BYT Interviews: Fred Thomas
phil runco | Sep 13, 2017 | 11:00AM |

By Philip Runco.

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About six hundred miles separate Ypsilanti and Montreal, but when Fred Thomas moved from one to the other in 2015, it felt like the other side of the world.

The 41-year-old singer-songwriter hadn’t lived in Michigan his entire adult life, but the Ann Arbor area was certainly home for most of that time. It’s where in the late ‘90s he started Saturday Looks Good to Me, a solo project that morphed into a full-blown collective, adored for its scuffed-up paeans to Motown, Northern Soul, and wall-of-sound production. It’s where he would end up playing with literally dozens of other bands and projects, spanning nearly every possible genre with a guitar or sampler. It’s where he operated his cassette label Life Like, which spotlighted other acts both near and far. It’s the place that most people still associate with him.

“Talk to anyone who’s seen an indie rock show in Michigan during the 21st century and you’ll probably get a Fred Thomas story within the first thirty minutes or so,” critic Ian Cohen wrote a few years back. “Maybe it was the time their band played with one of Thomas’ 156 (give or take) musical projects at a warehouse in Ypsilanti. Or maybe they crossed paths at a demonstration in Detroit. To quote a colleague, ‘Fred Thomas is always standing right behind you at a basement show in Ann Arbor.’ Which is to say that Thomas is a ‘lifer’, that mainstay of the local scene usually viewed with some combination of admiration and concern.”

That all changed when Thomas’ then-girlfriend enrolled in a Montreal grad school. Soon enough, he was married and living in Canada, and the life he had grown accustomed to had grinded to a halt.

“In Michigan and around the States, I was working out of the studio and recording people’s music – really, as a full-time job, if not more,” Thomas tells me on an early September afternoon. “I got to Montreal after a very exhausting year of all that and touring a lot for my own music, and it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have any friends up here. I don’t have any bands that I want to work with.’”

Thomas reached out to a few different labels, looking for Montreal bands to produce, but came back empty handed. To complicate matters, it’s practically impossible to land a job in the bilingual city unless you’re fluent in French (which Thomas is not), and he was living in a small apartment (which limited the type of music he could create on his own). So, the multi-instrumentalist poured himself into his laptop and a pair of headphones.

“I was bored, and the only thing that I could really think of doing – especially when it started getting cold – was teaching myself to program electronic music better,” Thomas remembers. “That was the main outcome of the first eight or nine months of living in the Great North. And I should add that all of the electronic music I made was horrible and unlistenable.”

Aside from a few ambient-leaning tracks towards its end, there’s not much of that experimentation to be heard on Changer, the excellent solo record that Thomas released in January. Written from 2013 through 2015, the album is an extension and refinement of the new style of sing-speaking and emotionally blunt songwriting that he began exploring on 2015’s All Are Saved – an album that unexpectedly garnered a swell of critical attention while attracting new fans.

Nine months after Changer‘s release, Thomas is playing a handful of solo shows this fall, in addition to recent gigs drumming in Tyvek and forthcoming shows with Hydropark and Failed Flowers.

“It’s a little bit stupid right now, to be honest,” he says of the flurry of activity. “But I know in January I’ll be super bored and angsty because my bands aren’t doing anything. It comes in waves like that. Either things are on, and I’m in the United States working on stuff, or things are kind of in airplane mode up in Canada, where I don’t have access to as much stuff but I’m still skirting through.”

Further on the horizon, Thomas has another solo LP wrapped up – a collection of songs he spent the summer recording after writing many of them in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. For the time being, though, he’s happy to focus on Changer.

“It still exists, and I still love it,” shares Thomas, calling from a visit back to Michigan. “Even though the album cycle is now, like, six weeks of some shit, I still want to talk about it.”

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Fred Thomas plays DC’s Black Cat with Wild Belle on Thursday, and Brooklyn’s El Cortez on Saturday. Changer is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

How did All Are Saved – and the attention it received –  inform your approach to Changer?

It was huge. One could not happen without the other.

I worked on All Are Saved for a long, long time, but it felt like just another record. I’m used to making music that feels important to me and, aside from close friends or a couple supporters thinking it’s cool, it being largely ignored. But that record definitely got a lot more attention than anyone was expecting.  So, I started touring a lot more.

For other solo records, I’d go out for a week. I’d play New York and some friends’ parties, and that would be that. All of a sudden, it was like, “Oh, I guess I have a booking agent again. I guess I can play the West Coast for the first time in a while. How am I going to make these songs sound good live?” I had never thought about recreating that sort of hyper-dense electronic music. I didn’t know how I was going to do it by myself.

I spent much of 2016 touring – and touring alone. That was a huge thing that helped inform Changer and everything after it. I can’t even tell you how much time I spent in rental cars. It’s such a unique mindset. So, going into Changer, I was like, “Wow, I’m traveling by myself all the time, playing these shows that are really exciting and emotionally naked. Now, I feel like making it even more naked. I’m just going to keep doing this. I don’t want to hide behind a sampler or some delayed vocals or even drums. Let’s strip it down it even more, because my life is becoming even more raw and vulnerable and interesting. If I can communicate how raw it feels with just a guitar and voice, I’ll be succeeding artistically.”

I had gotten married. I was going to move Canada. There was some familial stuff going on. I was like, “Ok, I’ve got to express all of these things as simply and as straightforwardly as possible.” And it felt like it happened in such a rush. People were like, “Oh, you have another record already?” And I was like, “This feels old to me by now. I’ve been playing these songs live for a couple of years. There’s a back catalogue now because I’ve been writing this stuff since 2013.”

I will say that people who liked All Are Saved really, really responded to Changer. Maybe it was because Changer was more rock and guitar pop and a little less weird. I think the songs landed a lot quicker than the last one, where there was a lot of weird stuff going on in background.

All Are Saved felt like reading a section of someone’s journal. Changer is more like an annotated photo album spanning years and years. How do you set about plucking those moments from your life?

The difference between the two albums is that Changer is aware of All Are Saved as a style of presenting ideas, whereas All Are Saved just kind of happened.

The songs that didn’t make it onto All Are Saved are pretty annoying. It’ll be like, “Oh, this sounds like a dance track for some reason.” I was trying different things, but it kind of coagulated into the more diaristic and personal and raw thing. And I couldn’t really go backwards after that.

So, there’s maybe a little more self-awareness to Changer. It was like, “What do I really want to say? I was kind of just talking about stuff on that last record. Now, I’m a little more aware about what I want to be talking about, and I have these new experiences because of that record, which I didn’t even think was going to get to made, and these tours, which I didn’t think I was going to go on.” That all kind of happened in real time.

I remember thinking eleven years ago, “I’m getting ready to quit music. I’m about to turn 30. I don’t want to be making music when I’m 30 – that’s ridiculous.” I went from that very young mindset, considering that there might be a different life for me out there, to many years on being like, “Well, I tried everything else, and I’m still making these songs, and I’m still playing these weird shows, and it still feels fulfilling, and I have a different take on it than someone who’s doing it for the first time. Maybe I should talk more about that.”

It kind of became itself because I started talking about it, and then the conversation became more meta.

You made All Are Saved in a creative cocoon of sorts. There were no expectations. What was it like following up that record, knowing that there was more of an audience awaiting it?

There’s an interview I read with Billy Corgan in the early ’90s. He was talking about his new record, Siamese Dream, and he was like, “I had my entire life to make Gish because it was my first record, and then I had six months to make something way better because people loved that one. I need to do better than that or it will be completely forgotten.”

I love Smashing Pumpkins, I love listening to Gish, but when Siamese Dream came out, I was like, “Damn, this is even better. It’s more intense, and it’s more of the things I love happening here.” But I could also tell that they knew I was listening. Even when I was 15 or 16, I was like, “I know that they know. They made this with me and all of my friends and people like us in mind, because they knew they couldn’t just make a weird hippie jam with some guitar solos. They had to do it right.”

Of course, I am not comparing my music to the apex of Smashing Pumpkins’ popularity, but I’ve thought about it as I’ve made music. It’s interesting how someone just jots down notes to themselves, and that becomes their first record, and then those notes calcify into a statement that they have to respond to. It’s like, “I wasn’t making a statement. I was just kind of thinking out loud.” But once they make your absentminded ramblings into a high school school commencement speech, you can’t really do less than it.

I did experience a really low-key, minor version of that. I was like, “I can’t really make something that goes back to the Neil Young worship that came before All Are Saved or something more noisey. I feel like I have to expand on it. I have to make a brighter, sharper presentation of that certain thing.”

It’s nothing negative, but I also wonder what would what it would have been like if All Are Saved was ignored completely. What would have come after that?

You self-deprecatingly referred to your newer solo music as “spoken word slam poems.” It is fairly unusual for an artist to explore such a new method of singing and songwriting later in their career. Where did that come from?

I have no illusions about how much I borrow from other people’s music and how much other people’s art informs my own. There was a friend of mine who had a band named Barr – this guy Brendan Fowler, who was an artist who did music sometimes. He made a record in 2007 called Summary, and people were kind of got categorized it like, “Oh, you’re, like, an indie rapper because you kind of speak a lot.”

I kind of came back to that record with a renewed interest and was like, “This was so fucking far ahead of its time. This is so honest. It’s humorous. It’s weird. It’s painful. It’s embarrassing.” When it came out, I called him, and I was like, “Brendan, your record is incredible. You sound like such a dick on so much of it.” He was like, “I know! I was supposed to! These songs are about my life!” I thought, “Oh, how much more plain can you say something in a song than actually literally saying it?”

I had spent such a long time thinking, “You’re supposed to play guitar and sing something and sound like Seven Mary Three or somebody who can sing well.” I had gotten so much flack my entire life for not having a good enough voice or whatever, so I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just talk. It’s going to sound weird no matter what; let’s make it a little weirder.”

In past conversations we’ve had, you’ve always come off as such a self-effacing, thoughtful, nice person. So, over the last few records, it’s been mildly surprising to hear what can be such bitter, cutting lyrics come out of your mouth. Do you have dig deep to find those feelings or are they always just below the surface?

Well, I’m glad you think I’m nice. I appreciate that.

I feel like everybody is so complex. Everyone has something that gets to them. I feel like most of the nicest people you’re going to meet are holding some heavy shit somewhere. That doesn’t mean that everyone has some horrible secret or is mad as fuck and pretending to be nice, but if you have empathy and care about people other than yourself, you’re going to go through some very disappointing, hectic, sad stuff. It feels like you’re running a marathon all the time because you’re channeling different disappointments and frustrations and the very real, very dark, very bitter, even hateful feelings that come from reaching for a better world.

I’ve been told I’m one of the nicest people ever by a lot of people, which is always a great thing to hear. But if I’m being fucked with when I’m playing, people are like, “Wow, you really know how to just decimate hecklers.” And that’s absolutely true. I’ve been playing shows for 25 years, and no one is going to bother me when I’m trying to express something and not hear the full force of every time that I wish I had known what to say. I’ve got a back catalogue of those moments.

Maybe you’re hearing that on the record. Maybe I’m anticipating the hecklers, of which there always will be some, and I’m ready for them before they come for me.

Tell me about the forthcoming record. I know you were a little bashful talking about it in January.

I don’t know what to say outside of that it’s really, really different. It’s sort of another chapter in the same kind of style that we’ve been talking about today. But it’s a real bummer.

There are no songs that were written directly about the last U.S. election, but the morning after it, I found myself in a horrifying panic that hasn’t quite dissipated exactly. It’s just changed and taken different shapes. It’s kind of like, “OK, this is bad. This is really, really bad, and I don’t have any songs about how bad I feel about the present state of U.S. politics, but I do have eight songs about that dread, that feeling of what the fuck is the point?

I have it easier than most people do, and things still feel so stacked against me that it’s really overwhelming. It’s scary, and those conversation are swirling around. Everyone feels bleak in a different way, and those bleaknesses are intersecting. There’s no good answer. I was just looking at all of these darknesses, and if you can imagine a music personification of that darkness, it’s that. The songs are really long. The songs are really dirgey. They’re not about much more than memories of the past kind of reflected through the new lens of constant crisis.

So, it’s a heavy one. I don’t know if people are going to like it all, but I am excited for it.

It’s not an “I’m happy and I’m married and I’m in love” record.

Well, those things are true, and I think that’s why I have this complete feeling of: “Oh no, this isn’t just about me, an affable fuck-up who’s been behaving like a college kid for the past forty years. I have to think about other things.”

I am super happy and super in love, and getting married was the beginning of a phase of my life that’s so amazing, and it’s scary, too. It’s scary to feel like I’m holding hands with someone eternally through a really dark valley. You just gotta try not to let go, you know?

Photo courtesy of Jimmi Francoeur.