When Thin White Rope visited the Soviet Union in late 1988, the band brought back more than caviar and a photo of the Kremlin. It experienced firsthand the early rumblings of a revolution. Rock 'n' roll imitated life when young Lithuanian rebels went wild at the Rope's shows, even stage-diving with reckless abandon.
"They were just having an openly good time," remembers Rope guitarist-vocalist Guy Kyser in a recent phone interview. "The resistance movement was already really strong when we were there. It was all but in the open. They had just legalized the Lithuanian flag again, and so people were going around wearing that. We were going around wearing it, too."
Meanwhile, back in Moscow, the Rope might've been in a different country altogether. "People were a lot more laid-back, a lot quieter, and didn't want to be real obvious."
Besides getting a crash course in internal Soviet affairs, Thin White Rope also was introduced to the tedious realities of totalitarian life. Although the band did enjoy some memorable times, much of its Soviet spree was marked by delays, Kyser says. In fact, as soon as the Rope alighted on Russian soil, a Soviet official informed the band that it would play fifteen gigs instead of six and that it had absolutely no choice in the matter.
The elongated tour left the band spending much of its time in hotel rooms and airport lobbies, but that was nothing new for Thin White Rope, says Kyser.
"We had a lot of down time in [our] first couple of European tours," he says. "They were poorly organized. We'd be stuck in an old house in Sweden for three days, or laying around Rome for five days, without any money and usually writing songs just to pass the time."
So, by exchanging boredom for creativity, Thin White Rope took advantage of those empty moments to write some tunes that would eventually end up on its new album, Sack Full of Silver. Composed in cities as far apart as Moscow and Cincinnati, the record reflects the melancholy of life on the road. "It's a good time for your emotions to carry you away," Kyser says.
The record's most powerful tour tale is "Americana," a sorrowful story of an unfaithful wretch haunted by his guilty conscience. Kyser sings of sitting alone in a cheap hotel room after an equally cheap liaison, a scene that seems a little too real to be imagined. Is he perhaps singing with the voice of experience?
"I've been pretty good on these tours here," is his guarded reply, "but that's how I imagined it would be."
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Kyser pauses for a second or two before finally fessing up. "Actually, yeah," he says, "I have done things like that, so I know what it's like."
The album's dark tone continues with "The Ghost" and an especially mournful remake of "Amazing Grace" that replaces the spiritual's words of salvation with images of acute emptiness.
"The melody is like a counterpoint to the lyrics," he says. "The lyrics are about being lost, and the melody is about being found. It's intentional that it came after `Americana.'"
Not every song, though, is an exact reconstruction of Kyser's experiences on tour. For example, the song "On the Floe" was inspired by the Rope leader's stay in a guest house in Sweden, but the lyrics capture his emotions, not the actual events.
"There was a frozen lake right next to the house," Kyser remembers. "Each night, for want of anything else to do, we'd walk out on the lake in the fog, and it'd come down and you couldn't see anything. But I didn't even mention the lake in the song. It was just a remembrance of how I felt while I was there."
While Kyser's prose is often deep and picturesque, his vocal delivery is somewhat unorthodox, a cross between a gravelly Bob Dylan and an unsure Neil Young. It's a comparison to which many singers would take offense, but Kyser takes it as a compliment. "Those guys are great," he enthuses.
Kyser's voice is just one thing that sets Thin White Rope apart in the alternative world. Guitars twist and bend in an electric haze, bass lines strut through melodic--but unusual--keys, and modern tribal drums pound the songs into odd shapes. Thin White Rope's sound on Silver is often exotic, sometimes a little loose, but always dramatic.
Kyser says the band's current tunes have come a long way from its early songs. "Our first album, Exploring the Axis, was kind of a nervous album, like we weren't sure about the studio and stuff yet. It's sort of a learning album for us. We hadn't quite got our style together."
On the group's second and third records, the music began to fall into place, he says. "Moonhead was where we really got our own style together. We started doing a lot of harmonies, layering distortion and reverb. It was kind of a breakthrough album for us. Then there was Spanish Cave, which came out in 1988. That one, in a way, was practicing for the album we just put out. We had so many ideas and so many styles that we wanted to put on that record that we didn't quite get a whole focus together."
Kyser thinks the band finally got its sound straightened out for Sack Full of Silver, but he says Thin White Rope has no plans to stand still. "Actually, I'm thinking about putting together a heavy-metal EP."
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Other tentative plans call for the licensing of Thin White Rope records in the Soviet Union and a follow-up tour. Make that an organized follow-up tour, Kyser says. "I wouldn't want to do it the same way, that's for sure."
Thin White Rope will perform at the Sun Club on Wednesday, April 25. Show time is 9 p.m.
A Soviet official informed the band that it would play fifteen gigs instead of six and that it had absolutely no choice in the matter.
THE TILTED SCALES OF JUSTICE SO MANY KNE... v4-25-90