About A Song: Thou On Nirvana's 'Something In The Way'
Whether it's a brief flourish or a total swarm of unpredictable squeals and gurgling tweaks, there's something wrenchingly cathartic about feedback. And even though Nevermind's slick production stripped much of this away, Nirvana understood the power of feedback, especially live. The studio-recorded version of "Something in the Way" is quiet, but carries the weight of the world. It's a stark contrast to the band's 1991 BBC Session, a seething verse followed by a scathing, nearly shoegaze-noise chorus. This is the version vocalist Bryan Funck had in mind when the Baton Rouge sludge-metal band Thou set out to record "Something in the Way."
Thou might be my favorite Nirvana cover band. It's turned tracks like "Sifting" and "Aneurysm" into grueling, loud-and-heavy dirt-diggers. On the 40-minute EP The Archer & The Owle, Thou retains the quiet tension of the chorus (Funck actually sings!), but then launches into a feedback-strewn death crawl. It's relatively straightforward, but it really gets at the power struggle behind Kurt Cobain's original.
When I called Funck, he said that "Something in the Way" is about "being completely crushed and obliterated" and "[digging] yourself out of that hole." I can't think of a better way to describe it.
NPR: Thou has done its share of Nirvana cover songs, including that awesome version of "Aneurysm" at the Black Cat last month. But unlike "Aneurysm," "Something in the Way" is quiet. What drew you to this song, and how did you decide to adapt it for Thou?
BF: I've always been a huge fan of Nirvana. Pretty much all of us in the band are pretty huge fans of Nirvana, so really any excuse we have to cover a Nirvana song, we sort of jump at. A while back, we sort of jokingly made the statement that any record we ever do on Robotic Empire is going to have a Nirvana cover on it, and we sort of tried to hold to that. So any time we do a record with [label owner] Andy [Low], we are looking for what song will fit with whatever release it is, and it just so happened that at the time we were working on the Pygmy Lush split [12-inch vinyl], I bought a Nirvana bootleg from a local record store that was basically like the complete BBC recordings, I guess. And so it had a version of "Something in the Way" that I had never heard before that was basically, like, louder than the one on Nevermind. It had a lot of feedback in the back. Basically, the verses were quiet, and when the chorus kicked in, it would kind of kick in really loud with these sort of harsh, heavy drums.
And so I had heard that, and I was really amped up on doing a version like that in Thou — retaining the quiet parts, but still having that super-loud, heavy chorus. And even though I was pushing everybody to sort of ape that BBC cover, I don't think anyone else even listened to that version. They basically took the Nevermind version, and we put it through the Thou wringer and figured out how we wanted to do it our way. We've recently — especially with Summit and some stuff after that — we've tried to experiment a little more with the dynamics we use as far as, like, not every single thing being distorted guitars and screaming. And we were also trying to incorporate other people we knew into certain tracks and sort of collaborate with people we know locally that we thought could fit. And that song specifically, my girlfriend, Emily McWilliams, who has sort of worked with us on some other stuff in the past, we had her come and do some vocals on it, so it worked out pretty well.
NPR: Yeah, I was about to say, "I don't think that's Bryan singing."
BF: There's two vocal tracks on the verses and on the [humming] parts, and that's me and Emily. But it is me singing. I've been in bands for years and years and years, and I never sing in bands. I don't think of myself as a singer, and I'm not very confident in clean vocals, and especially with Thou we were very careful with the clean vocals, because it feels like, especially when you're mixing clean vocals and screaming, there's a very fine line between doing it right and it coming across as incredibly cheesy and melodramatic. So we stray away from that as much as we can, but I feel like I sort of had to work in this song. It had to be like that in this song — there's no other way to really do it.
NPR: Do you feel like that comes from inhabiting a certain aura? When Kurt Cobain sings, "Underneath the bridge, the tarp has sprung a leak" it's a simple line, but it's incredibly vivid and bleak. Did you feel like you had to convey that same feeling through singing rather than screaming?
BF: I think in the context of this particular song and sort of dealing with those ideas of homelessness or familial alienation, there was a certain context where we wanted to convey a little bit more of the sadness and melancholy. I feel like we get to some of that in some of the Thou songs, but it's more with the music and less with the vocals. But I think in the context of this song, the vocals sort of had to be a little more stripped-down, more naked. I had to bear a little bit more than I usually do in the context of Thou songs where I'm sort of screaming my head off.
NPR: There's a lot of love for grunge in Thou's cover selections. Is that a shared experience for the members of the band?
BF: Certainly. I think for Mitch and Josh, who are a little bit younger than the rest of us, there was a little bit less of that, although those guys are still into a lot of those bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But for me, I'm 31 now, so when the '90s were happening and all the grunge stuff was happening, this was right when I was in high school, and that was like my big thing. I loved all those bands and identified with all those bands, and those bands were my gateway into other things like punk and hardcore.
And I know for Matthew and Andy, those guys really bonded over Alice and Chains and Pearl Jam and Nirvana and all that stuff. So, yeah, we definitely love all that stuff, and it's funny, because we always get compared to Eyehategod and Crowbar — bands like that from the South, just because we're from Louisiana, and the music we play has feedback and screaming and blah blah blah. And we definitely take something from those bands, but I always tell people that I think we take a lot more from grunge bands — from that spirit and that emotional feeling — than we do from the Eyehategods or whatever.
NPR: This past week, I've interviewed both David Bazan and Damien Jurado about their live covers from around the turn of the millennium. Oddly enough, both prefigured some of their darkest albums (Control and Ghost of David, respectively). Aesthetically, Thou is already pretty damn dark and bleak, but does this song inhabit a certain frame of mind for you?
BF: Yes, but in more the sense that — what's the cliché? "The darkest hour before the dawn." All the stuff around when we recorded that cover and when we recorded Summit — that whole era for us, all that music was us trying to sort of write more of a positive record. Not that it sort of overtly comes across as a positive record, but thematically and emotionally, it's trying to push toward something. And I feel like that's where that Nirvana cover embodies that spirit, as far as being at the very bottom and having to push your way out of that and move forward. I feel like that song really brings about emotions of just being completely crushed and obliterated, and now the only thing you can do is dig yourself out of that hole and rebuild yourself.
NPR: Does "Something in the Way" mean something different now from when you first heard it?
BF: I don't know if it necessarily means something different for me, but I feel like it's been... The feeling of alienation and melancholy and desperation that I find when I listen to that song — when I listen to a lot of Nirvana songs — has sort of been reaffirmed. I mean, I'm not as socially maladjusted now as I was when I was in high school and first started listening to Nirvana. But I feel like, even so, my personal beliefs and my interactions with people and the idea of being let down a lot of times by other people, or feeling like you can't fit in — I feel like that's just sort of been reaffirmed and maybe colored in a more complex way. I wouldn't necessarily say the song means something different, but I would say the emotions and the way I look at it are a lot more complicated than they were; a lot more developed, while still retaining those same feelings.