Thursday’s Geoff Rickly Reflects On 21 Years Of ‘Full Collapse,’ The Beauty Of Interpretation, And Weird Shows

The night before I call Geoff Rickly, my Twitter timeline is overflowing with photographs and videos of his band Thursday performing with My Chemical Romance in Newark, New Jersey at the Prudential Center. The hometown show was obviously special — Gerard Way joined them to help sing “Jet Black New Year” and Circa Survive’s Anthony Green did the same for “Understanding In A Car Crash.” Still, the next morning when I ask the legendary frontman what’s up, he says, “Nothing much.”

The entire year has been a sort of full-circle moment for Thursday. The long-awaited MCR reunion has been amazing to watch — especially for Rickly, who produced their ferocious first album, 2002’s I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. Meanwhile Thursday is celebrating the 21st anniversary of their own colossal debut Full Collapse with a packed box set featuring 3 LPs, a hardcover book, and a T-shirt. To further commemorate the birthday, Rickly reminisced with Uproxx about the formation of Thursday, the unexpected success of Full Collapse, and what he’s learned since then.

In 1998, you were studying at Rutgers University, where you wrote for literary journals and booked hardcore shows in your basement. What was that like?

I don’t know where to start. The simplest way would be to say that I had ended up getting into this program at Livingston College, which is one of the smaller side campuses at Rutgers. At the time, it was one of the few parts of the state school that taught post-colonialism and Edward Said and I had all these amazing classic poetry classes. I had one course where we read Native Speaker and all these other books; it was called Literature and ‘The Other.’ It was very informative towards what I was. I found this really wonderful thesis advisor for my honors thesis named Miguel Algarín Jr. and he was the founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York. He really took me under his wing and was the first one to submit stuff on my behalf to The Paris Review and a bunch of other literary places and had some poems published at the time. I was thinking I was going to be a teacher. I was in the Teach For America program.

I lived maybe 10 blocks off campus. That’s because on the very first day of orientation, before school started, I was wearing a 108 shirt and a bunch of hardcore kids gravitated together and we ended up rooming together in the dorms for the first year. As soon as our second year came around, we all pooled our money and rented a house and started throwing basement shows because the year before we tried to get onto the Rutgers Student Arts Council and the very first thing they said was that Ink & Dagger was banned from ever playing Rutgers. And we were like, ‘They’re pretty much the best hardcore band around so if we can’t do stuff like that then we should just figure out how to do our own shows.’ We knew that some of the guys in Lifetime and Bouncing Souls had done house shows and stuff. We wanted to really go looking for a house that had a good basement that we could really make into something and we threw like three shows a week for years and had some amazing shows that I still remember and think back to. We had a Hot Water Music, Leatherface, Kid Dynamite show that was sort of a legendary one. We had the last Reversal of Man show; they broke up in our basement. Actually, I think they kept playing but they broke up in the basement and half the band left. We had the last You And I show, one of the last Saetia shows. We had tons of people staying there even if they weren’t playing. We made a lot of friends putting on shows and opening our home to people.

How do you think that contributed to Thursday coming to fruition?

That was everything for us. We started the band just so we could play one of those shows — that was kind of the idea. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re gonna start this band and do all this stuff.’ It was like, ‘Let’s just be a house band.’ The way shows were back then, with touring bands, the internet wasn’t such a big presence that they just blew up from out of town. They had to play a bunch of locals to build any kind of awareness in the scene. You would put on local bands to bring a crowd and expose them to the really amazing touring bands, like the Three One G bands, bands like The Locust and GoGoGo Airheart. You would have to build it up for them. So we thought we should start one too because everybody knew us. They knew that we put on shows and they were very supportive of us, so we started wanting to play the shows.

At our first show, somebody came up and asked to put out our 7-inch and we ended up just convincing them to do an album instead. Then we thought: we made all these friends, we could trade shows with them and do a tour for one summer and then it just snowballed in a way that we didn’t really expect. Victory signed us for the second record and then we all took off one year from school and at the end of that year we were planning to go back to school and that’s when all of a sudden out of nowhere MTV started playing “Understanding In A Car Crash.” Our agent said like, ‘Well, next year, you’re gonna be headlining 3,000 capacity shows and they’re gonna all sell out.’ We were like, ‘Wow, really?’ Full Collapse was out for almost a year. We were just about to stop and go back to school when everything happened for us. It sold 700 copies the week it came out. It wasn’t a thing. Already Victory said, ‘You guys are a disappointment.’ It was really strange when it took on a life of its own. We didn’t expect that.

Especially after the album cycle is kind of over, right? How different was the album cycle in those days compared to now?

They would say it was 18 months as an album cycle, but that was if anything was happening. We had put out a video with our own money that nobody played. We’d gotten a few tours but some nights we would win over the crowd and some nights we wouldn’t. It was really hit or miss. We had spent a long time touring where we were playing basements and VFW halls and kitchens and living rooms and having lots of shows fall through because we didn’t have cell phones. We’d drive 10 hours and get there and there’d be nobody there and someone’s like, ‘Oh, nobody called you?’ And we’re just like, ‘Well, no, but even if they called us at home we wouldn’t have known in the last 20 hours.’

So much else was going on. We were home for a day and then 9/11 happened. We all kind of thought like, ‘Well, I guess our year’s just about up.’ It wasn’t like we were gonna stop making music, it was just like, ‘Yeah, this will be a thing on the side that we do sometimes when we’re not doing the rest of our lives.’ And then it took off and most of us never really looked back.

Along with the kitchen, where was the weirdest place that you played?

We played an attic on the third floor of this house but to get the amps and stuff up we had to go up three flights of a spiral staircase and that was pretty strange. We got asked to play a showcase for booking agents while we were in L.A. So we were playing all these DIY shows and we were like, ‘Sure, we’ll go play wherever.’ We showed up and it was a strip club with a stage that cleared at 11 A.M. so we could do it. There was so little room at the strip club that we had to set our amps up on different levels and one of them was in a dancing cage. That was pretty weird.

The kitchen was strange, especially because there was one person watching it. It was the person who booked the show. We were like, ‘Okay, nobody’s gonna watch us.’ Then as soon as we finished, we opened the door and there was a house party going on in the living room. There were like 30 people in the living room. It wasn’t even like they had to pay to come see us, they just decided not to. We also ended up playing what we thought was a basement show that we realized that the guy who booked it failed to tell us it was a high school.

That’s an interesting vibe for a high school kegger.

Yeah, they really hated us. They ended up chasing us out of the basement and saying that they were going to send us back to the swamps of New Jersey. I appreciated that turn of phrase.

I feel like the pipeline of wanting to be an English teacher and ending up in a post-hardcore band is very common. It’s a little strange to me because I feel like most people listen to post-hardcore music for the sound but most of the lyricists are very into poetry. What do you make of that?

I think the post- genres like post-punk and post-hardcore are both very concerned with deconstructing things and there’s a certain academic slant to it. I think that it appeals to people who have been in rigorous academic fields. It’s really easy to lose track of the visceral nature of what hardcore is supposed to do for you and even more so just that connecting force of music; it’s really easy to want to make it such an exercise that it pushes people deeply out of the communion with the music. So for better or worse, I think that’s why these kinds of people are drawn to it. I certainly know what you mean — I have a ton of friends who are teachers.

I actually got into Thursday because my high school guidance counselor showed me you guys. I wore an emo band t-shirt once and he pulled me into his office and showed me Thursday’s music.

I love that. Yeah, we’re definitely guidance counselor-core.

That happened within the past decade. How does it feel to know that even though Full Collapse is obviously very of its time it’s still being passed down through generations?

It’s a really interesting phenomenon because it is so directly tied to time and place. It’s hyperspecific about where and when it’s taking place. I think that you can get specific enough that things take on their own strange little universality. It’s like period pieces having their thing where it’s like, ‘Isn’t it amazing that in these different circumstances, I still see myself?’ I’ve always appreciated that and that’s the lens that I’ve tried to write through — a sort of hyperspecificity for the most part. When I was a kid, my mom was really into U2 and we used to go see them all the time. I got exposed to a lot of great bands who were opening for U2. I loved them but at the time I was young and into hip-hop, being a tristate area kid. Hip-hop was the thing that was happening and I really gravitated towards Nas and the records Illmatic and It Was Written. I really started to notice that U2 was gesturing towards a universal emotional theme. It’s extremely broad and I thought it was amazing that they could make it work. But I also really loved that Nas was able to have every detail so finely carved that you could just see where he lives and what his life was that I — a suburban white kid in New Jersey — 100% felt like I related to this hyperspecific New York upbringing.

I just really admired that and I wondered if I was ever in a band that had these soaring themes that you would expect to be completely universal, like “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” or something like that, if instead, I wrote the lyrics to be hyperspecific. I wondered what it would do. For War All The Time, that was the exercise for me and I had already been doing it whether I realized it or not on Full Collapse. And our A&R guy on War All The Time was like, ‘I love Full Collapse; it’s so much like Bruce Springsteen,’ and I had never listened to Bruce Springsteen. Growing up in New Jersey, that was like music for cops. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t of my time. I was like, ‘I don’t know. It doesn’t speak to me.’ But as I got older and started reading his lyrics instead of listening to music, I started to understand what our A&R guy was talking about. It was a similar project — this like big, anthemic thing about these incredibly specific people who sometimes were just characters. They weren’t even first-person experiences.

I think that hyper-specificity contributes to why your fan base has been sticking around for so long; it helped listeners form a bond.

I think that’s true. I think there are also some probably simpler factors, like Thursday having a profound impact on all the other bands that were coming out at the time, even more so than we did on music listeners at the time. The waves that have rippled out from all the bands that came after — like Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance — have made Thursday, in retrospect, a more important band. It’s sort of like Sonic Youth being a great band on their own but also when Nirvana blew up suddenly Sonic Youth looked even more important in the rearview. We’ve benefited from that. I think we’ve also benefited from emo becoming such a big thing and we’re one of the few bands that can loosely fit into that category that’s not totally childish songs about girls breaking your heart or whatever. There’s a little more to it. And in the last 20 years, the youth movements have become a lot more interested in things that we’ve been talking about for a couple of decades. It’s been a confluence of events that has reflected on Thursday in a really good light. We’re really lucky that that’s happened.

It’s a very rare situation that an emo band’s music ages well, but your music has.

It does age well. It’s also interesting because I have a lot of friends who are culture writers and it’s sort of cool now for artists on Twitter to tell writers to go f*ck themselves or whatever if they don’t like what they wrote. But I’ve always just been more curious about like, ‘Oh, that’s a criticism of this thing that I’m in a part of.’ I’m in this corner of this emo thing and I remember when Jessica Hopper wrote Where The Girls Aren’t. I had known Jessica a little bit and so I had to go find her and talk to her about it. It’s always thrilled me to know what other people are thinking about my peers who I respect — I just want to learn and I feel like that has really helped. We’ve always tried to engage with the people who are thinking about music deeply, people like Hanif Abdurraqib. I want to do better. That’s why I do this — I want to keep learning and growing. We just take it really seriously. I know that’s stupid and people used to lob that at us as a criticism like, ‘Those guys are so serious.’ I’m not self-serious but I do take music and art really seriously. To me, they’re the life-saving piece of the human experience. It’s the part of culture where we can connect.

What do you think you’ve learned since the release of Full Collapse?

I think the main thing that I’ve learned is that you have a vision for what you want to make and for what you think will be special about your music and you put in all these intentions into what it should be and then a lot of the time if it does catch on and people like it, they like it for other reasons that you didn’t see in the music. We plan meticulously — Thursday is meticulous about how it approaches making music and we try to minimize the accidents that happen. And often when people love it, they love it for accidental things. I think people love Full Collapse because of the innocence of the record and even my limited ability as a singer back then versus now where I’m actually a pretty good singer. That was something that people really attached to — that the singer wasn’t perfect and he sounded like a kid that was trying to figure things out rather than somebody telling you how the world is. I just think there are certain things that you just can’t plan for in music that will determine whether or not people relate to it.

I think a lot of artists make the mistake of trying to control the perception of their art, and they’re afraid of it being interpreted in different ways. Were you afraid of that at first?

Yeah, nobody wants to be misunderstood. But now I’ve come to see that it’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a different appreciation of the music. I think it’s good to leave a little bit of space in the intention. Give people a doorway that they can walk through and see themselves in the music and see the things that they love in the music. I think sometimes adding maybe one layer of ambiguity or one place where you can slip in and make a song on your own — that misunderstanding is really good. A lot of the time, the art that lasts lasts because people misunderstood it and made it their own and said, ‘This is why this song is so important to me.’ And it’s really important not to correct people.

I was trying to be hyperspecific, but a lot of things were oblique or a metaphor through an image-based language and people were able to misinterpret — not even misinterpret, just reinterpret — those images in ways that were compelling. Sometimes I’ll read somebody’s interpretation of the song and think, ‘I wish I was that smart when I wrote that’ or ‘It’s so cool that’s in there just accidentally.’ That’s something I’ve learned — the listener brings so much to music that lasts. It’s like the listener is that last piece.

The Full Collapse anniversary box set arrives 10/28 via Craft Recordings. Pre-order it here.