With Unsung Heroes we pay tribute to great bands and artists that haven’t gotten their due. Under this banner we highlight forgotten favorites, cult artists and unknown legends from different genres and eras. This time around we revisit the beloved and sadly overlooked Northern California band Thin White Rope, talking to guitarist Roger Kunkel about their whole lifespan, including touring behind the iron curtain and barely escaping the Lockerbie bombing. Tune into our Thin White Rope playlist, and join the ride with one of the best-kept secrets in ’80s American guitar rock.
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The first you hear is an impenetrable wall of grinding, chainsaw-like guitars. Then there’s that steady, motoric pounding rhythm that never surrenders. And then this raspy gravel, a spooky baritone voice, like a raging fire and brimstone preacher, with hazy, slurred lyrics that wasp away like smoke.
Thin White Rope – a name taken from William Burroughs’ euphemism for ejaculation in Naked Lunch – formed around singer Guy Kyser and guitarist Roger Kunkel as its sole constants, along with a revolving cast of members to fill out the quartet being active between 1984-1992.
The group never really fit into the categories used to brand guitar dominated rock in the 1980s. Thin White Rope were too harsh to be labeled as jangle, too loud for the emerging alternative country movement and too dark to fit into the flowery Paisley Underground.
Their widescreen musical scope, borrowing equally from western and eastern influences, is perhaps best described by numerous artists they covered, including Lee Hazlewood (“Some Velvet Morning”), Can (“Yoo Doo Right”), Hawkwind (“Silver Machine”), Suicide (“Rocket U.S.A”) and The Byrds (“Everybody’s Been Burned”). Just as close to Television, Bauhaus and Joy Division than their more successful contemporary counterparts in ’80s American underground (R.E.M, The Replacements, Pixies), Thin White Rope’s desert psychedelia was a far more vast and difficult creature to cast. And despite enjoying a steady fanbase, especially in Europe, they sadly vanished from the common memory following their 1992 demise.
Diving into their album catalog once again is a reminder of how preposterously steady, strong and free of flaws their output was, which that has preserved incredibly well, save for some dated production techniques. Out of time back in the day, they are timeless in hindsight.
Thin White Rope immediately introduced their main modus operandi. The first song off their first album, Exploring the Axis (Frontier Records, 1985), is something of a surreal country-noir story entitled “Down in the Desert,” about a guy called Karl who headed south and came back changed by his experiences in the desert. (“Karl came back and he works and he smiles/But if you look closely there’s still something scared in his eyes…”)
Based out in the Northern California university town of Davis, Thin White Rope often returned to the desert as a recurring trope in their songs, both emotionally and musically. “Soundtrack,” from the same album, also laid a sonic foundation for what to come later; their ability to let an austere tune about alienation (“Windshields are like TV screens/I’m not involved at all”) explode into a ferocious assault as a sneering Guy Kyser goes full Mad Max (“She throws firebombs on the highway/Glass splashing and bushes burning”), revealing a band with a constant underlying rage – a beast they sometimes tamed, sometimes let loose.
Oh yes, they held us in a firm grip out on that ledge, but one also softened with beautiful melodies and a sense of melancholia and human kindness; elements that would be more prominent later on in their career.
With an uneven but promising album under their belt, they turned it all up a few notches on their somber, bleak masterpiece Moonhead (Frontier, 1987), allowing for more space, more tension, more power. Often completely drenched in feedback, but with glimpses of sunlight peeking through, Moonhead is one of the lost classics of the decade, it was once flourishingly described by British psych-guru Julian Cope: “[Guy] Kyser mumbles stripped down considerations about life, sex and death, and he seems a scientist who describes microscopic life forms. Mankind is reduced to puppet-like dimensions: around us, there’s an enigmatic, useless, obscure universe, apparently enemy of any feeling and thought.”
In the Spanish Cave (Frontier, 1988), probably their most well known album, is a tad brighter and even more varied than its predecessors. Ranging from almost joyous tunes (“Mr. Limpet”) to bulldozing guitar assaults (“It’s OK”), it features their most known song, the epic “Red Sun.” In a thorough review celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2013, The Quietus points out how they created an alien take on the unfathomable vastness of the American landscape and its effects on the nation’s psyche, and how they used this landscape, not as representing a sense of freedom, but as an area of something uncanny and unsettling, summing up the album as a “potent, fantastical window onto a malign new phase of the American Dream.”
In 1988, at the height of their powers, Thin White Rope even packed up their unique take on American mythology and toured the Soviet Union, experiencing the earliest days of the empire’s revolution through a 15-date long tour, and returned with an album largely written while on the road. Their criminally underrated album Sack Full of Silver (RCA, 1990) was their first and only major label effort. One of a more subtle approach, showing the band experimenting further with dynamic song structures, fully epitomized on songs like “The Napkin Song” and “On the Floe.”
In a fair world, Thin White Rope would be the real heroes. Instead they called it a day after perhaps the most complete effort in their career. The Ruby Sea turned out to be their swan song, described by AllMusic as “slowly shedding their more blatantly psychedelic influences and polishing their sound as a surreal and chilling rock band.” Going out while being at the top of their game – with majestic songs like “Hunter’s Moon” and “Puppet Dog” – the band still had one ace up their sleeve.
As mentioned before, their studio offerings didn’t always mirror their audacious live shows. Fortunately they decided to tape their final 1992 gig in Ghent, Belgium, releasing the monumental The One That Got Away a year later. For a sense on how the band really sounded, this is highly recommended listening. (Play loud.)
But by then Thin White Rope had already vanished back into the dust. For almost 10 years they set the plough in the barren desert soil, finding only weeds underneath. No wonder then, that Guy Kyser returned to school and turned out to be a respected botanist. Working as a specialist for the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California, he’s still affected by the desert. A scientist describing microscopic life forms, searching for weeds to blossom.
We talked to guitarist Roger Kunkel about being a part of this history.
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Who growing up were your favorite musicians?
My father was a fan of popular country music. I remember listening to Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline on his reel-to-reel as a kid. He had a couple of Chet Atkins tapes that I fixated on. Later, my older brother started bringing home the usual suspects of late-’60s, early-’70s rock, including Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Creedence and The Doors. The Beatles made a big impression on me, but especially George Harrison because I was obsessed with guitar in general. By 17, someone gave me the Sex Pistols and first two Clash albums, and I was listening to the Ramones. I discovered the Davis college radio station KDVS, and I saw Iggy Pop. Everything changed.
Who inspired your guitar sound the most?
Chet Atkins was a big one. I loved the rock players, but I’d also watch “Hee Haw” and other TV shows so I could see the country pickers like Roy Clark, James Burton, Les Paul and Glenn Campbell. I started taking guitar lessons at age 6, following the Mel Bay Method. I wasn’t a very good student, but I knew I’d play guitar for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I convinced my parents I needed an electric. I’d plug it into my dad’s tube reel-to-reel and get a nice fuzzy distortion sound.
I started learning Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi riffs. It took a while to discover the blues and early jazz players I now love because no one I knew was listening to that. Hearing Django Reinhardt for the first time really knocked me out and showed me that you need to dig a little deeper to find the really good stuff. Once I was in college in the early ’80s, I was hearing so much new music it was almost overwhelming. I was also backtracking and discovering all the great music I’d missed. The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, T-Rex, and the Stooges come to mind as influences.
With bands like Game Theory and True West around at the time, I guess Davis was a rather vital musical area. How will you describe the musical environment surrounding the birth of Thin White Rope?
There really was a scene fed by KDVS and the college entertainment council who were bringing in amazing acts to the small, on-campus coffee house venue. Iggy Pop, Gang of Four and the Police came through. Local bands were producing records and getting national attention. Meanwhile, lesser-known touring acts like the Meat Puppets and Camper Van Beethoven were playing at house parties. Sacramento, which is much bigger than Davis, had a thriving underground punk scene, but not much of a college rock, alternative, post punk, art rock, whatever kind of scene.
I was doing my best to learn what I could. I fell in with an interesting crowd of people. We had a great time. The good thing was that there really was no set accepted style of music. Almost anything was embraced as long as it was something original and heartfelt.
Did you have a clear plan or idea from the beginning on what Thin White Rope should be when you first started out playing?
Guy had already been writing and singing with Joe Becker in a previous group called the Lazy Boys. They advertised at a local music shop for a guitar and bass player. That’s how I met them and our original bass player Kevin Staydohar. We worked on Guy’s songs. Guy and I had the general idea that a lead/rhythm guitar construct was kind of boring and that we would take a more orchestrated approach, having lots of intertwining lead lines.
Guy was already playing with a pretty heavy fuzz sound. He gave me an old Maestro Fuzz he wasn’t using. It didn’t produce the Big Muff sound, but I was able to find a big feedback sound with it. Guy went with a Marshall crunch and fuzz and I went with a Fender clean sound but we both had the ability to go into controlled feedback as well. Together this was great combination and the effect really came together on the Moonhead record.
You been called desert rock, linked to the Paisley Underground, compared to early Americana and what not. All in all you were thankfully hard to pigeonhole. How will you best describe the sound of Thin White Rope?
We were once described as a cross between Johnny Cash and Black Sabbath, and I like that. There was a purposeful desert aesthetic in Guy’s lyrics and album art and that’s because Guy did come from a small town in the Mojave called Ridgecrest. Some folks got the idea that the band lived in a desert, which Davis is not, although it gets damn hot in summer. It was impossible to shake the desert rock moniker so we generally ignored it.
I describe the band as noisy guitar rock with a blues and country influence. We had some influences that were common to bands of the day, like the Velvet Underground and ’60s garage bands. We also had some less common influences like Doc Boggs, Slim Harpo and Lee Hazelwood.
I’m interested in your tour in the USSR in 1988. Not many bands did this before you, I would think. How did that tour happen in the first place, and what was it like?
This was a surreal trip. We were working with an Italian booking agency that had a connection to the Ministry of Arts in Rome. They had some kind of sister city arts exchange program worked out and had had some Russian musicians come and perform in Italy. The reciprocal was to be Italian musicians visiting the USSR. We were inserted into the equation and flew to Moscow with two Italian bands.
It was December and incredibly cold. We played in Moscow at a fancy theater. It was shown on Soviet national television. We then travelled by train to Tbilisi, Georgia for four sold-out nights at the famous opera house. No one had a clue who we were, but we were an American rock band, so it didn’t matter. The 1988 Armenian earthquake hit. We drank green vodka and ruined a beautiful traditional dinner thrown for us by a local family with projectile vomiting – there is a long version of this story.
We flew to Lithuania and played two cities in basketball arenas and almost froze to death, arrived back in Rome later than expected and had no flights home. We found room on Pan Am 103 and made reservations but couldn’t find a connection from New York to San Francisco and cancelled our reservations last minute. Heard about the bombing at the airport the next day. Made it home alive, dazed and confused.
TWR have a remarkably strong album catalog. You established a rather unique sound from the beginning, but also pushed yourself into new sonic terrain all along. How will you describe the evolution of the band?
Naturally, we matured as musicians and became smoother, more capable guitar players. Guy’s voice developed into a bigger, more resonant instrument. Guy’s songwriting got more ambitious, more poetic. It was unfortunate that we had a revolving cast of bass and drum players. This affected the sound of the band in somewhat unpredictable ways, but ultimately our live performances got strikingly better. We went from a shaky and uneven live band to being known for our powerful shows.
You had a short stint with RCA. How was your experience working with a major label back then?
Not so good. The only RCA record was Sack Full of Silver. It sold less than our others as far as I know. It’s a common case when an indie band gets a major deal and the major doesn’t do any promotion. They’re just hoping the band’s fan base is growing so it’s time to snatch them up. In the ’80s –and maybe today, I don’t know – being on a major was bit of a scarlet letter. The indie distribution networks like Rough Trade wouldn’t touch it because it was the evil corporate BMI. So it didn’t last.
Looking back after all these years, where do you consider Thin White Rope’s place in music history? What are you most proud of during your existence?
I believe we’ve achieved the title of most famously un-famous band or something like that. ‘Criminally ignored’ was one we heard that had us laughing. I do think we were an influence on a lot of bands. I’m very proud of the live CD and I’m so glad it got made because it almost didn’t. I had to talk Guy into doing the final tour. The recording captures the band at its peak in its most intense and raw state, ploughing through most of our catalog. I can listen to it and remember exactly how that felt.
What’s your favorite TWR album?
Moonhead has to be the quintessential TWR record. The first album Exploring the Axis was very frustrating. Even though it turned into something interesting, it didn’t feel natural. With Moonhead we had found our sound. Next to that, I think our covers which are mostly on the Red Sun and Bottom Feeders EPs are my favorite recordings.
Why did you call it a day?
The band had been together for 10 years. There were some personal frictions; not too bad, but not helpful. There was the belief that the music business is a corrupt and unfair place to be. It seemed that you could be the best band in the world and still not make a living. We were getting more popular in Europe, but not in the States. It was time to enter a new phase of life. And the biggest reason was that Guy quit.
Are you guys currently in touch?
Guy and I actually played together for a couple years in a bluegrass band. He’d gotten into banjo and I was playing mandolin. Unfortunately, this fell apart when the guitar player moved back east. Matt Abouresk lives in Connecticut, so we just say hello on Facebook. Stoo has moved back to New Orleans. Joe Becker lives in San Francisco and I’d love to see more of him. Steve Tesluk is a veterinarian in Ashland, OR.
Any chances to see the band ever come back again?
Seems that Guy does not feel he wants to do this. I don’t want to put words in his mouth about it, but I think he simply feels he is a different person now.