King Tuff drives a white van. The van’s contents—camping gear, deodorant sticks, socks, empty bottles and strewn wrappers—save me a seat in the middle row next to the left side’s sliding door. It’s day three of Pickathon 2013 and the three dudes in King Tuff and I are bleary-eyed and tired of waiting for a shuttle.
The blond, ‘70s-porn-‘stachioed bassist Magic Jake, oft-bandana’d and balding drummer Old Gary, and googly-eyed Sir King Tuffy himself welcome me graciously into their wild chariot that Sunday morning. Our scintillating conversation from that 15-minute journey to Pendarvis Farm drew upon the highest order of rock ‘n’ roll lore: mushrooms and Keebler elves.
I wasn’t sure how to address long-haired, silly baseball cap-donning, perennially grinning namesake when I called him about a year later to discuss his third LP Black Moon Spell. So when a raspy voice answered the phone, I cautiously asked, “Kyle Thomas?” quickly offering, “King Tuff?”
“Awwww,” he drawls like sap dripping out of his native Vermont’s maple trees. “You can just call me…Chuckles,” he emphasizes the name with the defiance of finally finding the right word. Then he burst into cackling hysterics.
I didn’t know if he’d remember me or the elves, but King Tuff’s laugh—a mix between a sneer and a giggle—served as confirmation. We reminisced about our first Pickathon experiences and August’s glorious reunion in the woods.
“That’s a great festival, isn’t it?” he says. “I went back even though I wasn’t playing. Me and Ty [Segall] flew back up there and just hung out.”
Segall, who also played the fest for the first time in 2013, joined King Tuff to plays drums on the title track of Black Moon Spell. As the opening song, “Black Moon Spell” snarls with fuzzed-out guitar riffs before the drums spatter and clang in an ominous spell to commence the new record. With Segall unavailable to comment during the current extensive tour behind his recent Manipulator, Tuffy cagily declines to elaborate on their friendship or musical connection. “Well you know,” he hems, “you get two goblins in a room together and something’s gonna come out.” He finally asserts, “Just attribute it to the Keeblers.”
In fact, King Tuff doesn’t really want to talk about Black Moon Spell at all. He grumbles and languishes and so instead, we discuss peripheral details and non sequitur tales that only serve to heighten the mythology of his persona. It’s hard to tell where Thomas ends and King Tuff begins, but according to His Highness, the metamorphosis transpires somewhere between when The Wizard of Oz turns from black-and-white to color. Occasionally, I convince myself that I’ve reached Kyle—like when he tells me about the benefits of growing up in the small town community of Brattleboro or we discuss the intrinsic value of art and studying it in the context of academia. But mostly, the King prevails and we laugh. A lot.
King Tuff’s self-titled previous album from 2012, his second under that moniker, is both tough enough and self-involved enough to necessitate the pyramid studs on Thomas’ omnipresent denim vest. But, it also marks a growth from his lo-fi solo debut, 2008’s Was Dead. When he’s not spreading the demonic gospel of King Tuff, Thomas also performs with the pick-up collective Happy Birthday, stoner metal band Witch (with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis on drums) and a rotating cast of musicians in the Vermont-based Feathers.
All of these influences and experiences seem to culminate on Black Moon Spell. Where King Tuff feels closer on the spectrum to garage rock, the new album sounds more like glam rock played in garages.
“Glam rock?” the ever-mischievous Tuff retorts. “I play clam rock!” he exclaims.
“You know, like a clam chowder, New England clam chowder,” he continues, throwing another nod to his Northeastern origins. “I don’t even like clam chowder. That shit’s fucking disgusting.”
But songs like the title track and “Headbanger” and “Madness” (the latter of which opens with the lyrical introduction: “King Tuff is my name / I got madness in my brain / Pleased to meet ya / I’m gonna eat ya / because I’m batshit insane”) exemplify King Tuff’s face-melting abilities. Additionally, King Tuff producer Bobby Harlow returns on Black Moon Spell, managing to polish its sound enough to hear each wacky effect, but not too much as to degrade the sloppy goodness. Tuff wails on his beat up electric blue Gibson SG throughout the record, yet incredulously repeats my question when I ask about his choice of ax. “Why the SG?” he asks. “Because it’s horny, baby! Come on now!
“I’ve always been drawn to that guitar for some reason. You know. It looks the most like the devil.”
Black Moon Spell also marks the first time that King Tuff, Magic Jake and Old Gary wrote and recorded album together in the studio, even through they’d been touring together for years. Even through his reluctance to discuss the collaborative process, Tuffy’s metaphors were wickedly on-point.
“You know, it was just like making some fucking flapjacks,” he begins. “Somebody mixes up the batter—usually me. I mix up the batter. Pour a little bit of it on the fucking griddle. Maybe Jake would slap some bass on it. And Old Gary would turn up the heat on the fucking kick drum! And then Bobby the producer would drizzle that maple on it. You know I gotta do the Vermont maple!”
King Tuff pauses for a moment to consider this order. “Fuck Bobby!” he pronounces. “I put that fucking Vermont maple on there! Bobby but that butter on, that Dee-troit butter,” reassessing before degenerating into tee-hee-hee-ing giggles.
And so if this is all we’re supposed to understand about Black Moon Spell, it will suffice. We can determine that it’s devious and it’s delicious and King Tuff himself is a loving, yet maniacal monarch that feeds off pancakes and sandwiches and crazy guitar solos bequeathed by God or The Devil, it doesn’t really matter.
But if we must search for deeper meaning within Black Moon Spell after all the stories and digressions and hilarious banter, we can find truth within the mythical creature depicted in one final legend told by the King himself:
“Shit, man, you know. This guy named Shit Man came in the studio and he just kind of put us in our place. And we were like, ‘Shit Man, what are we supposed to do now?’ And he said, ‘Shit, man, make the fucking record.’ And that’s what happened.”