December 5th, 2011 | Interviews

ward robinson

King Tuff is Kyle Thomas from Brattleboro, Vermont. His dad works at a mental asylum and his mom special-orders socks with giant shark mouths on them. He was already part of psych-folk band Feathers and heavy-dude band Witch with J Mascis, but in 2008 he took the name King Tuff and released Was Dead on little New York label Colonel. He recorded every song all by himself in the dead of night and it’s one of the best power-pop-rock-‘n’-roll-freaked-out-freak-in-full-freak-mode albums of the decade. Find it, buy it, cook it, eat it, and feel its power course through you. After this year’s SXSW, he borrowed a spray-painted punk truck and moved into a sublet in Laurel Canyon, perhaps inspired by the winterized L.A. hat he has worn pretty much since King Tuff existed. In honor of this brief opportunity to qualify King Tuff as a local, L.A. RECORD treated him to strange Brazilian chocolate pizza. He will be recording a new album for Sub Pop (his follow-up to the band known as Happy Birthday) later this year, and it will not have banjo on it.

What’s the worst idea you ever had and what nickname did it earn you?
Probably spray-painting my hair! I had a mohawk all through high school. I’d always use unflavored gelatin. You put it in the microwave with water. But I wanted to take it to the next level. And it was like an instant dye-job, too! So I did it and it stayed up for two weeks. I literally had to take a two-hour shower.
So was the nickname … Krylon?
That would work—people have called me Krylon!
Where did you get your winterized Dodgers hat with fur flaps? Did the hat bring you to L.A.? Or did L.A. bring you to the hat?
I used to have a different hat. A Dodgers hat, but it just said Los Angeles. An old-school hat. I got a Star of David embroidered on it at the Beverly Center. You can either get your hat there with the Star of David or without—no, you can get anything on it you want. But I’m Jewish—not practicing, but I still wanted to make a hat that would confuse people. I’d wear it all the time and people would be staring at me and I knew they could not figure out what was happening. ‘What is up with that hat?’ ‘That’s my team—the L.A. Jews!’ Then that hat got really old, so I got a new confusing L.A. hat. The winter version.
Why confusing hats? Are you trying to confuse your natural predators from the top down?
I don’t know. It’s my natural tendency. To confuse people.
Do you ever look in the mirror and confuse yourself on accident?
I’m so confused by that question.
Why did you come to L.A.? Are you gonna make your L.A. album?
Everybody keeps saying that. I don’t know what that means. I guess it’s a phenomenon.
Maybe it’s involuntary.
I do have an instrumental song called ‘L.A. Sleigh Ride.’ I’m working on demos. There’s an enchanted piano where I’m staying and I’ve just been recording on that. I’ve never really had a piano to record with before. It’s super old and only the keys in the middle work. It’s all busted up. I started doing like Phantom of the Opera—lighting a candle every night and going mental. It totally adds another side to writing songs. I do things I’d never do.
Have you felt the presence of the ghost of Warren Zevon?
I have one that sounds like ‘Werewolves of London’! I feel like Laurel Canyon is really strange. Supposedly there’s a ghost carriage, like a horse and buggy. Apparently it comes at the stroke of midnight. I’m gonna camp out there inside a fake bush so the ghost doesn’t know. I just imagine the driver wearing like a ten-foot-tall top hat with a skeleton for a face.
What kind of songs do you do now that you’d never have done before?
I don’t know what kind of songs I’ve never done before because I don’t know what they are.
Disco reggae?
Oh, I’ve done disco reggae. I’d like to go more in that direction. A long time ago I made some banjo songs. I don’t know how to play the banjo. A few people who’ve heard that stuff told me they like it, but there’s no way I’d ever put a fucking banjo on anything. I hate the banjo! I also hate the fucking saw! I’m so sick of motherfuckers playing the saw.
What kind of music are you listening to where the saw is overexposed?
If you go to a street corner anywhere, you’ll see motherfuckers playing saw. Now I’m gonna get beat up by crust punks. I’ll get sawed!
How did you get to L.A.? In your mean green Chevrolet?
I wish it was the mean green Chevrolet! I had to give that up. It just stopped driving one day. It could have been the battery but I didn’t have any money to fix it. I parked it in my parents’ driveway and it started growing forests of mold on the inside. You couldn’t even go inside. The steering wheel was turning green. It had been painted lime green with like house paint.
Same color as your bedroom walls?
Freak! How’d you know that? We’re very similar.
How did you finally dislodge yourself from the East Coast after a lifetime there?
I had to bust through the mold!
How long did it take to make King Tuff? Are all these songs from like one crazy week?
Was Dead was originally a different album. I recorded it in 2003 or something. Then I revisited it. I just knew I could record the songs better and make it tighter. I always had a fucking pile of songs that just build up over time. I recorded 30 demos. I did it all in a month. I did all the drum tracks first and then you go through with guitars, bass … just work on it all at the same time.
Is it true there was a line of girls stretching all the way around the block when you played your first show as King Tuff at the Knitting Factory in New York?
That wasn’t my first show.
But the line … ?
Did Sub Pop sign you as King Tuff? Or just simply to exist?
I signed a contract to stay alive. They just wanted me to be alive. It was as Happy Birthday or King Tuff—to make albums as either. There’s no communication with them, really. Every once in a while I show up and hang out and sleep on their couch in the office.
You said that King Tuff is sexual rock ‘n’ roll. What is sexual rock ‘n’ roll?
Isn’t all rock ‘n’ roll sexual if it’s actually rock ‘n’ roll? I feel like music is very vague now. Indie rock is all very vague. You never know what the fuck anyone is talking about and you can’t even relate to anything in it. My music is just more straightforward in some ways. I try to make something people can relate to. Like sex. Obviously that’s not all it’s about. I’m always … shit’s getting weirder. I’ve just started to write more songs. All my new songs are just kind of about like … busting through the mold.
We all have to bust through our own mold.
Yeah—but you also have to eat some mold first. It’s like … hair of the dog.
I’ve never eaten mold.
You’ve never made a crazy sandwich and took a bite and then looked at the loaf of bread and it’s covered in mold? Or had a bunch of coffee cups lying around your room and picked up what you thought was a new one and realized it was a relic?
For the first time ever, you’re going to have another person help you record King Tuff. What do you hate most about music that you’re gonna make him do?
Bobby Harlow. I’ll make him play the fucking drums! My first instrument was the drums, and I can fake it—I play the drums on Was Dead—but I fucking hate it! I like playing the drums, but not when I have to get it right. I also hate dealing with fucking cables and wires and that shit. I’ll record a song and by the end of the night I’m inside a pretzel of cables and I can’t get out. At the time, there were many tears. Mental tears. It’ll be cool to not have to deal with pushing buttons.
What is gonna be on the new album besides no saw, no banjo and you not playing drums?
Good question. Out of those 30 songs I wrote, I had an idea of what was gonna be on the next album. It’s all new songs but I’d say … it’s weird. I sent the songs to Bobby and he picked about half of the same ones I liked. I agreed with him on half. The other half he chose, I was kind of like … ‘Whoa!’ I wasn’t thinking about those ones. I don’t know what it’s going to sound like. It’s definitely a continuation of Was Dead, but it will probably end up going in a little bit different direction. I can’t ever make anything sound the same twice! I’m too all over the place with my songwriting. Do I show people that I can write all these different kind of songs? Or just give ’em what I think they want—like a straight-up rock album? Which is cool but kinda hiding the fact that I write other kinds of songs.
What’s the difference between the songs you wanted and the songs Bobby wanted?
He was looking for things he hasn’t heard before—lyrics and emotions and overall songwriting. Me and him are really focused on songwriting. We’re both songwriters. He also can write lots of different kinds of songs, which is why I’m really psyched to work with him.
What are your different kinds of songs?
The songs I record up here, they’re more like acoustic songs. They’re not like rock songs is the thing. I’m wary of putting them on a King Tuff record. People want King Tuff to be like a party fucking thing! And there will be that for sure. But I can’t hide the fact that I’m a fucking troll!
What’s a troll song like?
Trolls are like fucking big-ass feet, playing a fucking pennywhistle in the top of a fucking tree. Like Jethro … Troll.
Paul Collins said the keys to a good pop song are economy and efficiency—is that true?
Every little second serves a purpose. There’s no fucking around! You gotta make that shit as short as you can possibly make it. People don’t have an attention span! And I don’t either! I hate long songs. You want every song to be like a little piece of candy you can eat over and over again. You want to be able to listen to it over and over and you’re not gonna do that with a seven-minute song. Nobody has an attention span—especially some fucking teenagers driving around in a car. They want that shit and they want it now and they don’t wanna fuck around!
What’s the best way to make ten seconds of a pop song really count?
Scream! Some kind of Yeti scream.
What does songwriting mean to you? What are you allowed and not allowed to do?
I don’t know how to talk about it. I consider myself a songwriter because it’s all I think about. From the second I started trying to play guitar. Fifth or fourth grade. My dad bought a Stratocaster and it was sitting in the living room and I just started touching it and stroking its body. I never really tried to learn covers or anything and I never took lessons. From the second I started playing, I’d just make up my own songs. That’s just what happened naturally. Then I thought about it all the time. I really started writing songs toward the end of high school. I bought like a recording device and just started hanging out in the basement. I don’t know what made it kick in. Being girl crazy? Writing a bunch of fucking songs about fucking feeling horrible?
Which of those worked better?
Writing about girls or like four specific girls definitely did not work. Maybe it worked. I tried one time when I was like 18 and it definitely did not work. You can laugh at me all you want!
How about feeling horrible?
Feeling horrible is just cool in general.
How come?
Then you’re on the same page as everybody else.
What’s the last thing you fell in love with that wasn’t a human being?
I know the answer to this. I think I gotta go back to the enchanted piano.
What’s your standard romantic operating procedure?
Um … candlelight … maybe some fruit salad … I got nothing. That’s probably why I don’t have a girlfriend. Candlelight and fruit salad!
That’s kind of beautiful. What would a King Tuff date night be like in L.A.?
Probably take her to Pink’s and let her watch me eat some chili dogs.
Is that especially spectacular?
It’s more like a hideous display.
So what you have to offer is … hideousness.
But if she can embrace the hideousness, I know she’s the one for me.
What universal thing can there never be enough songs about?
Cavemen. And cavewomen!
You have a tattoo of your inner cavewoman. What kind of advice does she give to you?
I just look to her for guidance. I lick her. I also have a spirit alien.
You’ve got the song ‘Freak When I’m Dead.’ When did you learn you were a freak?
The first time I looked in a mirror.
What’s the one thing all true freaks have in common?
Everyone’s a freak! Some people are uncomfortable with it, and some people choose to embrace it. But it’s all about embracing your inner cavewoman. Just fuck the world! That’s what it’s all about!
Have you ever helped someone discover their inner freak?
I don’t wanna take credit for turning people into freaks. But usually if I’m around people that have a sort of kindred freakiness, that’s when the shit really starts to bubble up. I’ll be hanging with people and they start acting crazy. ‘I never act this way—what did you do to me?’ They start like farting and screaming.
At the same time? Are they out of breath?
‘Farting and Screaming’ is a good album title!
This is a good concept. You’re like a producer for people’s personalities.
Whoa! That’s kind of cult-leaderish! It’s like—a lifestyle manicurist.
Have you ever treated yourself to a mani/pedi?
Yes, I have as a matter of fact! Me and my girlfriend at the time got manicures for her birthday. It was fucking awesome. I got a Halloween paint job. Alternating black and orange. It was so crazy. My fingernails felt made of rubber. I haven’t had a pedicure yet. I’m embarrassed. I have one monster toenail.
Have them put a face on it.
Like a gargoyle?
Tell Sub Pop to pamper it.
I’ll put that in my contract: ‘I have a gargoyle toenail and it needs to be taken care of on a daily basis!’ I think people are lazy about coming up with that shit for contracts. And you probably wouldn’t get it in anyway. They always ask what you want on a rider and I say shit and you barely ever get anything. People just don’t treat each other right.
You should demand socks and underwear at every show so you never have to buy any again.
I am gonna do that. Although I have a lot of socks because my mom works in a shoe store and she’s obsessed with socks, and she gets to order them so she gets the weird ones. She got me ones with guitars all over ’em. The best ones look like sharks eating your legs.
Where is the best graveyard to do your thinking?
What I’m talking about is probably the most powerful dream I ever had. I was walking around the graveyard near my house, and a doorway was in the ground—made of grass. I opened it up and walked down these dirt stairs.
And when you woke up, you could completely rip on guitar?
Yes! No—at the bottom was another door, and inside was a room. Lush with plants, walls and ceilings and everything—another graveyard, but an underground graveyard. Just a room with no windows or anything but an insane white light emanating. It was the most peaceful I ever felt. I was just chillin’ in there. Something about that dream really fucked me up, in a good way. There also used to be a grave in my town up in the woods behind the mental institution that just said FRANKENSTEIN. And someone stole it!
You have a piece of art titled ‘I Dreamed I Owned 1,000 Dogs.’ What dreams have you actually realized?
I’m just doing what I love to do—make art and music, which has always been what I’ve done. When I was a kid, I actually wanted to be a dessert chef/masseuse. The ultimate business for middle-aged women. I was probably like 7.
Do you think someday you can make all those middle-aged women happy?
Yeah—I’ll probably just have to put out like a Tony Bennett-style album. Or Tom Jones.
And you can be shirtless with the Sun Medallion.
Fuck! Now we’re getting somewhere!