In our series From First to Last, artists with deep discographies discuss the varying differences between making their first record and their most recent record. For our latest, KEXP's Jasmine Albertson chats with Kyle Thomas aka King Tuff about his 2008 70's-inspired power-pop rock debut Was Dead and the far-more-mellow singer/songwriter 2023 release Smalltown Stardust. From haphazardly recording in a large warehouse/artist's studio with just a Tascam 388 to creating a lush soundscape with production help from SASAMI, Thomas takes us into the worlds that created these very different records.
Listen to the shortened Sound & Vision audio story and read the full interview below.
KEXP: First of all, we need to establish what you consider your first record. Officially, your debut record is often considered 2008’s Was Dead but prior to that you released Mindblow via Spirit Of Orr through a limited run of CDs. Granted, a lot of those songs ended up on Was Dead but, I’m curious, when YOU look back on your discography, which one do you consider your debut?
Kyle Thomas: I would consider it to be Was Dead, even though there are about four or five records before that I just made tapes or seeders of and gave to friends. But none of that stuff has ever been released aside from Mindblow, so Was Dead I would consider to be the first record.
Well, I'd love to go back to 2008 then and I'd love to know what the seeds of that record – when they appeared and what your life looked like then.
So actually that record was recorded in 2006, I think maybe even 2005, somewhat. It didn't get officially released on vinyl until 2008, but I had actually put out kind of a CD version of it, I think, in 2006. At the time I was playing in a band called Feathers, which was a large psychedelic folk band.
King Tuff was a project that I started when I was about 18. I stopped kind of playing in punk bands and started focusing more on songwriting. And I just started making recordings by myself where I played all the instruments and stuff. But then I kind of had put it on the back burner when I started Feathers, and then my friend Ron –actually who put out the Mindblow CD – he was like, “Hey, this Mindblow record you gave me a few years ago is really good. You should like, do something with it.” And I was like, “That's interesting.” And so I started kind of re-recording some of the songs, and I had written some new ones. And it just started to become Was Dead. I called it Was Dead because King Tuff was this project that I had done years before and felt like it had died. But I was kind of, you know..what's it called? Like Frankenstein.
Putting the pieces back together, yeah. At the time, I had a very large studio. Me and my friends kind of rented out the whole top floor of this building in downtown Brattleboro. And it was a bunch of artists’ studios. We had a venue in there. There was a skate ramp, and my room which I shared with my brother and a couple of other people, and it had like 30-foot ceilings. It was just a huge room and I just had a corner of it and I had a Tascam 388 tape machine and I just started recording in there. And oftentimes there would be other people just hanging out in the room, and I'd be doing vocals in the corner, which I now – when I think about it – I would hate that now, but I seemed to be okay with it then. And it just sort of grew into that record.
I made a bunch of hours of it and I did a tour with my old friends, Matt and Kim, and this was like the era that they were really kind of coming up. They were still kind of playing house shows and small colleges and stuff. But the shows are very much like a party. So I did a whole tour with them. But at the time, rock – like kind of garage rock or that seventies-influenced rock – was not popular. So I don't think I really connected with their audience at the time. And after that tour, I was kind of like, “Maybe this wasn't a good idea. Maybe I shouldn't have done it. I should just do something else again.” And then I kind of stopped doing it again.
But then a couple of years later, in 2008, a small label put out put out the vinyl and it started getting around to people and it kind of became an underground sort of thing. People at Sub Pop were fans of it. I hadn't played a King Tuff show in years, and I just randomly did a show at South by Southwest, and that's where I met some of the Sub Pop people.
What were your musical inspirations back then?
At the time of Was Dead, it was very inspired by the New York kind of punk stuff, like Television and New York Dolls, but also I was into a lot of Modern Lovers. Stuff like that. Obviously, people have always heard a lot of T. Rex influence in my music, which I of course loved T. Rex, but I feel like I was more into the kind of New York seventies stuff at that time. I had also gotten into the Grateful Dead, and I think you can hear that a little bit in some of the songs, like “Freak When I'm Dead” and even “Sun Medallion,” just kind of that sort of acoustic guitar-driven kind of like folk rock in a way.
You say that there wasn't really a scene for garage rock at the time or for the music that you were making. When did you start feeling like you were a part of a scene?
At the end of that tour, I remember hearing the Black Lips for the first time. I remember hearing “Dirty Hands.” Somebody played it for me and they're like, “These guys are kind of like doing what you're doing.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, that's kind of in a similar world, similar influences.” And then I think I heard Jay Reatard and stuff like that. It started to make me realize there were maybe other people out there like me. And then, you know, once we got into like 2010, it was like becoming more of a thing.
Yeah, it's interesting because as far as the promotion of Was Dead, you say was mostly word of mouth and most of the reviews you can find about Was Dead are retrospective, especially after Burger Records reissued it in 2013. Were you getting any write-ups or any press at all?
When it came out, there was no press whatsoever. And this was also a different world. I mean, Pitchfork was around and stuff, but there wasn't like really social media stuff happening other than Facebook and stuff. MySpace was a lot of how my fan base developed in the early years.
Were you actively pushing to get people to listen to it, or were you just kind of letting it flow?
Yeah, I was incredibly lazy. [laughs] I was just living in Vermont, doing my own thing, writing songs. I didn't have a band. And I think that kind of maybe helped it in a way, because it was sort of this mysterious record for three years where it's like, “Oh yeah, there's this guy up in Vermont. We don't really know anything about him, but we love this record”. So I think it kind of helped build the mystique there. Maybe it’s good that I didn't do anything for it. Maybe I should get back into that.
I mean, I think the Vermont angle especially is interesting because a lot of people just are like, “What? Vermont? They have a music scene?”
Yeah, for sure. But it is a fruitful place for music because there's literally nothing going on there. So you can actually get some stuff done.
Yeah, there's no pressure where you're a part of a scene where people are keeping their eyes on you. You're just kind of doing your thing.
So let's jump to current day with Smalltown Stardust. How would you compare your songwriting or recording process on this record to Was Dead?
You know, I would say it's not that different. It's also a record that I made at home or, you know, in my own studio where I'm engineering the whole thing, playing a lot of the instruments. But it's obviously on a much grander scale and much better gear was used, much better musicians played on it. And the biggest difference was that I wrote a lot of the songs with Sasami, who also produced it with me. So I would say that that's a pretty big difference. I think the core of it is similar in that it's like kind of a homemade record.
I mean, sonically, it's a pretty big departure from the garage rock you’re best known for with a more mellow, tender song singer-songwriter sound. What influenced the sonic change?
I think I've wanted to make this record for a long time. I've definitely made records like this – like, there's actually a record that I made at the same time as Was Dead that's piano-driven acoustic guitar, very much more in the vibe of this. It actually has the song “The Wheel” on it. That's a really old song that I kind of remade for this record. So I kind of had this record inside me for a long time. But I think the rock stuff just kind of became what I did because it was fun to play live and it's just more energy. But I think I don't so much listen to that kind of stuff anymore and this record is much closer to what I actually listen to and what what kind of comes out of me naturally these days.
Were you looking to any particular artists when you were recording it?
I mean, obviously, I'm letting the Beatles influence shine through a bit more. They've always been my favorite band. I'm an obsessive. So that's definitely coming through a bit more. But also a lot of the kind of folk-rock stuff, singer-songwriter records, and stuff like that has always been a big influence on me, too. We definitely were listening to a lot of Tusk when we were making it so there's definitely some Fleetwood Mac vibes in there.
Love me some Fleetwood Mac.
How can you not?
Seriously. But let's talk about Sasami, because she had a pretty heavy hand in that she helped write and produce the record. Besides the convenience of living together during the pandemic, what inspired you to bring her into the project in such a substantial way?
It just sort of happened naturally. It wasn't even really discussed. We both just were writing for our new records and it was just sort of natural that we started working together on them because I had the studio here. We just started demoing each other's stuff and it just sort of grew out of that. It wasn't really planned or anything. So which is cool. It just happened very naturally.
Can you break down a song that she really brought to life with her production? Or like, the moment that you realized, “Oh, this is going to be a really good collaboration.”
Yeah, well, I think maybe the first song “Love Letters to Plants.” I wrote that just on like a little mellotron strings setting and I had kind of just the basic idea of the chords. But then when I played it for her and she was like, “I love it, but I think the melody could be a little stronger.” And she kind of sang a new melody that we started working with. And then, she's really good at arranging strings, so she did the full string arrangements, kind of mapped out what I had done, and added to it. Also, the second verse when the bass and the drums come in, was all her idea. And then the big choruses with the, like layered vocals, that's all her. She's a genius at layering vocals and singing harmonies, coming up with interesting harmonies. So I think that that one's a really good example of the collaboration.
I'm curious about the release process because we already talked about how you pretty much didn't promote yourself at all with Was Dead and it was all word of mouth. Now that you're an established artist with a built-in fanbase, do you still feel like you have to work to promote yourself, or is it all kind of easy and you have a whole team that does it for you?
I feel like I'm working harder than ever! I mean, it's a different world now. Like musicians have to be…we're not just musicians anymore. We have to be content creators. And honestly, it's exhausting. Because, like, we're expected to do all this other stuff often, you know, websites and stuff want you to write pieces and create all this content for free and stuff, you know? So it's funny, but, you know, I try and make it fun. Because otherwise, I would just lose my mind. I mean, you know, they're trying to get me on Tik Tok. I'm resisting.
Oh, my God.
But I know if I did it, I would be really freaking good at it.
I think for my mental health, I need to, uh, maybe not. But yeah, it's just like, there's no attention span anymore. So you have to constantly be reminding people that you exist. And since there's been a lot of time in between my records, it's kind of like every time I put out a record, I kind of have to start over in a way. You know, I have, like, a springboard to go off of, but it's like this process of reminding people that I'm still around here. And, you know, as you get older, as an artist, you get to where you're like, “Do people even care anymore?” You know, you start asking all these questions. But really, you’ve just got to make things that you like and then inspire you. And, hopefully, it resonates with people.
Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that you do now or know now that you wish you would have known when you were making Was Dead? And is there anything you would change about the album?
I honestly wish I had been less lazy about promoting myself.
Keeps coming back to this!
I mean, I didn't have any idea how to do anything back then. You know, I didn't know how the business worked at all. So I think I probably would have been a little more adamant about, you know, touring more back then, putting together a band, and not kind of just doing nothing at all. That might have been good for me. But, you know, everything happens for a reason. Who knows what would have happened?!
Absolutely! What about each record are you most proud of?
You know, I think these two records in particular, the new one and Was Dead, are my two favorite things that I've done. I'm definitely proud of the way the new one sounds sonically. I think it's the best sound that I've gotten. I'm proud of Was Dead because it's just all me. I did it all myself and it was very much just like an experiment and very straightforward. I literally mixed it on headphones straight into a CD burner, and that's the mix that still exists. And “Sun Medallion” is still my most popular song. So there's something to that, which I think is cool. But yeah, and the new one, I just I'm proud of the songwriting. I think I've grown as a songwriter and I think it reflects that.
Yeah, if you could re-record Was Dead with better equipment and everything, would you do it or do you want it to stay the way it is, in its pure state?
It's been brought up to me over the years, and I just don't think I would. I don't think it's necessary. You know, I think people like it probably because of the way it sounds. I think I've even thought of remixing it, which I might do at some point. I think, you know, it could certainly... it would sound very different if I had a professional mixer, you know, remix it. It could sound much bigger, probably, but I'm not sure that would be a good thing either.
I mean, I agree with you. I think that it's in its honest, pure state and changing it would change everything, I think.
It would change reality as we know it.
It'd be a whole other timeline.
Watch King Tuff's KEXP in-studio performance from March 2023 below.
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