See also: King Tuff at Moe's Original BBQ, 8/28/12
King Tuff is the latest project of Kyle Thomas, who has been seen in the psych-folk band Feathers, the garage-punk outfit Happy Birthday, and the doom band Witch, with J. Mascis. With King Tuff, Thomas has written a pretty diverse array of music, but his latest, self-titled album reveals a real penchant for writing catchy power-pop hooks that sound like what might happen if a band like Cheap Trick or the Sweet existed today but got a little weirder and more organic.
Performed live, those songs are transformed into exuberant rock and roll hooliganism, performed by a band that plays like it has little if anything to lose. We spoke with the humorous and friendly Thomas about his time in his hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, loitering and his encounters with the supernatural.
Westword: You're from Brattleboro, Vermont. Do you know about the Happy Jawbone Family Band? Francis Carr used to be in a garage-punk band in Colorado called Thee Goochi Boiz.
Kyle Thomas: Yeah, I'm friends with all those guys. And I know the Lust-Cats from Denver. I love all those guys.
Did you play shows with that band in Vermont?
I'm not sure if we've ever played a show together. I played with the Lust-Cats once in Denver. I've seen Happy Jawbone a bunch of times, but I can't remember if I played those shows or not.
What got you involved in playing music live and what kind of musical community or opportunities did you have in Brattleboro?
Just being a teenager and starting punk bands with my friends, doing little trips. We would go on, not tour, but drive quite a ways to play a show, when I was in high school. Brattleboro is a very small town, but it's pretty liberal. My friends always had bands, and we would play together. There aren't very many musical opportunities, but it's a great place to work on your music and perfect it.
In an interview you did with Girl About Town, you said that Vermont inspired you as a songwriter. What is it about being there that is conducive to your creativity?
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Being close to nature is really good. Just being able to kind of seclude yourself and go into the zone -- not have many distractions. It's easy to do that there. You're not worried about going out every night.
Why do you feel that being close to nature is helpful in freeing up your creativity?
You just feel more connected to the world and you feel that your mind isn't as flooded with all this shit -- you know, information -- coming at you from every angle. It's just more peaceful. There's something special about being close to that. It's hard to talk about it without sounding like a hippie. But trees are really inspiring to me. They're like the masters of the earth.
You've talked, perhaps in the same interview, about living in Laurel Canyon and how the trees there helped you in that regard as well.
Yeah. Because that's one thing I miss in L.A. is trees. I mean, they've got palm trees, which are really cool and inspiring in a different way. They're like a twig with an afro, a green afro. But I'm also inspired by the city, too. It's just a different vibe. It's the opposite of everything I said before -- just observing people and all the different, crazy things going down like this guy walking down the street screaming at me [just a minute ago] for no reason.
Was there any specific incident that inspired your move to L.A. from Vermont instead of, say, New York?
For some reason I never felt inspired to move to New York. I love New York City. I love going there and it's exciting and I feel like it's just a classic city. It's what I think about when I think of a city. But I never felt the urge to live there. I don't know if it's too compact -- you feel kind of trapped when you're there, whereas L.A. is much more spread out. It has a much more wide-open feeling. It's not like Vermont; it's not like living in the country, but you don't feel as trapped. "Into the great wide open..." I feel like Tom Petty when I'm here. It feels great.
How did you come to join Witch with J. Mascis? Obviously he was more communicative with you than his public persona would suggest.
No, not really. That came together because of the bass player, Dave Sweetapple, who's one of those people that, if you know Dave Sweetapple, everyone's like, "Oh...Sweetapple?" He's one of those guys who is mischievous, but you can't hate him. I can't be mad at him, even though I want to kill him all the time. He's just a troublemaker, you know? But he's friends with J and J wanted to play drums in a band. At the time, I was maybe in my early twenties -- 21 or 22. I was just working in town, and I knew Dave.
At first it was pretty crazy because I grew up listening to Dinosaur Jr., but it didn't feel as weird as I thought it would feel -- except for maybe the first practice where we were like playing in my parents' basement. He does talk a lot. But I've definitely seen people try to talk to him, like fans and stuff, and he doesn't give much back.
I'm the same way, sometimes. I really want to talk to people but sometimes you just don't know what to say. What do you say when somebody comes up to you and tells you that they conceived their child while listening to your music. Somebody came up to him one time and said that, and he just didn't say anything.
In that interview for Red Bull a couple of months ago, you mentioned how no one really loiters in L.A. What made it easy to loiter in Brattleboro, and what is the appeal of loitering to you?
Why didn't I get any free Red Bull? Where's my goddamned sponsorship? Oh well. [Loitering] is just a way of life when you're a townie. I'm a total townie. Wherever I go I find a good coffee shop to go to and I could just hang out there all day. That's just the way I've always been. I like watching people, and it's part of getting into the zone for me. I'll sit around and write lyrics. I like being in a public place doing that for some reason, I don't know why.
In Brattleboro, it's really easy to loiter because there's nowhere to go. The town is a couple of blocks long. Either you go home or you're in the town area. Me and all my friends grew up just hanging out in this parking lot called Harmony Parking Lot. That's where you become who you are and where you make lifelong friends, just hanging out in spots in high school. You and your friends get a certain spot. I think I just fell in love with loitering then and it never went away, really.
In that interview you did for Pitchfork TV, you talk about finding a melted bat on the van grill before going on tour. What is the significance of the bat to you in general, and did the bat spirit indeed watch over the tour?
I think so. I mean I definitely took it as a good omen when I saw it. It's like the thing where you'll talk with something with somebody and that thing keeps popping up everywhere you look. Or you discover an old record, or you get into a certain band and then all of a sudden, it seems like everyone is listening to that band out of nowhere. Things like that. It's the same thing for me with the bats. I think it's been kind of a theme throughout my whole life starting with Batman and being obsessed with Batman as a kid. The bats have always been around.
I think it probably happens to a lot of people but I don't know how much people pay attention to that kind of thing but I'm really into it. Pay attention to that stuff, and it's interesting. What is happening? It just seems like everything's connected.
Not to sound like a hippie, which is hardly a crime anyway, it's like the universe or your subconscious mind is communicating to you or something.
There's something going on.
You've played several styles of music so far in your musical career. What is it about King Tuff that you're able to do and that you enjoy that you're not quite able to in say Feathers, Witch and Happy Birthday?
I guess it's just that King Tuff is just me writing the songs. That's the ultimate freedom. Not that I'm not free in the other bands, but I write songs with other people in those other bands, and it's different styles. I love that. I love writing with other people, but I also like doing everything myself, too.
The main difference is the live shows. The King Tuff live shows are probably the most exciting out of any of the bands as far as people going crazy. That always helps as a performer when the audience reacts to you--it just makes you play a lot better. Whereas if people are just standing there you can't really tell if they like it or not. That's not really very inspiring to you when you're on stage. So it's just cool to have that back and forth with the band and the audience. It's hard to do sometimes. I can't do it every time.
King Tuff sounds like a reference to a reggae artist in some ways. But in that Vice interview, you mentioned writing it down when you were seventeen. What does that name suggest to you now that maybe you didn't realize then?
It's been part of me for so long that it doesn't mean anything. It's just there now. I don't even think about it anymore. But it does sound like King Tubby. I like that about it.
When you were recording your album, why did you want to do that in a haunted, abandoned high school, and have you had other encounters with the paranormal like that in your life?
Definitely had other weird encounters. That was just the studio that Bobby [Harlow], the producer hooked up. He said, "Alright, we're going to record at my friend's place at this high school. The engineer whose studio it was hadn't been there that long. I think we were the second or third band that had recorded there. It was definitely strange and odd place to do an album.
In my old studio, I lived on the second floor, and the whole third floor was burned out and destroyed. It had been like that since the '40s. There was a fire. The guy that died in it lived there. I'd hear stories about them wanting to fix it in the past but they didn't fix it because of ghosts. There were definitely weird vibes up there. It always sounded like someone would be drawing on the floor with a pencil right up above my head. I was telling my roommate about that, who lived in the room right next to me, and he was like, "I don't hear that. It's probably just a mouse or something." But then one day he burst into my room and said, "I heard the drawing! It sounded like writing, actually, and it's right above my head!"
It was getting all dark and we freaked ourselves out. We turned the lights off and tried to talk to it and ask it to give us a response. We weren't hearing anything. And I was like, "Show us a sign you're there." I was standing on one end of the room, and he was standing on the other. All of a sudden, right up above our heads, starting at my head, it drew a line across the entire room between our heads. We were like, "Okay..." It was pretty weird.
I didn't feel freaked out by it, though. I didn't feel scared. And I'd be in there recording all night. I recorded all my demos there. I'd be recording until six in the morning and you always think you see things out of the corner of your eye and stuff like that. I like stuff like that, though. It's cool. It's just mysterious.
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