So you’re probably thinking that this interview feature piece is going to start off with an incredibly witty and incisive parallel between one of America’s greatest pop composers, Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame), and Fred Thomas, the lead composer and singer of one of America’s most underrated bands, Saturday Looks Good to Me (of Detroit, Mich.). I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you on this one. The truth of the matter is that these comparisons would be the obvious choice with which to start talking about Saturday Looks Good To Me and doing so, in a way, would almost take away from the experience by promising you that Saturday Looks Good to Me is going to sound like the work of an artist, however amazing that artist may be. Even if the Phil Spector, Belle & Sebastian and Motown influences and comparisons are appreciated.
So, blank slate.
Talking to Fred Thomas long enough allows for this sort of idea: that creativity and uniqueness in music happens to be one of the most important things to keep in mind when producing an album. Fred Thomas plays at least 10 instruments on their latest release on Polyvinyl, Every Night. He owns his own record label (Michigan-based Ypsilanti Records), and he’s starting his own solo project. The man thrives on being busy. He’s worked with at least 60 artists, and yet this hasn’t caused the haphazard sort of disorder in the sweet-punky melodic ’60s pop of Every Night or the previous album, All Your Summer Songs, released in 2003. When asked how he manages to do this with all the input sources that he uses, he explained, “I’m the director of the band. I write all the songs; I write all the lyrics; I write all the parts. On the last record, it was kinda like, I have this idea, and I want you to do this-and it’ll sound great; you can use somebody else’s talent for an instrument for a final destination. For better or for worse, it comes off with a cohesive thing.”
Because so many people are involved in the process of making their lo-fi four-track produced albums, it does allow for a more unique sound, however directed it may be-which is what Fred intends. “This way, it has the vision of a sort of pop-perfection idea in mind,” he added. Fred uses this directorial stance in nearly all his collaborations with other musical artist friends, including Ted Leo, who sang one song on the previous album. “It wasn’t like me and Ted Leo up late at night- it was more like, this is a musical project, he’s a friend of mine, and it was a gift for him to be on the record and everybody to be on the record. It wasn’t like, totally arguing, ‘No, Ted! GODDAMNIT! You always want to make it minor! I don’t wanna make it minor!'”
Another element that makes Saturday Looks Good to Me distinctive is their penchant for making wonderfully giddy, danceable music but having some of darkest (and smartest) lyrics ever to go along with such blissful pop. “It’s certainly cute music, like people hear it and want to check it out, like a cute coffee drink, and it’s totally fine-it is part of the intent. Like our first album that we did in 2000 was happy dance music with lyrics like, ‘Capitalism has ruined my life, and I have three kids and I’m all bummed out, this is the end.’ It’s kind of where we’ve been going with it, and it’s changing some, because there are only so many Motown rip-off songs I feel comfortable putting on the record. Like it’s we already did this song before,” he jokes. “You can get upset about something or get mad about something but in the end, a day or year will go by, and you’ll have to choose to feel better about it.” This statement is clearly proved by the resilience of the instrumentals on their records: the lyrics may be bleak, but you sure as hell get a hopeful resolution of four-track pop symphonies. Fitting, considering Fred’s take on life.
Talking about the indie-pop-rock culture that surrounds the music expressed some of the limits that Fred felt. “Anybody who can appreciate the music should take something away from it … the culture that surrounds our music, which is a little limiting and interfering, sometimes kind of stops some people from listening. Some people listen only because it’s in that sort of area … you know, it’s like when a cool indie-rock girl comes over, and you hide your ELO records, and you put the Stooges and Kinks and Shins records on top of the pile … you run into that wall, you know? You put your cool records on the top of the pile? Or you’re a college kid, you gotta listen to the Postal Service. But it’s kinda silly. But the thing is, we’re not self-conscious at all, we’re not concerned about fitting into any sort of weird falsified idea of what things are. I find the best music doesn’t go by a blueprint, the coolest, most original bands out there. I put the ELO on top; I put whatever I want on top. I like Britney Spears, you know, and not in the joking kind of way. I think “Toxic” is a brilliant song. Things like that.”
Not having a blueprint allows for Fred Thomas and Saturday Looks Good to Me to be creative in the studio and also out, especially when it involves fellow bandmates Elliot Bergman (multi-instrumentalist), Betty Marie Barnes (vocals), Scott Sellwood (piano), Scott DeRoche (bass) and others-all of whom Fred describes as some of the core people who have shaped the band (not forgetting Warn DeFever, who co-produced Every Night with Fred Thomas). Live, Saturday Looks Good to Me sounds nothing like they do in the studio, which Fred considers a good thing.
“You know,” he said, “Live bands who sound exactly like they do in the studio-that’s boring to me. The whole point of being live is just that, you get to do different things than you do in the studio; you can work with different people.” For instance, the upcoming Saturday Looks Good to Me show at the Cowboy Monkey this Friday (10 p.m., 19+) will feature a slightly hodgepodge assembly of musicians and no drummer. “Who knows,” he says, “We should be pretty interesting. We have fun, and the crowd usually has fun, and everybody takes what they will from the music-which is the point.” Saturday Looks Good to Me, because of their ingenuity and creativeness, have managed to find a way to find that perfect balance of fun, reality, great songwriting, pop-artistry and ’60s pop, without offending the indie culture which supports their albums. For that, we applaud them and wish them the best.
Look for a new record sometime in 2006 -one which will feature a double album (Sound on Sound), one-side boys (10 songs, “messed up and what’s wrong with you kind of songs”), one-side girls (10 songs, happy, stompy, fuzzy girl-pop).