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Never Dead, King Tuff Is More Alive Than Ever Now

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Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff, has been playing a glorified version of scuzzy garage rock for more than a decade and on Sunday, he will perform his classic 2008 album, Was Dead, in its entirety at Burger Boogaloo. Initially released on a small, hometown label, Was Dead found new life after it was reissued as a cassette on Burger Records, the California outfit that stages Burger Boogaloo every year in Oakland’s Mosswood Park.

SF Weekly spoke with Thomas about Was Dead, his connection to Burger records and the sage advice he receives from the squirrels in his backyard.

So, it’s been more than a year since you released your latest album, The Other, and your touring cycle behind that record wrapped up a few months ago. What led you to do this one-off show at Burger Boogaloo?

Honestly, they’ve been asking me to do this for like, the past 10 years. I did one of the first ones, and that was the last time I played it, so it seemed like time to do it again. I love all these guys, and it just felt like this was a good time, especially playing Was Dead, because I never did anything for the 10-year anniversary of that one.

Right, the 10-year anniversary of Was Dead was last year. Did you choose the album because of its Burger Records roots?

I don’t really know. It was an idea that was brought up and I was like, oh that sounds like fun. There are a lot of songs on there that I’ve never played at all live, so that will be interesting. Burger really kind of created a lot of my fanbase by putting out that record, and they were definitely the biggest champions of it, so it seemed like a fun thing to do, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of their show.

How did Burger Records come to find out about Was Dead?

At the time, I don’t really know what year it was, maybe 2008 or 2009, that record came out on a small label — it was not publicized, it was very under-the-radar, and it kind of just got around to a few people here and there. But the Burger guys had somehow gotten it, and were fans, and I don’t know how they got my number, but they called me, out of the blue, one day and just asked if they could do a cassette out of it. I had no idea who they were or anything. They weren’t really anything at that point — I think it’s the 16th release on the label, and now they’re up to 1,000 or something. It was very out of the blue, and I just sort of started snowballing with all the stuff they were doing. I left Vermont and came out to California and kind of integrated into that whole scene. It was very fun times — it’s crazy to think it’s been 10 years already.

For many of your fans, Was Dead was their introduction to King Tuff. How important was that album in establishing you and the King Tuff aesthetic?

It represents a very specific time in my life when I made it, but it was also years in the making. I had another album called Mindblow that had come out before, and some of those songs made it on to Was Dead, and that album is from 2003. So, some of the songs are really old on it, and they were even old at the time I recorded it. There are other King Tuff albums before that even, but they were just very, very limited — like I was mailing CDRs to my friends. Was Dead was the first album that really felt cohesive to me.

As you mentioned, some of the songs on Was Dead are nearly 20 years old. What’s it going to be like playing those songs live for the first time in a while?

It’s going to be interesting to see if I can pull this off, because I’ve never even played some of those songs live before. I had to go back and learn them, and some of those songs are definitely up there, like “Just Strut” and “Connection” — those are really old songs. I’m up for the challenge and it seems fun, but it sounds like things could get … weird.

Have you been in the studio a bunch practicing those old tunes?

Oh, heavens, no. I don’t practice, really. Maybe a week before the show, I’ll figure out who my band is and then we’ll go from there. So yeah, it’s gonna sound perfect. Just like the album [laughs].

These full album shows are pretty en vogue right now. From what I’ve seen, artists tend to take different approaches to playing them live. Some play them in order according to their original track listing, others mix them up a bit. What are you planning for Was Dead?

I was thinking about that. Oftentimes, all the hits are at the beginning of the album, which is the case with mine. Usually, I gotta wait to play “Sun Medallion” until the very end of my set, whereas it’s the third song on this record. So, I don’t know, I haven’t really figured that out yet. Maybe I’ll play it backwards.

Are you going to play some other King Tuff songs outside of the Was Dead tunes?

I imagine there will be some extra spiciness thrown in.

You played at Huichica Music Festival in Sonoma last year, and you’re doing Burger Boogaloo this year. Both of these fests are smaller, non-corporate affairs. Do you prefer these events to the bigger, more blown-up festivals?

I definitely prefer them for sure. I like the kind of festivals that have a farm-y, family style vibe. But I do remember at Huichica last year some really annoying guy with a bucket hat getting on stage and dancing around. The danger with that festival is that everyone is wine drunk, and bucket hat guy was being an idiot and dancing around and he ended up falling on my guitar player and she jumped up and punched him. And then the bass player threw his hat across the field. So, those are some of the kind of dangers of the smaller festivals. Some people are respectful, and some people have no boundaries. We call those second type of people punishers. Don’t be punishers.

Anyone you’re particularly excited to see at this year’s Burger Boogaloo?

I haven’t even really looked at the lineup, to be honest. I’m excited to see Billy Childish, I know he’s playing one of the night shows. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of old friends playing, and that is usually the most fun thing about these festivals. Just seeing your friends you don’t normally see because everyone is on tour.

It’s been more than a year since your last album [2018’s The Other.] Are you going to get back in the studio soon to start working on the follow-up?

I really hope so. I’m getting back into the writing mode. After you finish an album cycle, there is this sort of vacuum effect, where you’re like, ‘OK, what now?’ It feels like you’re starting all over again, so it’s always a little confusing at the beginning. Like, ‘what am I doing, and why?’ My thing is, I just try and make things that I want to listen to and that get me excited. But right now, I’m mostly just watching the squirrels. I watch the squirrels and I try to understand what they’re telling me.

King Tuff, Sunday, July 7, 6 p.m., at Burger Boogaloo, Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster St., Oakland. $66-$199, burgerboogaloo.com

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