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See You on the Other Side
From Mercury Rev to her current project, the Wounded Knees, classically trained flautist Suzanne Thorpe follows her creative spirit to diverse points on the sonic spectrum

What a long, strange trip it’s been: Suzanne Thorpe of the Wounded Knees.
Photo by: Joe Putrock

By John Brodeur

"That’s three strikes against you,” Suzanne Thorpe says in faux reprimand, over a late-evening meal. “Didn’t make the restaurant, didn’t make the recording session, and now you bring up ‘Aqualung’. ” So a certain writer happened to get some bad directions, derailing plans for pizza at Kay’s, near Burden Lake, where Thorpe had been swimming—one of her summertime passions—earlier in the afternoon. And several weeks prior, the same writer missed out on an all-night tracking marathon for Thorpe’s band, the Wounded Knees, that happened to be the last chance to catch the band for several months. It happens. But “rock flautist” just isn’t the most common word combination—you’d think it would be OK to mention Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, perhaps the only other rock flautist of any note.

To be fair, Suzanne Thorpe is nothing like Ian Anderson. In fact, she would likely cringe at the idea of being pigeonholed by the “rock” classification, and for good reason. She’s first and foremost a classically trained flautist, with degrees in both English literature and music performance, who still practices her Bach daily. “I’m not kidding. Ask any of my neighbors,” she assures. “I find that that stuff really helps with the rock stuff for me. It makes me able to . . . switch genres very easily, and the rock genre is fun when my chops are up. Luckily I enjoy the classical aspect of it too.” She’s a searcher, a free spirit, so to speak, who follows her heart when it comes to choosing projects. The rock thing, as it turns out, just happened by accident.

Born and raised in the Capital Region, Thorpe attended college at the University of Buffalo, where she met Jonathan Donahue, Sean Mackowiak (aka Grasshopper) and Dave Baker, the group of friends that would later form the nucleus of the long-running, ever-changing collective known as Mercury Rev. “I wanted to get a double major and ended up not doing that,” she admits. “Mercury Rev took off, so I wandered down that road.”

That road took Thorpe and the rest of Mercury Rev on a long, strange trip that continues to this day (Thorpe stopped touring with the band prior to 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, although she has contributed to more recent recordings). Rev earned a great deal of acclaim for their mind-expanding (and often tympanic-membrane-shattering) sonics, touring the world through the early ’90s and releasing a series of critically well-received records, including See You on the Other Side, which served as something of a mantra for a group who consider themselves “not so much a band as a sweet odyssey to the center of the heart.”

Thorpe seems to truly enjoy a challenge, which should be expected from someone who brought a nontraditional rock instrument into a band who, at least early on, seemed to employ a “loud, louder, loudest” ethos. That experience gave her a clear understanding of how her instrument fits into the big picture, or in her words, the “Rubik’s Cube.” “I had never played electric flute when I [joined Mercury Rev]. When I started playing with them, it came really natural to me. It sounded like the top layer of this beautiful layer cake. It was just a natural progression from there because the competition, sonically, is so fierce with Rev. Anybody that knows anything about Mercury Rev knows the sonic aspect of it is huge, that half of the game is constantly manipulating sound. I learned to approach texture, change my texture to fit the mood of the song, to vary my texture so it wasn’t the same from song to song.”

After leaving Mercury Rev, Thorpe leapfrogged her way back home, with stints in New York, Poughkeepsie and Kingston before returning to the Capital Region five years ago. Until recently, she has kept relatively quiet. “I was studying for a couple of those years [at Schenectady County Community College, where she earned her second degree], so I really wasn’t in the mindset of ‘rock person.’ I pretty conscientiously decided that I was going to close the door on that world for a while and get myself grounded in the classical genre. Once I felt comfortable there, like I was in a good place, I started branching out in the rock world again and it all came together very nicely.”

Her time on the road with Mercury Rev also opened the door to her current project, the Wounded Knees. “Wounded Knees is a collaboration with [former Rollerskate Skinny guitarist] Jimi Shields,” she explains. “We had met each other when Mercury Rev was opening for Jimi’s brother’s band, My Bloody Valentine, so we knew each other way back when.” The two were reacquainted when Shield’s post-Skinny band Lotus Crown opened for Mercury Rev several years later. “He told me he was working on some material [and] it turned out that . . . our ears were at the same place, our emotional states were at the same place, and we were just locked into a similar path. We were feeling pretty empathetic toward each other.”

Their shared newfound musical empathy was, in part, a reaction to what came before. “We quickly realized that we were both tired of working in the way that both of our former bands had worked. Mercury Rev works in layers, and we’d tend to write in the studio rather than writing first and then going into the studio. Everything about what I’m doing with the Wounded Knees is the opposite of what I did with Mercury Rev. My philosophy and Jimi’s philosophy with this is that, if you can’t do it live—if you can’t do it on the spot—then it can’t be done. End of story. I don’t want to hear any excuses!” she jokes.

The “on-the-spot” technique was further applied to the recording process. After several of aborted attempts at recording, the trio—comprising Thorpe, Shields, and drummer Phil Williams—converged in Troy to record their debut album. “We chose to do it completely live, completely analog. We recorded in the same room together, no headphones—just went at it . . . for six rolls of tape.” Thorpe feels that the spontaneity of playing live was essential to accurately represent their sound on record. “We managed to capture that certain something that happens when I’m playing live. There’s an energy that’s really organic and alive—that doesn’t always happen when I’m doing an overdub.”

The process also provided the confessed “school junkie” with a new learning experience. “Every take is going to have something wrong with it, but a lot of times the mistakes are the genius, so that’s another process I really wanted to get my head around—learning to accept the imperfections as perfection, and letting them be the source of something new, letting it be for that minute. I was lucky to study with people out there who constantly asked us to challenge ourselves and to learn that anything mattered as well—that what you think is a mistake could really be the basis of a genius inspiration.”

The band’s intercontinental living arrangement also affected the decision to record live. “There’s not a lot of gigging,” Thorpe jokes. With Shields living in Ireland and Williams in New York City, there was a fair amount of pressure to get it right the first time. “You can’t be screwing up when it’s costing $600 in the summer season to come over for a session.”

Recording engineer Jason Martin proved to be an enormous asset to the Knees’ desired aesthetic. “We talked a lot about the sound we were going for. If I say to him, ‘This is flute and guitar,’ he understands that this is flute and guitar with an edge, something that you don’t understand as flute and guitar. We’re pushing the boundary here. He understood the edge that we were going for and the organic sound that we were going for as well, so he was definitely the right person to have on board for that.

“We have to mix it [and] Jimi needs to do vocals now—that was the one allowable overdub,” she continues, although any specific dates or release plans are tough to pin down. “We’re shopping for a deal. If we can’t find one, we’ll put it out ourselves. I can’t get caught up in the business end; the frustration that comes with getting caught up in the business end defeats the spirit, in my experience. I really want to focus on the music. I’m kind of following an ‘If you build it, they will come’ philosophy with this.”

Thorpe’s side projects, for lack of a better term, have been numerous, including live performances with indie-rock icons like J Mascis and Nikki Sudden, plus recording projects with Hopewell, Grand Mal and the Caulfield Sisters, a new band featuring ex-Pee Shy singer Cindy Wheeler. Thorpe hasn’t ruled out the possibility of again working with her old Mercury Rev cohorts, either. However, she’s sidelined most of her other interests to concentrate on completing the Wounded Knees record.

“I’m really trying to not diffuse my focus right now. If I’m going to be involved heavily in writing and producing material—if it’s going to be my band, per se—that’s my baby, that’s my focus at that time. Because Jimi is in Ireland, it allows me the luxury to possibly be involved in other things. Up until now, those other things have been classical, or like, sitting in with J [Mascis] or playing with other people. I haven’t been full-on concentrated in other bands. I have to say that one of the lessons I’ve started to learn is that if I try to multitask too much, then, because my focus is diffused, I don’t always get the concentrated effort.” She pauses, then more simply states, “Things won’t be as good as I want them to be.

“I made a conscientious decision that I would see through the Wounded Knees recording project to the best of my ability and that is going to involve being focused and nurturing it,” Thorpe continues. “[It] probably requires a little more nurturing because Jimi is so far away, so we both have to be vigilant about keeping up the enthusiasm, keeping up the commitment. It’s like a long-distance relationship. For me that requires some daily input, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for other things. A girl’s gotta make a living, you know? [Thorpe is currently working as the special-events programmer for the Schenectady Museum.] And the practicing on top of it. And swimming. I’m not kidding.”

She, of course, is leaving the door open. “I am finding that I surprise myself all of the time. Never say never.”

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