In June of 2006 Seventh Rule Recordings released a collection titled, The Scar is Our Watermark. This was my introduction to Detroit’s Thoughts of Ionesco. The Scar is Our Watermark is a fantastic fan-friendly release, which also includes a DVD. This made me want to know more about Thoughts of Ionesco. For a while, The Scar is Our Watermark was the most comprehensive capsule of information. Flash forward a decade to today. Sean Hoen, guitarist for Thoughts of Ionesco, was kind enough to discuss Thoughts of Ionesco’s 2017 release, Skar Cymbals, released on Corpse Flower Records.
“I’d never considered doing TOI again,” says Hoen. “Nathan would bring it up on occasion but I never thought twice about it. I’ve changed a lot since 1999, which was when we played our last show. And we were never an important band, really, to anyone but a small number of people, most of them from Detroit.”
Sean Hoen is joined on the comeback album by the aforementioned bassist Nathan Miller and drummer Derek Grant. Hoen describes the re-assembly of Thoughts of Ionesco, the genesis of Skar Cymbals, and shares the thoughts and feelings behind the record.
“Earlier this year, two things happened,” Hoen begins.
“One was that Derek was on break from Alkaline Trio while their singer did a stint with Sum 41 or Blink 182—one of those bands, I forget which one. So, Derek had time and he wanted to get dirty again, I think. We were going to make some music, he and I, and it turned into ‘Why not write a few Ionesco songs,’” says Hoen.
“It just felt right. I realized that the reason it felt right for me was because of the whole Trump catastrophe—not that the DNC alternative was great, either, in my mind, but the Trump administration and his Fox News-loving mutants is an American horror like we’ve never seen, worse than anything I’d imagined and my appraisals of the culture at large were not high. So, what does a relatively sane person do with that? It’s beyond politics, you know? I felt rage, and that’s what the band had been for when I was 20 years-old. So, here it is again. It was those two things: Derek having time to play and Trump. And maybe wanting to give something back to the few people who remembered us.“
Thoughts of Ionesco was a band driven by personal grit and desire to play music. They were a band built by, and maintained, on the efforts of its members. “We never had trouble writing music, other than alcohol and drugs slowing us down near the end of the band,” says Hoen. “We always just wrote and recorded and paid for everything ourselves with money we earned working crap jobs—no budget or anything. This time was pretty much the same. I’d have problems later, writing with other bands, but TOI functioned on impulse. Not much analysis or getting precious about the songs. We just did it.“
When comparing Skar Cymbals to prior efforts, and the overall growth between releases, Hoen says, “We all play a little better now. And, more than that, the old stuff was very misanthropic or else kind of internally-focused; it was really about looking inward, a lot of thinly-veiled explorations of heredity and family damage, psychology. The new stuff is aiming for solidarity, really. It’s pissed, but it’s not nihilistic. It’s not romanticizing destruction.”
In regards to preparing for a reunion show, rehearsals, and going through the process of playing together again, Hoen described a unique experience in re-visiting old material.
“I personally didn’t listen to the old stuff very much,” he says. “I wanted to remember as much as I could by ear and muscle memory. When I finally had to listen, to figure out a few parts, I was surprised by how raw it was. I think people might appreciate that they’re complex songs but they sound really human, a little sloppy and ragged, like a live band.”
"Heavy music is so polished now—most of it sounds false to me…We just wanted to keep it raw and document a moment."
“There’s a lot of nuance,” Hoen says, giving some insight into old material. “It’s no secret we loved mid-period Black Flag, when they got into the weirdness and did things musically that felt intuitive rather than logical…I’d guess that might be similar to what some people hear in TOI.”
In previous interviews I have asked bands about the books that have been written before, or since, their inception. Many great books about music provide insight that helps further understand bands and their influences, and add context to the eras in which they lived. Additionally, I think readers and fans can relate to the feelings a band’s members have towards their roots and hometown. In the case of the Detroit scene in the ‘90s, I was curious if Hoen had thoughts on any books that have covered this period in Detroit’s music history.
“I don’t think there’s a document like that concerning that era in Detroit and I personally don’t really see the need for one,” he says.
Hoen goes on in detail a little more about that time in Detroit’s music scene and touches on Thoughts of Ionesco’s attachment to the region.
“I don’t think it was an exceptionally vibrant scene, but it had its own grimy charm. Detroit bands were always messier and flawed and apt to break up before they got anywhere. Its history is a tribal one—local legends passed down by word of mouth—rather than something anyone from the outside would really care about. But the city itself definitely affected TOI. It was a dark place in the ‘90s, really. It was the American post-industrial emblem, a ghost city. Back then, it was pretty gnarly and I grew up in Dearborn, which is right next door. So, you know, the first thing we did when someone had their driver’s license was drive down to the haunted city and find the weirdest shit we could and that gets into your DNA. And the band, I mean, we were 19-20, playing in dumps where someone from an abandoned building across the street is shooting rocks at you with a slingshot or whatever… it was different than other places we’d visit on your. People in Detroit had a low tolerance for bullshit. That all had an effect, somehow. I definitely hear Detroit in our band. And there were a few who came before us, Laughing Hyenas and, well, the Stooges… real big influences… all that got into the music somehow…but if you were too slick in Detroit, you were very suspect.”
“Derek’s a great drummer and I just wanted to stand in front of him again and watch him play.”
With Derek’s opportune break from the Alkaline Trio, he was able to write and play on Skar Cymbals and Hoen emphatically expresses a gratefulness for Derek’s presence.
“I love drummers, and he’s so good. [Derek] says it felt like we’d never stopped playing and I feel the same. But I’m more aware now of what a gift it is to play with a great musician, and I think there’s some pride in the fact that TOI was worth revisiting—to us, at least, it became worth it. And maybe we wanted to top what we did in the past; I think I may have wanted to make peace with who I was then. I guess one thing that’s different is that Derek just turned 40 and Nathan’s 40-something, and I’ll be 40 soon. The three of us have lived very different lives, so there’s this feeling of coming back to this old project and celebrating it together, trying to prove that we can still do it.”
With Miller and Grant (who also brought Hoen’s vision for the Skar Cymbals artwork to life) on board and the timing right, Hoen details the writing process for Skar Cymbals.
“I wrote all the riffs in a week and did the lyrics in a hotel while we were recording in Vermont—real fast, just like we used to. Pure impulse. “Culture of the Eternal Snake,” lyrically it’s about, well… we’ve got this cast of diabolical characters permeating our consciousness—Bannon and Sessions and Kusher and the Big Orange Pig himself—and that affects you on some level. That song is a full-volume meditation on not allowing the delusions and all the ugly shit… not letting it touch what’s most important, not letting it degrade us. Ego, greed, liars… it’s always been here, among us, and always will be… the snake eating its own tail… We’re just seeing a present day manifestation of that. The song is confronting that, in a way. Musically, it’s arranged in three movements. The last part was inspired by some things I saw during ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru.”
"We were never an important band, really, to anyone but a small number of people, most of them from Detroit."
Just as Hoen described older Thoughts of Ionesco music--raw, human, a little sloppy and ragged--the band tapped into that for Skar Cymbals.
“We wanted the recording to be really live,” says Hoen. “Heavy music is so polished now—most of it sounds false to me. We recorded more like Zeppelin would have, just live in a room, leave the mistakes, no triggers or any of that crap. Our old records were done live, except for the vocal. They were all tracked in a single day. We just wanted to keep it raw and document a moment.
I am not surprised to say that Hoen describes the re-convening of the band free of ceremony and fully involved with the music.
“[There was] not really much conversation. I think we knew what we had to do. The only influence was our trying to tap into the feeling of the band. We’re rehearsing now for a show in Detroit and it’s the same. We just play until it starts feeling right.”
Skar Cymbals is available now on Corpse Flower Records here. The Detroit show occurred between the time of this interview and its publication.