King Tuff

King Tuff Needs a Chimney Sweep for His Lungs

Zach Phillips

By Zach Phillips

on 09.25.14 in Features

When I first met Kyle Thomas, he was holed up in Vegetable Street, the brightly painted studio enclave for the senior artists of the Tinderbox, Brattleboro’s historic DIY venue. His band Feathers was over, Witch was intermittent, Happy Birthday was impending, Nam Buddies were flowering and his new alias “King Tuff” was in negotiations. I was a little scared of his chops, but his twinkly eye and steady ridiculousness set me at ease.

Eventually, we micro-collaborated; I tracked his “harp guitar” style on a song by my old band Blanche Blanche Blanche. Since then, Thomas’s rock prophecy has fulfilled itself. Black Moon Spell, his latest album, synthesizes the straight-ahead sound of the first King Tuff album with the humor of Happy Birthday, the heavy fuzz of Witch and the psychedelic production of Feathers. It’s a celebratory album largely about music, and about what it can do. I spoke with Thomas at his home in Los Angeles about the record, his past association with a cartoon dog and his permanent misfit status.

You sing a lot about love and sexual relations, but I understand that due to your faith you actually abstain from love. I’m wondering what it’s like to be rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest eunuch, advertising pelvic thrusts forbidden by your creed.

Who told you this? Did you say my faith? What is my faith?

Roman Jewish Architect. It comes from high authority!

I am a Roman God. No, no, no. I’m really a good lover; I’m a really, really good lover.

In what kinds of love-making tricks do you specialize?

All kinds; all kinds, motherfucker.

‘We all know that the freaks control the world. All the pretty people in high school, they fucking end up fucking pieces of shit by the time they’re 20.’

Another thing: My informants give me the impression your little cabal of Brattleboro, Vermont, expatriates and disgraced artists collectively worship a totem known as “Mehoggyboy.” What is Mehoggyboy?

Mehoggyboy is that mischievous hoggy boy inside of us all. There’s mehoggyboys and shehoggybabes.

Would you say that you see external projections of your personal mehoggyboy?

Well, you know, Mehoggyboy appears when he needs to, and maybe takes the blame for things people blame you for.

A fault demon. Would you blame any of the songs on your new record on Mehoggyboy?

Every single one.

Kyle, would you ever teach guitar?

I could try, but I don’t really know anything technical about guitar. I just have my own bastardized way. I never took lessons myself. My hand looks like a goddamn — I only use two fingers, and I don’t know why. So I’m probably not the best person to learn from in the traditional way, but I could probably teach something more…animal.

Maybe Mehoggyboy could teach the good stuff.

Well, Mehoggyboy is a great teacher.

My editor might kill me for asking this, but I’m curious about something you said in a recent interview, namely that you “don’t believe in writing about music.”

Well, you know, there’s that famous quote about dancing and architecture. I don’t know who said that…

It was Billy Joel. [I was joking. According to the relevant authorities, it was probably Martin Mull.]

I like creative writing, like Lester Bangs. Something that’s exciting to read. Maybe it’s more like art itself. But as far as criticizing music, writing because you don’t like something — I don’t know if I really believe in that.

Why not?

Well, why would you waste your time? I would rather write about something I’m excited about.

What would your ideal music writing look like?

It would be cool if more people just wrote short stories. Just something more creative than trying to describe music with comparisons and genre terms — nobody knows what they mean. Most of the time they just aren’t very interesting.

I was told to ask you about your “Muttley days” in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Who told you that?! Those days really made me who I am. Muttley may have been the first Mehoggyboy.

Is that that dog cartoon from Wacky Races? I loved that show. Penelope Pitstop.

Yeah. People used to call me that because I’m asthmatic, because of my wheezing laugh [laughs, wheezing]. So I had a whole group of friends in Fitchburg called the Wayward Boys. It was kind of an Animal House situation; they all went to the college there, and we would go down there and it would be insane. They were like the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges, but punks. Everyone was a character.

This is when you were going to Brattleboro Union High School?

It was right after I graduated. Before Feathers. And that’s when I recorded the first King Tuff album [Mindblow]; there’s actually a song about the Wayward Boys on it.

‘I just smoke it like a chimney, motherfucker. Like a motherfucking chimney! I need to get a fucking Dick Van Dyke to come down my lungs with his fucking chimney sweep.’

Still got a nebulizer for your asthma?

Still got a neb. I don’t have to use it too much, but every once in a while.

Do you have to watch your pot smoking? Or are you not doing that?

I just smoke it like a chimney, motherfucker. Like a motherfucking chimney! I need to get a fucking Dick Van Dyke to come down my lungs with his fucking chimney sweep.

I want to ask you about the studio you shared with your brother and Chris Weisman in Brattleboro, where you recorded the Happy Birthday album.

Brattleboro House Cartoon!

If I recall correctly, you had a ghostly experience there. You want to “go public” on that?

That’s very true. You know, the whole top floor of that building was destroyed by a fire in the ’40s, or earlier. And a guy died; I think his name was Lyman Streeter, which is a scary name for a ghost. I would be sitting at my desk and I would hear what sounded like somebody writing above me, with a pencil on the floor. It was a very distinct sound of writing. There’s not much else that has that rhythm to it.

I would tell Chris, but he’s a skeptic and he didn’t believe me. One day he burst into my room: “I heard it. I heard the writing. You’re right, there’s nothing else that sounds like that.”

It was always right above our heads. So I started talking to it, from the second floor. You know, “We’re not here to fuck with you. If you’re up there, give us a sign.” And all of a sudden — I was on one side of the room and Chris was on the other — we heard the sound of a pencil start at my head and draw a straight line all the way across the room to his head. And we both sharted.

Did you ever find any writing?

We never found the writing.

Something that’s always been lodged in my brain is that Happy Birthday was maybe going to be called Art World.

You’ve got a good memory! It’s a pretty goddamn good name.

Were there any other names in the running for Black Moon Spell?

I thought about naming it Moon for a second and having a bunch of butts on the cover. No, I didn’t even really have a say in it. It was the producer [Bobby Harlow] and the guy he mixed it with, Mike Wartella, the cartoonist. They mixed the record without me; I wasn’t allowed there. They called me up and they said, “It’s done.” They had it fully sequenced and they said, “It’s called Black Moon Spell.” I said, “Well, I don’t know…” And they said, “Well, you really have no choice.” And I really didn’t. The idea was presented. Okay.

‘I swear to God, [Justin Timberlake] made eye contact with me three times when I was singing along to “What Goes Around.” He made eye contact me with me and almost started fucking cracking up.’

Tell me about this cartoonist.

Mike’s a friend of ours. He also made the “Sun Medallion” video. He’s just a madman. Bobby had him fly from New York to mix the record as somebody who doesn’t know about making records, but whose mind is on fire. He was there to make sure [the record] would keep your attention.

This new one, to my mind, is so much more free on the engineering end than the last record. It’s nice to hear you popping out of the stereo; the mixes aren’t consistent from song to song, internally there are interesting mixing techniques in each song.

We had a lot more time on this one. The album grew out of the studio; I didn’t really have anything going in.

It’s funny, too. It sounds like it’s for kids.

Well, I’m like a cartoon character, whether I like it or not.

What cartoons are important to you?

Beavis and Butthead, Liquid Television, all those ‘90s underground-feeling cartoons… In the ‘80s, it was like… Fuckin’ A, I don’t even remember the ‘80s. PeeWee’s not a cartoon…

They should do that on VH1: I Don’t Remember The ‘80s, about coked out industry execs…

I think I was on a lot of drugs as a kid.

I hear your new music, Ariel Pink’s new music… These musicians I love who were granted little fiefdoms, a public platform — the music seems to be simplifying. The words are simplifying, and it seems almost deliberately directed towards children. And if I were to typologize my music — yours makes me feel like mine is a head trip for adults with personality disorders.

[Laughs] Well, I think there’s a place for all that. I’ve gone into trying to make things more complicated. I don’t think my personal music is suited for that. I work better when it’s simple, bold and ridiculous. I think that’s a big thing missing in a lot of modern music: the ridiculousness.

People are pretty serious in rock.

Rock is supposed to be ridiculous. A lot of hip-hop, they’re still making it ridiculous. But all the fucking rockers got serious for some reason.

How’s Magic Jake [bassist for King Tuff] holding up?

He’s good! He’s on fire. He had his motorcycle shipped here in Justin Timberlake’s tour bus — you know, he’s got a friend. Me and Jake went and saw Justin Timberlake when we picked up his motorcycle. He was dancing on the VIP bar. We’re standing there in the VIP, and it’s the most normal people you’ve ever seen. It looked like the fucking Sims in there. And I swear to God, he made eye contact with me three times when I was singing along to “What Goes Around.” I was singing along and he made eye contact me with me and almost started fucking cracking up. I swear to God.

He thought you looked funny!

Well, I do!

Is Magic Jake a good athlete? He looks strong.

He was a quarterback in high school. He’s a fucking beefcake.

Is he single?

Ehhh — that’s always sort of unclear. In the right situation, I bet anything could happen. He’s one of those guys where, if there’s some kind of athletic task, he will do it until he gets it, he won’t stop. One time we were at the river, and he was trying to hit a can on the other side of the river with a rock. He must have thrown 200 rocks. He just kept going. He got it!

‘I’ve always been one for embracing the imperfections.’

You sound like a proud father. Back to the new record: it’s cool to hear the new version of “Stairway of Diamonds.” That one goes back to the version on Mindblow.

Yeah, that’s a real oldie. Magic Jake, it was his idea to record that one. I kind of reworked it, and then we built in the whole ending solo section. We didn’t really know what we were going to do over it. I remember sitting there doing overdubs for days, “What the fuck are we doing here.” Now the ending is one of my favorite parts on the record. It shoots out into fucking insanity.

I like the idea of a 14-year-old high school loser, middle school weirdo, your garden variety adolescent freak, getting ahold of your record. There’s some very sweet messages on here. Here’s a message I hear all over the album: do what it takes to be with the one you love, and have fun with them somewhere crazy. I’m serious. And: Ugly and beautiful are switched. If you’re a freak, congratulations, that’s pretty much as good as it gets, your future is set.

We all know that the freaks control the world. All the pretty people in high school, they fucking end up fucking pieces of shit by the time they’re 20. All the kids that were picked on and fucked with, they look great in their 30s. That’s how it seems to me. [Cops a diva tone] I’ve always been one for embracing the imperfections.

That should be your new line of cologne — Imperfection, by Kyle Thomas. You’re Beetlejuiced out in the ad, and on the bottle it just says “may contain rat feces.”

Imperfection would be a great perfume. I’m just gonna have to distill my armpit hairs.

I just looked it up [on the internet], we’re clear. This whole thing we’re talking about right now, probably as a result of this interview, will be promulgated on high and the new age of hip imperfection will begin.

I think it’s already started: models with gap teeth. It’s there. People might not really be realizing it.

Oh yeah. I just remembered there’s a whole movement asserting its hipness by being “normal.” So basically, we just wandered into talking about something really boring and completely irrelevant to what we were talking about before, which is actually orientation toward society and its language and constructing your reality differently, because you kind of have to survive — because otherwise you’re going to be eaten by common speech.

Being a creative person, I’m really susceptible to that. If I play someone a song or show someone a painting and their reaction isn’t to flip out, I’m like, “Well, it must suck.” The key is really to not give a fuck and to not even think — to not think at all, which is really hard. So I’m trying to work on that.

Moving on — you’ve been really close friends for a long time with someone who is commonly known to be the “Next Big Thing.” She’s the hottest, next new thing. Do you know who I mean?

Ruth Garbus? Of course.

So how did you two meet? Because by the time this hits print, she’s going to be untouchable. We won’t even be able to talk about her without her signing a release.

I met Ruth through her sister Merrill [tUnE-yArDs]. Merrill worked at Mocha Joe’s [Brattleboro, Vermont, coffee shop], and I was friends with her when I was still in high school. One day, a smaller Garbus appeared in town — the dark horse Garbus. I was curious about her. She seemed mysterious. I met her in the coffee shop. Merrill said, “This is my sister Ruth. She’s looking for a place to live.” And instantly I said, “You’re moving in with me!” She moved in and she had a hammock for a bed — which was really uncomfortable — and a single red light bulb. And she really is such a good songwriter and such a good artist. Once the world fucking wakes up…