Kyle Thomas, better known as King Tuff, is sitting in his kitchen in Echo Park, watching his roommates' dogs wrestle each other. “I'm just doing what I love,” he says. “It's a shock to me every day that I have been able survive like this. I really don't know how it worked.”
Originally from Battlebro, VT, Thomas has forged his own path in the music industry without stopping to compromise for anyone. He's always done the projects he's wanted to do, playing in numerous bands including Feathers, Happy Birthday, Witch (with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.) as well as his solo project King Tuff. Remarkably, the guy has managed to financially sustain all of it the old fashioned way, having record labels (yes, plural) pick up the tab.
In fact, Thomas only got a manager last month, all of the artwork for his bands are collaborations between him and his brother, and his latest self-titled release, out now on Sub Pop Records, was his first time working with a producer.
King Tuff radiates good-natured mischief. He is exactly the kind of guy you'd want on an ill-advised adventure and his music reflects it. You feel the grit and sweat when you listen to his latest album. It's exactly the kind of record you'd want with you if you were going to egg your ex's car. Last year Thomas moved to L.A., and we tracked him down to ask him a couple questions.
How was your first year in L.A.?
Oh my God, I can't believe you're asking me this right now. I love it. I moved here because the city drew me too it. I already had a group of friends — a family here — and that's the hard part, so moving here was easy.
What is the most surprising thing about the city?
There's an air of mystery here. You can always go down a new street in your neighborhood and feel like you have never been there before. I always feel like I'm finding new things. All those restaurants with no signs … so boss. I always tell people there's some kind of wall that you have to break through to see the beauty of L.A. The first few times I came here I was like “I don't know about this place.” Then one day it just totally flipped for me. It was crazy.
How did you end up at Sub Pop?
They just had my other record (King Tuff's debut Was Dead) and liked it. I don't know how they got it. So they came to see my show at SXSW and they asked if I wanted to do a 7-inch or something and I was like “Yeah, but really you should just do my album.” And they were like, okay. At the time I was playing with this band called Happy Birthday and I was like you should sign me as King Tuff too, so I could do either one. I mean, they totally took a leap of faith with the Happy Birthday thing because they didn't even hear it until we handed them the finished record.
What was the hardest thing about working with a producer?
I think basically giving up control, when usually I have total control. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could work with someone. I got sick of dealing with all the wires.
Did he make any calls that you didn't like at the time, but you like now?
Pretty much a lot, I gave him all my demos and he chose ones that I wasn't thinking about or really wanted to do, so that was a little bit of a struggle for me. In the end I think it came out really cool. It involved a lot of trust, but I love Bobby Harlow and I loved the albums that he made. There was basically a lot of me begging him to change things and he'd go, “Oh yeah I'll change it,” and then he wouldn't change anything.
I heard you recorded it in an abandoned high school in Detroit. Why Detroit?
Bobby said, “You've got to come here and record it.” Basically I was just under his command. We were recording in the old library, and when we got there, the old guy who was renting it out told us “Don't go upstairs, and there's a furnace in the basement if you kill someone.”
Did you go upstairs?
Of course we went upstairs! Me and Bobby kept going up there and kept getting so fucking freaking out. Probably because we felt like there was something weird up there.
Do you think it was a psychological experiment?
Yeah, probably. It was just like a second floor of a high school, but some of the rooms were kind of weird though. Bobby went into one room and all of a sudden felt like his legs were sinking into the floor. We got so freaked out we started running down the hall screaming like little girls. We kept going back up there and kept freaking ourselves out.
King Tuff plays tonight at the Echo.