Thomas Function
Southern Men
by Ron Wadlinger

Hailing from Huntsville, Alabama, Thomas Function could be described as sneakily infectious. On first listen, it all sounds decent enough: a sort of energized Southern Television with a set of consistently solid songs. A few listens in, however, it becomes clear that there’s a lot more there. The songs are well-crafted—catchy, but not too sweet, and certainly substantial.

After releasing a handful of singles, the band went with Alive Records for its debut LP, Celebration, which was released earlier this year. The songs on Celebration seem to build upon themselves, each reaching its own punk crescendo while staying true to the group’s pop and soul influences. At their best, Thomas Function songs take control over the moment, whether it’s the galloping insistence of “Relentless Machines” or the apocalyptic drifting of “2012 Blues.” This is one of those records that compels the listener to stick with it the whole way through, because, dammit, each song sounds better than the last one.

Thomas Function’s live performances lend further credibility to its growing reputation as one of the more exciting young bands currently operating. The four-piece, which has toured extensively during 2008, has jelled as a live unit, playing with an electric vigor and clear focus. After a particularly stirring set in Columbus, I checked in with the band to take stock of what’s been an eventful year.

What are the origins of Thomas Function?

Zach: Four-tracks and house parties.

Josh: I was in this band called Alabama Jihad, and we were a really nihilistic, angry, stupid band, and I wasn’t really having fun anymore, so I decided to get a four-track, sit in my room, smoke a lot of pot, and record songs. I didn’t think my name was flashy enough, so I made up another one, and it’s called Thomas Function.

How did you find the other guys to play with you?

Josh: Travis, who’s our bass player, and Fillup, who’s our drummer, were both in Alabama Jihad. Zach was just some weird kid who we hung out with. With Alabama Jihad, we lost one of our guitar players, so we made up this ridiculous five-page application. The only person who filled it out was Zach, so basically he applied to be our friend, and now he’s in our band.

Zach: It’s like fucking Rite Aid, but with music.

Josh: Basically.

What lead up to Celebration being released on Alive?

Zach: Money. (laughter) Seriously.

How did they find you?

Zach: Our friend Jeffery is like a super collector, and that was it. And these people seemed to be okay. They’re good for what they’re doing.

Since the release of Celebration, what have you been up to?

Fillup: Working in a bar and doing lots of drugs, basically.

Josh: What kind of drugs?

Fillup: Cocaine and oxycontin—not gonna lie—with Jaeger and whiskey. We’ve been touring a bit, too.

Josh: We’ve signed with Fat Possum Records. We have a single and a couple of records coming out with them. We’ve just did a month long tour, and we did another two-week tour. We’re probably going to go back on tour in January. So we’re just basically playing shows, and we’re about to record a new album.

What are some of your favorite bands from Alabama?

Fillup: Wizzard Sleeve—Wizzard Sleeve is the shit.

Josh: The Pine Hill Haints—they’re from Florence. Amber Alerts are pretty good. The Shining Path are pretty good. That’s about it that I know of. There’s a lot of really terrible indie rock bands in Birmingham, if you’re into that kind of thing. Me personally, I’m not.

So would you say that there’s a sort of “unified” Alabama scene or anything like that?

Josh: None whatsoever. Like Zach, he pretty much put on this punk/garage/rock & roll whatever, kind of festival last summer. That went pretty well, but that was mostly out-of-town people. There’s really no scene to speak of in Huntsville. There’s probably a group of 30 to 40 people that might go to shows or might just ignore it completely. So, I mean, we’re lucky to get good shows sometimes.

Does your relative proximity to Muscle Shoals or even just the general fact that you’re a band from the South have any impact on your sound or how you approach making music?

Josh: Of course, definitely. I mean Stax, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and all the Motown stuff that was done there, obviously. Our engineer was the understudy of Jimmy Johnson, who was with FAME Studios, and some of his guys were directly impacted by all of that stuff.

All that kind of shit is the basis of our sound beyond maybe some bubblegum stuff and some psych stuff. But mostly it’s just soul music, and especially Southern soul music.

So when you’re recording, are you using some of those old studios?

Josh: No, we record everything in houses. We recorded some of the record in Travis’ house, some of the record in one of Zach’s houses, some of the record in another of Zach’s houses. Celebration was recorded in three or four houses.

Fillup: Over a long span of time.

Josh: Within a year and a half. We would record a few songs in a weekend. Then we would do nothing and put out a couple singles, then record another batch of songs, put out a single or something, and then we would just use what was left over and make a record out of it.

The record sounds pretty warm and clear. Were you aiming for sort of a mid-fi or hi-fi sound?

Josh: Mid-fi? I’ve never heard of that.

I sort of just made it up, I guess.

Josh: We wanted everything clear, present, and kind of up there. Big. We wanted it to sound bigger than it was. It was definitely not recorded big by any means. I mean, it was recorded in basements and living rooms.

What kind of recording equipment were you using?

Josh: We used Pro Tools. Combined, totally, we probably spent maybe six days total recording it. That’s over a process of a year and a half. But mixing it, we spent up to a month total. Me and Lynn just basically mixed forever and ever until we finally got something we could deal with.

Are there any other roles your residing in the South plays in the band’s sound?

Fillup: Drinking is involved, but I don’t think that’s really geographical.

Josh: There’s nothing else to do.

Zach: It’s cheap.

Josh: For me, I wrote a lot of songs based on living there and the effects. “Sherman’s March” is mostly a knock on Northerners for how you’re treated like a second-class citizen. I mean, just because you lost some stupid war a long time ago, people still think you’re retarded or inbred or backwards.

Travis: We don’t have shoes.

Josh: We don’t have pavement. Like what, asphalt doesn’t exist below Kentucky? So yeah, it’s a big impact, and just listening to Southern records—country records, blues records, any of that kind of stuff. Southern psych is the shit. But yeah, it has a big impact.

Which bands have been major touchstones for you?

Josh: The Feelies, definitely. The Sweet’s first album. Television’s Marquee Moon. Psychocandy by Jesus and Mary Chain.

Fillup: The Equals. Teenage Head’s first album.

Josh: Every Deadly Snakes record, basically. I think that’s the greatest band that occurred in the last 15 years, at least. That band killed.

You’ve been able to do a decent bit of touring recently. Has the band changed or developed at all through the touring?

Fillup: I actually think we’ve gotten better at getting along with each other.

Zach: In all honesty, at first, it was really kind of, “After a few weeks, I’m going to rip this guy’s vocal cords out.”

Josh: You just know when to shut up, when to go away. I think we’re realizing that we’re all in the same boat. And we’re just a better band period, as far as being able to play. We’ve never been tighter. We’ve never been more in key or in synch with each other than we are right now.

You got a great reaction here. Have you been seeing that kind of thing consistently?

Josh: When they show up, people like it. It’s just a matter of people showing up. We’ve had three or four shows that... I wouldn’t say they were bad, but the rest were good. So, I mean, out of 27, that’s not that bad.

Zach: And it’s kind of weird actually seeing people sing along, but that goes with actually putting out stuff.

What are some of your favorite cities or clubs to play?

Fillup: Denton was awesome.

Josh: That’s where the Wax Museums are from. It’s awesome, really fun house shows.

Travis: Milwaukee is basically our second home. Me and Josh go up there a lot and just hang out. We have a lot of good friends up there, and every time there’s a show up there it’s very good. Ottawa was amazing. Nicest people on the planet, apparently, in Ottawa. Everyone was so appreciative that we actually played. You got drink tickets, but we didn’t need to use them because everyone was buying for us.

Josh: Toronto was pretty awesome in a sort of very bizarre, surrealistic kind of way.

Any hints on how the next record’s going to sound?

Josh: I don’t know. That remains to be seen.

Travis: More montage-available songs.

Josh: More soundtrack scores.

Travis: When there’s a montage needed, we’re going to have it on lockdown.