Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff
Wyndham Garnett/Courtesy photo
Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff

A musical love letter to Brattleboro

Kyle Thomas — a.k.a. King Tuff — returns home with a new album and a sold-out show at the Stone Church

BRATTLEBORO — Kyle Thomas says when reflecting on his new album, “I felt a deeper connection with nature and sense of community that had once been so close at hand, so I wanted to make an album to remind myself that life is magical.”

The 40-year-old Thomas was back in his hometown of Brattleboro last weekend, playing a sold-out show at The Stone Church and promoting his new album, Smalltown Stardust, released in January, with a multi-city national tour.

Several of his songs on the new album speak about Brattleboro and Vermont, including “Rock River”: “Do you remember the places we used to go / when life was easy and the days were slow? / Through the woods and take off our clothes / Jump in the water and never grow old / And I left my heart on the Rock River.”

Robin Johnson, owner of The Stone Church in an email to the Commons, described Thomas as “Brattleboro's homegrown freak-folk psychedelic wizard.”

“He is one of the Brattleboro kids who made it big in the music world, but always remembers and shows love for his roots,” Johnson said. “Musically, he's covered a lot of ground from [the] early fuzzed-out indie rock of King Tuff, to metal with his supergroup Witch, to the dreamier psych-pop soundscapes of King Tuff's most recent releases.”

The Commons talked with Thomas by phone about how growing up in Brattleboro has informed his music career, the theme of Smalltown Stardust, and why he thinks music is medicine. Here's an excerpt from the conversation:

Victoria Chertok: Tell me about your new album and about how growing up in Brattleboro inspires your music.

Kyle Thomas: I wrote most of Smalltown Stardust during the pandemic - it was a time when we weren't having experiences out in the world, so we had to look inward.

I think about Brattleboro all the time. I am very thankful I grew up there and got to focus on my art there. I created this album about love and nature and youth. The woods and nature and that imagery started coming up in the lyrics.

I wouldn't call Brattleboro a normal small town. Lots of people have gone on to do really cool things in the world; they have become musicians and are quite successful. There are weird things about it - like, why does this place seem so connected to the outer world yet at the same time feels like the middle of nowhere?

It has an interesting power to it. People were always talking about it, like there is a crystal under Brattleboro, where two rivers meet, a center of power. So I was hearing all this stuff as I was growing up, and it does seem to me there is something special about it.

I think there is a lot of folk music happening around here, which is in my blood.

V.C.: How has your music evolved over the last 20 years?

K.T.: I was so bored a lot of the time as a teenager - and that was good, because we would just sit in the parking lot and get ideas and make things happen. I had a band in high school with my brother called The Ludicrous. We played at the teen center before we played out of state for a few shows in Massachusetts and New York. That was the start of it all.

My music has gone through a lot of changes. I just focus on songwriting and let the songs be what they want to be. I can't control that too much.

V.C.: What was your first instrument?

K.T.: My first instrument was drums. I played the snare drum in the school band but quickly got into playing guitar.

My dad bought a guitar at Maple Leaf Music in the early 1990s, and I started making up songs on it on one string. I made it my own.

Now I'm learning piano. On tour I play mostly guitar but play keys on a few songs. I wrote a lot of the album on the piano.

It's fun to play those songs live. I don't usually play covers, but we did play “Margaritaville” on stage the other night in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was incredible. The audience went wild.

V.C.: Who were your early music influences?

K.T.: My first memorable song influences were George Harrison's “Got My Mind Set On You,” Stevie Wonder's work, and Starship's “We Built This City.” Once I bought a tape of Jimi Hendrix - that was the first time I understood what guitar could do. So that was really what opened it up for me.

From there, I just went deep into classic rock and then punk. And I'm very obsessed with The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Albums I love are John Wesley Harding and New Morning.

I love Dylan's new records as well. The lyrics and the storytelling, and his delivery, are so unique. He remains unpredictable. He cracks me up. He made a Christmas album a few years ago, and he's wearing a long blonde wig in the video - there is no explanation. He just naturally does it; he's very playful.

V.C.: How did you come up with the name King Tuff?

K.T.: I was 18 or 19 when I came up with the King Tuff name. I was at Mocha Joe's and wrote it down on a piece of paper with a little lightning bolt and then carried it around in my wallet.

It's based on my initials and obviously a play on “King Tut.” It's a funny name, because I'm not tough at all, and I don't want to be king. But these names - they just stick to you sometimes.

V.C.: Which teachers supported you in your creative journey as you were growing up in Brattleboro?

K.T.: My art teacher at Brattleboro Union High School was Gary Blomgren, who passed away a few years ago. He was great, and I loved him so much. He was so positive, and you felt like you could do anything in his class. He didn't try to force any rules on you - he was supportive and inspiring.

I was already making weird, dark, intense things, and he loved them.

And Franklin Chrisco, who was my teacher in a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class at Oak Grove School. He was really open and you felt safe and comfortable in his class. He was not a dictator and didn't make me feel scared.

V.C.: I heard that you have a funny story about how you met your guitar player on this tour. What happened?

K.T.: Yes! I put together a new band every time I put out a new record. I think, “Who is fun to hang out with?” Then by chance, I met Noel Friesen, a guitar player in Los Angeles, and when he told me he's from Brattleboro, I was shocked.

To me, that is the perfect Brattleboro thing! It keeps popping up. You know - out of all of Los Angeles, of course I find a guitar player from Brattleboro who I've never met in my life. There you go.

V.C.: You moved to Los Angeles in 2011. How did that come about?

K.T.: It was extremely hard to leave Brattleboro. I had all my friends here and a great studio, but I couldn't do what I wanted to do: to make music my life.

I had to go on tour and make more connections and see what else there was out there. I went through a breakup, and there was a moment where I was, like, “I've gotta go!”

I made this really cool group of friends in L.A., and they just called to me. I never would have imagined this is where I would have gone. There is a lot of nature here - a different kind of nature - it's an open place. I rolled the dice and jumped into the void. I didn't have a plan, and it started working immediately when I got here.

V.C.: What do you mean when you say “music is medicine”?

K.T.: The world is messed up - it always has been. The messed-up-ness has been heightened in the past few years. It's a barrage of bad things, one after the other.

For me, music is a way to combat that by putting out positivity into the world. And, you know, at least that is my way to do it. That's what I focus on. Having music in my daily life is everything to me.

Music is such a special thing and is so powerful.

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