A Conversation with City Center

CityCenterHeaderby James Brubaker
June 1, 2011


Songs: Everyday Problem

Fred Thomas is in three bands: City Center, with his long time friend and collaborator Ryan Howard; Swimsuit, in which Thomas plays guitar; and Mighty Clouds, featuring Thomas’ songs and production as the backdrop for Betty Marie Barnes’ voice. In other words, Fred Thomas likes to keep busy. Since I met Fred twelve years ago, he’s been involved with no fewer than eight bands, and has performed and recorded as a solo act. Thomas’ work ethic is part of what makes him such a compelling interview subject. The following interview with Fred is the fourth I’ve conducted with him since 1999. This might seem a bit excessive, but thanks to Thomas’ restless approach to music (not only has he been in a lot of bands, but those bands have covered a wide range of styles), through all of our conversations we’ve rarely retread old ground. Over the years, I’ve talked to Fred about politics, “feelings,” recording techniques, writing methods, touring—you name it. Now, with the release of a new album from City Center, one of Fred’s most exciting projects (present or past), it seemed like as good a time as any for another chat. But first, a few words on the new album.

When Fred Thomas and Ryan Howard released their self-titled debut record as City Center, fans of hazy, electronic pop music took notice. While fans of Fred Thomas’s previous work—which was diverse enough to include projects as disparate as the jittery punk band Lovesick, experimental folk act Flashpapr, and 60’s pop, dance band Saturday Looks Good to Me—didn’t quite know what to do with the ethereal arrangements and heady beats, the album was a successful segue from Thomas’s work with more traditional pop tropes into something a little less immediate, though equally rewarding. Now, after a handful of limited vinyl and cassette releases and a slew of tour dates, Thomas and Howard are back with City Center’s second proper LP, Redeemer

. The record finds Thomas and Howard building on the electronic soundscapes and ethereal arrangements of their previous album while introducing more traditional and organic approaches into the mix.

In a way, Redeemer might be Thomas’ most direct album as it has no underlying conceit: the album isn’t trying to be “punk” or “pop” or “folk,” it is simply a collision of ideas and approaches, the vision and ideas of two friends converging through rehearsals and tours resulting in one of the heaviest and most exciting albums to come around this year. Be it through the driving urgency of “Cookies,” or the hazy cloud-gazing murk of “Obvious,” City Center seems to have found a happy middle ground between traditional indie rock and blissed-out production. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Teardrop Children,” which contrasts bright melodies with existential dread as Thomas sings, “Given a choice/I might have never begun/But I like you all so much.” Such questioning of one’s existence is a heavy way to end an album, but it’s the right way because, ultimately, Redeemer is an album about memory, fear, and the redemptive powers of music and friendship. Last month, Fred and I sat down to talk about his various projects, the creative process, Redeemer and some of these heavy, heavy thoughts.

The Fiddleback: By my count, you’re involved with at least 3 musical projects at the moment—how do you balance them all?

Fred Thomas: Starting last year, and spilling into the present, I’ve been trying to play with as many people as possible to try to learn or re-learn about music. I feel like the challenge of playing with different entities and having them be almost somewhat clashing is a really good way to grow musically, emotionally—in every way. I’m not the best at balancing the time between projects, but for some reason, rather than take it down a notch, every time this situation stresses me out I take on more. I can’t explain why. It just feels like that kind of time right now

The Fiddleback: This idea that the projects somewhat clash with each other is interesting—especially after I’ve had the chance to hear the new City Center record as it seems to represent a somewhat heavy stylistic shift from the previous album—do you ever find the projects “influencing” one another?

FT: In some ways, yes. I really never think about it, but I do see trends between the projects, even if it’s something as simple as using a similar guitar tone in every band. But really, the point of differentiation comes in the different collaborative combos. Lately, I have been really into almost just lending my musical personality as a back up to the talents of others rather than directing. For example, I’m in Swimsuit with three of my friends, and I’m the guitar player, not the “brainchild” or whatever.

The Fiddleback: I’ve definitely picked up on that with Swimsuit. Has that happened with Mighty Clouds or City Center at all? I know on the Mighty Clouds record that Betty handles all of the lead vocals, and there’s much more of a second voice on a few of the new City Center songs. Are these examples of the same impulse?

FT: Completely. I am really into creating a space for others to stretch out, right now.

The Fiddleback: On a slightly different but related note, how did the Mighty Clouds project come about? It seemed to almost materialize out of nowhere. I remember just stumbling across the pre-order info on the internet one day.

FT: The Mighty Clouds record came out of nowhere somewhat deliberately. Betty was in town from Sweden for a few days in the summer of 2009 and we worked on vocals for an album.Then, over the next year, I kind of secretly completed the record in my laboratory like a crazy goon. It was so off the cuff I don’t even know how it came together, but I think that’s what makes the music so nice. It’s not over-thought or over-worked, it’s almost a fragmentary series of sketches that becomes a bigger whole.

The Fiddleback: Has that less pre-meditated idea of “making an album” been something you’ve been working toward? Did the new City Center album happen similarly or was it a bit more planned/traditional?

FT: No—the new City Center record took fucking forever. We have been in the process of making that album for a long, long time. We did the bulk of our touring in between recording and mixing sessions. As a result, we were in the studio on and off from November 2009 until May 2010.

The Fiddleback: Were there any particular reasons for the longer process? Or for the year between completion and release?

FT: It was a seriously over-refined kind of thing, the complete opposite of Mighty Clouds, which spun itself into a nice weird web. The City Center album came out of a bunch of “let’s redo, remix, rethink” sessions

The time you need answers and understanding the most is when you’re dealing with situations that have no resolutions.

The Fiddleback: That kind of surprises me—I don’t think of “Redeemer” as over-refined. In fact, I’m drawn to its stylistic looseness. But it is a shift from the self-titled record. Was the redo/remix/rethink part of the process a conscious attempt to work out a different kind of sound? Or did the songs just sort of evolve that way?

FT: The first record was a hyper-refined affair as well, but it was mostly just me playing. I listen to that record now and I don’t feel as good about it as I did when it was made. It’s a gooey mess. Working in tandem with Ryan is what makes Redeemer the strong statement it is, but when we’d go on tour for months at a time between recording sessions, songs would change or re-construct. We definitely recorded a lot more songs than ended up on the record because the feeling of what the band was kept shifting whenever we played the songs in a fresh context.

The Fiddleback: I remember really liking the first album, then seeing a YouTube video of you guys performing “Cookies” and being completely blown away by it and getting excited about what might be coming next. That certainly seems to have panned out.

FT: (laughs) A friend of mine saw us in LA right when Ryan joined the band in February of 2009 and said, “I’m really excited for what’s going to come from you two.” I took it a little weird; I thought “Uh, what about what’s coming from us right now???” (laughs) But he was right. We wrote “Cookies” so long ago and it took us playing it 200 times or more to figure out what it meant.

The Fiddleback: That song was around for quite a while—I think I actually asked you if it was going to be on the first City Center album when I interviewed you before that album was released. It’s cool to see a song come to life like that.

FT: The whole record was like that—a slow, unhurried release of ideas. That has not been how I’ve worked for most of my music-making life so far.

The Fiddleback: Looking at the new records in the context of your past projects, I’m also hearing what might be some thematic shifts in the lyrics (mostly Redeemer, but to a lesser extent the Mighty Clouds record). I’m hearing more references to childhood and memory, and some new kinds of uncertainty or fear creeping in thematically.

FT: You are right. A lot of the lyrical content of Redeemer grew from conversations Ryan and I had about growing up in Michigan and the sort of un-namable alienation of having no “place” in your childhood and teenage years. A whole plethora of feelings happen when you’re young that never make sense at any point in your life, and the real drag is they’re happening when your mind and body are firing in a relentless, ceaseless fury. The time you need answers and understanding the most is when you’re dealing with situations that have no resolutions. Even remembering it and trying to figure it out years later doesn’t come close to resolving those issues because you have no access to the actual feelings you’re remembering anymore—just ghost glances of frustrated parking lot haze or bedroom confusions. A lot of the songs on Redeemer don’t seek to resolve those moments, or even really bring them into the light. More so, they just acknowledge the problem of not having access to your own memories and the feeling that things never end because of that lack of access.

The Fiddleback: I definitely get that vibe throughout the album. But then the album ends on another note—”Teardrop Children” almost feels like an artist either in the midst of a creative crisis, or coming to terms with his/her life choices—I’m not sure which. There is this moment where you sing “I don’t feel like that/I Won’t feel like that”—in reference to the birth of your sister’s child— that has a very specific gravity to it. The moment almost feels like a resolution of sorts.

FT: That’s a really heavy song.

The Fiddleback: It’s one of my new favorites.

FT: That song is intense because it wraps up some themes on the record in a pretty dark way. I haven’t talked much about it, but the basic vibe of the song is, “Things are so bad, why would anyone ever want to try to deal with life? Why have kids? Why tell kids ‘It’s going to be okay’ when they get sick or hurt?” It’s not. The last phrase of the song/record, “Given the choice, I might have never begun, but I like you all so much,” is really maybe the hardest lyric of the record. It tries to say everything succinctly.

The Fiddleback: Until now, I read that lyric as referencing your commitment to music. But it’s more than that? Much heavier than that?

FT: Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about making a comment about music at all. In a way it’s about how making music is one of the only things that actually comes close to making sense and sometimes even that isn’t enough to make life feel worthwhile.

The Fiddleback: We’ve got plenty of material here—but let’s end on a less heavy note.

FT: Yes.

The Fiddleback: So you’ve got the Swimsuit tour coming up (JB’s Note: The Swimsuit tour will have just ended by the time this piece runs)—then where does the music making go from there? Any big plans for any of your projects? Thoughts on new approaches? New ideas? More Mighty Clouds-ish spontaneity? Or does planning the spontaneity undo it?

FT: Well, the shifts in both national economy and the landscape of independent music have made huge sweeping changes in how music gets around and how people who are into it feel and connect with the music they love. Somehow, I’ve been playing more shows locally and doing more stuff on a daily basis in this time than any other. Taking Swimsuit around the states will be really amazing, and our record will be done sometime in early June. Then there will just be more and more shows and recordings because there’s no reason to stop and there’s more to say than ever, probably.