You probably know Fred Thomas from his early work in Ann Arbor's experimental indie pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me. Although the band was retired at one point (but has since reformed), Thomas never stopped making music in some shape or another, including numerous collaborations with other musicians (Failed Flowers, Swimsuit, Mighty Clouds) as well as a slew of solo releases (often as limited as a few CD-Rs handed out at shows) that weren't especially widely heard — until 2015's All Are Saved (Polyvinyl).
A different, more direct approach was consciously taken on that album. It worked so well that Thomas proceeded to the next one with a similar mentality but a different mood. While All Are Saved was concerned with a specific time in Thomas' life, 2017's Changer (Polyvinyl) takes a plaintive look backward, capturing painfully honest memories of growing up, being broke, and touring — probably sometimes all three at once. These kinds of memories are laced with discomfort, but Thomas doesn't make uncomfortable music. Listen to Changer and somewhere in the nostalgic poetry of the lyrics, you are sure to hear something that makes you feel at home.
Thomas now lives in Montreal with his wife Emily Roll (of Haunted and the Vitas, who also appears on the album's cover as well as contributes vocals and tenor sax), a big change they put into motion so she could attend grad school, and one that inspired the heavily reflective themes present on Changer. A sense of the Midwest is inescapable considering Thomas grew up and has been based there for much of his life, but there's also the dread and excitement of frequent touring in unfamiliar cities and the selfish misery of youthful desires.
The album is undeniably relatable, but a good deal of what sets it apart — and what brings to mind, in a way, the beautifully experimental pop of a work like Pet Sounds — is the organic instrumentation nestled throughout, a perfect complement to the extended harp samples on "Echolocation," and synth-heavy ambience that permeates Changer's second half. Closing song "Mallwalkers" is the culmination of it all, sonically a return to the guitar pop of the beginning, but with the most bummed out, disaffected vibe yet.
Changer is out this week, though Thomas has no dates in Michigan at the moment. (But he is joining hometown favorites Tyvek for a handful of West Coast dates on their tour next month.) Thomas is often back in town though, and almost always plays a show in some form when he's here, so look for his appearances when you can. In the meantime, we spoke with him to find out what moving to a different country does to your music, his poetic influences, and more.
Metro Times: Your lyrics have a literary feel. What kind of influence is that for you?
Fred Thomas: I've always been really interested in literature, poetry in particular, but I didn't really think about integrating that into rock music until a bit more recently. I've always been criticized for my singing. A lot of people don't like my voice, but I've always chosen to sing anyway because who fucking cares? It's stupid to think about what other people like, but it is something that gets under your skin after about 20 years of people telling you to your face that they hate your singing and that you shouldn't sing.
So maybe part of it is a subconscious thing where I'm like, "OK, cool, I'll just talk through my songs then instead of singing." It also makes more space for words outside of the regular pop song structure. You can just repeat the same four words forever and that's an expected beautiful little pop song moment, but I usually want to push further than that and see if I can say something a little bit uglier or a little bit stranger.
MT: Are there any specific authors or poets that you draw from?
Thomas: I always think about Anne Carson, who is also from Ann Arbor, as someone who is just an amazing sorceress of words. Her use of language is so touched by magic that it's impossible not to feel like you just want to rip it off all the time. I grew up loving John Donne, a poet from the 16th century. That was one of my first high school poetry moments, where I found multiple meanings of words as something that you could play with, and kind of say one thing but mean several things at the same time.
MT: What was on your mind when you wrote Changer?
Thomas: I was writing it while I was getting ready to leave Michigan, get set up in a brand-new place where I didn't speak the language; I had just gotten married. All these things are new and exciting, but somehow they made me think back to different times and phases of my life that no longer applied. This is more a record about how lives change drastically and you're still the same person even though you're so different from year to year. The first song on the record, "Misremembered," has lines about when I was young and super broke and had to sell plasma. Half of the songs are about being on tour because I've spent the last many, many years on various tours. It's a world unto itself — not playing for a lot of people, in strange places and you don't know where you're going to stay that night.
A lot of the songs come from experiences of being in strange cities and loving it a lot but also knowing that the line between safety and danger is really thin. "Mallwalkers" is about working as a teenager at the mall and feeling that strange kind of dissociative loneliness that you can only feel when you're super young. Looking back on all these different phases is almost like a scrapbook of uncomfortable memories or something.
MT: What has been an unconventional or unexpected influence on you?
Thomas: Your environment can really influence how you make music. When we moved to Canada, we lived in an apartment with super thin walls for the first year. I was used to recording in studios where I could play drums until 4 in the morning. Now I couldn't even sing in my room because it would pick up the sounds of my upstairs neighbors screaming at each other or I'd feel embarrassed to be singing these weird songs in English about being drunk or feeling sad that you're getting older or whatever the fuck my songs are about. What happened is that I started only making music on headphones, electronically.
I had a bunch of synthesizers and I started figuring out more electronic music software, and so the second half of the record is a lot more electronics and ambient stuff. The first half is guitar pop and has the sort of more desperate, storytelling rock thing, and then all of a sudden there's this ambient harp sample. I wasn't expecting that to happen, and I really wasn't expecting that to come together as the final product. I'm not particularly super versed in electronic music outside of what most people like, but it was interesting to feel that undercurrent bubble to the surface a lot more than I thought it would.
MT: Another thing that stuck out is a darker sense of dread and sadness. What can you tell me about that?
Thomas: It's really heavy times right now. Things are presently really quite scary for everyone I know and love. Like most people, I've had a lifelong relationship with sadness to some degree, but I guess maybe what you're hearing and what I'm trying to articulate for the first time on this record is how that relationship changes over time. When I was younger I only cared about being in a band that people listened to and liked. I felt dread over more petty things, I was more selfish. When I was a child I felt fear in a different way. Now that I'm a little bit older, I'm thinking about a lot more people than just myself, how to make changes that would benefit everybody, or how we can face a larger dread as communities. I mean, people can write books about this stuff, and I'm just pondering it all with my songs. But I'm looking also at this from the way that I felt when I was younger and I was bummed out all the time for stupid, ridiculous non-reasons, and how silly that feels to me now. I think that's kind of an inevitability to growing up, you kind of get over yourself and things you look back on that seemed life or death now feel stupid and childish. But I'm looking at those memories in the light of presently bleaker times. Times that need a different type of hopefulness than might have applied before.
Changer will be released Friday, Jan. 27 via Polyvinyl; polyvinylrecords.com.