Wounded. There's no other way to describe local rocker Thomas Wynn's uninterrupted state of alternating chain-smoking defensiveness and self-justifying internal monologuing of half-real harmony and accord. Like interstellar debris latched onto a low-velocity comet, she hitches a quiet ride on his every thought pattern, but at the point of impact she's unavoidably present. Not an elephant in the room but a crater in the earth.
She is his newly ex-wife. She was Thomas for as long as Thomas knew who he was, and now that he's left to his own emotional prospects, sifting through the shattered ores of identity, he's exceptionally prone to bi-hourly revelations. Anyone who's been through it knows the drill — "It was her fault. No, mine. It takes two to tango" — and the kind at heart will never reveal the inevitable answer that there are no answers. It's all part of the messy, elegant throes of crisis, and Thomas Wynn, whose giant, searching eyes and prominent, scraggly features have always given him the authoritative look of a road-tested veteran despite his youth, is an Olympic-level thrasher.
Around a week after the finalization of his divorce from a six-year relationship that survived just under two years of actual marriage, Thomas is behind the drum kit in the den of the house they shared, which happens to be right next door to his parents' pad. He's chatting amiably and animatedly about his band's new album with Thomas Wynn and the Believers guitarist Justin Beckler, 30. Titled The Reason, it was recorded on the Wisconsin farm and studio of producer Tony Battaglia, an unusual choice for a group so committed to organic musical growth. Battaglia made his name by helping popularize the "Orlando" sound, the polish-it-till-the-edges-are-gone unit-shifting pop of Shinedown, Mandy Moore and the usual boy bands. Battaglia had been tracking Thomas' progress since the Wynn Brothers Band and offered his services free of charge (on the front end, at least). It's an effort they're pleased with despite the transformative process of its recording, which found them learning about each other in ways that only strengthened their bond, but conversely, required artistic compromise that they're still coming to terms with. The months spent on the farm would affect their personal lives in dramatic ways.
For a moment, however, they can talk about the music. For a few minutes, at least, they can get back on message. Still, Thomas is on the clock.
"`Barack Obama` is the best speaker that I believe I'll ever see. He's just so natural at it," says Thomas a few days after the presidential inauguration. (He didn't vote.) "But at the same time, he's a politician. He's writing a speech to try and get people behind him and that's great. He's performing. He's doing the same thing we're doing. Performing with a cause. That's exactly what we're doing, selling ourselves with a message. I believe the message is hope."
Three minutes and counting.
"I think all of the songs are positive-messaged. On this album, at least," says Beckler. "On the next one, who knows what'll happen?"
Two minutes, 30 seconds.
"I think about these songs while I'm writing them and I wish that maybe I'd been listening to the songs instead of using them as therapy for the days," says Thomas. "It seems important at the time, but in actuality, months later, when I listen to the songs I go, ‘Wow, that really applies right now.'"
He mentions a track on The Reason, "Long White Dress," written during a fight with his ex. One minute, 19 seconds.
"So I'm sitting there in this empty apartment and the first lyrics just came out."
"She wrote me — maybe a month after I wrote that song — she wrote me a note when we were rehearsing one night that said, ‘Why do I cry when you're practicing?'"
He looks stunned for a moment, as if he had never thought of that incident since it happened, and he probably hasn't. It's this hour's new revelation. Beckler breaks the silence with a nervous chuckle.
This is what Beckler means when he describes the last several months as "when all the dust settled from the atom bomb," and why Thomas quickly adds, "It's still settling."
One of the most pervasive ironies, according to Thomas, is that The Reason, at times to its own detriment, is almost exclusively motivational. Whereas the Believers' famously transcendent live shows featured barn-burning, inward-looking confessionals like "You Can't Hurt Me" and "I Don't Regret" — two tracks strangely omitted from the album for reasons they decline to discuss — Thomas' lyrical worksheet this time reads like heavily highlighted chapters from a purpose-driven seminar for the depressed. Songs like the tight, evocative "Hold On" and the irrepressibly upbeat, Wilburys-esque "Don't Give Up" urge listeners to "fight for what you believe in and stand your ground" and to "save yourself/The wind won't lie/It'll lead you home/You can learn to fly," respectively. It's not alt-country so much as alt-self-help.
"I was talking to my ex-wife. And that's the thing: I was talking to her when perhaps I should've been talking to me. It's now applied right back at me," says Thomas.
That's not to say there's an absence of the rip-roaring Southern rock fans of the Believers have come to expect. "Gypsy Queen" is presented with the multilayered uplift that the song always seemed to beg for, while new track "Radio" is a rainy, ghostly blues romp that finally allows Beckler's knack for inspiring solos to shine, if only for a moment. A phenomenal lead player, Beckler's fret-melting skills are highly tempered on The Reason.
"This is a very song-oriented record," says Beckler, a St. Pete transplant who spent about a year playing solo around town ("It began to feel almost masturbatory," says Beckler of his solo career) until he saw Thomas' former family band, the Wynn Brothers Band, and hit it off with their crew. "A lot of that decision just came into what's going to serve the song best. We didn't want it to be a jam-bandy kind of thing. Sometimes when we're playing out we can get a little carried away with it."
"Carried away?" Thomas, who had stepped outside briefly to smoke, stands in silhouette at the doorway.
"I think we literally get carried away. Now, as a band, we go to that place when we can."
This small confrontation would be awkward if Beckler and Thomas weren't who they are. Even when they disagree, there's a wry humor underlying their rapport. Given enough time, it can start to resemble a vaudeville routine.
"`We started making The Reason` some time at the beginning of 2007," says Beckler.
"2007?" replies Thomas.
"2008. I don't even know what year it is."
"Well, we went up to Wisconsin in March."
"He had a tough year," admits Beckler. "He could have fallen off and gone back to what he did in the past, and instead he got spiritual."
Thomas hails from a highly religious family, a fact that helped create a tremendous amount of self-loathing that still sticks with Thomas.
I don't want to be a hypocrite, so I don't really talk about it much. Because I can see in my life that I'm a hypocrite in a lot of ways."
The past Beckler referred to is one Thomas admits still affects him today.
"I started doing freebase cocaine when I was 15," says Thomas. "I started real young. Next-door neighbor was cutting his lawn or something and I smelled pot and I was like, ‘Hey man, let me get some of that.' Two weeks later, I was doing coke. Two weeks after that I was cooking it up in a spoon and smoking it or injecting it or getting fucked. It progressed. I started dealing, pounds upon pounds of weed, and, you know, doing bad things that people shouldn't do. It was killing me."
He was 19 when he met his wife-to-be at the Social and within a year they were living together; now, in addition to his drug habit, Thomas was suddenly faced with the role of provider. He would work 30-40 hours a week at a regular job and 30-40 hours a week on his band on top of that. Something had to give. After a couple of close calls with the law, Thomas vowed to get sober. He got married and several months later the Wynn Brothers Band broke up.
"To Thomas' credit … he immediately, instead of being complacent, said, ‘All right, what's the next thing?'" And that's when he brought `the Believers` on board," says Beckler.
If he can find peace with the past, Thomas, still only 24 years old, could be ready to embrace the future.
"We wouldn't be the band we are now without that `recording` experience. We're going to be playing these songs for a long time," says Beckler.
Thomas, however, is lost in his own thoughts again, and woe to the man who asks into what memory or waking nightmare he's gone.
He gives the kick-drum a wallop out of nowhere. Thump.
"I hope so. I hope so," says Thomas. "I like them."