Fred Thomas

In a rare interview, the prolific musician sits down to discuss his time with Saturday Looks Good to Me, his creative process, and his cyclical youth.

Fred Thomas on Fogged Clarity

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Ben Evans: I’m always interested in the way emotion shapes a musician’s work. I’ve found that some artists approach music with more of a clinician’s eye for tone and cohesion, while others are more concerned with the raw release that playing music permits. How do you approach making your albums?

Through the waves of nausea I was like, “This is the best life I could hope for.”

Fred Thomas: That’s a good question, but it probably doesn’t fall into either of the criteria that you mentioned. I started playing music, as a lot of people did, in the punk and hardcore scene of early adolescence, and quickly at the same time found a home in improvisation and a love of early free jazz. And so I had this weird dichotomy going on where I wanted the fast and aggressive release of punk, but I also wanted to stretch out and explore the possibilities around me. So it’s always confused by that approach to music. To answer your question though, as formed from that approach to music, I just start playing and whatever happens that’s what the song is.

BE: What jazz musicians were you attracted to?

FT: I had a friend who was a roommate of mine who was about three or four years older and he was just really into early 60’s stuff like Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I kind of approached it the same way. There’s always this arc of disgust to curiosity to complete love with anything that you really love. For some people it starts out, “That’s annoying,” or “That’s kind of repulsive to me,” and then eventually they are obsessed with it, and that’s what it was for me with those artists and that kind of music.

BE: It’s funny, oftentimes music that you dislike upon the first, second, third or fourth listen, you later fall in love with.

FT: There is a reason you’re listening to it over and over again, even though it seemingly annoys you so much.

BE: Yeah, this free jazz, almost stream of consciousness approach to songwriting you take really seems to fit into your lyrical style. Your lyrics, especially in some of your solo work, they seem conversational with a heavy dose of literalism. Can you give me an idea of where you’re writing from and what you hope to accomplish with some of the prose in your work?

FT: I couldn’t completely say I understand it myself either. I definitely, like I said, start going, and I find that when you do that whatever your thinking about the most comes out in what you create. Whether it’s musical, lyrical, whatever kind of art you’re making. If you’re just expounding on your feelings, whatever’s weighing heaviest on your mind is going to come to the surface, so I think it makes sense that a lot of literal prose comes out when you’re going at it that way.

I write songs a lot of the time about either things that are happening to me in a very overt, direct manner like people’s names, situations, places… don’t care, everybody is represented as actual literal figures, or a complete fiction that’s based on something –maybe the way I want things to be, maybe the way things are, but with kind of a different take. It’s either one extreme or the other. It’s either like, “Yes, this is exactly what’s happening!” and it’s no holds are being barred, or it’s kind of just utter nonsense. I have definitely had people come up to me and say, “That song about that one situation, I could tell you were singing it straight from your heart.” And I’m like, “Nope, that’s just a dumb song I made up. I m sorry to let you down like that.”

BE: Talk to me about the song on your album Night Times that talks about attending a blind play where there were costs cut on costume design.

FT: Yeah, complete fabrication. I wanted to write a song for this kind of music I started, and I was staying in Olympia, Washington for a little while at the K Records studio ’cause I just got done with a big tour that ended in Olympia. So I was exhausted and sick, and I was sleeping all day while the people were working upstairs, and then by the night time I’d wake up and play on the piano and dick around in the studio and cough a lot. And that was a song I made up on the piano at K, and was like “Oh this song’s so good. I wonder if I should write something.” I started writing this thing and I wanted to write a song that references my friend Amy because her name alliterates with this one thing…But yeah, the whole song, it never happened. I don’t smoke pot, Amy’s married, she certainly isn’t having trysts with anybody or one night stands, which is kind of…for those who haven’t heard the song…it’s this weird stoner’s tale about this completely impossible thing….that kids would be doing a play for blind people? That doesn’t even make sense. I don’t even think there even is a center for the blind in the town where I lived. That’s just something that came out of my head.

BE: So that’s where the freeing element of music comes in: for you to be able to just pen a tale and bring it to life at the piano as you’re dead sick in Olympia, Washington.

I was like, “Well, I’m actually thinking about how I have terrible nightmares every night about violence, and I’m thinking about the breakdown of the human body, and I don’t really feel like singing about happy shit right now.

FT: I think that’s what draws people to music even as children. People start their love affair with songwriting when they’re just kids singing into the tape deck, or just singing into the iPhone now. I have so many friends who are like “Yeah, I made tapes of fake radio shows with my sister” or, “I had a band that was just me in my head and here’s the tape of it.” Or, just this crazy, outlandish stuff that is purely from your imagination and anybody can do it. It’s really one of the most beautiful things.

BE: You were the one saying that you have a tape of girls talking about boys and why they like them or didn’t like them that you play at shows… Am I recalling that right?

FT: Yeah, my really good friend Amber left the tape in our car – Amber plays in Swimsuit with me and we have a band together called Damn Dogs; we’re very very close – this tape of her and her friends. I think she was eight, and having fallen so deeply in love with her as a person that hearing the young her taunting her friends and being like, “Say it in the tape recorder! Say why you don’t like Dan Evans!” It is just heart melting. It’s such an amazing thing and I just play it through delay at City Center shows, and I’m sure it came off as just a spectral sonic background for the audience, but for me it was definitely a tribute to this person I was missing very much while I was on tour and also just made me think about the beauty of youthful innocence. And it’s just great, y’ know?

BE: Yeah. Especially in your Saturday Looks Good to Me stuff there seems to be a large element of nostalgia in that work, kind of harkening back and imagining adolescence. Am I on point there?

FT: Well, yeah, I’ve kind of had this thing for that as long as I can remember. People I see sometimes, people I went to high school with I see, and they’re like, “Hey, what’s going on?” and I’m like, “You remember when I was fifteen and I was in bands and trying to play music with people?” and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” “Well it’s almost twenty years later and I’m still doing the exact same thing.” And maybe they’ve moved on and have more normal lives, or more traditional family structures forming, and I’m still stuck in the excitement and rapture of these feelings that started when I was very young. So for me, it is a nostalgia, but it’s also this weird, potentially unhealthy – but who knows – trap of being like, “Yeah, I still play music. The same way I ever have been.” I’m still playing the same types of shows that I did when I was first starting, and I’m no less excited about it, and a lot of my audience is people who are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one who are just getting into it for the first time, and I’m connecting with people who are significantly younger than me, because I’m thirty-four now, and so I still have this – it’s sort of nostalgia, but sort of like an on-going nostalgia. It’s hard to get away from. You know what I mean?

BE: It’s a cyclical youth.

FT: Yeah, exactly. Cyclical youth. It’s much better said, and much more succinctly said. Thanks.

BE: A few years ago you made a move from Michigan to New York City. How did that transition affect your work, and do you ever find yourself feeling lost, or somehow less artistically relevant in a big city like New York?

FT: Well, I don’t want to bore you with the time-line, but I don’t live in New York anymore. I lived in Portland, Oregon for a minute, I lived in New York for two or three years, I kind of floated for a little while, and I’ve definitely been back in Michigan for over a year now, but there was definitely a big shift in what was happening moving around for all that time. I had toured a lot before then, and spent years and years on tour, but there was always an address, and there was always, like, the record shop I could go to and the bar where my friends would be, and I could always call that home. But for a while I felt very displaced, it didn’t feel home, and New York especially… I feel New York is such an amazing place and a place I think everybody should spend some time – whether or not it’s good time – I think everybody should spend some time living there, ’cause it really can… It’s just not like any other place, and I was certainly challenged by trying to make ends meet in New York, trying to just deal with the whole unending hustle that New York City proved to be for me.

BE: Yeah, and I hear that from a lot of people.

FT: It’s the classic story, right?

BE: Yeah. Although it’s this hyper-stimulated place and so much is going on, really the only place to look is inward after a while, and I think you can do quite a bit of self-reflection or grinding and hustling, as you suggested.

FT: Well, I felt like it was a hyper-stimulated, over-saturated, full, full place, yet I didn’t have a job for a while there, which is murder, because it costs so fucking much money. But I would just see the same people all the time. I’m not sure the exact dimensions, but I think it’s around nine square-miles for Manhattan and Brooklyn, so I would bump into people as much as I would in Ypsilanti, and I was like, “This is kind of weird.” Or people are always visiting, so it’s like, “Oh, here I am at a show and I know fifty-percent of the audience from all over the world. This is really, really strange. It just doesn’t make any sense.” So with the feelings of displacement and big city existential angst, there’s also this almost comical… Yeah, it’s just a little town that thinks really big, and to me, looking inward was definitely one of the results of that living period. And that’s when I started doing City Center, which was way different than anything I’ve done before, and definitely a direct result of not really knowing what to do with myself, not really having any money to do anything, not really having the space for a bunch of friends to jam with. I just was in headphones every single day, trying to connect with some really, really displaced feelings, and I thought it was really positive. I thought it was really a success for me.

Some people like to hang out and socialize and go to parties, but I would much rather make some recordings for people that I love, y’ know?

BE: What were you able to do musically in City Center that weren’t able to when playing with Saturday Looks Good to Me, or by yourself?

Maybe they’ve moved on and have more normal lives, or more traditional family structures forming, and I’m still stuck in the excitement and rapture of these feelings that started when I was very young.

FT: Well, it’s really strange. City Center just started as… a friend of mine was doing a CMJ showcase, and she was like, “I really want you to play this. I really like your songs.” I was like, “I’m so sick of my songs. I’m so sick of singing these songs I wrote five years ago” that to me just range kind of phony or love struck about feelings I didn’t have anymore. And I’d been playing this kind of like weird, troubled music in my bedroom, and she was like, “Just do whatever you want. You’re going to play first of seventeen bands anyway.” I was like, “Okay.” Call it City Center, and do something for it, and that was November of 2007 at the Cake Shop, and we did this… There were songs in there, but it was really a very emotional, kind of experimental thing, and everybody hated it who was there to see me play songs that sounded like Jonathan Richman waxing nostalgic or waxing heart-struck, and for whatever reason – maybe I was being contrary or something – but I was like, “Yes! This is what I want. I want to say goodbye to this feeling I felt kind of trapped in.” Saturday Looks Good to Me would go on tour, and people would be like, “This isn’t the band I like. You’re not playing… Where’s the girl singing about cupcakes and bobby socks?” and whatever the fuck. I was like, “Well, I’m actually thinking about how I have terrible nightmares every night about violence, and I’m thinking about the breakdown of the human body, and I don’t really feel like singing about happy shit right now. I have some way more damaged feelings that I want to express for myself. And I was a little bit bitter and obtrusive about it because I was reacting, basically, to people saying, “You should do this because we like it,” and basically saying, “I don’t care what you like,” and “Fuck you! I hope you don’t like this.”

BE: And it’s cathartic.

FT: It’s so cathartic, and it worked, because a lot of people didn’t like it. It was cool.

BE: Did you consciously want to reshape your identity then?

FT: No, I didn’t really even think about it like that, because I just felt like… It wasn’t for me a reshaping, because I felt like the last several Saturday Looks Good to Me records I was trying to warm people up to the idea of all the stuff I felt like I was interested in the entire time. Like the early stuff was a little bit lo-fi and had some dub influences, so I’d like to do something that’s really, really messed-up sounding, and it was met with lukewarm reception, so it was like, “Now that the band is kind of done, I’m just going to take this as far in whatever direction I want it to be.” And it wasn’t necessarily looking to re-invent or to even try anything new. It was just going to shed a skin a little bit and be like, “Yeah, if you were wondering if I’m ever going to do the exact same record that you heard again, the answer is, ‘No, I’m not going to do the exact same record again’.”

BE: Are you still playing with City Center? And how many bands are you in right now?

FT: Well, I don’t want to embarrass myself by talking about all the bands because I definitely have… I haven’t had a job for a long, long, long time and I’ve just been working on music for a long time. Not successfully, mind you. It’s definitely been one of the more trying times financially, because I haven’t been touring, but I have been jamming with people all the time. City Center toured for the majority of 2009. I’m in a band called Swimsuit, we’ve been playing a lot and touring, and people have been kind of interested in that band regionally, and we’ve done some shows out in New York, and we’re getting ready to do a record and a full tour. I have a band called Mighty Clouds, which is basically like a duo between myself and Betty, who was the main vocalist for Saturday Looks Good to Me. She lives in Sweden, and we made a record recently, and we’re going to tour Europe in March and April. Here in town, like different noise stuff all the time. I have a band called Damn Dogs and a project with a friend from Kentucky that we do through the mail called Settle.

BE: That’s cool, man.

FT: I don’t like talking about it sometimes because I feel like it’s almost like a gimmick. Like, “Oh, yeah. I’m in like fifty bands.” That’s boring. Who cares? I’m sure that if you could only praise even one of them, it’s good. Y’ know?

BE: It’s what you love, though.

FT: I know. I totally… I like all of them, but it’s basically… it’s not really for any sort of press release, y’ know? It’s hard for me to talk about it and not feel like I’m trying to sell it to people, ’cause I really am not. Some people like to hang out and socialize and go to parties, but I would much rather make some recordings for people that I love, y’ know? So that’s how it happens for me.

BE: What are some of the best stories you’ve accumulated over the years being on the road and playing with people? What are a couple of moments that just stand out in your mind as being, I don’t know, magical or significant?

FT: Well, the magical moments are so many. I think about… there’s an Elliott Smith song that says, “Happy and sad come in quick succession.” I think he’s probably talking about addiction, or maybe not, but I always thought of that any time I’d be on tour because it would be these incredible mood swings. I definitely… I had this a moment at one point… this spanned-out moment. We were traveling. I can’t remember where. Somewhere in the United Kingdom on the first Saturday Looks Good to Me tour overseas, and that just blew my mind completely that we could even do that, this kind of like scrappy band of basically punks was able to get it together enough to cross the pond, y’ know? And we were taking this long ride on a ferry, and everyone got sick as hell, myself included. I just remember being in the car just trying not to vomit, and we looked over out the window and in this field, there was a flock of birds, seemingly thousands of black birds were in a migrating cloud together, and it was the most calming, natural sort of reset you could possibly hope for. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Whoa!” I’ve seen birds flying around, but I’ve never seen a cloud of four thousand birds all the same, all moving in unison, and it kind of struck me that here I am in this foreign place I’ve never been to just to play music for people, and they’re excited about it, and I get to… I don’t know… Through the waves of nausea I was like, “This is the best life I could hope for.”

BE: Do you aim to get back to that point, where you can be in a project that is as big as Saturday Looks Good to Me, and go do some of the same stuff you were able to do when you were touring with them?

FT: Well I don’t know. I never thought about it in terms of a scale like that, because it just doesn’t seem to be a healthy way to look at things. I definitely… People sometimes ask me about Saturday Looks Good to Me as though it was…

BE: Your prime?

I don’t really feel like keeping things in very much in any of my songs, and I guess if it’s something where I’m just going to be by myself in a room, where there are even fewer walls. I just let it all go.

FT: Maybe that, but maybe more like I think that other people think it was more like a bigger deal than I did, because I feel like I’m still constantly going and playing shows and doing stuff all the time and touring a lot, and I just feel like there’s… maybe it was just more like a moment that I wasn’t recognizing. I have conversations with other people who are in bands that started in like 2001, and kind of toured and reached their apex in the 2004 era when people were still buying records and CDs, and it seemed like there were less than forty billion bands. It seemed like you’d actually be excited about it and not like, “Oh, another show tonight.” It seemed more like a thing where we’d go to places then and it would be like, “Oh we’re so excited you’re coming! We heard your song on the college radio, and it’s good!” And now it’s the kind of thing where it’s like, “Yeah, we were going to try to swing by your show tonight, but we downloaded your first five demos, and I’ve got to do my DJ night tonight at someone’s house in this weird crunk bass-off down the street.” And so I think it’s just a different time, and I prefer to think about it in those terms, rather than like, “Why am I not more famous?” or “Why am I not selling tickets or records?” I never really felt like that was actually happening. I feel bad to actually break it down to numbers and be like this is the amount of records sold, or people who actually bought T-Shirts or saw shows because that’s disgusting to me.

BE: It also minimizes the importance of the music, which is the only thing that really should matter.

FT: Yeah. Definitely I feel like that’s right on and that’s what I’m trying to work towards, because I feel like a lot of bands that move me so much, sometimes it’s about the music and sometimes it’s not. I love certain personalities, and a certain… Some bands, I can listen to their records all day long over and over and over again, and I’d never want to see them play. I don’t think I’d ever want to be like a fan of, like, the Beach Boys, in the way that I’d want to go check out the show. But I’ve listened to those records religiously, and sometimes I’m like… I just want to look at this amazing Aphex Twin record, and I don’t really want to listen to it right now. I just want to feel the cultural elements of what it means to see a record cover that looks like this, maybe hear the first thirteen seconds of the song. I don’t know. I don’t know if that even applies to what we’re talking about, but I feel like music is this unnamable thing, and what makes the band big or not big doesn’t even really apply anymore.

BE: There’s so much that lives within the music, in your thoughts of listening to a record, like… I don’t even have an album player, but I ordered Blue by Joni Mitchell on vinyl two nights ago just because I wanted to have it.

FT: It’s a perfect record. I mean, you just want to stare at it sometimes.

BE: Yeah.

FT: It’s good.

BE: In listening to your solo records, I’ve found that there’s a greater degree of sophistication there, a sharper vision, I think, than in the Saturday Looks Good to Me albums. Do you prefer working by yourself, and do you feel as if your solo LPs like Night Times and Flood are more intimate records?

FT: Well, I guess that would be hard for me to say. I love pretty much most of… at a point I love most of the music I’ve put out. I had to care about it to some degree to release it, and I don’t really ever revisit stuff all that much, but I do remember feeling more pressure, or intensity about making the Saturday Looks Good To Me records– these perfect capsules of… I wanted to have every sound imaginable. I wanted… It would start with a demo, just me singing and playing guitar, singing and playing piano, and after a time there were eighteen instruments on it, and a string section, and several thousand backing tracks, and so maybe a little bit of the intimacy was lost in the production and the mayhem of it all. Whereas for the solo records it was really just like you and I talking right now, except there’s like a song to it, and I guess that I’m doing all the talking. But for me it seems more conversational and more… I don’t really feel like keeping things in very much in any of my songs, and I guess if it’s something where I’m just going to be by myself in a room, there are even less walls. I just let it all go.

BE: I must say I’d been familiar with the Saturday Looks Good to Me albums before this interview, but this really gave me an opportunity to check out your solo albums, and I really like them. I think they’re very, very well done. When do you plan on releasing another one of those?

FT: Well, thank you so much for checking it out. I record music pretty much every day, or every week. Something gets put down on tape, and I have so many songs, and for every one song that finds the light of day, there’s about five or six that just get thrown out, or put somewhere to be reworked again. So I’ve got a bunch of songs for a solo record that I’m just waiting for the best articulations of. And with Night Times, the last record I did, I think it might be one of the stronger solo records I’ve done. But I just couldn’t really be bothered to deal with like, “Okay, I’m going to master it, or I’m going to make CDs, or try to get a label to put it out, or make some artwork for it,” but I was like, “let’s finish it on Monday and put it on the Internet on Tuesday.” And I feel that people really responded to that in a big way, and people seem to like that record a lot. I’ve gotten lots of comments like, “Oh I really like the songs! Thanks for giving that away.” And with City Center blog… I’ll go on record as saying that the Deerhunter blog was the direct and only inspiration for City Center starting a blog where we gave away free mp3s every couple of days. Any time I recorded any song with City Center, in the beginning, I would just put it online, and that’s because I was so taken with Bradford Cox, not as much his music as him being like, “Oh yeah. I made this song and I might be in a band that could easily sell it to you, but I’m just going to give it to you because, why not?” And I love that. I think that’s where music’s going. So I stripped that idea and stole it and put my own name on it, and so I got really into… every time I’m working on something, it’s mostly free, online, so I’ll probably just keep doing that and maybe start leaking songs out as they go.

BE: Well’s it’s nice to have that communal feel, and I do totally agree, that’s where music and literature and poetry are going, but at the end of the day, I mean, you’ve got to get paid. You’re in seventeen bands and you’ve released this great catalog of work, and I hear you saying, “Well it’s a grind right now,” so how do you reconcile that? How do we, I guess, reconcile that?

FT: That’s the question with no answer. This is the ultimate punk moment I’ve been waiting for… We have the tools now, that anybody… the barricades between audience and performers are broken down. That was the goal for me all throughout high school and college, and to this day, and now it’s here! And so it’s hard for me to feel too bad about eating beans and rice every day, because I’m stoked about it. I think it’s so amazing that I mean everybody has access – I guess not everybody, because not everyone owns a computer, not everyone has internet savvy; there’s definitely issues of class and other stuff that goes into that – but if you’re already into the Zombies, and you want to download everything they’ve ever done, you can do that, and you don’t have to be smarter than someone, or cooler than someone, or more attractive than someone, or wealthier than someone to do it. You can just fucking do it. And I’m happy to… my passion and my heart is in music, but if I have to find some other way to get by because music is free, that’s totally fine.

Fred Thomas is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist living in Michigan. Thomas has released several solo albums, and is the former frontman for the acclaimed band Saturday Looks Good to Me. He is currently involved in the musical projects Swimsuit, City Center, and Mighty Clouds, among others.