Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue – ‘I’m Committed to Hope, Because Hope Leads to Action’
Impactful art — music included — has the power to change hearts and minds. And that’s what Thrice vocalist and guitarist Dustin Kensrue is counting on.
“Music is an emotional way to get around people’s defenses,” Dustin Kensrue says in the same meditative timbre he sings with on Thrice’s eleventh record, Horizons/East.
It’s one of art’s critical and unique functions; one that has freed minds and brought down tyrants across distance and time. It’s why despotic regimes such as Nazi Germany’s Third Reich banned what they deemed “degenerate art.”
Kensrue began changing his own mind when he started to question his Christian faith. After a long, unsettling, but enlightening journey, a desire to share what he’s finally figured out served as the driving force behind the band’s newest record.
“I think, in general, the idea of the record is [to be] hopeful in the sense that we can see how we are in these closed systems of thought, and at least yearn for a way out. I think that yearning can lead to a way of getting to a place of being less certain about things, but more open to the reality in front of you. Embracing uncertainty is very scary as humans, but when you can get to that place, it’s not as scary as you thought. It’s actually pretty life-giving. ”
The first song on the record, “The Color of the Sky,” depicts a protagonist stuck behind a literal wall (“It circumscribed the city/They said beyond it nothing dwelt at all”) and his resolve to “find a passage through,” and see for himself what lies beyond. It’s a physical representation of the concept of transitioning from an enclosed space to a more open one; of no visibility to clear visibility.
"The Color of the Sky" Lyrics
My first and foremost memory
Is staring up in wonder at the wall
It circumscribed the city
They said beyond it nothing dwelt at all
But I came to wonder if the stories all were true
So one night I made my mind up
I resolved that I would find a passage through
“I’ve made that journey myself in some ways,” Kensrue says, “and it’s liberating and beautiful. I at least want to leave a map [for others] and be like, ‘Hey, there’s something out here.’ To Be Everywhere… was the beginning of a lot of shifting,” he says of the band’s 2016 record. “This one is more zoomed out and reflective, as well as looking forward. I hate saying that because it sounds like I’ve arrived, but I’m on a journey right now that I wasn’t on before.”
But opening minds is much easier said than done, and that couldn’t be more apparent after the past several years of life in America, as partisanship and tribalism have become the most severe and corrosive since the days of the Civil War.
“The past few years have been an extreme example of seeing how easy it is to polarize and hold up in your own camp,” Kensrue says. “I’m definitely more on the liberal side, but I want to be just as critical. The more we can ditch that kind of thinking and hold everyone to the same standards, the better. Try not to find yourself so firmly seated in some kind of partisan situation. Have your convictions, but [know that] your group isn’t always right just because you agree with them a lot of the time. That goes for any situation, not just politics."
“I think a lot of what is happening right now is we’re seeing, especially in America, the individual has become everything. There are amazing things that come out of liberation and freedom for individuals...but there’s a lot that we’ve left as well, in terms of how to function as a group and how to care for the group.”
One need only look at the catastrophe of the COVID-19 delta variant to see how the selfishness of the individual has overpowered their ability to take responsibility for the safety of others. Debates over masks have devolved into literal fights in local school board meetings across the country, putting the “freedom of choice” to not wear a mouth covering above the lives of neighbors. There is now a false choice between the individual and the community, when in reality, both can exist at the same time.
“My hope is that there’s a way to synthesize those two things. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think that’s the way forward. How do we maximize human freedom but also realize you live in a society where everyone [can be] taken care of? To me, my life is impoverished by living in a society where people are literally impoverished. I really believe that we all are connected.”
To illustrate that point, Thrice made a conscious effort to weave the concept of interconnectedness into the lyrical composition of Horizons/East. The final track, “Unitive/East,” poses the question, “Is there a me without you?” and closes with the imagery of “new grass beneath black skies,” bringing the listener right back to the story that begins the album. The idea of the one and the many is mirrored in the musical structure of the song, beginning with a solitary beat and building up to 11, before winding back down.
“I don’t have hope in the optimist sense,” the songwriter says. “But I’m committed to hope, because hope leads to action, and over time, you can actually change things. Even though sometimes it feels like things are at a standstill or even going backward, there are movements across history that are encouraging.”
Permeating the record is Kensrue’s belief that opportunities and possibilities can come out of even the worst situations. Sometimes we have to listen to our own human nature, but other times we have to push past it in favor of arriving somewhere better. While we may not get anywhere arguing or trying to convince the other side that we’re right, Kensrue hopes that the emotion and the beauty of music can persuade people to look beyond what they’ve always assumed to be true. Once you can open your heart, then the mind will follow.
Thanks to Thrice's Dustin Kensrue for the interview. The band just released the new song "Summer Set Fire to the Rain" that can be heard below. Thrice's 'Horizons/East' album arrives Sept. 17 via Epitaph Records. It's available to pre-order here and to stream via these platforms. You can also catch Thrice headlining tour dates with Touche Amore, Jim Ward (on select dates) and Self Defense Family starting Sept. 24 in Houston. Dates and ticketing info can be found here.