“We were challenging ourselves on this record and thought, ‘This might not work, but we’re going to find out!’” The story behind every song on Thrice’s The Artist In The Ambulance, in the band’s own words

Thrice in 2021
(Image credit: Matty Vogel)

The Artist In The Ambulance is a hallowed work in the post-hardcore hall of fame. The third album and major-label debut by Thrice, it was an instant critical smash and, more than two decades on, remains a fervent cult classic. Its 12 songs represented a pioneering mixture of hardcore, thrash and pop, and Alternative Press went so far as to say that the band were doing for punk’s guitar playing what Iron Maiden had done for metal’s. Bloody hell.

On the cusp of a UK tour to celebrate Artist…’s belated 20th birthday, Hammer caught up with Thrice singer/guitarist Dustin Kensrue to get the story behind each track on this pivotal masterpiece.

Metal Hammer line break

Cold Cash And Colder Hearts

“I don’t know why we started the record with this song. I still slightly don’t love it. I think we liked that it just came ploughing out the gates, no intro. It’s not an anticapitalist song, but it’s a challenge to whoever’s hearing it, and myself writing it, to think about the ways that we view the world as a whole: the way that we relate to entire groups of people that we feel like we have no contact with. But the world is shrinking and everything is interconnected.”

Hammer: Presumably you started touring a lot more after [previous album] The Illusion Of Safety, so did that shape that theme of having empathy with people far, far away from where you live?

“I was interested in a lot of that from early on, but I absolutely think that touring, and travelling in general, is very helpful to anyone, as far as breaking down the assumptions you’ve been handed about the world.”

Under A Killing Moon

“It’s essentially about social conformity, using a witch trial sort of situation to talk about that and explore the idea in a way that makes you wonder, ‘Which side am I on?’ Even if the stakes aren’t as dire as being burned at one, there are ways that we are confined by stares or looks or gossip, which keep us in line with certain things. It’s human nature, but it has dire consequences when unexamined.”

All That’s Left

“The record label [Island] wanted us to finish All That’s Left before the rest of the record was done [so they could release it as a single]. I remember that being stressful, trying to finish early and not fully understanding its place on the record yet. It’s the only time we’ve ever done something like that.”

Hammer: Island had serious faith in that song, then?

“I don’t know how well placed that was, ha ha! If you look at the numbers, [the title track] is the song that’s connected with people the most.”


“I wrote the beginning of the lyrics on a postcard from Texas that I sent to my wife, during an early tour. We got married in 2002. I was thinking about the way that another person challenges your perceptions about yourself and can be instrumental in changing you. That was the main idea going into the song: undoing things that you didn’t even know were there. Relationships are people-building machines.”

Hammer: So it’s a love song?

“Yeah. A weird love song.”

Stare At The Sun

“I’m in such a different place philosophically now, but I can still really feel the sentiment that I was trying to pull out and the drive that was there. I think the lyrics still resonate in a really interesting way. The focus is really, ‘What the fuck does everything mean? What are we doing?’ It’s asking the big questions like, ‘Why is this so hard?’ I think, looking back, a lot of what makes life so hard is when you get stuck in a narrow frame of vision. You can’t actually incorporate everything that’s happening in the world. You have a set view of how the world should be, and your experiences [to the contrary] create cognitive dissonance.”

Paper Tigers

“It gets back to the sense that there are larger powers in the world, tossing things about and not caring about the repercussions. An example would be things that were done during the Cold War: ‘OK, we’re gonna arm these people to fight this proxy war and now, oh shit, these people have a bunch of guns and are invading this!’ It’s very short-sighted thinking.”

Hoods On Peregrine

“I was talking about the media, and the media has shifted so intensely since I wrote this song, especially with social media. When I was writing it, the focus for me was on this bottleneck of information: there’s a monopoly on information, flowing through these certain institutions. Capitalism drives that system, making the goal not to inform but to monetise consumers. And now you have these new technologies that, right away, became tools for disinformation in a different way.”

The Melting Point Of Wax

“It’s based on a poem about Icarus and Daedalus. The poem had a different feel from the way that story’s normally told. It looked at it from Icarus’ perspective, with the feeling of flight and the possibilities of it. It’s getting at the idea that risk is always present whenever you’re daring to do something.”

Hammer: Why did the poem resonate with you to the point of writing a song about it?

“I remember it being very representative of where we were at that time. We’d just signed to a major label and we had been really careful about, ‘Do we even wanna do that?’ We were challenging ourselves on this record and in our career, and we thought, ‘This might not work at all, but we’re going to find out!’”

Blood Clots And Black Holes

“It’s a weird song, ha ha! It’s just about the way that more information feels like it’s going to be helpful, but it always hurts as well. The more you’re aware of, the less you can ignore and the more complicated the world gets. It’s not an excuse to turn away, but it’s dealing with that strange truth and frustration.”

The Artist In The Ambulance

“Brian [McTernan, The Artist In The Ambulance’s producer] and I realised early on that there was something special about this song. I remember there being a lot of reworks where Brian was like, ‘You can do this better!’, and pushing me. The title came from a series of almost, like, journal entries by Al Burian, called Burn Collector. I used to read them a ton. He wrote a story about a guy he knows being hit by a bike. He’s in the waiting room and contemplating his life as an artist, versus just jumping into the street to save someone from being wounded. To oversimplify it, it comes to a point of saying, ‘Whatever you do, you have to make it matter.’”

The Abolition Of Man

“This one’s based on a C.S. Lewis book called The Abolition Of Man. There’s some very interesting things going on in that book, though I think I’d disagree with more of it now than I did when I wrote the song. There’s a bigger idea that I resonate with, which asks how do we, as a society, think about morality in a larger sense. How do we teach it? How do we communicate about it? Do you educate people to be good people, or do you just give them information? It’s a very complex issue.”

Don’t Tell And We Won’t Ask

“Don’t Tell And We Won’t Ask brings some of the themes [introduced in Cold Cash And Colder Hearts] full circle. I think the last lines tie it all together: ‘Don’t we all know life is sacred? Don’t we all know we bleed the same red blood?’ I think that’s a fairly good summation of a lot of what’s going on on the record. Are we seeing these connections? Are we seeing the people affected by what we do?”

Metal Hammer line break

Thrice The Artist In The Ambulance 20th Anniversary UK Tour dates:

Feb 23: Bristol Marble Factory
Feb 24: Manchester Academy
Feb 25: Glasgow SWG3
Feb 26: London O2 Forum Kentish Town

Tickets available now.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.