YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE THIS King Tuff

For BLURT’s fave new Sub Pop band, we pondered
an alternate headline (“Baring a Silly Soul, Don’t Be a Hater”… but decided we were good. King Tuff is on tour, now.

 

BY JHONI JACKSON

 

            A musician can change a lot in five
years. Changes are often hard to accept,
and sophomore albums aren’t always welcomed warmly. But in King Tuff’s case, some
slack should be cut. It’s actually been a decade since he wrote Was Dead.

 

            His debut LP arrived two
years after a stint in Feathers, a psych-folk outfit with almost enough
wacky-looking members to resemble a fledgling cult. Around the same time, he sang and played guitar in Witches, a
stoner-metal band formed by J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. And before Kyle Thomas –
that’s his real name – even fully embraced King Tuff as his main gig, he formed
Happy Birthday. Sub Pop, responsible for Thomas’ self-titled follow-up, pressed
the band’s only LP in 2008. It was the same year Was Dead appeared, but Happy Birthday was the first time one of his
bands offered more than just a touch of Thomas.

 

            “I think I wrote Was Dead when I was 18, closer to a
teenager,” he says. “I’ve just had lot of experiences since then, so it’s bound
to be different.”

 

            Thankfully, this second LP isn’t an
over-the-mountain leap from the King Tuff we’ve come to love. In five years of
ruminating about an album, fans form a bond with that particular sound. The
gratitude for new material is susceptible
to a quick ruin if expectations aren’t met. To return with an LP that wasn’t
another batch of the breeziest, most effortless brand of garage-pop around
would practically be blasphemous. 

 

            “I definitely felt like I wanted to
make something for the fans of that album,” Tuff assures.

 

            Was
Dead
is a hard album to top – Tuff’s voice sounds perfectly nasally and
helium-tinged, there’s opportune bursts of ‘70s style guitar solos and choruses
that wedge their way into the sing-along section of your brain before the
tune’s even over. Let’s not forget coming-of-age anthem “Freak When I’m Dead”
or “Connection,” a lyrically sweet pop song so perfect that it’s trumped only
by the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.”

 

             “Where things kind of changed was when I
started working with the producer [Bobby Harlow],” Thomas explains. “I was
planning on making something that probably would have been a lot more similar
to Was Dead. That’s where he kind of
stepped in and chose some songs that I was not really thinking about doing. It
probably would have been more straightforward rock, like rock the whole time.
More solos, probably.”

 

            Harlow,
frontman for seasoned garage-rockers the Go and also of Conspiracy of Owls,
handpicked the album from a sizeable selection of demos Thomas wrote last
winter. It was a period during which he spent a lot of time alone. While Thomas
presents himself an eternally fun dude on a perpetual hunt for his next good
time, his cartoonish persona apparently isn’t a flawless fortress for his
feelings.          

 

            “It definitely wasn’t a great time,”
he confesses. “But it was good in the sense that a lot of songs came out of it.
That’s often what happens, is sometimes the good shit comes out when you’re at
your worst. If you can fuel into your creativity, that’s usually when really
good stuff comes out, for whatever reason.”

 

            Harlow
pushed for the more melancholy songs, probably those written at the most
intense moments in Thomas’ rut.  One of
those is “Unusual World,” where Thomas gets ephemeral, singing softly, “The
place you gotta go/ To change/ Is deeper into the strange/ And unusual world.”
A xylophone melody and a long, lightweight synth decorate a slow gallop of a
beat. When he declares he’s “going deeper into the unusual world,” a low-volume
shout is snuck in: “And I ain’t never coming back!”

 

            Thomas says “Evergreen” is another
lighter track harvested by Harlow. While
there’s still subtly distorted guitar in the mix, it’s the least prominent of
the elements. The guiding ingredients are piano and the same breathy, quiet
vocals of “Unusual World.” Again, Thomas uses the lyrics to espouse transience:
“Everybody it’s OK/ You can always look the other way/ ‘Cause I’m not really
here.”

 

            “I think it came out to be a much
broader album. It definitely shows all the different sides of my songwriting.
It’s kind of scary as a songwriter to put all that different stuff out there
and kind of bare your soul a little bit more,” he pauses. “But I think it pays
off in the end. And some people have told me that some of those songs that I
wouldn’t have chosen are some of their favorite songs.”

 

            The strongest contender for
soul-baring is “Swamp
of Love.” It’s a shaker-and-piano
combo where Thomas puts on his gentle voice: “Everything you do is always the
same/ You’re lost in the woods inside of your brain/ Why is love such a foolish
game?/ Yeah, why is love so full of sun and rain?” Halfway through, sluggish
self-defeatism crescendos into a full-blown ballad. Solo guitar tears a whole
in the tenderness, vocals get layered with a delicate nod to psych and all of
the sudden you’re blasted into a memory of your own futile wade through the “Swamp of Love.” 

 

            While
the simultaneous pointlessness and magnetism of love can spawn a K-hole of
depression, Thomas doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who mopes for long.

 

            “I mean, everyone gets depressed and
everyone goes through weird times. It’s just part of life,” he says. “I moved
out to LA after that. Things here have been really good.”

 

            Thomas says he’d lived in his home
state of Vermont nearly his entire life,
adding that it was “time for a change anyway.”

 

            In a silly, drawn-out voice, he
recalls, “I just drove across country, and I was laying on the beach, and I was
eating a taco on the beach…in a bikini.”

 

            Swapping winter storms for
sunbathing seems appropriate, especially for a guy who wears a sun medallion, a
kind of talisman he’s held onto for years.

 

            “I got it when I used to work at
this really weird sort of thrift store with a bunch of…witches. I was the only
guy that worked there and all the women that worked there were really
incredible sort of, um, witches,” he laughs. “We would always have really
incredible things get donated to the store, and [the sun medallion] was just in
one of the donations. I felt like it just came to me, you know, and I just
started wearing it.”

 

            Thomas expresses bafflement about it
being a recurring topic in interviews, despite dedicating a song to it on Was Dead. “I can’t go anywhere/ Without
my sun medallion” is the standout lyric-doesn’t the emblem mean something to
him?   

 

            “It does. I have ideas about the
sun, and I’m really into the sun,” he laughs. “I could go into it but, I mean,
the main idea is that I feel like people should talk more about the sun as
being god. Because it seems like it’s right in front of our faces. It’s like,
the answer is simple, it’s right there: A giant ball of energy in the sky that
you can’t look at it and makes everything grow.”

 

            “You ever think about that?” he
laughs. “And everything revolves around it.”

 

            Thomas says he hasn’t been reading
extensively about ancient cultures like the Egyptians
and others who regarded the sun similarly. He’s mostly come up with this on his
own.

 

            The 10 years between when Thomas
wrote Was Dead and last winter’s
hibernation can account for some growth, and therefore disparities between the
LPs. Thomas’ development, however, appears concentrated in his musicianship,
not his personal life. Sure, he probably learned a lesson or two. That’s almost
unavoidable in so long a stretch. But Thomas seems like he’s been the same type
of guy-a little wacky, a little off-kilter and generally cheery-for a long
time.

 

            He worked with a producer and full
band this go ‘round, sure. But Thomas is still playing the same guitar, the one
he fondly dubbed Jazijoo. (“It just appeared in my head one day, and I knew
that it was right,” he says of the name.) And he’s still stoked on the two gold
teeth he got a few years ago when a lost filling became painful. 

 

            “I just figured I get to choose
between having a tooth that looks like a normal tooth or one that’s made out of
fucking gold,” he says. “I mean,
which one are you gonna fucking choose? It’s one of the best things that ever
happened to me.”

 

            And he still loves Top 40 radio, too
– ‘Call Me Maybe’ and even the yolo motto.

 

            “You just have to let this stuff
into your heart,” he pleads. “I know that it sounds like, you know…It’s easy to
be a hater. It’s real fuckin’ easy to be a hater, but if you just let yourself
be a lover and let this shit into your heart, go into it being like, ‘I’m going
to love this,’ most of the time you probably will love it. It’s much cooler to
love everything than it is to hate everything.”

 

            That’s an ideal attitude – and not
too far a stretch – for existing King Tuff fans giving his sophomore debut a
shot. The jams are there – look to “Bad Thing,” “Baby Just Break the Rules” and
“Keep on Movin'” for proof. Then take Thomas’ advice and let the rest of that
shit into your heart. 

 

            “There’s still a lot of fun in
there,” he assures. “I don’t know, maybe [the albums aren’t] different at all.
They’re actually the same songs, but I played them at different speeds and it
just totally changed them. Isn’t that weird?”

 

[Photo
Credit: Jesse Spears]

 

***

 

Jhoni Jackson is also a regular contributor to
BLURT’s favorite monthly music mag, Atlanta’s
Stomp and Stammer. You got a problem with that?

 

 

 

 

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