Thief River is hesitant about using the word "country" to describe its music.
"I remember telling people, 'You've got to come see this band I'm working with. It's country," notes guitarist Mike Makkay, also a member of King Rat, who started spreading the word soon after the quintet formed in 2011. "Immediately, they glazed over and they said, 'Nah, man.' They thought it was friggin' Kenny Chesney or something."
You could hardly confuse this band's output for Kenny Chesney — or any brand of modern country, for that matter. Breakneck rhythms and distorted guitar mark the eleven tracks on Southbound to Nowhere, the group's debut full-length. Songs like "Anarchy Road" and "Halo" are fast, brash, and have fat guitar riffs that feel much more punk than country. There are hints of '80s metal and Southern rock coloring the songs, too.
Even so, it's impossible to miss the loving nods to the traditional country aesthetic and lore that constantly pop up in the music coming from former Rexway members Mike Mitchell, Chris Dokter and Craig Dubin and their mates, Makkay and bassist Geoff Orwiler. A pedal-steel guitar and Jew's harp stand out among the power chords and driving beats on songs like "Shut Your Mouth," and the steady G chord intro and droning electric guitar lines on "Southern Comfort" introduce lines about "honky-tonk[ing] all weekend" and "Southern girls inviting boys." Tunes like "Angel From Montgomery," meanwhile, features measured mandolin lines from Orwiler and emotive storytelling from guest vocalist Micaela Haluko.
Even the band's name speaks of backwoods country dances and cowboy hats. It comes from a small town in Minnesota called Thief River Falls, a rural community seemingly honored in the tune "Legends" with lines like "We come from this small town that no one's ever leaving/With dirt roads and wide open plains."
"It's more among the feeling of what Mellencamp did back in the day instead of Springsteen," clarifies Mitchell, whose vocals veer between balladry and angry punk rock. "It's working-class. It could have a little Woody Guthrie feel to it. If you have a guy who works out on a construction site, some of them like country, some of them like rock, some of them like punk. Our music caters to those types of people."
And these guys walk the walk of the blue-collar everyman. During a recent rehearsal held in an auto-parts warehouse off Colorado Boulevard, the guys cut the figures of construction-site workers, with construction boots, jeans and ragged shirts worn earlier on a welding site making up their wardrobe. Mitchell, who grew up in Casper, Wyoming, speaks with a sort of reverence when detailing the pace of life in a small town. Pickup trucks, summer nights, drinking, fighting and abandon — it's clear that all of these are the stuff of legend for the lead singer, and that romanticism shows up in the music.
"A lot of this is similar to that," Mitchell points out. "It's like when you're a kid and you get out of school for the summer and head out to the lake: You back up the pickup truck, dig a hole, drop a keg in the hole, and sit out in the middle of nowhere and get drunk. You sit with your friends and listen to your favorite songs on the radio. That's my feeling of the whole album."
Thief River's fusion of working-class musical styles isn't such a departure for the members of the band. Mitchell, Dokter and Dubin explored similar territory in Rexway, which disbanded in 2005. And while King Rat runs much more to punk than country, Makkay has tried his hand at other styles. Orwiler's past work in the scene includes stints as both bassist and guitarist in funk bands and alternative-rock outfits.
"We're really open to trying different pieces and styles. We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves in any specific sound; it is what it is," Mitchell notes. "We can have a real heavy, punk-rock feel and throw a mandolin and a little harmony in. If anyone has an idea, we're all open to trying it. We've all been in bands for so long."
While Mitchell, Dokter and Dubin took some cues from their previous work in Rexway, the sound of this band is more seasoned and mature. It's an element that comes from life experience in terms both positive and negative. Much of Southbound to Nowhere's most heartrending and honest moments, for example, are rooted in tales of Mitchell's divorce. "Nowhere," for example, is chock-full of imagery of abandonment and separation. "While I was married, we joked around about how I don't have anything left to write anymore because I was pretty happy," Mitchell admits. "All of a sudden, I've got enough material."
But the creative growth in Thief River goes deeper than the fallout of intense and emotional life experience. The inclusion of Orwiler on bass and vocals expanded the formula first honed in the days of Rexway. "I think we knew what we do. These guys brought a whole different element," Dokter says. "Geoff is the actual musician of the band; he plays all kinds of shit." For his part, virtuoso solos and stunning instrumentals weren't Orwiler's goal when he joined the band. Having experimented with alternative, funk and rock styles in bands like Fallout Orphan and Cure for Pain, Orwiler saw a lure in Thief River's straightforward and emotionally direct take on all of these genres. He gave up guitar for bass, and he likewise gave up ornate picking styles for a more traditional approach to the instrument.
"Sometimes it's a challenge to learn a more normal style," Orwiler admits, adding that the band's experience also offered a more mature work ethic. "The biggest difference is that when you're a kid and you play in a rock band, you don't know what you're doing. Everybody wants to jam every idea that they have and every single song. This band seems like everybody is down for listening, everybody is playing something that's appropriate."
The members of Thief River want that easygoing and professional working relationship to continue as they plan their followup to Southbound, a release recorded in Denver's Strickler Studios and mastered by Jeff Kanan. New songs are coming at a steady pace, but the group insists that the priority is getting the word out about the eleven tunes that have already been released. "It's a great beginning," Makkay notes. "We're changing all the time, and it's evolving."
Even so, any future output from the band is likely to draw on the kind of imagery and mood that makes Mitchell break into a grin and pine for a simpler place. "We're coming back into the same neighborhood of music I've made in the past," he observes. "Drinking, fighting, sex, divorce, heartache, love."
Doesn't get any more country than that.