These days when Ian Thornley looks to his right on stage, he feels like something is missing.
Since the death of his long-time collaborator and co-founder of their rock band Big Wreck, the frontman has missed counting on Brian Doherty to be his conscience and support, both on and off the stage.
Doherty died on June 5, 2019 after a long battle with cancer.
“That’s a guy who was always there when I looked over; he was always in tune in the middle of a show,” says Thornley. “We’ve known each other since I was 19, and we were best buds. It’s been a tough pill to swallow. I know I’ve just been processing it in little bites since May.”
The band played their first show since Doherty’s passing on June 22, and they have a summer full of festival gigs, including the New Glasgow Riverfront Jubilee on Aug. 4, followed by a North American tour beginning in September (performing at the Marquee Ballroom on Sept. 26).
“I knew we could play without him, as we’ve done it before when he wasn’t feeling well,” Thornley says. “But this time, I definitely felt a little shaky. You just need to let your hands and throat take over and do what they’re trained to do. You try to keep your emotions at bay and keep focus, without getting too far into your head… He was never far from our thoughts and he’s still someone I think about to this day.”
The upcoming Aug. 2 performance in Sarnia, Ont., where $2 from each ticket sold will go to the Canadian Cancer Society in honour of Doherty, will be a tough one.
“With these proceeds going to cancer research, I knew they were amazing to Brian, and we knew it was something we had to do,” says Thornley.
Big Wreck began in Boston when Ian Thornley and Brian Doherty were attending the Berklee College of Music with drummer Forrest Williams and bassist Dave Henning. They struck success and radio play by 1998 with their hit “That Song.”
The band would split after their second record in 2002, with Ian Thornley starting his own group (named Thornley) and Doherty teaching guitar and forming the indie band Death of 8.
But Doherty and Thornley just kept coming back together.
“Working with Brian and making music is all I really know,” explains Thornley. “Even when I did Thornley, Brian was a part of it. We kept in touch, and when we were touring one time in 2010, our Thornley guitarist couldn’t make it to a gig. I called Brian up, and he played with us in Edmonton. I looked over at Brian on stage, and it just felt totally normal. We just picked up right where we left off.”
In November 2011, Big Wreck released “Albatross” to much fanfare; their first song together in a decade. The album of the same name followed a year later.
They would release Ghosts in 2014, earning a Rock Album of the Year Juno nomination. After another album, they embarked on a 35-date North American tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first album.
But as Doherty’s health faltered, the band would play as a three-piece when they had to. As they prepped new album But For The Sun in early 2019, Thornley kept Doherty as involved as he could.
“The new album was finished in January. I haven’t thought about what it will mean that this is his last album. I haven’t thought of the two as interlinked yet in my head,” says Thornley. “But he was having a hard time with chemo and radiation during the recording, and lived in Sarnia, which was four hours away.”
Thornley would record Doherty’s guitar work and send full songs and snippets for the guitarist’s approval.
“He always knew the Lego pieces that were going into the sculpture. I always would hear back until the last few months, which felt so strange,” says Thornley. “We were so in sync, and he just wasn’t afraid to tell me what he thought. He wouldn’t hold back, and he was loving the new record. So at the end of the day, I don’t care what people think of our new one, because I know that Brian loved it.”
As for Big Wreck, Thornley believes Doherty wouldn’t want them to stop.
“Toward the end I’d drive to Sarnia and we’d hang out and shoot the breeze,” he says. “It came up in a not-so-direct way and I know he never would have wanted us to stop doing this. It’s the only thing either of us ever knew how to do.”
Most of all, Thornley will miss his best friend’s loyalty. “I consider myself lucky to have had a friend like Brian. I’m going to miss his wit, his sense of humour. I always had a thing where I just wanted his approval. If I got that, I knew the music was on the right track,” he says. “He was my true north. If I ever got too out in one direction, a quick glance from Brian brought me back around.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for Brian Doherty’s death. Halifax Magazine regrets the mistake.