By DJ Monk

Despite having been kicking around the Norn Iron scene for a little more than five years now, Belfast-based power trio THVS are about to unveil their debut full-length album. Which seemed like the perfect excuse to catch up with band founder and hard-working frontman Michael Smyth to find out more about the threesome (sic) and the music that they describe as “heavy pop” …

THVS publicity photoHowever, as this feature is titled ‘Über Rock Introduces…’, and the band will be unfamiliar to many readers outside this corner of the Überverse, I thought I’d take the band’s story right back to the beginning and ask Michael how the guys first met and decided to form a band?

Well, myself and Matt were in a previous band together. We’d been together like seven or eight years, which is an eternity in local band terms, and things had just kind of ran their course and were falling apart. We both had the same need and desire to keep going and making music together, so we went up to the practice room one Friday and then wrote five songs front to back just on the spot. Three of these went onto our first EP ‘Everyday Hexes’. The songs you hear on that are exactly how they came out, no changes no edits. It’s like the songs were just being given to us like some kinda divine rock and roll inspiration.

So, we were just gonna be a two piece, like Winnebago Deal or a heavy metal Simon and Garfunkel, but it became very apparent that we needed that low-end growl. So, at the time I was playing drums in another band and through that had just met Dave. What THVS were doing was very different to any of his other bands he’d been in, so I wasn’t sure he’d go for it – but, five years later, here we are: still the three of us.

For you personally, what inspired you to become a musician?

Honestly, when music came into my life properly it was just like this lightning bolt! This guy in my school gave me a tape of Green Day ‘1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours’ on one side and Nirvana ‘Bleach’ and a few other Nirvana tracks on the other. This totally just blew me away. It just set me off: “I want to do that… how do I do that?”

So, I tried guitar and was like “this makes zero sense” – still doesn’t, ha ha! So, my friend had a drum kit and that was when it was “like, OK, this is my thing. I started to teach myself drums and then from that point on music has basically been my life. From lying to people and telling them I was this amazing drummer just to get in a band – fake it till you make it, right – to today, being in as many bands as I can, being involved in every part of the process… It’s just something I have to do now. I feel if I ever quit, I’d lose this giant part of myself. I need it. I need to create. I need to get in a room with people and thrash about and pull something out of nothing, and get up on stage and do it in front of people.

Who would you describe as your musical heroes/influences?

I was obsessed with Nirvana growing up, so Kurt Cobain’s song writing was a huge influence, and still is today. Dave Grohl is my all-time musical hero: he slays at drums, guitar, all the extra-curricular stuff too… the documentaries, etc.

Other than that, guitar wise I’d have to say Aaron North of The Icarus Line/Nine Inch Nails/Jubilee fame: his approach to the guitar probably influenced me more than anyone. It was a fight with the guitar, with the equipment to get the sound out of it. Some people want to hit a button and it bring up the preloaded sound for that song: that’s far too easy for me,. I want to mess with pedals. I want things to go wrong and see what happens from that. I want the amp to scream back at me.

Murder City Devils were another huge one for me and Pretty Girls Make Graves. I could go on and on… it’s strange though: I don’t think I hear any of it in our music. 

In a world where music is categorized and genre-fied, you describe your sound as “heavy pop”? What exactly do you mean by that?

When you’re in a band the first two questions people always ask is what are you called and what do you sound like? No one gets that THVS is actually thieves: we’ve been called thus, t-h-v-s, tuvs – and now no one gets the heavy pop thing! But, honestly, to me it really feels like the best description of our sound, especailly with the new stuff. In the beginning it was like loud as possible and scream and riff and riff and riff. With the new stuff, we’re still loud and there’s still riffs, but it’s alongside big hooks and choruses.

Over the last few years, I’ve got really into pop music and its definitely changed my approach to song writing. Pop isn’t a dirty word. It doesn’t always mean One Direction or boy bands standing up in unison from their little stools.

So, it’s basically that melding of all those hardcore, post hardcore, metal, punk, noise rock influences that we all have and melding it to a pop sensibility. Plus, it looks great on a T-shirt.

You’re known for your high energy live shows: how do you psyche yourself up for a performance? Do you have any special preparations, or does the music just take over once you get on stage?

I have an Asian masseuse on hand at all times and I warm my voice up with a CD of Gregorian Chants for an hour before… Nah, no special preparations. Genuinely, I live for this and the songs elicit that reaction from me. If I wasn’t feeling anything from the songs we play, how could I expect anyone else to? About an hour before we play, my adrenaline starts and I start to bounce about the place; I know what’s coming and it all starts to take over… Then, once we’re up there, the blood is up and it’s just on.

Music is about feeling something, and our shows are a release, a catharsis and a celebration all at once. None of it is choreographed or contrived; it’s a pure release up there. That’s why we end up pulling cables out, turning tuners on by accident, falling into amps. No one does that kinda thing to look cool, ha ha!

Talking of live shows, you took part in the Bloodstock Metal 2 The Masses competition earlier this year, making it all the way to the final. Although you are seasoned musicians and performers, what did you gain from taking part in the contest. Did you learn any lessons to help you move forward? And would you do it again?

In terms of what we gained, we got to meet a bunch of great people and see some amazing bands.  We went into it very much from the point of view that we get to play a show and that was pretty much it… I mean we came on stage and said “We’re THVS we play pop music”! It’s pretty much a metal contest, so we were just having fun with it. But then the judges were super into it, the crowd were into it and then next thing we’re in the final. So, I think that in and of itself shows heavy pop transends all genres!

So, we got to play to a ton of people that maybe wouldn’t have heard us otherwise, got to play shows that were really well ran and sounded great, great lights – all that stuff which is amazing. 

In terms of lessons learned, we just do what we do… like I said, it’s pretty much for metal bands: we’re a heavy pop band so we bring our A game and see what happens. I’d love to do it again; we’ve so much planned next year hopefully nothing gets in the way of us entering!

You’ve released a few singles so far, but now you’ve got your debut album, ‘Fevers’, coming out soon. Is that a big step forward as far as you are concerned – a sign that you’ve definitely arrived?

Yeah we’ve had a few EP’s out, ‘Everyday Hexes‘ and ‘Plague Widows’ and a few singles from those. Then we released ‘Palisades’ earlier this year as a little teaser for the album, an entree for the main course.

Albums are a funny thing now. People aren’t digesting music that way; so, I feel that, in the time of Spotify and Apple Music, shuffle play etc., when most people consume one song and move on, an album is almost a bold statement. Maybe it’s ‘cause we’re a little older and were born and raised on albums, special editions, digipacks, CD ROMs with albums, etc., that we keep down that path.

The songs on ‘Plague Widows’ were meant to be the start of an album, but things transpired that meant they came out as an EP. So, we had all these other songs and then wrote more songs and everything just seemed very cohesive so ‘Fevers’ was conceived… I can’t wait until its actually born now.

In a way, I feel like an album… maybe legitimises is the wrong word, but it’s a very definite statement: it’s not all about streams and likes and shares – here’s the product of our labour. A definite body of work that represents the band and our sound and a good visual representation of that as well. It’s our flag in the moon.

You make great use of social media (I’m a fan of your Facebook page and how you interact with your fanbase): I take it you view this as important, not only in terms of keeping in contact with existing fans but also in terms of attracting new ones…

I think in the current age you can’t not view it as important. It’s the primary way 99 per cent of people find out about the world around them, listen to music, find out about shows, conduct their everyday lives. If you’re not present on social media, you’re starting the fight blind and with one hand tied behind your back.

I’m glad you’re enjoying it! I enjoy doing it. I try to inject as much of my personality into it as I can, rather than some “hey guys, check out this blah blah…” It makes me a little more glued to my phone day to day than I would like, but we get a lot of messages from people and it gives us a direct line to a fan base and it’s easier for people to find us on line and then go from any social media platform to the music, which is what really matters.

On the other side of the coin, do you think that the plethora of social media channels makes it harder for a band, any band, be they newbies or a long-established act, to raise their heads above all that chatter and noise and find a niche for themselves?

Like I said, I spend a lot of time on my phone, and 90 per cent of that is band related – looking for opportunities, emailing for shows, updating all the various social media platforms – and I’m not alone in that: you’ve hundreds of bands doing the same. That’s so much noise to attempt to cut through! It’s also a lot of time I could spend writing new songs that gets lost to the managing side. So much of being a band now is managing, marketing, promotion, admin and you need to be good, or at least competent, at it all, otherwise you’ve no hope.  

Finding your niche is important, hence heavy pop! Carving out our own heavy pop shaped space in the sandbox.

You’ve recently started your own promotions company and putting on your own gigs: why take that step in a city which seems to have a plethora of promoters but a lack of venues?

So many bands I talk to are like “oh it’s so hard to get shows” or “there’s nowhere to play” or “such and such never answers” or “they don’t like me so they won’t give us shows”. And I relate to those points, because it can be hard. To harken back to cutting through the noise, it can be tough.

THVS at the Bloodstock Metal 2 The Masses final, 17 May 2019But then my question is “what are you doing about it?” “Oh nothing, just gotta wait”. That’s not how I operate at all. If I want something, I’m going after it. If shows aren’t forthcoming, I’ll book my own.

It astounds me how few bands put on their own shows. I’ve put on shows since I was 14 and calling it something just gives it a name. I’ve been doing it for years and years for one band or another.

I still don’t think there are enough promoters willing to take chances, and you’re right: there aren’t enough venues… but, again, “what are you doing about it?” So, I’ve already started exploring different options. Ultimately it allows me to book shows for one of my four bands – and, in doing that, it means I get to share the stage with some amazing bands and help promote local talent.

I believe in local talent, and there’s so much of it is under-represented – more specifically the heavier end, or the grey area between rock and heavy. Because I play in a varied range of bands, it gives me the opportunity to showcase a wide range of bands. I’ve just done the first show which was very successful: in that I mean that the expense of the room got covered and all the bands got paid. I don’t take anything myself: it’s all back into the bands. I feel it’s a very DIY/punk approach to the whole enterprise. I would encourage more bands to put on shows, to take this approach.

Bands have a role to play in promoting shows as well; you can’t expect people to just show up. You need to engage with people, talk to them get them down. Ultimately, it means they get paid more and all the bands have a bigger crowd to play to.

It sounds cheesy but from playing to three people and a dog I just want to try and ensure that I’m doing something to make sure there are better shows for bands of all levels.

My final question is one which is a staple of this feature… imagine that THVS have made it Snore Patrol-level international acclaim: what would be the most outrageous thing you would put on your rider to make sure a promoter had read the fine print?

One screen standard Boba Fett replica costume for me, a Chewbacca one for Dave and an Akira jacket for Matt. Plus an Asian masseuse and a CD of Gregorian chants!

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