By Eileen Tilson
Blake Thomas is no stranger to country music. Flatlands (2008), his third studio release, has been dubbed “a must for country and folk fans.” Thomas, born in Minnesota, literally worked his way up from the bottom when, at 19, he moved east and began his career busking in the subways of Boston. He spent the following years traveling, grinding through the club circuit and honing his craft while sharing the stage with Leon Russell, Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Peter Mulvey, The Honeydogs, Holly Golightly, Ben Taylor, Tom Russell, Jon Dee Graham & others. Thought it would be easy to lump Thomas into the the hundreds of midwestern country singers, his lyrics will have you begging to differ. Upon listening to Flatlands, it quickly dawns on you that Blake Thomas’ music is not to be read about, but experienced.
After reading about you and your music, the first thought that popped into my head, was “This guy is a modern day vagabond.” I like to imagine that you are train hopping every few months and collecting stories from your travels. What is it inside you that keeps you moving around, and do you think you will ever settle down?
First of all, train hopping is very dangerous and I don’t recommend it. I’ve never personally hopped a train but I do know that it’s a good way to get your legs chopped off. I think everyone, to a certain extent, is enamored with the idea of a “vagabond” lifestyle. You pick up On The Road when you’re 17 years old and it’s romantic and glorious, etc… I spent a number of years moving about the country sleeping in friends’ attics and basements. I think you can stomach that kind of thing more easily when you’re younger. I don’t want to tarnish the image you have of me but I enjoy having a home base at this point in my life. I have some recording equipment in my living room, a closet that contains my fishing poles, a book shelf full of Calvin and Hobbes, a stack of records, a tree frog. I still love traveling though. I do a lot of my writing on the road. There’s a feeling you get when you roll into a new city. Everything is new and unique. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to being a kid again.
Are your songs more inspired from the life you live, the lives you watch, or the lives you read about?
All of the above. I think most of the songs I write are about my life or the lives of those who are closest to me. I haven’t written too many tunes that are straight fiction, although I do have a fairy tale song about a rat and a pigeon.
I read that during the making of Flatlands, you wanted to focus more on the lyrics, so that listeners wouldn’t get distracted by the melody. What message are you hoping to portray?
I don’t think I necessarily conveyed the idea I was shooting for in the interview you’re citing here. Melody is an extremely important thing. It’s the driving force behind all of the songs we listen to. If words are more important than melody we should all just sit down and read poetry. I think that all I was trying to say about Flatlands is that I wrote the words first. Melody came second. Because of that I think we made a record with very few radio hits, which is perfectly fine with me.
You are a multi-instrumentalist, and have played in a variety of bands, including punk bands, and yet you are known as “Madison’s best singer/songwriter.” When and how did you find your voice in country music, and what types of music do you enjoy?
While I was living in Milwaukee (I’ve lived there on two separate occasions) many of the friends that I had were in the underground punk scene. As a result I ended up playing some shows opening for various punk outfits. I think you always have to keep your ear open. To a certain extent the only reason that I play in the style that I do is because I’m good at it. If I could rap I’d probably go that direction, but I’m a terrible rapper. The more tools you’ve got at your disposal the easier it is to design the product you want, right? I play guitar, bass, banjo, piano, harmonica, saxophone. I doubt that I will ever play the saxophone in front of an audience again, but I’m glad that I have the knowledge.
OK, so you once said “if there was a good reason to quit drinking I would.” A lot of your songs seem to come from alcohol -induced stories, on an average day how ofter would pass a breathalyzer test?
Wow! So, a couple of years back there was a long article printed about me in the Madison entertainment paper entitled “Blake Thomas Wants Your Liver” (named after “I Don’t Want Your Heart, I Want your Liver” off of Flatlands). A lot of ink was used in making me out to be an alcoholic. Since then I’ve been trying to dispel the notion that I wake up and start pounding gin. Don’t get me wrong, I love to have me a cocktail from time to time. “Beer is proof that god loves us.” Benjamin Franklin said that i think. But I teach children how to play music during the week. Nobody’s parents would hire an alcoholic. (On a side note, I really enjoyed the particular article in question, even if it did make me out to be a drunk) There’s always been a culture of drugs and alcohol associated with the arts and the people who produce them. You just have to know who you are and what you are, and are not, capable of handling.
Your lyrics, are so poetic, and “Flatlands” could be the Wisconsin’s state song. Does your environment have an impact on music, and do you think your tune would change if you were living in somewhere like New York?
“Flatlands” (the song) was actually written a few years back, when Josh [Harty] and I were driving through Nebraska, by the light of the dash board. The environment that you’re in certainly affects the songs you write. Like I was saying before, when I travel to new places I often do a lot of writing. Being in unfamiliar territory makes your mind work differently. It’s like being a kid again. You’re trying to explore and “figure it out.” Fleshing out that curiosity on paper often makes for good songwriting. As for your specific question, Flatlands would have undoubtedly been different had I been in New York or LA at the time.
You remind me of a country Eddie Vedder, who are your greatest musical influences, and is there anyone you would like to collaborate with?
In no particular order: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Patty Griffin, David Gray, Elvis Presley, The Band, Townes Van Zandt, Talking Heads, etc – I could go on and on. Who would I like to collaborate with? Well, recently Josh and I have been working with local Madison musicians Louka Patenaude, Chris Wagoner, Mary Gaines, Chris Sasman and Jim Schwall. I’m perfectly happy collaborating with them. I don’t like to write songs with other people. I’ve tried It a few times with mixed results. I like to have the core of the tune done on my own and let the real musicians take it from there. Other than that, I’d really like to meet Bill Murray.
Where is the wind blowing you next?
Atlanta, Georgia! BAM!
Describe your perfect day.
Probably some swimming, fishing, guitar playing, beer drinking – you can pretty much take the lyrics out of any pop country tune (minus the going to church portion) and that’d be a pretty damn good day for me. I’d throw in some sex as well.