Staying alive

Jan 30, 2002 at 12:00 am

Fred Thomas has been trying not to kill himself. Right now, standing between him and the abyss is a dizzying list of upcoming projects. Saturday Looks Good To Me, his third-millennium Motown band, releases a CD that collects early SLGTM work along with some newer tracks this Saturday at Ann Arbor’s Halfway Inn. Flashpapr, his sleepy, string-sweetened experimental folk act, is mixing its third studio album. He’s still filling orders for the split singles his label, Ypsilanti Records, released in early fall — two 7-inchers which topped the best-seller list, even beating out a Fugazi offering, for several weeks. And in his spare time, he’s been laying down tracks for his first “official” solo album, due sometime this spring from Little Hands.

This, Thomas says, is what keeps him alive. It’s a choice he made years ago, when, as it tends to, everything that mattered to him had fallen apart. “And rather than kill myself,” he says, “I decided to work on music as much as I could.”

To a certain degree, this is hyperbole. Day by day, Thomas is almost painfully susceptible to simple joys: rides on old bikes, sitting on the roof all night, bright-colored thrift-store finds. The real likelihood that he’ll leave us anytime soon is small. But there’s a kernel of truth in his statement: For Thomas, one of the Detroit area’s most prolific songwriters and producers, music is a matter of life or death.

The early days

It’s always been a way of life.

Thomas started his first band somewhere around age 11, before he even owned a guitar. His first recording was accomplished at 13, sung into his father’s broken headphones, which he’d plugged directly into the family tape console’s microphone input. When Thomas was 15, his high-school band, Smudge, played its first real show at the Lab, Ann Arbor’s first punk-rock basement. At 18, Thomas pressed his first 7-inch, of his then-current band Chore, on his first record label, Westside Audio (which has since been replaced by Ypsilanti Records).

During the next four years, Thomas and Westside Audio formed part of the beating heart of Ann Arbor’s mid-’90s musical renaissance, putting out almost 25 records during that brief period. Chore gave way to two other bands: Flashpapr, a dreamy, improvisational act that built “half-songs” out of strings and laptop sounds, and Lovesick, a screaming, full-tilt hardcore group, in which Thomas, usually found on lead guitar, took over the drum kit with a frenzy that might seem spastic if it weren’t so dead on the beat.

But just as Flashpapr’s first record was completed, tragedy intruded on the vibrant scene. Ex-Morsel guitarist Geoff Streadwick, who had been playing drums in Flashpapr, didn’t show up to one of the band’s shows shortly after Christmas. Thomas called Streadwick’s girlfriend just before he went onstage, to leave the show’s address and directions. Afterward he called again, to ask, “Did that jackass ever show up?” Streadwick hadn’t. He’d died that day at his mother’s cabin, the victim of a leaky gas line.

Flashpapr went ahead with the release of the new album and put Streadwick’s picture on it. But for Thomas, things shifted. That record, he realized, wasn’t just a record: The music was an everlasting document of a very personal, unrecoverable statement. And from that point on, it didn’t make sense to him to make anything else.

Making the connection

Thomas beckons, and the crowd of Flashpapr fans seated on CPOP’s clean wooden floor scoots up, like kindergartners trying to get a better look at the story-time picture book. Asking the audience to get closer is a Thomas habit: He’s been known to invite them right up onstage, so crowd members actually wind up dancing among the musicians as they play. Even then, you sometimes get the sense that Thomas can never get close enough. His drive to connect with listeners goes far beyond a simple need to get the message across; fundamentally, he wants to make them feel the same things he does.

In concert, this translates into almost unbearably transparent performances. During some of Flashpapr’s sadder numbers, you can sometimes catch band members stealing glances at him, as if checking to make sure he’s going to make it to the end. Between songs, he engages the crowd in long conversations, letting them know what he’s been thinking this week, telling them secrets, punctuating everything with the refrain, “you know … you know?”

They do know. At almost every Thomas show, you see the same faces: the achingly pretty girls in their ’50s dresses holding hands; the skinny, horn-rimmed record-store boys; the punk in the red jacket from the Fleetwood; the teenage kid who does the zines. They’re the ones who, maybe, in other places, don’t quite fit. But here they belong to something. In another life, Thomas might have been the boss of a big-city political machine. Before and after shows, he’s out in the crowd, giving hugs, saying hello. He’s got an enormous knack for being glad to see someone, for bringing people together, for getting things moving — perhaps because his enthusiasm is real and his interest in people is genuine. He really does want to know how they’re doing, what they think. And all he wants out of them is that they listen to his music. Which is easy, because Thomas also has a profound talent for songwriting.

The power of pop

As a writer, Thomas has two dirty secrets: He’s a poet, and he’s a pop genius. Lyrically, almost any of his songs could stand on their own two feet, without music. And the best of them could stand shoulder to shoulder with printed poetry: “Smoke too many cigarettes / Trying to remember to forget / The way we met / The alphabet / All the letters you regret having sent.” His ability to move listeners with words is so strong that he could conceivably get away with never really writing a melody.

But Thomas has got an equally strong melodic pop sensibility — one he can never quite disguise, whether it’s distorted nearly beyond recognition by Lovesick, or buried between long stretches of Flashpapr’s experimental improvisation. The distortion and improvisation don’t hamper Thomas’s songs. In fact, his penchant for experimentation may be a saving grace. It gives his melodies an edge that keeps them from falling into the grating sweetness of mainstream pop. But take away the guitar noise and the two-minute intros, and at base, you’ve got a very talented, very traditional songwriter.

In the past few years, as his earlier bands dissolve or fade, he’s started to come to terms with his undeniable affinity for pop. Lovesick played a final farewell gig this fall. Flashpapr, whose members are currently scattered around the country, is on hold. And last year, with the formation of his newest group, Saturday Looks Good To Me, Thomas finally started a very traditional pop act.

Sort of.

The band morphs on

Thomas didn’t really believe SLGTM was a band until almost a year after it started playing. And he’s still got his suspicions. Although there are some pretty consistent members, the band’s lineup has never really solidified. In the past six months, shows billed as Saturday Looks Good To Me have ranged from Thomas solo, at detroit contemporary, to a 15-member riot in matching red shirts at the Magic Stick, complete with horns and strings. (The full complement will appear at the Halfway Inn CD-release party.) Thomas alone is compelling, but when the full SLGTM roster gets up onstage, the effect is staggering — some of the best, most improbable, over-the top performances in recent Detroit history.

Saturday Looks Good To Me’s self-titled debut album, which was released in 2000 in a very limited, vinyl-only pressing and is just now appearing on CD, sounds like something Thomas found while sneaking around the old Motown offices; a set of forgotten hits left by Berry Gordy in some box during his haste to make that last flight to L.A. The songs aren’t Motown tributes. They’re not Motown-inflected. They’re full-on, lost-master Motown hits, the kind of addictive ear candy that kids used to call up and beg DJs to spin again and again. Thomas, apparently, took them home and recorded his own lyrics over the lost tracks, adding a layer of intelligent modern-day melancholy, which creates a wonderfully poignant dissonance. On the opening track, for instance, joyous Motown bass lines thump along below a wispy-voiced girl singing, “I wish I could cry.” It’s a brilliant mix of thievery and original songwriting — the kind of record that makes life worth living.

Thomas himself is delighted with the finished product, which he believes is the best thing he’s ever done. While recording, he was sometimes so happy with it that he’d think, “I can’t wait to finish this record, so I can kill myself.”

Again, really, hyperbole. What he’s trying to get at is the sense that, with that album, he completed something — got part of what he wants to do with his life down, finally. And now it’s available on a shiny CD. Being an indie producer, being an indie band, being alive — none of it is easy. But despite the bad days, Thomas continues to produce things of beauty.

And in the process, he gives the rest of us new reasons to be glad we’re living.

Carey Wallace is a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]