King Tuff :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas got his start in old hippie enclave of Brattleboro, Vermont, a left-leaning, art-obsessed small town, where daily life unfolded in the parking lot near the food co-op, at an independent coffee house that hosted open mics, at swimming holes and on forest trails, everywhere surrounded by nature.It’s the sort of place where a pack of kids driven buggy by boredom might pick up any number of instruments and start a band.In Thomas’ case, that was Feathers, the expansive, multi-songwriter collective whose best shows were quiet revelations, albeit with lots and lots of stops for tuning.From there, he turned up in Witch with J. Mascis, in the short-lived power pop outfit Happy Birthday and as harder rocking King Tuff.

About ten years ago, he left Brattleboro for Los Angeles, where he now shares a house with Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy and Sasami. But the spell that southern Vermont cast on him remains, even at a distance, and when the COVID-19 lockdown forced a period of introspection, he began to write songs about Brattleboro and Vermont. His newest album, Smalltown Stardust, looks back fondly on the place where he grew up, couching sunny melodies in soft 1960s psychedelia and folk arrangements.

I should say that I live about half an hour from Brattleboro, and that I spent a lot of time there in the aughts. I remember seeing Thomas sauntering around town, hair down to his waist, dressed in a distinctly rock star kind of way, often in the company of other colorfully dressed creative types. Brattleboro was a small enough town that he stood out, but also welcoming and open-minded enough that nobody made a big deal about it. It was, and is, a special place.

In this interview, we talked about small town life Vermont-style and the experiences that shaped Thomas.“ When there’s nothing to do, you kind of make it up. You’ve got to figure out how to fill the time. We would go play music together or just hang out,” he recalls.“I do think that boredom is a huge part of creativity.” | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: This record is sort of your homage to Brattleboro and Vermont. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up there and how that has shaped your music?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. Well, I was born here in Brattleboro, but I only really lived here for a few months. Then we moved to New Jersey where the rest of my family is from. My parents met at college up here, at a college called Windham College in Putney. It became Landmark College. They had me and my brother, and then they went back to New Jersey where they’re from. My mom’s parents had a travel agency there. My dad went to go work for them. But the whole time, they hated New Jersey, so they were always trying to come back to Vermont throughout my childhood. And then when I was about seven, we finally moved back. I don’t know what would have become of me if we hadn’t come back. I would be, who knows? I’d be a different guy. Which would be cool, too.

But anyway, I’m grateful that they came back because it’s just a really interesting place to grow up in. Obviously it’s amazing to be surrounded by so much nature and a really small, tight-knit community. Lots of old hippies and weird backwoods people. Definitely some mild Twin Peaks vibes.

But I think the main influence that it had on me was that there’s really nothing to do here. There are no distractions, so whatever you’re into, you can really focus on that. Throughout high school, I was really into photography, so I’d just be at the photo lab all the time. But then I got more into songwriting and it just overtook my life. You know, there weren’t parties happening, or even shows, that much. There were some.

AD: It’s weird that they don’t have more shows in Brattleboro, because there are a lot of musicians.

Kyle Thomas: There’s more now. They’ve got Epsilon Spires going, and there’s the Stone Church. There’s been some great shows happening.

There were shows when I was a teenager, too, but for the most part, you’re just kind of left to your own devices. We grew up just hanging in the parking lot. When there’s nothing to do, you kind of make it up. You’ve got to figure out how to fill the time. We would go play music together or just hang out.

I do think that boredom is a huge part of creativity. It’s something that’s lacking in my life now, because I live in LA and there’s a lot going on. I can do whatever I want. Or I’ve got a phone, too, which really eliminates boredom. But I think it’s really bad, you know? Boredom is really important. I was really bored a lot of the time, and it forced me to start making things up in my head.

AD: Brattleboro is really an unusual small town. You hear a lot of artists talk about how confining and strait-laced and low in expectations small towns can be. But Brattleboro is maybe a little different, a little more supportive of people who want to do arts.

Kyle Thomas: Yeah, it’s very different in that way. It’s very supportive. All my friends from here, pretty much everyone, if anyone’s lived here, they’re weirdly obsessed with it. There are other people from Brattleboro that live out in LA. You can’t hang out with us because we’ll just talk about Brattleboro all the time. My girlfriend gets annoyed. She’s like, you just want to talk about Brattleboro all the time. I don’t know. There’s just something so fascinating about it. There’s something kind of unexplainable about it.

AD: You’ve got some very inside Brattleboro stuff on this album. Like the song about Red Tooth. Want to talk about that?

Kyle Thomas: Do you know who that is?

AD: I don’t. I was trying to look it up, but I don’t know.

Kyle Thomas: You wouldn’t be able to find him, but he was just this guy who used to walk up and down Putney Road. We’d see him when we were kids and my dad would always say, “There’s Red Tooth.” And he was just kind of an interesting looking guy. He’d always be walking up and down the street. He was just a mystery to us, and we would get excited when we saw him. There’s not really much more than that.

AD: You never actually talked to him or had any interaction with him.

Kyle Thomas: No, but I wish I did. When I was writing that song, “The Bandits of Blue Sky,” I wanted a name of a villain character, and that just seemed like a cool name.

AD: And then you’ve got a song about Rock River, which is one of Southern Vermont’s famous nudist swimming holes.

Kyle Thomas: I would say that pretty much all of the swimming holes in Vermont are partially nudist.

AD: Because no one’s checking.

Kyle Thomas: Nobody cares. I don’t know what it’s like now. When I was growing up, pretty much everyone swam naked. It wasn’t a big deal. But, yeah, Rock River, we would just be there pretty much every day in the summer. It’s a magical little spot. You’ve got to walk down a rocky path to get to the spot. There’s a lot of spots like that around. I liked the name Rock River, too, because of, you know, “rock.” I’m really a river swimmer. I don’t like the ocean. It freaks me out.

AD: Too big?

Kyle Thomas: I don’t know. I live in California, and I never go to the ocean. It’s kind of violent. I just don’t know how to operate in there. There are weird animals and stuff. There are weird animals in rivers, too, I guess. But I don’t know. I like the fresh water. I’m a freshwater guy.

AD: I know you were in LA when you wrote these songs, and I think it was during the lockdown. Was it?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. Well, some of them, like “Rock River,” I had written before. The end of 2019. I started this when I was done with my previous album cycle. “Portrait of God” was even older. I had been playing that on tour, but it was a different version of the song. For some of them, I had, but I really got into writing during the lockdown.

That was partly why I was thinking about Brattleboro. I wasn’t really getting input from the outside world. I wasn’t having any life experiences, which is kind of crucial to writing songs. I had to draw from memory. So, I was just thinking about growing up here and nature, too. It’s not just about Brattleboro, the town. It’s about nature and youth. I really just wanted to make a joyful record, a warm record, especially because during that time everything was such a bummer. I wanted to make something that would make people happy.

AD: That makes sense. Although it’s coming out way beyond the lockdown.

Kyle Thomas: The record was done a year ago, and with all the production delays, it’s been a year of waiting around.

AD: I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people that it took forever to get their stuff out there.

Kyle Thomas: It’s funny, you know, to sit on something for so long, and now doing an interview, it’s like, “what was I thinking when I wrote this?”

AD: And now you’ll have to tour with songs you wrote two, three years ago.

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. But, you know, the songs have never been performed live, so I think it’ll be fun. A lot of them will grow and change when I actually play them with a band.

AD: You sing in “Small Town Stardust” about “holding onto wonder,” and there is a real mystical element to this record, isn’t there?

Kyle Thomas: It’s a running theme in my music, hanging onto the inner child. I’m not just becoming a grumpy adult, although I certainly have my moods. But I think it’s really important to hold onto that sense of curiosity. Nature, too, is good for that. When you really think about nature, it’s just incredible. When you take a walk through the woods, it’s mind-blowing. If you just focus in on a little section of tree bark. There’s just a million worlds happening there. It’s truly unbelievable. It’s the greatest artwork you could experience.

AD: So how do you survive in LA?

Kyle Thomas: LA is interesting because there is a lot of nature there. It’s just a different kind of nature. But there are canyons and if you drive a little bit you can get to a snowy mountain. Or you drive the other way, and it’s the ocean, which freaks me out, but it’s still beautiful. California, in general, is like nature on steroids. Especially if you go up north a little bit. It’s kind of insane.

AD: But a lot of LA is freeways and parking lots.

Kyle Thomas: Well, yeah, and it’s a different way of life. I like that, too. I’ve been here over ten years, and I’ve definitely figured out what I like about it. The winter is incredible. Everything is blooming. It’s beautiful. But I do miss the forest. I am a critter of the forest.

AD: Tell me about “Meditation,” which is a tape of you as a small boy, talking about getting spiritual. It sounds like not much has changed. How did you end up making that tape?

Kyle Thomas: Well, I was really just making fun of these meditation tapes that my dad had. He used to listen to all these tapes. I forget the guy’s name, but he had all these different meditation tapes that were just the guy just talking really calmly, but you can really hear the spit noises in the guy’s mouth. It’s not on that recording, but there’s another one where I was just making mouth noises.

AD: You should have put that on the record. That would be fun.

Kyle Thomas: It was like my worst nightmare. I couldn’t…But yeah, I was just going through some stuff in my parents’ basement, and I found the tape, and the part where it says, “Let’s do a little mind stretching,” I was like…I haven’t changed at all. I was just a little weirdo. Still am.

AD: These songs, in terms of the music, they have this very sweet, catchy, psychedelic 1960s sound. Were you thinking about any particular artists or records or songs as you started recording and arranging them.

Kyle Thomas: I’m a Beatles fanatic. Obviously that’s in there. I’d say that this music is probably closer to the kind of stuff I listen to than some of my previous albums. It’s closer to what I listen to on a daily basis, more folky stuff. Just songwriting. This is the first record where that side of me has shone through more, the Beatles influence and maybe the Beach Boys, too. But also, the folk side. Growing up in Vermont, it’s very folk heavy. Kind of bluegrass. Old time.

AD: Indeed, it is. Yes.

Kyle Thomas: I love that stuff. I was surrounded by that. I wanted to make a record that was more in that zone for a long time. A little less rock. It’s really about the songs. I write songs and I don’t really set out to make something in particular. The song just goes where it wants to go.

Also, working with Sasami as a producer, she took them into different places. She comes from a classical background. She’s able to hear arrangements that I would never hear. She also wrote a lot of the melodies, like the vocal melodies, so that was interesting, too, to let someone in in that way and to sing her melodies, which sometimes were not easy for me to sing. You’ve got to challenge yourself to get somewhere new.

AD: You’re roommates with Sasami and Meg Duffy?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah.

AD: Is Meg on the album, too?

Kyle Thomas: Meg’s not on the album. They are spiritually. They were very much there, the whole time, making salads in the kitchen and giving us emotional support. They don’t actually play on the record, but they’re in there somewhere.

AD: Are there other people besides you and Sasami that contributed?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah, there’s a lot of other people on the record. Griffin Goldsmith played a lot of the drums. He’s the drummer of Dawes. This amazing bass player, Anna Butterss, who’s involved in the jazz scene in LA, but she’s also been playing with Jenny Lewis for a bit and now she’s playing with Madison Cunningham. She’s incredible. Some of the bass playing on the record is unbelievable, and she just did it in one take. And then there’s string players who came in. There’s some other, couple other little bits, but it’s mostly me and Sasami.

AD: Will it be a lot of work to reconfigure that for a regular rock band when you tour?

Kyle Thomas: Basically, I’m going to try. I’m going to let the songs take a different shape. There’s so much vocal harmony and the strings and it would take a big band to recreate it exactly, but I’m into the live show being something different or growing in a different way and letting the songs take different shapes. We’ll see. I think I’m going to play a Wurlitzer maybe half the time, which I’ve never done before, live. That should be interesting.

AD: Is it a pain to travel with a Wurlitzer?

Kyle Thomas: It is, but it’s just a pain to tour in general.

AD: With a piano, a lot of times, they have a piano there, but it may be slightly different from what you’re used to.

Kyle Thomas: It’s probably the least amount of pain of any real, versus virtual, piano-like instrument you could tour with. You can tour with a synth, but that never really gets there for me. I need something real.

AD: Do have any favorite bits on this album? Not necessarily songs but sounds or lyrics or moments.

Kyle Thomas: I really love the first song, “Love Letters to Plants.” That’s another one where it really became the thing I heard in my head. And lyrically, I think it’s interesting. I really love, “And How I Love.” Sasami wrote it years ago and gave it to me. And then we kind of rewrote it and I came up with that little guitar lick. I really like the way the guitars sound and the drum sounds. I think that’s some of the best drum sound I’ve ever recorded.

I really love that song, “Bandits of Blue Sky.” It was one I heard in my head, and it was fully realized in the recording. Especially the string part in the instrumental break, where the strings play an instrumental melody that I had improvised by singing. And then Sasami took it to even more the next level with her arrangement, and Anna’s bass playing over that part is incredible, too.

AD: It’s a super clean sounding album. You can hear all the separate elements.

Kyle Thomas: Especially that song, in the chorus. A lot of the record ended up kind of dense. But I love that song because there’s barely anything happening and it’s so open. Most of the song is just drums, bass and vocals, and I love that emptiness. That’s definitely something I’ve been striving to go towards. Emptiness.

AD: I assume you’re going to be touring fairly soon. Is there anything else you’ve got in the works that you want to talk about? Side projects or collaborations.

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. I just also finished a record with my band Witch. You know with J Mascis.

AD: There hasn’t been a Witch record in forever, has there?

Kyle Thomas: No, the last record was in 2008. It’s been about 15 years.

AD: How did that get started up again?

Kyle Thomas: We’ve been talking about doing another record since the last record, but I moved to California, so that made it hard. I just wasn’t inspired to write the songs for a long time. It’s a different world of songwriting. It proved hard for me to access.

AD: You’ve been doing more of the power pop.

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. Metal is the funnest music to play live. But I had a block with the lyrics for a long time. I was like, oh, it’s metal. It’s supposed to be dark, and I don’t feel dark.

AD: Does metal have to be dark?

Kyle Thomas: It doesn’t.

AD: A lot of it is.

Kyle Thomas: It is, but there’s no rule saying that. So, I’ve been trying to break that down a little bit and take it to some new places in the new record. We never stopped playing. We’ve done little tours over the years. Then it just lined up and we made a record. Finally.

AD: Would you mind going back a little? The first band that you were in that I was aware of was Feathers. Which was this wonderful, shambolic, large-ensemble folk band. And you only made one record. Can you tell me a little about that and how it came about and what you learned from it and why it was over so soon?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. To me, that was the ultimate band that I was ever in. Because there were so many songwriters in the band, and each person had their own unique perspective. So many singers. It was really incredible to sing with that many people and harmonize. A lot of the songs got very complicated. Our band practice felt like music class. You’d have to learn all these long parts that didn’t repeat. But when we played shows, it was a mess.

AD: I remember a lot of tuning.

Kyle Thomas: The shows were mostly tuning. And switching instruments every song. It was just a nightmare. None of our instruments had pick-ups, so everything had to be mic’d. we couldn’t hear ourselves. There was feedback. It was just a nightmare.

AD: But it was beautiful.

Kyle Thomas: When it was working it was magical. The crowd would be very attentive. We were very quiet, because it was hard to mic that band. But at certain times, it was one of the most magical musical experiences I’ve ever had. I do kind of long for that again. A real band, where there are multiple people bringing their identities to it.

AD: You mentioned “Ruthie” in one of your songs, which is Ruth Garbus, I think?

Kyle Thomas: Yes, indeed.

AD: Sounds like she was a kindred soul. Can you tell me about how the two of you first connected?

Kyle Thomas: Actually, I was friends with her sister, Merrill, from Tune-Yards first. And Merrill lived in Brattleboro and at the time she was a puppeteer and she worked at Mocha Joe’s coffee shop, and we would do open mics where I would play and she would play. This was before she really wrote songs. Or she was just starting to write songs. And then Ruth appeared one day. She had been going to RISD and dropped out, and she came to Brattleboro to hang with her sister. And I kept seeing her around, wondering, “Who is that interesting person?” Especially then. If somebody looks the least bit interesting in a small town, you’re like “Who is that person?” I needed a housemate at the time. I was looking for a roommate, and I saw Merrill at the coffee shop and she was with Ruth, and she said, “Hey, Kyle, this is Ruth. She’s looking for a place to live. And I was just like “You’ll come live with me.”

AD: Wow. Was she frightened?

Kyle Thomas: No! And we just became best friends. We’re still besties to this day.

AD: Isn’t she still around? In this part of the country?

Kyle Thomas: Yeah. She’s actually going to come out to LA next month and we’re going to do some recording. She’s incredible. Her and Chris Weisman, they’re probably my two best friends that are still in Brattleboro.

AD: I just got a record from Chris Weisman that was just really good and totally under the radar.

Kyle Thomas: Both of them are some of the best songwriters around. I feel like they’re waiting. I’m waiting for the world to catch up.

AD: I don’t know. I’ve been writing about music for maybe 20 years, and there are all these bands that are really good and never get their shot.

Kyle Thomas: Yeah, but then somebody finds it in the future and things happen. The Nick Drake phenomenon.

AD: I hope so. It does not seem to be entirely judged by quality.

Kyle Thomas: Definitely not.

AD: And then you took this jangly pop turn in Happy Birthday. How did that happen?

Kyle Thomas: That was a band with Chris and Ruth and that was just kind of like….I had made the first King Tuff record, Was Dead. Feathers was pretty much done at that point. I wasn’t really doing Witch full-time. And I had all these songs that were a little weirder, more arty, and then Chris and Ruth, I started playing with them, and they started helping me with arrangements and changing chords and it turned into that record. It was very short-lived. But I do like it when people come up to me and say that’s their favorite record of mine. I see you. You’re like a true freak. Because that’s a weird record, but it’s cool.

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