Fred Thomas grew up around the Ann Arbor area, attending punk rock house parties, working at Encore Records, starting numerous projects with fellow A2 musicians, helping forge Ypsilanti Records and finally gaining widespread local and considerable national interest through the early 00’s with the sunny, bopping, whirly-echoed pop of Saturday Looks Good To Me.
“Of the very few people who have talked to me about City Center, almost all of them seem to focus on how it's incredibly different music than Saturday Looks Good To Me, and to some extent that's true.”
With 2004’s Every Night and 07’s Fill Up The Room (both on notable Polyvinyl records), Thomas became something of a local fixation or cult hero due to his industrious drive as a songwriter, producer, and label chief and for being as gracious and enthusiastic for the local scene as he was a collaborator on various friends recordings.
After Fill Up, he started a new project with Ryan Howard, a more electronic affair called City Center: melodies waft and feedback surfs its way over sublime and swirly musical landscapes batted like neon butterfly kisses over sparse guitars-acoustic to clanging, and schizoid rhythms-spilled out to danceable.
“I think of it as pop music as much as any of the other bands I've been in,” Thomas said. “Maybe just a little more underwater.” Thomas returns to Ann Arbor this month – performing with City Center at the East Quad Music Co-op (“The Halfass”) on November 13.
With Thomas, it’d be ludicrous to hold SLGTM in one hand and City Center in the other. “There have been endless projects, bands, recording sessions, shows, tours, and other conceptual endeavors in between which make the two bands seem like they're all part of the same patchwork to me,” Thomas said, “but it's likely that not many other people have been paying that much attention to the progression. The point is, there's no way to take it but out of context, and taken out of context it could seem like we've suddenly disavowed the Beach Boys for Arthur Russell and are never looking back, but really, there's been no shift in how we feel about sound, rather the constant excitement of a constant shift."
The Deep Cutz Interview: Fred Thomas - (City Center)
Milo: How has your year gone? What have you enjoyed, or been digging, be it music or otherwise...
Fred Thomas: `The year 2009 has been incredible for me so far, as well as a lot of people I've been talking to. It seems like there's been a universal shedding of baggage or insecurity, and in general people of all ages are kind of growing up in a sense. Getting serious about themselves in a way that's really cool, even if it's just "getting serious" about having more fun and living a better life. Things seem to be moving faster, but people's responses to that accelerated motion have been moving just as fast, and a lot of things seem really surprising to me this year. Music, community, health and ideas are all bursting in a really positive way. It's great!
Milo: So what's your current status? Full time resident of
Fred: `I lived in
Milo: Let's heavily unpack the technical/creative aspect of City Center - what's the live set up? How do you approach it, in terms of song construction?
Fred: `It's not too complex, but maybe a little on the boring side. Me and Ryan write songs together, mostly on guitar, but also with electronic instruments; samplers, drum machine, etc. We generally have a practice of refinement, writing dozens of songs and parts that we eventually distill into a single song. We'll start 40 songs before completing one, in a way that's more like finding the purest part than it is not being able to get going.
Milo: How do you regard it, in terms of the musical landscapes it inhabits, if SLGTM was, vulgarly simplified--an outlet for more pop-leaning explorations, what are you exploring here?
Fred: `I think of it as pop music as much as any of the other bands I've been in. Maybe just a little more underwater. Everything has been recorded at home. We're trying to break that habit a little bit, recording a single for K Records at Dub Narcotic studios on this tour, and hopefully working with Chris Koltay at his insanely pimped out High Bias studio in Detroit for some of our new album.
Milo: Has your philosophy changed, in terms of what you want from recorded music, when you piece it together, lay it out and record it... Were there beliefs you held as a producer/recorder or writer in terms of how to do things, or what you preferred--and has that changed or how have they changed--particularly with City Center?
Fred: `My philosophy, if I have one, has not changed in regard to what I want out of music. I want the same thing now as I have since I started jamming on my dad's busted guitar when I was 11 years old. I want music to be exciting and encompass the unencompassable, become bigger than all the elements that make it up. Of the very few people who have talked to me about City Center, almost all of them seem to focus on how it's incredibly different music than Saturday Looks Good To Me, and to some extent that's true. The songs feel different, and there's a social context of more experimental pop music rising to it's highest popularity in the past five or six years, so the difference is more striking and could signify a drastic change in philosophy or style. The thing is, these bands aren't the only things I've been working on for the past ten years, just two of the best known and most visible. There have been endless projects, bands, recording sessions, shows, tours, and other conceptual endeavors in between which make the two bands seem like they're all part of the same patchwork to me, but it's likely that not many other people have been paying that much attention to the progression. The point is, there's no way to take it but out of context, and taken out of context it could seem like we've suddenly disavowed the Beach Boys for Arthur Russell and are never looking back, but really, there's been no shift in how we feel about sound, rather the constant excitement of a constant shift.
Milo: I listen to a song like "Cloud Center" and it makes me curious of your thoughts on more ambient, atmospheric music, trobbing soundscapes, what-have you...
Fred: `That song was the hardest song to mix for the record because it was so hard to sequester the different parts and sub-parts for something so formless. The other day we were driving and listening to Built To Spill and I was thinking about how compartmentalized and bite-sized their songs are. Every four measures something new was going on and there was no overlap from the last part, just a straight up change, like different colored Lego's fitting together. When you start working with sounds that only spill over, crystallize and evaporate into one another, it could seem like a gooey, whatever-happens-goes kind of situation, but I think it's really a lot more intricate and difficult to reign in exactly what you're trying to say.
Milo: So then, what's new with Saturday Looks Good to Me? How do you, now, regard it--as a project - ...to scan a montage of record reviews for the band, one will come across constant remarks like, "retro" "nostalgic" "classic pop" "Spector" "B.Wilson" and on and on...how did you feel about the music you were making with Saturday Looks Good To Me and were all these music-journo-jokers coming close at all - and if not, how did that make you feel?
Fred: `Saturday Looks Good To Me isn't recording or playing shows anymore. I can't say there will be no presence or that the band will never play another show or anything drastic like that, but our last show was in London on June 15, 2008. The band existed in some form for almost ten years, be it recording in my basement, driving around the country to have people sing on my songs or touring 9 months of the year at certain points. It was a great thing that opened up endless doors for me and a lot of other people, but I'm happy to be moving forward with new ideas now. To answer your question about the Phil Spector call-tag, etc... Those comparisons were super flattering, if a little ridiculous. In some phases of the band ,I won't lie, I was trying to sound as close to the production styles of Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Brian Wilson, etc, as possible, and that's a pretty heavily nostalgic goal in a way. In another way, I looked at it as a challenge to myself to make music as careful and beautiful as those people did. The thing is, those producers were stars and millionaires. They had limitless money and resources and their records sold hundreds of thousands of copies and defined different points in popular music. The context was invariably skewed not just by way of my place in time, but also because I had a four-track and some talented friends and neighbors to make my pop masterpieces. I was never under the delusion that SLGTM was trying to be or going to be the next Beach Boys, or whatever. I was more interested in working with the concept of some strange imaginary band that might have existed along side but got buried in the ground for decades. It was all kind of in my head.
Milo: What were some (or one of your most) formative experience(s) - or when/how did you really start to become motivated as a songwriter?
Fred: `I guess when I started going to basement shows when I was a teenager, all my formative moments came in a gusty rush. I remember being 14 and standing outside of the Lab, a punk house in Ann Arbor that was one of the first in my memory and one of the first in the early 90s to have shows after what I'm told was a long drought. Laughing Hyenas were playing and over 200 people showed up and had to be turned away, myself included. Much like I imagine the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show was where the real party was, the vibe on the back lawn of this house was insane and electric, unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The house was inhabited and the shows run primarily by teenagers, so it was a true-to-life teenage freakout, and people from local bands I recognized were cracking 40's with homeless punk kids I would see on the main drag asking for change. It was a lot to take in, but I knew in that moment I wanted to be part of it for as long into the foreseeable future as possible. That was more than 15 years ago.
Milo: The last proper interview we did was about iTunes and record stores - that was 2006 - now things have changed even more, and wildly at that...leaks are common place, buzz bands are epidemic, and the City Center blog constantly has free stuff - what does that do to the music world in your eyes - to the local performer (namely anyone in/from Ann Arbor, or Detroit)
Fred: `I might have an-always-changing-perspective on this stuff as well, but for the moment, I think it's kind of a good thing that music and business are kind of at odds with each other. Whether it's resulting in a leveled playing field of sorts or just making people more aware of more music, I think there will be a lot of different results of music not costing money anymore. If one of them is that you can't get rich or be thought better of just because people are talking about your band, there might be a lot less annoying and time-wasting music made by people with nothing to say. That would be cool.
11/13/2009 at the East Quad Music Co-Op in Ann Arbor:
LEROY ST. RECORDS COLLABORATIVE SHOW!-FRIENDLY FOES, CITY CENTER, DRUNKEN BARN DANCE
730 Church St., Ann Arbor
City Center News:
The Cops Don't Care 7" is done - info here
And now that the band is back from tour - they're going to get started soon on a full length album.
Download some live performances here