[Photo by Jeffrey Sauger]
Los Angeles guitarist and songwriter Kyle Thomas, aka King Tuff, brings a charming blend of sharp craftsmanship and good old fashioned heart & soul to everything he touches. He’s a sorcerer of sorts, but less the shifty figure casting dark spells than the wizard's apprentice who injects fresh and forward-moving pop energy into alchemical rock 'n roll strategies. His King Tuff project exemplifies this sound, and Kyle’s past projects diversify his resume-- most notably, the legendary Brattleboro, VT "freak-folk" band Feathers, who gained notoriety half a decade ago upon the release of their self-titled album on Devendra Banhart's Gnomonsong label. As Feathers disbanded, Kyle and two other members formed the pop-rock trio Happy Birthday and released an album on Subpop. Other past projects include Witch, the spacey Vermont metal band he played in with J Mascis.
Rock ‘n’ Roll, in all its snarly pop loveliness, is Kyle’s main focus these days, and King Tuff is steadily growing to epic proportions within the contemporary reprise of well-crafted and danceable garage rock. A few weeks ago, Subpop released his latest album under the moniker unto the world. Applause followed, as well as a tour, and as his journey took off, Kyle and I began exchanging some dialogue about the life and demise of Feathers, overcoming the “freak-folk” tag, and his long-time dream of selling out.
Ad Hoc: LA vs Vermont. Thoughts?
Kyle: They are definitely my two favorite places. They might seem different but there's a lot of similarities. Both are beautiful, [and] mellow, [and you] gotta drive 20 minutes to get anywhere. Lots of rich hippies.
Ad Hoc: Would you mind providing a synopsis of the formation, lifespan, and demise of Feathers?
Kyle: Feathers started when me and Kurt Weisman were working together in a record store in 2003 or so. We just started playing and learning each other's songs on acoustic guitar, and eventually we started asking our friends to play too. It snowballed ‘till we had eight solid members: four boys and four girls, [with] five of us writing songs. We all encouraged each other to write, and we had such a good time learning the songs and coming up with parts. It was really special. I doubt I’ll ever be a part of anything like that again.
Our live shows [involved] lots of tuning. We always had a silly lighthearted attitude, but when we played the songs it really felt like there was a connection with the audience, like there was this group spirit in the room. Sounds cheesy, but it was real. The band basically just disappeared one day. No one said anything. We never had a break-up fight or anything, it just came to its natural end and we all knew it was time to move on.
Ad Hoc: So, where did you move on to? What about the other folks?
Kyle: After Feathers ended, a bunch of us stuck around Brattleboro. Ruth and Chris and I started playing as Happy Birthday. Some of us had a collective show space/art studio with all our friends, so a lot of my focus went there. I recorded King Tuff's Was Dead there. Everyone just kinda did their own cool thing. I live in LA now.
Ad Hoc: Is it possible to have a truly "alternative lifestyle" in the 21st century?
Kyle: I guess it depends on your definition of alternative, but living in a cabin in the woods with no electricity seems pretty alternative these days. Sometimes I wish I could be doing that, but I gotta get some other stuff done first.
Ad Hoc: On that note, any feelings on the questionable term "freak-folk"?
Kyle: Nope, I think it fits perfectly. It's kind of embarrassing, but really everyone in the scene was a freak playing acoustic music, soooo...
Ad Hoc: Hair metal, gangsta rap, electro-clash, freak-folk, chillwave, crabcore. Weird words. Thoughts?
Kyle: Usually when a musical movement gets a name, it seems to be its demise. Which sucks, because it's all just music, and the people making it aren't thinking, "Ok, I'm gonna make a chillska fuckin’ shitpunk fuckin’ salamander rock album now" or whatever. But [these genre titles] are really are just weird combinations of words that seem to fit the music. It's abstract as fuck if you think about it.
Ad Hoc: And, yeah, when a group of musical comrades have gotten into a groove, and someone comes along and tags it, it can make them hyper-self-aware about the connotations of what they are doing, and creativity can become a little strained. Or maybe it's really freeing. But don't you think that perhaps it's a beacon of achievement at the same time, to be known as a figurehead of a movement you helped create?
Kyle: It's a double-edged sword. I don't have any problems being associated with the freak-folk thing, because I think a lot of good music came out of it. But it definitely makes it hard to branch out and try new things, because you want to please your fans and not confuse them. But the second you start making music for anyone other than yourself is when it gets bad.
For someone like Devendra Banhardt, it seems like it’s been hard for him to shake the freak-folk tag, and it must drive him crazy. He’s a magical performer, singer, and songwriter; he's really just a pop musician. But when you read anything about him, it’s gonna say "the father of freak-folk" or some bullshit. For whatever reason, journalists need to put a tag on everything or compare it to something from the past, and that kills it for everyone.
Movements are a weird thing. When we started Feathers we had no idea of any other bands doing that kind of music, but eventually all these other similar people started popping up. It was like we had all been tapping into something separately at the same time, and then we all found each other through magnetic attraction. Same thing now that I'm doing King Tuff. There's a lot of super rad new rock ‘n’ roll bands and we're all finding each other and ROCKING together.
Ad Hoc: What some of the biggest misconceptions about Feathers out there?
Kyle: That we all lived together like some hippy cult commune. I was and always will be a punk, even if I'm wearing a fucking wizard cape, I don't give a fuck. We weren't really hippies but we like avocados and stuff. Our biggest achievement was probably when Rolling Stone said we sounded like The Muppets.
Ad Hoc: Why is it that the public is so averse to signs of monetary success?
Kyle: Haha, I have no idea. I guess it's called "selling out.” I've been trying to sell out since I was sixteen. It’s basically the only way to make money as a musician anymore: getting your songs in on TV, in commercials, in movies. I don't have any problem with it. I just want to live a good life and hopefully buy my parents a house in the woods someday.
Ad Hoc: How'd you like growing up in New England? I'm from Boston and it will always feel like home here.
Kyle: I love new England, like in a serious, Jonathan Richman kinda way. Such a good place. And yes, it will always be home. It was actually too good and too easy to live there, that's why I left. I had to challenge myself.
Ad Hoc: What does challenging yourself entail these days?
Kyle: Hmmmmm, like how many iced lattes can I drink in one day? Or like how many urgent things that I absolutely need to get done can I avoid today? It's a challenge to consistently live a life of leisure.
Ad Hoc: Any New England artists you're feeling psyched on?
Kyle: All my friends from Feathers are still making incredible music: Kurt & Chris Weisman, Ruthie Garbus, Asa Irons. There's a bunch of good bands in Brattleboro now, too: Blanche Blanche Blanche, Happy Jawbone, the Frogfaces...
Ad Hoc: How important is community to you? Does it relate to your songwriting process?
Kyle: I do miss living in a small town and knowing everyone, but there's micro-communities here too. I love that and I'm sure it affects my music. I've always sat around and drank coffee at the coffee shop and wrote all my songs there. I like to observe people and life and draw people.
Ad Hoc: How do you maintain a sense of self within collaborative projects?
Kyle: I just be myself because I don't know who else to be. Usually the people I work with have very strong personalities. We all know exactly what we want and it's a matter of making our ideas fit together like a puzzle.
Ad Hoc: Feathers was a collaborative venture, as was Happy Birthday, but King Tuff seems to be your personal baby. What's next for you?
Kyle: I've settled on just doing King Tuff now. I can do exactly what I want and I don't have to worry about anyone else. It's too confusing to keep changing band names, and all my styles seem to be blending [together]. But I'm best at just straight up rock ‘n’ roll.
Ad Hoc: "Bohemian bourgeois." Thoughts?
Kyle: Is this another way to describe hipsters? Yes, it's a little annoying to go to a bar or coffee shop and wait while a kid in suspenders and bow tie and perfectly combed hair makes you a drink, but I love it at the same time 'cause I like eating and drinking quality things. I have a soft spot for luxury. I hope someday I can be bohemian bourgeois too, but somehow I always see myself as dressing ragged and feeling like a troll.