by Patrick Johnson
Thunder in the Valley is sick as hell of being called “old-timey.” The five-piece Minneapolis-based eclectic-rock band is practicing for their upcoming CD release show for the band’s debut full-length album, A Long, Long Walk, at the most famous indie-rock venue on University Avenue, The Turf Club in St. Paul. I meet singer-guitarist Graham Smith and guitarist Nick Ryan in the parking lot outside their practice space, a warehouse on a street full of warehouses, surrounded by a junkyard, an Asian grocery and a butcher shop. The asphalt is broken and barbed-wire fences line the side of the road. The rest of the band is inside, still boning up for the big show. For some performances and recordings the band incorporates an assortment of horn instruments and the group needs to make sure everyone is all on the same page.
sit on the warm cement stoop just outside the building’s entrance. Jagged
guitar sounds fly outside when the door opens, but when the door is shut it’s
quiet enough to hear birds chirping. A serendipitous parallel to the sensitive
yet dark sound of Thunder in the Valley: They’re a playful, fun, catchy
band that is also gritty, hard and edgy.
“I think part of it is that we dug ourselves our own grave a little,”
says Smith of his band’s desire to shed the label of being some type of
modern, insincere vaudevillian act. “When we were starting out, I think
we all thought it was much more of a joke and we just tried to do things to
be more of ‘a show’ and do really dumb things. When we got a little
more comfortable and realized that we actually wanted to try and be a band and
take things more seriously and become more substantive. Then you start wanting
to get away from stuff like that.”
If there is one thing that Thunder in the Valley is ready to let you know it’s
that they’ve grown up; they’ve graduated. However, when you listen
to their music, it’s pretty hard not to think “ragtime,” because
the band is heavily piano driven and pianist Jake Luck plays an abundance of
minor cords and a lot of their music is played in descending fifths, giving
it that old ragtime feel. But Thunder in the Valley feels it has been misrepresented
in the past.
“An example is that people always say that we’re a real waltzy band,”
says Ryan. “But we only have like two songs in 3/4.”
what is Thunder in the Valley then, if not “old-timey?” (I mean
besides a band that shares its name with an annual Motorcycle Rally in Pennsylvania.)
“I think the band kind of started when we played our first show,”
says Ryan. “That was about two and a half years ago. Before that, I bought
a twelve-track and we’d just sort of get drunk and write a song in a night
and sort of write really stupid music.”
The band has come a long way from drunken dabbling. Thunder in the Valley’s
music has a highly professional vibe, a deftness you would expect from a band
that has been around the block a few times, not from a group putting out its
Loose, playful and cacophonous, A Long, Long Walk represents that evolution
in the band itself, from its sound to its individual members’ musical
tastes. The album is big, rich, experimental and unique. It’s extremely
hard to think of any other band that is just like Thunder in the Valley. Or
even kind of like them.
One explanation of why Thunder in the Valley’s sound is so original may
be because of their variety of influences.
“We all have our different music interests,” says Ryan. “Me
and Matt [bassist Matt Ryan] listen to a lot of ’50s rock and roll and
early soul like James Carr,” says Smith. “I’m just starting
to get more and more into the ’60s and ’70s rock like The Kinks.”
way Thunder in the Valley composes its songs is fairly typical. Meaning that
the most important, and sometimes most difficult, thing is being able to make
the time and effort necessary to get the job done.
“Things have gotten a lot easier,” says Smith. “When we started
off, given the nature of how some things were, we had a hard time getting everyone
together. But now, it’s a lot more fleshed out. Everyone is bringing a
lot more to the table and we’re much more cohesive.”
“Usually Graham or Jake will come in with a chord progression, kind of
a skeleton of a song,” says Ryan. “Our writing process is more like
editing. Everyone comes up with what they’d like to do, but then we’ll
figure out where the song is going to go. Transitions are the biggest thing,
figuring out how to get from chorus to verse.”
The content of the songs is conjured from interesting and unusual sources like
classic movies such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the poetry
of Shel Silverstein and the literature of Douglas Adams.
“That’s the sort of writing I’ve always liked,” says
Smith. “The idea of really short vignettes that are really, really smart
and really funny but just worded really simply and that has always impressed
me. That sort of basic, stripped-down storytelling that isn’t too simple.
Definitely this record ended up being made up of stories that are, hopefully,
like that.” ||
Thunder in the Valley play the CD release show for A Long, Long
Walk on Fri., Apr. 28 at the Turf Club with Die Electric! and The God Damn
Doo Wop Band. 9 p.m. $6. 21+.
For more info on Thunder in the Valley, visit their Myspace website at MySpace.com/ThunderInTheValley.