Power-Pop Wonder King Tuff Talks Surrendering Control and the Magic of Trash
Jesse Spears King Tuff plays June 1 at the New Parish in Oakland
Kyle Thomas is the singer, songwriter, and sole permanent member of King Tuff. His first album, facetiously titled Was Dead, garnered a rabid cult following, despite it being so difficult to get a hold of. Fans have so quickly snatched up each limited vinyl pressing that they continue to command high prices online, and Burger Records has repressed the cassette version six times. Was Dead reveals an impeccable pop sensibility that tastefully recalls cult glam and power-pop, but the lyrics assert King Tuff's proclivity towards magic, surreal imagery, and planting his singular freak flag.
Sub Pop noted King Tuff's charm (and sudden popularity), and released his newest, self-titled album this week. Boasting thick production courtesy of The Go's Bobby Harlow, King Tuff is a dynamic sophomore release that showcases Thomas' subtle acoustic psych, blown-out power pop a la Redd Kross, and glitter-laden jams evoking lost Slade B-sides. From the side of a street somewhere in Los Angeles, Kyle Thomas recently let us in on his unconventional ascension, new album and the importance of garbage on the sidewalk. King Tuff performs the final night of The Go! Go! festival in Oakland on June 1 at the New Parish with Hunx & His Punx, Shannon & The Clams, The Bobbyteens, and King Lollipop.
Hello Kyle. So, who's in your band for this upcoming tour?
It's going to be Magic Jake on the bass with Matt and Thomas from Audacity on guitar and drums.
You've had a revolving cast of musicians accompany you live and on recordings. How much does whatever band you're playing with affect your writing or performance?
Each player will do the same part in a different way and bring a different energy. I'm trying to get a more solid group together, which is taking a while. I write everything by myself though.
Is it important to play with people who just do what they're told?
I'm totally open to people adding their own style to it. It's just a matter of finding people whose style I like.
Was Dead has a pretty convoluted pressing history. It came out in multiple limited vinyl editions that are now being sold at collector's prices and has a cassette version on Burger. How do you feel about it having such unusual distribution?
I wish it was more easily available. That's something I've been trying to work on, but it's becoming a pain in the ass. It wasn't purposefully made to be hard to get. It bothers me in the sense that people without money can't afford it. It's flattering, though.
What's the biggest difference between working with a tiny independent like Burger and Sub Pop, which is as big as possible while still claiming independence?
Both labels are super awesome, with super awesome people who want to get stuff done. The biggest difference is that Sub Pop is already established, but working with Burger seems like we're part of something. They're growing and I'm growing with them. They're my friends and we're doing it together.
Was Dead was recorded by yourself on an 8-track, and the newest album was done with a producer. What's the greatest difference between those two recording approaches?
Well, everything before this album I've done myself with total control. I made demos for this album in the same way I did for Was Dead. I wanted to see what would happen if I worked with someone else and gave up control. It was completely different, because I was just the artist and had no say over which takes we were going to keep. It was kind of like recording in the dark. I wasn't hearing mixes of anything. I had to put my total faith in the producer, Bobby Harlow, which was really scary and hard but it paid off in the end.
Were there ever times that Bobby Harlow made a decision that offended your artist sensibilities?
Oh, definitely. I wanted to put solos all over the album and he insisted on keeping it as simple as possible, which I appreciated because I like things to be as simple as possible, too. When you're making it, though, you have all of these crazy ideas. The other thing was that he really pushed for having the softer songs on the record. I originally intended to make the album straight-up rock the entire time, but he really pushed to have the other side of my songwriting represented. That definitely made it more of a well-rounded album.
I would definitely say so. I think that "Unusual World" is one of the strongest tracks and also the mellowest. What can you tell me about the lyrics or inspiration behind that song?
That's definitely one of my favorites too. Those softer songs are actually my favorite songs. I write songs like that, but I wouldn't necessarily consider them to be King Tuff songs. The song is about viewing the world as the magical place that it is. If you look for beauty, magic, and art in the world, it's everywhere. [It's even in] shitty man-made things like a piece of trash on the sidewalk. If you take it out of context and look at it as a weird object, it becomes unusual and strange. If you were an alien you wouldn't know what it was. It's about looking at the world through their eyes.
What you say about magic is interesting. I would say that magic and the supernatural is a theme in your art and music. What is it about those things that appeal to you?
Like I said, I try to view the world as a place of mystery. I don't like science because I don't think it makes sense to put a definition on everything. It's a lot more exciting to think of things as mysterious. It's all magic to me.