Wilson Getchell knows enough as an entertainer to not want to depress you. The singer and songwriter behind the Raleigh-based band Thirsty Curses might have a grim view of human destiny and history, but he figures everyone still wants to have a good time while they can. A shout-along chorus can help the medicine go down (or it can serve as the only medicine there is). Thirsty Curses make rock’n’roll, with a boisterous beer-swilling edge to it. Many of these songs are about living it up while things fall apart at the seams, or at least trying to find some glory in chaos and meaninglessness. You might hear a connection to the Replacements, the Hold Steady, the Dropkick Murphys, and other rowdy rockers. Whether you find any redemption in the songs might depend on your philosophical outlook.
Getchell, 36, is a relative newcomer to North Carolina and the Triangle. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, before taking off for places like Austin, Texas; Flagstaff, Arizona; Chicago, D.C., Russia, New England and elsewhere. He’s been around, playing in bands, doing grad school and writing loads of songs.
I spoke with Getchell last week about Thirsty Curses, about the challenges of connecting with listeners in the age of essentially free streaming music, about making music that draws on one’s experience, and about taking risks in life and in making art.
Thirsty Curses return to New York Pizza in Greensboro for a show on Friday, March 15.
The band, which formed in late 2016, released All Shook Up, their second full-length record, last year. They’re working on a five-song EP right now.
“I write a lot,” Getchell said. “I’ve always got a lot of drive to put stuff down.”
Getchell’s songs do a nice job of balancing exuberance and despair. There’s a thread of existential crises running through many of his songs, but there’s also a fair bit of shrugging off the hardship with bits of winking optimism.
A song like “I Can’t Keep Up” is filled with paired lines that deliver a series of sucker punches: “Turns out you learned a lot/ it’s just that most of it was wrong,” sings Getchell. And later: “it ain’t easy bein’ evil when the whole world’s gone to hell.” And “I been hanging out in bars, I been doin’ the la-la-la-la, and it always goes too far.”
Not being able to keep up or hold it together is a recurring theme for Getchell. And that last bit, about “doing the la la la la,” turns out to be a type of motif as well. Those kinds of self-conscious nonsense syllables turn up, again and again, serving to flag that place where words and meaning start to break down and no longer carry their weight as constructive communication.
In an email exchange after our initial phone conversation, I asked him about his use of la-la-las and whoa-oh-ohs as ways of conveying one’s inability to respond in certain situations.
“I guess it depends on the song,” Getchell said. “In ‘Exile,’ for example, the chorus goes ‘we got soft baby, we got caught, yeah we got lost, and I went woah-oh-oh.’ In that instance, it’s along the lines of all this bad shit happened. And I was like ‘WOAH.’”
“In the song ‘Ooh Rah Rah,’ off of our first record, it’s explicitly meant to be nonsensical. The chorus goes ‘it don’t mean a thing to me, like ooh Rah Rah’ …. But, yeah, sometimes there is also an element of ‘what else is there to be said about this.’ Other than ‘woah.’”
The song “Over and Over,” off All Shook Up, has the lines “You keep on singing the same old song, it goes ‘Whoa-ee-oh-ee-oh.’” There’s something there, perhaps, about the songs we sing to ourselves can be symbolic or emblematic of the ruts that we get stuck in.
Many of Thirsty Curses songs are essentially folk songs that have been beefed up with a rhythm section and an energy boost, tunes that might have started out as strum-along songs or skeletal piano waltzes before a caffeinated beat got wired into the circuitry. There’s a pop-punk spirit to many of the tracks, with dashes of Americana mixed in with the defiant streak. Thirsty Curses have a kinship, in my ears, to bands like Deer Tick, Ladyhawk and Henry Clay People.
Getchell sings with an energy and excitement that stands in almost comic contrast to some of what he’s singing about.
“It was a good week on the road, but now it’s back to digging holes,” he sings on “Slice of Paradise.” It’s a song about being determined to get a taste of the good life, even if one is faced with drudgery and bleak prospects.
In grad school, Getchell worked in Russian studies and Soviet history, which offers a different perspective on how people’s struggles tend to pan out. Political oppression and the never-ending battle against the elements make for a grim worldview.
Russian history isn’t exactly a feel-good, but Getchell said he found the simple fact of endurance to be uplifting in that context.
“It is so dark,” Getchell said. “There’s never any break of this chronicle of tragedy and mishap. Even when things get incredibly dark and horrible, people keep living their lives.”
The American view tends to be more relentlessly optimistic, with faith in the idea of progress, that things keep improving and that systems — government, technology, etc. — get better.
But that rosy perspective is not something that Getchell is necessarily ready to bet on.
“I think the historical record suggests otherwise,” he laughed.
“I think a lot of times in the West, we kind of take for granted our prosperous situation and our place in human history.”
On the subject of cultural decline, Getchell has a pretty hilarious diss-song about the worsening state of popular music today. The title kind of says it all: It’s called “Today’s Kids (Are Not Rockers),” and it’s a list of comedic grievances about the ways that young people no longer embrace the pleasures of rock. It’s a snarling rant against dubstep, ukuleles, safe sex, James Taylor and Bon Iver.
“Today’s kids are wicked lame,” goes one line. It’s a joking Gen-X-ish lament about the perceived lack of danger in contemporary pop culture. But then again, echoing another viewpoint in one of Getchell’s other songs, if the world is actually coming apart around us, if government, civil society, and the environment all seem to be disintegrating before our eyes, maybe it makes sense that young people — culture consumers — don’t need to seek menace and danger as a form of entertainment, since they’re more of less soaking in the threats all the time.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.