Rock/PopWill success spoil Fred Thomas?
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Aside from the fluorescent lights, Mountain Dew banner and cluster of tailored suits, this CMJ day-stage performance is just like any other Saturday Looks Good To Me show. Fred Thomas, of course, is front and center. He has a slightly surprising air of confidence about him. He's even making jokes: "Hello. We're Saturday Looks Good To Me, the official band of the CMJ festival. It's a real honor. Thank you, CMJ. Thank you, Mountain Dew."
The band sounds good. They sound almost as if they, you know, practiced. As if they signed on last winter with the indie K Records, renowned for championing the energy of a falling-apart set, and then went ahead and got it together anyway. Playing hits, rarities and lots of songs off their new Fill Up the Room LP, the band closes with "Money in the Afterlife," a cathartic new song strung together by a jittery guitar hook, smooth vocals in the style of Morrissey-meets-Merritt and a celestial wash of guitars, cymbal crashes and divine three-part falsetto harmonies.
As the suits swarm stage-left, it's likely everyone has the same thing on their mind: Fred Thomas just might not have to wait till he's dead to see some of that afterlife dough.
Almost seven years earlier to the day, Metro Times asked Warn Defever of His Name is Alive to put together a lineup for a show at its annual Blowout fest. His first booking was Saturday Looks Good To Me, even though they hadn't yet played a single show. It was the project of an Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor native who was staying in Defever's extra bedroom, participating in what might be considered a loose interpretation of a music-production apprenticeship.
At that time, Thomas was working with several other groups, but he was also experimenting with a Beach Boys loop that one of his then-bandmates had taped. Thomas had also just come across a Teach Me Tiger tape made by fellow musician Crispy Fachini, that was like a sonic séance, conjuring old soul as filtered through Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. "I talked to [Fachini] a lot about it," Thomas says. "I said, 'Crispy, I heard your tape and it blew me away because it sounded so otherworldly.' It was kind of an encyclopedic jumping-off point for me."
The experience would mark a major shift in Thomas' musical career. "I really liked the music Crispy was doing, and that His Name is Alive was doing," he says. "And the more I talked to both of those bands, the more it seemed that they were just really big music fans, and they were doing their own version of stuff that they liked."
Thus, Saturday Looks Good To Me was born, sounding like deranged Motown like the most instantly likable 45 ever made after a spin in the washing machine. With help from 15 friends, he recorded nine songs that make up the band's self-titled 1999 debut, and then an 11-song CDR titled Cruel August Moon. When those sold out, he re-released the original on his own Ypsilanti Records, including a few tracks from the CDR.
The night before the Blowout show, the band played a basement party at Ann Arbor's Pirate House. And it looked like everyone at that show stumbled to the Blowout performance to catch it again. There was firecracker tension in the room. These kids knew what was coming. I didn't, but it was hard not to be excited around all that buzzing. Half the kids from the crowd the ones dressed in red jumped onstage and started blaring pop cacophony with horns, strings, tambourine and bells on top of the guitar-bass-drums core. It was explosive. Sweaty music fans flooded the dance floor, shaking and smiling and dancing with abandon. So, this story is not an exercise in distant, arms-folded, journalistic objectivity. This band changed my life. And chances are good that if you've seen them, yours as well.
"I honestly can't think of anyone who has heard SLGTM and hasn't liked it," says Stephen Cramer, who ran Detroit's annual Summer Smash indie-pop fest from 1999 to 2006, a festival Thomas played four years in various formations. "Fred's one of the most genuine people I've ever met, and when you translate that to music, it was unavoidable that he would do great things. Although he's moved out of state, I know the Ann Arbor and Detroit scenes are still indebted to his goodness."
New York: 'You were sleeping on floors'
Being in transit is a pattern that has continued in Thomas' life to this day. After taking a "recording vacation" with stops in New York; Providence, R.I.; Louisville and Boston, which resulted in the band's first national release, All Your Summer Songs on the Champaign, Ill.-based Polyvinyl Record Co., he moved back to Ann Arbor, then Detroit, and recorded Every Night, their second official full-length for Polyvinyl, along with a bunch of seven-inches and CDRs for micro-indies.
A year ago he moved to Portland, Ore., and this past July, he landed back in New York. Thomas doesn't really seem to stay anywhere too long. Sure, he's lived in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti most of his life. But he's been on the road touring since his late teens.
"The thing about Michigan music that's so amazing is that it's so community oriented, yet not community friendly in a way," Thomas says. "Everybody knows everybody and everybody's in each other's bands, but it's this perpetual underdog vibe. Although people probably secretly really love what you're doing and really look up to you, you would never feel that, because there's such an undercurrent of competition. There's always this struggle so you forget how to not struggle. But [the scene in Detroit] creates a dynamic tension that really makes for some of the most magical, hard-fought things ever."
So he moved to New York "the most challenging place in the world, in the summertime, when it was hot and terrible, with no money. And I just got a real sense of what it meant to be miserable for a little while," he says, only slightly in jest. He really is broke something that hit home while watching him scarf down a slice of pizza ... and my leftovers as well. He came to New York with nothing all his amps and keyboards are still in Michigan. "My drum kit's somewhere in somebody's mom's basement. The limitations become the new canvas," he says, which explains how a 31-year-old musician, who's got at least a hundred songs under his belt, can continue to keep things fresh and interesting.
'It's a very personal record'
Fred and I are joking about how all the songs on his new record, and even the title Fill Up the Room itself, could be construed to be about sex or masturbation. In intention, however, it seems that the songs are more aligned with death whether it's dying anonymously "on the ocean" or looking down on Earth from a spot snug "in the sides of clouds" or physical decay.
The main "difference" everyone's talking about, however, is Thomas' singing. Several people, usually women, sing most of the band's past catalog. "All those lyrics were kind of written on the fly," he says, "and it was more just a pastiche of different influences," he says. "But this is back to the basement, writing songs as if nobody's ever going to hear them. It's really naked ... about moving around the country, people I love dying ... or falling so deeply in love that it shakes up your whole thoughts about being alive and being in the world. You can't really tell somebody else to try to sing it and make sense of it. It has to be from the core of your being."
But the core of Thomas' being is a pastiche of influences. A longtime record-store worker, he has heard everything. His notorious mix tapes feature the Shaggs next to Orange Juice next to Microphones next to Albert Ayler next to King Tubby next to Linda Perhacs next to Aliyah. There are still plenty of creaky doo-wop moments and handclap dancers on Fill Up, but it's definitely less blatantly bubblegum. It's a grower. But once it's inside you, it's one of those records you'll have on repeat for months.
"Fred's a pop visionary," says Calvin Johnson of K Records. "He has a very unique perspective on classic pop music." In Thomas, that means unusual takes on music that "seems normal and ordinary. ... He's drawing from the past, from Modern Lovers to the more recent past but he's moving into the future. He's referencing them in his mind, but it doesn't affect the way he makes music. So it comes out all Fred-istic and, uh, Fred-dazzled."
Often, "visionary" is code for "difficult to work with," but for all the dozens of musicians in SLGTM over the years folks who might see an ad for a Saturday show in the paper and then not know until sound check that they're expected to show up, if at all hard feelings are apparently nominal.
Longtime vocalist Betty Marie Barnes describes Thomas as "maybe the funniest person I've ever met. When you travel with people all the time, you know them really well. And sometimes you know them in ways they don't want you to know them. But I think it's always been a really easy collaboration, just being around him and working with him." She says when she heard Thomas would be singing most of the songs on Fill Up, she wasn't hurt or offended; she was excited for him. "I think that he has a voice, and it's important for him to communicate those songs the way he does," she says.
'Canadian chocolate is better'
Fill Up the Room clearly marks a new level of seriousness for the band, and not just content-wise. But it's not the first time they've graced the big time. Radio-ready Saves the Day invited the band on a tour in 2002; Saturday had a song on Newlyweds (it was surreal), and of course there were the much-rumored-about meetings with legendary Sire Records chief Seymour Stein two years ago.
"Different people will say different things about what his visits to Detroit were all about," Thomas says of the period following Stein's signing the Detroit band the Von Bondies. "But I was under the impression he was there to see a bunch of bands play and figure out if he wanted to sign anybody else.
"I was really excited to talk to him because he's been responsible for a lot of bands I love finding their audience, finding their voice. Some people have been like, 'I heard you turned down a million dollar recording contract,' and that's not true. I just had dinner with the guy once and talked to him several times in passing, and he was really smart and sweet and I respect him a lot. But I don't think that our band is ever going to be a major label band. I feel especially now, it has to be about doing what you want to do and staying true to your ideals.
"We have a sturdy fan base," Thomas says. "And people are still hearing about us for the first time."
That fan base was built on a painstakingly individual level. Thomas continues to sell his own merchandise. When he was my neighbor in Detroit a few years ago, I stopped by to find him elbow deep in a box of chocolate. Apparently, a Canadian fan contacted him about buying some records, and he wound up in a trade. "Canadian chocolate is so much better," he said, his mouth full of candy.
"A band is really nothing without the people who are listening to it," Thomas says. "And if they're going out of their way, leaving the house, coming to your show, figuring out where it is, buying a T-shirt ... that's all a real blessing. If people are like, 'Oh, you didn't play this one song,' I'll be like, 'I'll go play it for you right now in the alley.'" A San Diego fan sent him a MySpace message recently about being excited to see the band play because he was having a bad day his car was broken into and all of his CDs were stolen. So, Thomas wrote him back, asking for his address so that he could send him some burned CDs. Thomas is good to his fans because, as a longtime music fan himself, he identifies with them on a deep level.
Cramer says that while many Detroit-area artists have achieved success, none are as gracious about it as Thomas: "I hope he one day achieves massive success, because 1) it would make the world a better place and 2) Fred wouldn't let it get to his head."
Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor. 734-996-8555.
Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer based in New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.