Often us city dwellers have our portrait of an artist as an urban, industrial nihilist... cooped up in a loft somewhere, wires strewn about as they create music that bounces off concrete and into the noisy, unforgiving streets. It's easy to forget that it's a big, big, big country and some people decline gravitating towards pretentious hubs like New York and LA, instead opting for the pristine air of a remote village or town. Kyle Thomas (of Happy Birthday) spoke to me from such a place, a small town in Vermont which at first sounded like quite the country hideaway, but soon swapped in my mind for a desirable retreat from the hustle.
"[Brattleboro] is a small town and we only have two record stores" he told me, and neither of them are 100% up to date with their releases. In a world of connectivity, Thomas has a big leg up for being removed from the incessant ramblings of a media hungry music industry obsessed with the next big thing. He prefers to gently take things apart rather than build them up and tear them down. Thomas likes to listen to music to deconstruct the parts (Hip-Hop especially). He also lives in a nice studio (as in art studio, not a tiny one room closet) and he makes art all day, both audio and visual, and yet, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously (the best qualitity for musicians who literally live in art studios, one step from a joke about Williamsburg). I briefly considered moving to Brattleboro.
Thomas is also known as King Tuff, a moniker for his solo work, and had a record out by "The Colonel" in Brooklyn, kind of proving you can have it both ways (fame in the BK, and a home in the boonies). King Tuff had a successful run before the band formed, and caught the attention of taste-makers like Sub Pop, who approached Thomas. Happy Birthday started with a bunch of songs he wrote, he put a band together, and Sub Pop liked it. Sometimes, it all happens in the simplest way possible, and it didn't involve a residency in the LA Smell scene, or some undeserved blog sensationalism.
"I feel like I'm not busy enough" Thomas told me. For a full-time creator, one band just isn't enough. That is why he also plays in an act called Witch, in addition to Happy Birthday and his King Tuff material. The funny thing about this is the severe lack of delineation between all of them. Thomas leans towards a combination grungy/indie sound (when observing all of his work side by side), and you can see the similarities in his aesthetics. But of the groups, he told me "the three acts are always changing", and none of them is an individual idea or aesthetic. With this mindset it is hard to keep consistent, but that is one of the most interesting things about Kyle Thomas and his work: it's never the same thing twice, even though it's always his voice. "I can never make it sound the same. I tried once and failed". At least it's always fun.
Thomas also really likes to draw, and spends lots of time working with a brush. Thomas is a multi-format creator, and that always brings an interesting angle to every medium. Along with his brother, he created the album art for Happy Birthday's first self-titled release, a stair-shaped music note .Something so simple may seem easy from concept to execution, but like "Happy Birthday" as a band name, it's deceptively simple and suggestively rich. The naming-the-band discussion, Thomas told me, was painful, but I think it produced something brilliant: a band named for the only song in recent memory still passed through oral tradition (like songs of the old world), both natural and engaging. I saw earlier today, on a blog, a examination of the Happy Birthday song, and it rang true in several places.
"Happy Birthday to You" is unpretentious and truthful, classless and ageless, secular and silly." [The Smart Set
is out now on Sub Pop.-joe puglisi
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MP3: "Girls FM"
Happy Birthday on Myspace