Originally released in 1991 by esteemed indie label Frontier (and distributed via RCA), the Cali outfit’s fifth studio album may not have sold bucketloads, but it was still filled to the brim with powerful, tuneful rock subversion and resilient emotional fortitude. With a key reissue program now underway for the guitar band, now is an apt time to examine what made Thin White Rope so special—and, for many of us out here in the Amerindie-rock hinterlands, so beloved.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
In 1991 Thin White Rope set about to record their critically acclaimed album The Ruby Sea, which would subsequently be released on Frontier Records. Hailing from Davis, California, the band were able to hone their unique blend, of punk, country and rock into a deeply satisfying record that at times has a ferocious intensity, punctuated by a stark and lonely widescreen sentimentality. The album feels like the equivalent of driving all day, looking for accommodations in a tiny two-horse town and then hitting the local roadhouse for a cold beer. With a Miller in hand, you and the three other patrons witness a band play a show so devastating that you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon America’s best kept secret. I’ve spent the last quarter century evangelizing to friends about how they need to own a copy of The Ruby Sea. I’m gearing up for the next 25.
I’m from the Southwest—the starry sky, the sunsets, and the panoramas ‘round each bend permeate my dreams and have worked their way into my DNA. What Thin White Rope accomplished on this album was to create an aural roadmap of their world.
Guy Kyser’s vocals are part-crazed gold rush preacher, the other part a tortured balladeer. I’ll say this, though: No one conveys the American west quite like he does. Listening to the stormy swirls his voice creates, you can feel the sand stripping the enamel on your teeth, which makes for quite a harrowing journey. Meanwhile, Roger Kunkel’s deft guitar playing is both gritty and full of nuanced layers. The album had critical hosannas thrown at it from certain sectors of the British press as well as the likes of CMJ, not to mention the Amerindie fanzine underground. It proved to be an antidote of sorts to the laughable haircuts and poor song-smithery that plagued “alternative music” at the time.
All one has to do is listen to opener “The Ruby Sea,” where the muscular drums and angular, aggression laced guitar work is cut with Kyser’s haunted vocals, to get a sense that you’re heading to a place riddled with emotional potholes. Cherry-picking my way through the album, “Puppet Dog” has the feeling of making several wrong turns in some rural backwater unable to find your way to civilization; the beginning of the song, with its childlike dreaminess, quickly turns troubled, the key then changes, and Kyser sings “Puppet dog, whoever made you years ago, knew how bad I’d needa friend. Puppet dog, your felt red mouth and bells for eyes, scare the devils off again.” It’s an amazing track that threads the listener through the needle into another person’s world. “The Lady Vanishes” is an evocative number that, in the space of two brief minutes, transports us deeper into Kyser’s haunted world. “Hunter’s Moon” is the album’s centerpiece, a story of longing, pursuit and ultimately redemption, that by its end of it will either have you stomping your foot or waving your fist in the air. “Christmas Skies” is a wistful country ballad that tells the story of a ghost who’s recalling Christmas as a child. I recall being drawn into the song’s orbit late one night in my Fudan University dorm room, where it transported me a million miles away from my Chinese reality to somewhere familiar and friendly, and it’s these distilled yet brief moments, punctuated throughout the record, that make it such an immense pleasure to listen to.
Then there’s “The Fish Song,” which is hands down one of the most kickass songs ever laid down by the band. Its menacing vocals, stretched over a relentless pounding rhythm, is cinematic in scope and a one two punch to the cranium. Once you hear this song you feel like you can take on the world. “The Clown Song”, which closes the record, is another brief, yet very powerful, song. Kyser sings, “Seems I have been a clown more than a friend/ A clockwork response to tokens you spend/ And when you stop and when I run down/ I’m frozen and cannot escape from the clown.”
The album takes the listener on a tense, turmoil-filled journey, its emotional heft being one of the reasons why it has never left my side. I find myself still unable to completely comprehend the power of The Ruby Sea—which is why I’m hooked. While I mourn the fact that the band no longer exists, I believe that their musical catalog will only continue to add new legions of fans as people discover their immense talent.
I managed to hunt down lead singer/guitarist Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel to give BLURT readers the skinny on the making of the album. Guy, in an email to me, said they answered my questions “Rashomon Style” (Kurosawa fans please take note).
Roger has also offered BLURT an exclusive link to hear the band’s demo from November 21, 1982 which until now has never been released; the four songs on the demo, originally preserved on cassette and recorded by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame, are “Not Your Fault,” “Macy’s Window,” “Soundtrack,” and “Black Rose.”
In my quest for extra archival material, I got in touch with Frontier Records head honcho Lisa Fancher, who offered up her own perspective on the album as well as an exclusive track for Blurt readers from the forthcoming remastered release of The Ruby Sea.
So please check out the interviews that follow, and while you’re at it, chew on this bit of news: Frontier Records has announced that the band’s first five albums will be reissued on heavy-weight 180-gram colored vinyl. (Which should only worsen my editor’s very public vinyl porn addiction.) (Ya got that right, brutha. Just put in my orders, in fact. —Vinyl Ed.) The first two LPs, 1985’s Exploring the Axis and 1987’s Moonhead, are already out, with the rest to follow later this year. Click the link for details; note that ordering the vinyl—including special edition mail-order-only editions—also gets you an immediate digital download. Each title will also be available to order on CD or as a download.
(Below: screen shots from a video of the band performing in 1992 at the Roskilde Fest)
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH GUY KYSER AND ROGER KUNKEL
BLURT: Where and when was The Ruby Sea (TRS), recorded?
Roger Kunkel: Fidelity Studios, Studio City, CA which is near Universal Studios, east end of Ventura Blvd. We’d worked in that area before at a different studio for the Moonhead and Spanish Cave records.
Who produced and mixed the record?
RK: The producer was Bill Noland of Wall of Voodoo and Human Hands. The engineer’s name was Dave Lopez. This was in May of 1991. Interesting side note: Originally, Butch Vig wanted to produce the record. It was before he was hired to produce Nirvana’s Nevermind. He wanted us to come to his studio in Madison, but we weren’t keen on spending a few weeks in Wisconsin, and we decided to do it in LA where we knew people and could have a good time while being there. By the time we were in LA, we’d heard that Butch was doing the Nirvana record in LA at the same time. Since they’d been signed to Geffen and had a big budget, they flew him out. It happened that we were friends with their manager, John Silva, so he introduced us and even suggested we make guest appearances on each other’s albums. That didn’t happen because neither group was excited about the idea. We did go out to a Butthole Surfers show and got quite drunk together. Remember, at this time they were just another indie band. Months later that changed quickly.
What were you guys listening to back then? Any of those bands influence your direction on this record?
Guy Kyser: I must’ve been listening to a lot of Wire. I don’t recall trying to sound like them but looking back I can really hear the influence. Roger introduced me to a lot of country music over time, so there’s that. And of course, we had that Velvet Underground trying to sneak in there.
RK: We always had a wide breadth of influences largely older stuff from the blues, country worlds. Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Slim Harpo (One of Guy’s favorites). Also, the classic late 60’s rock stuff: Stooges, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Velvet Underground, Can, Sabbath. Newer bands: Pixies, the Fall, Wire. This record I think was focused on Guy’s poetic visions of landscapes and loss. The Country influence is fully uncloaked, at least on a couple of tracks, but mostly I feel the record was just twr without conscious outside influences.
What do you recall about the recording sessions, was it a smooth process, or were there debates about the direction of some of the songs?
GK: The songs were pretty much complete, but we hadn’t had a chance yet to listen to some of the details from the outside, so to speak… so sometimes during the recording we’d discover things that didn’t work. For example, there was one place in “Up To Midnight” where our guitars seemed to be in conflict, rhythmically, and we had to isolate the tracks and figure out who was throwing things off (it was me, hah!).
RK: Most songs were pretty well worked out beforehand. We had our preferred methods of recording by this time. We knew we wanted a more polished end result this time around. There were some debates about drums. Matt wanted huge sounding drums. I like drums to sound natural and more 60’s where they sit in the mix instead of summon the Valkyries with thunder, so I wasn’t happy with that.
What was the hardest song to nail for the record?
GK: For me it was “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. Those are simple country-style songs but very difficult to get an authentic feel out of them. I had trouble playing with just the right amount of swing.
RK: Honestly, it’s hard to remember, but I think Hunter’s Moon took some time. It was one that wasn’t fully baked arrangement wise. The build of it started to become apparent and we worked from there to create a steady build that, I think imparts the idea of inevitability.
(Below: producer Bill Nolan and engineer Dave Lopez’ session tracking notes)
Can you guys speak to how you went about recording the record, were things worked out in the studio or did you have skeletons of ideas ready?
GK: We always had limited studio time when recording, so we did most of the arranging beforehand. Depending on what instruments and effects the studio might have available, we would add things just for the hell of it. Like, there’s a piano here – let’s use it on the break in “The Fish Song”. Or the producer knows where to rent a guitarrón – might be a good sound for “Christmas Skies”.
RK: Guy reserved a few tunes to do in a way that would set them apart. Christmas Skies and Dinosaur. I don’t think we’d worked on them much as a band before the recording. And The Clown Song he did solo.
Guy, did you have lyrics worked out in advance or was this something you altered as the song took shape in the studio? Where were you pulling from emotionally when you created some of these songs?
GK: The lyrics were all written beforehand, except “The Clown Song” which was composed during the recording session. I wrote several of the songs & lyrics during a short road trip I took to get away from work, the band, and everything. I got good and lonesome, wandered the hills by night, and somehow got poison oak on my privates. But came home with songs.
How many songs were recorded for the album and if any were left off what became of them?
GK: All the songs we recorded for the album went onto the album. We may have recorded a couple extras for a later EP, but there were also a couple of EP-only recording sessions around that time and I don’t remember which track came out of which session.
RK: We did a couple other tracks in this studio with Bill Noland, but I think it was a separate session. One was “Burn the Flames” for a Roky Erickson tribute album. And two tracks for a Byrds tribute album.
Was there a concept for the album before you all started to record it?
GK: Not really, except that “The Ruby Sea” and “The Fish Song” were both kind of water-related… we did joke around that this might help counteract our desert image.
There’s a wonderful western vibe that permeates the record, can you guys talk about how where you’re from has influenced the music on TRS?
GK: For me, a lot of it comes down to movies. Geography predisposed me to like Westerns, so I got infatuated with Morricone’s scores. [I] also was a big fan of Marty Robbins’ Outlaw Ballads. Onearlier albums, not so much on Ruby Sea, we went through phases of trying to create the ultimate Western Tune. This was fun, but we got a reputation as a ‘desert band’ which came to seem like a millstone sometimes.
RK: That was pretty much always part of the band’s DNA. It didn’t always show up, but Guy, our original bassist, Steve Tesluk, and myself were all classic country and blues fans.
Were all of the songs written specifically for the record or had some been around during other records and you decided to finally include them on this album?
GK: All the songs were written just for this album. Except, kind of, “Tina and Glen”… that song was an idea I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, but I could never make it work until I decided to throw out most of the lyrics and make it an instrumental.
What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was written that was on the record?
GK: See [previous question]. “Tina and Glen” was based on a time when my motorcycle broke down on Highway 99 in central California and I had to spend the night in a farm shed. The host family had two kids whose names were… wait for it…
Who came up with the running order for the album?
GK:I remember that as a collaborative effort. I did want to have “Fish” & “Clown” last, though.
How long did the recording of the album take?
GK: I think it was 4 or 5 days recording, maybe 3 days mixing.
RK: I believe it was two weeks, which was typical for us.
When the album was finally in the can, what was the feeling when you guys finally heard the finished work?
GK: Hard to describe. I had a deep feeling of accomplishment and was very happy with the album, but there was some sadness mixed in because it felt like an ending. I also had a dawning realization that neither this album nor any other we were likely to make was going to see enough success to make us a self-sustaining band. Maybe that is partly hindsight.
RK: A little mixed. It’s also hard to accept that a work is done and is what it’s going to be. When you’re working in a high-end studio and your listening off of two-inch tape through the world’s greatest monitors, things sound so impressive that you can lose a little perspective.
Did you hold a record release party to celebrate?
GK: I think we all went home and slept for a week.
RK: Nothing real formal that I remember. We just started a long tour, as usual.
Who created the cover art?
GK: Our friend Clay Babcock, an artist who lives in LA. He grew up in the same desert town I did, and I’ve known him since second grade or so.
The album was released on LP, cassette and CD on Frontier Records. What about in Europe? Was the album licensed to any labels and did they press up their own editions? Was there a special mix done for the Frontier LP edition?
RK: I don’t think any special mixes or masters were made. Frontier had a distribution deal with BMG at that time, so I think the European product was the same as the US. Earlier records were produced by Demon Records (UK) and distributed by Rough Trade in Europe.
How did the album sell in the US and in Europe?
RK: I don’t know the numbers. I know it wasn’t enough to get us into the black and making money.
Did you record any of the shows you did touring the record?
GK: I don’t remember recording any shows during the official Ruby Sea tour, but we did a final tour the following year and recorded & released the entire final show (The One That Got Away). I was really proud of that recording, a 2-hour-show, it sounded pretty tight.
RK: Of course, there’s the final concert which became The One that Got Away. That was a very good multitrack recording of our last ever show in Ghent, Belgium. It may actually be my favorite twr recording.
Set-list ise, did you play all of the songs at one point or another live or were there some that you never played at all in a live setting?
GK: I don’t think we ever performed “Bartender’s Rag” or “Christmas Skies”. “Dinosaur” was too quiet and too dependent on sound processing. We might have done “The Lady Vanishes” and “Up to Midnight” once or twice, when we could get a guest vocalist.
RK: Some were never played (I think): Dinosaur, Christmas Skies (maybe).
What were the core songs from this album that were played in almost every set at the time?
GK: “The Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glen”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “The Fish Song”, “The Clown Song”. Sometimes “Puppet Dog”.
RK: “Ruby Sea”, “Tina & Glenn”, “[The] Fish [Song]”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “Puppet Dog”.
I recall reading a glowing review in Melody Maker at the time and wondered given that this was at the height of the Manchester movement, how did audiences react to your music?
GK: I don’t think anyone was comparing us with the Smiths… I think we were considered rustic headbangers from an uncivilized part of the world, not particularly stylish or trendy. But most of our shows in north-central English cities were well-attended and enthusiastic.
RK: We had a steadily growing following in England, I really enjoyed touring there. We played the Reading Festival on our last trip.
On a blog written by Michael Compton he mentions that, “One of the three weekly music newspapers in England, Melody Maker, took a strong liking to us, but because of that, the other two, Sounds and New Musical Express, decided that we weren’t to be bothered with.” What was it like being in that situation for the band, and how did it affect Demon records ability to promote you guys? Any anecdotes you wish to add regarding the petulant British press?
GK: I don’t know how it affected Demon, but it was kind of a roller coaster for us. The British scene had a lot of infighting, a lot of bands currying favor with this or that fanzine. And we’d get an interview with someone from one of the “other” papers, the interview would go great, and then the piece would be printed with a negative slant. One guy in particular, who was kind of a trendsetter, would mention us only so that he could go on to talk about bands he liked better. Usually American Music Club. For which I bear them no ill will.
RK: I guess on the first couple of trips there we were a kind of secret cool band that MM would write about. We had a few packed shows in small venues that were a lot of fun. NME did a spread with a picture at Stonehenge, so they didn’t ignore us. I don’t recall any bad reviews, but maybe I was oblivious to them.
Who did you guys tour with in Europe for TRS shows?
GK: I’m fuzzy on the timelines – may have been for earlier albums – but we did several shows with the Pixies (mostly Netherlands), the Walkabouts (Germany), and Babes in Toyland (Austria). On our last two tours we played festivals (Reading 1991, Roskilde 1992) with lineups including Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and lots of other acts.
RK: We seldom did shows in support of another band, at least not a string of shows. We had a great show with the Pixies in Rotterdam. We play the Reading and the Roskilde festivals, with so many great bands: Nirvana, Blur, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, even Townes Van Zandt.
Tell me how “Hunter’s Moon” came about. I can only imagine that this song must’ve detonated the room when it was played live. Was this song a fixture of your sets back then?
GK: Yes, this was one of our standards. This song is a very literal transcript from my road trip. I like how simple it is, and there’s something sort of backwards about the chord sequence.
The “Fish Song” hits hard with a biblical one-two punch to the gut. What was the genesis (no pun intended) of this song?
GK: TFS is based on a short, near-miss relationship. I turned it into a kind of Moby Dick story, minus the wooden leg.
Since Thin White Rope, what have the two of you been doing musically?
GK: After TWR I was in a band called Mummydogs with my wife and other Davis musicians. We made one album but didn’t tour. One track was used in the Las Vegas campaign for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Then I played banjo in bluegrass bands with Roger and others, doing the farmers market circuit.
RK: In the 90s I had an eclectic instrumental band called the Acme Rocket Quartet. We made 3 CDs but didn’t tour. (Own those records as wel! -Archival Ed.) I sometimes still hear it as transition music on NPR. I got into bluegrass and old time playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar. Guy and I had a gigging bluegrass band going for a while called Doc Holler. I studied computer science in college. Currently, I play telecaster in a honkytonk, classic country band called Mike Blanchard and the Californios. I’m also occasionally in a band called Toadmortons. We are currently working on a new album. I have a casual acoustic duo called the Smoke Shovelers. I’m interested in solo guitar lately and I’m hoping to record that and make my first solo album this year.
What do you guys do for day jobs?
GK: During the day I am a specialist with UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, doing research on management of invasive plants in rangeland and natural areas.
RK: I’ve worked for UC Davis for 18 years now.
Now that Frontier Records is slated to release your back catalog, how does it feel looking back on the albums you guys created? (Details on the reissues: https://frontierrecords-thinwhiterope.bandcamp.com)
GK: I haven’t thought too much about the back catalog, but I’m glad to see Moonhead rereleased because for some reason I didn’t have a copy. The oldest songs sound pretty adolescent to me – I’m glad they’re out there but it’s like they were written by a different person.
RK : My favorite TWR recordings have been Moonhead, Sackful, and the covers we did. However, they all have their endearing qualities. I went a long time not listening to any. I’m hearing that the remasters are really good, so I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with them.
What place does The Ruby Sea hold for you guys when considering your whole discography?
GK: The best songs on Ruby Sea are my favorites from the whole band’s career, but there are some weak spots too.
Any possibility that you guys would ever pull the band back together for some one-off shows or even a new record?
GK: I would feel pretty uncomfortable trying to revisit stuff I was doing in my twenties…
RK: A TWR reunion has been discussed before but seems unlikely.
Below: Roger Kunkel unearthed photos from a very early studio demo session featuring the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) producing. Pictured are Scott Miller, Kevin Staydohar on bass, Guy Kyser with lambchops, Roger Kunkel “standing around” and Jozef Becker on drums. The third photo is of Kunkel’s cassette of the Nov. 21, 1982, four-song session.
THIN WHITE ROPE—THE 2018 INTERVIEW, WITH LISA FANCHER OF FRONTIER RECORDS
BLURT: Please describe your role at Frontier Records for our readers?
Lisa Fancher: I founded Frontier Records in 1980 and I still own the label and run it with the indispensable Julie Masi.
How did The Ruby Sea sell?
LF: Not terribly well, none of their records sold particularly well compared to the Frontier punk titles, but TWR is my legacy band and I’m desperately interested in the entire world discovering their greatness.
How many pressings have there been of the vinyl?
LF: The LP was pressed once when I was with BMG, I never made more.
Were there differences between the Frontier edition and European pressings?
LF: There were no differences between US and UK editions, no.
What’s your opinion of the record in relation to their entire catalog?
LF: I can find no fault in anything that TWR ever did, so I can’t really be objective where it stands. It was the further evolution of Guy’s songwriting, trying to branch out more musically, and also signaling the end of his desire to be in band, and to live a life in one place with Johanna. That’s what I get from it… I’m just sad because it’s TWR last studio album!
Did Frontier finance the recording?
LF: Yes. The only record paid not paid for by me was Sack Full of Silver, I did a licensing deal with RCA Records.
What was your reaction the first time you heard the finished recording?
LF: I was there most of the time while they recorded [The] Ruby Sea and much of the time when Noland mixed it. I was giddy with awe, still am.
What’s your favorite and least favorite track on the record?
LF: I have no least favorite track, but “The Fish Song” is probably my favorite.
When the album came out what was the general reaction you were getting?
LF: It’s hard to remember if there was a negative reaction, I don’t think so. TWR had their fervent journalist fans but had a hard time taking it to the next level of “success”, whatever that is. Decades later the critics all jerk off to the Black Angels and Floorian etc., [who] owe so much to TWR sonically. I think the response would have been more shrill in terms of SUPPORT THIS BAND, DAMN YOU if writers knew that it was their last album, TWR’s greatness was very much taken fo granted.
Was there a difference between how the British press reacted to the album versus the US music press?
LF: The US press was not terribly enthusiastic overall though the band did have strong support in the fanzine and Alternative Press-size magazine world. SPIN was an early backer, but then when it got super corporate, they turned their backs. I could have spent a billion advertising dollars but writers either got the band or they didn’t. In the UK, there’s not this pressure for pay to play, so there was always unabashed raves in Melody Maker and Sounds and large, crazed audiences. When Guy appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, I thought I would die from pride! NME didn’t have much time for TWR because the other two papers loved them, but that’s okay. They never did a Peel session either, it’s time I got over these things.
I know that a remastered edition is slated to come out; who’s doing the remastering? Will there be any expanded liner notes and or art used on the remastered release?
LF: Exploring the Axis and Moonhead were re-released on 3/9/18 and the other three studio records will come out in the coming months. If these reissues do okay, then I’ll consider a definitive odd and ends record and remastering the double live LP.
Paul duGré does all my remastering, he’s an absolute shaman with guitar-based rock. When you hear the re-releases, you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s possible to hear things on these versions that were inaudible on the previous versions. No, they are not expanded versions in terms of art or notes because I tried to keep them at the original price, so people would buy them without hesitation. Changing packaging and added booklets, etc., make the price go up by many dollars. We did put Guy’s lyrics in the LPs, they were previously only available as a booklet to fan club members.
Is the band involved with the remastering?
LF: They were not.
(Below, original 1991 Frontier press release for the album.)
Any anecdotes good or bad related to this record that you care to share?
LF: I will save those memories for when I write my book. All of [them] drank excessively after the sessions but they were total pros in [the] studio, no matter how hungover. I tried to get Kurt Cobain to play guitar on a song or sing on “The Fish Song” as the band was making Nevermind in the valley, but it was vetoed by his people even though he was a big fan. I think perhaps a few more people would have bought [The]Ruby Sea if it was sanctioned by Kurt!
Any future TWR projects slated for release on Frontier?
LF: I’ll have to wait and see how the reissues go as I need funds to do more, but I certainly hope so– now or anywhere in the future. Guy knows that I’d have a stroke if he ever wrote a new TWR song and/or if he formed a new band of any kind. (He briefly had a bluegrass band with Roger and I drove up to SF alone the instant that I heard they were playing!) My most fervent dream in life is that Guy will return to music, but mostly I want him to be happy in life whether it includes writing or playing music. It’s just that I’d like for Guy and Roger to finally get their due, something Guy could care less about, I’m sure!
(Below: Photos of the tape reel box details for The Ruby Sea, courtesy Frontier)