UNCHARTED: Saturday Looks Good To Me

Detroit's prodigal pop experimenters talk the magic of Motown, the power of Dylan and sneaking political lyrics into pop songs.

- Jun 25, 2013

Uncharted is our weekly showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week Chris Hampton speaks to Fred Thomas of Detroit pop group Saturday Looks Good To Me.

urn on the radio and tell me Motown hasn't had a profound and lasting effect on the sound of pop music. It's way more than that familiar noise you drown cheap bar rail to while you gyrate awkwardly in some sweaty cave on a Wednesday or a Friday or some other promotional night of the week. Motown is vibrant. It's fun. It's the heart of pop, goddamn it, and it demands some respect. Detroit-area indie group Saturday Looks Good To Me knows that.

Over the better part of a decade, band leader Fred Thomas and his rotating cast of supporters have developed a sound that straddles generations of pop songcraft: one foot in that golden era of pop and soul and the other shuffling by track through stadium rock, noise, and American indie. But what's most interesting is that these Motown acolytes hail from their very own Mecca, the same burgh that produced Diana Ross and the Supremes, but the Stooges, too. Needless to say, they belong to an interesting musical heritage.

The band just released their fifth full-length, One Kiss To End It All, on Polyvinyl. I caught Fred by telephone on a particularly beautiful day in Michigan, that cheery kind when someone might reasonably blow off the workday to field a call and enjoy the warm rays. We chat about hollowed out Detroit, why Bob Dylan can do whatever he wants, and, of course, the magic of Motown.

Tell me about your earliest memories of music in Detroit — playing, listening, going out with your parents to karaoke, whatever.

My parents took me to see Bob Dylan when I was ten years old and that was a really formative thing because I’d listened to Bob Dylan records at their house a lot, but I’d never been to a concert. I hadn’t really been around that many people before, and all sorts of stuff happened at that show that kind of set the tone for how I felt about music.

What kind of things happened?

Well, it was at a big outdoor venue, and my dad was like, "that person over there, he’s smoking grass.” And I don’t smoke pot, but I was like, “Woah, drugs! I never even thought of that before. What are they?” And somebody else was collecting bottles because in Michigan there’s bottle deposits, so there was this scavenging element to it.

But the most important thing was that my dad was like, “You know, you like Bob Dylan?” and I was like, “Yeah, he’s the best.” He’s like, “Well, you’re not going to recognize any of his songs because he plays them completely differently when he plays live and people get really annoyed.” And I was like, “Why does he do that?” My dad just said, “Well, it’s one of those mysteries, nobody really knows, but he’s an artist so he can do whatever he wants.” Being ten years old and hearing that was a really huge thing.

You’ve left a few times, for New York, for Portland. What brings you back to Michigan? Why is that a special place for you?

Every place I’ve been has been special, but there’s no place like Michigan. Time doesn’t touch it in some ways, you know? If you’ve ever been to Detroit — I live just outside in Ypsilanti — you look around and the people who aren’t from there are just amazed that it exists and that people can function in this strange, beautiful shell of what used to be a thriving city and what still is a thriving city in many ways. There’s this interesting creative magic that happens in the shadows here.

Do you feel like you belong to Detroit's Motown heritage, like you’re part of a geneaology that belongs distinctly to that city?

I’d be proud to be linked in any way to a legacy like Motown. It’s some of the most magical music ever made. I’ve definitely tried to rip it off as much as possible. Motown, to me, couldn’t be recreated with any music degree. You couldn’t find that inspiration again because it’s so of its time, and it’s so precise and wonderful, but it also seems like they were just smiling and faking it, too. “We’re just improvising this arrangement and it turned out being ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.’ Whoops.” And I feel that’s kind of how I write songs. All of the lyrics for the new record were written minutes before they were sung. A lot of the parts were like “Oh, this doesn’t work,” so I was just teaching it to the band as I was writing it. In some ways, it’s a continuation. It’s not as good, but nothing can ever be.

What do you find so magical or alluring about that sound? Why is that the trove you go to rip off, as you say?

In the late ‘90s, I was in the hardcore scene. I really just loved political hardcore, but I’d go to a show and be like, “This sucks. This is just a bunch of kids who might as well be jocks.” I really liked some of the stuff, but a lot of those record were kind of boring. I’d much rather listen to Motown and Phil Spector, because it never gets old. It’s always amazing. So I decided I was going to start a band that sounds like Motown but has political hardcore lyrics, which sounds so stupid on paper, but that was the original Saturday Looks Good To Me. The first record we did has lyrics that are anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and anti-corporation, but it’s kind 0f hidden so people are like, “Cool! A bunch of songs about getting broken up with.”

Are there places in Detroit — bars or record shops — that make you feel especially connected to that music history? Places you have a special reverence for?

Almost every place in modern-day Detroit is like that. The Lager House is a place I’ve played for many years — and now Thee Oh Sees will play there or Ty Segall played there recently — but I remember when it started, it’s like, “Oh, this is a building that was something for a long time and then nothing for a long time and now it’s a space where kids are doing shows.” There’s all this space and the people who are doing stuff with it aren’t real estate developers, they’re just punk kids. It’s great. I’ve heard stories about the Grande Ballroom — the old, huge space in Detroit where the MC5 would play, the Stooges would play — and it feels like that still, but just Tyvek is playing there now or something like that.

You’ve been playing as SLGTM for nearly 15 years. What’s kept you attracted to that project for all this time?

We definitely stopped playing for four years before this record. I guess we were touring all of the time and nobody was coming to the shows and we took the hint. Like we were playing Salt Lake City, Utah for the fifth time in two years and each time there was half as much of an audience. We just couldn’t afford to do it. I thought, “Maybe people don’t care anymore. I still care, but it doesn’t have to be my everyday job.” But still, I’d write a song and it wouldn’t fit with any of my other projects and it didn’t seem like it had anywhere to go. So after a few years of that, I made another record. But what keeps me drawn to it? Simple, pure pop music is the best cure for depression in the world — creating it, listening to it. It’s like a primary colour; you can never be angry at red or blue. I feel it’s just a positive thing in my life and it always will be. Whether I’m making records with this band or with any band, I’m sure I’ll be listening to pop music and loving it.

What can we hear on One Kiss Ends it All that you think listeners can’t get out of, say, Every Night or Fill Up The Room?

I spent a long time listening exclusively to Top 40 radio. A couple of summers ago, it was like “Wow, I hate the Black Eyed Peas, but this one song is really moving me.” And there was so much Lil Wayne on the radio. So I was like, “Wow, if at one time gated drums and Bruce Springsteen platitudes were the bassline for pop music, now Lil Wayne’s weird minimal Southern beats are.” Which is crazy because for mainstream culture to get into weird minimal techno or some of the stuff Kanye was doing — straight Kraftwerk samples — I never thought I’d see the day.

So there’s a lot more electronic stuff on One Kiss Ends It All that’s not been on any other Saturday record. There’s a lot more horn stuff — Dan Bennett did the horns — huger arrangements like that. The last record we did was just me singing, more experimental rock and roll stuff, and I don’t know why we did that, but I’m happy to get back to some sort of a hybrid of modern pop and classic pop influences for this one.

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