Prolific songwriter Fred Thomas returns with ‘Aftering’

The many faces of Fred Thomas.
The many faces of Fred Thomas. Miles Larson

It should be noted that Fred Thomas is fine, actually. The 42-year-old songwriter and producer is not crying for help on Aftering — Thomas' third record in an unofficial trilogy of sprawling observational musings in which he explores the spectrum between malaise and mania. From post-election despair, alcohol poisoning, and the isolation of stumbling around a foreign city, Aftering has zero interest in sugarcoating human emotion.

"I'm super lucky and healthy, I feel connected to a lot of people. I'm blazingly blessed to still be playing music that people care about at all," Thomas says. "I've seen some people get older and their music starts to suck and I've seen people lose energy for it. I can't speak to whether my music sucks worse now but I still have a lot of energy for it and I feel grateful for still making it. I'm doing good."

Days before its release, Thomas retweeted that someone had listened to Aftering and it left them feeling "super depressed." Thomas, admittedly, has this effect on people — at least in song and at least over the course of the past three years since taking a new approach to songwriting. It isn't that Thomas had abandoned the easygoing indie pop championed by his most celebrated project, Saturday Looks Good to Me, when he set out to make his solo record All Are Saved in 2015. He was simply retuning, in a way that required him to get specific.

"I felt bad about being dishonest in my earlier songs," he admits. "I feel like you can see it or hear it when someone's singing a song and they're going for a certain emotion but you know that there's no actual narration there, like they didn't live any part of that."

"I was reacting in disgust to myself and back catalogue of hyper vague, nonsensical, slightly romantic, slightly whimsical, slightly sad music," he says. "I know everyone is their own worst critic and I really do care about the music I made when I was in my earlier bands, but sometimes I listen back and think I really just wrote a song about nothing and sang it for a long time."

Thomas has long been a fixture in Michigan's indie landscape, and his earliest outputs go as far back as 1994's math rock band Chore. He recorded and toured with His Name Is Alive, and joined emo-punk band Lovesick, as well as chamber pop combo Flashpapr — in addition to acts like City Center, Failed Flowers, Mighty Clouds, and probably more that even Thomas has trouble remembering because not a year has gone by where the Ypsilanti native hasn't been tirelessly creating, collaborating, or touring.

Most recently, though, Thomas has returned to his home state after having quit his job to move to Montreal with his wife Emily in 2015 while she attended grad school. The change of scenery was impactful, detailed on Thomas' 2017 record Changer, with some of the lingering tremors of displacement influencing the energy on Aftering.

"I was working on music the entire time I was up there," he says. "I was basically just observing things. It's a pretty amazing feeling to be in a brand new, really exciting, beautiful city and not know anybody at all. It is a romantic city and I spent a lot of time alone. So, I was just walking around in the dreamscape of isolation and outsider-ness. I think that is where a lot of the observational tone of the record came from."

Thomas says he has "embraced isolation since when I was really, really young." He says, "Communication has always been a really difficult thing for me. It's been my stumbling block in life."

When it is suggested that Thomas is in fact a skilled communicator, though through song, he is quick to claim responsibility for his own ineptitude.

"Think about it like this — my music is conversational but in a completely controlled environment, coming from one isolated person," he says. "That's the crux of it right there. My songs have a lot of words and they're trying to communicate a lot of different feelings that might be on some level universal, but it's almost like a trick or an illusion."

Despite his most recent seemingly bleak meanderings, Thomas' world is a colorful one. He has become an unlikely authority on up-and-coming Soundcloud rappers — an occupational hazard of his day job in which he writes artist bios that end up on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. And, in recent years, having Fred Thomas' name appear in your album's liner notes has become something of a rite of passage in Detroit's rock scene, though he'll tell you that it isn't so much a rite of passage as it is something you have to "get out of the way so you can move onto bigger and better things." According to Thomas, a comprehensive list of all the records he has produced and engineered would be exhausting and borderline impossible. He has notably produced back-to-back Tyvek records, Messes by Stef Chura, Particles by Mountains & Rainbows, Summer from Jenny & Jackie, and Evan Haywood's upcoming LP Perfumed Gardens.

For Thomas, lending his sonic alchemy skills is very much about satiating personal curiosity.

"I really just love what people are up to," he says. "I'm just happy to help out. So often I'll tell someone to just put a compressor on the kick drum but not the snare, and they're like, 'What? What's a compressor?' I guess this is something that is second nature to me because I've been doing it a long time, but it could be an easy thing to share with a friend of mine who has been spending more time working on their amazing song so they haven't been thinking about how to record it properly. It's great to be involved and see somebody else's process because it's always so different and so confounding."

Thomas' world, unsurprisingly, flirts with imagination. For example, Aftering is not a real word. Thomas crafted the term to encapsulate the abstractness of having to translate very real feelings, experiences, and relationships. What happens when what we are made to believe is important is no longer important? Is that important? The themes on Aftering might feel like an internal battlefield, each memory a landmine, but for Thomas it really is about what comes next.

"I feel like it doesn't keep me locked in the past," he says of the record. "It actually allows me to let a lot of that stuff go."

Fred Thomas will celebrate the release of Aftering with a performance at Outer Limits Lounge at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 19; 5507 Caniff St., Hamtramck; 313-368-8192;; Tickets are $7. Thomas will also perform at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20 at Third Man Records; 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit; 313-209-5205; Free.

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