Pop Investigations, Specificity, and Misheard Lyrics: An Interview With Fred Thomas

Fred Thomas credit Esme McClear

The songs heard on All Are Saved, the new album from Fred Thomas, cover a wide stylistic range, from stark narratives to ecstatic arrangements. To anyone familiar with Thomas’s body of work, which includes albums released under his own name as well as with the groups Saturday Looks Good to Me and City Center, this is probably not going to be much of a shock. Throughout, memorable riffs and choruses weave around haunting memories and observations of geographical spaces. It’s an expansive album both musically and emotionally, and one that rewards repeat listens. I interviewed Thomas about the process of making the album and about the origins of some of All Are Saved‘s most memorable passages.

You’ve played in a number of bands over the years, and you’ve made a number of solo albums during that time as well. What makes a Fred Thomas song a Fred Thomas song, rather than one that might be used for a band?

It’s mostly a conceptual thing that happens entirely in my head. I’ve been in bands where it’s fully collaborative or different songwriters expand on each other’s ideas, as well as projects where I write everything and kinda just conduct, but in the end I always think about the end result of a finished album and what it would look like. Thinking about how some of my essential favorite recordings like Love’s Forever Changes or Pet Sounds or the David McCallum records–those were “bands” or artists but the bands didn’t actually play much of the music. It was lots of uncredited session players. Similarly, I just write songs and hope they float into the right place when they finally arrive in public.

What was the process of arranging All Are Saved like? “Every Song Sung to a Dog” leads things off with particularly interesting shift in instrumentation…

This record was an intense study in multi-fidelity, meaning instead of just going into a studio for a week or two and working from the ground up, there’s recordings I did at home, stuff from 4 track or my phone, drum overdubs from a studio in Detroit, tons of work at another studio in Georgia and different people contributing their playing and talents at every different step. The looping riff that sounds like steel drums–and is actually just a processed guitar–that runs throughout that song was actually yanked from a demo I did with my old band City Center in 2009! We were trying to make a High Places-sounding song but abandoned it and four years later I picked the idea back up. So the arrangement process was siphoned down from so many different places and even eras.

How have you been handling these arrangements when you play the songs live?

I mostly just play guitar and sing, though there’s a lot of songs that I play live samples off of, using my sampler like a drum pad. The whole “building guitar loops” thing has been done to death so instead of putting people through my version of that anymore, I try to put the focus on the vocals and performance instead.

In terms of writing the lyrics for the album, certain songs seem more archetypal, while others–I’m thinking of “Bad Blood” in particular–feel very specific. Did you know from the outset what approach you would take for each song?

There were so many songs written for this record, maybe like 25 or so, and in the end only 9 songs with words and two interludes made it. I wanted to kinda present a “Greatest Hits” version of what I’d been working on, so the lyrical push of the songs that made it all took a similar shape and tone. Maybe because of this, they all seem really specific to me and in some senses looking at different moments of a similar perspective. “Bad Blood,” while a bitter look at not liking people you don’t actually know anything about, also gets into a more inward spiral of anxiety and hope. To me those themes are present on a lot of the songs in a very similar way.

In “When They Built the Schools,” you make a reference to “This puppet century,” which makes for a very strong image. What prompted that choice of words?

So happy to be able to answer this question!! The Detroit band Isles of ESP is one of my favorites, and I was seeing them play a lot during the time I was writing this record. Their lyrics are surreal, beautiful and kind of rainy strings of language, so I always try to pay special attention to the vocals. One song has a line that says “In these particular days and these particular nights” but at first I misheard it as “In these puppet days and these puppet nights”, which I thought was such an incredible statement. The vivid contrasting feelings of futility, helplessness, anger and hope in the face of horrible facts seemed summed up to me in just eight words. I asked the singer what it was about and he confirmed I had gotten it wrong, but said it was okay when I asked if I could steal the line as I heard it. I think it gives a plain, if somewhat aloof feeling that control is not ours, but we are free to try to create some illusion that we can live outside of fear and danger anyway. Even if it’s up for debate if things have gotten much better, actually, socially in the last 100 years.

As someone with plenty of ties to Michigan, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the current state of Detroit and the way people in the arts outside of Detroit seem to be viewing it.

I spend a lot of time in Detroit, but I only lived there for about 10 or 11 months a decade ago, so I feel like I talk about it’s present state as a visitor at best. Things seem more active and exciting in a lot of ways, but the way people talk about Detroit as some new mecca for young artists seems different from the actual feeling of being at a show or a party there and catching the vibe. I couldn’t really say for real though. In some ways it feels identical to when I was driving 40 minutes to go to emo shows there in 1993.

The album’s title reads like an affirmation, though there are also plenty of bleak moments in the songs themselves. At what point in the process did the title come about?

The title is a little weird because of the word “Saved,” which could have Christian connotations to some, or seem spiritual, etc. It actually was inspired more by shows I used to do a couple years ago where the focus was on free, safe, all-inclusive gathering. Instead of “ALL AGES” or “NO JERKS” i just wrote “ALL ARE WELCOME” on the flyers. I came up with the title when I was alone in the car wash, feeling insanely frustrated with how rarely that all-inclusive, acceptance-heavy approach to life had been working out for me. Going through the weird, numb-ish sensation of being in a locked car as it coasts along the car wash rails, I was bummed out, angry and kept repeating “ALL ARE FUCKED. EVERYONE IS FUCKED.” Somehow by the end of the car wash I had turning it around in my brain and was saying “ALL ARE SAVED”, hoping everyone could save themselves, eventually, from all the negativity and useless anger that comes at all of us, all the time.

Photo: Esme McClear

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