by: Ryan Heape
“No…I don’t think I’ve ever been to Lubbock. Are there a lot of cowboys there?” Kyle Thomas ponders out loud to me over the phone on a Friday afternoon. It’s only quarter past 1 pm in Los Angeles where he is, but it sounds like he has just recently woke or has gotten a nice head start on whatever it is free American rock stars do in Los Angeles on Friday nights.
“Things were movin’ a little too slow
So I did the opposite of what I know
And I went bustin’ loose
‘Cause somebody told me long ago
‘Baby just break the rules’”
Right. This is the guy who is currently making a career out of doing whatever the hell he wants. It’s more than punk rebellion though, and more than the stoner isolation championed in the song (and adorable/hilarious video) “Alone & Stoned.” When Thomas sings, “I sure as hell don’t give a shit,” on the above-quoted track, “Baby Just Break,” off his new self-titled LP, the conveyed sentiment is far more endearing than apathetic. It couldn’t be less apathetic, actually. There isn’t a rock album this year with as much swag as “King Tuff.”
Thomas has been a member of rag-tag stoner metal outfit Witch; before that he was in Feathers, a particularly flowery indie folk band. In 2010, he released an album with guitar pop project Happy Birthday. But his most remarkable work had been his proper debut as King Tuff, a moniker he picked up in his youth in Vermont. 2008’s “Was Dead” was as unexpectedly sophisticated as it was just plain unexpected. (It’s a rare album to find now, but I’m sure you can find a copy in your local Ty Segall fan’s hard drive.) Earlier this year, when it was announced that Thomas would be returning to the King Tuff throne, it was unclear how he would piece all these experiences together for a Sub Pop debut.
Surprising to no one, the album is all over the place. The word disorienting can wield a frightening connotation—in music criticism it might precede the damning incohesive—but the kinds of ways that “King Tuff” disorients you are all fun and clever ways. Opener “Anthem” is a Northeastern punk stomp that feels like the jackrabbit-burst of sound you’d expect from someone raising his voice for the first time in a while. The California glam-rock of “Alone & Stoned” is the kind of energy Smith Westerns sold us on last year with “Weekend.” “Loser’s Wall” is as cool and sinister as the Stooges, T. Rex, or early Libertines; it predictably became my favorite track. The way Thomas has elements of scuzzy filth, acoustic guitar, synth, and danceable rhythms all clicking together with his unique vocal stamp just works.
Can we talk about “Bad Thing” though? Other than being the ultimate soundtrack to every time I pulled onto a highway this summer (verily, I have this song titled as “King Tuff Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With” on my iPod), it emits all the power of Kyle Thomas as a songwriter. During the verse, he is haunted by the creature he sees in the mirror. In the bridge, he’s repeating, “I’m a bad, bad, bad thing,” as if he’s convincing himself of the fact mid-song. With the howling chorus, he unleashes his conclusion with all the charisma and conviction in the world. There are moments on this record when Thomas does the whole outlaw self-assertion thing as well as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, or Your Older Brother’s Favorite Rapper did.
You can read my brief—and frankly, kind of silly—conversation with Kyle Thomas below. King Tuff will hit the stage at O-Bar in the Depot District tonight with California import Birds & Batteries (read our interview with them here), Slow Static, Rob Goblin, The Sun & The Shadows, and The Dry Heeves. Unless you are a free American rock star in Los Angeles, you have nothing—literally, no activity of any sort—better to do with your Tuesday night.
New Slang: I was watching that thing you did on YouTube with Pitchfork to gain insight on your weird personality. Did y’all seriously find a dead bat on the front of the tour van?
Kyle Thomas: [Laughs] Yeah, it was on my friend’s van and we actually hit this bat somewhere around Texas. I took it as a good omen since I love bats and in fact we put one on the cover of the record.
NS: You’ve done a lot of your own artwork, correct?
KT: Mostly, it’s a collaboration between me and my brother. One of those things we’ve always liked to do. I want to get back into art one of these days.
NS: You were at SXSW this year, just before the new record came out. Did you get out and really dive into what was going on around you at the festival or did you focus on your own gigs?
KT: Yeah, south-by. We definitely got a chance to see a lot of things and generally fuck around in Austin. I ate a lot of food. I swam in some pools. I love Austin, man.
NS: Going to talk about back in the day for a minute, about Witch. It was two of you from Feathers, one from Dinosaur Jr. I mean in the beginning, it was four guys who were in non-metal bands deciding they wanted to rock out.
KT: I had played a lot of really loud rock before getting into the folk stuff with Feathers. So yeah, J Mascis kind of put all of us together in a room and Witch happened. It was a fun thing to do, just trying to play on the biggest amps possible.
NS: I couldn’t find your awesome 2008 album Was Dead anywhere, really. But are you still including some of those older tunes in the setlist? If you’re not playing “Sun Medallion” or “Lazerbeam” anymore, I feel like someone needs to [laughs].
KT: Oh yeah. We’re working on getting that re-released, hopefully by the end of this year. But we’ve been playing those songs live for sure. I’m the same way, when I go see a band I like to hear the old songs. The ones I know. I’m that way with my stuff; I’m not trying to alienate people by trying to just impress them with new shit.
NS: Do you remember if there was anything that prompted you to write “Bad Thing”?
KT: Well, yeah. I was in a dark place… But that’s really where the best stuff comes from.
NS: You’ve been in Witch, Feathers, Happy Birthday. All very different concoctions. Is King Tuff where you’re able to kind of put all of what you like to do together in a way?
KT: It’s just the newest thing. I feel like with every project I’ve done I’ve just been doing exactly what I wanted to do which is just rock n’ roll, man.
NS: After you’re finished with this tour, what’s next? Do you see yourself continuing on with King Tuff?
KT: Yeah, I think so, but who knows? I’d like to get back into art, you know. I also have this plan to be a hat designer.
NS: For a rock frontman, your snap-back game is tight.
KT: I’ve got a shit load of hats. I should seriously get sponsored by a hat company, quick. Maybe you could hook that up for me. They have cowboy hats in Lubbock?
NS: Yes, and they are plentiful. How much do you find people dancing to your music? Like what is the dance-to-mosh ratio?
KT: Dance-to-mosh? [Thinks for a moment] It depends on the city. Some are just regular crazy people: they want to stage dive and jump around the entire time. Other places like to sensually groove I guess. Some crowds, though, are just confused and you can’t tell what they’re doing the whole time.
NS: How about making out during “Swamp Of Love”?
KT: We actually haven’t played that yet on this tour. We’re still trying to make it work live. [Laughs] God, I really hope they start making out though.