Music Interview: Thurston revives gospel

By Jon Roe

The Secret Cult of the Thurston Revival isn’t some new, juice sipping, cloud worshipping religion. Instead, it’s the former extended name of a Vancouver based band, who recently slimmed down their moniker to just The Thurston Revival.

“The full name got ditched pretty fast,” says O’Connell, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist in the band. “I was still actually finishing the recording at that point. The name is in honour of a band from Washington State from the late ’60s. This guy got badly wounded and blinded in Vietnam. He came back and he started a gospel band to tell the world about the miracle of God giving him back his sight. I thought it was such an interesting story that I named my band after him. I don’t know how the story ends, I don’t know if the guy ever got his sight back and actually quite frankly, I don’t want to know either. I’d rather live with the little mysteries of life.”

Calling them a band is probably a misnomer as there are really only two core members. Fraser Mackenzie played guitar and piano on their debut EP while O’Connell played just about everything else. In fact, the number of instruments he plays for the Thurston Revival is somewhere in the mid 20s.

“As far as having a favourite instrument, I’m a master of none of them,” admits a modest O’Connell. “I don’t play [the instruments] very well. I’ve always approached music where it’s most interesting when things are fresh. What I do is if I’m recording, I’ll go and I’ll rent a few instruments that I’ve never played before and teach myself very quickly. Whenever things are fresh and new, it’s an amazing feeling because you don’t know what to expect.”

When one band member mans so many instruments it can be hard to tour, but O’Connell has assembled a crew to fill the rest of his musical army. Reporting in for the touring incarnation of Revival are Rob Chursinoff of Tegan & Sara on drums, Wes Regan of Speed to Kill on synth, Joel Myers who plays with Holly McNarland on bass and Mary Ancheta on organ, joining the aforementioned Mackenzie on guitar.

“Basically when I decided it was time to put together a live band, I poached them from other bands,” says O’Connell. “Some of the people had already played on some of the recordings [and some of the] people I had seen in other bands, like Wes Regan and Rob Chursinoff. I had seen them in a band called Speed to Kill and they were just phenomenally intense. I thought, ‘If I were to put a live band together, I would ask those guys because they’re amazing.’”

The list of guests grows even longer when you consider the separate cast who contributed to the EP, including Brian Minato of Veda Hille on bass, and Pat Steward of Matthew Good fame on drums, among others.

“I basically twisted the arms of some of my talented friends to come in and play on different songs depending on what the mood of the song was,” states O’Connell. “I would get someone very intense like Pat Steward, the drummer from Matthew Good [who is a] fabulous, amazing drummer [then] try and find someone who would bounce sparks off him. Really my approach to recording was to experiment as much with personalities as with music.”

The result is a strong first release for the band, which has been sonically compared to the likes of Prince. O’Connell, however, mentions other influences.

“Growing up listening to my parents’ Beatles records, I would say, has given me the strongest grounding in how to write a song and how to challenge yourself to the way you approach music,” he says. “I take [being compared to Prince] as a compliment. I’m a major early Prince fan.”

The man formerly known as the man formerly known as Prince’s influence is evident on songs like “Want,” but others like “Coolsong” take the band in a different direction. Some have classified the band as gospel, a label O’Connell has little problem with.

“There’s a heavy gospel influence,” he admits. “I’ve always been into old Memphis gospel from the ’50s and the early ’60s, [as well as] Memphis soul from the ’60s. I love the feel of gospel music, [like] the really intense, somewhat wild, early gospel music of the ’50s. I would call [The Thurston Revival] gospel-influenced rock. There are definitely some of my songs that have a gospel feel.”

Being a new band, The Thurston Revival has yet to get the full spectrum of fan reaction, such as being on the receiving end of a beer bottle to the head.

“[Getting a beer bottle thrown at you] is kind of a right of passage, especially when you start playing in England,” laughs O’Connell. “They’re so supportive; they go absolutely mad if they’re into you [but also] the audiences there are pretty ruthless. I think sooner or later most singers get hit in the head by a bottle.”

O’Connell appreciates the audience having a strong reaction rather than none at all. Barring a beer bottle induced concussion, the band wants to generate a response when they come to MacHall in support of Stars.

“When you’re standing on stage you can actually see, when the lights are right, almost every face in the room,” says O’Connell. “Some of them [in Vancouver] were really in to it. Some of them there was a look of shock on their face. To me that’s a good sign. It means you’re doing something that people haven’t seen before. The audience was really cool and we got a really great reception there. I’m sure there were a few people that absolutely hated us as well. I’d rather be hated and loved rather than just have people say ‘Oh yeah they were okay.’”