Posted by Jason Diamond
I won’t lie to you and fail to mention that I was a huge fan of Saturday Looks Good to Me, the band Fred Thomas was the mastermind of prior to teaming up with Ryan Howard to make music under the moniker of City Center. But with that said, I’m actually much more interested in the music Howard and Thomas are making currently, rather than anything they’ve done in the past. East Village Radio drew comparisons between the latest City Center album, Redeemer (K Records), and Guided by Voices. A friend who overheard me listening to the album referred to it as “the grandest lo-fi pop I’ve ever heard.” I simply think it’s one of those records that is perfectly suited for calm summer days, and helps solidify the position of Thomas & Howard among the great pop music teams of all time.
Ryan Howard answered these questions.
I grew up in suburban Michigan before coming to Ann Arbor, but both environments have the same feel: as a kid, there is this overwhelming boredom with the lack of anything targeted at you. You can’t drive, you’re not taken seriously, so you end up going off on this weird, alternative trajectory of exploring and exploiting – you go to Subway, for example, to skateboard, not to eat; you go to Starbucks not for the coffee, but because there’s a great spot behind it to do drugs or make out or whatever. That kind of “alternative reality” of the teen years – in all its beauty as much as in its stupidity and mistakes – informed the record in a big way.
How long have you and Fred been friends? Does a long friendship make a creative partnership stronger?
Fred and I have been friends since 2006 I believe. Not a super long time, but certainly a super creative time. Early on, I think we both sized each other up as equally creative and excited about music, so the partnership was pretty natural. Also, Fred is somebody who never stops working, so we very quickly began just constantly creating new things. In the summer of 2009, for example, we would practice almost everyday. No joke! Recording, re-recording, and just generally trying to make the most of our mutual talents.
32% of Ann Arbor’s population is made up of University students. What sort of effect does growing up in a college town have on somebody?
Living in a college town is weird because a massive part of the population gets replaced on a continual basis. It’s a really transient town, kind of like a staging ground. For an 18-22 year old, it’s where you are just before you do the big thing you really want to do. So in that way it’s filled with a wonderful feeling of potential. And it’s also very carefree, because there’s so little attachment and nobody’s really “settled down” yet. The flip side of that is that sooooo many conversations just involve talking about getting out, which always implies something negative about the place, like it’s not good enough. So it’s a weird place that really straddles the two extremes of “I can do anything here” and “I can’t do anything here.”
I like in one paragraph on the press release for Redeemer that drops the Void side of the Faith/Void split, the Gap in the early 90s, and a kid trying to talk Fluxus in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show in 1971. Do you find yourself wanting to cram as many influences into an album? That’s a pretty wide swath.
So, so many of these influences are brought into the picture by Fred. To say that half of what’s on my ipod is stuff that he introduced me to would be a major understatement. It’s so great for me! So while we were working on this album, absolutely nothing was off the table – there might be a song where all I wanted to do was keep making loops and make it really psychedelic, and Fred would be like, “check it son!” and bust out some crazy fast, distorted guitar part to put in the middle, or he’d push me to play a syncopated drum beat I’d never imagine using. I think that’s where our partnership really shines: when one of us turns the other onto something new, and then that person makes it their own, or better yet, our own.
You’ve worked in an indie bookstore, are you an avid reader?
Yeah, I love reading. I was a philosophy & english major in college, and got really lucky ending up at the bookstore. I could go on about the pros and cons of indie bookstores, but more importantly, my time there made me realize the absolute importance of liberal education (which, I think, indie bookstores are a part of). Don’t go to college just to be competitive in the job market. Go to enrich yourself, your character. Go to learn new things. Go because “politics” in America now involves Donald Trump and Sarah Palin and that’s a very, very bad thing for us!! Or don’t go, and do all of that on your own! Either way, that’s where the value of bookstores and reading lies for me. Sorry to rant!!
You’re influenced by everything from Fluxus to iconic Dischord albums, so where does literature fit into the equation? Have any of City Center’s songs ever been influenced by something you read, or a lyric written based off something you read in a book?
I think literature does fit into our music, but not so much in the literal sense of basing lyrics off a book. It’s usually more organic – Fred and I will just talk about stuff we read (it’s just the two of us in the car for two months on tour sometimes!!) and those themes will be on our minds when we’re jamming on new songs. While we were working on this record, Fred was reading almost exclusively books about the Black Panther Party. And there was this ongoing conversation about the themes of Continental Philosophy – authority, freedom, morality – as a result of what I studied in school. So in a significant way, those discussions pointed us to make songs about being young, being scared all the time, not knowing what’s right, wanting to be someone else…
Is there a City Center reading list you could give us? Five books you love more than others.
Oh man, always my favorite question (reading it, and getting to write it!):
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo
Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord
Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas – Sam Durant
Any and all Cormac McCarthy (sorry if that’s cheating, but he’s my favorite)