. 

Midway through recording, for instance, Suhr sent Thornley their Hombre combo amp, which was a revelation. After dialing into the bright, biting tones of the vintage-style brown-panel, he and co-producer Eric Ratz (Billy Talent, Danko Jones) were so impressed that they ended up re-recording a good chunk of his sections with the amp.

Fittingly, Big Wreck bring a towering presence to much of 7.1. High on the Hog is a brawny crunge built around high-gain chord chunking and a seismic roll of bluesy, lightning-fingered Page-isms (“I don’t think we’re hiding anything there,” Thornley jokes of the inspiration). 

The lush and anthemic Fields, meanwhile, is a multi-layered crush of acoustics and electrics working a DADGAD tuning – dropped down a half-step – but it also integrates the prominent chime of a cigar box guitar from Matty Baratto, as well as esoteric synth styling and oodles of intertwining vocal melodies. Despite the maximalist presentation, Thornley suggests even more got pulled from the final mix.

“There’s a lot of shit in there, which is something I tend to do… it’s a habit I’m trying to break,” he says, quickly adding of his relationship with co-producer Ratz, “His main role when we’re in the studio – aside from getting killer sound – is to know when to take the painting away from the kid. Like, I’ll just keep going sometimes.”

Big Wreck – which also features guitarist Chris Caddell, bassist Dave McMillan and drummer Sekou Lumumba – are flexing a different kind of restraint with the staggered release schedule of the three EPs, the latter two arriving sometime in 2022. Originally, they’d cut 15 songs for a full-length release, but Thornley thought splitting the songs up would be a unique experiment for the group. 

Sadly, Big Wreck’s co-founding guitarist Brian Doherty passed away in 2019 after a battle with cancer, just before the band issued their last album, But for the Sun. His presence, however, looms large on 7.1

Doherty and Thornley had founded Big Wreck in the ’90s while both were attending the Berklee College of Music, Thornley fondly recalling the late nights in their dorm talking about music and “things you dream about when you’re starting a band.” 

Tapping into that spirit, the chromatic acoustic motif in the intro to 7.1’s Bombs Away actually dates back to the band’s early days. Thornley had long-forgotten about the riff until Doherty brought it up in soundcheck about five years ago.

“I tried to finish it for our first album [1997’s In Loving Memory Of…], but it just never went anywhere for me; I could never find the right chorus,” Thornley recalls, adding of the fateful reintroduction, “[Brian] just pulled that riff out of his back pocket and looked at me with a knowing smile, like ‘Remember this?’”

Despite having his memory jogged, the riff still hung in limbo for another few years. Eventually, Thornley cooked up a lane-changing, trem-picked metal finale, which in turn was reversed engineered by the songwriter to make up the tune’s gloom-glazed main riff. 

The song also finds Thornley searing through his fretboard with a series of shreddy runs. Altogether, it makes Bombs Away one of Big Wreck’s heaviest moments to date, though Thornley hints that the upcoming EPs cross-pollinate crushed grooves with mud-flingin’ slide work.

“I’ve always wanted to marry that kind of heaviness with a slide –  swamp metal, I was going to call it,” he says, “that kind of thump, [but] with a slide.”

The EP sessions were also the first to feature new rhythm guitarist Chris Caddell. Following Doherty’s health-related exit from the group, Big Wreck attempted to forge forward as a three-piece, Thornley noting that McMillan tried to fill out the live sound “Doug Pinnick-style” by coursing his four-string through both bass and guitar rigs. 

Eventually, they realized they needed another player, and the only person they wanted was Caddell.

“Any of the trickier stuff I throw at him, he’s just got it; he’s got great hands and great ears,” Thornley says of his bandmate. “He plays with [Canadian guitarist] Colin James – a lot of bluesier, rootsier stuff – [but] I didn’t think of that aspect, because that wasn’t the predominant concern. I just wanted somebody that was going to be the right fit on a personal level.”

Another perfect fit for Thornley is his longtime partnership with Suhr Guitars. In addition to the aforementioned Hombre, the EP sessions also had Big Wreck cranking the company’s PT100 head, their Brit-styled SL67, and the hot-rodded drive of the company’s Hedgehog head, the latter a live favorite of Thornley’s. 

Naturally, he also hoisted his two sig-model guitars for the company –  the Strat-shaped Classic S, an alder body/roasted maple neck hybrid, and its offset counterpart, the JM.

While doled out in bite-sized portions, Big Wreck bring plenty of bombast to their EP series. Still, Thornley is having a blast defying even his own expectations by learning how to hold back. 

“There’s one song that’s on 7.3 called Haunted where I set up this enormous outro. It’s in 6/8, and it’s harmonically pretty simple, but it builds and it builds, and you’re waiting for this epic Ian-does-David-Gilmour thing to happen –  and then,” he says with a chuckle, “it just doesn’t.”

In other words, the painting was pulled away in the nick of time.

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.