"We’re The Thorns," Matthew Sweet tells the crowd of assembled radio programmers and various music industry folks at an out-of-the-way resort on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast. It’s early evening on Thursday, Feb. 13, and Sweet is introducing a new trio who, individually, are already quite well-known. Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge come equipped with a resume that features, between them, 15 albums—including one gold-seller (Sweet’s Girlfriend), and one platinum (Mullins’ Soul’s Core)—and one of those songs that was absolutely everywhere back in 1998 (Mullins’ "Lullaby"). The introduction as The Thorns is particularly appropriate given that this is the very first time anyone outside of the group’s immediate circle is seeing them perform.
"We’re The Thorns," says Droge a couple of songs later, idly mentioning it as Sweet retunes. The Thorns began with Droge and Mullins in January of last year, and quickly grew to include a couple of other singer-songwriters. That combination didn’t pan out, but it did produce "No Blue Sky," one of the standout tracks on The Thorns’ exceptional self-titled debut. Then, last spring, Matthew Sweet got involved. "Matthew tried it and it was magic," proclaims Gregg Latterman, who heads up Aware Records, home to The Thorns.
"We’re The Thorns," Droge says again wryly before one of the last songs in their all-acoustic set. The crowd chuckles as intended and it’s clear that The Thorns have successfully introduced themselves.
"I think it went pretty well," Droge allows at breakfast the next morning in a discussion about their show.
"It was difficult for me to hear anything, actually," Mullins mentions. "I just had to concentrate on singing on-key. It was a little risky." The blonde multi-instrumentalist sets up on stage with Sweet to his right and Droge to his left, and what Mullins couldn’t hear through his monitors, the crowd fully absorbed: Three voices, singing as one (Mullins’ being the deepest, with Droge in the middle and Sweet handling the higher notes), melodies that feel like you’ve known them all your life and taut, interlaced harmonies. On this night, The Thorns skillfully deliver a handful of bright, beautiful brand-new tunes.
"None of us wanted it to become the showcase for our greatest hits," says Sweet. "We really wanted to stick to the music we did together, and I think because of that we were all kind of nervous, but it went pretty well. People seemed to really react to it."
One of those who reacted was Dona Shaieb, who programs KPRI, an adult album alternative radio station in San Diego. "I loved them," she says. "The vocals are fresh and tight, sounding like [Crosby, Stills & Nash] with a touch of The Beach Boys. Our listeners are going to love it."
In one of several points of connection between The Thorns, Shawn and Matthew share a manager, so Sweet knew what Droge and Mullins were up to early on. He says, "When I first heard about it, I was like, ‘That sounds cool.’ Then for a while I didn’t hear anything so I was going to try to do my own thing, more like the Mamas & Papas, with girls and guys—I guess it would have been more like a Fleetwood Mac kind of lineup—but I never really got super serious about it."
The early days were like an experiment, with no one knowing for sure who would join Droge and Mullins in the band. "It was kind of like, ‘Let’s throw people together and see what happens,’" says Mullins. "Once Matthew came on board it was past the experiment stage fairly quickly." In fact, they remember exactly when it stopped feeling like an experiment.
"It was during the birth of ‘I Can’t Remember,’" Mullins explains. A song started by Sweet and finished by the three of them, "I Can’t Remember" is driven by acoustic guitars, a subtle Hammond organ, and a dreamy delivery in which Sweet’s voice is featured.
"That was the first time I remember feeling that it was all related to the vocals and the song. It was a different sound, and as we were doing it I remember going, ‘Okay, this is really interesting all of a sudden.’ Before that, it had been a little more individual-oriented. It took us a couple of songs to figure it out, but once we found that place where the voices come together every song we were writing was feeling Thorny."
"It was like every voice sort of locked into its comfortable place and the blend was just natural," Droge chimes in. "It is something that you can’t manufacture, engineer or manipulate. Lucky for us it was just there."
The setting was L.A.’s Sound Factory studio, and the way "I Can’t Remember" was unfolding really excited the guys, so when Latterman offered to take them out for a bite, they declined so they could keep working on it. By the time Latterman got back, about an hour later, Mullins, Droge and Sweet were anxious to play it for him. "I think Shawn was on piano and Matthew or Pete were on a 12-string and the other was on a six-string," says the head of their label. "I sat right in the middle of it. They got done and I’m like, ‘Guys, that’s why I’m in this business. That was magical.’"
Even a trio that starts off magically is going to have some things to work out, especially when the three artists are very used to being solo. "When we first got together," Sweet relates, "we talked about it really being a band, with a band name, and not letting it be Sweet/Mullins/Droge." But what do you call a trio that borrows heavily from the California sound of the ’60s and ’70s and leads with its ever-present three-part harmonies? "For a long time we were going to call it Horn of Plenty, because we wanted it to be kind of earthy and folky," says Sweet. The Thorns was nixed as a possible name from the outset because some thought it might wrongfully cast them with guitar-based bands like The Strokes, The Vines and The Hives. Ironically, the name resurfaced when Sweet started working on a non sequitur called "Thorns," a driving garage-rock kiss-off that sounds more like any of the fuzzy guitar bands du jour than it does these three. Any lingering reservations about going with The Thorns as the group’s name disappeared one night in Atlanta as they recorded the album with producer Brendan O’Brien (who’d previously done two of Sweet’s records and all three of Droge’s, another point of connection).
"The Rolling Stones kept our name The Thorns," Sweet blurts out one morning on a terrace overlooking Hawaii’s west coast. "Jim Keltner played drums on the record and he’s really good friends with them. On his last day in the studio, Jim came in and goes, ‘The Rolling Stones are in the hotel across the street. I’m going to try to go and see them. Maybe you can meet them or something.’ At about 11:30 or 12 my phone rang. I was in bed and Pete had gone to sleep. It’s Keltner and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, I’m up at Woody’s room, you should come visit. He said he’d really like to meet you guys. I’ve been telling him about The Thorns.’
"So we went over and hung out with Woody, Keltner and Woody’s wife, and they treated us like we were their best friends, so it was kind of surreal. They invited us to come to their show the next night. Shawn couldn’t go for whatever reason, but Pete and I went. We got there really late, so we run into this place, which was like a baseball stadium, and we see Ron Wood’s wife. She runs up going, ‘Pete, Matthew, I’ve been looking everywhere for you guys. Come on, you’ve got to get to your seats.’ So we’re running through the hall and there’s Ronnie, and he comes running up going, ‘Hey, everybody come here, this is Matt Thorn and Pete Thorn. They’re The Thorns.’ We realized they had no idea who we were or what our music is like, but if Keltner says we’re cool, we’re totally in. Ronnie brings over Charlie Watts, and eventually Ronnie goes, ‘Come on, you should meet Keith before we go on.’ He took us through the inner sanctum, into this tiny dark room and it was Keith Richards and Blondie Chaplin in the room. It was like we were their best friends, hangin’ with their arm around you.
"So The Stones think we’re The Thorns, and we’d be so embarrassed if we had to tell The Stones that we weren’t called The Thorns."
Last summer, Droge, Mullins and Sweet converged on a ranch in picturesque Santa Ynez, Calif., some 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, for a two-week writing spree. Soon they discovered the rules that govern solo artists would not work here. "Shortly after starting to write together we learned that everyone would have to take a step back; no one person was going to have the whole vision," remembers Mullins. "Whoever brought a little bit of a song for that day was kind of the leader for that day, so if major tension over a certain line started to happen, it usually worked itself out. We didn’t really argue a whole lot about songs. It takes a separation of ego and mind, and also trust."
"A lot of times," Droge adds, "little suggestions would be thrown out, like, ‘If I were here alone, this is the choice I would make.’ Sometimes that would steer us in that direction. With all of us contributing those little decisions hopefully we ended up with a sound that is uniquely The Thorns. We really worked at trying to create an identity for the band. All three of us worked for the band, which is obviously different for us."
"We all brought ideas," says Sweet, "and I think you can tell which ones kind of started with which people if you really know our music, but we tried to get things going on in all of the songs that were common to it." Ultimately, Sweet brought the beginnings of five tunes that made it onto The Thorns, with Droge starting four and Mullins contributing a pair. They also nailed The Jayhawks’ "Blue" (during their premiere performance they dedicated this song to Jayhawk Gary Louris as he recovered from a recent life-threatening infection of the heart).
Throughout The Thorns’ album, the choral voices, earthy instrumentation and stick-with-you melody lines easily distance themselves from so much of today’s prefab pop, vividly recalling the best of Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Beach Boys, America and the Eagles.
"We noticed while we were writing the songs that it immediately felt like Southern California," Mullins offers.
"I love that era," Sweet says, "but it wasn’t really like we were obsessed with it."
The Thorns come closest to resembling CSN, though that vocal trio was apparently not as much of an influence on this one as some other great singers. "The first four or five Joni Mitchell records are at the top of my list of all-time records," notes Mullins. "Blue and Ladies Of The Canyon are filled with harmonies very similar to the kind of harmonies that we’re doing. Also, Simon & Garfunkel are very similar to what we do. One of the songs that didn’t make it on the record, called ‘Who Believes,’ you would think was the B-side of ‘Scarborough Fair’ or something. It’s almost like it was written in the 1300s or 1400s."
"I grew up a huge fan of The Beach Boys," says Droge, "Fleetwood Mac was a big band for me when I was a kid, too. Simon & Garfunkel was also fairly important because they got me out of my hard rock/Kiss stage and really snapped me into songwriter music."
In the end, it’s not so relevant who influenced the sound of The Thorns. What is notable is how this collection of songs works as a whole, and that’s why The Thorns already belong in any discussion of great vocal-based rock bands. Performed perfectly by Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge—with help from O’Brien, Keltner, Greg Leisz and E Street pianist Roy Bittan, and strings arranged by Paul Buckmaster and Ricky Keller—The Thorns is, on balance, far superior to the sum of its noteworthy parts, which in itself is no small feat. "There is magic on this record," Latterman enthuses. "Something happened and one plus one plus one was more than three."
Thorns web site: www.thethorns.com