Art Rock

Fred Thomas Speaks To Those Who Chose Art Over Commerce

Fred Thomas comes to Houston with a new album in tow.
Fred Thomas comes to Houston with a new album in tow. Photo by Miles Larson

Fred Thomas might not be a name you know, but he's singing to anyone who chooses art over commerce. Known for his work in acts like Saturday Looks Good To Me and City Center, he's been dropping solo records over the past 15 years and his last two have gained the attention of most rock critics. Now with a new album, Aftering due September 14 on Polyvinyl, he's heading back to Houston to show that the long game works if you don't sell out in the process.

It's hard to tell what he enjoys more, being in a band or being a solo act. "It's tough. I've loved being solo, and I've been at it for the past 15 years, but it's been the past three records or five years where people have noticed," he says. "There are moments of loneliness, but getting to have complete isolation can be really great. I've been really lucky to tour with people that I like, but I've also found myself taking walks when I'm out with a band, to get to that moment of isolation."

With most of his albums coming out via Bandcamp, at shows, or through DIY circuits, a lot of Thomas' albums were overlooked. "In some ways it felt like they didn't understand, but it was also like they got it, they just didn't like it. Typically the shows I want to go see aren't the popular ones. I don't really listen to popular music, not because it's not cool but because a lot of times when I see a popular band, I think, 'oh, I've seen this or heard this before.' The stuff that's worked for me lately is the balance between what I like and what's more digestible.

"Some bands, all that they've known is to make songs for commercial uses. They make an album for the sake of selling lots of copies. For me, I know my album is done when I have an emotional breakdown."

Thomas' last two records, Changer and All Are Saved are part of a trio of releases, brought full circle by his upcoming album Aftering. After years of not getting a larger audience, it's curious as to what changed for him between the release of Kuma and All Are Saved.

"I've told this before, but by the time I was working on All Are Saved, I had this feeling of, 'well music was fun. I got to tour the world and I have a job, no one really likes my stuff, and getting to do it all was great.' But it's when I felt that way that everything changed. After years of not really dating and being the guy in the corner at a small indie rock show, I met the person who would become my wife, an older dog who I was caring for died and it was much more emotional than I thought it would be. I had all of these songs, so many songs, but I felt that I'd never really been honest with my music before. That's when things changed and I started writing from a more personal space," he says.

The music press took notice. Both All Are Saved and Changer made many critics' top year end lists. "Yeah it was super weird. Most people I knew in music had grown up and had kids, and they'd remark like, 'oh you're still doing that, how's that all working out?' But most of them, don't do music anymore. That's kind of always been the case. What hasn't been the case, would be for example, my wife works at a coffee shop with a bunch of younger kids. And they'll come in and say, 'I got home late last night and my roommates were blasting your husband's music, cause' they're so into it. I get nervous to even say hello when he pops in to see you.' So, that's cool to hear."

The songs on the last two releases include lyrics about working a day job while being an artist and giving to a community that doesn't understand the sacrifices you've made for it. "My lyrics on these recent records are more direct, but they become abstract again," he says. "A lot of young people come up to me and tell me how the lyrics resonate with them, which is bizarre to me. When I was their age, I wouldn't have known of such things because I was too busy thinking about bands or pizza or something."

For this tour, Thomas says he's going away from a hits set, and sticking to new music. "I'm flying in to Austin the day before, and I'll be borrowing gear. I'm the opening guy who no one came to see on sold out shows. Rose Ette has the same gear set up as me, a Jazzmaster with a Princeton amp, so I'm gonna' use their gear which I'm grateful for them letting me do. Mostly the set will be the new songs plus other songs that didn't make the record."

You can stream all of the Fred Thomas catalog on all streaming sites, or purchase it from Bandcamp. You can pre-order his new album, Aftering directly from Polyvinyl Records in multiple formats, including an ultra-rare version with a collage made by Thomas. You can catch the magic of Fred Thomas in person, when he performs at White Oak Music Hall on Monday September 17, when he's direct support for Owen. The all ages show has doors at 7 p.m.; tickets $13.
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David Garrick is a former contributor to the Houston Press. His articles focus primarily on Houston music and Houston music events.