Read our interview with Pat Thomas, bassist and songwriter for San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls whose debut solo record I Ain’t Buyin’ It takes on urban displacement, financial injustice, and moral inequities with an impenetrable hopefulness.
I Ain't Buyin' It is your latest solo record and it begins with "The Money Guys," a song that's about the pecuniary dilemmas of the day. Living in San Francisco, how have you noticed the city changing as a place for artists and creatives? How do musicians and artists last in such a high-rent and expensive place?
This is a question that every band from San Francisco gets a lot. I was only 21 when I started making music here 8 years ago, so it's hard to say how many of the differences I see between 2011 and now are the result of changes to the city and how many are just the result of getting older. I was so inexperienced when I was 21. I was still just getting acquainted with this city and the music scene here. I've only been capable of making perceptive observations about this place for a couple years I think. Rent is higher than it was, but my friends and I are less willing to live in closets and pantries than we used to be. You do have to work a lot to afford living here, leaving less time for music. Based on stories from people 10-15 years older than me, I guess it didn't used to be that way.
There is still a tight-knit community of musicians here. The Bay Area has lost a whole bunch of artistic people to Los Angeles over the last few years. But Los Angeles sucks too for different reasons, and is getting more expensive as well. There's no escaping it really. You name a city, sounds like they're experiencing gentrification. So where can you even go to escape this shit? Now Amazon is moving to New York. And for all the doomsaying regarding the music scene in the Bay, I still think it's the open-minded attitude, physical beauty, and density that keeps artists in San Francisco (or even continues to attract new ones!), despite the large numbers of moronic office bros who sometimes fill quarters of the city. Plus as fodder for art, if you're engaging with the conflicts and dilemmas of the contemporary world, what better setting is there than in the belly of the beast?
You're also the bassist, vocalist, and songwriter in Cool Ghouls. How is writing your solo record different than working with the band? What parts of music-making are easier in a group setting?
Well for one, I don't have to take into consideration how my bandmates will feel about the songs, which isn't something I'm consciously thinking about when writing for Cool Ghouls, but knowing that I wanted to write some songs that were relatively outrageous, I knew it would be quicker and easier to do it without having to talk anyone else into getting on board. Throughout recording the album, naming the album, coming up with the album art, it is freeing not being bogged down in the debates that come with being in a democratic band with multiple songwriters like Cool Ghouls.
But it's this same sense of singular ownership that's made the solo project challenging in ways that Cool Ghouls isn't. In Cool Ghouls there's a sense that the band belongs to all of us. All the songs are published under all four of our names 25% each, no matter who the primary songwriter was. All the money is band money. There's a van that we all share. There are four people who consider the band their band. With the solo stuff it feels like everything is on my shoulders, and that the other people in the band are kind of doing me a favor. It's a lonely feeling, going solo. Go figure.
There's a quirk to your idiosyncratic songwriting. Were you influenced by any particular "outsider" musician or artist for your sound on I Ain't Buyin' It?
I was listening to a good amount of Kevin Ayers. Was also getting into Gil Scott Heron. I think you can hear that the vocals on "What is Coming" are pretty David Byrne (I don't know if he's an outsider.) But with that song, I was thinking about more contemporary groups who draw form that same obtuse new wave thing. I'd seen my friends French Vanilla from LA play for the first time and was really stoked on the way they use this talking/shouting style of vocal delivery - it allows them to be wry and direct and you don't even need to rhyme. I was walking home (I primarily write while walking) and just thought of "Why's everybody floundering around?!" and thought that this new-wavy thing would serve it best. So each song gets it's own treatment and thus set of influences. But long answer short, I'd say Kevin Ayers.
When you listen back through your new record, what pieces do you think were most directly influenced by your time living in San Francisco or California in general?
"Give the Land to the People." I don't think I'd have such strong political opinions regarding the right to housing if I wasn't living in San Francisco. Maybe I would. Who knows. "Money Guys" as well. There are a lot of money guys doing their thing here in the Bay Area. I've spent my entire life in California so I guess it's all California music. There is no non-Californian me to compare myself to.
Is the title, I Ain't Buyin' It, a personal mission statement? How do you keep the claws of the corporate machine out of your personal life and your art?
Great question! You could write a book about that. Your interpretation of the album title is correct - it's a rejection of the implied premise, which is neoliberalism.
How do I keep big money out of my art? Well it's pretty easy to do when they've never heard of you!
But yeah, how do you fight corporate power? I don't really buy into the whole conscious consumerism thing. Like boycotting the big and bad guys as an individual consumer - not as a partnering company ending a contract, which could have real effects; or a municipality taxing the shit out of a company (the polar opposite of what we see cities doing now) - is going to change anything. Plus there's this obnoxious piousness that comes with trying to shame people into changing their habits. Like I don't buy things from Amazon because fuck Amazon. But I'm not going to hate on everyone who does. I don't think that's a realistic strategy for taking these guys on. Putting the onus on the individual consumer actually deflects responsibility away from the governing apperatuses that could actually enact systemic change. I think it's the same deal with issues like public health and waste management. Instead of putting energy into educating poor people about healthy eating habits, poor communities need to be given material resources that they themselves control - community gardens, grocery stores, etc. Yes, recycling is important, but i don't think that the planet will be saved by each individual remembering to put a piece of plastic in the correct bin. There needs to be a large-scale orchestrated collective effort.
What we need are alternatives to these imperialistic so-called service providers. New supply chains for everything from clothing to food to entertainment which are controlled by the groups who utilize them. Infrastructures that exist not for profit but simply for their own existence. So to answer your question, I don't think I'm doing everything I can toward these ends at present. It's not just a matter of defending against the claws of the corporate machine but a matter of fashioning some claws of our own to be on the offensive end of the fight.
Like it or not, the music streaming business plays a substantial role in the industry today. As a musician, how do you see streaming platforms? As a listener, able to have the endless plethora of content at your fingertips for a cigarette budget per month, do you have a different sentiment?
I guess I do have differing sentiments as a listener and as a musician when it comes to streaming. Obviously as a listener it’s really nice and as someone trying to sell music it sucks. So then the two sentiments combine into a big "what can you do?"
My friend Arvel, who runs Empty Cellar Records, and I were commiserating about this the other day. He mentioned rightly how valuable music really is to people in their lives - the meaning it provides people, how important music that they love is to them, their happiness, their sense of self. I know that's true for me. So it feels contradictory how, monetarily, a song is virtually worthless now, unless you license it or something, or if it's hugely popular. But then I don't know. Seems like as long as the internet exists, and as long as you want your music to be accessible, this is the natural way of things. Like relative to the millions (billions?) of streams per day, how much is a song that's streamed even hundreds of times owed?
I wish I had a solution. I think everyone does! How about a streaming service collectively owned by the musicians? That sounds better. But even still, the little guys are making pennies, and the streaming option is detracting majorly from record sales. So yeah, I dunno man.