His majesty’s sound
On his new eponymous album, King Tuff channels an AM-radio vibe
Although still a young man, Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff, has already lived nine lives as a musician. In the mid-aughts, he did time in Feathers, a cult (and slightly cultlike) folk collective from his hometown, Brattleboro, Vermont. As a teenager, he recorded an album, 2008’s Was Dead, alone in his bedroom under the King Tuff persona. Over the next few years, even as Thomas played in other groups, including the metal band Witch (with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis) and the bubblegum group Hunx & His Punx, word of his punk-glam-pop masterpiece spread, making it a bona fide underground hit. Thomas, who just released an eponoymous King Tuff album on Sub Pop Records, talked to SN&R about life in Vermont, AM radio and the art of songwriting.
You just got back from Vermont?
Yeah, I was hanging out with my family for a little bit. It was beautiful. I was swimming every day in the mountains and the trees.
What is Vermont like?
Right now is the best time of year there. Summer in New England is incredible, because everyone is so bummed out all winter, and then they get psyched, so the energy is crazy.
Brattleboro is a pretty artistic town, right?
Yeah, it’s a little freak town. It’s really nice.
Why did you move to Los Angeles?
I lived in Vermont my whole life; I never really felt the pull to move anywhere else. [Then] I started coming out here [to Los Angeles] a couple of times and just getting a really amazing family of friends. … It really drew me to it.
Is the L.A. vibe going to influence the songs you write?
It’s hard to tell. I haven’t really written any songs this year. I go through really intense waves of songwriting. My surroundings really do have a lot to do with if I’m able to write or not. I need to be secluded. … I think I’m going to have to go on some kind of hermit writing experience. I would really like to spend some time in the redwoods or something.
The production of your new band Happy Birthday and this new King Tuff album have this spacey AM-radio type of feel.
I’ve heard people say that AM-radio thing before. What does that mean?
You’re probably too young to remember. It’s a kind of distance to the sound. It always gave AM radio this eerie feel of its own.
That sounds really cool! … I just record things, and the sound makes itself. Every time I try to make something sound a certain way, it always comes out a different way; you can’t really control it.
As the popularity of Was Dead grew, did you feel pressure to go back to King Tuff? It seemed like you had moved on to Happy Birthday.
I didn’t necessarily feel pressure; it just seemed like the right thing to do, because people would talk to me about it all the time. I made that album years and years ago … when I was 17 or 18. I recorded it in 2006, and then I kind of didn’t do anything with it, and then someone put it on record, and it started spreading by word of mouth. … It’s just the thing that’s always come back over the years, so I eventually gave in to it.
When you’ve played in Sacramento and Davis with Happy Birthday and King Tuff, the shows have been off the chain. Do you have good shows everywhere?
I definitely notice the Davis and Sac shows always are awesome, and I love playing up there, because people are super psyched. … You guys are just wild up there!