Kyle Thomas, better known as the leader of King Tuff, a constantly morphing musical project that’s somewhere between a band name and Thomas’ songwriting nom de plume, is stuck in the polar vortex that recently gripped the Midwest.
“We haven’t left the hotel,” Thomas tells me over the phone. King Tuff’s next show is in Madison, only about an hour from Milwaukee, so Thomas isn’t worried, even though he’s been doing most of the driving on this tour.
King Tuff’s on the road promoting their latest release The Other, out now on Sub Pop. After a little break from the King Tuff project, the album was a new beginning for Thomas. In the past, he’s played in Ty Segall’s backing band The Muggers and recorded solo material with California garage rock label Burger Records.
King Tuff has been with Thomas since he was 18. “A lot can change,” he says. Over the years he developed a little bit of a rock ‘n’ roll party boy reputation, in a classic sense — like Thin Lizzy or T Rex, with scuzzy riffs, rumbling percussion and some “far-out, man” lyrics.
“I think that’s fun to let yourself become this other thing onstage,” he says. “Offstage I’m pretty soft-spoken. I’m pretty mellow. I stepped away from the project for a couple years. I got pretty sick of playing the straightforward rock music. I was listening to different things.”
When it came time to record a new King Tuff album, Thomas needed it to feel new, for it not to be just another rock record. While The Other is not a huge departure for King Tuff, it is a little more thoughtful, more produced and — if I might use a word anathema to some rockers — mature: diamond-encrusted, rather than smelling of cheap beer and motor oil.
Luckily, it’s also really good, with some great grooves, memorable melodies and plenty of Thomas’ big personality in the mix.
Self-taught, Thomas has been playing music since he was a boy in Vermont. Bernie Sanders visited his high school. His first show was a school dance, where he played an original song called “Pickle Man.”
“About my intense love for pickles,” he says.
Performing was scary, but a crazy rush, he remembers. Afterward, a girl told him she liked the song, and at that point he knew playing rock ‘n’ roll would be his life.
Thomas now lives in L.A., a long way from Vermont. “It’s just been a dream,” he says of life in Southern California, but he does miss the snow. Well, stuck in a hotel room in Milwaukee during an arctic blast, he’s getting plenty of it now.
“They’re forecasting a wind chill of 50 below,” he says. Nevertheless, “I’m going to try to go to a record store, if they’re open.”
King Tuff performs with Tropa Magica 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 9, at WOW Hall; $18 adv., $20 door, all-ages.