West Coast psych-folk crooner Levi Thomas is preparing his debut solo album, Billie, later this year on Rough Beast Records, but is priming the pump with its first single, “The Fear.” The sound evokes the dusty southern gothic sounds of Calexico, Giant Sand, Damian Jurado, and Don DiLego. Thomas, on the other hand, is proving to be a bit of a chameleon. While he evokes and inhabits the spirit of someone who has just seen nightmares out in the Arizona deserts, what he actually is is a talent worth keeping an eye on.
Popdose caught up with Levi to talk about “The Fear.”
There’s definitely a thread of Calexico/Howe Gelb/Giant Sand here, as well as Richard Buckner, Pinetop Seven, and Don DiLego. My first question is: the music is so much closer to a more traditional country/western sound (with plenty of Ennio Morricone thrown in) that what is considered “country” these days. How does an artist navigate explaining their place in a genre that is not necessarily representative of that sound anymore?
I guess for me “country” has a pretty broad definition. I see a country song as a few chords and the truth, written in plain language, usually dealing with matters of the heart; beyond that the instrumentation and aesthetic could really go anywhere. Galaxie 500 is as country as Randy Travis as far as I’m concerned.
What was the impetus for writing “The Fear”?
Most of my songs are half written before I even know what’s going on. After realizing where this one was headed the idea was to sonically portray that feeling of needing to call everyone you’ve seen in the past month to apologize for something you probably did by yourself 6 hours earlier.
I’m from Missouri and I live in Oakland, but the majority of this record was conceived throughout my move west. So I guess if you’re curious how someone who doesn’t live in the desert conceives a minor key song with maracas, that’s the answer.
Is a song an easier place to be quasi-autobiographical or harder? At once, there’s the ability to provide a sort of cover in saying “It’s not about me.” At the same time, it’s on a much wider stage and people are automatically going to assume it is you regardless. Are these concerns during the writing process, or are you just going with it when the inspiration hits you, and the rest comes later?
I spent the better part of my twenties in heavy rock bands screaming about how my brains were melting through my eyeballs or whatever. I really wanted to put myself out there with this record. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the songs autobiographical, there’s definitely a piece of me in every character.
How does this song translate live? It is deceptively complex, and I can’t imagine a very small ensemble of performers being able to pull it off quite the same way…
I’m currently blessed with a great group of guys backing me up. It is a standard two guitars, bass, drums set up. I love the challenge of taking something you’ve orchestrated in the studio and stripping it back to its roots, knowing the song is going to evolve night to night.
We saw the shout out on Instagram from Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear. What it is like when a well-known entity is suddenly talking about your song.
Seems like he must be a sweet guy. I think it’s admirable when someone on that level takes the time to give attention to artists outside of their elite group of peers. For all the evils, I do have to say I love that the internet and social media have broken that fourth wall and normalized everyone to some small extent.
You can find out more about Levi Thomas at: http://roughbeastrecords.com/levi-thomas/