There’s a question posed by Big Wreck’s new album, Grace Street: What does it mean to be a rock and roll band in 2017? When you have a bunch of modern rock radio staples to your credit, earned platinum sales status, and shared stages with music icons, where do you go next? The answer is simple: To be an artist these days, one needs to embrace everything, and have the skill and savvy to put it all together with a clear vision of an end result.
Grace Street does this magnificently, confirming that Big Wreck is as vital and engaging today as they were when they first arrived on the scene in 1997. The new album follows the group’s 2014 JUNO-nominated effort Ghosts, but more significantly, front man Ian Thornley’s 2015 debut solo outing Secrets, on which he expanded his songwriting range while taking a more spontaneous approach in the studio. Those elements continued to be explored on Grace Street, Big Wreck’s first collaboration with co-producer Garth Richardson, whose extensive resume includes work with Rage Against The Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As mutual admirers for many years, it was a long-overdue pairing and both parties took full advantage of the opportunity. Thornley says, “There was a lot of growth from [2012 album] Albatross to Ghosts, and I think Grace Street is the next step in that process. What helped greatly was Garth’s attitude of let’s go further and deeper. We really left no stone unturned as we were making this record.”
The sonic diversity on Grace Street is indeed stunning, with heavy grooving tracks such as lead-off single “One Good Piece Of Me” and “Digging In” rubbing shoulders with the atmospheric “A Speedy Recovery” and the epic seven-minute instrumental “Skybunk Marché.” Other tracks feature added touches such as Miles Davis-style muted trumpet, wine glasses, a sample of Thornley’s daughter’s heartbeat, and a Leslie speaker guitar solo recorded on a mountainside adjacent to Richardson’s B.C. studio.
But at the core of the album are live off the floor performances by Thornley on guitar and keyboards, accompanied by drummer Chuck Keeping and bassist Dave McMillan. (Original founding band member Brian Doherty returns when the band hits the stage). For Thornley, it was imperative to maintain the human element in every aspect of the sessions, resulting in a trip he feels no previous Big Wreck album has taken a listener on before. “Musically, I’m still searching for the stuff that turns me on and takes me somewhere,” he says. “You want to be brought to tears or have the hair on your neck stand up, and if the search for that takes you to new territory, then so be it. You have to follow. It’s like chasing a high, and Garth feels that just as much as we do.”
For the Toronto-born Thornley, that search began in his youth when his classic rock heroes inspired him picked up the guitar. The original Big Wreck line-up, including Brian Doherty, was formed in the early 1990s while all members were attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. After a few years of honing their sound, the band was signed to Atlantic Records, which released their instantly embraced debut album In Loving Memory Of… in 1997. It proved to be a major homecoming for Thornley, as singles “The Oaf,” “That Song” and “Blown Wide Open” were all Top 10 hits in Canada, boosted by the band’s intense live shows.
Big Wreck chose to go their separate ways following the 2001 follow-up album The Pleasure And The Greed, with Thornley quickly forming a new group bearing his surname, which over time brought Dave McMillan into the fold. Although Thornley the band released two commercially successful albums over a nine-year span, Thornley the musician eventually grew disenchanted with the group’s approach, and a rekindling of his friendship with Doherty sparked the notion of a re-born Big Wreck.
It proved to be an astute decision on all fronts, as the “comeback” album Albatross turned in a Top 5 first-week showing on the Canadian Albums Chart, the highest debut of any previous Big Wreck or Thornley release. It would go on to earn a 2013 JUNO nomination for Rock Album of the Year and spawn three Top 10 Canadian Rock Radio singles.
The fresh start invariably led to Thornley’s creative renaissance, with other facets of his life and career eventually following suit. That’s symbolized by his choice to name the new album after his new Toronto address, Grace Street, where Thornley has regained some of the stability that has eluded him over the past few years. What he’s also come to terms with is allowing Big Wreck to be whatever it wants to be, whether that’s a riff-spewing, multi-guitar beast or a vehicle for sonic boundary pushing. There are no longer any limits.
As Thornley explains, “It’s like when you run into someone on vacation and they ask what you do. When I say I’m a musician, they’ll ask what kind of music I play, and I’ll always just say rock and roll. But within that are so many flavours you can’t even begin to describe. And that was really the over-riding goal for Grace Street, to have every song be able to stand on its own as something unique, and I’m really proud that we were able to do that.”