Interview: King Tuff reaches out towards ‘The Other’

Some people call life’s mysterious source of inspiration providence; King Tuff calls it The Other.

Rewind to the Vermont artist’s 2014 album Black Moon Spell and project leader Kyle Thomas had curated one hell of an image for himself. The record’s shimmering crystal ball and reflective foil album art mimicked the spooky-psychedelica it housed on the inside. Ironically, in 2018, Black Moon Spell has become a lesson for Thomas in how not to make an album.

“With the last record, going into it [I thought] ‘I should make this rock album’ because I thought that’s what people wanted. That was not a good way to go about it because I just didn’t feel inspired by it, in the end,” Thomas tells Vanyaland. “But, if anything it was good to make that album to learn not to do it that way.”

After taking a few years off from touring, he was poised for his “psychic reset,” and for Thomas, the way to kickstart his career was to pen a ballad about being at rock bottom, looking up and reaching out.

When he released “The Other,” the title track of his 2018 album, instead of ripping out a new garage rock gem, he set a sparse, contemplative serenade into the world with the goal of creating something that was “as different as possible” from his catalogue to date.

“I think the idea behind [releasing ‘The Other’ first] is that it was sort of like a palate cleanser in a way to kind of signal a change,” Thomas adds. “If I had just put out ‘Psycho Star’ first, that song is definitely very different, but it’s still rock in some way, it still has a full band.”

With The Other set free as of April, Thomas embarks on his North American tour this spring, pulling up to Brighton Music Hall this Sunday (May 20) with Brooklyn’s Cut Worms. Read on to learn about how Thomas “tackled that shit and got over it” to reach this new chapter in the King Tuff archives.

Victoria Wasylak: When you were putting this album together and you were picking which single you wanted to release first — which is “The Other,” the title track — was that difficult? The whole album is a departure from what you’ve been doing, but that song in particular is a larger departure from what you’d been working on in the past.

Kyle Thomas: I think the idea behind [releasing “The Other” first] is that it was sort of like a pallet cleanser in a way to kind of signal a change. If I had just put out “Psycho Star” first, that song is definitely very different, but it’s still rock in some ways, it still has a full band. I really just wanted to do something as different as possible. That song, just lyrically, it kind of encompasses the theme of the record, so it just made sense to put it out as the first song on the record.

I know that you had previously said it’s a song about hitting rock bottom, but on the flip side, the concept of “The Other” is where songs and art comes from, something mysterious. So is it a positive song or a negative song?

It’s a very positive song. I think people maybe misread the quote. The song starts off at rock bottom, and by the end of the song, I’ve kind of found my way. That’s where it starts but it ends up in a different place.

Reading some past interviews with you about this album, I know you had talked about how you felt that you had kind of become a character or a persona, and that was never really meant to happen. Was there a definite moment when you said “that’s it, this isn’t right, this isn’t what I wanted for myself”?

I think that it just came at the end of the last touring cycle of my last record, when I just didn’t feel connected to the music anymore. I didn’t feel inspired by the music I was playing and I just knew that I had to find a new way.

Do you feel like you had gotten pigeonholed over time?

Maybe in my mind, I don’t know if my fans or anyone was actually pigeonholing me, but I definitely felt that way. With the last record, going into it [I thought] ‘I should make this rock album’ because I thought that’s what people wanted. That was not a good way to go about it because I just didn’t feel inspired by it, in the end. But, if anything it was good to make that album to learn not to do it that way.

Was it nerve-racking to go into this album thinking “screw it, I’m going to go into this, doing bona fide whatever I want?” Or maybe it felt great?

It was the best feeling ever. It felt like I did when I was first making music and nobody was listening. I tried to come at it from that angle — “what would I make if I was making this for myself?” which is what I think everyone should do. Make the music you want to hear, that excites you, or the art — whatever it is you do — just do it for yourself.

With Lady Gaga’s last album, she said something extraordinarily similar — she said something like “this would be the music I would be writing if nobody knew who I was or if didn’t have any real fans and was kicking around from dive bar to dive bar.” But a lot of people didn’t like that because they feel that “no, we’re coming to see you because this is what you’ve created for yourself thus far.” Have you gotten that reaction at all?

I guess it’s still too early in the game to know — I haven’t even played any shows yet really to interact with people in that way, so we’ll see. I’m sure there will be some of that, but if somebody’s a true fan of mine, they’ll be with me for the journey.

How are you looking at touring this time around? I know that “touring to death” is a big reason for why you came to make this album in the way you did to begin with. Did you book fewer shows or put more time in between them?

The whole thing really feels like a new chapter, so in that way, it’s really exciting. I haven’t toured for a few years, so I feel ready for that. But I have a new band, and the new songs are much more true to my actual life, so I think singing them is going to feel much more genuine.

I don’t know if you called it this, or if another publication did, but this album was a “psychic reset” for you. Do you feel that you’ve done this reset once, and now you’ll never have to do it again, or do you feel like it’s something you’re going to keep doing throughout your career as things change?

I mean I’ve definitely already done it numerous times with King Tuff. That first album was called Was Dead, which is a reference to that. I started King Tuff when I was 18 and I made about three or four records and I just burned CDs for my friends. Then I gave up on it for a few years, and then when I came back and made King Tuff’s Was Dead, the idea was “this is something that was dead that I’m bringing back to life.” So it’s interesting that it keeps happening to me [laughs]. Hopefully if I keep up just exploring and trying new things, that’s the key to it, that’s the key to keeping it going.

It does feel like a turning point for this project because it’s just kind of opening it up to sound any number of different ways, whereas before it seemed like it had to be sort of in this one vein, this rock and roll type vein. Now it feels like it can be anything. So I think it is a turning point in that way, and that feels really exciting to me.

I even read that while you were working on the album, you were listening to everything but rock.

I just got bored with it, you know? I just love finding new sounds and exploring different genres. I like every genre of music, I can find something I love in every genre.

What are you hoping people will take away from the album? For you, it’s probably an enormous sigh of relief, but also, the subject matter of the album gets kind of heavy.

I just hope it inspires people to face their own fears with creativity. I think that breaking through those fears is the way to get places in life, to just tackle that shit and get over it, which is what a lot of it [the album] is about. I hope that it [encourages] people to do that in their own lives, because that’s what I had to do.

KING TUFF + CUT WORMS :: Sunday, May 20 at Brighton Music Hall, 158 Brighton Ave. in Allston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $18 in advance and $20 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Brighton Music Hall event page :: Featured photo by Olivia Bee