Fred Thomas has more to say

Liz Pelly

Fred Thomas

It was autumn and Fred Thomas was leaving for Athens, Georgia to finish All Are Saved when he got the news about Kuma, a dog he loved very much. “I’d helped take care of him for a couple of years and came to love him in a time when I knew he may not be around for very long,” he wrote to me via email from the road. “His passing was devastating to me in ways I could have never expected.”

“Every Song Sung to a Dog” was written when “the end was looming,” he says. It’s the first song from his All Are Saved, his eight solo album, and it deals generally with how death is always waiting. “So that’s it? Eternity equates to forever walking towards without arriving any place?” he wonders plainspoken, as the song begins, eventually building and bursting into a four-minute look at the span of a life, stringing together the big-picture memories and the small moments alike: “I see myself there completely lightweight wasted on like a single drink / in 2003 in Baltimore / smashing my first flip-phone on some piss-soaked alley floor corridor.”

It’s an ecstatic introduction to a record that generally finds Thomas singing like his life is at stake, like he’s distilled every hard-learned story so that he can explain them as quickly as possible with all of his heart. “I wanted to spit out all of the anger, love, excitement, resistance, confusion and hurt I’d ever felt through a lyrical filter that seemed like I was addressing it from the other side of life,” he says. “At a distance from my own experiences even while they were happening.”

Even just emailing with Thomas, it’s easy to pick up on his boundless energy, though it can also be sensed through the sheer number of projects he’s been involved with over the years. Thomas has roots in the early ’90s Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti noise scene as well as with the legendary guitar-pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me, and in more recent years, he’s worked on projects like City Center, Might Clouds and Swimsuit, the latter a collaboration with Ann Arbor’s Shelley Salant.

His solo recordings, though they’ve been numerous, have been so scrappy and homemade that many have gone unheard. In fact, despite being a super-fan of Saturday Looks Good to Me, his solo music was only put on my radar last year when Sam Cook-Parrott from Radiator Hospital handed me a copy of their 2012 split-release cassetteAll Are Saved was a more meticulously crafted effort; he spent two years on it, and calls it a summary of all the work he’s done so far. In advance of its April 7 release on Polyvinyl, we talked about the record, its major themes, and the life events that informed it.

How is your tour going?

Tour is going really stellar, it’s the first super long touring I’ve done in almost four years, and the most extensive touring of the deep south I’ve ever done. For the first half I was touring with my girlfriend Emily Roll who does performance pieces under the name Haunted. That was amazing because she was doing these very direct and non-musical statements in the context of punk shows, which always challenges the audience. Since South By Southwest I’ve been traveling completely alone, and I always perform just by myself. It’s a strange look, for sure, but I like the zoned out solitary feelings it can foster.

You’ve made eight solo records at this point, and been a part of several other bands and projects. When you reflect back on all of your recordings, what do you see as some common threads running through everything?

Well, a lot of my solo “records” were like little CDRs or more recently semi-conceptual albums cultivated on a whim. I guess I’m saying there wasn’t a lot of direction or emotional urgency in my previous solo stuff. The releases were usually so low-key and “see what happens” kind of things that they just felt like collections of whatever songs had accumulated in a given time period. I like them and stand by all of it, but a lot of them were just for fun or more experiments in sound exercises.I took a long time, like almost two years to make this new record. It kind of sums up a lot of stuff I did in other bands while taking new steps forward.

What sorts of ideas were running through your head when you wrote All Are Saved?

Man, there are so many different threads of thought running through almost every song on the record. I’d come out of a period of insane isolation and severe loneliness, and a kind of reveling in the pain of loneliness that was being replaced by a jubilant, nearly uncontrollable kind of instantaneous reflection on what felt like all the different parts of my life running together, if that makes any sense at all. I wanted to spit out all of the anger, love, excitement, resistance, confusion and hurt I’d ever felt through a lyrical filter that seemed like I was addressing it from the other side of life, at a distance from my own experiences even while they were happening.

All Are Saved … from what?

I was actually sitting in my car, going through the carwash around the time I was finishing the record, in a really dark place, just fully muttering to myself about how everyone was fucked, everyone is terrible, there’s no hope, all the evil people thrive and there’s no space for respect or happiness. VERY DARK. I took a picture of the blue sudsy tendrils whipping soap onto my windshield and posted it to instragram with the caption “All Are Fucked”. Then I thought better of it and felt like it was up to me to escape those feelings, and quickly re-captioned it “All Are Saved”. In a sense, we all have to save ourselves from the negativity and hopelessness that’s always lurking.

“Every Song Sung to a Dog” is the first song on the record. What’s it about?

Days before I traveled to Athens, Georgia to finish work on this record in the fall of 2013, a dog I loved very much and was extremely close to passed away at age 13. I’d helped take care of him for a couple of years and came to love him in a time when I knew he may not be around for very long. Even with the knowledge that all creatures have a limited time here, his passing was devastating to me in ways I could have never expected.

This song was written when the end was looming, about how death is always waiting for you, ready to run your life before your eyes in one last flash. I walked Kuma as many times as he wanted in the last few months of our time together, and I always made up songs to sing to him as we trotted along. This song imagines some kind of reunification between him and I through those songs, on an endless, pure loop.

I also want to ask you about “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II”. What were your goals for that song? What motivated you to write it? 

What’s so fucked is that this song, though tragically timely, was actually written about two years before the record came out. So my inspirations for writing a song about police violence came before the rampant, horrifying series of highly publicized police murders that have sprung up in the last year and change. This exhausted, frustrated song was born more out of reaction to the nonsensically evil limitations being imposed on abortion laws and women’s reproductive health rights that were getting run through Michigan government in 2012, and the constant struggle of all the people around me who are literally starving or otherwise suffering from a broken system.

In the years that passed since I wrote it, the cops murdered a black woman in her own home with dubious cause and no consequences right here in the sleepy, collegiate town of Ann Arbor where I live. If it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere, and things need to drastically change, by force of reason or a people’s uprising. This song is just my observations of things I see happening and the resultant outrage. I don’t know if the song is too vague or daydreamy to accomplish anything, but if there’s any sentiment of defiance at all, it’s positive, regardless of how hard to pin down it might seem.

In a sense, we all have to save ourselves from the negativity and hopelessness that’s always lurking.

This doesn’t feel like a nostalgic record, in fact maybe it sort of feels anti-nostalgic (maybe?) but still it deals with stories of the past a lot.

I don’t feel particularly nostalgic but I do feel like the known modes of youth and adulthood that I grew up with have shifted and changed, leaving a lot more space for self-reflection, nostalgia and a state of being where you have to work out for yourself what it means to progress individually.

Your bio describes you as “anti-networking” which is pretty cool. Do you feel like that speaks to your approach to the music world over the past 15 years?

I don’t feel particularly “anti-networking” as much as I feel “largely unpopular”. There’s never been a point ever where I’ve played my music in a room and the entire audience understood, liked or even across-the-board tolerated it. That type of acquired taste doesn’t really lend itself to networking or even the illusion that my music and ideas appeal to even the most open-minded punks, so the idea of building a fanbase, getting out there and making connections, etc… all that never even crossed my mind. I’ve kind of been doing the same thing since I was in high school, and it’s still a blast, which has kept the idea of hierarchy and measures of success completely out of my approach to making music, thankfully.

What inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing?

I never even think about it… there’s always more to say, to share and to understand.

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