(originally published in Bootleg magazine, August 2007)
By Brian Tucker
There’s an image to me that sticks out about Thunderlip, and its not one of leader singer Chuck Krueger getting crazy onstage or guitarist James Yopp clinching his teeth tight enough to shatter while churning out riffs for the crowd.
It was February 2006 at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern. Just left of the floor level stage a guy sits hunched over in a chair against a stack of battered Marshall Amps. His head is resting still – he’s passed out, sound asleep. Thunderlip launch into their set and it’s loud and the guy doesn’t move. The crowd knows these songs very well after two years of the band playing them locally.
Underneath paneled walls covered in stickers the guy is within ten feet of Johnny Collins playing drums and John Manning on guitar playing left handed, channeling Black Sabbath on “Evil on Two Legs.” Packed with speakers, the equipment leaves little room for the band itself. Yet the floor level stage is inviting, the crowd standing close enough to where one could confuse who’s in the band and who’s here for the show. Brash and thick, the hard rock meets punk flavored music fills a room which looks added as afterthought onto the actual bar. A Wilmington haunt, Reggie’s is comfortable, a place to drink and hang out free of pretensions.
That night Thunderlip is the closing act for the Johnny Cash Birthday Bash. The first song, “Damnation,” serves as an appropriate salvo to start the show – it’s energetic and its song breaks allow for enthusiastic crowd participation.
Rain poured heavily that February night, cars parked jaggedly along the poorly lit street and in nearby parking lots. People walked in the rain, stomping through mud holes to get inside for the free show sponsored by Cuervo.
Krueger thanks the audience and pays respects to the other bands on the bill. He and the rest of the band are regular guys who want to play rock and roll and have a good time. Within four months it would seem the band called it quits, with drummer Collins departing just after the band replaced its bassist.
Get Your Life Together was released in 2005 and breathed life into a genre that has fell victim to seemingly declining interest in straight up rock music. In a period where polished rock bands pretend to be tough and at the same time treat people to manufactured songs, the members of Thunderlip were pumping raw guitar riffs that jammed and rocked crowds.
Add to that a competent and memorable front man, whose stage presence and wardrobe choices were as memorable as the music or whose drinking onstage meant taking bottles from complete strangers or letting crowd members spray him with it. Krueger never taunted the audience, he invited people to come alive whatever the cost, dousing him with alcohol, wearing a dress, or sometimes bleeding. It was old school rock and metal but it looked and sounded punk too.
It seemed that Thunderlip happened naturally. There was no divine plan to get five guys together and conquer the world. Collins, Yopp and original bassist Brandon Autrey attended Hoggard High School together and in March 2004 got together to jam. Yopp played in pop punk bands as did Collins so the situation was ripe for something.
“Yopp was into Iron Maiden type stuff. He had all these riffs,” Collins explains. “We all got together and started jamming. We met Manning and started jamming with him too, just doing it to have fun and get all these riffs out there. Never intending to be a band.”
Collins has played the drums since 1994 after switching from guitar, an instrument his father played. Collins’ father played in a lot of bands in the eighties around town – Alter Ego, Blitz as well as Sonya’s Kitchen.
“He’s an old school dude,” Collins says. The two have never performed onstage together, just jammed at the house or at sound checks. “It’s never really worked out,” he laughs. “We always joke about starting a cover band.”
Collins father likes Thunderlip. “He was big into hair metal – Ratt, Dokken. And when he hears wailing guitars he’s in.” Collins imitates his father, “Them boys can play.”
In the fall of 1991 Collins heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ off Nevermind and wanted to play drums. As a drummer Collins is stoic and focused but bangs the hell out of his kit.
“I go through a lot of sticks because I have not learned how to not rim shot on the snare drum. So it chews ‘em all up,” he says. “I like to play like Dave Grohl.”
His first band was Decker with Ben Brown. There were several incarnations of bands that involved Collins and Brown and someone on bass. They then formed The Fire Parade which toured with The Yes S.O.S. a lot. At the time Krueger was playing in The Yes S.O.S. with Matt Hearn. The two would later form another band, White Tiger and the Bed of Roses, along with one-time Thunderlip bassist Patrick Phillips.
“That’s how Chuck started coming into the practice room and hearing it,” Collins says.
Thunderlip would grow into a conflagration of metal, punk and rock done with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a sense of fun.
“Everyone puts their own influences into one big pot,” Colllins says. “I’m big on early nineties bands – Fu Manchu, Rocket From The Crypt, Nirvana.”
Since Krueger was in the same practice space the guys were jamming in he offered to come and sing if they wanted play shows.
“I had plenty of time on my hands so I gave it a shot,” Krueger says.
“We were like, eh, fuck it,” Collins says. “We started playing shows and people started really digging it. So, we were like, we should make this is a band.”
The first practice with Krueger was a success. The guys listened to those songs for so long as instrumentals and the first three they wrote were “Damnation,” “Fire in the Hole” and “Viking Love Song.”
“When Chuck came in and started putting in lyrics it was awesome,” Collins remembers.
Krueger’s vocals varied from tracks where he sang to those he screamed vocals, not so much that it was indiscernible, but high-pitched delivery sounding cool and energetic.
“Originally when I started, not as joke, I’d go and fuck around and make up whatever, ended up screaming everything. I write completely abstract lyrics. Completely meaningless, put words together and if they sound cool, keep it. Try to make it sound tough,” Kruger says with a chuckle. “It’s not that I wasn’t serious, I think half of it was dealing with crappy PA gear and trying to be heard with everyone else.”
Making things up notwithstanding there was still a template that Autrey outlined that included pirate imagery, perhaps a nod to old school lore about rock and metal bands living large as stars, modern Vikings that tearing into towns and taking over for a night.
“Brandon was way into that stuff,” Collins says. “He wrote a lot of the lyrics.” Brandon would always write an outline and Chuck would take certain things and make it his own, such as nods to leather in their song “Leather Forever.”
Krueger would sing, I’m just a man/In leather pants/How do I make the young hearts bleed/Romantic nights on the open sea. The band still didn’t have a name and needed one for the show. Autrey said they should be called Thunderlip, like Hulk Hogan from Rocky III.
Collins says, “You know, it was good time thing. Everyone liked the name so we kept it.”
That first show was a success, something that Collins admits should not have been because every band he’s been in, the first show is comprised of a core group of friends.
“We were just trying to play and have fun but from the first show, we’ve always seen really good crowds and they kept coming back,” Krueger says.
That first show, appropriately, was at Reggie’s.
“Reggie’s is home. I don’t know why cause the sound is shit in that place,” Collins says. “I think it’s because all of us growing up playing house shows, because of the atmosphere, you know, everyone’s right in your face. Reggie’s is like playing in someone’s living room.”
“I like the floor level stuff,” Krueger says, “right there with the crowd.”
Thunderlip, recorded a three song demo in late May of 2004 and played a show in October the same year with The Fire Bird Band. Lucid Records owner Chris Broach plays in that band and was impressed with Thunderlip. He wanted to record them and release it on his label.
They recorded together in early 2005 and the album was released in June. Recording the first record was a relatively quick process. The band practiced two doors down from where they’d record Get Your Life Together.
“All the songs came to us really easy. It was a lot of riffs Yopp had had forever.” Collins says. “He was stoked he finally got to use them.”
But Lucid Records pushed for thirteen tracks. The band hammered out a few more such as “Lazer Hawk,” a song in complete overdrive and one you don’t hear them play much live.
“We just wrote it for filler. Didn’t think any one would like it,” Collins says, and that the last track was “total filler.” “Dead Horse” is a droning track that that doesn’t fit anywhere on the record, a goofy one like the last song on Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple album.
“The mastering sounded really weird on the first record. We didn’t realize how much say we actually had in the matter,” Krueger says. “Three days before we had to turn it in, we were in the studio twelve hours a day, thinking what the fuck are we gonna do? Putting whatever the fuck we can put out, that’s why that last song is on there, in there just joking around. Chad from Chad B Studios recorded it and kept it.”
Collins remembers, “John Manning said, ‘I’m going into the studio and Chuck said ‘I’ll go with you’. One take, they just did it.” Broach called the next day and told them he thought it was amazing.
“We recorded at four in the morning because it had to be sent off the next day to be mastered.”
The band agree that the last album felt rushed and for their follow up they planned to take their time and get it right, the way they wanted it to sound. It would take much longer to get a second album out than expected.
Founding member Autrey left the band for Washington, D.C. with his girlfriend. The two were married two months ago. At the time Thunderlip had a lot of momentum behind them, getting well known locally as well on the road. Their songs were used on cable channels, on sports DVD’s and they found support with Vestal Watches and DVS shoes. Autrey wanted to play their last show but it never worked out.
“It sucked. We were on a roll,” Collins remembers. “He quit at a bad time and we didn’t want to slow down.” Although all is well now, in a business sense the band handled things as needed, but the choice stung and wasn’t a great ending.
“Brandon’s quitting? Okay, here’s Ben Brown,” Collins explains. “There was no downtime.”
Brown came in quick because of playing with Collins in The Fire Parade and his solid knowledge of music theory didn’t hurt either.
“He’s a good musician, man,” Collins says.
Brown’s duration would be short lived, eventually leaving to take a job at a newspaper and replaced with the band’s third bassist Patrick Phillips. By July of 2006 Collins would decide to leave the band. He left for school but much of his decision was based on maintaining a relationship.
“I was neglecting it, so focused on the band,” Collins explains. He says his longtime girlfriend pulled the plug and he bowed out. “I didn’t want to slow the dudes down. I had so many personal things going on. I had to get my shit together.”
Collins had been so involved, did so much in the way of band business it looked grim. He’s a very calm, laid back, and takes the mellowest approach to being the business man in the band. He claims he’s OCD about things, focused on wanting things to happen.
“I’m the nerd that carries around the planner and writes down things. That’s how I work, that’s how I get things going.” It is the reason he became the band dad, making sure everything happened – shows, band practice.
I ask him if all the work made being in the band less fun. Collins mulls it over for a second.
“In town, it wasn’t that fun doing all the work.” Once getting out of town and playing shows he saw fruits of it all. “This is why I do it. It makes this happen,” he says.
In the interim that Collins was gone Yopp stepped up and took care of things. Now that Collins is back they’re both tag-teaming the responsibilities, Collins not having to bear the weight of much of the work.
“I came back because it seemed like the right thing to do,” Collins says. “Absolutely missed it.”
Krueger knew the band was going to carry on, “do what we had to do to keep it going but it’s definitely great to have him back. We’ve been through, like, 4 or 5 bass players now so I’m pretty used to that changing but the drummer thing was a little different. We practiced a lot with those dudes though and I think they did a good job. We were real lucky with Collins moving back to town.”
I heard talk of a new record coming out in November or December of last year with new drummer Ben Lanier and bassist Phillips. They played its first show together without Collins at the Rox downtown for this magazine’s anniversary party in July 2006. The music was good as always but it was different to say the least, and odd not seeing Collins behind the kit.
By October the band was playing more shows and at River Fest their sound had changed, filled out and moved into a different groove. Krueger took the stage in black pants, a black cape and bandied about, singing differently, more fluid. The high-pitched wails and screams had been replaced with stronger vocals. Songs felt stretched out more, not so hurried, and highlights of the set included “Rock Lady” and “The Prophecy” tempered with a highflying guitar riff and a mid-section that was flat out boogie, a marked change for a band that owed as much to metal as it did punk. It begged the question of whether side project White Tiger and the Bed of Roses was spilling over but in time it proved not to be the case.
“I think they’re pretty different, but Yopp has been playing guitar in White Tiger for a while so you can probably hear his style of play coming through,” Krueger says, adding that he enjoys playing in White Tiger since he gets to write music. “It’s fun to not have to be the front man but it’s mostly fun to get to play the guitar again. I can play rhythm guitar but I’m not anywhere near the caliber of Manning and Yopp.”
New drummer Lanier would leave in the fall to attend school for Radiology and by January of 2007 Phillips would leave the band after his son was born.
“Patrick had a kid and couldn’t tour,” Collins says. “He did what anybody would do in that situation.”
It also wasn’t long before Collins returned to the band he helped form. I got an e-mail from him about the band recording new material last April and went down to the studio to check it out.
Collins stands in front of a desk tapping a water bottle against his cheek at Cape Fear Studios, barely lost in thought. He and engineer Ian Millard are discussing Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” Millard, a friend of Collins since they were kids and also a member of White Tiger and the Bed of Roses, is recording new tracks for the band’s upcoming album The Prophecy, to be sent off for mastering for an August release.
Millard suggests that the band use it as a ghost track, coming on long after the last song is finished. They’ve played it many times at shows, one that easily welcomes guest vocalists. They enjoy it as a cover, one Manning encouraged the band to learn after he couldn’t get it out of his head.
“Send a check to the Harry Fox Agency and make it a hidden track,” Ian says.
The band began recording tracks in March and re-recording songs the band did before Collins’ return. They’ve laid down guitar and drum tracks for “Mr. Informer,” “The Prophecy,” “Backseat Bedlam” and three more. Today Collins and Yopp are doing tracks for a song they came up with the night before at practice, “Loose.”
“We shortened “Rock Lady,” Collins says. The band stopped playing the song altogether to rewrite it and it almost didn’t get recorded at all.
“Rock Lady” was shortened because before it seemed like it was dragging the whole time. It was a slower tempo. We sped it up and cut a lot of the unnecessary parts out in the middle since it seemed to overlap and sound the same,” Collins says. “So we shortened it because we all were on the fence about putting it on the CD. When we revised it it became one of our favorite songs.”
He and Yopp re-enter the music room and after a few false starts record guitar and drum parts for ‘Loose.’
“You still like that click?” Ian asks. Johnny nods from the studio. “Just let the click do the work for you.”
The click track ticks heavily in the recording room. On the other side of the glass is Collins on drums and Yopp playing guitar. The playing stops and the click continues in the room. They run through it a few times and come back in to have a listen. Ian stops the playback and asks what they think.
Yopp says “I think it sounds pretty damn good. It sounds cool to me, man.”
Collins taps the water bottle rapidly a few minutes and just says “Cool.” He checks his cell phone. “Let’s see what young Krueger wanted.”
“Probably wanted to see if we were up here,” Yopp says.
Krueger will be in an hour or so although Ian says that they don’t really need him today.
“I think he just wants to hang,” Yopp says.
Collins is concerned about not knowing the whole of “Rock Lady” yet, and that they sped it up. He’s not concerned about their new bass player who lost a disc of rough tracks for him to learn the new songs. Collins and Yopp think its funny, aren’t really that worried. Kenny Ells is the band’s new bass player and is finishing up his major in Physics at UNCW.
“He’s got that Geezer Butler bass style that’s awesome, really rad bass lines,” Collins says. “He’s such a calm dude. We don’t know he’s in the band half the time because he’s quiet, keeps to himself, reads.”
Ian finishes cueing up the tracks they’ve laid down. He counts off the running times of some songs, “Mr. Informer” is 4:45, “The Prophecy” is six minutes. You’re looking at forty five minutes.”
The conversation veers towards mixing and mastering of the new album, a concern left over from the muted mix of their debut. Ian talks about John Golden.
“There’s two ways he does it. You either send him the raw tracks and he does everything to it or you get everything to two-track, edit it, get the fades right, get everything right to where all he has to do is run it through his gear and do the mastering on it. He’s coming out of Pro Tools into all Analog gear.”
Ian stresses that once they get everything mixed they all sit down and listen to it and once they like the mix then ask what can Golden do in mastering that they can’t do at Cape Fear to make it sound better.
“I want to give him the hottest mix but give him enough headroom to slam the shit out of it, to where it would be good and loud. I mean, its rock and roll,” Ian says. He focuses on the sound of the album they’re going for, referencing albums by the Party Animals and the new Valient Thorr, the sound the album is going for, the bright highs of one album and lows of another.
“So what do we have to do, get the right levels?” Yopp asks.
“No, we gotta get the textures right. We gotta get your guitar sound and John’s guitar sound, the main drum sound, Ian says. “You got all these tracks and get them down to two. We’re making sure there’s enough room where you can hear everything. And it sounds good, it has good texture. It’s making sure you can hear everything and it has the kind of sounds you want on it. Mastering takes the levels and maximizes them out. Most of the time he adds a little EQ here and there and this stuff he’ll probably add a lot of mid range and a lot of high end. ‘Cause that’s what rock and roll really calls for. You want that nasty bite, really aggressive.”
Analog distortion is what makes a guitar sound like a guitar, instead of sounding sterile. The recording will be done going to analog tape to give it a full sound. By recording to tape it spreads out the stereo spectrum more, giving a fuller sound. Its natural compression, the music has to fit on the tape, if it doesn’t you get cracks and pops. It’s akin to mashing a paint brush into something versus painting straight line. There’s more information.
Ian suggests getting songs from albums for the sound they’re going for to give the mastering engineer. He even jokes, but serious, about playing the new songs on a shitty portable stereo to which Collins replies, “If you can make it sound good on that, then…”
He and Yopp return to the playing area and give “Loose” another try. It goes well and Collins stops playing suddenly and begins to smile. He looks away and then to Ian across the room. “I got off rhythm.”
Krueger comes in the studio as they are going through the track, wearing long shorts and an old t-shirt. He bobs his head and bounces a bottle on the corner of the couch to the rhythm.
Collins and Yopp come back in and they sit down to listen to the rough tracks again. Everyone is quiet sitting in the low lit paneled engineering room.
“Did you guys bang out that other one? Let’s hear that,” Krueger says.
Ian cues up “The Prophecy” and the energy in the room goes up, everyone smiling. The music is fresh and different from their debut album. “Rock Lady” comes on next.
“I like this way better sped up,” Krueger says of “Rock Lady,” a song that recalls early Kiss and Ram Jam.
“Have you got any words for “Impaler”? Ian asks.
“Yopp wrote that one,” Krueger says. “I should be able bang out the rest by then,” referring to the upcoming Wednesday recording session. “What time you guys trying to meet on Wednesday?” Krueger asks.
“I can go as early as you want,” Ian says.
“I’m not much of a morning dude,” Krueger says.
“I can get here in the morning,” Yopp says.
Much of the lyrics were written on the last band trip and Krueger came up with melodies last night. The result is material that is driving and raw. The sound of the new record is large, more in your face. The guitars breathe and are more characteristic than before. The band is jazzed because it’s all analog, wanting to do it the way albums were done in the seventies where sound was mixed to tape.
Collins refers to the songs as “typical rock songs,” like chicks at shows (“Rock Lady” and “Backseat Bedlam”), sticking things out (“Denim Destiny”), getting free from a controlling female (“Loose”) or a joking song about being cocky (“Mr. Informer”), and “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” It flies in contrast to some of the members; all are in a relationship except for Krueger.
Thunderlip’s music is raucous and energetic but mostly it’s good, loud and fun. It’s dangerous and sometimes unpredictable. Tapping into the vein of seventies rock which is familiar to so many people like classic rock, especially in the south. It’s that sound being played by a bunch of younger guys to younger kids.
“It sounds like mid seventies Sabbath records and Deep Purple records,” Collins says.
On all the new tracks Krueger’s singing is different. His voice is fuller, showing he can be a great rock vocalist. It’s a wonder why he wasn’t performing like this all along. On tour he was screaming a lot and during the day couldn’t talk. Krueger was thrashing his voice and decided to start singing more. Stoked about the new material Kruger leans over to talk over the music on the speakers.
“John Manning played on top of his solo for another song but didn’t want to play on it exactly, so it would sound a little off.”
The recording of The Prophecy took nearly three months. A large portion of it was done once Collins came back to the band. Material recorded prior to his return was scrapped for sake of it making it easier record fresh versus matching things.
“The hardest part is getting the drums laid down right. Yopp will go in and do a scratch track. Once we get that down its pretty easy. I like it better than tracking live. Everything sounds tighter. Punk records are amazing when they’re tracked live. The first album, a lot of it was live tracked with few overdubs.”
“We were thinking about putting this out last December but the whole drummer thing, it got pushed back,” Krueger says. “We’re tough on ourselves but I’m definitely stoked about this next one.”
Ian interjects to tell everyone about driving by Leather Emporium on Oleander Drive recently. “Check out their sign. It’s a digital sign that rolls up and it says LEATHER FOREVER,” he says with a laugh, the wording the same as the song from their debut album.
“Should have stopped in,” Krueger says.
Chuck Krueger looks like a guy in a rock and roll band when you see him coming across the room. His eye line is focused but when he smiles, he grins likes a young kid. Looking serious, perhaps even standoffish to those he doesn’t know, but he’s laid back and humorous.
Originally from Maryland, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina after some friends did. Wilmington reminded him of Annapolis and as a bonus he was close to the ocean since he enjoyed surfing.
His demeanor offstage is the opposite onstage. When the music kicks off something in his blood must kick in too. He is playful and sarcastic to the crowd, inviting them into the spectacle of rock and roll. Whereas many bands are content to stand and play he embraces the idea that rock and roll is as much a show as it is an experience. Performing in underwear and cowboy boots, leather pants, capes and occasionally, jeans and a t-shirt, his attire is kept a secret until stepping on stage, enjoying the looks on the other guy’s faces.
“I’ve always tried to be as energetic as we play. I kind of have to with the music that I’m playing with,” he says.
Sometimes he catches grief for it though. In Greensboro he was heckled by a guy in the crowd who yelled, “You’re not crazy! I saw you earlier and you were normal!” Krueger explained to him that he was there to entertain.
“We’re all actually pretty mellow dudes when we’re not in mid-song.”
It’s just difficult for some to understand perhaps.
“I thought he was amazing, hilarious, one of the funniest dudes you’ll meet,” Collins says. “I don’t know, he’s quiet. Unless he knows you he’s pretty standoffish, which doesn’t make any sense ‘cause he’s a bartender.”
Growing up around Baltimore Krueger a lived a few years in Ocean City listening to a steady intake of Jawbreaker, Screeching Weasel, Fugazi and like band mate Collins, Rocket from the Crypt.
“The music scene in Ocean City was a joke unless you’re into 311 cover bands. They’re probably still rocking Sublime on a regular basis,” he says.
Krueger says Thunderlip has never stopped being fun. Knowing that makes it easier to understand the band’s energy and performance. The creative process is pretty much the same, Yopp and Manning come in with a song structure and the rest of the band adds to it.
Collins agrees, “Once Yopp or Manning come in with a solid riff we can bang out a song in a night. We’ve done it so long and work so well together.”
While Krueger may only sing in Thunderlip, he does so in White Tiger in addition to playing guitar. He sang first, learning like many, listening to the radio.
“I still feel like a dick when I look over at the car next to me and a good looking girl will catch me rocking out to Toto or Boston.”
When Collins returned to the band they got together and created four songs in one evening. He says he really missed playing with everyone in the band.
“It was crazy,” he says, “It’s more like it was in the beginning, a different direction. I think we found something we’re super comfortable with,” Collins says of the current state of the band. “Everyone that’s in the band, in my opinion, it’s the best it’s ever been, we got all the dudes that are doing it for the right reasons.”
The Prophecy will be released August 10th with a show at the Soapbox. Lucid Records has hired a publicist for the band, doing things Collins won’t have to for a while, like sitting in front of a computer booking tours and doing mailings. The label is also trying to get more licensing and marketing of songs from the new record.
The refreshing thing, still, is the humility of five guys playing hard nosed, vigorous rock and roll. At a recent show the venue had big elaborate lights and drum riser. The first thing Collins asked (about the show) is could he could use regular lights and set up in front of the drum monitor.
“Cause I don’t want be showing off. The smaller the better. It’s weird with Yopp way, way over there,” he says referring to his band mate on stage.
He’s optimistic but overly realistic about playing music, about, whether it’s something we can do for a living.
“If it did we’d be stoked. We’ve done it because its fun,” he says. “It started off, let’s play rock and roll. Let’s just play rock. It feels good.”
Thunderlip has always been one of the most user friendly bands in Wilmington, eagerly welcoming people into their fold, to party right along with you, like you were in someone’s house and everyone knew each other. Its something you don’t see that a lot, the line blurred between fans and a band.