Q&A: Fred Thomas On The Transformations Driving His New Album Changer
Everything changes and nothing stands still. Fred Thomas’ new album, Changer, is about the constant nature of transformation, in the same way his music — both his solo work and as part of Saturday Looks Good To Me — has always been about harnessing the power of specific memories to figure out how they relate to and refract from the present. On “Brickwall,” the album’s lead single, Thomas postures himself as a stationary object, as everyone around him begins to fall into the stereotypical patterns of maturation: settling down, having kids, growing static. “They’ve got one foot out the door/ They were born with one foot out the door,” he sings. In characteristically hyper-reflective fashion, it’s unclear whether he’s jealous of their stability, relishing in the uncertainty of life as a career musician, or (more likely) a little bit of both.
Thomas’ most recent album, All Are Saved, marked something of a transition point for the singer-songwriter. After a lifetime of making music, it felt as though there was a more concerted effort to engage with a wider audience than he had been aiming for in the past, when he was passing out CD-Rs at shows and releasing full-lengths on Bandcamp and through obscure labels. Though he finished the songs at the end of 2013, it took two years for it to come out, this time through indie powerhouse Polyvinyl Records. His new album, Changer, went through a similar gestation period: It was finished in January 2016, and will be released a little over a year after it was completed.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Thomas over the phone while he was visiting family in his old hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Read our interview and check out the album’s second single, “Echolocation,” below.
STEREOGUM: How did your mindset change going into this record?
THOMAS: Everything radically shifted for me after All Are Saved. It’s not that it was a huge commercial success, but I definitely started touring more and I started taking the things that I was saying a lot more seriously than I had been for the past five or six years. I didn’t think I would be touring and putting out records past my twenties. I wasn’t really thinking about the future like that, so to arrive at that future and have it be vibrant and exciting really pushed me forward with this new record. I followed that momentum.
STEREOGUM: Do you think the music industry is a little more amenable now to smaller musicians in a way that it wasn’t before?
THOMAS: I don’t know… That’s a good question that I really don’t know the answer to. I recently read one of those Pitchfork reviews where they review an old album, and they reviewed the Guided By Voices’ record Alien Lanes and there was a part in there about how anybody can be discovered these days, and that Car Seat Headrest was one of the most important bands to be found on Bandcamp. And a part of me was like oh god, did they really reference Car Seat Headrest in a Guided By Voices review?, but the point was valid. People are waiting to be like, oh, yeah, this person is a bedroom artist and it’s really good and here it is for free and we can check it out and really appreciate it.
STEREOGUM: The music industry is in a weird place because there are a few artists that are emblematic of that transition, but then there are literally thousands of artists that never make that jump. Car Seat Headrest is one, and there’s also the whole Orchid Tapes crew — Alex G and Elvis Depressedly and Ricky Eat Acid — who very much built a base around Bandcamp and Tumblr way before they ever started to get attention from “mainstream” outlets.
THOMAS: Right. And when we’re talking about the mainstream now, it’s so much different than what it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. It makes perfect sense that people are more amenable to smaller artists because the mainstream itself is smaller. Everything is smaller. Everything is more fine-tooth comb. The endpoint of so many conversations about music is: Where can it go? Where the fuck is it going to go next? At no point throughout the MySpace era and CD-Rs and shitty demos and the very first streaming sites could I have predicted that it would be where it is now. It feels so much more hungry and starved and overblown, and it’s really hard to gauge what is actually happening.
STEREOGUM: There’s such a disconnect between seeing things online and actually going to a show and realizing that there are 50 people who care about this at this moment at the most. And it’s great that those 50 people care about it, but that’s only 50 people and how can that be a sustainable model for anything?
THOMAS: Totally. When my last record came out, a lot of my friends were like, Dude, you’re fucking blowing up! Are you going to quit your job? And it’s like, no, I just got, like, three nice reviews. And it’s very great and I’m very thankful for it, but when I toured on that record, I never played to more than 100 people, ever. And there are hundreds if not thousands of artists of my ilk that are still just kind of living from burrito to burrito, you know?
STEREOGUM: So what changes have happened in the past year since your last album came out?
THOMAS: Well, it sort of ties into what we were talking about with the momentum — if you can call it that — from the last record. I was working as a music reviewer for AllMusic.com for a few years, which is a very nice corporately-owned but still very creative music site. Great desk job, nice people, but not a lot of opportunity to tour with that job. And so after a few extended tours, they were like, yeah, we have to figure something else out, and I was like, OK, I’ll just quit. No big deal.
Emily — who I was dating at that point, now we’re married — was looking into grad school, and she decided she was going to Montréal. And we decided to get married so it was easier to move to a different country. We love each other a lot and we were going to get married at some point anyway, so it made sense.
So in a matter of months, I quit my job, started the insane paperwork process that it takes to move to Canada, got married, and left. I was doing tours the entire time and recording bands. Really, if you look at the calendar for all of 2014 and 2015, there was not a lot of “chilling” happening in that time. But then I got to Montréal, and you can’t really work above board there unless you’re bilingual, which I’m not. So after the first month or two, I went from having no time at all to having so much time to think about the last few years. And that’s where a lot of these songs came from.
And I was like, Jesus fucking Christ, what’s going on? It’s really important to slow down sometimes. I know so many people that do everything so fast that it kind of doesn’t matter what they’re doing — they’re just going to do the next thing right away — and I’m fearful of becoming that kind of person. There are a lot of those thoughts on the record, too. A lot of time in that decompression period in those first few months in Montréal was spent making ambient music to really chill out. I didn’t have much equipment there, so I spent all day just working. Like, let’s really calm down, meditate, and work on this synth tone for a good three hours. There’s some of that in there, too.
STEREOGUM: During that reflective period in Montréal, how were you thinking about the broad nature of change?
THOMAS: It’s hard to talk about change without sounding like a huge cliché, Chicken Soup For The Soul kind of person. But it’s such a universal, unavoidable thing that people have a hard time with. It’s inextricable from our lives. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, but I have family in Michigan so I always come back to Michigan, and if I’m gone for a year and come back through the town I grew up in, everything is different and everyone’s attitudes are the same: Yeah, just hanging out doing the same thing. Doing my job or I got kids now or this thing happened. But the landscape itself is like … What the fuck? Where is everything? It happens when you’re gone — everything moves on without you all the time if you’re not engaging with it. I think that’s a beautiful thing and a good thing, and with my songs I try to grab the parts that I want to hold onto from different experiences or different ideas. I think a lot of songs on Changer have that in mind. Mentally, All Are Saved was a pretty concise six months worth of inspirations and troubles. I like looking back into different things I’ve experienced over the years and trying not to lose them completely as I develop this new life.
STEREOGUM: The life of a musician is very much about committing yourself to constant change and not really being able to find that stability. It sort of feels change-averse.
THOMAS: Well, you’re moving around constantly, but you’re also playing the same venues that you played, like, three years ago, and they have the same stickers in the bathroom. A couple tours ago, I was chilling with some younger friend and they were like, Man, is this what touring is like? I thought it was going to be crazy and wild. And when I was younger, there were times in college when it used to be like that — we’d drink all night and it’d be crazy and we would go swimming, and now it’s like… You can stay in the third guest room. The kid has to go to piano recitals at 7 tomorrow so we’ll but up, but feel free to take a shower… The people that stuck around and kept going to shows are still there, and my friends are still there, but they’re changing while we’re at the same venues where we met 10 or 15 years ago. That’s an amazing thing, but you don’t have a chance to catch your breath. In a way, it’s like, wow, this backdrop is always going to be there. It’s like you’re a character in this play that takes place at the punk show.
STEREOGUM: There’s a scene in one of your new songs, “Open Letter To Forever,” where you’re standing outside a venue and these younger kids are making fun of you, and you tell them, “Man, I’m probably a couple years younger than your father/ And I’ve traded in any chance at stability for this community…” It’s like, even though you’re part of this lifestyle or scene, you don’t necessarily fit in in a way that is young and fresh.
THOMAS: That’s where I paint myself into some teenage alienation. But it is sort of that feeling. I remember being a lot younger and having crust punks be like, oh, nice big pants, you fucking idiot, and it’s like… Oh, cool, is this just like high school with spikes? It never changed, or it continues in this funny way and it’s great to laugh at now because there’s so many more layers to it now.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot of points on the album where you look back at your younger self, and there’s a contempt there when you see how immature you were — like on “2008” where you talk about everyone wearing the same seafoam V-neck, but you were one of those people too — and there’s that contempt there, but there’s also a sense of protectiveness over your older selves that you eventually evolved past.
THOMAS: That’s exactly what I was trying to say with that… Maybe that’s the conundrum of the whole record — me being like, is it weird that I’m still here?
STEREOGUM: The album is structured in a really interesting way — the first half is very much indie-rock based, more in the vein of All Are Saved, but then it gets into more experimental stuff towards the back half, though it’s not a clear delineation…
THOMAS: It’s super intentional based on a few different thoughts and ideas. The first draft of the record was super long — it was an hour long and had a lot more ambient pieces. A couple of those pieces made it onto the record, but instead of being two minutes long, they were 10 minutes. I really wanted to get deep into the idea of a valley of ambience between songs because I really like how that happens in some earlier black metal stuff. There’s a couple of black metal records where it’s like, whoa, has it really been 15 minutes that I’ve been listening to this loop? And, as always, the Microphones were a huge inspiration, and some of their best stuff had these long dips — kind of overly long interludes that didn’t make any kind of sense, and it would just pause and hold you in this not-that-good environment for a while.
I wanted to do that, and I sent that to the label and they were like, no, fuck that, it’s too long. We only like the guitar stuff, take this out. It was kind of an apples and oranges thing where I really thought the ambient stuff was so good, and they were like, Can it not be on the record, actually? So we sort of compromised and I took a lot of those pieces and really reworked it until it is what it is now. I wanted to have it be more of a subtle thing. A lot of bands recently have started to do this thing where like… They’re a garage rock band and then there’s a weird ambient breakdown for six minutes. That’s weird to me. I didn’t want it to be that jarring, but I did want it to be noticeable.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about “Echolocation.” How did that song come together?
THOMAS: That one started out as this weird harp sample and grew from there. It’s maybe the best representation of a meeting between the more ambient and the more indie or song-based stuff. I was mostly working with a sampler and screwing around with lots of computer-based stuff at that point, and when that part was done, I felt like it was really just half a song, so I got my friend Justin [Walter] to play trumpet on it. I wanted more organic instrumentation because the song is sort of about going back to my former self.
It’s about when I first moved to New York, which was probably in 2007. I was there for two or three years, so not that long. I moved there with no plan and really just had to move from place to place, staying on people’s couches. There were points where it was like, Yup, it’s four in the morning. Everyone is asleep. Everyone has to work in two hours, and I just have to stay on the subway until I can meet up with my friends on their lunch break so I can get into their houses. At a certain point, you just start to wonder what it is all for. Is it just so that I can move my garbage around from one room to another room in an attempt to get more garbage to move around? And then, because it’s a New York song, I tried to sing as much like Julian Casablancas as I could…
STEREOGUM: A lot of these songs have been done for quite a while. How do you still stay in touch with the person you were when you wrote it? Which sort of ties into the idea of the record as a whole: how you’re constantly changing and evolving but still having to play these same songs that are now kind of dated.
THOMAS: That’s definitely something that I think about every time I play songs off the last record. There’s an archive quality to these songs, and I’ve been playing some of them live for years now, which is cool and also not cool. The material is not super fresh in my mind, and those experiences have shifted and gone on to influence other experiences. If you’re singing a song about someone you broke up with in 2004, it doesn’t really hurt the same way, or you don’t really care at all anymore. It’s interesting to look at that Polaroid and understand how things are different now.
STEREOGUM: I like that your songwriting sets up these scenes that are very vivid, but also feels like they took place a long time ago so you have some emotional distance. It’s observational in a way that’s different from when you’re right in the throes of things, when you lack that perspective.
THOMAS: I think it’s really important for me not to rely on being vague, which is such an easy thing to do. The line between emotional distance and taking the longview very quickly becomes a defense mechanism, a way to not actually say anything without making yourself vulnerable. I always want to push towards vulnerability with my music.
STEREOGUM: What’s the stuff that you’re working on now like?
THOMAS: I’m going to tour in February, and then at the end of the tour I’m going back to Athens, Georgia — where I worked on the last few records with my friend Drew Vandenberg — and we’re going to record the next one. It’s written already, and it’s a totally different thing. I don’t want to say too much about it because I feel self-conscious being the guy who is, like, already onto the next record before this one comes out. But I am really excited to have something that is a lot different and that I maybe even like a lot more, I don’t know. It’s going to be a little bit more expansive than anything I’ve done before.
Changer is out 1/27 via Polyvinyl Records. Pre-order it here.