Photo by John Whipple
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.