After more than a decade of performing under the King Tuff moniker, Kyle Thomas hit rock bottom with a thud. Fatigued by relentless touring, burnt out on playing the same songs he’d been playing for 10 years, and feeling disconnected from the freaky rock ’n’ roll “party monster” persona he’d come to embody, Thomas experienced a major identity crisis.
“People just had this idea about me that wasn’t real,” the Vermont-born, Los Angeles-based musician explains. “I think I was maybe hanging onto a younger version of myself. Especially with Black Moon Spell, I made the record I thought people wanted me to make. Which is not really a way to make art, I don’t think.”
When Thomas returned from a year of touring with Ty Segall, he attempted to reconnect with the childlike wonder that made him love playing music in the first place. The result was The Other, an album that trades in the bombastic rock ’n’ roll anthems of 2014’s Black Moon Spell for more contemplative songs inspired by the storytelling prowess of folksinger John Prine and the freeform jazz experimentations of Sun Ra.
The record opens with the title track, which plays like an epic hero’s journey as Thomas surrenders to life’s uncertainties and embarks on his quest for “The Other.” “I thought it was the end, but then I thought again/And that was when I took the hand of the other,” he sings over droning organ tones, before his voice echoes and warps into nothingness.
When asked what exactly “The Other” represents—an enlightened state, an almighty being, or simply the unknown, glinting on the horizon like a mythical city—Thomas replies, “It’s all those things. I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner with this one, because it’s kind of indescribable, and that’s what makes it ‘other.’ You can’t really pin it down, but it’s there, I know it’s there. Sometimes you get an idea or a flash of something and you’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’ It’s the beyond—that’s what I’ve always been after.”
Themes of destiny pop up throughout the album, and strangely enough, Thomas experienced his own brush with fate after writing a 1982 blue Subaru Brat (his dream car since childhood) into “The Other.”
“A friend of mine who I’d sent the song to is kind of a witch,” Thomas explains. “She stumbled upon a Craigslist ad in New Mexico of that car and immediately sent it to me. We were both like, I can’t not go and get it. So I just flew there and bought it from some weird dad and drove it back. The turn signals don’t work, but nobody uses turn signals in LA.”
Though the lyrics on The Other sometimes feel a little too navel-gazing—that’s the risk of making an album about humanity’s place in the cosmos—songs like “Psycho Star” succeed by marrying Thomas’ observations with psychedelic dance grooves: “The universe is probably an illusion/But isn’t it so beautifully bizarre/That here we are.”
There isn’t really one particular sound or genre propelling the melodies of The Other; Thomas weaves in and out of soul, reggae, jazz, and folk, and builds hooks out of unexpected instruments like harmonica, bongos, chimes, and saxophone.
“I started to really fall in love with horns, they can be just as aggressive as electric guitars,” Thomas says. “I’m actually taking sax lessons now. I bought a saxophone, just because I want that moment onstage where I disappear and come back with a sax.”
Though he’ll play with a full band for this tour stop at the Star Theater, when he visited Portland last month, Thomas played a small solo show at Jackpot Records, debuting stripped down acoustic versions of songs from The Other for fans. Playing by himself seemed “terrifying,” like learning the saxophone, but Thomas says it was simply another opportunity to explore unfamiliar territory for the sake of growth.
His advice for braving the unknown? “You just have to not give a fuck, that’s what it’s about learning how to do.”