Thomas Truax, a powerhouse of the anti-folk movement that grew out of New York in the 1990s, chatted to us about his innovative homemade instruments and working independently as a DIY musician, before singing to us at the Brudenell Social Club about a full moon over Wowtown and a grandmother’s unwavering advice.
Thomas Truax is a one-man-band like no other. His ever-evolving companions are made up of custom-made instruments, cobbled together with a mixture of eclectic materials gifted to him by friends, or dug up in junk shops and out of skips. “I’ve got way too much stuff sitting around that I’ve just found,” he tells me, sitting backstage at the Brudenell Social Club. “It’s things that, if you hit them, will make an interesting sound. There’s always a time where you find some piece, and you think, ‘oh, this is gonna go with that’, or it’s gonna become something.”
“It’s always something different,” he continues. “A lot of times, I’ll have some idea for something in my head, some kind of sound-making device, and then I’ll start finding pieces, and it’ll always turn into something completely different than I thought it was gonna be.” The Hornicator, a Dr. Seuss-ian contraption made from an old gramophone horn fitted with springs, tunable strings, a pickup and something called a ‘space phone’, is a good example of this kind of accidental production.
The way Thomas writes songs falls very much into the same category of building a creation up from a variety of different elements. “I build songs up gradually, and some of them fall by the wayside, don’t grow into anything, and other ones just grow. I like laying down some basic thing and then letting it ferment for a while. It’s a slow-build thing, and maybe try some things, and some work and some don’t.” His newest album, All That Heaven Allows, released just two days before the night of the Leeds show, was completed in much the same way. After writing ten to twelve songs he believed were to be the album, they fell together in a sequence that was almost perfect. “There were a couple tracks that didn’t work together at all in that flow or in that context, so I quickly wrote some other stuff. I got a picture of what the album was gonna be, and filled in some holes that way.”
Thomas has been working solo for almost two decades now, outside of some collaboration on the part of his talented friends, and being able to schedule his own time for songwriting has some advantages and drawbacks. He doesn’t need to lock himself in a studio for two weeks with a band to come out with a finished album at the end. “That’s the luxury of working alone: you can do it when you have time, and you’re not beholden to somebody that might not be able to get together with you. For the most part.”
There are aspirations of his that don’t work on the road, either; not only does he perform alone, he handles all the lugging of equipment for a tour, leaving some of his larger ideas for instruments as just sketches, at least for now. It’s why the show’s promoter, Adam, decided to place all three opening bands on the floor, leaving Thomas’ instrument companions for the night wired up and ready to go for a speedy switch. “I’ve worked with him a lot and he knows that my stuff has to get all wired up and [it] takes a long time to get the other acts up and this on, and he wanted to put on four bands tonight,” he explains, though he’s not all comfortable with the strange set up. “It just feels a little bit smug or something,” he laughs, though as his performance shows later in the night, he’d end up on the floor as well.
Thomas proves a very interactive showman, starting the show abruptly, un-amplified, singing along with his guitar and some metal glasses that seem impossible to see out of, standing in the middle of the crowd gathered around the stage. During ‘Full Moon in Wowtown’, he does much the same: playing acoustically, he runs about on the floor, spinning around as a light on the headstock projects a “full moon” onto the ceiling, following him as he wanders about. His fondness for intimacy in a performing atmosphere never seems to leave an audience unentertained.
He also takes care of all the administrative tasks that come along with being a musician. Thomas is a “real DIY sort of person”, so tries to do everything himself, from pursuing a Patreon-like subscribers’ project called The Full Moon Music Club, to doing his own PR for a single from this album last fall. “I did get airplay and I did get some write ups, and they were really positive, but that actually makes it more frustrating sometimes because then you know you’ve got something good going, but you haven’t been able to fully capitalise on what it’s potential might be, to reach people that might be into it, that just don’t know about it.”
Only recently having moved to Birmingham with his wife, he had to leave boxed-up belongings before releasing his album and now touring across the country and into Europe. Thomas first left America when George Bush II got re-elected, realising he had to escape that. Touring through the UK at that time, he decided to stay, not only because the distance between cities in the US is so far as to make it almost impossible for touring, but because of the celebration of arts that America sorely lacks in comparison to the scene here.
In America, there’s much more of a divide, he explains, between charting artists that live off of obtuse fame, and “hobbyists”, at least in the minds of most people living there. The arts also aren’t taken nearly as seriously there. “For the arts in general… it’s a frivolous thing that you put on top; it’s icing on the cake instead of substance. Whereas I find, in Europe and in the UK, to a certain degree, there’s a higher regard for the fact that we really need music and the arts for sustenance, just like you need food.” He has fans in the US, for sure, but the attention from an audience to his art seems all the more receptive in Europe.
Thomas comments on a “levelling of the playing field” between pop stars that major labels shine a spotlight on and those that aren’t getting as much attention: “There’ll be less of this superstars and people that didn’t make it; there’ll be a whole world of things in between, but those extremes… I have a feeling that might happen. Kind of die off. I think it might be a healthy direction.” Creating another dimension of performance and artist success is something Thomas celebrates, and hopefully even more others will follow in his footsteps.
For now, though, Thomas wants a domestic break from his life of gigging and writing this most recent album to go back and build the furniture he and his wife have sitting around in flat-pack boxes. “It sounds really glamorous,” he laughs “but it’s really bothering me that they’re sitting there in boxes at the new place we’ve moved into, and I’ve not had any time to put them together. In a way, that’s actually a really special thing to see these kind of things in your life, just regular life stuff.”
It really goes to show how, no matter where one is in life, whether it be playing shows and making music as a job, or living through the utterly domesticity of home life, that a ‘grass is always greener’ mentality will follow. “I’ve done it a lot, especially when I was starting out doing what I’m doing, where I just thought, ‘I just need to get this and that, I just really wanna be on that stage, and I really just wanna get my record in front of a few people. If somebody would just play it even once, then everything would be great.’ And it’s funny, those are little dreams. And now that I’m doing this as my job, I love doing it, but there are a lot of things where I’m looking backwards and going, ‘god, I really wish I could just go to the park today’. And, you know, that’ll happen. I really wish I could just build that shelf.”
Props to you, Thomas. I think any creative can take after such a seasoned member of the arts industry, and seeing his show live really proves how deeply he enjoys this lifestyle, no matter what it may bring. I thank you for the show you put on for us, and I hope you’re able to build those shelves soon enough.
Words and images by Francesca Tirpak