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King Tuff Was Dead, but Now He Feels Like a Kid Again

Kyle Thomas has spent much of his career crafting perfect, scuzzy power-pop as King Tuff, developing a devilish, beer-swilling reputation. On his fifth LP as King Tuff, he's finally his cosmic self.

by Alex Robert Ross
02 May 2018, 11:59pm

Olivia Bee via Sub Pop

Kyle Thomas recently purchased a yellow coat. It's a Swedish military snow parka, and he loves it. "Just having the yellow on me, man," he says. "It's so good." He got some suits made too, which make him feel like a "bedazzled motherfucker." For the 35-year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist better known as King Tuff, it's a brightly colored experiment as he grows up. "I think as you get older, you can look one of two ways—you can look classy or insane," he says. "I think those are the two ways to gracefully be an old person. I'm just kind of seeing if I can combine the two."

Thomas has been crafting scuzzy, catchy power-pop for well over a decade. He's been a fixture in the grime-coated West Coast indie rock scene, playing bass alongside Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis in Witch and forming a loose collective of prolific guitar masterminds, trading in and out of bands with Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin. Was Dead, Thomas's second album as King Tuff, came out in 2008 and became a cult hit, passed around for exorbitant amounts of money by indie kids in the know; Happy Birthday, the first and only record by his band of the same name, came out around the same time. By 2012, when his breakthrough LP King Tuff came out on Sub Pop, Thomas was a cult icon.

That status came with a certain aesthetic. He was, for a time, the personification of double-denim, his elbow-length hair held in place by a novelty baseball cap, a cut-off tee usually hanging off his torso, a wide grin across his face. King Tuff appeared to be a domestic beer-swilling party animal, a guy who made terrible decisions and didn't care about the consequences, someone who'd wander into a 7-Eleven at 3 AM, buy an 18-rack, and walk out with all the greying pizza slices they had left under the bulb. On the solo-laden "Bad Thing," a standout from King Tuff, Thomas seemed to revel in his devilish reputation: "Now I'm going rotten / I'm turning green / Cause I'm a bad, bad thing."

None of this actually reflected Kyle Thomas though. He never drank much—the occasional beer, maybe—and, though he smoked his share of weed, he never touched anything harder. In the end, King Tuff became a character for Thomas to play. "It was just one of those things where I don't think I ever meant to come across in that way," he says. "I never was really a party animal or anything that people thought I was. The music and the way I look—people got ideas about me. And then after a while I was like, 'this is kind of what people think of me and what they are expecting of me, and it's not really who I am at all.'"

The Other—out now on Sub Pop—is the fifth full-length King Tuff album, and the first since 2014's Black Moon Spell. It marks a new start for Thomas. The record opens with a six-minute title track, a gentle keyboard melody relaxing into a simple synthesizer as Thomas sings about searching for his soul, driving around with "No agenda, no master plan / No important dates." He spends the next nine tracks coming to cosmic realizations over vintage psychedelia: "We don't belong in this world," "Death does not exist," "Everybody's going blind / In the neverending sunshine."

Throughout, Thomas tries to more fully express something he gestured towards on "Bad Thing," something buried by the song's winking transgressions: "When I play my Stratocaster / I feel like an innocent child." The "Other" that he sings about now is creativity itself, something that Thomas sees as a difficult-to-define and otherworldly presence worth chasing. It's almost always linked to childlike innocence. "It's really just searching for that creative spirit you are so in touch with when you're a child, and you're so free, and you're close to it," he says. "Maybe that's where people come from, and when you're a kid you're still attached to it in some way. When you get older, you get further and further away from that."

The list of things that pulled him away from that is familiar: the recording industry, the internet's steady stream of micro-information, and the ravages of life on tour. Taking Black Moon Spell out on the road plunged him back into a troubling headspace. The shows themselves were rewarding, he says, but the day-to-day banalities—travel, perform, sleep, repeat—were "really exhausting, mentally and physically." To get through that, he went into a "meditative, almost zombie-like mode." Switching his brain into a neutral gear didn't do much for his creativity.

After returning to his home in Los Angeles at the end of the summer in 2016, Thomas resolved to get his mojo back. He'd always feared playing acoustic shows—"you feel so exposed"—so he booked himself a handful of solo sets in order to face his fears. Even at his most poppy and melodic, Thomas's music had always relied on distortion, riffs, and harmonies, but playing alone stripped him of all that. He started writing songs that could stand up on their own.

It generated a good response. "It was definitely a side of me that most people hadn't heard," he says. "But I have a lot of folk music in my roots, coming from Vermont. There's a lot of that up there. I think I was just showing them another side of myself that I'd kept hidden for a while."

With a rash of new songs sketched out, he kept things solo. He built his own studio in a room at his house, filled it with equipment that he mostly had no idea how to use, and started to experiment with new sounds and textures. "I knew that's what I needed to do because that's what I always did as a kid—just experimented in my room with a four-track," he says. "Instantly, when I started working in that way again, I felt like myself again. And, you know, just taking care of my house plants. Those are my friends. They guided me."

Thomas, then, found himself back in his groove, singing about trying to get back into his groove. But, for all its searching, The Other doesn't find answers all that easily. In the middle of the record, a loose, harmonica-punctuated country song called "Infinite Mile" has him singing about being a "starry-eyed child / Before all that shit went down," taking solace in the endlessness of existence. It's followed by "Birds of Paradise," where Thomas doubles down: "You were young, just a child Imagination running wild," he sings. "There was nothing but the glow / Of fireflies and chasing rainbows."

He's singing to himself on that song. "I've definitely always been a little freak," he says through a giggle. "There's no getting around that. I've always kind of felt the same way. I just feel like I was born who I am. It's definitely apparent if you see photos of me as a child. I'm just a little weirdo."

But he's more pensive and paranoid on "Circuits in the Sand," a horn-heavy song (it's Cronin on the saxophone) that seems to borrow half its melody from Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." It's a forlorn assessment of digital interconnectivity which can seem, on first listen, like a string of technophobic cliches: "We all thought we found paradise in the / Palm of our hand," he sings before mentioning two lovers dragged into the glow of their phones. But he gets away with it on The Other because he's still singing to himself rather than preaching: "I'm trying to remember / The last time I went outside / I'm mesmerized and hypnotized / Distracted endlessly."

He's keenly aware of the reaction that those lyrics have generated. "It's funny to see people’s thoughts on that song in particular," he says. "'Oh look, another psychedelic rocker who's anti- cell phone.' I'm not anti-cell phone at all. That song is really about my own struggle with it, because I'm just as addicted as everyone else. It's been a real hindrance to my own creativity, because I'm so distracted by it constantly that I've just found my creativity kind of lost at lot of the time."

For Thomas, technological distraction is one part of a dissatisfying whole. The reality that distracts him from making music is banal, finite, and depressingly grown-up. "Adulthood, responsibility, buying refrigerators—these things are not the same as climbing a tree," he says. The new King Tuff, the one who doesn't have to play such a dissonant role, can now spend as much time as he'd like climbing trees, messing around with four-tracks, and wearing bright yellow. Regardless of the response, he'll be closer to Kyle Thomas than he has been in a long time.

Alex Robert Ross is a bad, bad, bad thing on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.