In a world where collaboration projects are more about cross-selling opportunities than artistic merit, it’s rare to come across anything you could describe as earnest.
It’s even rarer to find anything close to what could be considered essential listening.
With the release of their full length May Our Chambers Be Full late 2020, and EP The Helm of Sorrow in January this year, Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle’s ongoing project is accomplishing the most elusive of things in today’s musical landscape.
Formed out of a mutual love and respect for each other’s artistry, the project works how every collaboration should – with both parties forging their strengths to create something truly unique. In this case, we have alt singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle bringing the emotional weight to match the sonic brutality of sludge savants Thou.
Those familiar with Thou will know the New Orleans-based sextet are no strangers to collaborating with other artists – having worked previously on full albums with Ragana and The Body – but guitarist Andy Gibbs says things were a little different going into this project.
“I recognize there's going to be a gulf between what I'm doing and what she's doing,” he explains.
“And I'm not even necessarily saying she’s such a better songwriter than any of us. But she's operating on a very special level, in my opinion. And her type of songwriting is not the type of songwriting I'm really capable of doing.”
Fellow bandmate and guitarist KC Stafford puts it more succinctly.
“She’s really fucking good at negative space. You can feel the weight of what's not there and that’s why her shit hits so hard.”
It’s been a beneficial pairing for both sides, with Thou learning from Emma’s bare approach to songwriting, while Emma has been able to add some extra heft to her sonic palette by playing with her “favorite band”.
“So much of my Thou lust is about the riffs and tones… [this project] was a chance to expand in ways I hadn't been able to do when approaching solo stuff,” Emma says.
The two camps had been fans of each other for several years, but it wasn’t until they shared a dressing room at Seattle’s Northwest Terror Fest in 2018 that they realized the potential of working together.
Soon after, Thou were offered an artist in residence slot at Roadburn 2019, requiring them to put together a collaboration set, giving them the perfect “excuse to get [Emma] involved and actually go follow through with the idea.”
While the formation may have been simple, the logistics of the project, with seven different band members looking to contribute flung all over the country, were anything but.
Taking place over the course of a year, song ideas would be shared via email among the various members of the project before meeting up in person in either New Orleans, Louisville or Nashville to work on ideas in person in 12-hour writing sessions whenever they could muster a few days between them.
“I think it was destined to be quite an arduous and long process,” KC explains.
“For the most part, once we got down to the actual details of the songs, you know, we had seven of us so got seven people, seven opinions, seven schedules. I feel like half of the 12 hours every day in the practice space was just like, two or three people arguing while everyone else stared at their nails.
“But the little meet-ups were insane because she would come down and have like, three days. And so we would just practice for like 12 hours a day. And just like just living in a practice space… a filthy, filthy practice space.”
Schedule clashes, unsavory working conditions, and differences of opinion aside, working out how to best utilize the four guitarists threw up another set of challenges – not least working in separate turnings with the Thou guitarists playing in G# standard and Emma playing in custom open tunings.
“Emma took a different approach with her parts, because she didn't want to play the same thing as us.” Andy says.
“So we had an extra challenge, but it paid off. You can tell – especially if you listen on headphones – you can hear this one guitar that has a distinctly different tone than the other ones.
“Which is something I was worried about, especially with the songs that I wrote that are so riffy. I didn't know how it was gonna fit on this, but she found really cool ways to play different stuff that would stand out.”
For Emma, marrying these different approaches was the most exciting part of this project.
“My tunings don't seem to make much sense but it's the way I play and is a key part of my sound. I couldn't always fall back on playing the same riffs with the other three guitarists and would have to twist my hand into some strange shapes or come up with other parts that fit the section – the latter solution is what ended up giving the best sounding result and I’m very proud of some guitar moments there,” she says.
“I realize that some people may not even notice that I am playing on the songs, or notice the subtle differences between the four guitars – that's a lot of guitarists! – but for me it was the most rewarding and, in a way, important part of the collab for me.”
After a year spent painstakingly assembling songs, rehearsing, touring and playing the Roadburn dates that spurned the project in the beginning, things came together very quickly once they got into the studio.
All the material for the album and the EP was remarkably recorded in just three days, something which Andy attributes to being able to road test the songs as well as their familiarity with longtime producer James Whitten.
“He's worked with us so much that things just don’t not take much time at all. He kind of knows how to mix us and he mixes as he goes too so we can just get it done,” he says.
“Also, our guitar tone hasn't really changed all that much. Whenever I go to the studio, we might try something a little different. But James pretty much is like, ‘All right, it's the same amp we used last time, it's the same computer and the same preamps; it's the same everything, here's your sound’.”
When it comes to their guitar tone, Thou likes to keep things simple and consistent. Andy gets by with Music Man HD 130, “a [Gibson] Les Paul standard 2016 and then just a [ProCo] Rat for distortion, a Boss Reverb and a little crappy delay pedal.”
KC’s setup is essentially a “Peavey Musician 300, a Rat, a Boss DD-7 [delay], a MXR Carbon Copy [delay], sometimes” and a “Les Paul Studio ... because I wanted the lightest one they had in stock and it still weighs 16 fucking pounds.”
Third guitarist Matthew Thudium keeps things really simple and opts to just plug his Gibson Flying V direct into a Peavey 5150 – strictly no pedals.
For this project, most of Emma’s tone came from her Roland JC-160 Jazz Chorus and a Fender Jaguar Baritone.
The end result is everything it sounds like it would be on paper – sludgy, ethereal alt folk-leaning metal – and yet still somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. It works so much better than anybody thought it would, with each side balancing out and enhancing what the other is bringing to the table.
Songs like Killing Floor, Out of Existence and The Valley showcase this the best, but it’s their cover – something Thou have a solid reputation for after – of The Cranberries’ Hollywood that has garnered the most attention for the project as a certifiable metal banger.
Ultimately, though, it’s the connection formed between the musicians that has been the most important thing to come out of the project as far as Emma is concerned.
“I would have to say, honestly, that the progression of my relationship with Thou, from nervous fan to friend and bandmate, is what I will be most proud of looking back.
“That despite being starting out as strangers, with all the moving parts, distance and people, that we managed to forge the relationship, spend the time and effort and end up with two releases, a tour and Roadburn performance and band of friends – to show for it.”
If the world was in a different place we might have seen a lot more from Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou, both in recorded output and live shows, but only time will tell how things unfold from here.
“I hope we are able to tour the album eventually,” Emma says.
“We had plans for 2020 but like everyone, had to can those. Ideally, we will get back together at some point to realize the album in a live setting and maybe write a few more songs then... if and when the touring world comes back.”
The Helm of Sorrow and May Our Chambers Be Full are out now via Sacred Bones Records.