King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas discusses his pop impulses
Part of the same Northeast scene that produced the freak folk act Feathers and stoner rock icons Witch, King Tuff have carved out their own distinct musical niche as a melodic garage rock act. Their two albums – 2008’s Was Dead and this year’s King Tuff – combine gritty guitars with sharp, retro-leaning melodies and androgynous vocals. We spoke with Tuff singer-guitarist Kyle Thomas who heads up the band, for a short article for a weekly. Here’s the full transcript.
You started King Tuff back when you still a teenager living in Eastern Vermont. What made you first want to start the band and what brought you back to it after you’ve explored a few different side projects.
I had punk bands and stuff in high school and then in my last year of high school I started taking songwriting more seriously and started writing songs that were more on the pop side of things. I was making lots of home recordings. That was the first King Tuff stuff. Over the years, I made those solo records and didn’t do anything with them. They’d pop up every three years. I’d think about doing King Tuff again. Finally, it seemed to be the right thing to do.
When you were young, you also worked in a thrift store for a short time. I know you bought a necklace that’s become your good-luck charm but did you get any good vinyl albums out of the place?
Yeah, totally. The one I remember the most is the GTOs, which was produced by Frank Zappa. It was this group of groupies I guess who were hanging out and they’re so cool. If you see the pictures inside, they’re so cool. The songs are just them talking. It stands for “Girls Together Outrageously.” I had no idea when I bought it. It just looked awesome. I bought it for like a dollar and it’s pretty rare, I guess.
Was Dead has been described as a “modern dirt-bag punk classic.” To what extent does that accurately describe that album?
Um, I mean, any description is probably good. I don’t know how I would describe it, but if that’s what somebody thinks it sounds like, that works.
Talk about the musical direction you’ve taken on your new album.
I think my songwriting has definitely evolved over the years. I wrote a lot of the songs on Was Dead ten years ago. At the same time, there’s a lot of the same elements. I don’t think it necessarily sounds more complex, but I think it is. I know what I’m doing a little bit more than back then. Sometimes, that’s a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. I actually wish I didn’t know what I was doing.
How did recording in Detroit shape the music?
A few Detroit musicians played on it: Kenny Tentruck on drums and Magic Jake on bass. The producer is from Detroit. They brought their vibe to it.
You wrote both “Swamp of Love” and “Hit And Run” on piano. Talk about the writing of those tracks.
Yeah, I wrote those when I was subletting in Laurel Canyon. There was a cool vibe up there and a weird, mysterious sort of energy. It’s beautiful. There’s this totally fucked up old piano there. I’ve never had a piano around before. There was one in my parents’ house, but it didn’t sound so good, so I never fucked with it. On this one, half the keys worked, and I don’t know how to play piano, but you could get chords to sound so good on the piano, and you can’t replicate it on guitar when you transfer it over. I was having a good time playing that piano into the morning hours.
Who did you have in mind when you wrote “Stupid Superstar”?
No one in particular. I actually love pretty much every pop star. I’m obsessed with pop music and all Top 40. I love ’em all, even Ke$ha. I listen to that music more than anything else. I’m interested in hit songwriting. A lot of those songs are really well-crafted. It’s just the idea of being a star but not anyone. The song is saying that I want to be that, too.
Which guitarist would you say has influenced you the most and why?
A lot of people say [Green Day’s] Billie Joe Armstrong because that’s what I was so into when I started playing guitar. I don’t know. There’s definitely a lot of people I could list but that wouldn’t be very interesting.
Did J. Mascis give you tips?
He doesn’t really talk, though, does he?
Actually, he does talk a lot when he’s comfortable around people. I was just doing my own thing with the band. He’s definitely one of the best. One time, he bought a guitar when we were in the van. He was soloing the whole van ride. It was one endless solo, and it was all good. It never got bad. It was endless awesome. He was playing on one of those tiny cigarette box amps. I was sitting in the back like, “fuck you.”
Your voice sounds so feminine. Have you ever thought about trying to make it sound more masculine?
Um, I thought you were going to ask me if I ever thought about a sex change. No, I’m stuck with this voice. That’s just what comes out.