Ian Thornley may be happier, more contented and more creatively fulfilled than he has ever been in his remarkable 20-year musical career.
The vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for the popular and well-respected Canadian rock group Big Wreck is fortunate to be at a point in his career where he is not only surrounded by exceptional musicians who help him to execute his musical vision both in the studio and on stage, but also surrounded by a business infrastructure that allows him to indulge his exceptional music talents and express his brand of rock and roll the way he wants to.
And the results have paid off, as the band’s last two albums have been the two highest charting records in the band’s history, as 2012’s Albatross and 2014’s Ghost both hit number 5, with the title track for Albatross going number one on Canadian rock singles charts – Thornley’s first ever chart topper, including the first incarnation of Big Wreck (1994 to 2002) and his years as a solo artist before Big Wreck reconvened in 2010.
“To be honest, I haven’t really paid much attention to any of that, especially once an album’s out. More importantly than the numbers is that I am pleased with it and we as a band are pleased with it. You can drive yourself insane wondering whether or not other people are going to like it. I am happy that over the last two albums, management and the label have given us the licence to do what we want, for the most part. And that can be dangerous for a label for the adults to give that much licence to the kids,” he said with a chuckle.
“And I think it’s been proven to be a good strategy. I think the work is great. I love the last two records and I think the music is only going to get better thanks to that mindset, especially with this group of people around us. It’s been great, really fulfilling. The music – the art part of it – has been really gratifying. In this business, especially these days, it’s easy to get pretty down when you start looking at numbers and how you’re doing and the race against this or that. I don’t like to look at it that way.”
What is also gratifying for Thornley and his bandmates is the way Big Wreck fans have jumped on board the musical journey and are latching onto the new material as much as past hits.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when people ‘get’ what we’re doing. It’s nice that they don’t expect us to get up on stage and play That Song or The Oaf
20 times. It’s nice to see people getting into the new stuff and getting behind it with that sort of fervour and passion of a real fan. You can’t put a price on that. We’re the luckiest band in the world in so many ways to have been doing it this long and have fans – both old and new – who are that passionate,” he added.
“We are blessed to have people in the seats listening to the music and not just waiting for the hits but actually listening and waiting for the nuances and noticing the differences from the recorded version or even what was on YouTube from the night before. People are catching on that the live show for a band like Big Wreck is something unique; it’s something that’s growing and it’s ever-changing and sort of an organic thing that the audience, in many ways, can play a big part in.”
After some unpleasant ‘music business’ experiences, both in the first incarnation of Big Wreck and through his solo career, Thornley and fellow original Big Wreck bandmate Brian Doherty [who rekindled their friendship as well as the band in 2010], as well as Paulo Neta, Dave McMillan and Chuck Keeping, have found a home with Anthem Entertainment Group. If that company moniker sounds familiar, it should. It’s the organization created around Hall of Fame Canadian rock legends Rush – a band that is now renown for forging its own path, relying on their own talent and artistic intuition over a 40-plus year career of excellence.
“Rush is an inspiring story in and of itself. And to have someone like [Rush manager] Ray Danniels in your corner, with his passion, his integrity and his intellect is amazing. Ray is one of those guys who has always believed in me and not in necessarily what I have done but what I could do. That’s inspiring to me and a wonderful feeling and it’s something that makes me want to push even further,” Thornley said.
“Before the Albatross record, he told Andy Curran [an Anthem executive and founder of Toronto rockers Coney Hatch]‘let’s see what this kid is really capable of. Instead of holding back and editing and compromising, why don’t we push him in the other direction.’ I think it’s grown into a really good working relationship; there’s an understanding and a trust there, on both sides.
“And I am still working at getting all those old concerns and worries and conversations about having shorter songs or following a formula out of my head and out of the studio when we’re working. I am just listening to the speakers as opposed to some guy behind a desk. You listen to what is coming out of the speakers and let that move you and let that help you make decisions. Having the freedom to figure things out in that manner is quite a gift.”
And the result, as the statistics, fan acclaim and critical support is a songwriter have demonstrated, is a musician and a band that is now free to embrace all their influences. While it’s obvious that there is a nod to the greats of Classic rock, like Led Zeppelin, in Big Wreck’s music, on Ghost in particular, there is a real progressive rock element in the epic soundscapes on a number of the songs.
“I am a huge fan of 1970s progbands like Yes and Genesis. They were very influential for me. And I am not afraid to explore that area. We just had a conversation on the way home from a show in Windsor about how the guys that we idolized – the real prog pioneers – for the most part would have grown up idolizing the Beatles and adoring the craft of a two or three-minute pop song and a beautiful melody. They wanted to figure out those moving parts before heading into writing those seven, eight, 10-minute songs, with all these different sections and movements,” Thornley said.
“I love all that stuff as much as Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. It all gets in and it all makes a difference to me in how I do things, how I write things, how I see things. It’s like if Stevie Ray Vaughan joined Led Zeppelin and they played Genesis songs and Supertramp was writing the melodies – everything gets fed into the recipe.”
And what has been cooked up like a Jamie Oliver masterpiece by Big Wreck, since their powerful 1997 debut album, In Loving Memory Of.. which features the aforementioned hits The Oaf (My Luck is Wasted), That Song, Blown Wide Open and Under The Lighthouse, through the underrated The Pleasure and the Greed in 2001, to the title track and the hit Come What May from Ghosts, is a brand of Canadian rock and roll that brings tradition and new frontiers together, grafted together by superior songwriting, immaculate musicianship and a drive to keep pushing forward as a top-flight creative entity.
Big Wreck is one of the featured acts at this year’s Barrie New Music Festival, which takes place July 17 and 18 at Heritage Park in Barrie, ON. Thornley and his mates headline the Friday show, with Scott Weiland and the Roundabouts also on the bill, along with The Alapacas and Golden Gate Graves. Saturday’s show is headlined by USS and features Down With Webster, JJ and the Pillars, Stereo Kid and Final Thought.
For more information, visit http://www.newmusicfest.ca/barrie.php.
Big Wreck is also playing at Artpark with The Tea Party in Lewiston, NY on July 16, Canal Days in Port Colborne on Aug. 1, Festival of Friends in Hamilton on Aug. 8 and the Sudbury New Music Fest on Aug. 29.
For information on the band, visit www.bigwreckmusic.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.