"I'VE NEVER MADE a record that wasn't torture," says Kyle Thomas.
The magnificent King Tuff—the eponymous release of Thomas' alter ego—was no exception, but the painstaking effort that went into its creation was well worth it. It's an initially deceptive-sounding record of garage-garbage glam jams that burrow their claws in deep after repeated listens. Its acres of guitars are shuffled, stacked, cut, and feathered for maximum earworminess; its methamphetamine melodies are pitched at the precise tempo to accelerate your heartbeat; its hooks are ready to hang your entire life upon.
Thomas has made plenty of records over the years under various guises and bands, including Feathers, Witch, and Happy Birthday. This is his second as King Tuff, a moniker he coined in high school and which he says is going to be his main focus from here on out. 2008's King Tuff Was Dead had the same glammy, catchy, snotty attitude, but this new album is something different, something much bigger. It's a solid gold version of rock 'n' roll that explodes beyond the speakers, filled with the sounds of teenage dreams and muscle cars and illicitly obtained 12-packs and first incidents of oral sex. It's yearningly hormonal bubblegum pop, filtered through Big Muffs and bongwater.
It also blurs the line between Thomas and King Tuff—and stands in decided contrast to the conscious affectations of his previous work. "I think before I made this album, I would have said yes, there is a certain thing [that defines a King Tuff song]," Thomas says. "But the way the album turned out, it kind of encompassed a lot of different styles. Now it seems like it can just be whatever it wants to be. I write songs and they sound a certain way; I'm not trying to write any specific kind of song. Each song just lends itself to a different... has a different quality. They're like their own little worlds; you just have to let them be what they are."
Thomas moved to LA last year after living nearly his entire life in Brattleboro, Vermont. He's been digging his new West Coast home: "For the most part, people have a really negative conception of [LA]. But it's not true. You've just got to look past all the bullshit aspects of it and it's really great—a really great place," he says. "I haven't really been writing since I lived here, just 'cause I'm kind of on a break from the writing side. I mean, environment makes a lot of difference if I'm able to write or not. I might have to escape into seclusion in the forest somewhere."
When asked what he's been doing in the meantime, Thomas jokes, "I mostly just stare at the wall. I really have to ride it out when I'm not writing because it's really depressing to not write songs. But then you try and write one and it doesn't come out—nothing comes out and it's just like you want to die. But once I write a good one, I usually start to write more. It just takes getting one good one, and that gets you on a roll."
After a good roll of songwriting and an extensive demo process, Thomas recorded King Tuff in an abandoned Detroit school with the Go's Bobby Harlow producing. "Some weird eccentric guy bought up some old schools, and he was renting this particular one out," Thomas says. "He wanted to rent it to bands. The guy told us not to go upstairs, so of course we went upstairs. And it was totally... we kept getting totally freaked out up there. Dark shadows. I mean, there was definitely shit going wrong the whole time, like shit blowing up and power going out. It was definitely a weird experience."
However strange it may have been, the experience led to a fantastic, watertight record of junk-food jams, from the amassed battalion of twirling guitars in album opener "Anthem" to the breakneck charge of the album's first single, "Bad Thing." King Tuff is a reminder of how the best rock 'n' roll embraces both sleaze and innocence at once—it's the very sound of growing up, a process that isn't finished at adolescence's corrupted end.
It also points to a previously unforeseen depth in King Tuff's material. "I don't know what it will turn into. I just go with the flow. Just gotta let it grow into whatever it grows into," Thomas says.
"Probably, like, a tumor. It's probably going to grow into a tumor. A hairy one with tattoos on it."
[UPDATE: Despite the many published reports circulating that say otherwise (including the original version of this article), King Tuff's Kyle Thomas is not the same Kyle Thomas who was in the bands Alabama Thunderpussy and Exhorder. This article has been updated to reflect this correction. We regret the error.]