BYT Interviews: Fred Thomas
phil runco | May 8, 2015 | 10:00AM |

By Philip Runco

In the opening moments of All Are Saved, a pair of trumpets float through the air like a half-hearted reveille nudging Fred Thomas awake.  It’s a fleeting moment, pleasant and sweet, cut off with a coarse cough and a phlegmy, gargled throat clearing. The message is clear, though: Fred Thomas has something to say, and like the first sound that we hear from him, not all of it is pretty.

All Are Saved is the record where a singer-songwriter whose career has been marked by prolificness – through various labels and his own Life Like Tapes – opens up in a way that he never has before. Overflowing from its 39 minutes are a swirl of conflicting emotions: rejection and uplift, animosity and love, nostalgia and regret, dark clouds and silver linings. The Ypsilanti native paints a messy picture. Life is messy. Or as he sings on “Every Song Sung to a Dog”, it’s “eight potential decades – sloppy, selfish and unreal.”

Released last month, All Are Saved is the product of over a year-and-a-half’s writing, recording, and refining. In early 2013, a month before he would start making the album, Thomas told me how his solo work reflected a fascination with a “stream-of-consciousness, write-a-song-every-five-minutes approach” to songwriting: “I’ve been so into how easy it is to make something really beautiful without thinking about it that much.”

Somewhere along the line that changed, because with All Are Saved, he’s made the polar opposite – something “completely overwrought,” he says.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider the record a complete detour. Musically, it plucks elements from across Thomas’ career: the horns and orchestration of Saturday Looks Good to Me; the looping electronics and ambience of City Center; the strummed acoustic guitar of solo albums like Kuma. And while Saturday Looks Good to Me is often thought of as a “throwback pop troupe” that made “little pop gem[s]”, All Are Saved is perhaps most closely related to that band’s adventurous, wordy Fill Up the Room (2007) and its downtrodden, bittersweet comeback LP, One Kiss Ends It All (2013). The biggest difference is the words coming out of his mouth, and the piercing honesty that they contain.

I spoke with Thomas last week, on the eve of a solo tour in support of the record.

Fred Thomas plays the East Village’s Elvis Guesthouse on Sunday and Brooklyn’s Palisades on Monday. All Are Saved is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

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You said that One Kiss Ends It All and Kuma were both inspired by “lackadaisical conversations.” Your motivation for making them was essentially “why not?” All Are Saved doesn’t feel that way. How did it diverge from the albums you’ve made in recent years?

It’s a huge divergence. Thinking back to the casual, almost aloof nonchalance of One Kiss Ends It All and Kuma, it feels like a different person was talking; it was a definitely a different person’s approach.

I could also say this album squared on another conversation, though. I was hanging out at a café one day, and an acquaintance of mine said, “Have you met my boyfriend?” And I was like, “Nice to meet you. What’s your deal? What are you working on?” He said, “Well, I’ve been working for the entire year on my album. I’ve put everything that I have into it. I’ve flown in a string section to do this really intense classical thing.” He had been toiling over these compositions and done so many drafts of it. He was just completely immersed in this project.

I had been in the mindset of: “Yeah, I just kinda jam and make up songs, and they don’t really mean much. Or if they mean something, it’s not so heavy or serious.” And even though I didn’t know this guy, he was so passionate about this one singular thing that I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get inspired. I was like, “Wow. That’s such a cool feeling to have. I’ve had that feeling before.”

It made me remember records that I had worked on that were almost like thesis projects – things that required day-and-night attention. I started thinking about those times, and I started remembering those feelings, and I was like, “I have so much to say. I have so many things that I actually care about that are not casual.” If you’ve been doing music for a long time like I have, it’s easy to forget that it’s not granted. It’s not a given thing. You have to remember how you really feel about it.

It was a completely inward journey from there. I started thinking, “What if this was the last record that I could ever make? What if this was the last thing I could say? What if this was my final statement?” Not everyone gets to make records that people hear. Not everyone gets to make records at all. A lot of things just sit around the shelf. If I have a chance to say something, I want to say something really, really cool. It’s not that I don’t think other stuff that I’ve said is cool; this just came from such a different and intense place.

Last time we spoke, you said that you “gave up a long time ago on making some master statement.”

Well, in some ways, I still stand by that, because I don’t feel like All Are Saved is some master statement that I can never top. It’s not like I’m going to stop making stuff after this. But it did feel a lot more serious. I was looking in places that I hadn’t looked before. I haven’t stop writing songs – I’ve got more songs to go – but I don’t know if they can necessarily go back at this point. I have to go deeper still.

You once told me that you’d “like to find some middle ground between completely thoughtless and overwrought, because my solo records are not overwrought at all.” Do you think you’ve found that here?

No, I’d say that this record is completely overwrought. [Laughs] It’s really overwrought. Most of my friends who I’m close with are like, “Yeah, your record… I think I like it. I know that it’s irritating, but I think it’s good.”

It is kind of irritating. It is a little bit too much. But that’s sort of the point of it.

How so?

Making these songs was inspired by different musicians that I really respect and different albums that I had been listening to lately – like, the Life About Buildings record, which is super talky and super poetic, or the Barr records, which are basically a conversation that this guy is having with himself. All Are Saved is saying a lot of things. They’re not simple pop songs that can be ignored; you can’t just hum along. It’s an overbearing, visceral, bratty kind of sentiment. It’s like: “Here’s everything that I’m feeling with very little filter. I’m contradicting myself in a lot of the lyrics. They’re really, really personal. They’re almost self-absorbed in an annoying, selfish way.”

It’s like the person that you see at a party and you start talking to him, and ten minutes in, you’re like, “Oh my god, get me out of here. This guy is sharing way too much. I don’t really care how you feel or how your career is going or your last break-up. I just don’t care.” This record kind of embodies those moments.

It’s not just like, “Oh this is a deeply personal, because it was made at a dark time.” It’s not like that. I don’t really buy that kind of back story: “After a very dark time, I had to say something.” No, I didn’t have to say anything. I could have kept on making quick songs. But for whatever reason, I was inspired to go a lot deeper. It was a challenge to myself. It was a time where I thought, “Maybe I can do something and break out of that laissez-faire approach, because people can change.”

There were lots of different versions of the record before it got done. What shook out of the 35 songs that I recorded were these nine kind of overbearing, intense songs and a couple of weird interludes. It could have been a very different record if it was a different cut.

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For as dark as All Are Saved is at times, One Kiss Ends It All was often just as despairing and downtrodden. Even a song like “Sunglasses”, the poppiest song on the record, was about being fed up with the world. To what degree do you think the albums share a thread?

The last Saturday Looks Good to Me was such a bummer of a record! All of the sentiments are about putting your best face forward at a time when you’re really miserable; I think that you can feel that in the songs. Things are lonely. I was over a lot of things that used to make me happy.

In the case of “Sunglasses”, there’s some hidden social critique. It’s about how woman are treated poorly all the time. I didn’t write that from my own perspective or any of my own experiences, but a lot of the people that I love have had those experiences, and I wanted to get that into my song. Sometimes people want to be left alone; they don’t want to be bothered just because they’re walking down the street.

There is a frustrated and despairing tone to that record. All Are Saved is sort of the next step: What happens after that? You’re still around, and you have to do something. You can’t just be frustrated and downtroddenly complain about it; you have to have an eruption point. All Are Saved is the eruption of those frustrations. If it’s not a resolution, then it’s some blissful feeling that comes after frustration, you know? [Laughs] You can only get there through frustration. It’s a continued exploration of someone’s bummed out feeling.

Were you nervous about putting yourself out there like this, and airing the sort of petty or self-absorbed feelings that we all have but don’t necessarily say? You call yourself out on it the middle of “Bad Blood”.

Absolutely. That song in particular is a pretty bitter song about someone that I barely know; someone who rubbed me the wrong way for various reasons, and how it sucked to see them, even though I didn’t have any idea what they were going through and didn’t care to find out. I took a serious look at what this feeling was that I’ve had on-and-off with different people throughout my entire life.

Everyone probably has somebody where they’re like, “That person sucks. I hate them. I don’t really know them, and they don’t really know me, and they didn’t necessarily do anything bad to me, but they make me feel self-conscious and strange about myself.”

That was definitely something that was difficult to express, let alone on a record. But I did it anyway. [Laughs] Maybe putting it out there helped me get through some of those feelings.

All Are Saved draws musically from elements of almost everything you’ve done before while still sounding very much like its own thing. How did you manage that?

It was definitely collaged from a bunch of different recording sessions and different days; it took many, many months to get to. Some of the songs started out as sketches when I was doing City Center, and I thought that they would end up as City Center songs, but they never did. There’s some stuff that I just thought was kind of cool and turned into little demos. It really was cobbled together from a couple of years of different ideas.

A lot of people have been like, “This is a culmination of everything you’ve done. It’s got the electronic stuff that you did with City Center. It’s got the folky stuff that you’ve done under your own name. It’s got moments of orchestration that showed up in Saturday Looks Good to Me. There’s some noisy stuff that reminds us of some of your other projects.”

If it is, it was kind of an accidental culmination. Over the past couple of years, I also started getting more into synthesizers, and I got a couple of really nice old synths, so you can hear my trying to learn on them different songs, and getting better as they go. [Laughs] Musically, it definitely brought a lot of different elements into a boiling focus.

You recorded most of the music at home, but took it to Athens to be mixed. How did the record change at that point?

It was sort of an experimental move. My friend, Drew Vandenberg – who’s done a lot of work with of Montreal and Deerhunter and some other bands that I like a lot – mixed a couple of song on the last Saturday Looks Good to Me record. It was done remotely; I sent him the files and he did a really great mix. They were clearly the two best mixed songs on the album. And he told me: “If you’re ever doing something else for the next record, you should come down and do it with me. It would be cool to hang out and meet you face to face.”

I didn’t have another Saturday Looks Good to Me record ready, and I didn’t really know the guy outside of a couple of telephone conversations, but I really liked his work, so I thought, “Let’s try this and see how it goes.”

So I went down to Athens. All I brought with me was a toothbrush, a change of clothes, and a super old Echoplex. I showed up at the airport with this super dusty black box, and it was like, “Well, this is going to be an adventure.”

And it was an adventure. I slept in the studio and worked eighteen hours a day mixing with this guy, and the record changed a lot. I had done some drums at a friend’s studio [High Bias] in Detroit, and I had played so poorly that we had to spend a lot of time fixing the drums; moving every snare hit to the right place. A lot of things were drastically cut. Some things were rerecorded. All Are Saved definitely took shape in Georgia. It wouldn’t be the same record without Drew’s work.

What purpose do the interludes serve? Are they intended to be a reprieve from the lyrical density and emotional heft of the record?

No, not particularly. The interludes got cut down significantly. You’ll hear 40 seconds of an ambient synth thing, and that’s cut down from eight minutes of the original track. There’s a song that’s mostly trumpet and some synthesizers, and it’s a minute and half, but it was a nine-minute instrumental. I took a bunch of those songs that had gotten taken off record, and I stripped down all of the vocals and drums, and all that was left was these synthy melodies. They were the ghosts of these songs that didn’t make it. It’s kind of saying: “This might sound like nothing is happening, but all of these things stacked together is what’s making this album. I’m just honing on one or two of the elements right now.”

But people do like interludes to cleanse the pallet or to make a record less jarring or hectic. I feel like a lot of people have been like, “I’m not really sure why you would include these interludes.” But for me, it’s an important to give a counterpoint to some of the things that are going on, because it’s a very, very busy record.

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From an outsider’s perspective, there wasn’t much of a push behind One Kiss Ends It All. Saturday Looks Good to Me played thirteen shows the year that it came out. What happened?

It was kind of a confused thing. The record release got pushed back for a long time, because we couldn’t get art that anybody could agree on between the record label and myself and the rest of the band. There was also a Japanese tour that was set up, and a Japanese label that was going to release the album, and both of things fell through in ways that were kind of not cool. It was a classic situation of someone telling you that they were all about it, and then us realizing that we couldn’t even make our money back, no matter how much we liked the record.

The thing about Saturday Looks Good to Me is that it’s been going on for a long, long time. Most of the people who have been involved with it in way or another have moved on from the lifestyle of going on tour or having the time to get together to practice. Their availability is not what it once was, and it’s not a huge priority to sleep on people’s floors and play for $50 a night. It became harder and harder to get anything together outside of town.

We played some shows a year before it came out, while we were waiting for the release date to solidify. That was a great tour. People who were excited about the band remembered that it existed. And then the record came out, and the people who liked it were going to get it regardless of whether there was some big thing about it. Likewise, the people who didn’t know the band probably weren’t going to hear about it.

We just didn’t know what we were doing, and we kind of dropped the ball in terms of getting the word around, which is too bad.

Would you make another Saturday Looks Good to Me record? Or has everyone moved on?

Everyone is still as available as they have been for the last little bit, and I would love to do another record, but I feel like One Kiss was predisposed to being a slept-on record. We took a really, really long time to record it, because there was no rush, because the band hadn’t really played together for seven years. And then it was pushed back even more.

We knew that it might make some people’s days, even if it wasn’t an overnight success. We certainly knew that people weren’t going to be like, “Whoa. Here’s this brand new band that I’m super excited about with this weird name.” It all kind of sounds very 2002 at this point.

At the same time, I love that record, and I stand by it. We still play shows and play those songs. Those are some of the most exciting songs that we’ve ever done, and those shows are great.

Given the lack of a groundswell behind that record, have you been surprised that people have been so engaged with All Are Saved?

It always surprises me when it seems like a lot of people are interested. It super, super surprised me that Polyvinyl wanted to put it out; that anyone would want to talk about it; that it would get any of the coverage that has; that it would garner any reviews.

I went to the studio in Athens and I finished this record, and Polyvinyl was like, “Yeah, maybe, we’ve got to look at the release schedule. We’re not really sure.” I was like, “You know what? It’s OK. I’ll probably just put it up on Bandcamp. Maybe a hundred people will hear it. It’s not really a big deal. I’ve got no delusions of expectation.”

I wasn’t like, “This is my baby! Everyone has to hear it! This is the real deal!” With my solo work, it’s always been like, “Yeah, I made a record. Some friends heard it. Some people have really gotten into it; most people haven’t. That’s cool.”

So when Pitchfork is writing about these tracks, I was like, “Nobody sent them these songs. Somebody just saw a Facebook post and really liked them.” Then the whole Pitchfork readership is finding out about the record, and that’s insanely surprising to me.

It’s strange. I didn’t think that anyone could relate to these songs in the ways that they are. I’ve had people come up to me like, “Hey, heard your record. It’s great… Are you OK? It sounds like you’re going through some really rough times.” [Laughs]

I’ve had people be like, “Heard that song. It’s so perfect. I love it. It’s about time that you started saying, ‘Fuck you.’ You’d end up like an old bitter dude if you didn’t let some of these feelings.”

I was like, “Wow, I guess people are listening in a way that I might not have given them credit for if this record hadn’t gotten some of the attention that it has.”

You’re often so busy with not just your music, but other people’s, too. What have you been up to recently?

I just quit my desk job; I was actually writing record reviews for the last three years for a website. I was going into an office everyday. It was great job, but I quit so I could focus on working out of the recording studio in Ann Arbor. I had been recording bands, and it started taking up so much of my time that I decided to devote all of my time to it – outside of touring and working on my music.

The great thing about working with other people is that you’re constantly challenged to learn new stuff, and to see new things about using the studio as an instrument. I’ve recorded punk bands and weird indie folk things. Jazz people come through and have very specific demands about how they want their drum kit to sound with only one microphone. A really intense band with a ton of electronics will come through and we need to have five different pairs of headphones running.

In the four months that I’ve been working at the studio, I’ve recorded so much [of my] music that sounds nothing like it possibly could have before. I’m building off the excitement and good feelings of All Are Saved, but I’m already like, “If I could have made this now, it would have sounded so much cooler. The next record is going to sound even cooler than this one.”