Last time we caught up with Kyle Thomas, he had just released an album with an indie pop outfit called Happy Birthday. But he’s always been King Tuff at heart, his first musical persona and project that he likens to “a muscle car wearing a baseball hat.” Thomas isn’t afraid to be his weirdly wonderful self on King Tuff’s self-titled second album and things are a bit more polished this time around with the addition of Bobby Harlow as producer.
As Thomas says, the release marks a new beginning—an exodus from his native Vermont to L.A. and a record that embraces songwriting as multi-faceted as a disco ball. Maybe he’ll incorporate one of those into his tour outfits, but definitely no plaid suits…
SSv: We last talked about two years ago when Happy Birthday released its debut album. What have you been up to since then?
Kyle Thomas: A lot has happened since then. I moved to L.A. from my native Vermont. But I’m back in Vermont now and it’s really hot. It’s so humid I’m gonna die! There are a lot of good swimming holes here, though.
SSv: How do you like L.A.?
Thomas: It’s pretty awesome. I have a really good group of friends there, it’s kind of the reason I moved there. It’s actually pretty mellow.
SSv: You haven’t gone all Hollywood?
Thomas: I mean I’m totally Hollywood but in kind of a mellow way. I’m mellow Hollywood.
SSv: So what made you decide to do a second King Tuff album?
Thomas: A lot of things kept pointing me in that direction. Over the years, more and more people are getting the first album and asking me about it. You know I made that album and didn’t really plan on doing anything with it—I had other projects. But with the other projects people didn’t want to go on tour and I just wanted to go on tour all the time so I figured I just had to do my own thing. King Tuff has always been there over the years; it was my very first project.
SSv: Do you consider King Tuff a persona of yours?
Thomas: Yea, I mean, it’s me. But it definitely is something else.
SSv: If I said describe King Tuff as a person, what would you say?
Thomas: [Laughs] Kind of like Batman. Kind of like a salamander if you look underneath a rock. No kind of like a muscle car wearing a baseball hat. I give up I can’t think of anything. You can just write it all down. Oh, a guitar eating a meatball sub.
SSv: Those sound like good ideas for future album covers, what do you think?
Thomas: Anything could happen. You never know.
SSv: What was your goal with the second album?
Thomas: Going into it I really wanted to make something for fans of the first album. I was just going to make a high-energy rock album. But then when I started working with the producer [Bobby Harlow], he pushed me to put different sides of my songwriting in there, you know like “Swamp of Love” and “Unusual World.” It came out differently then I would have imagined in the first place, but it was kind of a cool thing that happened.
SSv: Did you like allowing yourself that kind of range?
Thomas: The producer really pushed me to do that. Because I do write a lot of different styles of songs and his idea was that anything could be a King Tuff song. Breaking out of one specific style. Whereas, I’ve always written a lot of different styles of songs but I’ve categorized them into different bands. But it’s cool to just do whatever the fuck you want and have it all be under one name… It can be anything, as opposed to “I have to make fast rock songs.” It’s a lot more freeing that way.
SSv: What was it like working with a producer and having to give up that control?
Thomas: I gave up all control, which was extremely hard for me to do. But I have faith in him and I really like his work. You know, it’s a double-edged sword—there are things that I wish I had more time to work on. When I’m working on everything myself there’s a lot more experimentation happening. But we were confined to the studio for a set amount of time, so we were just trying to bang stuff out. We didn’t really have time to fuck around, which is good, but also it’s nice to go into your own little world in recording and we didn’t really have a chance to do that. On my next record I’m really going to make sure that’s able to happen.
SSv: But don’t deadlines like that help sometimes?
Thomas: For sure. I definitely work well under deadline, but as far as recording…I love the way the album turned out but I like going into my own world, late at night, you know? My best stuff comes out at four in the morning…It was challenging working with a producer and I think it paid off. The sound quality is something that I would not have been able to achieve on my own.
SSv: A lot of people say your music has a garage sound, though. Can it sound polished and still have that feel?
Thomas: It definitely is two different worlds. I’m just trying to write pop songs and I want to be able to hear everything. I never set out to make something that was lo-fi or anything. I like the way that sounds but I just like being able to hear everything well. I think as long as it’s a good song it doesn’t really matter how it’s recorded. But I definitely never want to use a computer for recording ever again.
SSv: [Laughs] I was thinking you were going off the grid for good!
Thomas: I think eventually I’ll go totally off the grid. Not yet.
SSv: What’s the process like starting an album by yourself, versus with the many different groups you’ve been in?
Thomas: Just like I said, I go into my own world and need to be secluded. As far as the writing process goes, I need to just be able to be by myself a lot of the time. I go into a weird zone by myself and write a lot of really shitty stuff in order for the gems to come out.
SSv: I remember you called Happy Birthday’s songs “little comic books.” You seem big on not taking yourself too seriously. Is that important for pop songs, keeping it light?
Thomas: Well I have a lighthearted attitude about a lot of stuff, I’m always joking, but that’s not to say I want to make comedy music. I think it’s nice to not be too serious on every song, that’s missing in a lot of music nowadays. The Beatles were totally comedians. They have that aspect to their songs; it really makes you love them and connect with them. Little kids love them because of that.
I like having that element in there, that’s not to say that I don’t take my music seriously. I take it really seriously and there are definitely songs that don’t have that in them. It’s good to be able to have different personalities in the songs.
SSv: Why did you decide to make this album self titled?
Thomas: It seemed like I was starting over. I left Vermont not really knowing what was going to happen or what I was going to do. I just knew that I was going to do King Tuff. It took me a long time to move away and I had to force myself to do it just because I wanted something different to happen.
As far as the collection of songs, it felt like there were a lot of different aspects of all my different projects I’ve been in and different songwriting styles. It seems like a culmination of all these years of writing songs.
SSv: Did you feel like you were stuck in a rut in Vermont?
Thomas: I didn’t feel like I was stuck in a rut but there aren’t necessarily crazy opportunities here. It’s a great place to work on and refine your craft. There’s not much going on so you can really focus on stuff, but at the same time there’s not much going on. It was too easy to live here.
SSv: Does it feel good to be out of that comfort zone now?
Thomas: The world feels a lot more wide open. It feels like anything could happen. I just think it’s cool to do different stuff, live different places and experience different things.
SSv: What are you most proud of on the new album?
Thomas: My favorite song is “Swamp of Love” because I feel like it achieved a sort of epic quality that I never have had in a recording before. And I’m really happy with the way the artwork came out that me and my brother did. I’m pretty happy with the whole thing.
SSv: How will you go about picking your tour band?
Thomas: I have a steady bass player now, Magic Jake, who played on the record. And I’ve been playing with two guys from the band Audacity, the guitar player Matt and the drummer Thomas. I’ve been playing with those guys off and on for the past year so they already know the songs. Eventually I’ll have to get a steadier band because those guys have their own thing going on. They definitely have to be weird and have cool style, musically and fashionably.
SSv: What is your fashionable style?
Thomas: I like anything as long as it is colorful. But I told them no plaid suits onstage.
SSv: That’s fair. What about your fans, how would you characterize a King Tuff fan?
Thomas: I think I have really cool fans. They seem to be just like me. If they’re younger they’re pretty much how I was in high school. You know, just like punks and stuff and outcasts and stoners and stuff. But I want everyone to be my fan. I want the jocks, I want the nerds.
SSv: You want the whole Breakfast Club.
Thomas: I need every member. Once you win over Emilio Estevez then you’ve got it made.
*Photos by Jeffrey Sauger (above) and Jesse Spears (inset)