Monday, August 13, 2018

Fred Thomas Finds Open-Ended Closure on 'Aftering"

Aftering is the third album that singer/songwriter Fred Thomas has produced in the last five years and it completes the arc of a loose, subtle trilogy. But at the same time, even if a chapter feels like its closing for the Montreal (by-way-of-Michigan) music maker, this album, just as the previous two had before it, allows for anything and anyone to remain and continue feeling incomplete, open, unanswered, unresolved....

"...I have to say, I'm not a big believer in catharsis," said Thomas. "Or, that is, I didn't think I really ever experienced it before."

credit Miles Larson
From the 90's, up until 2013, Thomas was best known for fronting the chamber-pop ensemble Saturday Looks Good To Me. Their notably experimental arrangements could still fit alongside the likes of contemporary neo-baroque stylists like the New Pornographers or Magnetic Fields, but Thomas would also release solo songs of stripped-down lo-fi/ambient-heavy albums, as well as work on electro-noise/spaced-out-orchestrations through groups like City Center or, most recently, Hydropark.

Aftering will be available on Sept 14, (through Polyvinyl), and it lays down laces of confusion, ambiguity, remorse, anxiety, and even elation and nostalgia, laces similar to the knotty strands of 2015's All Are Saved and 2017's Changer. Thomas performs August 16 at El Club. (INFO) 

There's something else going on in this recent incarnation of Thomas' musical style - it's not that it's candid or intensely earnest, but it definitely does represent a bolder alternative in approach and presentation: one of the four extended (and beautifully stark) spacious pieces on side two is "House Party, Late December," demonstrating his newer inclination toward (and experimentation with) melodic spoken word poetry over pensive ambient arrangements of distorted guitar and minimal percussion.

 "It felt really exciting to shift from making indie pop like Saturday Looks Good To Me or noisy, washed-out stuff like City Center into this new kinda thing because it wasn't vague at all." 

Precisely. The 9 minute piano and pizzicato dirge of "Slow Waves" epitomizes a sense of insecurity, only laced with a sort of strychnine from the seething spoken word lyrics that may or may not be Thomas. "...there's kind of an observer character narrating a lot of the records from (the midway point on...") said Thomas. "Not saying it's me, necessarily, but there's a mindset that I've definitely been in that's giving a perspective to songs songs like ("Mother, Daughter, Pharmaprix)", or "Bed Bugs," (from All Are Saved), or "Echolocation" (from Changer).

Aftering can't be put into a box, just as the three albums can't be reduced to the description of a definitively charted path from one point to another. What you can say about Aftering is that after an atmospheric opener, it presents you with four consecutive 3-4 minute rock-oriented songs, providing sort of a comfort food for ears attuned to riffs, choruses, propulsive drums and melody. Then, the proceeding four songs expand like a thick fog, beyond the seven-- the eight-- or even the night-minute mark, closing, finally, with a melancholy nocturne called "What the Sermon Said."

"All three of the records kinda bend present/past/remembering...," said Thomas. "And (Aftering) doesn't land any more in any place than the others. It's certainly not too overt. More so it kinda all ties together: if you made a playlist of the songs with lyrics, you'd start to see a weird connection, kinda like scenes that interlock and come back around."

This five year process defies most of our expectations of a typical creative process. People would be surprised, for example, to hear how quickly Thomas would return to the studio after All Are Saved, or after Changer, but it was all a continuation. He's kept a continuous collection of demos in folders, and even sketches of songs written out... "which, now....feels totally done."

And that brings us to the certain  kind of catharsis he could attain... "When I finished recording these songs I really felt like something left me. Something too heavy, and sad. It was done. It felt beautiful."

Artists, to me, are such interesting processors... They process thoughts in these elaborate, adventurous, expressive, conceptual ways. And that word, a procession, hits home for Thomas. 

"When I started this, I was really excited to start, but I didn't understand it totally," he said. "It was just a reflection of a new time. A procession, yeah! And there are new times always, and it feels really good to have this one more or less defined. For me, it was huge to make music like "All Are Saved" in 2015 because it was VERY VERY different than anything else I'd done." He describes it as "monologues...with music more or less as an afterthought behind it." Adding: "I feel like I've explored that as much as I want to now, and it feels really complete." 

Thomas returned to work with Drew Vandenburg in Athens, GA, to produce/engineer the record. "This was my third record working with Drew Vandenberg in Athens and I actually went there a few times. Originally I had the idea to have the record be 10 really long bummer songs, much like the second half, probably about an hour long...But once we got that kinda in line, it felt wrong. So, we worked in a few of the more upbeat songs and then it just made sense to have it flow from upbeat to a sharp turn to protracted bummers." 

Thomas said that since he started recording bands as a full-time gig, he's working with an increasingly diverse cast of collaborating artists, and Aftering's cameos prove that. "Working all the time with new musicians in the studio, you sometimes strike up a rapport with certain players or connect on some level, hear them do something that you could see working with your music. A lot of the folks who play on this record I met because they played in bands whose records I worked on. Maria from Deadbeat Beat had been in the studio a lot when she played with Best Exes, Jake from Bonny Doon, I toured with and recorded a lot of his bands early material, Ashley Hennen who sings on "Slow Waves", she came in to record some of her own stuff and I just asked her if she'd mind singing on one of my songs. That kinda thing happened a lot over the course of all of the records."

Some artists explore darker territory and it's often regarded as just that: an exploration. Or a detour. Or some other kind of journey where they kind of lose themselves. But not so with Thomas. "This felt so clear to me: I had no doubts about the direction! It really quickly moved from a few experiments into what it became." 

"My hope with some of the more spoken word moments of the past three records has been to just flatly say something, to relay without any window dressing or artistic license how I experienced some part of my life," said Thomas. "It's not blunt to the point of reading like a police report or an insurance claim, but not too far from there! I kinda became disgusted with the way a lot of my earlier songs and lyrics especially felt to me as I got further away from them. They're mostly good, but some of them felt really vacant and vague, like they were aiming for communicating some kind of emotion but not really about anything I'd gone through. With some of these songs I'm going for the opposite of that."

And then I bring up Bjork. How she's able to gracefully unpack
things like pain or anxiety or a disenchantment with events beyond one's control, and not shy away, in fact never shying away, from putting it in a song. Some artists might wrestle with the temptation or the perceived demand to "end on a high note" or "wrap things up nicely" with hope or promise. Is there a pressure or a nervous compulsion to try to break that tension...? Or do we all want to find catharsis?  And am I right to bring in Bjork? 

"I listened to Homogenic the entire time I was making Aftering," said Thomas. "Bjork is an amazing comparison. Good ear. And..., much like her songs, these songs weren't all that worried about being too dark or ending on a high note. All three of the records end on low notes or without closure. Which is kind of the point. It's a statement, but not a product. The statement isn't super cohesive or even all that urgent, though it contains urgent moments..., But the interlocking of weird feelings, mundane moments and processing old times is really the aim of all three records. 

In real life, there aren't there isn't the triumphant, or comforting closure of movie credits scrolling after an emotionally-throttling event. It's all uncertainty and open ended rumination. "Things never wrap up nicely," said Thomas, "not magically in the commercial sense."  

It's more nebulous than that...spilling out of any frame you wanna put it in. 

We're never past anything, or complete. It's like we're always only "aftering…"

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