The first time I call Fred Thomas, he’s driving somewhere in the bottom of Michigan, commuting home in the remaining sunlight of a bitterly cold afternoon. Thomas has lived and made music here, in Ypsilanti and its neighboring towns and nearby Detroit, for most of his life.
We’ll talk for ten minutes, and towards the end of the conversation, he’ll casually mention that he’s recently put out a Neil Young-influenced solo record, Kuma. He’ll tell me that he’s happy with how it turned out. He’ll explain that its release is what prompted an upcoming string of East Coast performances, which are ostensibly the reason that we’re speaking. But while Thomas would love to be discuss Kuma, he’s spent majority of the last nine minutes and 30 seconds genially fielding questions about his once-former band, Saturday Looks Good to Me.
For eight years, Saturday Looks Good to Me recorded and released some of the best indie pop laid to tape in the last decade. It did so on over a dozen labels, and in practically every format imaginable – full-lengths, limited-run EPs and 7”s, tour CDRs, even cassette singles. It was less a band than a semipermeable collective: Somewhere in the range of eighty musicians would appear on Saturday Looks Good to Me’s recordings and its live manifestation invariably varied from tour to tour. Its music went steady with the brass and sweeping choruses of 60s pop, but that relationship would play out against shifting backdrops, from scuffed-up Wall of Sound productions to streamlined girl group paeans and acoustic strummers to, ultimately, structurally ambitious indie rock. The one constant was Thomas, the project’s architect, whose name would always be preceded by “songs written, arranged, and produced by.”
Saturday Looks Good to Me would abruptly call it quits after a 2008 European tour. Listening to Thomas in a DC9 booth three years ago, it sounded like he had simply grown bored with that band’s music. He had drifted to City Center, a collaboration with SLGTM alumnus Ryan Howard, and was exploring less-structured soundscapes, his pop instincts awash in psychedelic influences and delay pedals. I asked how fans of his past band were reacting to this change in direction, and it was hard not hear his characterization of their responses as a reflection of his own state of mind:
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?”
Thomas has spent the time since then churning out music at a typically furious clip. He released recordings with no fewer than six projects. He started a label, Life Like, that champions obscure, experimental music made by friends and strangers. And, last spring, he recorded a new Saturday Looks Good to Me album, One Kiss to End it All. The record was teased in October with the single “Sunglasses”, a shimmering and instantly ingratiating a reintroduction as fans of the band could have hoped for. “It’s a song about triumph, resignation and the eternal quest for good times in hard times,” Thomas would say on his blog at the time of the tune’s release. Delivering this message – and making her non-cassette debut with the band – is Carol Gray, the latest female vocalist to join Saturday Looks Good to Me’s arsenal, and someone who proves more than capable of striking that bittersweet balance.
I call Thomas a second time, two days after our first conversation, to talk more about Kuma, along with the recent reissue of another solo LP, Night Times, and his experiences running Life Like. Again, I reach him as he’s returning home, and as he discusses the ups and down of the past few years and the simple joy of making music for the sake of making music, I find myself thinking of the chorus to “Sunglasses”: “Nobody actually wants to be happy, they just want to be heard.”
Fred Thomas plays Googie’s Lounge above the Living Room in New York City tonight.
It’s kind of curious. I wasn’t super interested in playing those songs or making new songs in that style for a long time. I was focused on touring with City Center, and I was excited about how stripped down and divergent in sound it was. Then, at one point, I was having a conversation with my friend Elliot [Bergman], who used to play in Saturday Looks Good to Me, and he was like, “Why don’t you do another Saturday record?” I said, “Why? At this point, people forget about music so quickly, and I’ve moved on to other stuff, which I’m really excited about.” And he was like, “Yeah, but it’s finally time.” [Laughs] I was like, “What are you talking about? This is a ten-year old band at this point.” And he said, “It’s finally time, and I think that if you did a record now, a lot of people would get the most out of it that they could, and that they couldn’t have before.” I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I was like, “Ok, fuck it! Why not?” [Laughs] I definitely had some songs that I was working on and I didn’t have any place to put them. It just happened randomly, as randomly as we we stopped playing. There wasn’t any reason that we stopped. We were just exhausted from so many tours where nobody came and playing in weird British cities and sleeping on strange floors. So, just as randomly as we stopped playing, we started playing again, and it’s been exciting.
What can you share about the forthcoming record?
The record comes out May 21st [on Polyvinyl Records]. There’s a Japanese label, Violet and Claire, that’s also putting it out, and they may release their version a week earlier. It’s called One Kiss Ends It All, which is one of the last titles that we came up with – we had three or four working titles. It was recorded pretty much immediately following the conversation that I had with Elliot. He had called me one night and we were talking about songwriting, and then, the next day, I booked studio time and started fleshing out these songs that I’ve had in my head for a little while. That was right around April of last year. By September, it was completely finished and mastered and assembled. It was a pretty fast process.
“Sunglasses” returns to the big ’60s sound that the band was known for, but it incorporates these odd, little perversions – smears of synth, a stuttering drum machine. Is that indicative of the LP’s sound?
There is a lot of hidden weirdness to the new record. It’s not all as drum machine-based as [“Sunglasses”], but there are drum machines that come and go, and some weird tape manipulations. But, it’s all very subdued. I think it may be the most subtle record that Saturday has ever made. Some of our others had jarring moments, but it was all within the framework of that ’60s sound. This is more subtle, but if you listen closely, it has the most odd audio moments of anything we’ve done.
How did you hook up with Carol Gray?
Carol’s been a friend of mine for many, many years. She was always performing as a harmony vocalist and violin player – kind of a supportive figure – in bands around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where I’m from. I’d always seen her as this strange, sidewoman star of those bands, because she had such a huge personality, but I’d never heard her sing by herself. I asked her one time if she wanted to sing a song I had that sounded like T. Rex – I had this kind of T. Rex rip-off song. She was like, “Oh, yeah, I’d love to!” She came over to my house and put down these vocals and I was amazed, because she sounded exactly like Mo Tucker from the Velvet Underground, and not at all like Marc Bolan. [Laughs] She had a really odd, cool, sort of smoky voice. It wasn’t what I was expecting from her at all. She had this bravado as a harmony vocalist, but I didn’t know how it was going to translate when she sang by herself. It ended up being really interesting and I loved it.
Carol sings a lot of the new record, but there were a few other vocalists as well. Betty Barnes, who sang on a few of the Saturday records, was in town from Sweden and sings on two songs. I sing a couple. Amber Fellows, who plays keyboards in the band now, sings a song or two. Our friend Autumn [Wetli], who’s in a band called Bad Indians, sings a song called “Empty Beach”. It goes all over the place with vocalists.
Did you handle most of the songwriting?
Yeah, I wrote all of the songs and all of the arrangements, and I played a lot of the instruments on the record.
Is that usually the case?
Saturday is the band where it’s all me. City Center was definitely a collaborative thing. Swimsuit is one hundred percent collaborative. Saturday, for whatever reason, is the outlet for all of these songs that sound like they should be a full band, but I don’t want anybody else to mess with them. [Laughs]
A lot of the bands that I started in the past two years were the product of my being unemployed and excitedly making music all of the time. I had time to record every day, and if different combinations of people wanted to jam, it was just like, “Ok, if me and Scott play, it’s going to be Billowing. If me and Amber play, it’s going to be Damned Dogs, but we have a different band with some other people that sounds completely different. All of these bands are still pretty active. City Center has played less and toured less, because Ryan [Howard] started med school and has been completely unavailable. But, Swimsuit played a show very recently. We play all time around town. We haven’t toured for a while, but if we do another record, we’ll probably tour. Damned Dogs is working on another record. They’re all still kind of happening all of the time, but there are no labels behind them. There’s no publicist. There’s no buzz. We’re kind of doing it just for ourselves. It’s always been like that. There’s always been a ton of different projects for whatever reason, just kind of compulsively. They’re never on hiatus or anything. They’re all in the air, being juggled with everything else.
Do you have anything else queued up?
I just put out a new solo record [Kuma] and I’m going on tour for that in the middle of this month, which is really exciting. That turned out really nice, with a total Neil Young vibe. Some people have written really friendly reviews of that. Damned Dogs, which is more a spectral duo, is working on a new record that should be released sometime in 2013. Swimsuit has a whole bunch of new songs that we’re trying to record, and we’re still playing a lot. There’s always tons of new stuff. I do my tape label, Life Like, which is putting out more and more vinyl and different small-scale, limited-edition releases for a ton of strange Michigan – and outside of Michigan – noise bands and whatnot. I’m always busy with something.
Saturday seems to have the largest following of your projects. In recording and preparing to release One Kiss to End it All, does it feel like a bigger deal to you? Or is it just another record?
It’s all a matter of perception. It’s strange. When I started making music with Saturday Looks Good to Me and working with Polyvinyl, I had never done anything like that before. I had just been in bands that had played around my region and sometimes toured out to New York. I had never done an interview like the one we’re having right now, and I didn’t understand that it was something that a publicist is hired to set up, or that a publicist works with the label and they contact journalists and they play the new record for them. I didn’t appreciate that there’s a team of people that are trying to get your music to as many people as possible. I was a little bit naive about it and was kind of like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool! People seem to like my record. People keep on calling me and asking me questions about it! I wonder why?” I was also a lot younger, and I’m still an idiot, but I was more of an idiot then.
I do feel like there’s a bigger fan base for Saturday than anything else of mine, because people have had a chance to know about it, but it doesn’t feel like, “Ok, this is my shot to really impress something upon people that I couldn’t say otherwise.” The Swimsuit record that got made in 2011 is one of my proudest moments ever and only about five hundred people ever heard it. [Laughs] I wish more people would have heard it. If a label picked it up and really wanted to put some money into pushing it, then maybe some people would, but, at this point, you don’t really know for sure. I gave up a long time ago on making some master statement. I gave up on equating the most number of fans with the most number of people actually taking something away from your music. That’s not to discount anybody who’s paying attention to any one thing I’ve done, because I’m so appreciative of anybody listening to anything I do – it’s a huge, tremendous gift. The motivation for making music isn’t about reaching the most number of people. If somebody can get something out of it, then that’s great, but hopefully it will be a pure thing, something that comes from wanting to say something to start with, without thinking about where it’s going to end up.
It’s kind of a trite answer, but I still think about that, because if you’ve ever had the misfortune of having people comment about your music on Brooklyn Vegan, you will quickly get a harsh perspective of why people think you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ve seen so much mean stuff that’s like, “Oh yeah, here’s this untalented fucker, trying to make it yet again with his shitty pop band after his shitty weird band failed.” I just think, “Man, I’d love to have coffee with each and every person who is writing this shit, because we have a lot to talk about.” [Laughs]
What motivated you to start Life Like?
I’m going to go way far back and tell you what got me into all of this stuff to begin with, the idea of putting out records and supporting an international scene of artists that are doing their own thing for themselves, more so than in the name of commerce. Most of the records that I’ve put out I’ve not broken even on, and most of the bands I deal with make music that I just really like, and I can only hope that somewhere between thirty and five hundred people in the world also like it.
The very of beginning of this happened when I was still a teenager. I was out of my parents’ house and just hanging around, bumming around, bored, teenage-style and going to my friends’ houses and seeing what they’re up to today. One day I stopped by my friend’s J.J.’s house and she was hanging out on the porch. I was like, “J.J., what are you doing today?” She said, “I’m going to go sell records at the record stores.” I was like, “Oh, great, do you have anything cool?” I thought she was talking about her used records collection. I thought, “Maybe I can get, like, the Jesus Lizard record from her.” But she had just put out two ’45s on her label Fantastic Pop. I ‘d never known anybody personally who had done something like that. It just opened the door for me. I was like, “Oh, you can put out records. There are bands that you know and you send some money away and have these records pressed.” It was the most amazing thing I’d ever thought about. It was like permission was being granted to me at that moment to also do this and it would be valuable and it would affect a lot of people in the same way it was affecting me. That was the start of it.
And now you’ve reached almost 60 releases through Life Like. What are your relationships with the acts you’ve put out? How do you come across them?
It ranges a lot. One of the last records I did, my friend Knox [Mitchell] wanted to record this noise set that he was working on, and he came over my house, and I recorded it for him. I really loved it. I loved the performance and how it turned out. I sent him an MP3 of it and said, “Knox, do you like how that sounds?” He said, “Yeah, I love it.” And I was like, “Good, because I happened to have sent it out to be pressed as a record without telling you.” [Laughs] Luckily, he wasn’t pissed off. It was one of those thing where I thought, “This is too good and if I wait and see if he wants to remaster it or change something, then it’s going to be a year before anything happens.” That was a vigilante record pressing. [Laughs]
It ranges though. It can be somebody that I’m friends with and I see every couple of days, hanging out and going to shows. Or, as another example: I played a show in New Mexico in maybe 2010 and the following morning I went to the natural foods place. There’s a guy there, stocking the shelves, and he’s like, “Hey, I saw your show last night! It was great.” We started talking and I was like, “What’s it like here in Albuquerque, New Mexico?” Next thing, we’re discussing the local noise scene and he tells me that he’s in a post-industrial, Whitehouse-sounding band. I was like, “Really? That’s awesome. What’s it called?” He said, “We’re called Streights,” and I was like, “Let’s do a tape!” I gave him my e-mail, he sent me a bunch of amazing sounding stuff, and I made thirty tapes. It was a day-brightener and extremely random.
Some stuff I’ve recorded walking around. I’ve put out tapes where the A-side is some music that a friend of mine has done, and the B-side is an incognito recording of a show or people having a conversation in the bathroom of a hotel or something like that. I’ve done that just because it’s so easy to make tapes and they’re so inexpensive. It’s the palette by which you can be free. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re going mess up a cassette release that badly.
Aside from cost of production, what would you say is driving the cassette renaissance?
I’m not sure if the cassette renaissance is still happening, but I know that it was for a minute. I think it’s because, at a certain point, all day long, you’re thinking about new music and what you can interface with your computer and in your headphones, and people were really refreshed – I know I was – by something that come along and said, “You really need to take a good thirty minutes and listen to this all the way through. You can fast-forward, but you might as well digest it. You can’t download it. You can’t skip to the next song immediately. You have to interact with this music.” When I was listening to a lot of tapes, I was happy to approach them thinking, “Well, one of these songs isn’t really that good, but maybe the next song will be.”
Looking through Life Like’s catalog, Thurston Moore’s appearance on the Lifers compilation jumps out.
Thurston has always been extremely supportive of outsider art and truly underground, unheard music. He’s always had an ear for that. Somewhere along the line, he started ordering Life Like tapes. I was thrilled, because, while I met him a couple of times in passing and he’d been really friendly, I am a huge Sonic Youth fan and a fan of his solo stuff. We got to talking and e-mailing back and forth and I just asked him one day: “Hey, are you interested in contributing to this tape?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure. Totally.” He was very glib. I didn’t bet he was going to do it until months later, when I reached and said, “Hey, I’m finally putting this tape together.” An hour later, he showed me a track, and there it was. Anyone who bought the tape because they’re a Sonic Youth fan and expected something sounding like that band would be amazingly disappointed though, because the track is just the sound of, like, creaky pipes in one of his houses making a lot of intense noises. But, it was directly from Thurston Moore and it’s his vision. Who am I to argue? [Laughs]
Kuma is a bit of a departure for you. What inspired you to make a folk record?
Much like the new Saturday record, it was inspired by a lackadaisical series of conversations. My friend Pete [D’Angelo], who runs the Ernest Jennings label, had been talking to me for a long time about a project. He’d released a couple of Saturday 7″s and has always been a friend. He told me, “I really want to do a City Center record at some point. Do you have anything that you’d want to do? Maybe something a little less weird?” And I was like, “Well, it’s kind of a weird band. We’ve wanted to do a singles collection for a long time. Maybe you could do that.” He said, “Yeah, I mean, some of those singles are cool, but we could take off some of the tracks that are weird and noisy.” I was like, “Well, if you just want a record that sounds like Neil Young, I can just make one of those for you instead.” [Laughs] And he was like, “That is exactly what I want, actually. If you could a record that sounds exactly like Neil Young and has more traditional songs in your solo style, I’d be all about that.” It was kind of like a challenge from a friend. I thought, “Ok, let me see what kind of bummer folk record I can make for my friend to put out.” [Kuma] came from that conversation, and from going through a particularly bummed out year and, from that, finding the inspiration to make some really sad songs.
While there’s certainly some sadness to the record, there’s also an uplifting quality to the music, along with a depth of sound and texture. It doesn’t sound like a guy strumming a guitar alone in the darkness.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that I spent a lot longer on it than I do with most of my records, especially the solo ones. I usually just record those songs at home and then smash together whatever I’ve done over the course of a few months. With this record, I was working with my friend Brook Davis, who also helped record the new Saturday album. It was the first time we worked together seriously. We were working in a real studio. And Brook got really invested in the songs and spending a lot more time with them than I would have normally. He pushed me to rerecord songs and work on better vocal takes or bring in a cello player for things that he heard. That kind of collaborative effort was to the benefit of the record, because it definitely did bring out the depth of the songs.
Are you a big Neil Young fan?
Yeah, so much so. One of my first musical memories is hearing my mom and dad’s Neil Young. I still haven’t gotten to see him play live yet, unfortunately, but hopefully I’ll have a chance to before anything bad happens to him.
Night Times received an official release just a month before Kuma. Was it odd to have those two records seeing the light of day at the same time?
It was a little bit strange. There was also a CD-R I made 2004, a kind of homespun record called Turn It Down, that a friend of mine in Providence, Rhode Island decided to put out 150 copies of on vinyl. So, there were three records that came out at the same time, and two of them were older things that I hadn’t really though about in a while – ten years in one case. At the same, I had this new record of stuff that I was really excited about, and I had worked a long time on it.
They’re all very different, Night Times especially. Night Times is the epitome of a bunch of stuff recorded in my bedroom over the course of a few months. I thought it was just going to be a free download that nobody ever heard. I was flattered when the label Framework came to me and were like, “We’d really like to release this. This needs to be heard. This needs to be an actual thing and not just a download somewhere on Mediafire or floating in someone’s hard-drive.”
There’s always a different context when you think about the format of something. If something’s a record, it’s like, “Whoa, I gotta work a little bit harder and make a really nice cover for this, or spend some more time figuring out how I’d like to present it.” But if it’s just something that people are going to digest really quickly and move on from, maybe a little less time is put into that.
There’s a tendency to read solo records as being a little more revelatory – or at least more personal – documents. Is that something you hear in your records?
Quite the opposite. This terrific problem I’ve had is that I’m been drawn to the prolific nature of certain songwriters, like Guided by Voices. I’m drawn to Deerhunter and Atlas Sound and Bradford Cox’s stream-of-consciousness, write-a-song-every-five-minutes approach. I’ve been so into how easy it is to make something really beautiful without thinking about it that much. There’s a Zen-like process to it. Sometimes that can yield amazing results, and other times not as amazing results. [Laughs] I don’t feel like any of my music has been thought about exactly enough. Sometimes I catch something I quickly created and let it go. Sometimes that’s really good, but, looking back, sometimes I think, “I feel like I could have refined that a little bit more” or “I feel like I could have thought of lyrics a little bit better.” City Center, by the time Ryan and I had it really running and we were doing the Redeemer record, was all about very well revised lyrics. We thought about stuff over and over again. There was a process of distillation for us, but everything else is kind of shaking it out and jamming. I’d like to find some middle ground between completely thoughtless and overwrought, because my solo records are not overwrought at all. I’m just hoping to get the lyrics out in the correct order most of time.