Smalltown Stardust King Tuff
Label: Sub Pop Records
Subgenre: Indie Rock
Artist: King Tuff
Album including Album cover
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- 1Love Letters To Plants02:44
- 2How I Love04:48
- 3A Meditation00:51
- 4Portrait Of God03:39
- 5Smalltown Stardust03:08
- 6Pebbles In A Stream03:54
- 7Tell Me03:21
- 8Rock River03:26
- 9The Bandits Of Blue Sky03:45
- 10Always Find Me03:58
- 11The Wheel04:44
Info for Smalltown Stardust
There are times in our life when we feel magic in the air. When new love arrives, or we find ourselves lost in a moment of creation with others who share our vision. A sense that: this is who I want to be. This is what I want to share.
It’s a fleeting feeling and one that Kyle Thomas, the singer-songwriter who records and performs as King Tuff, found himself longing for in the spring of 2020.
But knowing he couldn’t simply recreate this time in his life at will, Thomas—who hails from Brattleboro, Vermont—set out to write a love letter to those cherished moments of inspiration and to the small town that formed him. The one where he first nurtured his songwriting impulses, bouncing ideas off other like-minded artists. The kind of place where the changing of the seasons always delivered a sense of perspective and fresh artistic inspiration. Where he felt a deeper connection with nature and sense of community that had once been so close at hand.
“I wanted to make an album to remind myself that life is magical,” he reflects.
And so, Thomas seized upon his memories, creating what he calls “an album about love and nature and youth.”
The result is Smalltown Stardust, a spiritual, tender and ultimately joyous record that might come as a shock to those with only a passing knowledge of the artist’s back catalog. On Smalltown Stardust, Thomas takes us on his journey to a place where past and present collide, where he can be a dreamer in love with all that he sees. Images of his youth abound: from Route 91 which runs through his hometown (in “Smalltown Stardust”); to Redtooth, a spectre who used to roam the streets (“Bandits Of Blue Sky”); to old friends, old haunts and old dreams (“Always Find Me”); to Vermont’s Rock River, which gave its name to a song of a torch still burning for past love: “Those days are gone and we can’t rewind/ Cuz people grow and places change/ But my love for you will never fade away.”
But at the core of Smalltown Stardust is Thomas’s desire to commune with nature on a spiritual level. Images of the natural world, from blizzards to green mountains to cloudy days, fill the songs and create a setting unmistakably far away from Los Angeles. “I consider nature to be my religion,” he explains, and Smalltown Stardust is nothing if not a spiritual exploration. Thomas’s identification as a sort of eternal spiritual seeker is underscored in one of the album’s sweetest moments, “A Meditation,” which features a home audio recording of Thomas as an eight year old, trying his hand at leading a meditation. It’s a journey that he continues to this day, as he intones on “Portrait of God”: “Walking in the woods, wading in the river” and “breathing in the mountain air” before heading back to a place where he finds himself “Oil painting in my garage/ Let my colors flow/ I’m working on my portrait of God.”
While so much of Smalltown Stardust invokes idealized traces and places of Thomas’s past, the album’s recording process made his communal vision a reality. Thomas’s Los Angeles home in 2020 formed a micro-scene of sorts, with housemates Meg Duffy (Hand Habits) and Sasami Ashworth recording their own heralded albums (2021’s Fun House and 2022’s Squeeze, respectively) at the same time. A shared spirit dominated an era spent largely on the premises, with Thomas serving as engineer and contributor to both records, and Ashworth working as co-producer on Smalltown Stardust. Thomas describes the time with a fitting metaphor: “I’ve always thrived around other people making things. You want to bloom with each other.” Ashworth’s contributions are vital to the album: she co-wrote a majority of the record and contributed vocals, arrangements, and instrumentation to each song. As Thomas notes, “I tried to follow her vision a lot. It helps to open your world to collaborators. You always get something completely different than you would have expected.”
With the gorgeous orchestral tones of “Love Letter to Plants,” it’s immediately clear that Thomas is declaring a wider vision of what his music can be. Gone are many of the squalling guitars of previous King Tuff records, replaced with thoughtful, tender touches of cello and violin on “Love Letter to Plants,” “Pebbles In A Stream” and “The Bandits Of Blue Sky”; a plaintive saxophone on “Always Find Me”; and orchestral vocal harmonies with Ashworth that lift the songs to a celestial plane. (Though the rollicking, joyous leads on “Portrait of God” show Thomas hasn’t lost his touch on guitar.) On “How I Love,” Thomas makes clear that all of this is by design: “So lost in nothing but noise for so many years, I forgot to love.”
In the end, Smalltown Stardust is not merely a nostalgia trip. In making the record, Thomas not only conjured a special time in his life, he found new inspiration, surrounded by a small circle of collaborators and a sense of love and wonder for nature. If the first King Tuff record was content to merely state Thomas was no longer dead, Smalltown Stardust is a paean to what that life means. A statement of belief and a hymnal to the magic still to behold all around us. “I’m a different person now than I was 20 years ago when I first started it. But oddly, when I first started the band, it was more like this,” he says. Which is to say, things have come full circle.
When asked to describe the title track from his new record, Kyle Thomas—aka King Tuff—takes a deep breath. “It’s a song about hitting rock bottom,” he says. “I didn’t even know what I wanted to do anymore, but I still had this urge—this feeling—like there was this possibility of something else I could be doing… and then I just followed that possibility. To me, that’s what songwriting, and art in general, is about. You’re chasing something, there is something out there calling to you and you’re trying to get at it. ‘The Other’ is basically where songs come from, it’s the hidden world, it’s the mystery. It’s the invisible hand that guides you whenever you make something. It’s the thing I had to rediscover—the sort of voice I had to follow—to bring me back to making music again in a way that felt true and good.”
After years of non-stop touring, culminating in a particularly arduous stint in support of 2014’s Black Moon Spell, Thomas found himself back in Los Angeles experiencing the flipside of the ultimate rock and roll cliche—that of an exhausted musician suddenly unsure where to go or what to do, held prisoner by a persona that he never meant to create, that bore little resemblance to the worn out person they now saw in the mirror. Thomas was suddenly at odds with the storied rock and roll misfit mythology that he’d spent the past ten years, four full-length albums, a handful of EPs, and multiple live records, unwittingly bringing to life.
“At that point I had literally been on tour for years,” recalls Thomas. “It was exhausting. Physically and mentally. At the end of it I was like, I just can’t do this. I’m essentially playing this character of King Tuff, this crazy party monster, and I don’t even drink or do drugs. It had become a weird persona, which people seemed to want from me, but it was no longer me. I just felt like it had gotten away from me.”
For a time, Thomas involved himself in projects that gave him space from all things King Tuff, and allowed him to, as he says, “go out and play music without having to actually be the boss.” Eventually, after being asked to play a handful of solo shows, Thomas began to see a way through to making new music. “I’d never played a show with just an acoustic guitar,” he says. “It just seemed like the scariest thing. I knew I wanted to write some new songs that could stand up in that kind of setting, which really opened the door to a new way of working.”
“I knew I wanted to record myself on my own time in my own space, so I put together a studio in a room in my house we called the Pine Room. It was like being inside of a wood-paneled spaceship. Suddenly I had all of this new crazy gear that I had no idea how to use in any sort of technical or ‘correct’ way. I just embraced the beauty of not knowing, which I think is where you get interesting things happening.” Thomas self-produced the record, as he did his debut, Was Dead, but on a far grander scale, this time playing every instrument aside from drums and saxophone. He pulled Shawn Everett (War On Drugs, Alabama Shakes) in to assist with the mixing process. “From the moment I started recording, it was like going home, like I had finally found myself again.”
The ten tracks that would eventually become The Other represent a kind of psychic evolution for the King Tuff. No less hooky than previous records, the new songs ditch the goofy rock and roll bacchanalia narratives of earlier records in favor of expansive arrangements, a diversity of instrumentation, and lyrics that straddle the fence between painful ruminations and reconnecting with that part of yourself that feels childlike and creative and not corroded by cynicism. The soulful and cosmic new direction is apparent from the album’s first moments: introduced by the the gentle ringing of a chime, acoustic guitar, and warm organ tones, “The Other” is a narrative of redemption born of creativity. As Thomas sings about about being stuck in traffic, directionless, with no particular reason to be alive, he hears the call of “the other,” a kind of proverbial siren song that, instead of leading towards destruction, draws the narrator towards a kind of creative rebirth. Elsewhere, tracks like “Through The Cracks” and “Psycho Star” balance psychedelia with day-glo pop hooks. “The universe is probably an illusion, but isn’t it so beautifully bizarre?” he asks on “Psycho Star,” providing one of the record’s central tenets. At a time when everything in the world feels so deeply spoiled and the concept of making meaning out of the void seems both pointless and impossible, why not try?
“I’m talking about things that I don’t necessarily feel good about, that aren’t easy,” says Thomas, who views the record as a way to push back against that internal voice that so often keeps us from trying new things. “I feel like this relates to a song like ‘Birds of Paradise,’ which is definitely about trying hold on to that childlike part of yourself that doesn’t care what anyone thinks, the endless curiosity and unbounded creativity.” It’s a sentiment that pops up throughout the record, particularly in the preening funk of “Raindrop Blue,” and the ripping “Ultraviolet,” tracks that crack open new sonic territory for King Tuff, complete with rainbow keyboards, strutting basslines, hot-buttered bongos, harmonicas, angelic backing vocals, and strikingly danceable grooves. After nine songs that take on everything from creative insecurity, the isolating evils of technology, and the redemptive power of art, the album wraps up with “No Man’s Land.” The song is a slow-build gospel-tinged stunner that comes complete with harp strums and pillows of space synths for Thomas’ beleaguered lyrics (“I’m going down to the forgotten part of town with roses and rubies in my hands”), which sound both weary and strangely at peace. It’s a song about ending up where you need to be, even if you have no idea how you might have arrived there. “It’s about attaining The Other,” says Thomas. “‘No Man’s Land’ is a vision of the afterlife, it’s where the journey eventually leads you. It’s some other plane of existence that you kind of aspire to. It’s ending up inside the dream.”
Thomas views the entire experience of writing and recording The Other as a kind of psychic reset. “I let the songs lead me where they wanted to go, instead of trying to push them into a certain zone. King Tuff was always just supposed to be me. When I started doing this as a teenager, it was whatever I wanted it to be. King Tuff was never supposed to be just one thing. It was supposed to be everything.”
This album contains no booklet.