Trying to talk to Kyle Thomas about his music feels a bit like pinning a fidgety school kid down in the playground and making him wax philosophical about why he likes recess. Sometimes Thomas is endearingly matter-of-fact about his more-than-a-decade-old, on-and-off solo project King Tuff (“It’s the rock and roll one”) and sometimes he’s playfully withholding (“I ain’t telling”). But when the scraggly-haired musician interrupts a discussion of his writing process to describe the smell of the air in his adopted home of Los Angeles, you get the sense that instead of talking about life, he’d rather just be living it. On the late winter afternoon when we speak, his nostrils are picking up pine trees and donuts, and he seems particularly preoccupied with describing the disorientation that can arise when you stare at a single point in space for long periods of time. “I always try to look at things in a new light,” he says. “Ordinary objects or plants or animals or people. You just imagine seeing something as if you’re seeing it for the first time—you don’t even know what it is.”
There’s a similar fascination with the mundane in Thomas’ storytelling, which, since the project’s genesis in his late teens, has revolved with an almost comical persistence around girls, cars, partying and other libidinal projections of his “infinitely teenage heart and soul.” But his words speak to something he seems to be doing with rock music when he lets rip with a gloriously distorted guitar solo, or wraps his snarling, nasal tenor around a line like let go of your body as though he’s hailing the arrival of the ’60s sexual revolution all over again. With its lick-driven, glammy songwriting and sparse, sun-bleached production, it’s hard not to register his recently reissued Was Dead debut as the stuff of a great, forgotten rock record. From his tenure in early-aughts, ramshackle psych-folk collective Feathers and Black Sabbath/Pentagram fetishists Witch (his metal project with J. Mascis) to the scrappy, catchy garage of Happy Birthday, Thomas has built a career on channeling the spirits of outsiders past with an energy that never feels borrowed.
Was Dead didn’t reach too many ears when he self-released it in 2007, but like King Tuff himself, Thomas explains, “It was the creeper in the corner. It just sort of crept out.” Though he’s since recorded a more sprawling and sumptuously produced full-length, Was Dead cemented the Tuff character’s cult appeal as something of an iconic weirdo himself—a greasy, black-coffee-drinking Vermonter who drives a mean green Chevrolet, as he sings on “Sun Medallion,” and boasts about shooting girls with his laserbeam. “I think even if you’re sort of working in a genre or a style that’s been around for a while, it can always feel new as long as the person puts their personality in it,” he says. “It’s like art, you know? You either like someone’s paintings or you don’t. But when you like a painter’s personality, you get obsessed with it.”
Even considering Thomas’ claim that he doesn’t remember writing and recording any of the songs on Was Dead (presumably because he wrote them over a span of five years, but also because of all the hard living he’s done in the interim), it’s sometimes hard to tell where Thomas the person ends and King Tuff the fictional persona begins. But if original copies of his first album are now fetching as much money on eBay as actual lost gems from the late ’60s, it may be because of his intuitive understanding that a successfully crafted rock & roll enigma will never break character—not even when you ask him how much thought he puts into crafting electrifying moments like the gutteral scream on “Animal,” and he replies, “I’m just letting it happen. The key is to not think about anything, ever.”