Fred Thomas :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

I met Fred Thomas in the kind of unexpected way that seems common to musicians. When I brought Simply Saucer to perform at the 2017 Sled Island music festival in my hometown of Calgary, we ended up sharing a van with Fred from the airport to our hotel. Conversation quickly revealed that we had many musical connections, and he was there playing drums with Tyvek for the first time in his stint with that great band.

In the past three years, Fred and I have remained close while I’ve become a much deeper fan of his countless musical projects. After recently wrapping up a trilogy of excellent, heartbreaking solo albums—All Are Saved, Changer, and Aftering—Fred has taken on the new moniker Idle Ray. While just getting started, he’s already delivered some of the most moving songs I’ve heard in 2020 with more to come in the near future. I decided to catch up with Fred for a multi-part email interview. words/ j locke

Aquarium Drunkard: How’s life in Ann Arbor these days?

Fred Thomas: It’s very weird right now like it probably is everywhere. Especially empty feeling in a college town with all the students drained away, the thousands of people who live elsewhere but work in the city or at the university not buzzing around like usual. The energy is slow and sleepy. It would be kind of nice if the threat of painful death and sickness weren’t looming.

AD: You’ve talked about how your last three solo albums are a trilogy. How did completing that inspire you to start the new project Idle Ray?

Fred Thomas: Those records all came out in a relatively short time frame and feel very interconnected. Songs that didn’t fit on the first one made it onto the second or third, themes repeated, little pieces bridged all three into a larger statement. By the end of three albums and 33 intense, wildly personal poem-songs about death and upheaval I felt like I’d said all I could possibly say in that style.

I also realized I’d been touring fairly consistently for about 20 years in a way that seemed almost designed to offer the same experience every time. I took some time off to re-access things and ultimately found myself returning to the ways I started making music, namely four-track recording guitar-based pop songs and trying to keep the time between inspiration and finished product brief.

AD: You’ve mentioned that Eric’s Trip are a big influence on these new songs and recordings. Can you tell me a bit about how they inspire you?

Fred Thomas: I bought Love Tara on cassette in 1993 because I liked the cover. At the time I liked the album somewhat but it mostly confused me. I was 16 and thought every band on Sub Pop was going to deliver a similarly strange, dangerous and kind of bumbling rock sound. There was something about these songs that made me feel like I was eavesdropping on strangers in a fight. It was maybe the first time music made me uncomfortable. I listened back to the album again recently and felt that same unabashed vulnerability, but also picked up on how fearless a lot of the production was. Hard-panned instruments and dry, close-mic’d mumbling vocals fit so jaggedly into the sonic picture but also completely drive the personality of the record. My initial bewilderment with the band was probably because I had no context for why they sounded the way they did. Revisiting that album almost 30 years later it STILL sounds unlike anything else. The first Idle Ray songs I shared publicly were as a collage-styled tape for my friend Pete’s label Dagoretti Records under some heavy Love Tara manners. 

AD: Thanks for sharing this collage tape! I totally missed it and subsequently didn’t have a chance to buy one of the 30 physical copies. I’ve noticed you do a similar thing with the limited quantities of releases on your own label, Life Like. What motivates you to put things out into the world in such an ephemeral, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of way?

Fred Thomas: 30 is kind of the magic number for the tapes I make. Life Like, the label I’ve been doing for the last ten years, is mostly focused on low key experimental projects, spontaneous one-time jams, or releases that artists can use to try different things than they normally would. It’s a super fun way to share ideas but there’s a limited audience for it. I’ve definitely had it go the other way where I got over-zealous, pressed up 300 copies of something, and still had more than half the pressing sitting around years later. So I try to keep it spare. If there’s ever a serious demand for one of the tapes, I can always make more.

AD: With all of your various aliases and projects over the years, have people ever expressed frustration about missing something you’ve done?

Fred Thomas: There are maybe three or four completists I’ve met who just compulsively have to collect everything. I can’t imagine that they like or enjoy all of it, but they need to have it all. More often than frustration, I’ve had folks express confusion about why I’m always starting or joining a new project. If it was intended to be publicly absorbed and understood art, it might be harder to justify having been a part of 75 bands over the years, but honestly, it’s just what me and my friends always did for fun growing up.

During quarantine, a friend of mine sent me a video of a show we did together in 1994 when we were both 17. I’d completely forgotten that in addition to our regular bands, we played at that show as a one-time grindcore band called “The Fuzzies.” It was kinda good, too! The spirit of conceptualizing new musical projects for fun is something I’ve always enjoyed. I don’t expect anyone to pay attention to any of it, let alone catch every tape.

AD: The first Idle Ray music I heard was the demo collection you released on May 1st in conjunction with the first Bandcamp Day. Four out of those five songs have a noisier drum machine rock sound. What inspired you to crank up the volume, and is that what we can expect more of from the project in the future?

Fred Thomas: After concentrating on lyrically dense songs with maxed-out production for so long, it felt really good to lean into material that was more straightforward. I’ve been working on songs for Idle Ray for about two years, and the earliest ideas took a lot of inspiration from Sonic Youth’s Rather Ripped. Just really straight-ahead rock songs with simple arrangements and lots of hooks. I went into a really nice studio and worked on an entire album’s worth of my first set of songs, but it ended up sounding really bland and personality-less. It sucked a lot! I spent so much time and more money than I should have to make what ultimately amounted to a mediocre indie rock record. That demo was me trying the opposite route, recording really quickly on four-track for free in the side room of my apartment, using stock drum machine sounds and running all the guitars direct. I’m trying to keep that energy for the new stuff I’m recording but develop it a little bit more.

AD: “Water Comes In Through The Windows” is one of the prettiest, saddest songs I’ve heard all year. It’s almost maddeningly short, but I love that about it too. What do you like about short songs?

Fred Thomas: That song was one of those spontaneous jams that was written in five minutes, completely recorded and done within an hour. There’s something really satisfying about the immediacy of a short song, and not spending too much time fleshing things out can keep the creativity flowing. Robert Pollard recently wrote about when Guided by Voices was recording Alien Lanes, getting hooked on the quick songwriting process, and calling the four-track an “instant gratification machine.” I can relate to that excitement.

AD: You mentioned that you’ve been touring in a way that “offers the same experience.” When you get a chance to perform live again, what would you like to do differently?

Fred Thomas: That may have come off a little bewildered, but it was more about how I’m on a slightly different path than a lot of artists. Most of the time, a band starts playing outside of their home zone when enough interest builds. That usually grows, peaks, and diminishes, and maybe the band breaks up or changes. For me, I had something like that in the 2000s with my band Saturday Looks Good To Me, but I’d already been doing DIY touring with other projects for a long time beforehand and kept doing shows in that less industrialized way after SLGTM faded out. I’d have to love touring and performing to still be grinding at it for all this time, but at this point, if it’s not fun or exciting in a way that’s extremely specific to me, I’m not doing it. It’s hard to say exactly what those specifics would look like, but it’d probably be more about the friends I was touring with or getting a chance to see on the way, getting to experience the places I was traveling through, collaborating with folks in between gigs, etc. I’m more likely to do a show because there’s an especially amazing vegan restaurant in that town than because it might potentially benefit my career.

AD: What are your favourite vegan restaurants where you’ve eaten on tour?

Fred Thomas: When I was getting started touring in the late ’90s, it was all about the Soul-Veg franchise that had spots in Chicago, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. I think the DC one might be closed down now, but that was always a destination. Mr. Natural’s in Austin, Texas, Sage in L.A., Chicago Diner is okay. Once in Houston, we stumbled onto this amazing place Green Seed Vegan. In the weeks before Bushwick Bill died, he posted a photo of himself in front of the restaurant, talking about switching to a vegan diet to help combat the cancer that was starting to overtake his system. It was such a surreal feeling to be stoked to see one of my longest-loved rappers eating at a vegan spot I knew but simultaneously feel really sad that he was suffering and might not be around much longer. 

AD: Let’s change tracks with a few lightning round questions to end this out. Can you tell me a bit about the new Tyvek recordings you’re working on? What do they sound like in comparison to previous releases from that band?

Fred Thomas: Tyvek’s sound has always centered around where Kevin’s [Boyer, lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and only constant member for the last 13 or so years] head is at, and the records kinda come together around his vision. I’ve been playing drums with the band since Sled Island in 2017, but I helped record the last two records. We spent a long weekend recording a lot of songs, jamming and fleshing out ideas, all going direct to cassette four-track. We’d had studio time booked here and there over the last few years, but it always ends up sounding more authentically Tyvek when it’s more raw, direct, and about the excitement and volume. There’s always that First Nice Day After A Long Winter energy to my favorite Tyvek records, and I think this one is going to embody that the most.

AD: Are you playing with any other projects these days? You mentioned jazz sit-in gigs, so what can you tell me about that?

Fred Thomas: Before live music shut down, I was playing a lot of semi-random gigs pretty much every week. There was a pretty amazing late night improv set at a local jazz club by my friend Dan Bennett’s trio and I more or less invited myself to sit in on electronics. They usually just flow in a spiritual jazz zone with sax, drums and piano, but I brought a lot of tape delays and synths and processed everything live. It was two sets that were completely improvised and more than an hour long each, hitting the stage at 11:30 or so. One of the best gigs of my life, easily. I really can’t wait to do that again.

More frequently, I’ve been playing guitar in my friend Dr. Peter Larson’s band. I’ve known Pete since the early ’90s when he ran a noise label called Bulb and had a band called Couch that was just utterly amazing. He’s a real foundational figure in my musical world and we lost touch a little bit when he moved to Kenya for about 10 years to study infectious disease. He’s an epidemiologist, so these last six months have been pretty busy and intense for him! While he was living in Kenya, he learned this traditional lyre-type instrument called Nyatiti. When he came back to Michigan, he called me one night to see if I wanted to sit in with him and a percussionist at a gig, improvising guitar over these sort of psychedelic, droney reinterpretations of African folk songs. It clicked immediately and we were gigging pretty much every week, recording all the time as well. That’s a beautiful project for me because our friendship and chemistry is so time-tested. 

There obviously haven’t been any gigs for a while, but when they were happening full force, I was always open to filling in for someone in another person’s band, doing an impromptu collaboration, really whatever. I have a fairly comprehensive list of every show I’ve played since 1991, and the last four of five years it gets really random. My partner Emily and I started a synth-punk sort of band called The Ice Creams, writing/recording our demo on the spot in about an hour one afternoon. It’s endless.

AD: I loved your recent Pitchfork review of Albert Ayler’s New Grass, especially after learning that one of the songs from was included in your wedding! Why do you think Ayler’s later releases are worthy of more love than they get?

Fred Thomas: Ayler has always had such a special place in my life since I first connected with his music. Our wedding didn’t have music but was officiated by Dion Fischer who runs UFO Factory and he took it upon himself to write a small blessing/speech that included quotes from “Heart Love,” Sun Ra, other beautiful tributes to love. Those last few records are so intense because he’s obviously struggling to survive, financially but also mentally. Just reaching out in any direction to try to get through to people with his music. I know he was having visions of his own death and the end of the world around that time, and there’s definitely a feeling that time is limited in even the most celebratory moments of his last recordings.

AD: Where else are you writing about music these days? I feel like people might not know you as a critic, but you’re super prolific and experienced in that field too.

Fred Thomas: For the last nine or so years I’ve been connected to Allmusic, and I’m presently on staff there as an editor. I review a ton of new music across a wide range of genres and styles every week for them and also write bios that end up being used by streaming services. I mostly write about new rappers, so if you see my name connected to like Juice WRLD or Lil Pump on Spotify, that’s definitely me who wrote it. I sometimes write freelance reviews for Pitchfork and other online music sites, but the main focus for my writing is a print-only zine I put out about once a year called Balcony. It sometimes has record reviews and poetry, but it’s largely made up of extensive interviews with lesser-known artists I love a lot. I’ve interviewed Chandra, Andrea Pensado, Sterling Toles, Edith Frost, Forest Management, and Mike Morley from the Dead C so far. I was working on a new issue in February, but it’s on hold for now.

AD: Can we expect to hear more music from Idle Ray soon?

Fred Thomas: Like so many, I’m not sure what’s coming up at the moment! I’ve been working on Idle Ray stuff and a few other recording projects while music culture has been paused, so hopefully, there’ll be a full-length collection of songs soon. I’ll most likely get sick of waiting and put it online unannounced some Tuesday night at 3 AM.

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