King Tuff

WXPN 88.5 Welcomes : The Other Tour

King Tuff

Cut Worms, SASAMI

Sat, May 19, 2018

Doors: 8:30 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

First Unitarian Church

Philadelphia, PA

$18.00

This event is all ages

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King Tuff
King Tuff
When asked to describe the title track from his new record, Kyle Thomas—aka King Tuff—takes a deep breath. “It’s a song about hitting rock bottom,” he says. “I didn't even know what I wanted to do anymore, but I still had this urge—this feeling—like there was this possibility of something else I could be doing… and then I just followed that possibility. To me, that’s what songwriting, and art in general, is about. You’re chasing something, there is something out there calling to you and you’re trying to get at it. ‘The Other’ is basically where songs come from, it’s the hidden world, it’s the mystery. It’s the invisible hand that guides you whenever you make something. It’s the thing I had to rediscover—the sort of voice I had to follow—to bring me back to making music again in a way that felt true and good.”

After years of non-stop touring, culminating in a particularly arduous stint in support of 2014’s Black Moon Spell, Thomas found himself back in Los Angeles experiencing the flipside of the ultimate rock and roll cliche—that of an exhausted musician suddenly unsure where to go or what to do, held prisoner by a persona that he never meant to create, that bore little resemblance to the worn out person they now saw in the mirror. Thomas was suddenly at odds with the storied rock and roll misfit mythology that he’d spent the past ten years, four full-length albums, a handful of EPs, and multiple live records, unwittingly bringing to life.

“At that point I had literally been on tour for years,” recalls Thomas. “It was exhausting. Physically and mentally. At the end of it I was like, I just can't do this. I’m essentially playing this character of King Tuff, this crazy party monster, and I don’t even drink or do drugs. It had become a weird persona, which people seemed to want from me, but it was no longer me. I just felt like it had gotten away from me.”

For a time, Thomas involved himself in projects that gave him space from all things King Tuff, and allowed him to, as he says, “go out and play music without having to actually be the boss.” Eventually, after being asked to play a handful of solo shows, Thomas began to see a way through to making new music. “I’d never played a show with just an acoustic guitar,” he says. “It just seemed like the scariest thing. I knew I wanted to write some new songs that could stand up in that kind of setting, which really opened the door to a new way of working.”

“I knew I wanted to record myself on my own time in my own space, so I put together a studio in a room in my house we called the Pine Room. It was like being inside of a wood-paneled spaceship. Suddenly I had all of this new crazy gear that I had no idea how to use in any sort of technical or ‘correct’ way. I just embraced the beauty of not knowing, which I think is where you get interesting things happening." Thomas self-produced the record, as he did his debut, Was Dead, but on a far grander scale, this time playing every instrument aside from drums and saxophone. He pulled Shawn Everett (War On Drugs, Alabama Shakes) in to assist with the mixing process. "From the moment I started recording, it was like going home, like I had finally found myself again.”

The ten tracks that would eventually become The Other represent a kind of psychic evolution for the King Tuff. No less hooky than previous records, the new songs ditch the goofy rock and roll bacchanalia narratives of earlier records in favor of expansive arrangements, a diversity of instrumentation, and lyrics that straddle the fence between painful ruminations and reconnecting with that part of yourself that feels childlike and creative and not corroded by cynicism. The soulful and cosmic new direction is apparent from the album’s first moments: introduced by the the gentle ringing of a chime, acoustic guitar, and warm organ tones, “The Other” is a narrative of redemption born of creativity. As Thomas sings about about being stuck in traffic, directionless, with no particular reason to be alive, he hears the call of “the other,” a kind of proverbial siren song that, instead of leading towards destruction, draws the narrator towards a kind of creative rebirth. Elsewhere, tracks like “Through The Cracks” and “Psycho Star” balance psychedelia with day-glo pop hooks. “The universe is probably an illusion, but isn’t it so beautifully bizarre?” he asks on “Psycho Star,” providing one of the record’s central tenets. At a time when everything in the world feels so deeply spoiled and the concept of making meaning out of the void seems both pointless and impossible, why not try?

“I'm talking about things that I don't necessarily feel good about, that aren’t easy,” says Thomas, who views the record as a way to push back against that internal voice that so often keeps us from trying new things. “I feel like this relates to a song like ‘Birds of Paradise,’ which is definitely about trying hold on to that childlike part of yourself that doesn't care what anyone thinks, the endless curiosity and unbounded creativity.” It’s a sentiment that pops up throughout the record, particularly in the preening funk of “Raindrop Blue,” and the ripping “Ultraviolet,” tracks that crack open new sonic territory for King Tuff, complete with rainbow keyboards, strutting basslines, hot-buttered bongos, harmonicas, angelic backing vocals, and strikingly danceable grooves. After nine songs that take on everything from creative insecurity, the isolating evils of technology, and the redemptive power of art, the album wraps up with “No Man’s Land.” The song is a slow-build gospel-tinged stunner that comes complete with harp strums and pillows of space synths for Thomas’ beleaguered lyrics (“I’m going down to the forgotten part of town with roses and rubies in my hands”), which sound both weary and strangely at peace. It’s a song about ending up where you need to be, even if you have no idea how you might have arrived there. “It’s about attaining The Other,” says Thomas. “‘No Man’s Land’ is a vision of the afterlife, it’s where the journey eventually leads you. It’s some other plane of existence that you kind of aspire to. It’s ending up inside the dream.”

While it would be easy to think of The Other as a kind of reinvention for King Tuff, Thomas views the entire experience of the record as a kind of psychic reset, and something not totally removed from what he’s done in the past. “I can’t help but sound like me,” he says. “It’s just that this time I let the songs lead me where they wanted to go, instead of trying to push them into a certain zone. King Tuff was always just supposed to be me. When I started doing this as a teenager, it was whatever I wanted it to be. King Tuff was never supposed to be just one thing. It was supposed to be everything."
Cut Worms
Cut Worms
Cut worms is a command; if you say so - got a knife?

Cut worms is a crime scene; my god, who would do such a thing? Cover your eyes!

Cut worms is a gardening hazard; they feed at night! Treat with diatomaceous earth before they affect your beans.

Cut worms can mean many things, but today, most likely, Cut Worms means Max Clarke, singing up a storm for you on his new nightcrawler of an EP, “Alien Sunset.”

Some say, if there’s anything in the world you could be doing other than music, please god go do that thing. Well, Max Clarke could have done a number of things; after going to school for illustration, steering toward a career in graphic design, and taking some handy-man type jobs, he realized that songwriting, a pastime since he was twelve years old, was the only type of work that didn’t feel like just work. Writing and finishing songs had never been an effortless task for Max, more like a trip “through heaven and hell,” but he wanted to spend his mid-20s energy on something important and personal- and hey, a little hellfire is good for the complexion.

“Alien Sunset” is a collection of home-recorded “demos” from Max’s time living in Chicago (Side A) and New York City (Side B), written in spurts, like little designated creative coffee breaks. Following the example of a prolific roommate who had endeavored to write a song a day for a year and did so for FOUR years, Max decided to dedicate his daily hour of free-time after work to mindful musical regimen. He challenged himself to record two songs a month and release them online - for better or for worse, praise or criticism. Expecting little more than a few constructive comments regarding his 8-track fidelity, he was surprised by the positive reactions to his antique sound, classic voice, and Everly Brothers style close harmonies.

Each song on “Alien Sunset” has a sturdy, four-legged American quality, but also contains a gentleness and sense of stolen privacy. The arrangements are both dense and airy, decadent without sacrificing an ounce of effervescence. For sure, something about “Alien Sunset” looks back over time’s shoulder, but it isn’t really “retro” music - it just glitters in a way you don’t often hear these days.

If this collection can be said to have any sort through-line, a whiff of motif, it revolves around the obvious delight Max takes in singing his heart out, despite variegated agony. The lyrical work moves from simple, diary-like musings, self-consciousness on the dance floor and general lust problems, to illuminated text. As a lyricist, Max draws upon the Romantics and Symbolists of the rock and roll poet tradition; “Song of the Highest Tower” was written the day Lou Reed died and is an adaptation of a poem from Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell.” The moniker itself, Cut Worms, borrows its striking and ambiguous imagery from a line in a William Blake poem: “The cut worm forgives the plow.”

For Max, making music is free passage back to the realm of ecstatic teenage feelings, and “Alien Sunset” is full of that intense, feels-so-good-to-feel-so-bad energy. Even when the lyrical content broods, the spirit sparkles, and Max’s emotive vocal performances bubble over with the tipsy dancing and diaphramic laughter of a writer lover fool who, having his wrestled his demons, hit his head upon a multitude of dead ends, and failed thrice and half times at self-immolation, has nowhere left to go but relief.
SASAMI
SASAMI
If you’ve ever drafted an overly long text to someone and decided against sending it, then you’ll probably hear something of yourself in SASAMI, out March 2019 on Domino. “It’s a mix of a diary and a collection of letters, written but never sent, to people I’ve been intimately involved with in one way or another,” explains Los Angeles songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sasami Ashworth, aka SASAMI, who wrote the album’s ten tautly melodic rock tracks over the course of a year on tour, playing keys and guitar with Cherry Glazerr. “Ok, maybe they’re more like over-dramatic drafts of texts that you compose in the Notes section of your iPhone, but either way, they come from a place of getting something off my chest.” In an Instagram post announcing the release of “Callous,” a haunting ballad chronicling the disintegration of a relationship over wrenching guitar wails, she sums up the inspiration behind her engrossingly confessional debut more bluntly: “Everyone I fucked and who fucked me last year.”

Originating as a string of demos she recorded straight to her iPad on tour, the songs poured out of Ashworth in stream-of-consciousness fashion, tracking the thrills, disappointments, and non-starters of a year spent newly single and on the road. In many ways, though, they were the culmination of decades of hard work. After a studying piano as a child, she picked up the French horn in middle school, and has been playing music pretty much every day since—first as a long-time conservatory kid with her sights on a career as a classical French horn player, and later as an elementary school music teacher, running around a classroom, making up songs and dances, and directing rag-tag orchestras full of glockenspiels and bongos.

Where studying classical music and jazz had been an exercise in creating note-perfect renditions of other people’s music, teaching, quite literally, required her to improvise. “You have to juggle so many skills when you teach,” she says. “You have to be a musician and a babysitter and a clown—and secretly be teaching. “If you can keep like 30 kids with tambourines entertained, [doing it for] a room full of drunk adults at a rock show is nothing.”

It didn’t take long for Ashworth to start dipping her toe into pop music. A growing obsession with the noisy catharsis of post-punk and shoegaze and nights out with her brother Joo-Joo, a veteran of the Los Angeles indie rock scene who plays in the band Froth, led her to playing synth and guitar in the group Dirt Dress. In the past half-decade, she’s worn basically every hat that a working musician can wear, scoring films and commercials, producing for and playing on other people’s albums, and doing string, horn, and vocal arrangements for artists like Curtis Harding, Wild Nothing, and Vagabon.

But it wasn’t until March of 2017, about midway-through a two-and-a-half year stint recording and touring with Cherry Glazerr, that she felt the urge to sit down and write songs of her own. “I had just ended a year and a half relationship— a pretty serious relationship, that came right after another serious relationship,” she says. “It was just like a beginning of a new life cycle in a lot of ways—the beginning of my new single life, and also constantly being on tour, and being in this band all the time. And so I felt like I needed to write. I was just super emotional.”

At first, she viewed writing songs mostly as an opportunity to sharpen her guitar skills. Eventually, since she was on tour most of the time, she decided to forgo rent on an apartment and use the money to pay for studio time whenever she was back in Los Angeles, figuring that she might as well learn her way around an analog studio. Though the material she was working on was deeply personal, the record that would emerge from those sessions—co-produced by Joo Joo and Studio 22’s Thomas Dolas, who also engineered and mixed SASAMI—is largely the sound of Ashworth having fun in the studio with her friends. Devendra Banhart and Beach Fossils’ Dustin Payseur make appearances as “male back-up vocalists,” and Joo Joo—her professed “guitar hero”—and Froth bandmate Cameron Allen fill in guitar and drums, respectively. “Adult Contemporary,” a spacey reverie reflecting the existential uncertainty of our current moment, features an all-star crew of badass Los Angeles women, including French singer-songwriter and actress Soko on vocals, Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy on guitar, Alvvays drummer Sheridan Riley on drums, and Anna Butters on electric and standup bass.

SASAMI is the sound of Ashworth reveling in the warmth and magic of analog recording— experimenting with different guitar tones and amplifier placements, embracing the imperfections that arise when you record on a 16-track and reconstruing them as strengths. Her years studying music theory and classical performance shine through in the tiny details that pepper SASAMI at every turn—from the sly bending of a guitar note on opener “I Was a Window,” to the expressive pause before the instrumental breakdown on “Pacify My Heart.” Unlike your typical four-chord rock songs, her colorful arrangements draw from a classical technique called voice leading, where the different elements of a song (from voice, to keys, to bass) form distinct, interweaving melodic lines.

Just like her notoriously irreverent stage banter, Ashworth says her relationship to music, and to playing instruments, “comes from a place of love and playfulness and joy”—and it’s something you can hear at every moment of SASAMI, even as the emotional journey it traces veers into more introspective territory. “Jealousy,” a smoky, minor-key number with a sinister choir of chirpy back-up vocals, celebrates the freedom of living life on your own terms as a single person, even as it makes those around you uncomfortable. “Free,” a softly strummed duet with Devendra Banhart, captures the pain of finally feeling ready to open up to someone new, only to discover that they aren’t on the same page. “Not the Time,” an open-road rocker with crunchy shoegaze guitars and sweeping synths, explores the bittersweet feeling of realizing that your love for someone is reciprocated, even if the timing and geography don’t add up. “It's not the time or place for us,” she sings in her wispy alto. “But you said that you would save some space for us.”

If SASAMI tells a story, it’s one about the surprising ways that one’s relationships—with lovers, with friends, with oneself—can shift in a single year. And it’s one that doesn’t really have a solid conclusion or takeaway—other than the realization “that your status of being in a relationship or not doesn’t actually define whether you feel whole,” as Sasami describes it. “It's about whether you feel grounded or not. Whether you feel at peace or not.”

It’s inspiring to hear a woman who spent years playing other people’s music finally tell her own story. And it’s a feeling she says she wants to pay forward, just as her students and so many women in her life—like recent tourmates Mitski, Snail Mail, and Japanese Breakfast—have empowered her. Which is another way of saying that even in its saddest moments, SASAMI will put a little bounce in your step. Extra points if you decide to put on a clown costume and dance around in the street, as Ashworth does is the video for "Not the Time."
Venue Information:
First Unitarian Church
2125 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19103
http://www.philauu.org/