All photos: Kimberly Cadena
All words: Philip Runco
Fred Thomas is a work-in-progress. He releases music with such prolificacy that you have to view each EP, full-length, 7”, and free download, as a snapshot of a musician whose mind is already moving onto the next song and project.
Understanding this restless creativity is the key to approaching City Center, the first project he’s fully dedicated himself to since moving on from beloved indie-pop Saturday Looks Good to Me. Thomas dissolved his former band nearly two years ago to focus on “other projects.” “American pop band 2000 – 2008” its MySpace page eulogistically reads.
The move was somewhat curious at the time. Saturday Looks Good to Me had always resembled less a proper band than a collective loosely organized around Thomas, who served as writer, arranger, and producer. Thomas could ostensibly move the project in whatever direction he wanted, as he had over its nine years: from earlier nostalgic records incorporating the touchstones of 50s and 60s pop to its final 2007 LP, the complex, relatively experimental, and criminally-underrated Fill Up the Room.
But listening to City Center’s self-titled debut, it becomes clear Thomas’ restlessness has led him beyond traditional format of his former band altogether, to somewhere his music had only hinted at in the past, and perhaps he wants a clean break. Thomas has described the band’s aesthetic as “underwater.” It’s an apt description in several ways. The music has a fluid, amorphous quality, its loops and samples drifting atmospherically through songs. Thomas himself sounds underwater, his melodies and vocals buried low in the mix, a sharp contrast to Fill Up the Room, where Thomas put his squirmy, endearingly imperfect voice front and center. Percussion – courtesy of bandmate Ryan Howard, a former member of Saturday Looks Good to Me and fellow Ann Arbor band Canada – comes in waves, sometimes soothingly, sometimes violently.
When City Center stopped by last Wednesday night, however, last year’s City Center seemed like so much of Thomas’ work: just another outdated snapshot. Before the DC9 audience, the duo’s music took on a significantly more muscular quality. Both began songs creating and manipulating loops and feedback, but upon establishing atmospheric foundation, Thomas assumed his electric guitar while Howard would take to drum kit.
The full swell of the electronics, guitar, and percussion reverberated loudly. Thomas vocals could feel lost amongst it all at moments, but his enjoyment – and a sense of catharsis – was evident. After nearly a decade of orchestrated arrangements, he appears to be reveling in the organized chaos of City Center.
The brief set gave promising indication for where Thomas and Howard may take their sound, perhaps towards something more driving and forceful.
You won’t have to guess long to find out though. The band maintains a blog that generously overflows with free content: newly-recorded songs, unearthed demos, full-length albums – the works. It’s a constant peak inside the band’s creative progression.
City Center was preceded on the night by its friends Ribbons. The Brooklyn trio’s angular rock evoked the moodiness of Joy Division, though with greater rhythmic flexibility and a dynamic female vocal presence in Jenny Logan.
Prior to Ribbons performance, I sat down with Fred Thomas and Ryan Howard for a chat about City Center, the importance of All Ages shows, and comparisons to a certain Baltimore mammal.
BYT: How long have you two known each other?
Ryan Howard: We’ve known each other for four or five years.
Fred Thomas: Yeah, five years.
BYT: Ryan, around what time did you join Saturday Looks Good to Me?
Fred: Yeah, 2006. Ryan’s band Canada played a show with my band Saturday Looks Good to Me, and I thought they were really good and tried to get a little tour together. But, we didn’t really have a band at that point, so we thought, “Let’s go on tour together, but you guys can back us up.” The ride, the van – we could double up.
Ryan: Very economical.
BYT: What were you touring on at the point?
Fred: We were just touring because that’s what we do. Kind of like now, we don’t have a record out necessarily.
BYT: You didn’t play DC last time, did you?
Fred: No. We’ve never played here before.
Ryan: As City Center.
BYT: Had Saturday Looks Good to Me played DC9?
Ryan: No, not here.
Ryan: Actually, our friend books this place. He used to book in Michigan. And the band I played in, Canada, played in another spot he had. It’s called the Red and the Black or something.
BYT: Sure, it’s a newer place.
Ryan: Yeah! He moved and started booking that, and then I guess he books here too. Or, now books here.
BYT: Is this your second City Center tour?
Fred: Well, this is our second really long tour. We had a bunch of west coast touring for like a week. Had a bunch of stuff… [to Ryan] Would you say it’s the second tour?
Ryan: We toured the west coast last spring.
Fred: Did SXSW a couple years in a row.
BYT: This year?
Fred: No, last year. And I did it a year before that when the band was just me. So, a lot of touring, but not a lot of straight, all the way through, gone-for-months touring.
BYT: I was looking at your schedule, and there’s not a whole lot of breaks. I think there’s one period where you have two days off.
Ryan: We have something like 30 shows in 32 days. We’re keeping busy.
BYT: Was that just an effort to maximize the time on the road?
Fred: There are a lot of places we haven’t played yet. This is the first tour that’s been booked by a booking agent. So we have that on our side, that we’re actually playing places, as opposed to house parties, which we played most of last tour.
Ryan: Which are great.
Fred: But not really places where the people care what the band is playing.
Ryan: We tour we did in the fall, we booked ourselves, spent all summer booking it. And it was like two months, almost 50 or 60 days, but like 30 shows.
Fred: This is like 30 days and 30 shows.
BYT: I was looking at your blog, which is quite extensive, and you seem to be reaching out to All Ages shows. Is that an effort to increase your audience or is it reflective of a general ethos?
Fred: I can say that I wouldn’t be making music at all if I hadn’t had access to All Ages shows when I was 13 or 14 and started getting interested in things, like the punk scene or DIY culture. And it’s an extremely conscious effort on our behalf to include people who are constantly forgotten. You know, once you turn 21, you stop caring about all ages shows. It’s like a rabbit and a rabbit trap: once you catch the rabbit, you forget about the trap, if you know what I’m saying.
BYT: I think once I turned 21, I completely forgot about all my friends who weren’t 21, and the obstacles being that age poses.
Fred: People under the age of 21 or people who are interested in reaching out and growing and learning things about culture and music, what have you, they’re on their own so much that any effort we could make to lessen that isolation is part of our goal. In a perfect world, all shows would be all ages, all shows would be safe for everyone, and comfortable for everyone, but it’s far from a perfect world, so we’re doing what we can.
BYT: I think that’s great. Your openers seem to change every night. How have you been lining up support?
Ryan: This tour is just us, so it’s pretty much like, if we can coordinate something with friends of ours in a city, we try to do that. Otherwise I think it’s just getting local bands from the city to help us out, play with us, bring their friends. Especially, at this point, when we go from city to city, there’s not a lot of people who know of City Center. Part of it is wanting to go to a place and get people hammered, so they can see us for the first time, because they’re going to see their friends band opening or something.
BYT: Or, the website, at least for DC9, prominently advertises “members of Saturday Looks Good to Me.” Do you feel like you’re getting a lot of fans of that band? Can you gauge what the response has been like?
Fred: A lot of the people who really liked Saturday Looks Good to Me do not like City Center, because the music takes such a different path. And it’s kind of like, “What have you done with our favorite pop band? You used to sing cute songs about fun things like getting wasted, and sounded like the Beach Boys or 60s pop. Why do you sound like this nonsense now?” But there are a couple of people that are like, “You know, this is great. I see this as a progression. This is really cool. I like most of the stuff you’ve done.” And then some people that are like, “I hated your old band. Finally you did something good.” But it’s mostly people who are like, “You know, I was in college in 2005. I liked your band, but I’m kind of over it and this is different, can I buy you a beer?”
BYT: Well, it’s just me, and there’s a minimum on credit card tab here, so I’m on that.
Fred: [Laughs] I rest my case.
BYT: You said Saturday Looks Good to Me made 60s pop, how would you describe what City Center is doing?
Ryan: I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of pop elements, and psychedelic elements, but it’s just kind of a product of getting a little frustrated with the traditional band format, and trying to escape that with doing something that’s a little more removed from that. That’s the funny thing, there’s such a dichotomy, as Fred was saying, between people who like Saturday and now don’t like City Center, like it’s such a split, whatever. For us in the band, it was such a progression. It was like A-B-C, just wanting to express these new ideas and not being able to do it in the traditional band format.
BYT: I think you can hear that progression. The Cold Colors EP got into a lot more experimental area, and broadly speaking – and this my own perception – there was a shift away from the more direct lyrics of Every Night towards a little more abstraction on Fill Up the Room, and then City Center is a step further in that direction, and what I would wonder is whether that was a conscious effort or just your own personal expression?
Fred: Well, you know… I’ll answer that in a very obtuse way. A friend of mine for a long time, who’s always liked all my music, really didn’t like City Center, because he didn’t feel like it was very honest. He’s like, “I don’t really hear your personality in there anywhere. I don’t hear the you that I know and that I love. This is some new, weird thing.” I was like, “Well, actually that’s interesting because it’s actually the most honest thing I’ve ever done.” The songs I’m singing about now really couldn’t be any more naked. It has progressed in this space… from caring about making some upbeat pop song to stretching out a little, making something outwardly weird. And, lyrically, I feel like I put more emphasis on the lyrics for the stuff we’re doing now than anything before, because it’s immediate and necessary and super-duper honest in a way. I just wasn’t concerned about writing honest songs with Saturday Looks Good to Me. It was just kind of like, “Well, I have to write a song because… what’s a pop song about? It’s about falling in love or falling out of love, or having some sort of great day or a really bad day.” There’s like the four things I could ever think about. And so I feel like I think about a lot more things now and I’m not really afraid to talk about them.
BYT: Have you moved past that kind of more literal songwriting all together? Do you ever see yourself coming back to it? Have you put Saturday Looks Good to Me behind you?
Fred: I feel like a lot of the people who really liked Saturday Looks Good to Me do not like City Center, because the music takes such a different path. And it’s kind of like, ‘What have you done with our favorite pop band? You used to sing cute songs about fun things, like getting wasted, and you sounded like the Beach Boys or 60s pop. Why do you sound like this nonsense now?’ But there are a couple of people that are like, ‘This is great. I see this as a progression. This is really cool. I like most of the stuff you’ve done.’ And then some people that are like, ‘I hated your old band. Finally, you did something good.’ But it’s mostly people who are like, ‘You know, I was in college in 2005. I liked your band, but I’m kind of over it and this is different, can I buy you a beer?’
BYT: Do you view your music as any part of a larger scene? I was reading an old interview with Fred – I couldn’t place it, maybe it was 2004 or 2005 – and the interviewer asked who your contemporaries were. You said The Decemberists and Architectures in Helsinki. And that makes sense for the time, but I’m curious what your answer to that question would be now.
Fred: I feel like at any point your contemporaries are people you’re playing shows with, and that you like their music. Maybe at that time we were playing a lot of shows with Architecture in Helsinki, and were kind of interested in more pop music. And now, we still play shows with kind of, like, indie pop bands, which is interesting. We still really like that music a lot, but we don’t sound like that anymore. So I feel like or contemporaries just become who we’re playing shows with, like our friends Silk Flowers in New York. We don’t sound much like them at all, but I recorded their records and they’re really good people. Our friends, that band Real Estate, we don’t really sound too much like them, but we love them, and we are making music in the time.
BYT: Well, I can see some similarity there. A little bit of a hazy vibe there.
Ryan: Yeah, or we just played with Mountains, and it was incredible. Getting turned onto these bands, and getting to play with these bands, that you feel are exploring the same types of practical limitations and trying to break out of that, and making these new sounds and whole new movements that just are incredible.
BYT: What are those practical limitations?
Ryan: Well, you look at a band like Mountains. Ten years ago it would have been maybe two guys with guitars or something, and that was it, but now the, you know, sonic landscape they’re able to create is just fucking mindblowing, it’s awesome. And in as much as you’re always kind of taking a chance doing that stuff, just a dude, or two dudes, but with some neat little tricks and stuff, it’s always kind of like risky or it’s challenging, and when you see other people do it well, you’re contemporaries or something, it’s so inspiring. It rules.
BYT: One band or artist that I saw continually pop up in reviews that I found curious was Panda Bear. It’s funny, because I get it – it’s like “Here’s something atmospheric, loop-based… Panda Bear!” But I’m wondering if you hear any kind of a similarity there?
Ryan: Nah, I feel like because he specifically got so big, it was so easy to take from being this person and turn it into a label for anytime anyone does anything weird or loop-based. We kind of were like “Well, that’s unfair, because we don’t really feel like that.” But I think if someone is going to write something and just need that quick relational sound bite, it’s like, “Oh, I can relate it to this!” Because everybody does that.
Fred: I like Panda Bear. I think some of his music is amazing, some of the best stuff I’ve heard. I do feel like a lot of friends of mine – I’m not going to say any names – but bands that sound nothing like Panda Bear, around the time of his success, like all of a sudden people were like “The reviews said our record sounded like Panda Bear, because we use a sampler, or just because we had a loop that happened for a second.” And I understand it, it’s just kind of like a journalistic thing. It happens sometimes.
BYT: It’s easy.
Fred: It’s super easy. I feel like, what people hear, they’re going to hear no matter what. I hear crazy comparisons to bands all the time, and I’m glad it’s not just one. I’m glad that people hear a bunch of different influences and ideas and snippets all the time.
BYT: There’s so much music you guys are giving away on your blog, and so much content you’re putting up. How do you decide what music you give away for free? And, on top of that, why put so much effort into your blog?
Ryan: It’s funny deciding what we give away for free, because I was thinking about this the other day, and I realized even the songs that end up on the releases and the records, in one form or another they’ve all been given away for free. Pretty much, we’ll record something – we’re lucky, we get to practice all the time, we get to always be creating music together – and as soon as we come up with something, we just instinctively release it. But there are a handful of ones that just really stick with us and we really fall in love with, and so we’ll re-record those and put it on a new record, or put it on an EP or 7″ or something. But, the blog has captured everything in demo form or alternate form or whatever.
Fred: In some ways too our process for making a record is to distill everything. The ten songs on the Type record came from about 50 or 60 songs, some were on the blog, some were not. The best parts were culled from some of the stuff that was recorded in 2007. It’s like a collage of everything that we spend the most time on. Some stuff on the blog is like “Well, we recorded this morning, it’s up this afternoon, I don’t really like by the night time, but, fuck it.” It’s cool.
Ryan: (laughs) It’s free!
Fred: Yeah, it’s free, and it’s fun. A lot of great bands are kind of on that program. It’s a conversation. “Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what I’m thinking.”
BYT: The person who I’ve seen that I can most liken it to is Bradford Cox.
BYT: He has a very open relationship with his fans.
Fred: Yeah, totally. One of the inspirations for our blog was how great his blog was, and how giving it was. It was like “Oh, this is great.” I actually looked at all the places he would upload songs. And I thought “I can do this. I’m recording songs everyday too. I love this guys music. This is like a really great… contemporary.”
BYT: And he’s working in a similar – and I don’t want to compare you and put my foot in my mouth – he is working in some similar sample based territory.
Fred: Yeah, yeah.
BYT: But returning to the topic of Type Records, what led you to the label?
Fred: I actually worked with John [Twells, owner of Type Records] at Other Music in New York. He was doing reviews, and I was managing their vinyl section. We came to be friends. I had worked a little with Liz from Grouper, we did a 7″ together, and he put out her first record. He actually came and saw one of the first City Center shows. It was with Grouper at the Knitting Factory. I had a 7″ out, I gave him the 7″ inch, and we just became friends. Stayed in touch. And after a while he was like, “Do you have a record coming out? I’d love to put it out. Let’s do the record.” And I love the label. It’s really nice. Liz had great things to say about him. He’s a fun guy, and he hooked up. It was either he was going to put it out, or we would put it out ourselves, or it would be kind of only a download only thing. So, he helped out it. It was great.
BYT: It must be nice to get a wider distribution.
Fred: Oh absolutely.
BYT: Did you look at other labels? You have a history with K, and a history with Polyvinyl.
Fred: You know, Calvin [Johnson] from K at one point was like, “Are you going to do a record with us or not?” I was like, “You never asked me to. I didn’t think you liked it. I played shows with you a bunch and you never even said, ‘Great show.’ So I wasn’t going to be like, ‘So when are you putting our record out?’”
BYT: Wouldn’t want to put him in an awkward spot.
Fred: But he approached me and was like, “No, I love your band. It’s great. It’s kind of like a weird pop band, but it’s underwater.” And I was like, “Oh, well, Calvin, thanks. K Records is like my favorite label in the world, always was” Beat Happening was one my the first all ages shows I saw when I was 13, and it changed my life, so to be in that roster, or have that be a friend or an ally, is a big deal. But the timing was off for that, and Type is a new friend. A new ally. Similarly minded. But we weren’t really thinking about things in that kind of a scale. It wasn’t like, “We’re gonna put the record out! And we’re going to tour! We’re going to do this thing!”
BYT: You were both working day jobs at that point?
BYT: You at Other Music, Fred. And you, Ryan?
Ryan: I worked in Michigan at an independent bookstore that closed last summer. In Ann Arbor.
Fred: We were just meeting up and jamming when we were both in the same town.
Ryan: And then we would go back to our respective lives. And now, like I said before, we’re so lucky now we have so much time to create and work on music.