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How Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou made 2020’s strangest and best collaboration

Emma Ruth Rundle Thou
(Image credit: Craig Mulcahy)

Louisiana’s Thou write feral sludge metal, while Kentucky singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle creates emotionally bruised post-rock. Between their music lies an abundance of subgenres, yet they have somehow brought their styles together for a brilliant new album, May Our Chambers Be Full.

It might seem like two worlds colliding, but they’ve been playing on the same circuit for years. “I became very obsessed with Thou in 2015 – and I feel like there was a mutual awareness,” Emma explains. Around the same time, Thou guitarist Andy Gibbs was working in a kitchen in Berkeley, California when a colleague put on Emma’s instrumental album, Electric Guitar: One. Three years later, he met her when they both played at Seattle’s Northwest Terror Fest, and was moved to tears by her performance.

But it wasn’t until Thou’s residency at 2019’s Roadburn Festival that the collaboration was set in motion. They teamed up to write a clutch of new songs for a special set, with the understanding they’d eventually go on a full-length record. As we speak to Emma and Andy via Zoom, from their respective homes in Louisville and New Orleans, it’s evident that a deep-rooted friendship has formed. They occasionally finish each other’s sentences, and share anecdotes that craft a panoramic view of how they went from emailing ideas back and forth to embarking on 15-hour drives between their home states to put them into practice.

Despite the challenge of blending both their sounds, not least the combining of Emma’s wounded yet defiant croon with Thou frontman Bryan Funck’s sandpaper howl, they clicked straight away and found shared reference points. “There are seven of us on this collaboration, so you’d figure that the Venn diagram is going to be kind of limited, because there are only so many bands and artists that we can all agree on,” Andy says.

“We’re both very passionate about similar 90s bands, but we both love Tori Amos,” Emma interjects, as the pair burst into laughter. Andy points out that those sounds didn’t make it onto the album, but Emma retorts: “I feel like you and I have a lot of a deep soul connection to a certain sound – that was just understood.”

Their excitement about doing their first interview together is palpable, and Andy is pleased such collaborations are embraced by the underground metal community. “The more mainstream instances of metal tend to be really dominated by a certain man,” Andy says. “The idea is that our little corner of the metal world is a much more inclusive and more accepting place for people who feel otherwise outcast going to, like, I don’t know, a Behemoth show or something like that, and I think that really drives people towards throwing themselves entirely into it.”

Emma Ruth Rundle

(Image credit: Total Guitar)

May Our Chambers Be Full is rooted in the duality of Thou’s monolithic intensity and Emma’s brooding fragility, but the artists share common ground when it comes to dark lyrics. They explore the nature of existence and the pain of the human condition, expressing despondency about thwarted potential and the inevitability of history repeating itself. There’s an overriding emotional desperation that Andy describes as being present in grunge music.

While he hesitates to “lean too much on grunge as a descriptor” of the whole album, the main riff in Out Of Existence is reminiscent of the undulating, warped guitars in Soundgarden’s Gun, and Andy himself describes Into Being as their own version of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mayonnaise. It’s a bleak song, as Emma explores her thoughts on a life lived through screens, while invoking Plato’s Cave – the allegory about humans being chained inside a cave from birth, facing a wall and only being able to perceive shadows of real-life objects and events. ‘Tethered, we will never know the river of a real life’, Emma sings, as heaviness swirls around her. ‘Forced to watch a coloured picture of the sunset / Waiting for the failure of this frail frame / Shadows keep us chained inside the cave.’

With its primitive riffs and Emma’s vulnerable singing, the song epitomises a feeling that Andy has long been striving for. “Something that I have been personally trying to accomplish with this band for a lot of years, through using different folks to collaborate with, is this marriage of something that’s really crushing with something that is fragile and beautiful… I feel that kind of emotion with the bands that I love, like Hell or Corrupted,” he explains.

Meanwhile, opening with Emma’s meditative and solemn vocals yearning for solace and reprieve from the hardships that have littered her path, The Valley speaks to the notion that there is always an element of hope to be found at the bottom of your pit, and sometimes putting that into a song can be powerful. “I very much feel that as a listener of metal, it helps pull out all these feelings as, for me, it’s catharsis,” Emma says. Andy – who doesn’t listen to much metal these days and feels slightly removed from the scene – throws the horns at this and lightens the tone, much to Emma’s amusement.

While Thou are no strangers to collaborations – having done a split album with Oakland doom metal anarcha-feminists Ragana, and an album with Rhode Island’s nihilistic experimental duo The Body – Andy still found it humbling to bring a selection of songs to the group and allow everyone to eviscerate them.

“To throw them into the crucible and see what comes out of it – you have to really go in with detaching yourself from this sense of ownership of the song. I definitely started thinking more about collaborative processes in general; how to be open to others’ input and deflate your ego a little bit when you’re working, and trust other people’s intuitions,” he says. 

“Those songs have a soul and have a big form; then they get thrown into the circle of chaos. It’s an arduous process,” Emma adds. “For me, it didn’t feel unfamiliar. It reminded me a little bit of when I was in [Los Angeles post-rock band] Red Sparowes – there’s sort of a democratic process when you’re writing with that many people.”

Despite their sonic differences, Emma and Thou operate with synchronicity, revelling in their moments of darkness and embracing their cyclical nature. While they may never be free from them forever, music is a coping mechanism and a salve. Emma fondly reminisces about their year together, telling us almost wistfully that, despite being somebody who normally works alone, things have been “quiet and lonely since that time”. She’s currently creating the follow-up to Electric Guitar: One, as well as another solo album.

Emma can’t imagine doing another collaboration like this again, despite the lifelong bonds formed. “Thou was my favourite band for a long time,” she says, laughing sheepishly. “‘Imagine the chances to get to collaborate’ – that’s an interview question I get a lot. I already did what I wanted to do. It doesn’t get better than that!”

The deep respect between these artists resonates throughout May Our Chambers Be Full, as they seamlessly unite their subgenres. Their music faces the darkness, but offers a message of resilience and empathy to keep us afloat during our most trying moments. 

Published in Metal Hammer #342