King Tuff and Kyle Thomas aren’t the same person. Or, perhaps more accurately, the vision of King Tuff that Kyle Thomas slowly saw himself becoming wasn’t true; it was a trap, a persona taken too far, an inescapable direction that slowly sucked the joy out of what Thomas originally began King Tuff to do, which is—and has always been—all about making kick ass rock music.
So, in the fall of 2016, Thomas did the least King Tuff thing imaginable: He played acoustic shows. Never has distortion longed for its former partner more than when Thomas decided to strum without amplification. The shows were, by his own admission, terrifying, but Thomas realized that a great song on an acoustic guitar had lasting power. The supporting pieces could be shifted and turned, dirtied or cleaned up, but at the root was simply a good song.
This philosophy informed the songwriting process for his latest album, The Other, a record full of pensive ballads, personal songwriting, and Ty Segall drum parts. The Other takes risks Thomas had never considered before. It’s wholly atypical within the King Tuff discography, and entirely thrilling.
We get Stax-style horns (“Raindrop Blue”), lilting white boy funk (“Psycho Star”), and straight ahead psych-rock (“Neverending Sunshine”). The distorted guitars are turned down from 11 and Thomas sounds like he’s gotten a haircut and quit doing so many whip-its—even if his hair is still long and he never did whip-its in the first place.
The Other is likely to push away diehard fans of the King Tuff party boy persona. They’ll bellyache and moan that the real King Tuff is gone, in his stead some imposter with an impeccable taste in leather jackets and sunglasses. But ask Kyle Thomas, and he’ll assure you that the real King Tuff is only now beginning to emerge.
A lot of the buzz around this record is that you’re moving away from the persona you crafted during the early part of your career. What facilitated this reflection and eventual change?
I think it was a lot of things. I was just sick of what I’d been doing. I just toured it to death. A lot of it came from going back to recording myself, putting together a home studio and getting back to the root of why I started doing it in the first place, which was the creative part of it. I like touring, but I really like writing and creating the actual music. I made my last couple records with a producer and that was cool, but I started to realize that I really liked being the one to craft it. Otherwise, I didn’t feel like I was really doing it. I like to be the one controlling the spaceship. Then, just being totally free with it and not trying to make any specific thing.
Did working with producers hold you back, or did not being in control of every aspect start to bug you?
It was hard for me to really get into my zone with someone else around like that. I really like to take my time with stuff and I really used recording as a writing process, so when it was on the clock in a studio, it became hard to get into that zone. It’s like a puzzle that you do over time and certain things reveal themselves to you the longer you work at it, and it’s hard to do that with people around.
Do you think the personal bent of this record’s lyrical themes were easier to tackle because you did this record alone?
Yeah. I just wanted to start over in a way. I’ve been writing a lot, just free writing—waking up in the morning and writing without even thinking about it. Sometimes the things that would come out would be shocking. Sometimes I write to learn about myself, and the things that come out aren’t necessarily the things I was thinking about and then I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting...That’s strange.’ A lot of times I write songs to understand what I’m going through. It’s sometimes the only way I can put it into words is through a song, and then I learn through that song.
Was there a point in time or an event you can point to that you realized King Tuff—or what people perceived to be King Tuff—was different from what you wanted to be doing?
It just happened over time. People thought I was this crazy, party monster type of guy, but I’m really not [laughs]. I mean, I like to have fun, but I don’t do drugs. I’m not like that. Also, I stopped listening to as much rock music, so I just wasn’t relating to it the way I had.
What sort of stuff were you listening to when you wrote The Other?
Pretty much everything but rock [laughs]. A lot of jazz, Sun Ra type stuff. A lot of dub/reggae, too. Some old soul music as well. Pretty much anything with different sounds.
Were you actively trying to incorporate different sounds onto this record?
I really just started buying all kinds of instruments just to have around. I’d just be fucking around with them and they’d make their way on there. I was just really excited about anything that wasn’t an electric guitar.
Earlier you mentioned that recording and touring—that rinse, lather, repeat process—wore you out. Have you thought about how you’re going to combat the same malaise from occuring? Because touring is the most consistent way to make a living, as I’m sure you know.
I’m really excited to go on tour again, and I have a whole new group of people I’m playing with, so that already feels really good. The last record was fine, I think, but I didn’t really have a personal connection to it for some reason. With this album, I have a much deeper personal connection to it. I think it’ll go a lot further and I’ll be more into it just because of that.
Ty Segall plays drums all over this album. What’s it like having played in his band and now having him play on your record?
After I stopped touring the last King Tuff record, I just wanted to do something totally different that I wasn’t the boss of, so it was totally perfect that I could play with Ty for a year and get away from myself. That was a blast. He’s one of my best friends so naturally we just end up hanging out and jamming.
When I was putting together the studio, I’d have him come over and we were just working on getting the drums to sound good. Just kind of jam out. I’d play bass and he’d play drums. I just started building the songs out of those raw tracks. It was very loose and easy feeling. There was no pressure. And Ty’s just a great firestarter. He’s just really good at getting things done, obviously—you see how much output he has. He’s just really good at getting things going. It was really nice to have him around to light a fire under my ass.
When did you begin writing or thinking about writing songs for this new album?
I had actually done a few acoustic shows, which is something that was terrifying to me; just fully solo, acoustic is the most exposed way to play. I wanted to write songs that would stand up in that environment. If a song can hold up in that way, you can basically do anything to it arrangement wise and you’ll know it’s a good song, because you can just play it on an acoustic guitar. That was in the fall of last year. That’s where I started exploring more of a story-song type style, like “The Other,” which is something you just don’t hear that much anymore.
So if you started recording this album in the fall of 2016, what was it like turning inwards and making this very personal record as the country shifted in such a drastic way?
I think it’s easier for me to focus inwards when things are crazy. When everything’s great and you’re super happy, it’s a little hard—it’s a little cliché, but it’s true. When things are going great it’s hard to find the inspiration for some reason. I don’t know why.
Do you hope that fans of your music reconsider what King Tuff is after this record? Do you want your fans to be actively thinking about that?
After putting out “The Other,” which is so different from anything people have heard from me, I feel empowered to do whatever I want—which is what every artist should do. I just want to keep exploring and go further into things I haven’t done before. Either people are with me or not. That’s just gonna be true no matter what, so you just can’t think about it that much. I just wanna make music that I wanna hear.
Are you at all worried about alienating a certain section of your fanbase?
Obviously, I thought about it. I think it’s definitely already happening. But I know that the people that really connect with my music will stick with me just because they understand me in that way, beyond a certain sound. It’s still my music, it just doesn’t have a distorted guitar in it.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.