caution:thieves vocalist, Nicholas Simonsen, is a passionate lover of music. This fact explains the methodical approach that his band takes towards their own art; why he previously wrote for Hysteria Mag; how he gets invested in certain albums; and also how he and I kept getting side-tracked in this interview.
With the post-hardcore Melbourne quartet that he fronts dropping their damn fine new EP, ‘Songs From The Great Divide’, on Friday, March 31st, Simonsen and I jumped on the phone last week to talk at great length. Over the course of our hour-long phone call, we touched on ‘Songs From The Great Divide’, his vocal style, what bands he pulls inspiration from, his struggles with mental health, the nature of catharsis, as well as his unwavering love for Glassjaw’s ‘Worship & Tribute’. (Seriously, what a fuckin’ album, holy shit.)
Suss the full interview below, and boy, I hope your schedule is somewhat clear as this is a big one!
Vocally, Nicholas, your cleans remind me of Dallas Green of Alexisonfire and your screams remind me of Sam Carter from Architects. So, are those particular tones and sounds what the band and yourself are consciously going for or is that just simply how you sound as a vocalist?
I make a real conscious effort to sound like… me. I’m a New Zealander born and raised, so I have a natural inflection to my voice. When I decided that I would sing for Thieves rather than someone else doing it, I didn’t want to be a New Zealander putting on a pseudo-American accent, as I just don’t believe that when I hear that myself. I’ve sung for a long time in bands and when we did ‘The Same Sky’, EP I just did what I would instinctually do. When we put that out into the world, I just thought that I sounded like me. Now, I do love bands like Alexisonfire, Coheed & Cambria and Circa Survive, who sing quite high, and a lot of our stuff is quite high in vocal range too. But you also hear the conviction and vulnerability in those bands, and I also think that there’s a lot of conviction and vulnerability in caution:thieves as well.
I’d agree with that sentiment, namely with this new EP’s first song, ‘Ink Into Water’. Every review of your debut EP, ‘The Same Sky‘ likened you guys to those bands like Alexisonfire, Saosin, House Vs Hurricane, Architects (like how I just did), and so on. Do those comparisons bother you in any way? As some band’s I’ve spoken to do take umbrage with being referred to another band or another genre…
Oh no, not at all. It’s a funny one. I remember someone coming to our first show to see if we could pull it off after hearing the EP. On this first show, someone said that my vocals were like Dallas Green and Steven Christianson from Anberlin got married. For me, I played it really cool at the time like any band member would, but when I got back home, I thought it ruled!
You know, bands start from emulation. No band is writing their first ten songs to sound like them – everyone’s writing their first hundred songs sounding like bands they look up to. So you best believe I listened to ‘Watch Out!’, ‘Crisis’ and ‘Old Crows/Young Cardinals’ vehemently [laughs].
Right on, much like myself! Quick side note, though, did you see Alexisonfire when they were here in January?
Oh, dude, I didn’t go down to Unify but I saw them at the Melbourne headliner, and man, you can tell that they’re just having fun now. You watch it and you really believe it. There were fuckups and there were these little ad-lib moments where Dallas would jam on something and it was so special because they’ve reached that point where they’re not convincing people, they’re having fun with their fans and the people on their team. They care a lot, and they put heaps into their performances too, and if they fuck up, they just smile and move on. If they’d came back with a shitty album, it would have been a whole other story I think.
Well said, it was a great show and as you said, they’re only like that now due to their time away on hiatus. And if you watch Chris [Steele, bass] especially, he truly loves playing live; every second of it.
Yeah, and it’s not an Alexisonfire show until George rips his shirt off!
[Laughs] Exactly! Back onto your band, however, with new EP ‘Songs From The Great Divide’, first off, the cover artwork –who did it? Because it’s fucking sweet!
The artwork was done by a good friend of mine called Nevan Doyle. You know when you’re on your Instagram explore page, and you see killer shit and you give it a follow? Well, he popped up on my explore feed for something he did, I can’t remember what it was but I thought it’d be great album artwork, but it turns out it was an album cover. Anyway, I then sent the artwork to another friend who did our first EP’s cover, Pat Fox, whose done every single artwork and cover that’s awesome. Pat was mentoring this guy, so I hit Nevan up with the demos and the EP’s concept. What he sent back in his first draft was exactly what I saw in my head. I’ve been sitting on this cover and this artwork for a long time now, and I just love that so many people are seeing it and also thinking it’s awesome.
Yeah, nice score with the EP cover, because as I said before, it’s great! Nevan did a great job.
Second of all, with the EP’s name, ‘Songs From The Great Divide’, and the very personal lyrics here, what exactly is that divide for you? Is it one between happiness and depression or one between your own self and how you see the rest of the world?
Ah, you’re seeing it in a very different light. I’m not thinking of it as a day-night divide; I’m thinking of where I was and the divide from where I wanted to be. With the cover, there’s the girl standing on the precipice and she’s standing above this hole and this hole for me represents my issues with mental health. There’s a certain complacency that comes with depression where life just feels too hard. There’s a line in ‘A Greater Sense Of Self’ where it says “I refuse to stay down in this whole unable to make a change”, as that was me not wanting to sit down in this hole and be miserable. With ‘The Same Sky’, I was in a really bad place. With writing ‘…Great Divide’ it was a conscious decision for me not wanting to be this person anymore.
Okay… so when exactly was ‘Songs Of The Great Divide’ written and finished?
It was about 12 months ago.
All right, so a year ago is when you made that conscious decision to not be stuck in that hole, but the EP is only coming out soon. So, is your mental health in the same place as it was 12 months ago or has it moved forward for the better?
…I don’t think that those who are plagued by mental health issues knows that there is no on and off switch. We are as humans resolve around chemical imbalances, and now, I’m just trying to have more good days than bad days. To quote ‘Year On The Precipice’, “there’s no cure for this feeling.” No one gets to 26 or 27 and goes “Oh, I’m not depressed anymore.” It just doesn’t happen like that.
So it’s a work in progress. I’m still using our music and my writing for catharsis. Introspectively, where we’re going next, I won’t be talking about myself as much because I feel I have more to say about other areas now. But it is still me trying to keep my head above water in certain regards and using our music as a release and a way to get things off my chest.
Of course man, music is a perfect vehicle for that. But with my initial question, I wasn’t suggesting that there’s an on or off switch and I do understand that it’s about having more good days than bad days – I know that quite well, personally. I only asked that as this new EP has existed in its final form for quite a while now whereas I’ve only just heard and ingested the art it recently, and sometimes the creator has moved past that initial point.
Yeah, for sure, and as an artist 12 months ago when I recorded it, it was all quite fresh and cathartic; as you’re putting yourself on record with the most vulnerable version of yourself. Over time, I’ve heard it go from demos to individual tracks, to unmixed, to mixed, to unmastered and mastered and then all the revisions – I’ve come to fucking terms with it all, Alex.
It’s not a release where I hear it and am reminded of the anguish of it, but that’s the point of catharsis; you pour it into art and it softens the blade of what you’re going through. But you know, I hadn’t really thought about it in the way you put it, as most records do have a long-term process before they’re actually released. I guess, for me, it’s because I am so intrinsically familiar with all the facets of our music.
That’s true, and because you’re actually in the band; I’m an outsider looking in. Likewise, do you maybe find it hard to play – not re-listen – but play those older songs; songs like ‘Something More…’ or ‘Reset. Renew’? As some people can really disassociate from the meanings and memories and just perform.
Admittedly, I can’t get through ‘Reset. Renew’. ‘The Same Sky’ was just me coming to terms with me maybe singing in a band so I went a bit… too far down the rabbit hole with being a bit too self-aware and a bit too introspective. So that one drudges up a lot for me. It also doesn’t really translate live than it does on the record too and it’s also quite demanding for me too. As for ‘Something More…’, that was about someone I wanted out of my life so there’s no love loss with that song anymore.
I think what’s interesting is my writing style has really changed between these two EP’s. When I was singing at shows, I’d realise how demanding those songs were. After a full set of ‘The Same Sky’ tunes, I would be so wrecked. ‘…Great Divide’ has more room to breathe instead of just me writing these cool guitar parts that I put vocals over [laughs].
[Laughs] it’s good to hear there was that growth. I suppose that that’s all the growing pains of writing an EP where you’re going to be the singer, then doing the next release and saying “Okay, I am the singer now. I need to make sure I write correctly for me”.
You nailed it dude, holy shit. The guitar is my primary instrument and I always loved writing riffs and these cool parts, but after we’d played shows for a couple more months, I realised that there was just too much going on when the vocals should have been the core thing. So I dived into my favourite bands and their songwriting and realising they went through the same thing. Our biggest influences I’d say are definitely Architects, Misery Signals and Poison The Well. If you look at ‘Of Malice and the Magnum Heart’ by Misery Signals, that’s a chaotic record. It’s amazing, but it’s got all these time changes, polyrhythms and shreds. Their vocalist, Jesse just had to go for it over those parts. Then look at ‘Mirrors’, the next record, and you hear songs like ‘Anchor’ or ‘The Failsafe’ and there’s all this space and the vocals aren’t doing 32 words over a single bar of music. Architects did the same thing with ‘Ruin’ and those early records right until they really hit their stride with ‘Daybreaker’.
I think that everyone wants to be a good musician and show off in the beginning. Maybe it’s just in the microcosm of this music, but what comes after that is the reactionary element where you hit your lane and you learn more about songcraft and what you latch as a listener. I totally overlooked it before but apart from those three bands being our big influences, another is Killswitch Engage; a prime example of how to write riffs and how to make the biggest and best choruses in heavy music. ‘The End Of Heartache’ is the best choruses you’ll ever hear in metalcore.
Well said, Nicholas. On that last part, ‘Rose Of Sharyn’, man, that’s all I’ll say.
Dude, that song is the most unfuckwithable chorus in all of metal music. Back in New Zealand, there was this music show called Juice on Wednesday nights. I remember hearing ‘Left Behind’ by Slipknot and loving how angry it was. Then I heard ‘Rose Of Sharyn’ right after and loved how emotional it was. Howard Jones’s great musicianship and that band’s great choruses overall is still why they have such a vehemently passionate fanbase and are so popular in this particular niche area of music as a whole. ‘The End Of Heartache’ changed the game for a lot of people, and it’s still an astonishing record. No doubt!
‘Daylight Dies’ is my favourite, personally. Now, back over to caution:thieves. With the ‘A Greater Sense of Self’ music video, what was the importance of the blindfolds? Or was it just because they looked cool? Cause to me, it looked very similar to Protest The Hero’s ‘Blindfolds Aside’ or even Bayharbour’s ‘Life In The Clouds‘ clip.
I think for me it was about contrast, as the song has a few varying dynamics. In our heads, it was a cool contrast idea we had with the director, Jai Morrow of it all being a visual representation. We didn’t have much further thought on it… which makes it seem quite hollow, but we can be a melodic and a heavy band at the same time so this seemed to work.
Fair enough man. Personally, I think that’s a bit… bare, but I think you just passed on this video clip [laughs].
I guess there was thought put into it, but I wasn’t searching all of this real depth of it like… the blindfolds are there cause I am blind to my blah blah blah. I also wasn’t going to make up some bullshit on the spot and say that you caught onto because it was just a performance clip! [Laughs].
I appreciate that honesty!
I remember when one of the old KYS writers, Jonty Simmons, did his review of ‘The Same Sky’, he spoke about its overall length, or lack thereof, being a real strength. With this new EP, it’s around 12 or so minutes long. No disrespect, but while I do really like the EP, I liken it to being the musical equivalent of blue balls – it gives you a little bit, you get really stuck into, and then boom, it suddenly ends.
[Laughs]. Well, firstly, people aren’t going to have to wait too long for more from us. We’re knee deep in new material and it’s the best we’ve written as a band. And I mean that wholeheartedly, as I truly think it’s the shit. But with an EP, you can’t tell as much of a story as you can with an album. ‘Songs From The Great Divide’ shows exactly what we can do as a band, but also show that we’re not afraid to do whatever we want with our music – it’s heavy, it’s melodic, it’s shreddy, and it’s even ballady too. I didn’t just want to put more songs on it for the sake of filling it out. I also think it’s good that it’s short and leaves people wanting more, as that’ll mean that those people will be for with our future releases.
Yeah, that’s true too.
And I wasn’t prepared to write filler, and I wanted every song to have a purpose and to have character. I want to be able to throw on a seven-inch where every song has its own place and meaning on the scale. Cause I just hate when you have an EP where the first two songs are sick, the last two are great, and the middle two are really phoned-in. Like the band rushed those middle two songs when in the studio because they had spare time but that time should have been used to pre-pro the next EP or album.
Well said man, I’m with you on that EP comment. Your publicist right now is also working with another band from Melbourne called Copia for their second album, ‘Epoch‘. It’s 11 songs long, ends just under the hour mark, and it’s the kind of generic metal release that really should’ve been an EP. I mean, adding in synths and virtual instruments and an interlude song just isn’t variation!
Man, I think you fucking nailed it, Alex. Every song on our EP has a purpose and it ebbs and flows and EP’s are a good litmus test for that when you’re a young band. We live in this day and age where the listener or the consumer is so fucking fickle! Do you know the demand for a new or young band asking you to sit down and dive into an hour-long record, something that you’re also not that invested in? It’s nowhere near as hard to dive into a 10 or 15-minute release. Plus, most bands started off with an EP – Architects, Misery Signals, Parkway Drive, and so on. They throw their eggs into a small basket but they didn’t use all of their eggs, as they want people to come back.
There are a couple of bands that come to my mind immediately that have albums that are really just three singles and eight filler tracks. Cause all of those eight songs are the same riffs at the same tempo, with the same tricks every time. They’re established band’s and I think you know exactly who I’m talking about, Alex. That’s why I feel that dynamic is so important. Rather than looking at the metal world, look at a band like Circa Survive. Each album has a different feel to it, and Anthony Green does something different each time. Same goes for Coheed too – that band just does everything.
The band’s that have real longevity are the ones that tilt their sound, but the right amount. Not like a Suicide Silence tilt, though, where you alienate most of your fanbase. Of course, I also wouldn’t want to be playing the same thing 20 years down the line. Look at how in interviews, a lot big metal bands get asked what metal albums they’re listening to lately and they say that they don’t listen to a lot of heavy music. I now think about Poison The Well and their album, ‘You Come Before You’, and kids losing their shit over it being so weird. But I thought it was the right amount of weird. It had slide guitar and harmonicas and all this other stuff. Those guys crossed a line for their sound and were able to say “Yes, you can get weird and not stay in the same lane.”
Man, I really love to ramble, as you can tell, Alex…
That’s all good with me, mate – more content from the interviewee always helps! Plus, that Poison The Well album is a great example, too.
Music is my greatest passion and I’m such a music nerd. When I was talking about the Coheed’s, the Poison The Well’s, and the Misery Signals’ before, I’ve been invested in all those bands and others for years. As a consumer and lover of music, I have to be mindful of what I would want to consume and also being mindful of that fine juxtaposition of being the artist and the listener. It would be so self-indulgent of caution:thieves to do a sixty minute full-length as we’re still finding our feet and establishing our sound.
I think that’s the point of ‘Songs From The Great Divide For Me’, that’s the whole point of its approach – it’s there but it’s not there long enough to lose interest.
Yeah, it can be so tricky, but I think you guys are navigating these waters very carefully and thoughtfully. I also think that that’s a great place to bookend this interview, Nicholas!
[Laughs] that’s the thing my man; when you get two passionate like-minded people on music, time becomes superfluous. When I was writing back at Hysteria, I was fortunate to have an interview with Anthony Green and the publicist was tugging on his shoulder, but we were talking out about all of these nerdy bands and loving it!
I’d wrap this up by saying that my love for music comes from the initial emotional response when I first hear something. My personal favourite record of all time is ‘Worship & Tribute’ by Glassjaw. It’s my desert-island record and I have listened to that record every day for a dozen years. It’s the perfect record, but my point being that is that I have the same emotional response now then when I first heard ‘Cosmopolitan Bloodloss’. And I will never tire of it.
Dude, fuck yes, I absolutely love that record and that song too! I’m going to have to listen to it once we hang up because it’s been a couple months since I heard that album. And on that note, mate, thank you so much for your time tonight Nicholas, it’s been a blast. I wish you nothing but the best for the new EP’s release!
For sure Alex! Thank you so much dude, and I’ll hopefully see you soon.
You can pre-order ‘Songs From The Great Divide’ right here before it drops on Friday, March 31st. Why should you? Because it’s really quite good. Don’t be shy, come get familiar with caution:thieves NOW.