Fred Thomas has been getting his ass handed to him lately.
Or so the prolific 42-year-old singer-songwriter tells me. These are his words – not mine.
“I’ve been returning to that phrase a lot; it’s become more and more relevant to my life,” he muses cordially on an early October afternoon. “I often find myself overly confident, like, ‘I’ve been around the block a couple times. I know what’s up. I know how to handle things.’ But that kind of thinking gets me into trouble. I’ve been like, ‘I’m sure if we get there a couple minutes late, it won’t be a big deal’ or ‘I’m sure if we have just a week or two to figure out all the songs, it won’t be that complicated.’ And I’ve been wrong, time and time again.”
The marquee instance of ass-handing occurred after Thomas moved to Canada in late 2015. His wife Emily had enrolled in a Montreal graduate school and Thomas relocated with her, assuming he would eventually find work to subsidize his numerous recording and touring endeavors. When I spoke with the Michigan native last September, though, he was dealing with the harsh reality of being an American citizen in Quebec who doesn’t speak fluent French.
A year later, the former Saturday Looks Good to Me mastermind is calling me from Ann Arbor, where he and Emily now reside once again.
“I failed,” he deadpans before uncorking a hearty laugh. “I loved Montreal so, so, so much. It’s one of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever lived, but you can’t really get by there as an Anglophone. They make it very difficult. And I wasn’t going to be a Canadian citizen any time soon, so after a couple years of disillusionment, we made the call to pack up and bring it back home.”
Thomas wrote, demoed, and sequenced his latest record, Aftering, during this period of disillusionment abroad. Like his previous two albums (2015’s All Are Saved and 2017’s Changer), it was recorded and mastered mostly in Athens, Georgia with Drew Vandenberg. And like the previous two, it is an unflinchingly introspective and richly detailed document, presented at times within the blasts of pop songs and other times over ambient drones and delicate orchestration.
Striking the proper balance between those poles proved challenging. A working version of the record Thomas shared with me late last year leaned heavily towards the latter aesthetic and the distinct sing-speak delivery he first unveiled with All Are Saved. (“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,’” he has said of it.) In the end, he would settle on album purportedly modeled loosely after Neil Young’s On The Beach, where side A’s fires fade to the side B’s embers.
“There was certainly a moment where I was like, ‘Yup, this one’s done! Call the pressing plant!’” Thomas says of the changes. “And then two months later, I was like, ‘Fuck, this thing sucks. I’ve got to totally change it up.’”
Aftering is being presented as the final chapter of a trilogy. If that’s true, if the indie-rock lifer is indeed walking away from a vein of music he’s explored to exhilarating results over three records, it’s a bittersweet moment for his followers, mitigated only by lingering quality of this album and the possibility of what might come next.
Fred Thomas is currently on tour with Anna Burch and Common Holly. He plays DC’s Songbyrd Wednesday, Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right Saturday, and Chicago’s The Empty Bottle October 26. Aftering is out now on Polyvinyl Records.
Where did the title Aftering come from? What does that word mean to you and this collection of songs?
I feel like I’m making myself vulnerable to say this, but these past three records have been about me looking at what it means to be still making music and still working in the same circles as I started in when I was much younger person. That’s something that comes up a lot [in the songs] because I’m not trying to obscure it. I’m not trying to front on the fact that a lot of the people I work with are 15, 20, 22 years younger than I am. I’m working with, like, kids. There aren’t a lot of people my age or older at my gigs.
While that doesn’t bother me – I don’t feel any sort of way about that – it is something lingers. I’ll mention some band from the early 2000s, and people will be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or I’ll have some kind of ‘90s reference. It’s like a different state of mind.
So, some of my songs have pointed to that. I’ve being grappling with what it is about creating music independently, in this sort of DIY fashion, that’s so appealing to me when it’s so much after the time when I probably could have moved on from it.
“Aftering” is the process that I’ve been kind of struggling with. This is a time when, if I was a different person, I might have put this mostly youth-oriented thing behind me. But I still feel very much a part of it.
Of course, I’m not the only person over the age of 40 who’s playing all-ages gigs, but it’s rarer. And there are the types of people that I’ve met who are doing the same thing… they’re not all colleagues. They’re not all good folks. There are a lot of creeps out there. There are a lot of people who I don’t relate to, and I don’t feel like they’ve ever been it for the spiritual reasons that I am.
All of that stuff comes up on the record, for sure.
On “House Show, Late December,” you sing “17 years later, I’m still in the same jail.” But this is a jail of your own choosing.
Yeah, and to speak about it frankly, it’s not fun 80% of the time.
In that song, when I’m talking about being in jail, I’m referencing being on tour when I was 23. I remember there were seven people in a van going through the Mojave desert on July 15, and we couldn’t have the air conditioning on because it would overheat the van, so we had to sit in this little weird moving cell, drinking water so we didn’t pass out. I was having a nervous breakdown. I was like, “This is my idea of hell. It’s 120 degrees outside. I haven’t had a second of personal space. And it’s all so I can roll into Phoenix, Arizona and play for seven disinterested kids who would rather be listening to, like, The Promise Ring.” That felt a little bit like jail.
I’ve definitely had very similar breakdowns, but I’ve also had amazing moments where I was like, “This is the most amazing feeling I could possibly have. I’m playing music from my experiences, from my life, it’s resonating with people.” People talk to me sometimes and they’re like, “You’re record’s a bummer but it’s getting me through a really hard time.” That’s all I could hope for.
But that song was referencing the majority of time where it’s not super, super fun, but I’m waiting for the moments that are the most fulfilling thing.
Do the connections you’ve made with these last three records mean more to you than the attention you garnered with Saturday’s straightforward pop songs?
I struggle with that, because I don’t want to double back and be like, “Everything I was doing before now sucked!” I love those records, but when I think back to where my head was at, I don’t know if those songs are really about anything. They might have been vaguely about going to a party, and hoping that I look cool and people like me and I’m attractive. If I really dissect those lyrics, they’re nowhere as direct or interesting to me as the stuff I’ve been talking about over the last few years.
On “Ridiculous Landscape”, you sing: “There’s a poison that the past just can’t contain.” That’s an idea that’s bled through this trilogy.
There’s been a lot of looking back on things and not feeling like “I wish that had never happened” but sorta like “I would have done things a little differently if I was the person that I am now.”
Talk to me about sequencing the record. After “Ridiculous Landscape”, there’s a burst of shorter pop songs – the rippers, if you will – which fade into the more ambient, dirgey second half of the album.
A lot of thought went into it. I was living in Montreal, not working, so all I was doing was walking around, cleaning my house and thinking about this record for two years.
Being the mimic that I am, one day I’d be like, “Ah fuck, Bee Thousand is the best record ever made. I want to make my record of 15 super-short pop songs that everyone falls in love to.” Then the next day I’d be like, “Tim Hecker’s Virgins is the best record. I want to make a record that stretches out and is really vibey. I’ll get my little, weird heartbroken nonsense in there, but it’s all it’s all varied.”
At a certain point in making the record, I was like, “I’m going to do both. It’ll be a double album. The first record is going to be 15 rippers. The second one is going to be 3 songs, 10 minutes each – the crazy stuff, man.”
And we tried it. And it sucked.
We mixed and recorded these 12-minute-long, protracted bummer things. I followed it all the way through, and at the end I was like, “This is not fun to listen to.”
So, we kind of split the difference. I really, really love synthesizers and weird atmospheric sounds, and I also really love pop music. I really love the songs that get you where you need to be in your emotional state. [Pop songs] push you from feeling like you can’t get anything done to oh, shit, this is better than I thought. I wanted to have both of those things. I tried to architect [Aftering] so that the songs would make sense with each other.
During the recording, Drew [Vandenberg], who I worked with all the time, would skip around and be like, “Check this out, man,” and he’d play a millisecond of a crazy guitar solo and then he’d a play a millisecond of this long violin drone, and he’d be like, “This is same song. Do you realize that? This is same music.”
I don’t know if it works, but we definitely wanted to incorporate both things into a digestible package.
Did you have any apprehension about putting these songs into the world? A year ago, you had described this record – then a work in progress – as a real bummer. Did you think, “I’m about to drop an emotional anvil”?
I didn’t think about that at all. I definitely grew up with melodramatic music – that’s some of the stuff that moved me the most. Like any angsty teenager, I was never like, “Ugh, Morrisey, why are you so extra?” I liked every second on it.
There are a couple songs on [Aftering] that are hard to listen to – the bummers. The poppy songs all have a bit of heavy currency underneath the hooks, but “Slow Waves” is a very, very personal song and very tough. Yet, when I was making it in the studio, I felt for the first time ever in my life what I imagine people feel when they talk about catharsis.
I’m a pretty mellow person – I don’t have a lot of stuff that gets to me – but that song is definitely about a taxing couple of years in my life when I was dealing with toxic relationships and evil feelings surrounding me. As soon as I was done getting that expressed, I felt this amazing lift of those feelings. It was like, “Oh shit, I don’t care anymore. I’m not mad anymore. I’m not hurt anymore. I still understand that that happened but I don’t have to bring it up when I get drunk anymore. I don’t have to be thinking about it when I’m trying to fall asleep.”
This song was my letting go of that. And that’s amazing, so I kind of couldn’t really care if someone is bothered with the fact that it’s so intense because it meant so much to me.
You recently tweeted: “For the record, though, I feel fairly good about myself and am a happy person.” It was in reference to a particular review, but do you feel like you need to push back against the idea of being a depressive? Do you feel like you’re articulating things everyone feels?
That wasn’t me clapping back, because I really liked the review, but I did feel like, “I guess I do have songs that talk about how I hate myself and how I’m wasted all the time. If my mom heard some of these songs, she might be concerned.”
But I have no thoughts that people who are not my friends and family are thinking about me on any level. I just wanted to reiterate that I’m just expressing stuff like anybody else is.
I really don’t want to have some kind of stupid-ass persona. I would hate for my wife to be like, “I’m listening to your record… Are you secretly miserable?” Because I feel greet. I feel happy and lucky and healthy. I’m grateful. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.
“What the Sermon Said” is such a devastating song. What led you to those childhood memories?
The whole record was written when I was living in Montreal and watching late 2016, early 2017, throughout the first little bit of the New World Order that we got going on here. I was watching it from Quebec and seeing my friends on Facebook or talking to them on the phone, and they were freaking out. Meanwhile, my Canadian friends were like, “Oh, weird, seems like some heavy shit is going down in the States. Anyway.” It was a really dissociative time, and it kind of brought me back to certain moments of my childhood. I was a really nervous kid, especially early on.
So, I was like, “What’s this feeling? I always feel a little bit nauseous. I always feel like things are cold.” I was like, “Oh, this how I felt on that drive when we went to that church when I was 8.” It got me thinking about how the sense of the sense of dread connected to old feelings and old dread. I kind of touch on that in the song where I’m like, “It’s winter in the States. I’m looking out the windows. I’m starting to feel all these memories.” I spilled it out from there.
Do you still not like sports?
Yeah, I never got interested. I know it’s sacrilegious. I watched some college basketball, like, five years ago. That shit was exciting. That shit was good. Those athletes know what they’re doing. But generally, no, I can’t get into it.
Aftering is being presented as the last entry in a trilogy. Was that something you always had in mind or was it grafted onto this record by your press folks after the fact? If it’s the former, what does that signal moving forward from here?
It’s not a press trick or publicity stunt or anything. It was how I was thinking about things.
I started working on All Are Saved, jeez, over five years ago. Some of the songs that are on Aftering I had written five years ago. Some of the songs on Changer were drafts from All Are Saved, too. Ideas have been interconnected between these three records. I think if you were to listen to all three of them on random shuffle, you’d be like, “Oh, I see, this is all a similar statement.”
Changer had more of the rock elements to it, but it had ambient elements and pop stuff in equal parts. That’s the case with all of them. There’s a similar vibe, but it’s not the same vibe. These three records are not some kind of conceptual masterwork. It’s just sort of like: This is me looking in. This my life right now. It’s sort of strange to feel very fulfilled making music in this way.
It’s interesting to look around my living right now and see a roller bag full of t-shirts and my LPs stacked up, and I’m getting ready to do a tour yet again. But it still feels valuable, it still feels real.
But I am done talking about that. I feel like it’s just to the point where it’s no longer interesting to me. I don’t want to have another song where I’m like, “And then I did another show that three people came to!” I feel like these feelings have been inspected and wherever I go next will be a lot different.