FRED THOMAS INTERVIEW
CONDUCTED THROUGHOUT 09/2018
1. tell me all you can remember about the very first show you ever played -- where, when, with who, etc etc?
F: This all started for me really, really early on, like age 12. So there were a bunch of desperate embryonic non-shows for a few years. Playing in friend's garages, playing outside of dances at the junior high, setting up in the church basement and playing Nirvana songs for the youth group, etc. Pretty much as soon as I could confidently strike a few chords there were a bunch of songs and a strong desire to get in front of people and play them. I'd qualify my first true show as one that happened in November of 1992 at The Lab, an early Ann Arbor punk house. My band at the time was called Smudge, I was 15. We opened up for a band called Wool from D.C. who used to be called Scream. Scream broke up when their drummer, Dave Grohl quit to join Nirvana. So it was Wool, Smudge and one other band-- Grout, and a six degrees of separation connection to Nirvana. Peak 1992.
2. Tell me all you can remember about the most recent show you've played?
F: On Sunday I played an all-day annual gig in Detroit called Cultivation. My friend Dave Shettler puts it on and this was the fourth one. It's geared towards ambient and experimental instrumental electronic sounds, but not strictly that. Totally free, backyard bbq vibes. I did two sets that day, one with a new project me, Emily and Claire do called Cultural Fog and one sitting in on guitar for my friends Kendall & Chuck's band Utica.It was a super hot day, but the vibe was pretty positive and amazing. I saw a lot of friends I've known for upwards of 20 years as well as a bunch of newer faces. Michigan, at its best, is like that.
3. to the best of your ability, can you name all the projects you're currently involved in? let's set a rule of that they have to have either played a show and/or recorded within the past 6 months.
F: Hahaah.. I can do this, but let me just preface it by saying one thing; at some point I got really excited by the idea of approaching music with the same fluidity as I saw jazz players and improvisers doing. Growing up in and around bands, I had some unspoken rules in my mind about how things worked. You were in a band, that was a big part of your identity. Think about all the people in your phone whose real last names you don't know, you just call them like Fred Hydropark or whatever. At some point I recognized that I was mostly going to be playing and recording lots of different kinds of music with lots of different folks, and became a lot less concrete with it. Having a lot of different projects doesn't feel as serious to me as it might to some people, it's just a different way of spending time with people I relate to.
That said, in the last 6 months I've played solo, done my solo songs with a full band billed under my own name, played drums for Tyvek on a European tour, played guitar and synths with Hydropark a bunch, recorded and done one show with Cultural Fog, sat in with Bonny Doon for their record release show, backed up Shells at a show she played, sat in with Utica at that bbq jam I mentioned and recorded some parts for various bands I've worked with in the studio.
4. And then how many additional projects are you still involved in that maybe haven't created in the last 6 months but still exist, at least on paper?
F: Failed Flowers is my most on pause band at the moment, but it still exists! The people in the band all have a lot going on, but we have plans to get together soon. I also make music with my friend Scott DeRoche was Billowing, getting that together about annually since 2010. I also record every day and sometimes play solo noise sets under the name Child, but that's mega not often. Gonna be playing guitar in Anna Burch's band when we tour together, too, and I did that at a few gigs with her in the years before her record came out.
5. do you have an inner understanding of how you find the energy and creativity to keep as prolifically busy as you have for so long and continue to? are there times it feels like more work/stress than enjoyment? have you ever considered, however briefly, walking away from making music completely? if you somehow overnight lost the ability to make music here forward, can you imagine what the rest of your life may look like instead?
F: In the same way that I try to approach different projects with fluidity, that's how I look at finding energy and inspiration. My goal is to get to the point where making something beautiful is commonplace and non-remarkable. Like, you'd never ask someone where they found the energy to so prolifically eat food or where they pull from to wash their hands or drive to work as much as they do. Haha.. I'm trying to get it to the point where it's a practice that's second nature and still good, or at least still means something to me. There are definitely times when I lose sight of what parts of it feel fun and everything gets lost in the logistics. Touring at 42 doesn't feel super different to me than it did at 22, but I also don't know if I'd feel good ONLY doing this type of work into the second half of my life, or however much of that I get. So yeah, there's moments when I think about other options. It's actually more unfathomable that I'm still doing this than not! What exactly it would look like, though, I have no idea.
6. at the end of the day, do you believe you're more creatively driven by the beauty or the ugly of this world? can you name some specific examples that inspire your work? do you have heroes or role models -- artistically, morally, however you see fit?
F: So much more so inspired by the beauty, which there is much. Fighting against the ugliness and injustice of the world is a beautiful thing in itself, but it's a weird line for me. I've seen so many who I thought were comrades who ultimately didn't want better things, they just wanted to always have a chance to be fighting. I get it, that's just not for me. I related more to having and needing heroes when I was younger, but it always ended up seeming arbitrary, like something I was supposed to feel. In dark days, I often return to the things that inspired me so much when I was just beginning to feel agency, touchstones of creativity. I don't even know if I enjoy these things any more, as much as they're foundational! Hahaha Listening to Albert Ayler or Joy Division or Void or reading books about the Black Panthers or the Situationists, watching Fantasia. Hahaha it's almost meditational for me. Always feels like a kind of reset though.
7. can you remember the first piece of music you bought with your own money? how about the most recent?
F: Oh man, it's rough but I bought an Aerosmith cassette with my own money when I was ten or eleven. "Permanent Vacation". Last pieces of music I picked up was the entire new batch of four tapes on the Boudoir label, run by my friend Dominic Coppola. Got those at the Cultivation gig I mentioned that happened a few days ago.
8. how many labels have you yourself been a part of operating? meaning specifically labels you've started or co-run. what was the first release of them all? what's the most recent thing you've released on a label you run?
F: Having had a lot of different record labels seems like a separate thing from having a lot of different projects. Like, why wouldn't you just stick with one? Hahah. For me, labels always came in collaborative or conceptual circumstances, hence the changes that happened with them over the years instead of still operating under the name of the first label I did. The first one was actually someone else's thing that I co-opted. My friend Brad Hales lived on the west side of Ann Arbor and wanted to have a label called Westside Records. He offered to have the first release be the first 7" from my band Chore. This was 1995. We got our side of things together but the release kept on getting pushed back or other things kinda came up. Eventually we just put it out ourselves using Westside Records as the label name, and I still remember Brad saying to me "Guess it's your thing now." Not angry or like he even cared that much, he just wasn't as excited about it as I was. I rolled with that label from 1995-1999, which would have been my late teens and early 20's. Big years!! Also super isolated years, though. I got really sick for part of that time with a kidney problem that took a few years to diagnose and treat, and it was really scary and painful. I remember a perpetually dark kinda feeling hanging over those years, but I always worked on label stuff to give myself hope. So many weird, confusing releases on Westside, which was later called Westside Audio Laboratories. Noise tapes, hardcore/punk as fuck bands, experimental shit, lots of compilations--- really anything I was interested in at the time.
In 2000 I started a label with Ben Bracken called hereforeveralways. Ben and I were inseparable best friends at the time and had a concept for a label that put out super limited, localized records, always 12"s that were supposed to be like snapshots of a moment more than typical records. We were young and had big ideas to put out new stuff every month, have a subscription service, etc. We ultimately put out three records and made more copies than we could sell. Around the same time I started doing Ypsilanti Records, focusing on 7"s and less experimental stuff, but that essentially became the same kinda vibe as Westside. Michigan has so many creative people all doing wildly different things but all connected. So there are overlapping scenes and people who have crazy noise projects and also write pop music or do an ambient label and also hardcore bands. Ypsilanti Records was named after the town of Ypsilanti in Michigan where I lived for a lot of my life and eventually did a ton of small releases. There was a time in 2005 where I would put out a new CD-R every Tuesday with hand-made art in an edition of 30 copies. Going back to the dream of just documenting a moment. Looking back, those CDRs do feel a lot like 2005, so I guess it succeeded.
In 2006 I left Michigan for a few years, moving to Portland and then to Brooklyn. I still did a little bit of label stuff in those years but not much because I was broke and struggling. When I came back to Michigan in 2010, there was a scene of folks really interested in tapes and sharing ideas quickly and cheaply through limited run cassettes. This continued the idea of just grabbing the essence of what was happening at the time and communicating with the people around you. Life Like started in 2010, mostly really limited cassette releases and eventually a few LPs. Almost all of the 109 Life Like releases were made in editions of under 50 and the only ones that aren't sold out are the LPs I pressed a couple hundred copies of.
9. Will you share the story of how you met your (now) wife, Emily? What has been the biggest surprise to you about being married? Do you imagine you may ever have kid(s)? Can you imagine how dramatically that could (or potentially might not) change your life?
F: Emily grew up in Ann Arbor and we strangely crossed some of the same paths over time before we knew each other. She was in Portland for some of the time I lived there and went to school in New York when I was in Brooklyn, so by the time we were officially introduced there was a kind of strange "but wait, don't we know each other from somewhere?" feeling. Emily was doing performance art in Ann Arbor around the time we were introduced, usually at shows with noise artists or rock bands. She played a show that one of my old bands also played at, and while I'd seen her around and known her as a friend of a friend, I fell in love with her the first time I saw her perform. She was and continues to be the most fearless, unflinchingly self-assured and pure presences I'd ever encountered. It was amazing and instant. When we started talking more it became apparent that this was it for me, and for her. No questions, no confusion, no obstacles, we were in love and going to be together. We got married really quickly even though neither of us were big "I wanna get married!!!!" kinda people. I guess the surprise for me is how clear and absolute it feels to be in a solidly committed thing like marriage. We don't have a lot of stock in marriage as an institution or religion of any kind, but it feels amazing to know your love is the center of things. We have no plans to have children. I can't imagine what creating a new life would mean.
10. stream of conscious style, will you tell me 5 albums and 5 7"s that have been an important part of shaping who you are? any additional antidotes such as where/when you first heard them, that kinda thing are also appreciated :)
F: Oh man, there's so many, but I remember hearing Beat Happening's "Hot Chocolate Boy" on a mix tape my friend Alivia made me and losing it. I found "Black Candy" and that was just an endless well of fascination for me. Around the same time I think the Dead C's "The White House" came out and that broke things wide open for me, too. It was winter and I didn't have a car, so I was walking and taking the bus in sub zero weather, constantly broke and starving and listening to this strange, frozen weird music on headphones. Unrest's "Perfect Teeth" and Circle Jerk's "Group Sex" were both high school records for me that somehow communicated similar feelings really differently, and then when I first heard "Odessey and Oracle" by the Zombies, that changed my approach to songwriting completely. As for 7"s, there were so many that I loved a lot but I have a harder time placing them as life-shifting for some reason.
11. Is Ann Arbor "home"? If not, is anywhere? If so, what are a few of your favorite under the radar spots there? What's one thing it severely lacks that you would change if you could?
F: My experience and history with Ann Arbor is amazing, and probably something that only a few folks I grew up with would totally relate to. Everyone's life gives them good times and cool eras, but for me, I couldn't have asked for a richer experience than being a teenager in Ann Arbor in the 90's. That wasn't just a golden era, either, I really hung on to the best parts of the weirdo freak scene that a town full of smart, progressive and slightly damaged people is always going to cultivate, and steered clear of any of the hassles that also come along with it. It has changed a lot, like much of the country, growing more comfortable and accommodating for the wealthy, getting crowded, hostile, homogeneous. There's still some of the spirit intact that made the town so special when I was growing up, though, but I hesitate to call it home, just because that concept doesn't seem to fit my life completely and I don't trust the idea that we need a home, that some place is going to be an answer that can't be found elsewhere. I have spent more time in Ann Arbor than anywhere else, though, and I know it pretty well, and I love the town. The spots that will always hold up for me are the college radio station- WCBN, Encore Records, a shop that's been selling independent music in some form or another since the 60's, various parks, woods, side streets and off-the-map routes that still feel like no one knows about and the spirit that still happens whenever the kids get together for a basement show. That's where I started understanding how important punk was some 30 years ago, and it still feels the same today.
12. What does the immediate future hold for you? Musically, artistically, personally?
F: The immediate future is really bright and full. I've kind of compartmentalized all of my different projects and aspirations, and each of them has something exciting on the horizon. I have a solo record that comes out on Friday that I've been working towards for over a year and will likely tour on for the rest of the fall. The music I make with my other acts is slower-to-form due to the collaborative nature and decision-making processes, but Hydropark has two different LPs coming-- there's an album of 8 songs we've been working on for years. This is so unfinished even after several different studio trips and building our own studio in drummer Chad Pratt's basement, but it's basically what we play live, our most polished and complete songs. Aside from the long-labored studio record we have a record coming on 25 Diamonds that's totally different kind of thing. We're always working on song ideas, recording sketches and refining different pieces, and over the last two or three years we amassed dozens of unfinished songs, jams and fragments that are really cool but kind of got left behind before they became totally realized songs. We decided to stitch together the best parts of the best ones, looking to J. Dilla's "Donuts" and other beat tapes as models for the vibe. It's probably going to be about 25 or 30 "songs", but moving on from one idea to the next as soon as attention starts waning. It's a totally different way of approaching recordings than a hyper-considered album and it feels a lot more free to experiment and try wild production moves, attempt things that wouldn't fly on more long-labored songs you're trying to get sounding perfect.
Tyvek just got together all weekend for a long recording session which probably will result in a 7" release, and Failed Flowers doesn't get together much but we have plans to record all our undocumented songs sometime this winter when Anna's touring schedule winds down.
Personally, I'm happy because it's been cold and autumnal for the past few days, and the weather is romantic and strange, my natural state of being! I plan on living in these feelings for as long as possible.
13. Let's wrap this up by speaking on sustainability. Do what degree are you a 'professional' musician? Do you have side hustles to make the ends meet? Would you prefer to be a full time artist if so?
F: This is the question that comes up a lot more now than it did in the last few decades. I meet people playing music now who are really shook about "making it" in a way that seems more about the business side of things than any artistic or creative drive. That's fine, people gotta eat and if your job is to play music and entertain, great. I personally have never made any money doing music. Even in times of amazing luck and windfall where a song got used in a movie and we sold a ton of t-shirts on tour and there was actual income from music, it never surpassed the expenses, even remotely. Thinking about making ends meet as a full time musician has always blown my mind because when you break it down, if your goal is to make a lot of money, playing in a band is the worst bet. My friends and I sometimes played a game where we calculated the hourly wage at the end of tour. Lots of time in the van on a 12 hour drive, so we got really into it. We were technically "working" from the minute we got in the van until the minute we lay down on some stranger's floor, but might as well factor in lunch breaks, even be generous and factor in any free food or drinks as a benefits package, etc. So when the tour made money and everyone took home $700 at the end of a four week ride, the hourly wage was still like $1.50 or something ungodly like that!!! So no, I don't think of myself as a professional musician and never have. There have been times I haven't had a job and concentrated more on touring or music, but in those times, the rent was getting paid out of savings, selling my records on eBay, painting houses, doing freelance work, giving music lessons, etc. I wouldn't prefer to be a full time artist because that's just not how I've done it ever. The job you're working against is funding the art and also placing boundaries and opposition to make the art actually mean something. Any time I've had an open week to work on music, it starts strong and falters with too much wispy freedom to meander. Some of the best music I've ever made has been created in the spare hour I had between work commitments.
14. So finally - why? Why all the work for so little pay? Why independent, why DIY? Clearly something has kept you so simultaneously motivated and devoted, but to an outside eye, it likely doesn't make any sense - do you understand why you do what you do and how you do it?
The very reason I started making music was because it felt like a space outside of having to think about the evils that surround. When I was an early teenager spending hours playing guitar and making up conceptual bands, it was so I could not be feeling bad about myself, which is what everything else in my life led me to. When I started actually playing shows it was the excitement and joy that all the work and hassle of everyday life afforded. To actually make records of my art, perform it for others, have grown with a community that's worldwide, this is all amazing and bright and for me exists outside of monetary considerations and always has. There's been approximately zero times when I was like "hmmmm, this gig doesn't pay enough. I really love this music and the people I'll see there, but I don't leave the house for less than $200." To me, this beautiful art and life I get to be a part of is all pushing AWAY from the brutal, inhuman systems in place that equate to "making a living". It all costs money, for now, but the spirit and the sounds have been around long before money and I'm trying to keep track of that.