BRATTLEBORO — Wherever this long, winding musical journey takes Kyle Thomas — aka, King Tuff — he will always carry his hometown deep within his heart.
This weekend, the journey comes full circle — back to Brattleboro, where Thomas wrote his first songs at Mocha Joe’s coffee shop; where he played and saw countless shows at the Tinderbox nightclub; where he hiked the Retreat trails or swam in nearby rivers; and where he hung out with like-minded “Harmony Rats” in the parking lot between Elliot and High streets.
On Saturday, Thomas brings his musical persona King Tuff — one that has earned international acclaim and recognition — back home for a sold-out show at The Stone Church, surely one of the most anticipated in the short history of the Gothic church-turned-concert venue. And he arrives with a batch of songs from a new album, “Smalltown Stardust,” that serve as a sort of love letter to those cherished moments of inspiration from his youth and to the small town that formed him.
“I think about Brattleboro all the time,” Thomas said in a phone interview recently from his home in Los Angeles. “Because, you know, I never really wanted to leave, but I knew I had to. So it’s still like a place that’s very dear to my heart. And I still get a lot of inspiration from there. There’s a lot of Brattleboro references kind of scattered throughout (the songs).”
On “Smalltown Stardust,” Thomas takes us on a journey through his past. Images of his youth abound: from Route 91, which runs through Brattleboro (in the title track); to the mysterious Red Tooth (in “Bandits Of Blue Sky”), a guy that Thomas and his friends used to see walking up and down Putney Road; to old friends, haunts and dreams (“Always Find Me”); to the nearby “Rock River,” which finds Thomas still burning for a 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.”
“A Meditation” begins with a brief recording of an 8-year-old Thomas instructing the listener to “take a really deep breath just to let all our soul out, and let’s be spiritual with this.” Even at that age, while traipsing through the woods of Southern Vermont, Thomas was seemingly on a quest for higher meaning.
“Especially, you know, during the pandemic, when I was writing the songs, I wasn’t having a lot of outside experiences,” Thomas says. “So I was kind of just reminiscing a lot, and thinking about the nature there (in Vermont) and the people, and just kind of missing it a lot. So that’s just what started coming out in the lyrics in the songs.”
Thomas recorded the album at his Los Angeles home in 2020 with housemates Meg Duffy (Hand Habits) and Sasami Ashworth. Thomas served as engineer and contributor to both of their recent records, and Ashworth co-produced “Smalltown Stardust,” also co-writing a majority of the record and contributing vocals, arrangements, and instrumentation to each song.
“Smalltown Stardust” is a follow-up to King Tuff’s 2018 album, “The Other,” which found Thomas distancing himself from the harder garage-rock sound of his earlier albums in favor of a more serene, psychedelic-tinged sound. On the new album, he leans more on his Vermont folk and roots music influences. The growling guitars have been replaced by new sonic textures, with violins and cellos, sweet harmonies, and hints of pop music that evoke Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles.
“There’s a lot of Beatles in there, and other classics,” he says. “It’s hard to not be influenced by that stuff, because the songwriting and production was so high back then. It’s hard to not let that seep through into my own sound. I just don’t relate as much to a lot of modern music so, yeah, it just kind of happens naturally. I’d say I don’t really listen to that stuff (garage rock) anymore. I definitely did when I was a teenager ... but I’m much more into songwriting and folkier kinds of things these days.”
Thomas, who turned 40 in January, is gratified that his audience seems to have accepted his new, more mature sound. “It’s really, really nice, because I didn’t know how it would be received. It’s definitely less hard rock and it’s much more tender. But it’s also a lot closer to the music that I like to listen to. And, yeah, lyrically, it’s a lot more sincere. But it seems to be resonating with people. And, you know, that brings me a lot of joy.”
Told that his voice reminds at least one listener of Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter known as Iron and Wine, Thomas says, “That’s cool. We both have beards. Must be the beard. Beards are big in Vermont, as we know. A good way to pass the time, growing a beard. Hair farming.”
Even the “Smalltown Stardust” album cover is a nod to Brattleboro and his shared history with the town: it’s a photo of himself and close friend Ruth Garbus, a fine musician in her own right, standing in front of the historic Wells Fountain downtown. Maybe it’s something in the local water that has nurtured a strong, diversified roster of musical talent that includes Thomas and Garbus, Merrill Garbus (Ruth’s sister) of Tune-Yards; bluegrass-Americana heroes The Devil Makes Three; singer-songwriter Sam Amidon; Graham Brooks of the metal band Barishi; and up-and-coming post-punk band Thus Love, currently on tour in Europe.
For Thomas, it all started when he was in seventh grade and his father bought a Fender Stratocaster guitar at Maple Leaf Music store in downtown Brattleboro. “I just picked it up and started messing with it, and I just couldn’t put it down.” He played drums in an elementary school band, but soon “veered away” from the school music stuff and got more into punk and metal. He also started playing guitar with other young musicians in the Harmony Lot. “We’d be just hanging there, you know, and I think a lot of my creativity stemmed from that boredom.”
The name King Tuff came to him one day as an 18-year-old, sitting in Mocha Joe’s, scribbling song lyrics and doodles. “I wrote it on a piece of paper with a lightning bolt. It’s obviously a play on King Tut but also my initials.” By that time, while attending Brattleboro Union High School, it was apparent to Thomas that he was going to try to make a career as a musician.
“I had bands in high school that, you know, I’d be working as a dishwasher somewhere, and my band had a show and I’m not gonna miss the show, so I quit the job. And that just kind of started happening more and more. I worked at Experienced Goods (thrift shop) for a long time, and I had a band and we wanted to do some touring. So I just left my job and started pursuing it more. It wasn’t until I really left town that I knew I could make an actual career out of it. Brattleboro was a great place to learn to hone my craft of writing songs, but I couldn’t really make the connections I needed there. I kind of had to get out into the world, and make it a reality.”
King Tuff was officially formed a little over 20 years ago. But after recording several unreleased albums, Thomas delved into other music projects like stoner metal band Witch (with J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. on drums), indie-rock band Happy Birthday, and the “freak folk” collective Feathers, made up of area musicians like Kurt Weisman, Asa Irons and Ruth Garbus. But King Tuff eventually came back around, releasing its debut album, “King Tuff Was Dead,” in 2008.
Thomas has lived in California for about 12 years, but he gets back to Brattleboro often to visit family and friends. He has noticed a “darker element” creeping in — drugs and crime and homelessness — but he believes that no hometown ever quite lives up to the idyllic memories of youth.
“I think that’s just what happens with places, especially when you move away, and then you come back and you’re like, ‘Wow, this isn’t really the same place I remember.’ But there’s certainly still a lot of things that haven’t changed, and some things have improved.”
Thomas played The Stone Church several years ago, with collaborator Sasami joining him on stage, but will have a different band supporting him this time around. He’s thankful that local venues like the Church, nearby Epsilon Spires, and Next Stage in Putney now exist for artists like himself and Thus Love to shine a little light through the darkness.
“That’s kind of my whole vibe, with music in general, I just want to bring joy. I think so much is focused on negativity and bad things going on. It’s like, there’s only so many ways to combat it. And I think that music is a really good medicine for the madness of the world.”
He also has one final message to herald his Saturday homecoming: “I just want to say, I’ll be really mad if all my friends don’t come to the show — meaning, everyone in Brattleboro.”
It’s a solid bet they’ll be there, bowing down to their musical “king.”