The yellow "For Sale" sign that sits in front of the white two-story house just across the Chatham County line outside of Chapel Hill is partially obscured by foliage, as if the home's owner is only half-hearted in his intentions to let the thing go. Accessed by a gravel road lined so thickly with trees that it feels like a tunnel, the house is streaked with graying weather marks, signs of haphazard maintenance just short of neglect. The three porches sag a little, too. A neighbor who happens to be a contractor confirms that, should the house ever really make it to the market, the back deck would need to be fixed first.
Oh, well, it's time for band practice.
On a stormy Monday evening in early June, the razor-thin driveway is clogged with cars, which hasn't happened for a while. For the better part of a decade, the house has served as the rehearsal space and central crash pad for Valient Thorr, a manic and maniacal quintet that welds punk agility and attitude with metallic intensity.
But if you buy the band's backstory, the house—owned by drummer Lucian Thorr—is more than a stopover for band practice and meetings. It is the base of operations for a clutch of extraterrestrials, exiles from nearby Venus, who have lived in America for 60 years and, for the last decade, have had a rock band.
Since forming in Greenville, N.C., in 2001, Valient Thorr has insisted that its members crash-landed on Earth. They arrived in 1957, but they've been alive for millennia. Not long after they arrived, Walt Disney confiscated their ship, and they've been stranded ever since.
Valient Thorr's dedication to this creation myth has been largely unshakable: As the lineup has shifted, the outfit has simply claimed that the new players were marooned back then, too. When frontman Valient Himself donated a kidney to his ailing "Earth father" in 2008, he maintained that the decision was one of simple kindness, a Venusian gesture to their terrestrial neighbors. "I feel like anybody would do it for somebody they love," he told the website Spinner, "whether it's their dad, their mom, their bandmate, their worker, their best friend or even a stranger."
But 12 years in, the story Valient Thorr now tells has started to shift. The group that once said they still hoped to one day head home seems to have settled comfortably into Earth life, with real jobs and fiancées and families. And their excellent new album, Our Own Masters, adds a new street-level perspective to their screamed social critiques.
"It's harder to talk about the beginnings when everybody asks you about it a thousand times," says Himself, or Herbie Abernathy. "I think at a certain point, we just started saying, 'You know, if you don't believe that we're from Venus, it doesn't matter anyway. Now, we live here, and it's about where you're at. It's not about where you were. It's about where you're going. It's about where you're looking. We're all here now, so let's focus on right now. There's still songs about space. Cosmic things still happen, and they always will. And maybe you'll never get to visit Venus with us. Maybe we were never there at all. But you'll never really know that because you don't have a time machine to go back and see."
Onstage, they don blue-jean vests, each inscribed with a personal symbol from their home planet, not unlike Superman. Valient Himself stands out above the rest: His long, wispy mane and beard are wizardly worn and bright red, a look he complements with the ruby sparkle of his trademark wrestling shoes. As riffs and bass lines tangle and chug, he cuts through with a righteous howl, ricocheting to and fro across the stage, leaning out above the crowd to lead the group's anthems. His antics are impressive—enough so to garner a nod as the second-best frontman in modern metal from the popular blog MetalSucks. If they're not humans, they've at least perfected the art of entertaining humans.
Valient Thorr's songs have long combined interstellar fantasy with pointed social critiques, displaying a concern for this planet's inhabitants. On early records, their perspective was aloof, clearly written with an outsider's distance. But lately, and especially on Our Own Masters, their first album in three years, their narratives find them blending in more and more, speaking from experience about what it's like to struggle and survive as members of these masses.
After all, they're engrained within society now: Guitarist Eidan Thorr is the father to a 1-year-old girl. Sadat Thorr, the group's other ax man, and bassist Dr. Professor Nitewolf are both engaged, with the latter popping the question just a few weeks ago. Himself has a girlfriend in his current home of Richmond in addition to the Earthly papa that he cared for enough to part with an organ.
"It's almost like the Superman story where Krypton explodes," explains Himself. He's an unrepentant comic book and media junky, sporting a Pac-Man tattoo and explaining songs with references to the belated fourth season of Arrested Development. "There were wars on Venus. You can't live on Venus anymore. We live here. We're here. This world, if they keep fighting these crazy wars and killing each other, there's going to be no more Earth to live on years down the road."
Valient Thorr has its own experience with sustainability issues. Through October of last year, the band spent five years working nearly nonstop, leaving the road mostly so that they could settle in and record a new album. With only a pair of fall festival appearances remaining after an exhausting European tour, they seized the rare opening in their calendar and remained off the road for a full six months, their longest break in almost a decade.
The respite was well-timed: Himself returned just in time to visit with his Earth grandfather before he passed away. Harder still was the loss of Lucian's father, long one of Valient Thorr's most reliable supporters. When the band's van broke down shortly into their first major tour almost a decade ago, his dad arranged the transportation that allowed the band to continue with their run on the annual traveling punk circus The Warped Tour.
"It was like the snowball of our band becoming a professional band," Lucian remembers. "It was at a critical size. If we fell off there, I don't know. It was the next couple months that determined if we were going to do this for as long as we have, in a weird way."
The group honored his enthusiasm by using one of his paintings as the cover for Our Own Masters. The piece depicts a rotting pre-human holding aloft a glowing idol that bears the VT symbol. A monkey gazes casually into the distance, ignoring the spectacle. It's a perfect fit for the album's dominant theme of power-hungry individuals dazzling people into doing their bidding.
As the members of Valient Thorr interlace these family histories and music milestones, they sit ringed around Lucian's kitchen. At one point, shortly after they relocated from Greenville to Chapel Hill, the whole band lived here, jamming and hanging and generally forging bonds that have held them together through the miles and wreckage. They seem exhausted. Spread across North Carolina—Jacksonville, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Wilmington—and Virginia, they had only five tight days to shape up for their first tour dates in half a year, smoothing out new songs and relearning old standbys along the way.
Other things seem to wear on them as well: They frequently stumble over their Venusian origin tale. Lucian begins a recollection with "When I was born... " before catching himself and talking about the crash. At different times, Valient refers to Eidan and Lucian as Benny and Jason, their Earth aliases. They're weary from explaining themselves.
"At this point, we say we're from here," interjects Lucian. "If you move somewhere, when you move there, you're like, 'I'm from New Jersey.' You've got a thick accent, and you wonder what North Carolina's like. Slowly, you learn what it's like, and after years and years, you stop saying, 'I'm from New Jersey,' because you're here now."
Today, only Lucian lives in the Chapel Hill landing pad, with his For Sale sign half-hidden in the front. He plans to move when their current tour ends. As such, the house is cluttered with boxes. A few pairs of limited edition Valient Thorr skate shoes sit atop some of the piles. A stack of paintings by Lucian's father leans against one wall. Freshly pressed vinyl copies of Our Own Masters are packed up in one corner, ready to carry along on the group's current tour.
Members of the band talk about Our Own Masters as a new beginning, and the tape bears out the tale: Few of these songs rely on the Venusian myth for their impact. The social commentary is still sharp and specific, but it doesn't seem to come from above. Driving opener "Immaculate Consumption" takes aim at the uncontrolled spending that pushed the country into financial turmoil. The pummeling "Crowdpleaser" pinpoints the tactics politicians use to impose their will upon their citizens. "Your mind has been bought/ Your thoughts are led astray," Valient shrieks atop a cavalcade of drums and sludgy riffs. "It could have been prevented/ Now, they're taking you away." One can't help but think of the Citizens United decision or, at home, Art Pope and the North Carolina legislature. It's the kind of warning that Valient Thorr might have once lobbed from afar, hiding safely behind their dual citizenship. Now, they're in the thick of this world, clawing and struggling like the rest of us.
"There's a huge giant world that we all live in, and there's problems all over the place," Nitewolf says. "It's not just there's a problem down the street. It's trying to think on broader terms."
For Nitewolf, Our Own Masters—the break that preceded it, the shifting attitude of the songwriting, the new publicist and booking agent they hired to help push it—renewed the band's drive. Before they made it, he even worried if Valient Thorr had a next album in them.
"I was one of the first to go, 'Well, do we have another record?' Then we made this record, and I'm a big fan," he says. "I don't care if people like it. It's just a fun record to play, and the songs mean more to me than any other group of songs. It's kind of made the struggle even more worth it."
Their message has continued to resonate: Loyal legions of Thorriors, the loosely organized superfans who show up to VT gigs sporting their own homemade uniforms and frequent band-inspired tattoos, exist across the U.S. as well as in Central and South America and Europe. The band documents the more memorable demonstrations and shares them on the Internet. One of their favorite expressions came from one Thorrior who tattooed the word across his knuckles.
"The ones that you meet, they get it. If they call themselves a Thorrior, then they get exactly why we're doing what we're doing," Himself says. "They know why, and they believe in it, too. It's great to be out there and be like, 'Oh, Valient Thorr, they're a party band.' But it's not just a party band. When you say one thing over and over and over—party, party, party—you just get numb to it, and it doesn't mean anything. How much can you fucking party? That's not enough. There's gotta be something more."
Such support should prove essential in the coming months: Just as the band's copies of Our Own Masters arrived in North Carolina, they got the call that their longtime record label, Volcom Entertainment, was dissolving. The album closed out their current contract, which means the band won't be crippled by the closing, but it does put them in a bind. They'll likely encounter issues selling their back catalog and compiling sales data to impress new labels. Whatever happens, Valient Thorr is determined to keep going. They still have plenty to say, and they'll surely find a way to say it. Whether they were born Venusian or human, they have certainly settled into their existence as Earthlings, and as a band.
"Everything has a history—world history, religious history, art history, political history. Our band has a history," Himself says. "We've got this decade behind us, and we've done some things and learned some. Hopefully, looking into this next decade as we grow and as our families grow and as our Thorr family grows and as our Thorrior family grows, we'll just have to see and keep learning from our old history and looking forward to the future."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Of this place."