Tools Crew Live: Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas is like a library. The Ann Arbor-raised musician has lent his talents to approximately one billion recordings, from his own to his friends' and the many bands who have hired him to produce their records.
When the Montreal-based artist lived in Tree Town, the Ann Arbor District Library frequently lent Thomas assets from its Music Tools collection when he recorded his numerous solo records or those of his various bands, including Saturday Looks Good to Me and Hydropark.
So, when Pulp and the Music Tools crew decided to record musicians performing with instruments from the collection, Thomas was the perfect person to launch the video series: Tools Crew Live.
Thomas was back in Ann Arbor over the winter break, and on December 15, 2016, he came to the library’s Secret Lab makerspace and recorded “Echolocation” (from his new record, Changer) and “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II" (from 2015’s All Are Saved), using six instruments from the collection, including synths, effects pedals, and a guitar.
We also interviewed Thomas about his instrument choices and his amazing new album. Changer combines all the elements of Thomas' past work -- raw emotional insights, indie-rock stompers, and electronic evocations -- and manages to be the most personal and cohesive record of his long and creative career.
Q: Tell us about the two songs you recorded for us.
A: "Echolocation" is a pretty slight song lyrically; just a brief reflection on when I first moved to New York without a concrete plan and spent a lot of nights in a panicked state while I tried to get it together. It's more about the way the music vibes with the vocals than any deeper statement. "Cops Don't Care Pt. II" is a lot more involved, written in 2013 when there was a ton of legislation being rushed through Michigan government to limit women's reproductive health rights. It's got a lot of themes of resistance going through it -- anti-police violence, rejection of traditional love, rejection of societal power structures -- but feelings of fear for the rights and safety of people I love is where the song started.
Q: Why did you pick these particular Music Tools for these songs?
A: I love the Music Tools program because it allows you to see what works best for you without spending thousands of dollars in the process. Some of these tools -- the Pocket Piano, the Line 6 DL4 -- are staples in my own studio and others I had never played on and just wanted to mess around with and explore.
Q: Did you ever check out Music Tools when you lived here and use them on your other recordings?
A: Oh my god, I checked out everything on a weekly basis -- it almost made me feel guilty for overuse! Like I said, it's an unbelievably helpful thing to be able to see how you connect with a piece of gear hands-on and not have to commit to the price tag in the chance that it's just not for you. I can't tell you how much time I saved even in researching different synths and pedals that I instead just picked up and put immediately to use.
Q: Did you sell a ton of your music gear before your most recent return to Montreal?
A: I did sell a lot of stuff before I moved, mostly things that were sitting unused. I saved a fair amount of my analog synths but even had to let some of those go. I'm a firm believer, always, that less is more and it feels good to make huge sounds with a compact gear set up. I like to keep things fluid in regard to what gear I'm using in any given era of music making. Feels like a nice marker of time and progress.
Q: In Saturday Looks Good to Me [SLGTM, you often handed over the songs for someone else to sing. But as a solo artist, knowing you're the one who will be singing, has your lyric writing changed -- or been freed -- since you can play with phrasing, breaking measures, slow or speed the music to fit the words, rather than having to write a more tightly constructed lyric where someone will be able to divine the phrasing because the rhyme scheme is straightforward? I just find your lyrics on the last two records to be insanely great. And rather than a direct approach, the insights you're making and stories you're telling often come together through a small build-up of granular details that add up to a big emotional gut-punch. Also, in the Pitchfork review of "All Are Saved," the guy made the comment that you were among the "artists reinventing themselves as their actual self," which feels correct, I think. I just feel more YOU coming through on these last two records than ever before.
A: I think I understand and thank you for the considerate critique! There is more of my lived experience coming through on these past two solo records in a way that feels less vague and shrouded in the emotional suggestion that a lot of SLGTM songs were based on. With SLGTM I wasn't singing mostly because I don't have a great voice and a lot of my friends had voices so much better suited for those songs. Maybe that made the lyrics a little more open to interpretation than the rapid-fire personal explosives that have been more my style lately.
Q: Since a lot of your songs investigate or evaluate moments from your life that may have happened years ago, do you keep a diary or something to go back for the details? Because I can't remember what I did yesterday and you're recounting a night in Baltimore in 2003.
A: Ha, ha, I just have a really, really, really good and organized memory. Memory is always changing, too.
Q: You've talked about how Changer pulls stories from over a longer period of your life, in part because you had a lot of time to reflect on things with the move and not being able to work in Montreal, but All Are Saved you described as a six-month snapshot or something. Still, Changer and All Are Saved feel like complementary albums -- almost like they could be a Volume One and Two.
A: They are similar, for sure, and some of the songs fit together, though none of it is really cohesive to the point of a singular concept or anything. I think of these songs as all part of a newer phase for me, but still kind of still reaching for the next idea, always.
Music Tools on "Echolocation":
➥ SX Taurus II MN 3TS electric guitar
➥ GAIA SH-01 synthesizer
➥ Critter & Guitari Septavox synthesizer
➥ M5 Multi-Effects pedal
➥ Line 6 DL4 Delay Stompbox Modeling pedal
Science Tools in the videos:
➥ Velociraptor skull
Other Tools used to create the videos:
➥ IKAN FLY-X3 PLUS Smartphone Gimbal Stabilizer
➥ "Changer is a scrapbook of uncomfortable memories" (Metro Times)
➥ "Q&A: Fred Thomas on the Transformations Driving His New Album Changer" (Stereogum)
➥ Changer review (Pitchfork)
➥ AADL Director Josie Parker talks with MTV about why the AADL’s Music Tools collection is unique. (MTV’s The Stakes podcast).
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.
Fred Thomas' "Changer" comes out January 27, 2017, and will be available in Ann Arbor at Encore Records, Underground Sounds, and Wazoo Records. You can also buy it directly from the record label, Polyvinyl.