With age, if one is lucky, comes wisdom, that holding true for Ian Thornley, who’s been in the trenches long enough to qualify as a legitimate rock ’n’ roll veteran.
The Big Wreck frontman is currently on the road for the 20th anniversary of the band’s first and arguably most beloved album, In Loving Memory Of…. It’s not lost on him that he’s in a fortunate place. Last year’s Grace Street earned the long-time rock unit some of the best reviews of its career, showing that it still has something to say.
As a result, Thornley and his Big Wreck bandmates have approached the In Loving Memory Of… tour as a reminder of why they started playing music in the first place: because it was fun. That, of course, had changed by the time Big Wreck got around to working on its 2001 sophomore album, The Pleasure and the Greed, which led to the band pulling the plug a year after its release. With the benefit of hindsight, the Toronto-based Thornley has a pretty good idea why things went off the rails for a while way back when, and why he’s at peace with that today.
One of the questions the Georgia Straight asks him over a wide-ranging discussion about In Loving Memory Of… and its anniversary celebration is “What would you tell the 25-year-old you today?” Proving he’s learned a thing or two about himself over the past couple of decades, Thornley is quick with his response.
“I think what I’d tell myself is ‘Don’t take it all so seriously,’ ” the 45-year-old says, on the line from Hogtown. “I burned a lot of bridges by taking things really seriously. I remember being like, ‘How could it happen that this band got so big? How can people listen to horrible music?’ I would call bands out in the press, and basically was a bit of a dick. It’s not like I don’t do the same thing behind closed doors nowadays. But, I dunno, it’s different from when I was really young, and thought that everyone would see things the way that I saw them. And if they didn’t, I would tell them they were wrong and here’s how you should see things.
“That’s not,” Thornley continues with a laugh, “the way that the world works. It’s not like I don’t give a shit now—I really do and I always will. But I think maybe I’d go at things with a little more tact.”
It was blunt, unfiltered honesty that made In Loving Memory Of… a hit back in 1997. The record was conceived with little involvement from record-company suits, who would be all over Big Wreck with unwanted career advice leading up to The Pleasure and the Greed.
Thornley and his bandmates—guitarist Brian Doherty, bassist Dave Henning, and drummer Forrest Williams—met at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and eventually decided that rock ’n’ roll would be more fun than homework. When picked up by Warner Music Group, In Loving Memory Of… was basically a glorified demo session, chronicling a relationship that had haunted Thornley long after a painful breakup. Anyone who’d ever had a meaningful union go south in a big way was able to relate to “Between You and I”, with lyrics like “So now she’s on her way home from work, alone for dinner/You close the door to the microwave, underneath that phone that just won’t ring.”
Proving that nothing in rock ’n’ roll connects like something raw and real, In Loving Memory Of… produced a series of hit singles on both sides of the border, including “The Oaf (My Luck Is Wasted)” and “That Song”. Critics praised the group for both its honesty and its mix of postgrunge grime, turbocharged blues, and stadium-sized classic rock.
Thornley figures the album was successful for another, more intangible reason.
“Listening to it today, I just hear how much fun we were having, just being recorded and being in the studio,” he says. “That sort of joy is something that always makes it to tape—and the fact that the record was done on tape probably helped. You can really hear the interaction between band members—all the grease between the notes. Even though lyrically some of the stuff was darker, and thematically some of the motifs were a little bit darker, I just hear guys enjoying themselves. And maybe because I was a part of it, it leaves me with a big smile on my face.”
As noted, Thornley has been blessed with a career that’s spanned decades; after Big Wreck flamed out at the beginning of the millennium, he reinvented himself as a solo artist, releasing two well-received albums under the name Thornley. With enough distance between Big Wreck and the less-than-positive memories of postbreakthrough major-label meddling, the singer reconnected with guitarist Doherty at the beginning of this decade. That’s led to the release of three full-lengths, including Grace Street, which came together against the backdrop of Thornley splitting with his wife.
That the members of Big Wreck continue in 2018 to enjoy themselves, just like they did in the early days, made it easy to revisit In Loving Memory Of…. Much has been made of the album being a breakup record, and although there’s truth to that, hindsight has taught Thornley that perspective becomes everything.
“I never just look at lyrics—I prefer to look at songs as a whole,” he says. “I know what I’m saying and what I’m talking about and what I’m referring to in songs. So something like ‘Overemphasizing’ is a real dark and kind of gloomy song. But a lot of the songs have a thin layer of optimism in them—maybe even hope. I don’t know if I really shone the light on that back in the day. But it’s something that I definitely can sense now.”
Big Wreck plays In Loving Memory Of… 20th-anniversary shows at the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday and Friday (March 1 and 2) as part of the Straight Series.