Vikki Thorn: “I need to be in the moment when I record”

Vikki Thorn. Credit: Toni Wilkinson
(Image credit: Toni Wilkinson)

For the past 30 years, Vikki Thorn has been known best for work as an acoustic strummer and singer in the legendary folk-rock vehicle The Waifs. It’s been a fruitful journey thus far, and one she’s enamoured to continue – eight acclaimed studio albums, countless sold-out treks across the country and the globe, and an adoring legion of fans that never fail to flail when Thorn bore her twee and twangy magic… It’s not a bad life to lead. But Thorn has long dreamt of spreading her wings and soaring beyond what’s possible The Waifs – to explore an exciting new corner of the rock ’n’ roll spectrum she’s always admired, but never had the ability to embrace as an artist herself. 

Cue: ThornBird, a stomping, swampy, hard-rocking blues record that allowed Thorn – alongside longstanding Waifs bassist Ben Franz, plus newcoming axeman Luke Dux, drummer Todd Pickett and all-rounder Dan Carroll – to make her wildest musical dreams come true. So the story goes, Thorn’s new project (also dubbed ThornBird) came to life after a chance encounter in a local Albany pub, where stumbled upon a loose and explosive set from an underground band of Perthian rock ’n’ rollers shredding out to their hearts’ content. 

According to Thorn, they “were swaying around with their instruments, not paying attention to anyone that cared to listen”, their performance “so loose that it felt like they were skating”. She was immediately sold: “I wanted to make a record with these guys,” she decided then and there, because she knew that if nothing else, the blokes on that dingy corner stage could deliver the one thing a record like ThornBird needs to shine: authenticity. “You can tell when a band has been playing together for a long time,” she continued, “[because] the music is a natural conversation. It was raw and edgy.”

Midway through a national stint of gigs debuting ThornBird to the masses, the woman in charge of the wildness sat Australian Guitar down for a peek behind the scenes.

I think this record definitely appeals to fans of The Waifs, but I also like that it’s a little more dirty and punchy. Were you excited to explore a little more of a hard-hitting blues-rock sound?
Yeah, that’s really what I was going for. I chose the musicians I chose for that reason, because I wanted to really capture that energy. Obviously I didn’t want it to sound like The Waifs, but because I write in The Waifs, there’s elements in anything I do that are going to sound like that and appeal to that audience. But there was a concerted effort to move away from that. And that was part of why I chose Luke Dux to play on this record, because he’s almost like an anti-guitar soloist. He’s a very irreverent guitar player, y’know, he never wants to play the same things twice – ever – which is a really fun dynamic to have onstage. 

As soon as I heard Luke play, I thought, “I’d love to have that sound on my record.” He’s got one guitar – this one beat-up Gibson – and that’s it. That’s his sound. That’s his thing. And then couple that with with Todd Pickett… It’s unreal. Luke plays in the Kill Devil Hills and The Floors, Todd is in Southern River Band and Kill Devil Hills, and then Dan Carroll, who produced the album, is the guitarist for Southern River Band and The Wilds – so they all come from a rock ’n’ roll background. And then [bassist Ben] Franz, of course, is in The Waifs, and he’s just my solid right-hand guy in everything.

This record really captures the raw, free energy you get when you see a grungy blues band play in a pub. Was it important for you to keep that looseness intact, and not make this record sound too meticulous?
Yeah. I mean, I’m not that sort of recording artist anyway. I just need to be in the moment when I record – to be able to sing properly, it needs to be a live experience. And a couple of the songs on [ThornBird], I did overdub vocals, and I can definitely hear it. I can hear that I’m not singing with the band. But yeah, their looseness and their edge, that’s really what I wanted to capture on a lot of these songs. You can hear it really well in that first track, ‘That Kinda Man’ – it just sounds like you’re there with the band, playing in a room together. 

The beauty of these guys, too, is that they don’t learn the songs – they’re all in so many bands and they play with so many call-up session people, they don’t really retain the songs, y’know? They don’t learn everything in the songs, they prefer just to play on the fly. So by the time we pressed record, we’d had one rehearsal, we’d gone through the songs once or twice in the studio, and then we recorded it. So it’s that raw, y’know? They certainly don’t pull stuff apart. 

Does that make it fun when you’re performing, knowing that every show could be unique?
Yeah! That’s Luke’s whole thing – he never starts his solos on the same fret, y’know, he just wings it every time. And the other thing is that my lineups always change. Because all of those guys are in a lot of bands, I’ve had a different lineup for pretty much every gig I’ve done [as ThornBird]. It’s all from the same pool – like Dan Carroll has stepped in to play guitar for Luke when he wasn’t available, and Tony Bourke, who used to play with Eskimo Joe and now plays with The Waifs, I’ve stolen him for this. Coming out of a band like The Waifs, where we’ve had the same lineup for 30 years, it’s so much fun to step onstage every night and connect in a different way with what people are doing. It’s really exciting.

Was it exciting, too, to make a record without being bound to the legacy of The Waifs?
Yeah, because y’know, with The Waifs, we have such a strong fanbase, and our fanbase has a really strong history with particular songs. We always want to create that experience for the fans when we play, so there’s always going to be, y’know, the staple five or six songs in that set – you want to give your audience the stuff they love. And then on top of that, it’s harder to put new material in, because when you’ve got six or seven albums worth of material, there’s not a lot of room for many new songs. 

That’s the other thing – just being in charge of the setlist and being able to play what I want to play, and being able to make that decision on the night and in the moment. I’m going to play songs off the record, but I’ve also got songs that aren’t on the record, and I do actually play a couple of Waifs songs that never get played at The Waifs’ own shows. It is really liberating, as an artist, to step aside from that ethos of, “I’m in The Waifs, I travel around Australia in a camper van with these guys, and that’s my story.” To be able to step outside of that and create another story, and show a different part of who you are… It’s nice to have that part of you represented.

So those non-album songs, are they tracks that just didn’t make the cut for ThornBird?
Yeah, they’re all songs that didn’t make it onto the record. I went way over the line with how many songs I wrote for the record. Everybody said, “You can only have ten songs!” But y’know, I had so many ideas to record, I couldn’t keep it to just ten. And there’s a couple of songs on this record – like ‘Big Girl Pants’ and ‘Like A Child’ – which were recorded a year after [the initial sessions]. And so a couple of other songs were bumped off for those. Ultimately, I just went with the songs that I loved the most. It’s sort of quite disparate, this record, but individually I loved everything about those recordings.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…

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