It was good timing that brought the three of them together in the spring of 2002, good timing and a shared desire to stretch out after being turned inward for so long. Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge had just finished typically intensive solo album projects, while Shawn Mullins had recorded a sizable batch of demos for his next Columbia Records album. Because they played a variety of instruments and knew how to operate the recording hardware, all three were in the habit of doing most of the work themselves. Each of them, then, was up for a break from introspection and a taste of interaction when the idea for the experiment came to them through the artist grapevine.
So it was that three resolutely self-contained and single-minded solo artists found themselves face to face, and voice to voice, in a room at Hollywood’s Sound Factory, working on a song. Sweet, Droge and Mullins didn’t know each other particularly well, but there were countless connections among them — common managers, producers and sidemen, mutual friends, a history of bumping into each other along the circuit — more than enough connections to bring them together to conduct this experiment, which is best presented as a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it be cool if several first-rate writer-singers managed to blend their sensibilities and their voices into a distinctive sound and style? That’s hardly a new idea, obviously. But Crosby, Stills & Nash formed in 1968, the Eagles in 1971; Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac in 1974. Isn’t it about time something similarly ambitious and audacious was attempted in this century?
Quite separately, all three of these unlikely collaborators had thought about singing with others, with Sweet even giving serious consideration to putting together a male-female harmony group in the manner of the Mamas & the Papas as a side project. Concurrently, Droge realized how much he wanted to jump off what he describes as “the solo-artist treadmill,” with its endless cycle of demo-record-wait-tour. And Mullins was simply antsy to do something different. So their antennas were out; still, they never expected to work together — or with anyone else — on an equal basis.
At first, the going was slow as they tried to come up with a collective methodology. They spent a couple of days on an idea of Droge’s called “I Set the World on Fire,” approaching it as an uptempo rock track. On the third day, with the “Fire” demo finished, Sweet suggested they try something more acoustic and threw out an idea for a ballad. The three of them had just begun playing around with it when a rep from Aware/Columbia, who’d been sufficiently intrigued by the experiment to underwrite it, suggested they take a break and go out to eat.
“We had just started working on this song, which became ‘I Can’t Remember,'” Droge recalls, “and we said, ‘We’re gonna stay here and finish the song.'”
It turned out to be the best meal they’d ever skipped.
“We were sitting in the room, singing the song together,” Droge continues, “and it was very clear to me that our voices, just out of pure dumb luck, worked great together. Once we started working on ‘I Can’t Remember,’ just singing together in the room with acoustic guitars, that’s when I knew this was something special. By the time he came back, we’d finished the song.”
“We all got excited when we were singing it,” says Sweet, “because something happened emotionally, and it had the sound. I thought, ‘We have something here.’ We played him the song, pretty much as it is now, and it was like a chills-type vibe. When we do that — when the three of us are singing real organically like that — that’s when people seem to flip out.”
Adds Mullins: “All of a sudden it just really locked in there. We found the place where our voices fit the best. There was immediate musical chemistry, and it got even better.”
Five days later, Aware/Columbia offered the newly formed trio a record deal.
When they got together again, spending two weeks at a ranch in picturesque Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara (where they would come up with “the Thorns” as their name), Mullins, Droge and Sweet were writing with a sense of purpose. During those informal sessions, which Sweet jokingly refers to as the nascent group’s “first golden period,” the songs tumbled out one after the other: “Think It Over,” “Thorns,” “Dragonfly,” “Such a Shame,” “Long Sweet Summer Night,” “I Told You,” forming what Droge calls “the cornerstones of the record and of the band’s sound.”
“I’d never worked so fast and come out with such good stuff,” says Mullins.
Droge again: “It was hot, middle of summer, and we’d just sit out on the back porch all day and work on these songs. Then at night we’d put a microphone out on the back porch and cut the demos right outside, with the crickets chirping, the wind blowin’. We’d have two mics, one on the guitar, one for the vocals, and we’d track it into Matthew’s laptop.”
“We had to demo right away because of so many details on everything — all those backgrounds,” Sweet explains. “We did all that live together. That’s the magical thing.”
After some growing pains as they got to know each other (more on that in a minute), the second “golden period” took place in a suite at L.A.’s Montrose Hotel, where the trio came up with “Runaway Feeling,” which opens the album, and “Among the Living,” which closes it.
The Thorns immediately thought of Brendan O’Brien to produce; O’Brien had done three records with Droge and two with Sweet, including each of their biggest sellers, Matthew’s 100% Fun and Pete’s Necktie Second. But he was an in-demand producer — he’d finished Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, was mixing Pearl Jam’s latest, Riot Act, and had the follow-up to Train’s breakthrough, Drops of Jupiter, on deck. So it was a long shot. But when Droge, who’s worked with Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, visited a Pearl Jam mix session, O’Brien asked him about the Thorns demos, and Pete replied that he just happened to have them in his pocket. “I knew Brendan was going to love it,” Droge says. He was right.
After a shakedown session in L.A., which resulted in a pair of basic tracks, O’Brien cleared eight weeks in the fall of 2002 to produce the Thorns’ debut album in Atlanta. “Until Brendan came on board, it never crossed anybody’s mind that this could be a commercial radio record,” says Mullins. “We just tried to write songs we liked.”
Tracking live in the studio, the three band members and O’Brien played the bulk of the instruments, with the legendary Jim Keltner on drums, the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan on piano and string wizard Greg Leisz providing accents on a variety of stringed instruments. And then they turned to the group vocals, which would be the album’s centerpiece. When listening to The Thorns, you can’t miss how precisely organized the harmonies are. The song structures and the massing of those voices in the choruses seem totally integrated, resulting in what amounts to a physical affect on the lifts.
Droge has a theory about what makes the Thorns sound so distinctive — and so breathtaking: “With a lot of great harmony bands, people would individually bring songs in and they’d work up their harmonies — CSN, Fleetwood Mac, etc. I’m not really aware of a band that has been this focused on the harmonies from the conception of a song. On our demos, very often the vocals were identical to what ended up on the final record because, as we were writing the songs, we were tailoring the melodies for the three-part harmonies. That process has everything to do with the sound of this band. There are places in the record where I swear I hear my voice and I know I’m not singing. It’s that X factor. You can’t tweak it in with an expensive equalizer or the right compressor. It either happens or it doesn’t. I have to give Matthew credit for getting us in the mindset of thinking this way. He was adamant about having harmonies all the time. It was good that we pushed ourselves that way.”
“There was a lot of tension too,” Mullins admits about the evolution of the Thorns. “It was three songwriters from totally different backgrounds. Until you figure each other out, how to be around each other, you never know if that kind of thing will work out.”
“It took a tremendous amount of letting go of all of our power issues,” Sweet adds.
Mullins picks up the thread: “Once we got that over with, our egos were set aside and here we go. It was a blast. We really did become friends through this process”.
“At the beginning, nobody knew how it was going to work, or if it’s going to work, or when it could implode,” Droge reflects on the Thorns experiment. “Because really, in theory, it’s a disaster waiting to happen — three guys who are used to generally being dictators, used to having their name in bold print on the front of the record, trying to be a band. It’s a miracle we actually made it happen.”
Says Sweet, “No one told us what to be like. No one gave us a model. We created what it is. It was more about our solidarity than anything else.”
“I haven’t felt this juiced about anything in years,” Mullins enthuses. “The immediacy and the spontaneity we had is a lot of what’s so great about it. There were several times during the process of writing and demo-ing — especially out on the porch at the ranch — where we’d all look at each other and it was like, ‘Wow, man, this is why we’re here.’ At those moments, I was feeling that this music is going to touch a lot of people.”
It won’t be long before the Thorns are doing exactly that.