Fred Thomas on titles, change and the times
Ypsilanti-born Fred Thomas has been making music since 1992. In addition to nine solo albums — his most recent, Changer, was released in Jan. 2017 — he has contributed to countless projects and played in myriad bands, including Tyvek, Hydropark, Saturday Looks Good To Me and so many others. Though a longtime fixture of the local scene, Thomas as a solo performer didn’t receive widespread attention until 2015’s All Are Saved, a thematically dense work that spans an impressive variety of sounds and textures. Thomas’s vocals range from absent to sing-song to spoken word.
“It’s supposed to be a little bit irritating,” Thomas said when I asked him about his lyrical style on the record.
“I had a lot of songs that were more like straightforward pop songs, but … I had more going on personally that I wasn’t getting to the core of, and once I started tapping into the style of that record, I was like ‘This is great! This feels so good! I don’t know if I would enjoy listening to this,’” he told me, before doing an impression of his wife doing an impression of his music, a hysterical sputtering lacking a discernible melody.
“A guy trying to catch his breath while he says everything on his mind,” he finished, “and she’s right.”
I disagree with Thomas’s evaluation of All Are Saved as annoying, but his wife’s assessment of his sound and the urgency is spot on. What I’m curious about, though, is what changed for Thomas ahead of the album’s release. How and why did it receive so much more attention than his previous work?
“I’ve tried to answer this question concisely before, and I’ve failed, so I’m going to try again today,” he responded.
Thomas’s answer reflects both his lifelong dedication to music and his humility. First, he talked about how he’s “always playing music. One hundred percent of the time, I’ve been in at least two bands since I was a child.”
By his mid-20s, Thomas had seen the greater part of the civilized world, spending up to 10 months touring each year, but largely just went with the flow, musically. “Everything that happened before All Are Saved was just what I was thinking about at the time,” he said. By his mid-30s, he reported feeling out of place — “Everyone at the show or in bands was at least 10 years younger than me” — but not necessarily in a bad way.
“As soon as I started feeling that weightlessness of not really having to think about everything that surrounded (the music) … I just had no choice but to tap into what was happening to me, and part of what was happening to me was that I was no longer really concerned with getting attention for my record. Ironically, that’s when more people started paying attention,” he said.
He also mentioned at least a couple of unique sources of inspiration at the time. He had worked as a caretaker for a dog — Kuma, which is also the name of his 2012 record — who passed away, an experience he told me “heightened (his) spiritual sense.” While he was writing All Are Saved, he also “met and fell in love with the woman (he’s) now married to.” Both certainly contributed to the themes of both love, at its most awkward and purest, and loss, at its most numbingly devastating.
On the same day of our conversation, before I walked to Roos Roast Coffee, where Thomas agreed to meet up, I was going through some old things and stumbled on the first issue of a zine called “Balcony” that Thomas started just over a year ago. Seeing his post on Instagram in 2017, I had messaged my address and shortly thereafter PayPal-ed him for a copy. Thomas opens the zine with a piece called “Season Three” in which he, among other things, belabors the virtues and shortcomings of “Jersey Shore” and recounts the arduous, self-doubt-ridden process of choosing a title for the zine. The first sentence of the essay reads, “Names are difficult.” Naturally, then, my last question about All Are Saved is regarding its title.
“Wow, speaking of Instagram,” he started, “some beautiful times were happening and some really dark times were happening, and it was all kind of happening at once, as it often does, and I was going through the car wash, having a total existential freak-out … I took a picture of the car wash bristles for Instagram and I titled it, I was like, ‘All Are Fucked,’” his voice caricatured to accentuate the pseudo-edginess of the statement. “And it was like ‘no, that’s stupid’… I erased it and put ‘All Are Saved’ to try to save that moment and to try to save myself from the negativity that was creeping into so much of my life, and it just kind of stuck. I was like, ‘Oh, this is a beautiful idea.’ Sometimes the most beautiful ideas, you feel like you didn’t actually have anything to do with them, they were just kind of broadcast into you, or through you.”
If you read an interview or piece about Changer, 2017’s follow-up to All Are Saved, you probably also read about its title, about how Thomas had gotten married, quit his desk job and moved to Montreal. What you may not have read is that “Changer” is also a reference to a song of the same name that Thomas wrote for a band he used to play in.
“It was one of the songs we wrote early on, and we only played it a couple times, but I was like, ‘I love that song! … I’m gonna keep it in the back of my mind for another time.’”
For a man who claims to have a difficulty with names, he’s chosen some awfully good ones. They lack presumptuousness while ringing with personal truth, two qualities that seem to lie at the core of Thomas’s entire pursuit as a musician. “I feel great for anyone who can navigate the music industry and still retain their sense of self,” he told me, earlier during the interview, before pausing for a moment. Then he continued, “That’s my goal. I don’t know if I’ve done it.”
Later in our conversation, he touched on a similar note when I asked him about the responsibility of artists to acknowledge the world politically and socially.
“I do think that there’s a responsibility for people to, if not speak from their political heart, to just actually speak from who they are, and tell the world who they are in as honest and straightforward terms as possible,” he said. “I do firmly believe that the personal is the political, and just the bravery in even making any song at all about how you’re doing and what you’re going through is a political act, and in that way, I’m trying to do my part.”
We talked about Frank Ocean’s Blonde — Thomas likened it to Pet Sounds in terms of cultural importance and called it his “hangover record” — in the same vein. “Blonde is such a raw, beautiful record … and it doesn’t feel like anything besides, ‘OK, this is my mind, this is where I’m at, this is my perspective, which is different from anybody else’s perspective in the world,’ and I think that’s political in itself,” he said.
Moving forward, to 2017, Thomas immediately mentioned Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me as one of his favorites “of the last many, many years.”
“I listened to it two times on tour and I can’t even actually talk about it without feeling like I want to cry … talk about a unique perspective, and a heart-ripping one. I can’t even imagine,” he trailed off, and I interjected with my memory of Mount Eerie’s performance at a festival called Waking Windows in Detroit this past summer. The venue’s manager had flown Elverum in from Oregon to play his songs for one night only. The crowd wound up just about knee-deep in their own tears.
“I don’t know how he could do it. I sometimes cry when I play because my songs are very personal and important to me. I can’t even get through that record without wanting to call everyone I’ve ever loved and apologize … The gift that is our very, very short time on this planet is completely — the point is driven home with that record,” Thomas said.
On to 2018 and Thomas told me his forthcoming record will be here in October. “It’s so very very different,” he told me. “I have nothing but happiness and joy to report, but my record is super sad.” Where much of the triumph and sorrow alike on All Are Saved was sourced from Thomas’s personal life, it sounds like this new album will offer a reaction to the 2016 U.S. election and the proceedings since then, though he was an observer abroad while it all unfolded.
He summed up his feelings on the matter with a pithy anecdote: “At a certain point into the Trump era, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t listened to Belle and Sebastian in a minute.’ Because it feels almost irresponsible to have happiness or be care-free.”
And if it feels irresponsible to listen to music that doesn’t in some way reflect the current state of affairs, then Thomas must have something to say about making music that doesn’t seem to acknowledge reality.
“I need to know what we can do to swing the pendulum back to at least where we feel less suicidal … I feel like all my time, from when I wake up to when I sleep, I have to be doing something to fight against the legalization of oppression of anybody who doesn’t fall into a strict red-state blueprint. So that’s kinda the vibe of my record,” he said.
Throughout our conversation, Thomas demonstrated an impressive awareness of himself and the world around him. Maybe it’s this hyper-awareness that comes through in his music as the irritating quality he identified earlier. It’s surely responsible for the sense of “a guy trying to catch his breath while he says everything on his mind,” evidenced not only by the pace of his lyrical delivery, but by the content. For people who like tracking along with an album’s lyrics as they listen, Thomas's catalog is a goldmine. He deftly weaves personal anecdotes with newly discovered universal truths in a way that feels not effortless, but ineffably natural. Despite his poetic prowess, though, Thomas will be the first to tell you that he’s only human, and he’ll tell you whether you ask or not. Thomas won’t ask for your attention, but you should give it to him anyway — not for his sake, but for yours.
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Ought (with Snail Mail and Fred Thomas)
Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit
Thursday @ 8 p.m.
$12.50 - $15.00