Over the past decade, Pat Thomas has done more for Bay Area music than nearly anyone whose name is not Tom Donahue, Ralph J. Gleason, or Bill Graham. Steve Wynn, founding member of epochal L.A. guitar-rockers Dream Syndicate and an enduring solo artist, had this to say: "If Pat Thomas didn't exist, someone would have had to have invented him. Imagine a hybrid of Ralph Gleason, Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Albert Grossman, and Stokely Carmichael. Hurts my head to think about it. But Pat does all that and more, in a way that's effortless and natural."
As they say in the political arena, let's look at the record. In the late 1980s, Thomas founded the local label Heyday Records. If Heyday had done nothing but release Barbara Manning's tremendous solo album Lately I Keep Scissors, it still would occupy a soft spot in indie-rock history's heart of hearts. Fortunately, the label did lots more, documenting S.F.'s underground rock and folk scene with records by Sonya Hunter, Bedlam Rovers, and former Avengers lead singer Penelope Houston. It didn't stop there, either. Thomas' position as A&R in the international promotions department for German label Normal gave Bay Area acts international appeal. "The two years I spent in Germany [1992-1994] were an amazing time for San Francisco music, as many bands who hadn't sold too many records in America were now selling thousands in Germany and touring there often," Thomas recalls.
The '90s found Thomas returning to America and his home turf. He and ex-True West guitarist and Bay Area transplant Russ Tolman formed Innerstate, another label with a local orientation, releasing albums by Manning; Hunter; Sister Double Happiness and its singer Gary Floyd; Chuck Prophet; and powerpop auteur Chris Von Sneidern. In 2001, while running Innerstate, Thomas donned the hat of A&R assistant for Oakland-based Runt Distribution and its in-house reissue labels Water, DBK, and the vinyl-only imprint Four Men with Beards. There, he had a hand in reissuing dozens of classics by Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Television, Judee Sill, and S.F.'s own proto-retro-rockers the Flamin' Groovies, among many others. Last year, Thomas left the Runt cartel to pursue a master's degree in pop-culture studies so he can eventually teach.
"Oh, pshaw," you youthful piss-and-vinegar tyros scoff. "That's all well and good as a history lesson, but what's he done lately?" Pat Thomas is also a drummer, playing for local combo Birds of America and with Oakland alt-folk acoustic guitar wizard Sean Smith. Thomas also leads and produces local collective Mushroom, which has a flexible membership roster, albeit with frequent core guitarists Tim Plowman and Dan Olmsted and multi-instrumentalists Erik Pearson and Ralph Carney. The band is almost nostalgically song-oriented, intentionally evoking that period in music history Thomas calls "progressive rock." But get it straight — he means an era "when 'progressive' didn't mean Yes or Genesis, [when] it meant stretching the boundaries of rock and jazz in general." In that spirit, Mushroom's 2003 release Mad Dogs and San Franciscans is a set of covers of songs by Curtis Mayfield, Joe Cocker, and Spirit, sung by Gary Floyd. Conversely, last year's Yesterday I Saw You Kissing Tiny Flowers saw the band staking out ethereal loose-form psychedelia as defined by Daevid Allen-era Gong, pre-Meddle Pink Floyd, and Acid Mothers Temple. Other times, the 'Shroom does a keen balancing act: The cerebral post-rock of Tortoise and the trippy, open-ended Krautrock of Can is grounded by the soul-jazz earthiness of organ exemplar Charles Earland.
Music is not the only medium in which Thomas impacts the Bay Area culturally. Late last year he took over the "quarterly-ish" journal Ptolemaic Terrascope, published by Brit psych-wizard the Bevis Frond for the past 15 years. The most recent issue, #36, the first helmed by Thomas, features interviews with the Stooges' Ron Asheton; electronica artist Colleen; U.K. folk icons Shirley Collins and Davy Graham; Six Organs of Admittance; and Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party, alongside tons of reviews. In the future, however, the revolution(s) will be anthologized. "Spin, Magnet, and Harp have the indie music scene well covered, so I don't feel the need to cover that territory," Thomas says. While music will remain a focus of Terrascope, he says, it won't be the chief focus: "Even before the Beat era, the San Francisco Bay Area was a haven for rebels and misfits of all varieties, with a long tradition of social protest. I want to give an account of this area's counterculture — socially, politically, the myths and legends, of then and now."
Despite his new editorial duties, Thomas is not letting his performances slide — on Friday, April 11, Mushroom plays at Café du Nord. The band has an as-yet-untitled album in the can, whose modus operandi is "Indian raga/drone/folk-rock." Whatever musical and/or sociopolitical currents are reverberating through these parts, look around, and Pat Thomas will be there.
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