King Tuff Takes Us Through His Love Letter to Plants “Smalltown Stardust” Track by Track

Kyle Thomas’ botanical fifth LP—co-written and co-produced by SASAMI—is out now via Sub Pop.
Track by Track

King Tuff Takes Us Through His Love Letter to Plants Smalltown Stardust Track by Track

Kyle Thomas’ botanical fifth LP—co-written and co-produced by SASAMI—is out now via Sub Pop.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Wyndham Garnett

January 27, 2023

King Tuff has come quite a ways since Kyle Thomas launched the projects in the mid-2000s as an answer (if not forebear) to the garage-y glam revival made popular by groups like Smith Westerns. Now five albums deep into the (roughly) solo project, Smalltown Stardust feels rejuvenated both due to its inception within a living/studio space shared by a younger generation of songwriters (SASAMI and Hand Habits, the former serving as co-writer/co-producer on this LP, the latter merely a spectral influence) and due to a reconnection with nature likely inspired by the pandemic’s ushering us all outdoors.

In an era when everyone owns a Plantasia tote bag, it’s no bold statement to profess a love for plants bleeding into one’s songwriting. But hearing Thomas talk about each track on Smalltown Stardust, it’s clear that this is a guy who seems to prefer nature as a source of inspiration over the music of T. Rex and other vintage rockers he aimed to channel in his earlier years, trying his best here to naturally recreate his experience within nature with a guitar. Instead of transcending the distance between 2023 and 1971, he achieves the feat of obliterating the timeline separating his present-self from his childhood-self, as those boundaries always seem less present when immersed in the greenery of the outdoors.

With the record out today, Thomas—with additional input from Sasami Ashworth—takes us through each track and the spiritual journeys initiated by natural spaces (and fresh mozzarella with basil and tomatoes and olive oil) that inspired each song.

1. “Love Letters to Plants”
King Tuff: I wrote this song in a green wind. I imagined myself as an amateur horticulturist, with a little shop on the corner, playing songs for my little seedlings. I wanted to imply lushness, water, succulence. I love when the hi hats come in—it’s like sprinklers. I love the smell of sprinkler water on concrete sidewalks.

2. “How I Love”
King Tuff: This was a tune Sasami wrote and gave to me first in 2018, but didn’t come to fruition until we were recording in 2020. It’s very wide open, and I just love it. There’s a farmers-breakfast-sized helping of bass and beautiful drums—drums like you always wish drums would be—and bass like a bouncing ball. It’s one of my favorites on the album, and the electric guitar brings me so much joy.

SASAMI: There was a lengthy period of time where I didn’t have any regular housing. I was constantly on tour, and I was just hopping from sublet to sublet. The seed of this song arose out of a somewhat bizarre Downtown LA sublet—musings on reuniting with feelings of tenderness, deep human entanglement, and emotional textiles after year-long stretches of hardening one’s self to survive epic journeys across land and sea. 

3. “A Meditation”
King Tuff: When I was a kid, my father had a lot of meditation tapes. I would sometimes steal them and zone out. The only problem was the narrator’s mouth noises, which disgusted me. So I decided to make my own version, and this is a sample of that. I'm probably about eight or nine years old, or 10—but definitely not 11. Eleven was when things started getting really spooky. And 12 is when I went to Switzerland and first tried fresh mozzarella with basil and tomatoes and olive oil, and my life changed. My grandpa also bought me a green Swiss watch on that trip—the exact same green as my album cover.

4. “Portrait of God”
King Tuff: I had this song for a few years, but couldn’t get the damn bastard right—it just kept shifting around and slipping out of my grasp. Even now when I play it, it’s still changing. I suppose that makes sense, given the subject matter is extremely slippery. Something you can’t pinpoint, like, clear glass floating in water, or Bigfoot. You think you catch a glimpse, but it disappears before you can get a good look. 

5. “Smalltown Stardust”
King Tuff: This one has some ’90s vibes to it, which is cool seeing as how that’s the music I grew up with. Everyone knows the ’90s are here to stay. They keep coming back every few years ever since they ended—we just can’t get rid of the ’90s! When I imagine my hometown, my picture of it is in the ’90s, when there was still a Dunkin’ Donuts in the center of town and we went and saw Aracnaphobia in the theater across the street, before it burnt down. I’m also thinking about doing donuts (the car kind) with my friends in the high school parking lot in ’97. That’s the spirit running throughout the album, but it’s especially apparent here in this song.

SASAMI: This song was all about synthesizing feelings of nostalgia and youthful abandon: old buildings, dirt roads, skinny dipping, young lovers. Tapping into that emotional world, like tuning into a fuzzy radio signal. Kyle had a magical upbringing in the woods, so we channeled all of those memories and stirred it into the soup.

6. “Pebbles in a Stream”
King Tuff: I like to write songs and stuff, but what I really like is an overtly pebbly stream. One where you can look at each and every pebble and just be blown away by every single one. The soft rainbow of earth tones. The title “Pebbles in a Stream” came from one night when I was playing down south somewhere. Someone told me when they listened to my music it was “like pebbles in a stream.” I thought that was just about the best compliment I could ever receive, so I wrote a song from it. 

7. “Tell Me”
King Tuff: “Tell Me” was another one written by Sasami and me in the living room. We honestly couldn't stop listening to Tusk, and you can certainly hear the Fleetwood Mac inspo in this song. There’s just this certain type of song that I love that’s not trying to be anything epic or grand, it’s just a good simple song and makes you feel warm when you listen to it. That was kind of the vibe we were aiming for the whole record. There’s some nice clicking and clanking on bottles if you listen close. And also mandolin, which is an instrument I enjoyed playing when I was younger and hairier. 

SASAMI: We made Smalltown Stardust, Hand Habits’ Fun House, and my album Squeeze in mongrelized, promiscuously overlapping succession in the house we all lived in during the pandemic. There was something very romantic and natural about flipping back and forth between each other’s worlds, and it was very common for us to write in one room while letting the sounds proliferated just moments before in another room settle into the floorboards. “Tell Me” was one of those songs that just sprung up, probably while Kyle was mixing something in the other room. Kyle came into the room and liked what he heard, so we followed the thread and finished writing the whole song together in probably an hour!

8. “Rock River”
King Tuff: What is there in this world that’s better than a swimming hole? Not a thing! And when you find a good one you try your best to keep it secret, but eventually it gets out and becomes overrun with out-of-staters. That’s OK though, they deserve to swim too, and enjoy nature, despite the annoyed locals. Oh, the stories the swimming holes could tell! They fill up and they dry out, shift around, do business in debris, get messed up, overgrown, get tagged, see people, see other people, welcome people both naked and clothed! All while the fish do their cool, dark dance in the cool, dark depths.

9. “The Bandits of Blue Sky”
King Tuff: This is a weird one and my favorite on the album. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but that’s the beauty of songwriting: things just come out sometimes that are a dang mystery. I do know that there was a guy who would walk up and down Putney Road, half scarecrow, with a shock of red hair sprouting out from an old hunting hat. We never saw his eyes, but if we did I bet we wouldn't have come back. He was there always and always there, and then, somehow, he wasn't. I don't know if he existed at all, but I’m pretty sure he did, ’cause other people dreamt him too. That was Redtooth. He was not a bandit but perhaps an apparition. Either way, the bass is absolutely ripping on this track.

10. “Always Find Me”
King Tuff: This one is about rooftops and sitting on them, and also the various ways to access them, usually by some type of very vertical ladder ascending a brick facade, dodging the spiders in spider season (yes, it's a thing). It’s about that youthful urge to generally be atop something, high up and high. Some roofs are nicer than others, some scarier and give you more butterflies. I don't know if my roof days are over or just on hold, but it's been too long since I looked down upon that little cookie town.

11. “The Wheel”
King Tuff: “The Wheel” is the oldest song on here, stretching back to its infancy in 2005 or so. There actually was a whole album called “Colorwheel”—the song was much more like The Band back then, but it did have some great piano by Chris Weisman. I've thought about it over the years and it seemed the right time now to revisit, give it new life. First we tried it much faster, very jam-band vibe, which was cool, but then we decided on this more understated vibe with the Phil Collins explosive tom moment in the outro. The train you hear at the end happened as I was recording the vocals in a little cabin in Northern California, next to a snowy railroad track. It passed by just as the song ended, perhaps sending me on my way to the next chapter.