Vermont Songwriter Bow Thayer Grapples With Death and Change on 'The Zen of Snug' | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Songwriter Bow Thayer Grapples With Death and Change on 'The Zen of Snug'

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Bow Thayer - BEN DEFLORIO
  • Ben Deflorio
  • Bow Thayer

Gloomy weather is hardly abnormal for early spring in Vermont. But on a recent gray, rainy Monday, as fog moved around the hills like smoke, Bow Thayer was feeling the mud-season lethargy as he waited for the sun to emerge.

"It's so dull out there today," Thayer said by phone as we both stared at the similarly overcast scenery, separated by some miles and a pandemic. "I can't really get it together on days like this, which is kind of a new thing," he continued. "Maybe it's age — I'm in my fifties now. Or maybe it's the whole quarantine thing."

The Stockbridge-based musician sighed as he contemplated the last year of pandemic-fueled isolation. "Some days I have these creative bursts, and others I can't get off the couch," he revealed. "I do believe in a global consciousness, and right now the world is sick. It's heavy living. I think about it a lot." Then he added, "It's also really good for songwriting."

Thayer has the receipts to back up that claim. In the past 18 months alone, he's put out a double LP with his old bluegrass outfit the Benders, released half a dozen solo singles and started working on a tribute album for a deceased bandmate. Early April saw the release of The Zen of Snug, his latest and perhaps most complete record to date.

Quarantined or not, Thayer — who has more than 30 releases to his credit with several bands and as a solo artist — has always been prolific. After growing up in a small town near the South Shore in Massachusetts, Thayer joined the Boston music scene in the early 1990s with Seven League Boots, a rock/reggae hybrid that shared the stage with the likes of Fugazi and Pearl Jam. Following that, he did double duty playing Delta blues slide guitar with Elbow and banjo and lead vocals in bluegrass outfit Jethro, before his seminal run in the Benders.

During his lengthy career in Vermont, where he's lived since 1998, Thayer has honed his craft to a science. But he's also endured tragedy and hardship. His longtime drummer Jeff Berlin suffered a series of strokes during a recording session in 2015 that rendered him unable to play for a time. Fortunately, Berlin was able to relearn the drums and return to the band. But in March 2018, Thayer's protégé and bassist Alex Abraham committed suicide. In 2019 Thayer lost another good friend, musician Doug Chase.

"The last few years have just amplified who I am as a person and an artist," Thayer said. "All this shit that has gone down — Jeff's stroke, Alex and Doug dying, COVID, being a parent, and trying to survive in the music industry while living in the middle of nowhere — it's all fueled me to write these songs."

The Zen of Snug offers a panoramic view of Thayer's diverse personal and musical histories. On the edgy, indie-rock-influenced track "Welcome to the Panic Room," Thayer growls, "I don't know what's real no more!" "Elinoire" is a lush bluegrass ballad that sits in the middle of the album like a beautiful Americana artifact in a museum display. The searching, spacey number "You Are Not Unknown" flirts with progressive rock.

While stylistic shifts double as a summation of the past and a statement of intent for the future, the record's glue is Thayer's thematic consistency as a writer.

"It's sort of a full-circle-sounding album to me," he suggested. "The songs all have a theme underneath them. I can be a pessimistic fuck anyway, but I tried to put a little optimism in every song this time."

A balance of bitter and sweet defines the record, which is fitting. The Zen of Snug is dedicated to Chase.

"Doug's nickname was Snug," Thayer explained. He added that he and Chase grew up just streets away from one another in the same tiny Massachusetts town. But the two didn't meet until years later as adults with families living in Vermont.

Thayer and Chase initially bonded over a mutual love of building their own instruments. Thayer plays a custom instrument of his own design called the Bojotar, a sort of banjo/resonator guitar hybrid, and Chase worked for Parker Guitars many years ago.

Chase "had this sort of Zen about him, this whacked-out philosophy I just loved," Thayer continued. "So I wrote a song for him, and that was sort of the seed of this record."

Thayer and his bandmates recorded that song, "A Small Eternity," and 10 others remotely over the past year. Berlin, the only other musician besides Thayer who's based in Vermont, sent his drum tracks from his home studio. Jeremy Dryden laid down bass tracks in Somerville, Mass. Chris McGandy, who played with Thayer in his old band Perfect Trainwreck, recorded pedal steel parts from Petaluma, Calif.

A few heavy hitters round out the band, including electric guitarist Val McCallum, whose regular gig is playing lead guitar for Jackson Browne. McCallum's tasteful, fluid work shines on album opener "Earthling" and "This Thing Called God."

Dana Colley, formerly of Boston alt-rock legends Morphine, is another musician Thayer knew he had to have on the record. Colley's signature baritone sax colors a pair of songs, most notably "Welcome to the Panic Room."

Three-time Grammy Award-winning producer Justin Guip, a longtime Thayer collaborator, mixed the album. Guip worked for years with the legendary Levon Helm and plays drums for Hot Tuna.

"Every record is different with Bow," Guip said on a call from his recording studio in Red Hook, N.Y. "He just writes so much! He writes two, sometimes three records a year — it's crazy."

Guip is already mixing Thayer's next album, a tribute to Abraham called The Book of Moss.

"Sometimes with Bow, I finish one record and we're right on to the next," Guip explained. "But creatively, it really keeps me on my toes."

The process of recording remotely kept Thayer on his toes, too. Though he enjoyed certain aspects of the experience, he said, it may have been a bit too isolating for comfort.

"I did think about Brian Wilson a lot," Thayer admitted, referencing the Beach Boys mastermind who famously secluded himself in the recording studio. "There's something that's lost when you don't have your band in the room with you."

Thayer recalled making records with the Benders in the early 2000s, which he said were "basically live albums."

"The first one was recorded live with one microphone, just like the old-timey bluegrass albums," he explained. "When you're in the same room, you're feeding off each other.

"I know we'll get back to that," Thayer continued, suggesting that recording in isolation "isn't worse, it's just different." It also resulted in a uniquely personal album in The Zen of Snug.

"In some ways," he said, "this record is more me than anything I've done before."

That and the forthcoming The Book of Moss might also be Thayer's last actual albums; he believes the art form is waning.

"I hate to say this, because I'm an album guy, but that's not the way things are going now," he said. All of the singles he released last year did better on streaming services than his 2018 album, A Better Version of the Truth. "There's 60,000 releases that come out on Spotify a day, or something ridiculous like that," Thayer said. "Everybody wants singles. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

As the conversation wound down and the sun broke through the cloud cover, Thayer arrived at a bullet point for the last year of his life.

"I'm pretty happy with the record," he said. "My wife plays it in the car, and my 11-year-old runs around singing songs from it. And, yeah, the COVID thing — like I said, heavy living.

"But I was already sort of doing my own thing in some ways," he continued. "That's why I built my own studio and make my own gear, so I can record my own music."

Thayer paused and then laughed, as if coming to a realization.

"Maybe it's the same as living out in the woods in Vermont — it all fits into the same philosophy," he suggested. "All I know is, I've had some good songs come to me while I was building a stone wall."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Remain in Light | Bow Thayer grapples with death and change on The Zen of Snug"