“I finally felt like myself again.”
Kyle Thomas has performed as King Tuff since the late-aughts, channelling his greasy garage -rock sound to both goofy and sinister ends with equal effectiveness. In just two and half minutes, 2008’s “Sun Medallion,” does the work of a shelf full of Nuggets compilations in expressing the psychedelic aesthetic for which the genre is loved. “Got out of a dream today/In the graveyard where I do my dreamin’/Tied my hair in braids/Yeah, the colored pinwheels spinnin’,” he sings.
For Thomas, King Tuff is not just a moniker, but a persona. That’s not to say it’s a put-on, though. As King Tuff, he aspired to embody the mischievous, optimistic dirtbag, to become a kind of spirit animal to the hasher set. But somewhere along the line, the line between King Tuff and Kyle Thomas began to blur and it became unclear to Thomas just who was in charge. In many ways, Thomas had grown out of King Tuff. “I don’t relate to that anymore at all. I guess it’s my fault for writing a song called ‘Animal,’” he says via email. The dissonance began to frustrate Thomas. He focused his energy on other projects while he worked things out. Ironically, after an identity that seemed forged by his many years on the road, he regained his sense of self at home.
“After I toured in Ty Segall’s band for a year I was recharged enough to come back to my own thing. Putting together a home studio changed everything. From the moment I hooked everything up and pressed record the songs just started flowing. And, yes, it was a relief. I finally felt like myself again,” he says.
Though he retained the name, Thomas’ latest, The Other, is an effort to put some distance between himself and the King, reclaiming some creative autonomy from a conceit that had him feeling boxed in. It’s nothing short of re-invention. Between the bold instrumentation and the uptick in production, Thomas stretches out, retaining his authenticity while adding a new dimension of earnestness. On The Other, Thomas is less cryptic and more scrutable. His lyrics are contemporary and insightful. On “Circuits In the Sand” he ponders the outsized role that technology plays in modern life, and the price we pay for it. “Bathed in blue light/two lovers under cover/Suckin’ on their screens/They forgot about each other/Sunrise forever paralyzed/In flowing finger streams,” he sings.
Thomas isn’t a Luddite, but, in true slacker form, makes the argument that technology only delivers more restrictive ways of doing nothing. “I love electricity. I think the internet is an incredible place, but I worry about spending too much time there. I do know that since owning a smartphone, my productivity has gone down. Because it destroys boredom, but boredom is where so much creativity comes from,” he says. On a new path, it seems like Thomas is willing to keep the space he needs for boredom, for electricity, and for King Tuff.
KING TUFF with THE SEMI-SUPERVILLAINS, NOX BOYS. 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23. Smiling Moose, 1306 E. Carson St., South Side. $15. www.smiling-moose.com