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Spill! Interview with Kyle Thomas of King Tuff (Sub Pop)

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Above all else, King Tuff is a human bean.  The band name, King Tuff, is the stuff of Bazooka Joe wrapper legends, and not the joke telling kind.  Kyle comes off in conversation as a bit of an anti-hero; someone who thinks and works with deep thoughts about....well, everything.  The 'K.T.' stands for Kyle Thomas, the lead singer, guitarist, and creator of King Tuff.  Kyle came up with the name himself, and it has just kind of....stuck.  Growing up and living in Vermont, Thomas has played in a few interesting amalgams over the years, including the mysterious Witch (Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, Dave Sweetapple, Graham Clise and Thomas, himself), as well as Kyle's own past groups Feathers, and Happy Birthday.  King Tuff's album (the second, but a first formal debut for Sub Pop) was released this past month, and since the album and the band's latest video (above), Kyle has been serving up nightly slices of rock while out on the road.

Join King Tuff on their US tour. The band plays tonight at Johnny Brenda's, Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 with openers Habibi and local duo Slutever. 8 p.m. door, 21+, $10 cover. 

We spoke with Kyle while he was en route, driving in his car--right around dusk, for the following interview: 

Girl About Town: Do you keep your life in a separate space from the rock n’ roll portrayal of you as the persona behind King Tuff? [Gold sun medallian, gold teeth, tendrils of long hair, sunglasses, etcetera]  

Kyle aka King Tuff: Yeah.  Yeah, that’s really just me.  I’ve just always sort of felt like a cartoon character, and pretty much everyone that I know is kind of like a cartoon character.  I’m just kind of drawn to those kind of personalities, and you know...weird looking people, so... That’s just who I am, I think.

What can people expect from a stage experience at a King Tuff show?

Well, it really all depends on the audience.  If an audience is really into it, and I can tell that they’re having a good time then it will make me, you know, play a lot better.  It will make me....talk to them more.  If an audience is really kind of, stand-off -ish and I can’t tell if they’re having a good time, then I’ll respond to that and kind of be the same way.

So do you have your louder sets and your quieter sets in that way?

No: I mean--it’s usually (always) pretty loud! {laughter}

So the rumors are true?  You turn it to eleven?

Yeah, of course!  I mean, yeah, I guess there are some times when I feel more alienated from the audience, and that would be, maybe, a more pissed-off set--as opposed to, an audience that’s having a real good time, because, then I’ll have more fun.

Sub Pop had originally announced that they were signing Happy Birthday, and then it became King Tuff.   What can you tell us about this?  Is Happy Birthday still a band, or is it just King Tuff now?

I’m really focusing on King Tuff now.  There is the possibility that Happy Birthday could become a recording project, but I don’t think we’d ever go on tour.  It might just become more of a weird, experimental, recording project....

Tell us about your current band members for King Tuff.  Who are they, and do they play in other groups as well?

On this tour, I got Magic Jake on the bass, and then I got two guys from the band Audacity....on drums, and second guitar.

Are you always just picking up musicians along the way, or depending on the tour?

I’m doing, like, a week and a half on the East Coast this month, and then July all month.  It’s kind of just been whoever I’ve been able to find to play, and you know: people I like....like their style....I can get along with them... It’s hard finding musicians that can go on tour because it’s a lot to ask of someone, you know, to drop their life.

So it’s mostly you as King Tuff.

Yeah....

And when you recorded with Bobby Harlow (The Go) in Detroit--was it just you and he, then?  Or did you have other musicians that you were working with (at that time) as well?

Well, Jake plays bass on the recording, and then we had a drummer, named Kenny Tudrick, but they were just there for the first couple of days, doing the basic tracks, and then after that, it was just me and Bobby.

How did you get hooked up with Bobby?

Through Burger Records.  His band is on Burger, and we met at SXSW at The Burger show.

Did you have an idea of the sound you were going for, or did Bobby help you figure things out when you got there?

He was very involved....in the choosing of the songs, and figuring out what we were going to do....from, at least a month beforehand.  We just talked about it a lot, so we had a pretty-clear idea once we went into the actual studio.  You can plan on doing things in the studio a certain way, but it just always comes out different then you expect, I think.

My favorite songs from the album are “Keep On Movin’,” “Swamp Of Love” and “Hit And Run”.  Your album is really varied from track to track; certainly grabbing inspiration from glam, and definitely power-pop and harder rock n’ roll, but there are also more tender tracks.  You have all these rock anthems surrounded by more acoustic and heartfelt songs. As far as the tracks that Bobby did help you to choose: are there any of these that you wish would have gone on, that you are still using?

Yeah, there are....I recorded about thirty full-on demos of all of those songs (and more), and there was a lot that I was assuming [that] would go on to the album....more of the ‘rockers’.  Then Bobby ended up choosing the more softer, heartfelt songs.  I still got a lot of songs that I want to do, but, I’m really happy with the ones that he chose, and that’s what made it more of the varied album (that it is).

Do you consider this current album more of a reflection of you than [previous album] ‘Was Dead’?

It’s just a different time in my life, you know....because I wrote the songs on “Was Dead” ten years ago... A lot has happened, and I’ve written a lot of songs since then.  So while there are a lot of similarities, I’ve grown as a songwriter.... and I look at things a little differently.

King Tuff

I’ve read that you strive to write lyrics that can be identified with by the listener, similar to how pop songs are put together by the originals (Spector or Brill Building).  Are you looking for the perfect bridge between pop and melody in your songs?  What’s the hardest thing about writing music for you: where or when are you most inspired?

The hardest thing is just being able to do it all the time.  I have real intense waves of songwriting.  I’ll write like a tonne of songs in one month, and then I won’t write anything for, like, a year....and during that year I’ll get super-depressed because I can’t write a song.  It really takes going into my own zone--not to have too many distractions, but: I write the best, and work the best, at four in the morning....and when I am in an intense writing mode, I’ll stay up, until....the world turns blue in the morning.  That’s the magic hour for me.  That’s really inspiring to me, and being in Vermont is really inspiring to me.  I’m kind of scared; that I’m always going to need to go back there.  Well, not that I’m really ‘scared’.  It’s just that I’m curious if that is going to have to be a part of my process; going back there [Vermont], from now on.  

So, there is a part of you, that maybe needs to be 'home' to create?

I don’t know.  Being in L.A., I haven’t really written any songs since I moved to L.A., except for when I lived in Laurel Canyon because it had a lot of trees in it.  Maybe because of the trees, I don’t know....

So you just need to be away from the distractions, maybe.

Yeah, it’s really easy to get distracted....

Are you basing yourself out of L.A., then?

Yeah, I mean, I live full-time in L.A. now, but, I go home whenever I can to Vermont.

Speaking of L.A., I see that you are friends with Hunx (Hunx and His Punx)?

Yeah, we hang out all the time, he’s like a brother.

I noticed his tweet today, about your DJ night.   He’s definitely a very interesting and cool personality, so when we spoke earlier about the ‘characters in your life’ it brought me back to your friendship with him.

Yeah, another kind of cartoon character....

Let’s talk food for a minute.  I’ve read that you enjoy tacos....and donuts.  

I mean, I like donuts, but they’re not at the top of my list.  I mean, I love tacos, that’s for sure.  For years, if I’m going to make food for myself; I’m just going to make beans and rice, avocado, extra sharp cheddar cheese....kind of a ‘mush’ -type dish.  That’s kind of my favorite thing to make for myself.

Where is your favorite place to get a taco in L.A.?

LA Tacos taco trucks definitely have the best. There are some really good vegan places in L.A., I’m not Vegan, but there are surprisingly some really good places.  The “Grilled Cheese Night” at The Oaks Gourmet is incredible...award winning....

If you could create a real King Tuff special, what would that be?

Ohhh, boy! Maybe, like, you know how they have those party-sized tubs?  Maybe like a party size....a party-sized....taco?

So what would be in that taco?

Maybe chocolate-chip mint ice cream....and the taco shell would be waffle cone!

That sounds like the perfect King Tuff treat!  Someone will have to create that in your honor.

I know! WTF. Why hasn’t anyone done that for me?!

Your songs are a delicious treat with their ‘70s glammy-pop (you’ve been getting a lot of Mark Bolen comparisons) and I’m also thinking your vocal style has a little Bob Dylan slur to it.   Your songs smack of teenage highjinks, and the songs on your new album would be the perfect companion music to rollerskate to!

Good!  They are supposed to be fun, and make you feel good. I usually just describe what I play as rock n’ roll, and I try to write....my focus is on trying to write really good pop songs that, you know, make you wanna listen to them over, and over again.

What is your favorite song lyric, and why?

I really like the lyrics to “Unusual World”.  All of them.  It’s just, kind of, about looking at the world as a mysterious place.  Rather than....you know, like you can look at everything, as if you’ve never seen it before....and, the fact that, we’re people living on a giant sphere, floating in nothingness.  That’s kinda weird.  I don’t know....

Or, even, looking into outer space. You look into it every day....or, up at it every day, and you don’t think much about it, but, if you are thinking about it--it’s insane.  Look at anything.  You could look at anything in life that way.  Even man-made things that are really shitty.  Everything is insane....that it even exists....so that’s kind of what that’s about.

Did you really take over the Sub Pop offices for the day?

Oh yeah!

What would you change about the music business if you were King For A Day (literally)?

Um, basically, just artists getting f**ked over. I mean, Sub Pop has been great to me....and Burger Records was great to me.  The people that I’m working with now are all awesome, but....I have gotten f**ked with in the past.  Oh....and you know {sigh} people taking advantage of you....

It’s just...it’s kind of the opposite of what it should be.  You know, a lot of people in the music industry....end up making a lot more than the artists do.  It’s backwards, you know?

Which bands are you listening to this month?

Um....which bands am I listening to.... Hm.  There’s a lot of good stuff coming out on Burger.... I’ve been really into the Gap Dream album....new Audacity album--all great! The stuff on Sub Pop; I really like Beach House, as does....everyone.  What else...I don’t know.  

You know, Top 40 radio.  I’ve always been into Top 40 radio. I gotta know the hits!

Join King Tuff on their US tour. The group is slated to play Johnny Brenda's, Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 with openers Habibi and local duo Slutever. 8 p.m. door, 21+, $10 cover.

King Tuff - 2012 Tour Dates
Jun. 12 - Philadelphia, PA - Johnny Brenda's*
Jun. 13 - Baltimore, MD - Golden West Cafe*
Jun. 14 - Hoboken, NJ - Maxwells*#
Jun. 15 - Burlington, VT - Signal Kitchen*
Jun. 17 - Easthampton, MA - Flywheel*

More dates listed here: http://www.subpop.com/artists/king_tuff

King Tuff - band site / sub pop

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