A Lawrence rock band that got its start in the ‘70s has reunited for a new album, decades after their last.
At the height of their success in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the band Thumbs recorded two albums and performed with artists such as Iggy Pop and The Police. In early 2016, Thumbs was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.
In a surprise return to music, the group released “Trunk Wired Shut” on March 22. The album draws upon decades of musical influence and was recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, vocalist Steve Wilson said.
“It’s what we hope is a great rock and roll record,” he said. “I kind of look at it as, like, a punk-influenced band playing Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’”
Wilson said the album has “in a certain sense, a very old-school approach to writing and compiling a record” — even though it was created while the band members lived in Lawrence, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Tuscon. Wilson, guitarist Kevin Smith, keyboard player and cover art designer Marty Olson and bassist Karl Hoffmann all virtually reunited for the album.
“Other than to say it was rock and roll music, you wouldn’t pigeonhole it in terms of genre,” Wilson said. “People who have kind of been conditioned to (think) ‘Oh, we are a black metal band’ or ‘we are a skate punk band’ or ‘we are a grunge band’ and all that kind of stuff might not be prepared for the same breadth of material here.”
Despite the physical distance between the musicians, the experience brought back some old memories.
“It was fun, really, feeling everything fall back in place,” he said. “The relationships were very much the same. You have that history, that backlog of shared humor and jokes and all that kind of stuff that bands have.”
Thumbs’ journey began in 1975, when the band’s members — all between the ages of 22 and 26 at the time — who “all ran into each other” at different shows, Wilson said.
When Thumbs got its start in Lawrence, he said that many bands were reggae, country-swing, bluegrass, or did covers of rock songs.
“You’d think that rock and roll was the currency,” he said. “So (we) kind of stepped into this scene where there wasn’t actually anyone quite like us because we were writing our own material from the beginning.”
Wilson said the band’s premise was that if they liked it, they played it, as long as it was rock and roll — everything from Bob Dylan to the Sex Pistols.
Thumbs recorded its first album in 1979 with the assistance of a “sound engineer friend” who helped back the group financially. The album became what some might consider a surprise success, with favorable reviews in publications like Rolling Stone and Village Voice.
“We got, frankly, kind of overwhelmed by the response to it.”
A follow-up album made less of a splash, and the group amicably parted ways in 1985. The friends stayed in touch over the years, Wilson said, despite some band members moving out-of-state.
Then, in October 2020, Wilson got an email from Thumbs’ guitarist, Kevin Smith, living in Atlanta. Wilson said he thought Smith “probably had even five years or so when he never picked up a guitar,” and was surprised to read in the message that Smith had been writing songs.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a bunch of these here that I think are Thumbs songs and I need you to help write them,’” Wilson said. “So he sent me rough versions of some things that he had that I started working on helping him complete.”
Wilson contributed to the melodies and wrote most of the lyrics to the songs, he said, though “there were a couple songs that were really my initiation.”
“So we spent that COVID year of 2021 basically putting a record together by electronic means,” Wilson said. “Pretty much everything we did was sending each other files back and forth.”
Though the album was recorded from across the county, Wilson said he “would like to think that you can’t tell that on this record.”
“I think it has the vibe of a band playing,” he said. “That’s partly because we have some experience making records, and that’s always kind of the magic. (The) illusion of recording is using the studio to basically make you sound like a performance.”
The response to “Trunk Wired Shut” has so far been “altogether positive,” and the album is beginning to get some radio airplay in Kansas City, Wilson said. The album is also available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and more, and you can listen on YouTube here.
If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.
Note: This article has been corrected from a previous version.