By: Justin Beckner
Christopher Thorn is perhaps best known for his work in Blind Melon. Shannon Hoon, the vocalist for Blind Melon, launched himself full-force into an all-night drug binge after a disappointing performance in Houston on October 20th, 1995. The next day on October 21, Blind Melon was scheduled to play a show in New Orleans at Tipitina’s and Hoon was found dead. Following Shannon Hoon’s tragic passing, Christopher Thorn’s credits as a producer include Chuck Regan’s latest two albums and AWOLNATION’s hit single “Sail”. He toured with AWOLNATION following the album’s release. Never one to slow down, Christopher has now launched a new project called Sonny Boy Thorn, coming to a town near you very soon. In the following interview, Christopher opens up about Blind Melon, his production work, and his new band, Sonny Boy Thorn.
Justin: Let’s start off talking about Sonny Boy Thorn. Could you give us a bit of history of the band? And will you be releasing a full length album?
Thorn: Yeah we sure are. We actually have two whole records in the can already, but we just found a manager and we’re in the process of getting the whole thing up-and-going. I wanted to make sure that it was in a place that Davie (Dennis) and I wanted it to be before we went and found a partner as far as management and a record company and all that stuff. I met Davie, he was in a band called Voxhaul Broadcast, and I produced his band quite a few years ago, and then when I was on the road with AWOLNATION I wanted to do side project with my time off. So Davie and I started writing songs and at some point I left AWOLNATION and Voxhaul Broadcast ended, so we just started this as a fulltime project. So Davie and I started writing songs together and then we started bringing in friends. I have a studio here in Silver Lake. At one point I was doing these jams every week, and then the jams turned into tracking for the songs that Davie and I had been working on. It’s been a great, amazing process. I just have been trying to build the perfect band based on all the other bands I’ve been in. So we have Matt Flynn from Maroon 5 who is my neighbor – he ended up playing drums on a bunch of stuff. Rami Jaffee who plays in the Foo Fighters now, he used to be in the Wallflowers, he played keyboards. Glen Graham, the Blind Melon drummer, came in for a weekend and played on three or four songs. The legendary Jim Keltner played on a couple songs – he played with John Lennon and George Harrison and the list is endless. Now the band consists of a guy named Tony Cupito and Danny Curcio – both of those guys were from the band Beware of Darkness. So now we have a fulltime lineup and we’re starting to play shows and, like I said, we just got a manager and we’re looking to launch this thing.
Justin: What did those collaborations lend to the sound of the band?
Thorn: Well, there were just some things that I felt were missing in rock. Rock and roll just felt a bit castrated to me and I just wanted to create something like Exile on Main Street and all the records that I love that had this liveliness to them and it felt like there was a party going on while they were making the record. I wanted to create some of that vibe and I think we kind of did. Those jams were really just a reason to hang out and drink and party and I think that energy got on the tape. Some of the songs have a mellower singer/songwriter kind of vibe, but for the rock and roll songs, we wanted to bring in some of our crazier friends and get that energy onto tape.
Justin: Did it feel like the beginning of any of your other bands, Blind Melon, for example?
Thorn: Oh, man, that’s a good question. You know, it all feels different, but there’s always that energy and that unknown factor of a band at the ‘beginning stages’. I can say this – about three or four songs into the record, I realized that it was the best work I had done since my favorite record I had done up to that point, which was the Soup record with Blind Melon. I’ve been in lots of bands since then, and it’s no disrespect to any of the other records I’ve made, but at some point I realized that the music I was making with Davie was really my favorite thing that I’ve done since the Soup record. I knew that I had to make this my priority. I do a lot of producing, but over the past six months or so I haven’t been taking on any more production stuff so that I can focus on the band. I want to go out and tour the world, and I feel like I’ve made the best record I’ve made in 20 years.
Justin: That’s quite a statement.
Thorn: Absolutely, and it’s no disrespect to those other records, but this stuff we’ve been working on is the closest to my heart and to what I want to be doing and I haven’t felt like that since we did the Soup record, and I really felt that we created a masterpiece… of course the reviews did not mirror what I felt, but, I felt like we had made a masterpiece.
Justin: Soup was an interesting record. I was listening to it today, actually. Was it a conscious decision to make something experimental or depart from what you had done on the self-titled album?
Thorn: I wouldn’t say that we did it consciously, but I think there was some pushback from the success of “No Rain”. We were very grateful for the success of that song, but we felt like that song didn’t define our band. I think there was a level of frustration within the band that that song did not really sound like the rest of our record – it was kind of the one weird song on there. So consciously or not, it was different. We never really talked about what sort of records we were making; that never really happened in Blind Melon. We just wrote songs and did what we did. I guess I’ll just speak for myself… Yes, for me it was a bit of a conscious pushback from the success of “No Rain”. I wanted to make some art - I wanted to make a great record that was a piece of art and not just a collection of pop songs. I didn’t give a fuck about pop songs at that point. I had plenty of money, I didn’t care about that anyway. But there was no motivation to continue that success. Some people get that success and they’ll do anything to keep it. They’ll sell their fucking soul to keep it and that’s fine if that’s the path you want to take. But for me, I just wanted to make a great record!
Justin: Was there any pressure from the label to do things a certain way or did the success of the first record afford you the freedom to do that artistic record?
Thorn: You just nailed it. Your intuition is spot on. Yes, if we had not had the success of ‘No Rain’, we would have made a drastically different record with the Soup record, probably. The great thing about having success and money and all that stuff is that you’re not making a record out of fear. You’re not worried about getting dropped by your label if the record doesn’t take-off because the first one failed. We had no fear. We were just a bunch of young punk-ass kids who had all this success and we were just like, we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want. So not only did the record company have no say at all about that record, I regret the fact that our A&R guy wanted to come and hang out with us and just smoke pot with us when we were making the damn record, and we told him, “No. No fucking way. No record company. You’ll get the record when we’re finished and we’ll deliver it and that’s that.” That’s the kind of the attitude we had, and it was because of the success that we had with No Rain. We were just like “Fuck everybody. We just made you guys a lot of money and now we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want so leave us alone.” But that is the reason that the Soup record was so artistically free. We weren’t chasing a ‘single’ or anything like that.
Justin: Holy shit! It just dawned on me. Blind Melon was a punk band, in spirit anyway, during the recording of Soup.
Thorn: Yeah the spirit of “Fuck You” was definitely alive when we were making that record. In fact the only time the record company had a suggestion was when I wrote a song with Shannon called “Pool” and when we delivered the record, Gary Gersh, who was the head of the record company said, “Listen guys we don’t really hear an obvious single but there’s this song called “Pool”. We think it has potential, but we think it needs to be reworked.” And we said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” And we ended up pulling the song from the record – it actually ended up on the Nico record. My initial intention was not to make a pop song out of “Pool”. My intentions were actually quite the opposite. I was trying to go for this epic intense jam sort of thing at the end. But yeah, all that came from the success of “No Rain” and that we could do whatever we wanted.
Justin: You got to work with the legendary Rick Parashar on the first album - what did he teach you from a ‘producer standpoint’?
Thorn: He actually did teach me a bunch of stuff. He was a producer who was smart enough to know, when a band has a vision, to stay out of the way. I did learn that from him – you have to know as a producer if your contribution is to facilitate the band who has a strong vision. Then you have to know when the band doesn’t have a strong unified vision and it’s just a fucking mess. The bass player wants to sound one way and the guitar wants to sound another way. When it’s a mess like that then a producer’s job is to try to formulate a vision for the band. But I have to say Rick was very hands-off, and I mean that as a compliment. He was not there for a lot of the recording. He trusted us. But when we needed him, he was there. He was great with inner-band communication. I think in the end we wanted to please Rick; we wanted to do well for Rick in weird way. I think that’s what a good producer can promote in the studio. We had such a great time when he was in the studio. Rick passed away a couple years ago. I miss him. He was a great friend and it was an incredible experience for us to make that record with Rick. He gave us the freedom to do what we wanted. This was our first record we’re talking about, so at that point when the record company came in with suggestions, Rick really protected us. We had this vision and he was there to combat the record company and you have to know how to do that without pissing anyone off. He was great at that. We felt like Rick was on our side, which is what you want from a producer.
Justin: You mentioned the value of a band having a common vision. To me nothing attests to that more than packing up and moving to the other side of the country as you did when you moved from L.A. to North Carolina to write the first record.
Thorn: Yeah that move was one of the smartest things we ever did.
Justin: What sparked that move?
Thorn: Well, a few things. Quite honestly, Shannon was spinning out of control a bit. We had a record deal and we really weren’t getting much done in Los Angeles. There was always a party going on somewhere and it was hard to focus. I think it was Glen’s idea, actually. Glen is an amazing historian of sorts when it comes to rock and roll and he was probably inspired by The Band and reading about The Think Tank up in Woodstock and making those recordings. It just seemed like a good idea. We needed to get out of L.A.; we needed to get Shannon out of L.A., to be honest. It was the best thing we ever did because we became brothers at that house. We learned how to play together. We woke up at whatever, three or four o’clock in the afternoon, smoke a spliff and jam for hours. We wrote a lot of songs out there. That’s actually one of my favorite memories of being in Blind Melon was that period of time. You just had no idea what was going to happen. You’re just living in the moment and you feel like your dreams are starting to come true – you’re getting ready to make your first record – it was just a fun time for us.
Justin: So last week was the 20th anniversary of Shannon’s passing. What was your fondest memory of Shannon?
Thorn: Oh man, with Shannon around, the list was endless because he was a lot of fun to be around, mixed with a little bit of insanity. One of my fondest memories was after we had toured around for a while, we had been on the road for like two years. We had finished the cycle for that first record and No Rain was a massive hit. So we finally had some time off, and Shannon and I had been writing quite a bit and my aunt had a house in Mammoth. So Shannon and I drove up to Mammoth together and stayed there for quite some time. At some point Rogers came up, but it was mostly just Shannon and I up there. It was a special time – I kind of got to have Shannon to myself and that was a great time to just chill out and think about what had just happened to us. We were still not sure that it was real, you know? But it felt good to be working on songs up there. We did a bunch of covers. We finished the song “Soup” up there. We did “2x4” up there. We just worked on a bunch of songs up there. I had a recording studio with me at that time, so I brought that to Mammoth… so when you hear about the Mammoth Sessions, that’s where those came from. We skied or snowboarded every day. Then we’d get home, start a fire, make dinner and then work all night. It was just sort of a magical time. It was a wonderful creative time up there with Shannon.
Justin: Did you produce the Soup album?
Thorn: No, that was a guy named Andy Wallace. I recorded all the demos. I had been touring with that recording studio during the first record. I learned a lot from Andy Wallace who did the Jeff Buckley Grace record and many more.
Justin: When did you build your own studio and start producing other bands?
Thorn: I started producing bands even when I was still with Blind Melon. I used that mobile recording studio in those days. That was pre-laptop days, so it was a pretty bulky rig that we had to set up in my hotel room every night. So I would find bands on the road and record demos for them in my hotel room. Then when I’d get back home I would try to get them a record deal. So, I was producing while Blind Melon was still a band and then when Blind Melon ended, it was just a natural progression for me to go right into producing records.
Justin: Are there any albums that you’re particularly proud of?
Thorn: I am proud of them all. One of the favorite things I’ve done is this band called Gateway Drugs. I made that record last year. I tracked for a few days at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 in the valley and then I finished everything else back here at my studio. They are just incredibly talented. Three of them are family members. They are the son and daughter of one of the guys in The Knack… so that’s a really great record and I’m really proud of that. I made the last two Chuck Regan records. I love those records as well.
Justin: You produce all the stuff for Sonny Boy Thorn.
Thorn: Yeah, Davie and I work on everything together.
Justin: Is it difficult to take a step back and look at the music you wrote with a producer’s eyes?
Thorn: I don’t believe in that theory. I know it’s a popular theory, but when you think about painting or other art forms it seems odd to me that the music business makes you feel like your vision has to be some collaboration where you have to bring in three other people. I don’t agree with that and I don’t know where that got started. Imagine if Picasso’s manager had said, “I don’t know, man, that nose looks kind of funny. Do it better. Make it right.” Imagine all the amazing art out there if it had been diluted by ten other opinions like the music business is. It is something that people say all the time, “Let’s get some fresh ears on it,” but fuck ‘fresh ears’. This is my vision. Get the fuck out of my way. It seems odd to me. If there’s a point where I’m over a mix and it’s driving me crazy, at that point, if my vision or Davie and I’s vision is to bring it to somebody and ask them to mix it, that’s one thing. But for somebody to come in and throw their opinion on your art is just a waste of fucking energy. There are enough opinions between Davie and I. That’s the reason why Davie and I made almost two records of material before we ever even told anybody that we were making a record. I wanted as much as possible spelled out for people so they had less input. I think the pure vision of any art is always going to be the one that sticks around the most. I’ve had that experience with Blind Melon with the first record and the Soup record. They were pure visions and people are still listening to them 20 years later. I’m shocked that they are, but you’ve got to wonder about what that says about a vision being pure and not being diluted by a bunch of record company people.
Justin: That’s a really good point. I never really looked at it like that.
Thorn: I love painters, and I relate everything to a painter and like Picasso’s manager telling him to straighten the eyes out in his paintings. When you say it like that, it just seems so fucked up that the record business has made us believe that we need a fresh set of ears on it to get it to a certain place. That’s just me. That’s how I feel.
Justin: I feel like a lot of musicians turn to someone to mix their album because they don’t know how to mix.
Thorn: That totally makes sense, and I think that’s great as long as it’s the artists’ vision to do that. But when you have the record company or management putting that on you, that’s the stupidest thing in the world to me. That needs to be the band’s decision. I don’t think anyone else should be involved in those decisions at all. I’ve been very fortunate, because with Blind Melon or Unified Theory or the AWOLNATION song that I worked on, nobody was around. Those were pure visions. Aaron’s vision for Sail is so fucking pure and when that song comes on the radio, there’s something so ferocious and potent about that song and you’ve got to wonder, would it have been that if ten other people had an opinion and said, “You’re only saying one word for the chorus, that seems weird. You should write more lyrics”. I can’t imagine that. When I hear that, that’s all Aaron to the bone and that’s the art that speaks to me and I think it speaks to most people without them even realizing it.
Justin: Tell me about this studio you helped to build in a rehab facility.
Thorn: My sister built this big rehab in Hanover, PA, and her husband had been to a couple of rehabs and he just really felt like he wanted to make something special and unique and cater to people who wanted to be creative while they were getting sober. So my sister asked me to help build a studio and I was happy to do it and flattered that she had asked me. By that point, I had already built three studios, so I had some knowledge of what I would do differently. So they built this cool little recording studio at the rehab and it was a really great place for people to get their lives back together and not have to put their creativity on hold. When you’re a musician, you rely on your instrument when you’re going through any sort of bullshit like that. So I think it made sense to have that at a rehab; you’d want your guitar and you want that outlet. My sister and her husband built this great place called Clarity Way. Music is so powerful, and I can’t believe that more places don’t use the healing properties of music to help people out in those tough times.
Justin: What’s the plan for Sonny Boy Thorn in the next year?
Thorn: Yeah, we’re going to tour our asses off. It’s a record that I’m so proud of and I just want to go tour the world and it’s the first time I really felt like that – like I have to go play these songs for as many people as possible. So yeah, that’s the plan. We’ll figure out a release date once we’ve decided who we want to partner up with to put the album out. For right now, there is some stuff on the website for free so we have leaked some stuff, but there is just a mountain of material that’s also finished and it will be available soon.
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