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Photo by John Whipple

The Thoughtful One

The stylistic diversity and lyrical flights of Bryan Thomas’ genre-blending music reveal an intellect at play and an instinct to question

In repose, Bryan Thomas looks suspiciously like an ordinary guy.

Kicking back in an overstuffed shabby-chic chair, feet up on the ottoman, he exudes an air of unwind. He’s thoughtful while answering questions—almost spacey, in an after-work kind of way. He’s got more style than your dad—who could not have gotten away with the Franzen glasses or the Basquiat ’do—but aside from sartorial panache, he’s got a loose-tie-and-slippers demeanor perfectly suited to the den.

This is a rock star?

He laughs. “My wife says, ‘Why haven’t you written a song about us?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, a good song needs conflict, and we get along pretty well.’ ”

Thomas’ easygoing and genial air, his comfortable digs and his self-described marital contentment contribute to the picture of an enviably secure individual, a guy keeping up on the mortgage payments and receiving high marks on his annual reviews. But don’t be fooled by the domestic tranquility: As evidenced on Thomas’ latest release, Ones and Zeroes, he’s got access to conflict, and he’s pulling from a deep well.

The song “Shine,” for example: Fans of Thomas who have not yet heard Ones and Zeroes, and are familiar with his soulful-magpie take on the singer-songwriter idiom, will not be shocked to hear that he has incorporated a variety of styles and influences; nonetheless, this song is a standout, and they may be surprised at its tone. It opens with a quavering organ, churchlike but more ominous than celebratory. A simple bass-drum-and-bongo rhythm pokes out from underneath, giving the impression of something dragging its feet down the center aisle between the pews. And then Thomas’ voice comes in:

“The boy just wants to end the hurt/So he takes his mama’s hand and steps inside the church/He marches right up to the front where his daddy used to preach/Peek inside the casket, daddy’s fast asleep/Say goodbye, bye-bye.”

Joined by clanking percussion like rattling chains or an untrustworthy engine, Thomas puts the song’s central character beneath portraits of smiling white saints, whose beatific grins seem mocking to the black boy at his father’s funeral. “Boy, we got your daddy,” they gibe in cartoonishly layered vocals, reminiscent of some exaggeratedly dramatic Parliament/Funkadelic tracks.

Sonically, the whole thing comes across like an outtake from Tom Waits’ Mule Variations performed on the Mothership. Lyrically, it works as a very short story, with a dramatic arc and the symbolic promise of a redeeming force at its close—but for all its sure technique, “Shine” is personal and affecting.

“There’s the school of songwriting and performing that says, ‘This is me. This is who I am and this is the sum of everything I am,’ ” Thomas says, “and there’s the other school that says, ‘It’s theater and performance, too. It’s adopting character and personalities.’ I think I fall somewhere in the middle of that. It’s all ultimately me, or it’s all aspects of me, but it’s not necessarily me.”

Photo by John Whipple

“Shine” is, Thomas says, one of the more directly autobiographical songs he’s written, and the boy in the song is Thomas relating his experience of his own father’s funeral (though Thomas, at 25, was more young man than boy at the time of his father’s death). And as much as the subject matter, the deliberate craft behind the song is revealing.

“Just being at the funeral, I experienced this huge, giant emptiness and disconnect from what people were saying during the actual service,” Thomas explains. “They were saying nice things, all the right things, but I just felt like it was less about him, and who he actually was and what I knew of him, than it could have been.”

He adds after a pause, “Maybe some of that is my own fault, for being too emotionally junked to get up and say something myself.”

So, the approach to the song, its almost sculpted nature, is at once a relation of the immediacy of the overwhelming feeling of that moment and an example of an analytical streak that Thomas says has always been present in him.

“I would say that’s how I am with hugely emotional events,” he acknowledges. “There’s always been this crazy detachment and analysis, whereas I see people who are crying and talking about how emotional they are—‘Oh, isn’t this sad?’ And I always have this distance that’s analyzing the situation—and also analyzing myself and how I’m feeling and how I should feel or what I should be thinking about.”

Thomas lets the statement hang for a moment, then sums up laughingly, “It’s nuts, basically.”

Thomas speculates that the “hyper-awareness” of himself in context may be a by-product of growing up black in “not an extremely diverse community.” As a child in Niskayuna, he says he lived on what seemed to be the one integrated block in the area: “I don’t know if it was zoned
differently, or what,” he jokes.

So, he knew the Argentinean family next door, and his best friend’s Taiwanese family, but he grew up with a knowledge that full and unself-conscious integration was not the norm. (His years at Vermont’s Middlebury College must only have reiterated that point.) And the example of his father, who was both a Baptist minister and a onetime president of the Schenectady chapter of the NAACP, provided an early vocabulary for that awareness.

“It’s been so ingrained in me—social activism, and notions of what’s right and wrong—it’s like second nature,” he says.

And though Thomas says his own activism is less direct-action than it is contemplative and spiritual, it is never dormant.

“It’s the little stuff,” he explains. “As I always say, it’s never the guys wearing the robes and burning the crosses who worry me, because I know where they stand and where they’re coming from. It’s the people who don’t necessarily know that what they’re doing or saying or thinking is somehow imposing on who I am.

“The simple act of walking into a store means I have to think about these things,” he continues. “Like trying on clothes in the dressing room and thinking, ‘Now, am I wearing anything that I bought in this store before? And are they going to think that I’m stealing it if I walk up to the counter?’ There are little things like that all the time.”

The self-examination therefore often centers on issues of race, and those issues provide frequent grist for Thomas’ artistic mill; but his music is more diverse and less explicitly political than, say, Public Enemy’s. As the motto goes, the personal is political, and Thomas’ personal life can’t be limited to a single social issue, any more than anyone’s can. He’s a married man (and he credits his wife, Cindy, as a prime source of his artistic confidence), he’s a working man (he’s got a Web-design day gig with the New York State Union of Teachers), he’s a family man (his brothers, Jason and Justyn, are both artists as well, and Thomas proudly features their work along with his own at his Web site, bryanthomas.com), he’s involved with the local arts community (he’s got a hand in the online mag thehidden
city.com), and so on. The source material for Thomas’ songs, accordingly, runs the gamut.

“A lot of what I do starts with stream of consciousness—sometimes starts and ends,” he says. “A lot of it is disparate and disconnected, somewhat, because I’m pulling from different sources. Whether it’s stream of consciousness while I’m actually playing and composing on the spot, or pulling it from things I’ve jotted down. Sometimes, the chorus from one song becomes the chorus for another and the rest of the first song just goes away. And lately, I tend to borrow from other songs I’ve written, to help them connect a little bit, in some way.”

Thomas says that walking that line between the confessional, autobiographical approach to songwriting and the more theatrical or novelistic approach of crafting musical fictions is really a form of introspective play, similar to the prolific short-story writing he did as a child. He claims convincingly that while his deep-thought technique may be more demanding than ripping off boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl or driving-fast-cars-is-cool rock songs, it’s still a whole lot of fun.

“Everyone just assumed I’d grow up to write novels or screenplays,” he says. “So, a lot of what I do now goes back to the stories I wrote as a little kid—which is basically playtime. You can go out and play with your little Legos or your dolls, or you can run around the house and play Star Wars or shoot ’em up, or whatever, or you can play it out by writing it down.

“Some people come home and turn on the TV and watch Survivor,” he says simply, “and some people go downtown and play the open mike or play a gig or go upstairs and write a song.”

Thomas shrugs, as if saying, “Hey, it’s just what I do.” But there is a difference between flicking on the tube and going upstairs to write a song, then to write another, to write an album’s worth of self-examination and poetic experimentation, to commit it to disc and drag it out into the world to compete for attention with the likes of Survivor. Isn’t there? Doesn’t that kind of intellectual and artistic motivation—however playful—to pore over the raw materials of life for creative fuel indicate a peculiar temperament?

Shifting in his chair, Thomas is silent for a long moment.

“You know what I’m doing now?” he asks with a kind of self-deprecating amazement. “I’m reading in my head, like, five different answers. That’s what all these gaping silences are. I’m evaluating all these potential responses.”

This is an ordinary guy?

“I definitely think too much,” he laughs, shaking his head. “But I try not to. I think about not thinking too much. I think a lot about what it would be like not to think so much.”

Bryan Thomas will play Changing Spaces (306 Hudson Ave., Albany), with Matt Loiacono, on Friday (Feb. 21). Admission for the 8 PM show is $5. For more information, 433-1537.

 


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