Kyle Thomas aka King Tuff has had stints in a few bands and brushes with a few styles of music, but rock’n’roll and the touring life is where his heart really is, he tells Anthony Carew.
For years, if you wanted to buy a King Tuff record, you had to be ready to pay the price. Kyle Thomas, the Brattleboro, Vermont native behind the fuzzed-out, garage-rockin' one-man-band, had first turned out his debut King Tuff LP, Was Dead, in 2007, as a self-released CD-R. In 2008 it was pressed up for the first time on vinyl, and, from there, each limited-run wax pressing came with a collectible touch: Thomas would individually draw on each cover, for example. When a vinyl/cassette run came on the cult underground-garage label Burger Records in 2010, King Tuff's 'collectible' status went through the roof, and copies of Was Dead started getting flipped on eBay for nuts sums of cash.
“It's a pretty crazy feeling: 'wait, somebody is willing to pay over $100 for something I just put out, like, last year?'” says Thomas, with a shake of his head. “It is a good feeling, but it's also a bad one. It's kind of a double-edged sword; I don't want some teenager from the Midwest to have to scrounge up all his cash to have one of my records. It's really flattering to be thought of as so 'collectible', but you'd much rather that just everyone could have it.”
A widely-available reissue of Was Dead has just come out, which will dent the market a little, but also make it so that everyone who wants to get in on the King Tuff debut can. The album is a noisy, overdriven, balls-to-the-wall garage-fuzz that essentially inhabits the same audio realm as White Fence, Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, et al; but it was made in total isolation.
“I didn't really ever think that anyone would hear it,” recounts Thomas. “I didn't have a label or anything, I was just purely making an album that, personally, I really wanted to hear. There was a rock'n'roll void in the time that I made it. I started recording in the mid-2000s, from 2003 to 2006 was when I was writing the songs. And it wasn't that there was no one around doing something similar, but I didn't know about anyone. Even back then, ten years ago, it was harder to know about stuff, about these small, awesome rock'n'roll bands from other cities or other countries. So, all the music that I was listening to was 30 or 40 years old. So, I wanted to make something new that had that same feeling – something that I liked. Whether or not the rest of the world got to hear it, whether anyone else got to hear it.”
Thomas had grown up, as a kid, in thrall to rock'n'roll; harbouring childhood obsessions with Green Day, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix and Metallica. And noise in general. “I was always making noise, banging on things, drawing pictures,” Thomas offers. “I started playing drums in the school band in like third or fourth grade. Then I picked up the guitar in fifth grade, when I was 10. From the first time I picked up a guitar, I just always tried to write my own songs. I've been pretty much on that path ever since. There's been a few diversions into other types of music, but I've pretty much always had a rock'n'roll heart.”
Those diversions include a stint in freak-folk outfit Feathers, a gang of Vermont hippies who found favour with Devendra Banhart in the peak of that Golden Apples Of The Sun era. As well as two LPs effectively 'fronting' Witch, a band best known as the stoner-rock outfit in which J Mascis plays drums. Witch wound up in 2008, after their second LP, Paralyzed, which came right after the vinyl debut of King Tuff. Thomas suddenly found himself at a low ebb: nothing going on, and a bunch of songs that he didn't know what to do with. So he founded Happy Birthday.
“I was writing these other weirder songs, that were both more poppy and way more experimental in form,” says Thomas. “So I decided to start this whole other band with my friend Chris Weisman. He was like a genius from a different spectrum. He's a jazz musician who knows the guitar inside out, and can make it do things I never could. I wrote the songs with him, and he helped take them in this other direction completely, far from straight-ahead rock'n'roll.”
Thomas and Weisman recruited Ruth Garbus —Thomas's former Feathers bandmate, and the sister of Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus— to sing and play drums, and played what they thought would be a one-off show. They played a handful more, rockin' with no real ambition, then found it all change when they signed to legendary indie label Sub Pop. “There was such a change that occurred in the life of that band. At first we were just doing it totally for fun, as almost this social thing. Then we signed with Sub Pop, and started touring a lot, and things got a bit more complicated,” remembers Thomas. “Chris and Ruth didn't want to dedicate their lives to touring, which is totally understandable, but it just meant there was this weird period in the band where we had different goals, and a record label expecting that we'd tour as much as possible. I was fine with that, so, at that point, I figured I'd just go back to doing my own thing, and bring back King Tuff.”
Setting out work on his second King Tuff LP, a self-titled set released by Sub Pop in 2012, Thomas turned his one-time one-man-band into a live quartet, and hit the road, hard. “It felt like I was finally doing the right thing, and it felt very weird to me that I'd ever stopped doing King Tuff,” he says. Now, with the Pitchfork behemoth putting their corporate critical heft behind King Tuff – Best New Reissue, ahoy – Thomas finds his band on the up, no longer merely the province of flippers and vinyl nerds.
Which leads to King Tuff's maiden Australian tour, whose suitably thorough itinerary includes a Melbourne show on a boat (“I have bad memories of playing a show on a boat that was going around the New York City harbour. I could barely stand up, let alone sing and play guitar. We were really terrible.”). His Happy Birthday bandmates may not have liked touring, but Thomas spent his teenaged years riding Greyhound buses (“they're all pretty seedy, they're all pretty bleak. You see people at their worst. A lot of people on drugs freaking out, freaking out at the gas station stops, and the [Greyhound] stations are always the worst. It's kind of this horrific way to travel, but there's something I really like about it; the element of danger, perhaps”), and is a born traveller, perils be damned.
“It's also a lot of sitting in a van, a lot of eating really shitty food,” Thomas admits. “But sometimes touring feels like the best thing ever, and I'm the luckiest person in the world to have this be my job, to be actually able to make a career out of being a musician. All those times you have a shitty experience, they're just part of it. As the Australians say: it's a long way to the top if you want to rock'n'roll.”
King Tuff will be playing the following dates:
Wednesday 24 April – I OH YOU @ GoodGod Small Club, Sydney NSW
Thursday 25 April – Bermuda Float, Melbourne VIC
Friday 26 April – The Primitive Room, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 27 April – Tuxedo Cat, Adelaide SA