By Gary Wien
Singer-songwriter Frank Thewes is the host of Triumph Brewery's Singer-Songwriter Showcase every Thursday in Princeton and on the second Wednesday of the month at Triumph's New Hope club. The Central Jersey native and Rutgers graduate has just released a wonderful record called Peripheral Division that blends together a myriad of musical styles over intelligent lyrics.
I had a chance to interview Frank via email about the new disc, his thoughts on religion, the monthly Singer-Songwriter Showcase and even what's his favorite brew at Triumph (one of our favorite places for a pint...) - you know, the really important questions of the day!
The record hit radio officially on June 12th do you have a date and location for a record release party?
The possibility of a record release party was raised and I couldn't hammer down a good date for the summer during the radio promotion. I have been thinking about the early fall, even though this record is coming out now. I'm working on a new album and I may be able to release something again after the summer; I thought I might be able to link my efforts for both albums. But the iTunes release is still weeks away and in this day and age you aren't released until you're on iTunes, or is it American Idol? So I have a little time to change my mind on a release party.
You've said in a previous interview that you tried to design Peripheral Division as an old style "Album" with songs meant to be heard in a particular order, telling a story of sorts. Do you write new songs often? Did you have a difficult time choosing the tracks to use or were the tracks pretty much written all at once?
I'm just starting to become aware of myself as a songwriter, just beginning to feel like I get to have some say as to how these songs are rendered, so in a lot of ways I view "Peripheral Division" as a transitional album for me, with a lot of figuring out how to bring my influences together.
I was in a metal band in the vein of old Metallica for few years in and after high school. When I was 21 I decided I wanted to play lead guitar, so I listened to Hendrix, Albert King, and Eric Clapton and played along with those CD's until I wore them out. Then a few years later I realized that songwriting was the key to my future, so I started paying lots of attention to music from Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, Pearl Jam, and a ton of others. And I was almost entirely writing on and performing with an acoustic guitar. To circle back to your question, the different directions I've gone musically have influenced the shape of "Peripheral Division". Writing on an acoustic and listening to Dylan with a past as a metal rhythm guitar player mixed with the sounds of song-oriented rock like Pearl Jam and Hendrix is a good loose description of the album.
There's a reason I like using the word "album". If you grab a photo album of someone's life, most likely you'll start leafing through from the beginning if you've never seen the pictures before. Or you'll pick a page bounce and around a little and make comparisons about the appearance of the person in the photos or the changes you notice over time. But either way, you'll know that these photos belong to a set, belong to an identity and that one way or the other they have a natural progression. I realize that this is or should be the case with a collection of songs and so I tried to sequence the record for feel, tempo and some kind of subject unity. The songs were all written during a certain period of my life, and in the style of the artists I am most influenced by I wanted to make a piece of music that made sense out of order, but was best heard from start to finish.
I do write songs pretty frequently, but I tend to scrap or forget about many of the songs I do write. A lot of the songs are left as raw sketches, waiting to be delivered from the "to do" list. But it has been the case when I've been ready to record that certain songs, for whatever reason, seem to stand out to me more than others. Even though later on I may find some songs I like a lot better from the same writing sessions.
You list many people as influences that you would most likely expect from a songwriter and then there's "the soundtrack from the FIRST Willy Wonka movie" -- Is that true or just to fuck with people? Explain!
Ha! If I wanted to fuck with people I would have listed the soundtrack to "Decline of the Western Civilization, Part 2: The Metal Years" as one of my primary influences. I love the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and I have since the first time I saw it when I was 7 or 8. I've seen it many times. Too many times. Gene Wilder's performance is mesmerizing. Also, the songs are great and memorable and are written in some sort of weird '70's pop style that reminds me of a cross between "Les Miserables" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall". I occasionally catch myself singing the words "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it/Want to change the world/There's nothing to it". Those lyrics are actually pretty deep. Sounds like the writer was into Eastern Philosophy. Or psychoactive drugs.
You're the first songwriter we've talked to that studied Religion in school. Have you always been interested in religions of the world? Were you contemplating going down that road (i.e. Ministry) at any time of your life?
I've never been religious but I've always had an interest in the themes behind religion – human themes, whether or not I really knew what I was trying to understand or why. I wanted to have a better understanding of myself as I got a little older and learning about the religious philosophies of the world held my attention for years. I came to believe that religion was a form of self-discovery and a way to define an individual and his or her relation to existence. I saw that as a part of what the mind needs to feel safe in this fucked up world and because of that I see religion as addressing the psychology of humankind, not so much the divinity.
Have I ever contemplated being a minister? No, I am a songwriter. And as artists, songwriters tend to cannibalize their lives to entertain other people while ministers tend to cannibalize other people's lives to entertain God. I'm a firm believer in the religion of music. Like other songwriters, I get to pontificate all I want and I get to sleep in on Sundays. But one day 8 years ago it did seem like a good idea so I signed up as one from an ad in the back of a Rolling Stone magazine. I can offer you a great discount on a wedding service. I really can legally marry, or bury, people. Some would say those two things are synonymous.
How do you see the mix of religion and musical influences work towards creating your own style of songwriting?
Just to be clear, I'm not religious and I'm not a fan of organized religion. I am interested in what religion tries to define or control for people. If 95% of the world believes in a higher power, I'd say that's true for me as well. But the more I looked at the way other people described that higher power, the less desire I had to be involved in Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or what have you. I feel that way about music as well. Any real crossover between religion and music for me would be the psychological connection. If learning about anything makes me a better songwriter, then I will do it. In this case learning about how people access or view or worship their higher power helps me understand human motivation better. U2 comes to mind here. I saw them last October at Madison Square Garden and it really was a religious experience for me, and I think for everyone in that building. I can't grasp how four people can control and lift the spirits of 20,000 people at a time and leave them elevated for weeks after. There is definitely a connection between what people see as religious and musical experience. I would love to know exactly what that connection is!
A friend of mine has a band that plays intelligent alternative music similar to U2 and seems to struggle in many club shows with the music possibly being "too intelligent" for the audience to grasp. Do you think that playing in the Princeton area puts you in front of an audience with upscale or eclectic tastes? Or are the audiences pretty much the same everywhere?
Since U2 has come up...I was recently reading an interview with Bono where the journalist described seeing them in a club in London in 1980 and described them at that time as "too unhip for the hip, and too challenging for the unhip". I think all audiences are willing to accept intelligent, challenging thought through music or any other kind of communication as long as it appeals to them on another level. People think about things all day in this modern world and they rarely get a chance to feel anything valuable. So I am learning the importance of appealing to a person's soul instead of to their brain. The battle for hearts and minds will be won in the heart. The mind should follow the heart, not the other way around. Donald Rumsfeld might try to figure that out, too.
Bands like U2 have been able to take the most complex philosophical, religious and political themes and have delivered them to starving audiences by learning how to write in such a way as to bring these themes across on a higher, more intuitive level. I hesitate to say spiritual. They know how to bypass the natural resistance that all humans have to other peoples' ideas. Making people think is a great element of music, engaging their intelligence, but it's more important that they feel what you are talking about. That to me is the elevation of the art. You can put anything into a song and if it is done a certain way it will be supremely enjoyable and the listener won't resist it intellectually. Radiohead and Pink Floyd are cerebral bands that have succeeded in that.
All audiences are the same on that front. I don't think that Princeton audiences have necessarily a more intelligent perspective or necessarily enjoy music with an intellectual bent more. If anything, they might be somewhat less receptive to new music at times.
From searching the web, I noticed you have played in places like Seattle and Massachusetts; how often do you play outside of the tri-state area?
I don't play outside of the tri-state area that often yet, but I'm working on changing that. We'll see how things go at college radio, sometimes that can help getting more regional gigs. I did a solo acoustic tour of the west coast a few years back and that was one of the best experiences of my life. I'd love to get to do that again.
What do you think of the music scene in your area from West Windsor and Princeton to New Hope where you play each month as well?
Music is sometimes "seen" in the Princeton area, but I would stop short of saying that there is a "scene". I'd even apply that to Jersey as a whole. I think technology almost makes having a scene unnecessary. If someone wants to record music and get it heard anywhere in the world and without the help of a record company or any kind of touring, they can do that now. There are new ways for musicians to be self-reliant, and that is a good thing. But I do see communities of musicians in places like Philadelphia where certain artists will perform together more frequently and appear on each other's CD's. I still see the communal thing going on. I own the domain name "soloacoustic.com" and I've been slowly gathering the resources to turn it into something that I hope will help foster some kind of community of songwriters. I want to tie that in with what Triumph is doing with the weekly songwriter series.
About your singer-songwriter Showcase nite..
Did you approach Triumph about setting up the night or did they ask you to host? If you approached them, were they very receptive to the idea? And how long have you been hosting the night?
I had played a few times at Triumph in Princeton, just me and a guitar, and it went well with the booking agent at the time and with the atmosphere of the building. Sometimes full bands are a little much in that open brick and glass environment. They asked me if I wanted to be involved in a regular acoustic night focusing on songwriter/singers and I said I certainly did. The ownership of Triumph Brewing company are very clear about their aim of supporting developing art of all kinds – they hang talented local photographers' and painters' work in both of their establishments (the third Triumph will open at the end of this year in Philly). So the idea of having a more intimate night of music featuring talented songwriters seemed a natural fit. I've been hosting since the start for about a year and a half.
What are some of your favorite performances from the showcases?
The best nights for me are the nights I play with an ensemble comprised of my friends Dan Lavoie on harp guitar and Edgar Diaz on percussion, while I sing and play guitar. We do that on the second Thursday of each month. I know those guys well and trust them and that makes for a great night. Either that or the nights when there are three artists booked who come from totally different backgrounds and sometimes are touring from different parts of the country and the vibe all night is intense and lively. Sometimes we get an extra special combination of personalities and the whole night feeds off of that. But people should know that on any given Thursday night in Triumph there will be quality original music happening, just as good as anywhere else in New Jersey.
How does an artist get involved with the showcase? Do you handle the booking or does Triumph? Should artists send you their cds? If so, where should they send cds or mp3s?
I handle the scheduling and the sorting through of who has expressed interest in playing the Thursday series at Triumph. It can take a while, but many of those who want to play are eventually scheduled. Booking this series has really opened my eyes to the immense amount of unsigned talent in our area. I'm really surprised that there isn't more of a scene. If someone wants to get involved I recommend they come out to a night and check it out and send me a link to some music. They can get me through music-is.com or on Myspace at myspace.com/songwriter. I prefer mp3's to CD's in this case. We're always looking for new artists to come and play, but we do have some regular performers like Dan Lavoie from New Brunswick, or Kristin Diable and Ben Carroll out of New York. I try not to judge any of the talent that I hear, so my only serious requirement is that anyone interested at least has a CD to promote and a web site. And on a side note, because Triumph is the kind of cool organization that it is, the artists that play are compensated.
I get the feeling that I'm not alone in knowing or hearing about you through the songwriter night. How has hosting the show helped out your career?
Hosting the songwriter series at Triumph has done a lot for me as a musician. The regular and comfortable environment that I've had there has helped me to become a better performer and singer and that has helped my confidence as a writer. I have developed a great deal over the course of the last year and a half as a musician, and that is in no small part to the weekly series at Triumph. Playing new songs frequently and playing along side better performers has made me better. I've met and watched over 100 local and national songwriters of great talent who I otherwise may not have been able to see. It's been a great learning experience.
Finally, what's your favorite brew at Triumph?
My favorite beer at Triumph? Off the top of my head I'd say they make at least fifteen styles, so this is the hardest question to answer of all. I love stouts, and will usually drink as dark as possible when drinking beer. But the brews keep getting better and there is a Witbier now - it's a mild Belgian–style wheat beer with citrus and coriander flavors, similar to a Blue Moon or Hoegaarden –and it's really excellent.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.