Rock ‘n’ Roll is King.
King Tuff, That Is.
My first encounter with King Tuff was when he/the band opened for Mike Watt at The EARL a couple of years ago. As soon as I walked into the club’s back room I knew something different was afoot: Over half the crowd was young and beautiful – not exactly the schlumpy middle-aged set you’d expect for a Watt show. King Tuff, who the stylish youngsters were there to see, was nearing the end of the set and the crowd was digging it. It was one of those eureka moments where you realize you’re seeing the hot new up-and-comers in their element. Sure, I’d read about King Tuff and was expecting some kind of hipster/neo-garage thing. But the band was delivering something more like energized classic rock with hooks galore.
Later I checked out the self-titled album on Sub Pop. Yeah, the music was kind of dreamy and introspective, folky even, punctuated by a handful of more riff-oriented songs. I understood why people liked it. It was better than OK, but not quite great.
None of this could have prepared me for the new album, Black Moon Spell, which is a total home run. The album, in contrast to its antecedent, is a total rocker. This is not to say that it is by any means “heavy.” Black Moon Spell rocks in the same way that Badfinger, Cheap Trick and Big Star rock. The songs are short, crunchy and melodic. Each of the 14 tracks achieves its purpose by laying down a solid groove, reeling in the listener with a catchy, memorable chorus, and finally adding that special something with a bridge that goes in a slightly different direction – only to reinforce the awesomeness of the chorus that booms back in at the end. In this way, each song is a mini-symphony that sounds deceptively simple. And the guitars are loud. This is perfection.
In the months since the release of Black Moon Spell, King Tuff has gotten surprisingly popular. Not that King Tuff shouldn’t be popular. But isn’t it amazing when the proverbial masses decide to like something that’s actually good? Then again, any upsurge in popularity = hype = an eventual dumbing down, right? Well, maybe it’s not really that simple.
Of course, notoriety comes with a price. Auteur Kyle Thomas more-or-less is King Tuff. And the King Tuff image has been deftly manipulated by those master manipulators at Sub Pop – much in the same way that the label fostered reductive, easily-digestible imagery of earlier artists like Nirvana and, especially, Tad. King Tuff is being pushed as kind of a slacker/stoner/lo-fi genius type, a pop-savant noble savage or an eloquent Spicoli for the Urban Outfitters generation. Sure, it’s an appealing image. And to a degree, it’s working.
So, is King Tuff a band, a persona, or Kyle Thomas himself?
“It seems to be all three of those things,” says Thomas, who is surprisingly articulate and careful with his words – something a slacker/stoner probably wouldn’t do. “King Tuff started off as just me as a name I created to record my songs with. Now it’s something bigger. It’s kind of taken on its own life. I go through waves with it. At times I don’t feel like King Tuff at all and at other times it’s like, OK – that’s me. Now I have a steady band and they are also King Tuff. It’s more of an amorphous thing.”
Granted, creating a larger-than-life is part and parcel of promoting and selling an act. And to keep creating music, artists have gotta move some units. But I worry that the stoner image might end up being something of an onus for Thomas.
And then there’s the matter of the song, “Alone and Stoned,” from the 2012 album. For better or worse, it’s become King Tuff’s signature song. And yeah, it’s a damned good song. Still, the song seems like a bit of prefab, self-conscious mythmaking – albeit with a very catchy hook.
“’Alone and Stoned’ can be a bit of a burden,” says Tomas, amusedly. “Not because of the drug reference exactly. You know, a lot of times performers’ most beloved songs are the ones they despise playing the most. So that one drives me crazy a bit. I don’t exactly love playing it, but it is what it is: People are into it. And when I wrote it I was coming from a genuine place. I try not to think too much about this stuff (laughing). That was in a different part of my life. I still smoke weed sometimes but I’m not saying people should do it. I mean, even in that song it’s both pro-weed but questioning it at the same time.
“The way I’m perceived might be a bit too much, though,” Thomas continues. “I guess because I don’t wear a suit and I have long hair and don’t work a day job exactly, people think of me as a slacker. But I work a lot harder than a lot of other people I guess. People are gonna pin these ideas on you and you just have to deal with it.”
For King Tuff, the accelerating media exposure is a culmination of years of hard and steady work. It’s not like the band (and the man) is a proverbial “overnight sensation.” But 2014 was especially demanding – perhaps too much so. And the nature of fame in the digital era is extremely invasive. Still, Thomas says that he hasn’t had any stalkers yet.
“I feel like I’ve kind of spent the last ten years becoming famous – or kind of famous,” says Thomas. “But it’s not that invasive. The people that are into what I do are cool. They’re not too pushy. I haven’t experienced that much weird stuff. It’s not that scary.
“Sometimes I do have a sense that it [fame/notoriety] is building,” Thomas continues. “People approach you and think of you and talk to you in, you know, a different way – and I guess that’s a little weird. But for the most part my fans are really cool people so I haven’t gotten anything negative so much – not yet, at least. It can be weird. But I try to stay as down to earth as possible and be myself.”
Thomas says that Black Moon Spell’s slightly harder, more guitar-oriented sound is really what he’d wanted to do all along. The album is chock full of stylistic references to classic rock like Sweet, ELO (coming from me, this is not an insult.) and especially T-Rex.
“For the last three years I wanted to make a more guitar-focused album, a rock album,” says Thomas. “I wanted to do that on the self-titled album and, uh, Bobby [Harlow] the producer kind of pushed me to record more of the softer songs. So on [Black Moon Spell] I kind of put my foot down wanting to make more of a rock album. I think we achieved that. I think it’s just an evolution. I’d say like fidelity-wise the new album is a lot bigger sounding. But I like the songs on all three of the albums. I have fond remembrances of recording each one. This one was different because it was more of a group effort.”
Thankfully, the neo-classic rock of Black Moon Spell seems to come from a point of reverence. Listeners won’t get a sense that the music is cliché-ridden, cloying, postmodern pastiche that backhandedly makes fun of rock while at the same time saying it’s “hella awesome” or whatever (a la The Darkness or fucking Weezer). And Thomas is no slouch on guitar, either.
Black Moon Spell’s standout track, “Headbanger” even references Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. Curiously, the song sounds more like Slade or the 1910 Fruit Gum Company (“Yummy, yummy, yummy I’ve got love in my tummy”) than Slayer, though.
“I don’t like irony so much,” says Thomas. “Those lyrics [in “Headbanger”} were genuine. I was writing from a genuine place of, you know, like maybe falling in love with someone because of their record collection.”
Still, there’s a particular line in the song (“Making love on the grave where rock ’n’ roll was buried’) that I – ever the devotee of THE ROCK – found a bit troubling. So I asked Thomas if he thought rock ’n’ roll is really dead.
“I don’t think it is done,” says Thomas. “I think it will always be around in some form or another. It’s just a matter of what you put into it and what personality you have. Making rock ’n’ roll work is just a matter of something in your voice or your personality and what special thing you bring to it. As a form, rock ’n’ roll can be anything still.
“I’m traveling a lot, and I get little ideas for songs here and there,” Thomas continues. “But I have no idea what is next for King Tuff. I want to kind of clear my slate a little bit. I think next I’m gonna just go back to making songs by myself with no thematic thing in mind – to not plan out what I’m doing.
“You know, I guess I’d like to reach the point where I can live comfortably and release things whenever I want. I probably won’t tour quite as much. I prefer the creative part of it – more as a songwriter and a visual artist.”
So in this way the momentous trajectory of King Tuff is something of a dilemma for Thomas. Sure, popularity and appreciation – fame, even – is great. And this is something that Thomas deserves. Let’s just hope that getting on the relentless treadmill of Rock, Inc. isn’t detrimental to King Tuff’s creativity. Black Moon Spell is instant memorable – and the album’s candy-coated, pure pop sheen just seems to shine brighter with each repeated listening. I’m ready for another dose.
Photo by Dan Monick.