There’s lots of talk about King Tuff growing up on his just-released fourth album, The Other, but the story of Kyle Thomas’ maturation process started long before his fourth record.
In fact, it goes something like this: Raised in Vermont, he began writing songs in the fourth grade, started his first band at 13, and briefly helped run a DIY venue and art space called The Tinderbox. He released his critically lauded debut Was Dead in 2008 (which slacker-rock haven Burger Records reissued in 2013) and moved to Los Angeles, where he briefly shared a Laurel Canyon house with pre-Father John Misty Josh Tillman, and fell in with like-minded musicians. He then spent the next few years presenting himself as a lovably goofy, volume-to-11, PBR-guzzling, glam-meets-garage madman.
It’s easy to see where this recent King-Tuff-grows-up narrative sprang from. Prior to The Other, few people would have accused Thomas of being the most dapper man in the dive bar. Imagine fans’ surprise when he shed his orange jumpsuits, denim dungarees — sometimes worn without anything underneath — and novelty T-shirts for crisp, tailored suits.
“Getting a suit made for yourself is the best thing you could do — for a man or a woman,” he tells SF Weekly. “Look good, feel good, you know? It’s not that hard to be the best-dressed person in the room, because most people don’t try at all.”
This time, the clothes don’t necessarily make the man. The suits are evidence, but not the full picture of Thomas’ shifting mindset. They accompany his new fixations on spiritual matters and America’s rapidly growing list of social pathologies, all laid bare on The Other.
“It’s hard to ignore a lot of the shit that’s happening. Certain things kept coming out when I was writing: technology addiction and stuff like that,” says Thomas. “I don’t necessarily want to write songs about that or even listen to songs about that, but it was something I was struggling with so much that I just had to write about it.”
So he did. The Other addresses phone addiction on “Circuits in the Sand” — “We all thought we found paradise in the palm of our hand / But all they found in the future was / Circuits in the sand” — with that particular psych-folk sincerity reminiscent of mid-’90s Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Thomas’ anxieties don’t relent after the phones have powered down. “Psycho Star,” a zippy sci-fi track with a sparse, Talking Heads-inflected bassline, hinges on the unfortunate reality that humans are a scourge on an otherwise gorgeous blue marble.
Granted, Thomas’ outward-facing moments are firmly planted in the pop-psychology-meets-social-critique of Black Mirror and St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness”. To wit, “Circuits in the Sand” reminds us to step away from the hypnotizing blue glow but doesn’t attempt an intellectual dissection of the pathology at large. Both strategies have value.
In the four years separating The Other and 2014’s Black Moon Spell, Thomas didn’t grow up so much as he grew incapable of looking away from our ongoing national meltdown. (What thinking person didn’t?) He also spent a year on the road playing bass for Ty Segall’s Emotional Mugger tour, and credits stepping away from the microphone as crucial.
“I had to not be the boss for a minute and get back to having fun making music,” he says. “That was really key to being able to make another record at all.”
Touring Black Moon Spell, a record he made while already burnt out from a previous tour, had left Thomas exhausted. And while it took some time to will himself to tour the country again, Thomas thinks of these shows with brand new setlists and a new backing band as a “fresh start.”
The Other, along with Thomas’ switch from ripped vests to suits, cuts a distinct sonic profile from its predecessors. Whereas Black Moon Spell and 2012’s King Tuff were straightforward, glammed-up, reverb-slathered rock records, The Other is groovier, moodier, clear-eyed, and solitary. Thomas’ voice is singular and assured; characterizing The Other as garage rock feels inaccurate. Thomas never embraced the term, anyway.
“When I think of garage rock, I think of The Sonics,” he says. “I’ve never been a super garage-rock fan. I’ve just written songs and that’s what people called it.”
Those days are audibly over — albeit not totally abandoned, as proven by the sleazy opening guitar riff of “Ultraviolet.” This is still a King Tuff record, after all.
But it’s also a King Tuff record that’s growing out, wrestling with cosmic and earthly concerns, searching for answers, and dressing even better in the processes.
King Tuff with Cut Worms and SASAMI, Tuesday, June 5, 8 p.m., at The Independent; 628 Divisadero St. $18-$20; theindependentsf.com