Fans become lab rats in Ian Thornley's record release experiment

Fans at Ian Thornley's record release won't be able to hide how they feel about his new album – because they'll be strapped to electrodes monitoring their every reaction.

Big Wreck frontman to release new album Secrets at McMaster University's Live Lab

Big Wreck frontman Ian Thornley will release his new solo album "Secrets" in Hamilton at McMaster University's Live Lab on Oct. 30. (Nikki Ormerod)

Big Wreck frontman Ian Thornley didn't know he was a touch claustrophobic – that is until he decided to release his brand new solo album at McMaster University's Live Lab

Thornley's newest effort is part record release, part scientific experiment – so prepping for the show included cramming the six foot four musician into an MRI to map the nuances of his brain.

"Turns out I might actually be a little claustrophobic," Thornley laughed. But that's par for the course at the University's $8-million gem of a performance space, which combines 3D motion-capture technology, acoustic controls and brain-monitoring sensors to map the intricacies of how humans respond to music.

The Oct. 30 show is the first ever major album launch at the lab, which has been called one of the world's finest research facilities. "There are lots of unanswered questions about the scientific effects music has on you," Thornley said. "As a performer, I was very interested in a selfish way. I wanted to know if an audience would react in the same way I do."

I guess with all of this technology, it's only a matter of time before major labels start trying to use it as a focus group to see what Bieber single to release next.- Ian Thornley

Now it would be cheating to solely bring in a crew of die-hard Big Wreck fans who have loved his work since the seminal In Loving Memory Of…. No doubt, their reactions to his new solo album Secrets would be largely positive.

That's why organizers have split the audience into two groups – Thornley's existing fans (who can win a spot to get in through a GTA scavenger hunt and Instagram contest) and a control group who aren't familiar with his music.

Throughout the performance, both groups (and the band itself) will be monitored for things like heart rate and brainwave activity. It's an exceptionally rare opportunity for an artist to see how his music affects people on a biometric level.

"I'll know where the parts in the set are that we really reached something," Thornley said. "I'm just fascinated to see how the audience reacts."

Examining the intricacies of live music

Local music in the lab

Though Thornley is the first big name rock artist to use the Live Lab, artists from other genres are starring in the 10 db music series which runs into the new year.

For more information on performances, visit the Series 10 db website.

The lab's technical director Dan Bosnyak told CBC news that the audience will hear the recorded version of the album before hearing it live, to see how those experiences differ. "We want to see how the live experience enhances enjoyment," Bosnyak said. "We want to know just what the live music experience itself brings to people."

There's also a chance that the reaction might not all be raucous. The data doesn't lie, and when you're bored, you're bored. "There is a little bit of a worry there, but I have a feeling my fans will be into it," Thornley said. "It just requires a little bit of faith in your fans."

Secrets is perhaps best described as a moderately-acoustic album. It's undeniably stripped down from the ultra-layered Big Wreck sound, but still carries an atmospheric weight that separates it from many one-note "frontman with an acoustic guitar" projects.

Musicians play while EEG monitors trace their brainwaves and display data on the screen behind at McMaster University's new LIVELab. (McMaster University)

"It just feels so natural – it feels so naked," Thornley said. "I love it. I adore this record."

Through this solo album and the last two Big Wreck releases, Thornley has sounded like a man comfortable in his own skin – playing for the sake of playing, and free from abrasive producer and label oversight.

That's something he had to deal with both through Big Wreck's early years and during the eponymous Thornley project, which was hemmed in at the Chad Kroeger-owned 604 records.

All roads come back to Bieber

Considering that kind of oversight, he can be forgiven for being a little cynical about the industry.

"I guess with all of this technology, it's only a matter of time before major labels start trying to use it as a focus group to see what Bieber single to release next," he laughed.

For more on Secrets, visit Thornley's website.



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