It's a sweaty, summer night in Ferndale — the kind that makes beer taste better in green bottles and superfluous straining from the least physical of movements. But down in the AC-chilled confines of the No Bummer Zone, smartly dressed, mostly skinny music fans push, bop and shake to the breezy sounds of the evening's final act.
The No Bummer Zone is like some kind of indie-rock frathouse. The main floor also houses Leroy Street Records, features a couple of arcade games, shelves packed with DVDs and a refrigerator stocked, at first, with High Life, and later, Game Day Ice, for band members.
In the basement, rugs cover the floor, and the walls sport promo posters featuring Kevin Smith, Nirvana and Mars Volta.
It's well after midnight, on a school night, but about 40 persistent twentysomethings stick it out for this last hurrah of a weekend; for their part, the band Swimsuit delivers a short, sweet set of mostly major-key pop, driven by fuzzy bass, floaty guitar lines, propulsive power chords and diligent tom-snare tha-waaap-ing. They're the kind of songs where an anthem emerges whenever any of three vocalists opens their mouth in front of a mic.
While Swimsuit's supposedly leaderless, it's clear on "stage" that the only dude in this foursome is the one who calls the shots, however amiably.
Amiably because that guy is the perenially pleasant Fred Thomas. A region favorite and probably the most prolific indie rock personality to come from Michigan in the last decade — the multi-instrumentalist is widely known for his elevated producing and songwriting skills — Thomas broke through to national acclaim in the '00s with Saturday Looks Good to Me.
Thomas is something of a prodigal son. He has returned to the Ann Arbor area after a few years living out of state or out of a suitcase on tour, busy with a new label and a half-dozen-some music projects, including the promising Swimsuit.
It's earlier that night and Thomas is sitting on the front porch, in the dark, of the No Bummer Zone house. He's wearing jeans, a fitted T, and a white, straight-billed baseball cap cocked slightly to the side. When he's not interrupted by friends, fans or some musical ruckus rising from the basement, he talks passionately about music. But he's also guarded, or maybe distracted (this is a house party), and it's obvious he's uncomfortable talking about himself. He's never impolite about that, but you sense he'd rather be hanging out in basement than promoting himself.
Thomas takes occasional sips from a bottled water and turns down a beer. "I didn't really eat today, but thank you," he says, followed by, "That's really nice."
He thanked this writer more than once for "the opportunity" to do this interview, as if he couldn't have contacted Metro Times for ink on whatever he's been doing in the three years since SLGM's last record.
The man is polite.
In the time the singer-songwriter has been away, he has lived bicoastally, in Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y., with the occasional layover in Michigan.
He says there was no real reason for any of the moves because "different things happened."
Again, the man doesn't like talking about himself.
"It's like, 'Yeah, he moved all over the fucking place,' but who cares?" he says.
Somewhere out there, SLGTM went on indefinite hiatus, playing its last show to date in London in 2008. "It just kind of fizzled out in that, there's never a set lineup, but even touring became almost impossible and very impractical, and we stopped," Thomas says. "I wouldn't say it's completely done, but nothing has happened with the band since then."
Although his mail's now delivered to a Michigan address, Thomas spent months on the road with City Center, his bliss-inclined psych-jam band with former SLGTM-er Ryan Howard. (A band Thomas began solo in 2007.) He also backed indie-rock royalty and K Records founder Calvin Johnson, as well as tour-mates Chain and the Gang, in 2009. It's not easy sometimes performing in not one, but three bands a night.
"I always forget that I did that, because that was other people's songs, and kind of like this rigorous, endless tour," he says. "Some nights City Center opened, and I played in every single band on a three-band bill, and I'd just be exhausted. It's fun, but it's also kind of ridiculous, playing a different instrument in every single different band."
While SLGTM sits on the shelf, and among Thomas's "myriad" other projects, City Center gets most of his energy. He also plays solo ("Because, why not?") and experiments in his noise-oriented solo project, Child.
In May, Thomas launched Life Like, the latest in a string of self-started mini-labels, releasing his own work and projects by friends. This time, the focus is on cassettes and short runs of vinyl records and "kind of low-to-the-ground" lathe-cuts.
He's excited by the prospect of working on a smaller scale. "It's like, you do it for you, and maybe there's only 30, 40 people who ever want to hear it, but that's great. That's 30, 40 really sweet people."
The sentiment contradicts a headline from these pages three years ago that read, "Will success spoil Fred Thomas?" The story implied that Thomas was on his way to a kind of indie superstardom, that rarefied air reserved for, say, Arcade Fire. His is an ambivalent kind of ambition, you might say.
As indie's biggest curator, Pitchfork.com, launches sister site "Altered Zones" dedicated to ferreting out and reporting on the "low-to-the-ground," it's clear there's a niche market in cassette tapes and a new standard for "indie" artists in a marketplace oversaturated with "indie" as a marketing term. Thomas, who's no stranger to limited-edition releases, noticed the growing tape phenomenon while touring with City Center. He could barely give away CDs, but people took interest in the tapes on the merch table. "Cassettes actually came back, and it makes sense, because they're really economical, really cheap to make, you can make them kind of really special, and they're something that's completely not downloadable."
With the help of a super high-speed duplicator belonging to Howard's brother, City Center — to Thomas' amazement — put together a tape in a night before their last tour.
"I got kind of into it and addicted to it," he says. "So many people I know were working on music and were like, 'Oh, you know I'm kind of working on something,' and I was like, 'Let's do it today. Let's go over to the practice space, record it, I'll dub it tonight, I'll make a cover for it, it's done. We'll give most of them away. Fuck it. Who cares?'" He adds with a laugh, "There's almost no commercial potential for it, and I really like that. That's really cool."
As for other instantaneous, commercially unviable outlets, Thomas keeps a regular blog for City Center, where more than 100 free songs have been posted. That's right, 100 free songs.
"When I moved to New York, that's all I did was record in my bedroom all day, because I was bored, and I didn't have any money, and also most of my friends I was only communicating with them via the Internet, so I could be like, 'Oh, I made a new song. It's kind of like a post card, and don't forget, I'm out here doing something.' And also, people all over the world heard those songs, too, and that was really exciting. You never know who's checking it out."
Since rerooting in Michigan, Thomas is excited by what he views as a re-energized scene, forming new relationships and reconnecting with old friends. "In the Detroit area, especially, people are doing amazing things right now and there's a better attitude and more positive motion afoot than any time I remember in all the 30-some years I've lived here," he says.
At an underpromoted June solo gig at Ypsilanti's now-defunct Elbow Room, Thomas played to a modest, but very attentive audience that included no less than the city's mayor. The way the fan boys lined up in front of the stage, it was like a switch went off when Thomas opened his mouth. It's an effect he claims not to notice. "There could be a barroom full of drunken, supportive, bellowing fans, and still, there's somebody with their arms crossed looking at their shoes, and that's the person that I'm seeing," Thomas says. "It's not because I'm a self-depreciating type person or because I'm pessimistic in any way ... I never want to count on connectivity with an audience, so I'm always striving to get better at it and try to address every single person in the audience, without really addressing anyone at all."
One Thomas project that won't have problems connecting is Swimsuit. The band includes guitarist and vocalist Dina Bankole — some might recognize her sparkly voice and white Flying V guitar from rock duo Secret Twins — bassist Amber Fellows and drummer Shelley Salant, formerly of clangy postpunk heroes Tyvek. The band could be some kind of Detroit scene supergroup — one Malcolm Mclaren might've set up: Thomas and a trio of talented, adorable young women smiling and bashing their way through stripped down, surf-infused, reverb-washed pop.
The band, in fact, began, appropriately enough, here, in the No Bummer Zone house.
Since forming, the band released two casettes on Life Like, opened for buzz-band Real Estate and did a quick run to the East Coast and back. A new 7-inch is coming.
Gathered on a spare bedroom floor before the night's basement gig, band members munch on vegan "pizza" (a dissapointing pile of crust and sauce) and smirk and giggle about their egalitarian approach to music.
Thomas had caught drummer friend Salant playing in a two-person version of Tyvek last summer. His reaction: "Whoa, that's amazing!"
After a few rehearsals, Thomas and Salant invited guitarist Bankole to join. She did. And after several attempts to get bassist Fellows on board, she caved.
"It's kind of like a very slowly forming entity," Thomas says. "Everybody had different things they were working on, be it musical or otherwise. It was like, 'Yeah, we've got that band. Oh, yeah, can you practice? If not this week, maybe four weeks from now."
Two days before Swimsuit's debut, in February this year, the group didn't have a name, until Thomas suggested "Swimsuit," which in hindsight, seemed perfect, on one hand it suggests forward movement, sunshine, sandy beaches and, maybe, beauty.
"It kind of informed and formulated the tonality," Fellows says. "It's very easy to see that name connected with it."
"There was a real energy to the band right from the very first show," Thomas says. "It was like, immediately a fully formed a vibe that was there from the start."
Multiple songwriters/front persons breed contention —it's a band cliché that so far doesn't wash with Swimsuit. "The good thing about this band is there's no leader," Thomas says. "It's kind of like this autonomous collective thing. It's really easy to be in the band and it's easy to play the shows. The most difficult thing is everyone has lots of other stuff going on in their lives."
"I get to attempt to 'solo' (laughs), and play different guitar lines," Bankole says.
The end result is a sum, arguably greater, but at the least different from, its parts; each voice recognizable, no matter how mashed into one ecstatic chorus.
The band writes most of its songs through jams, which at first produced a number of wordless tunes, which may or may not remain instrumental, and they'll perform them that way, or lay them down, like on their debut five-song demo tape on Life Life, which features two tracks sans vocals.
"When we started playing, I said that all of our songs sound like the theme from The Kids in the Hall, because they were kind of surfy and instrumental and whatnot, but they all kind of had this really similar vibe," Thomas said. "I don't think that's necessarily true, that's just something I would say."
"I would still say that," Salant adds.
Lyrical themes and titles come from inside jokes and discussions. For instance, "Abyss of Time," shares its name, and feel, with a melodramatic designer label Fellows noticed on a hand bag. It's that simple.
Thomas: "We sat down and were like, 'What kind of company would name themselves Abyss of Time? Were they just really intense designers?'"
If the lyrics come from conversations between members, to them, it also sounds like one; each attests to the anthropomorphic tones in the mix.
"If I kind of talk too much without saying anything, that's how I play guitar," Thomas says. "To the point and a little jagged, that's how Shelley plays drums." Thomas' words play out in his busy guitar lines, these reverberated soliloquies.
Minutes before Swimsuit takes the stage, someone upstairs fires up a Kate Bush record. It's dance party time, and Fellows playfully complains to Thomas about having to compete.
When the band starts, it's no contest; the basement fills. Friends shout incoherent requests. Shelley punctuates her floor-snare one-two with a slice into a broken crash cymbal — a calling card for the drummer that draws an audience shout out.
There's a set list on the floor, but the band chooses songs radomly before launching into some contemplative surf tune or a driving, multi-vocalled party jam, like the urgent "Rat Pack," with it's Thomas-Fellows back-and-forth of "RAT!" "PACK!" "RAT!" "PACK!"
The show's over when Thomas announces that they're out of material. Friends and fans file up the stairs to smoke outside or hover around the stage, and Thomas makes his way back to talk about tapes.
See Swimsuit on Monday Aug. 30, at the Contempoary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-CAID. Procedure Club and Winter Ruby are also on the bill. For more info and to listen to Swimsuit, see myspace.com/swimsuitsounds.Eric Gallippo is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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