Unless you’re Axl Rose, four years is a long time in music. And that’s precisely how long it’s been since Ian Thornley dropped his debut solo album on a public that has – in the intervening time – grown increasingly hungry for more. That’s four years of false starts, shake-ups, breakdowns, and enough behind-the-scenes shenanigans to fill a best-seller. Among the fans, the frustration is palpable, and message boards teem with speculation, worry, and impatience.
And Thornley himself – urgently dragging on a cigarette as he talks – is audibly chomping at the bit to finally bring the last half decade of foot-dragging to an end with his newest and, in his words, “ballsiest” album yet. To put it another way, He.Really.Wants.To.Get.The.Damn.Thing.Out.There…
“I’m impatient, too,” he says, with a heavy sigh. “It’s been too long, and this record – we could have made this record two and a half years ago.”
“But,” he reasons, “I guess at the end of the day I probably wouldn’t have been working with Nick Raskulinecz if there hadn’t been the wait. I got a great new friend out of it and I got a kickass record, made by a world class producer and engineer.”
Thornley and the auspicious Mr. Raskulinecz, the three-time Grammy winning producer of the Foo Fighters’ One By One among other things, apparently found soul-mates or at the very least blood-brothers in each other’s company, locked up together as they were for a month and a half at Toronto’s Phase 1 and Lerxst Sound studios in early 2008.
Thornley puts it down to a “like-minded musical nerdiness,” but his description of their working relationship has a higher supernatural bent to it.
“Everything became shorthand after a while,” he says. “And it really got to the point where words were barely spoken. Just a sort of a nod, and a thing, and – ‘Uh, that’s not working, what about this?’ And then we’d sort of come up for air and chat about what we were doing, and then dive back in…”
Thornely and Raskulinecz dug themselves deep into a single-minded pocket of classic sounds, surrounding themselves with vintage gear-stuffed road-cases and relying on an “impossible to play” ’60s-era Martin 12-string as the primary instrument in establishing a chiming, full-blooded and luxurious album-wide substrate to Tiny Pictures.
Then they brought in Nickelback’s Daniel Adair for 11 tracks of sophisticated boom-boom. “Nick wanted a hard-hitting, fast-learning kind of guy who practices nine hours a day, and Daniel is certainly that,” Thornley reports. “He knocked it out of the park in about a week and a half.”
During a quick sojourn in Nashville, they also nabbed the Black Crowes’ Steve Gorman for a fragrant southern-infused power ballad called “Change”. “He’s just an incredibly vibey drummer,” says Thornley. “It didn’t sound like a song that belonged in an elevator any more. I started reaching for different notes from my voice, and I started throwing in these little George Harrison slide licks. None of which was on the demo.”
Like the sidelong reference to the former Beatle, the more Thornley reveals about the process, the more he reveals about the subterranean seams of rock history mined by the two unleashed fanboys as Tiny Pictures coalesced over those six weeks.
Thornley points to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers as an initial influence, and he seems to quiver with excitement when he talks about Raskulinecz’s schooling at Sound City in LA – “I know how to get this drum sound,” Raskulinecz told his elated partner – but there’s so much more going on behind the grooves and between the tracks of Tiny Pictures.
On the surface, it’s digitally-buffed modern rock, fit for slotting into future-classic playlists. But Tiny Pictures is covered in what Thornley calls “fairy-dust,” or the “subliminal hooks, bells, and whistles that help sustain a listener over a long period of time.” He cites Springsteen’s Born to Run as the perfect example.
And in trying to eliminate the “sterility” that Thornley feels undermined 2004’s Come Again, the reborn rocker has gone for broke. It’s there in the breakout Van Halenesque solo that comes screaming from the insistent toms and bass of “Man Overboard”, or the peaty, Zeppelin III dobro embellishments of “This Is Where My Heart Is”.
“That’s just one of those songs where I woke up at eight in the morning and it was already done, recorded and written by nine,” Thornley chuckles. “I think it’s a great escape from some of the other stuff, and I get to play pedal steel on there, which is not an easy instrument to play. I had to go online the day before we cut it. Nick was sick, so I was like, ‘Okay I’m gonna figure out how to play this fucking thing today!'”
“All Fall Down” apparently emerged from the same roots-infatuated coordinates of the Thornley brain, and he gleefully cops to the song’s conspicuous influences. “When I hang on that D chord, it’s a direct rip from Zeppelin’s ‘Tangerine’,” he smirks. “And I don’t really fucking care. And vocally I rip of Howlin Wolf in there. Colin James and Colin Linden, they’ll know, but hopefully everybody else will just think it’s a cool little vocal.”
For the most part, Thornley’s vocals hew towards the hot and large on Tiny Pictures – his pipes are a Chris Cornell-sized arena-ready instrument on the power ballad “Be There For Me”, and he achieves new heights of emotional truth on the soaring Chad Kroeger co-write “Your Song”.
“Another Memory” ends the album with perhaps the strangest of Thornley’s mutant strains of old and new, where arpeggiated “Dear Prudence” snatches of psychedelia bump up against a headbanger’s chorus of no uncertain power, like Alice in Chains gone hyper-melodic. And there’s a backstory that gives the song an even greater wallop.
Thornley explains, “I went down and wrote that in LA with Alain Johannes and Natasha Shneider, who were from Eleven and who’ve done a bunch of work with Queens of the Stone Age and Chris Cornell, and Natasha actually just passed away this summer, so, it kind a made it a little more apt that we end the record with that song. And there’s a couple of ringing piano notes at the end of it, and I was adamant that we just let them hang there and linger for a moment. It’s sort of a tip of the hat. It’s certainly not enough of a tribute but it’s my own private way of saying bye.”
But the centrepiece of Tiny Pictures, in terms of its brassy and uncomplicated love of ’70s rock, is “Might Be the End”, which comes in on a bed of Hammond organ and exits on what Thornley describes as “a long, awesome, lonely cowboy jam”. In between, it’s Pink Floyd writ large and a chorus of Thornley’s channeling Freddie Mercury. He calls it a “whole team of fucking neurotics”. The fans will doubtless call it something nicer – “Might Be the End” might be Thornley’s greatest moment yet, which is saying something.
And indeed, something should be said about the rest of Tiny Pictures – like the shiny Dave Genn assisted single “Make Believe”, which started with Ian’s dad describing a dream. “He called me the other day and said, ‘I’m getting a fucking credit for that’,” Thornley laughs. “It’ll be Thornley, Thornley, Genn.”
And then there’s the Storm Thorgerson -designed artwork that graces the new album, and which inspires a killer impersonation of the legendary British graphic artist if you’re lucky enough to catch Thornley in the right mood.
Or there’s the tale of Raskulinecz’s Jack Black-worthy wrangling of St. Andrews Children’s Choir on “Under the Radar”.
Or the fact that Rush’s Alex Lifeson was often seen cleaning up after Ian and Nick as he played host to the sloppy duo at his Lerxst Sound studios, removing half-empty coffee cups and inserting coasters underneath errant cans of pop. Even with all the heavyweight friends that got on board for Thornley’s magnificent obsession, nothing perhaps impresses quite so much as being able to say that Alex Lifeson was your cleaning lady.
And there’s more still – tales tall and wide as the music itself. But there’s been enough talk and enough waiting for Tiny Pictures already.
It’s time to listen – finally.