Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue has had an interesting few years.
After the band went on hiatus in 2012, Kensrue became the worship pastor at Mars Hill, the massive, multi-location church founded by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll. Two years later, after Driscoll found himself at the center of several high-profile scandals, Kensrue took a stand.
This summer, Thrice reunited and released their ninth studio album, which debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard charts. We recently spoke to Kensrue about the political themes of the new songs, how his own experiences at Mars Hill informed some of the songs and why he feels empathy for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.
This album has a lot of political themes and imagery. What made you want to go in that direction as a songwriter
In general, when I’m writing lyrics, I try to let the music guide what I’m gonna write about. I feel like music is usually telling its own story, and you need to find a story that overlays that. So with Thrice, the music is generally pretty heavy and usually I’m trying to find things that make sense to write about with the feel of what’s already happening.
A culmination of 2015 being just kind of crazy and the music being heavy, I think that’s what happened.
There are some lines in “Blood on the Sand” that seem very specific. Was there anything in particular that sparked that song or was it just the nature of political rhetoric at the moment?
I think what sparked that song was the violence that was prevalent both in our streets at home and in the streets abroad. Just everywhere I looked there was violence being done to innocent people.
It’s a sad state of affairs. It’s not something that I want to sit by and say “well that’s just how things are.”
Well along the lines of that theme, “Death From Above” is a pretty haunting song. It definitely has a narrative feel to it. How did that one in particular come about?
“Death From Above” is built basically from a couple firsthand accounts of former drone operators who were speaking out about their experiences and speaking out against the way that we’re using that technology. Because the technology itself is just technology—it’s not necessarily evil or wrong—but the way that we use any technology definitely can be.
I was doing some research on those firsthand accounts, and then also some research into leaked documents—just trying to wrap my head around the realities of what we’re actually doing in those places and looking at the eyes of the people that have actually been involved and committing those things and have regretted it.
You mentioned the last year being pretty crazy for you personally. Did your experience with with Mars Hill inform the writing of this record at all, or did you come in with a clean slate from all of that?
I don’t think you can really have clean slates in that sense. But I think as an artist you don’t want to on one level, but there’s tons of things throughout the record that are built out of more personal experiences.
A song like “Whistle Blower” might be a good example of the hybrid of those things, where there’s clearly outside things that I’m referencing but a lot of that is built also out of my own experiences.
That’s one jumped out to me and seemed like it could be a reference to some things that had transpired. It seemed like during that time you were a voice of really thoughtful correction and transparency.
I mean it’s not trying to directly tell any story. I think there is a need for people to be courageously standing up for what they know is right, against policy lines, whether that’s in a private or public organization or in the government.
So I have a lot of empathy for someone like Snowden, even though a lot of people would really look down on what he did.
The true crime is that government was illegally, knowingly spying on millions of people and they were unwilling to stop. That’s really the crime there. And that’s a really hard thing to do.
There’s a lot things working against potential whistleblowers in any kind of situation, and that’s not something you want to do lightly, because there’s huge ramifications any time you do something like that.
I feel like it was certainly empathetic, but also empowering. I guess there’s only a small portion of people that could relate to it on a scale of something like a Snowden or Wiki-leaks or even something where you’re exposing some manner of injustice in a church. But it seemed like it could be empowering to people, even if it’s just exposing or being transparent about an injustice in their own life. It seemed to have a hopeful edge to it.
Yeah, I can see it being empowering or encouraging.I could see someone having some misgivings about that; like, you can’t just encourage people to go do these crazy things.
I did some research on kind of the psychology of what comes against people that are in that position, and it’s very intense. I don’t think there’s a very big danger of people just running around and whistle-blowing on nothing.
Did you feel those type of psychological ramifications that another high-profile whistleblower would?
Yeah. I don’t think it’s needs to be super high-profile.
There’s just, in general, social or relational pressures that go into that, especially in a very unhealthy environment. I won’t go into great detail about, but there’s a lot of brutal stuff in the moment and a lot of brutal aftermath.
Well I do feel like the album has some heavy themes, but there are these hopeful threads that I feel like are woven throughout, particularly in “The Long Defeat.” Can you talk about some of the references in that song?
What [Tolkien is] saying is the nature of the way that the world functions, nothing is going to just continually get better.
Many times the effort that we put in to make something change for the good is not going to actually pay off, but his point is that fighting the “long defeat” is the idea of continuing to do the things that you know are right and are hard even though you might not see some immediate benefit or good that comes from it.
It seems really pessimistic on one level, but it’s actually very empowering and encouraging in a sense, because if you look at the world through that lens, you’re not going to be surprised when your efforts go unnoticed–your efforts don’t bring results that you want–because you will know that you’re doing the right thing and that that matters in the end, even if you can’t see it right now.
Editor’s note: This interview is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.