The following was written by Roy Ghim, who has all these wonderful things going on with his own local music website. The story was also featured in today’s issue of 72 Hours. Go follow him and all the fabulous things he does on The Twitter and such. Rock. Roll.
Did a UFO crash into Frederick, and we all didn’t know about it?
That’s the reaction I had on learning Kenny Tompkins moved downtown several months ago. For the uninitiated, Tompkins wears a few different but wildly creative hats. Wondering whether this is worthy of your attention, know this: simply by his moving to the city, Frederick just elevated its hip quotient by a factor of more than 50. OK, so the exact number is subject to debate, but you get the idea. That said, that hyperbole would be instantly rejected by the cerebral creative force behind the indie rock band New God, and now his new project, Mr. Husband, responsible for some outrageous social media stunts in the run up to their debut album, which dropped earlier this month.
What you also need to know: Tompkins, along with his brother Curt Tompkins and childhood friend Josh Grapes collectively forged Yellow K Records in Frostburg, where they all formed bands, including New God, while going to college there. Since 2014, the small indie label’s finely curated roster of bands grabbed the attention of national media outlets. Since then, the likes of Pitchfork, Fader and NPR Music have showered praise, in particular, for Japanese Breakfast’s 2016 dream pop album “Psychopomp.” They’ve added international talent to their camp, too, recruiting Canada’s You’ll Never Get to Heaven; their critically acclaimed vapor wave LP “Images” continues the drum beat for the eclectic label’s offerings.
I tracked down Kenny Tompkins at his east Frederick abode and spoke to him about moving here, multitasking elements of running Yellow K Records (though he is fast to attribute Grapes as the heavy lifter for the label back in Frostburg) and his music as an extension of his personality.
As we spoke, music from Italian electronic DJ o k h o emanated through the speakers on Tompkins’ tape deck. It reminded me of New God’s more recent “///A1” album, a fascinating collection of instrumental songs and a surprising departure from the band’s first two harmony-layered, guitar-laced indie rock albums. More of a composite recording, you can hear electronic washes and ’90s boom bap hip-hop beats coursing along with strange noises mixed into the reverb-soaked sonic-scape. Tompkins attributed the album’s “really weird and [electronically] glitchy” atmospherics to o k h o as an inspirational starting point.
Then he brought up the ASMR elements in the record, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. “Every track has a layer of static white noise textures that is sort of tickling your ears in subtle ways,” he said. “It’s a phenomenon that a lot of people experience but maybe haven’t labeled for themselves. It’s related to sound and movement. It’s basically an arresting positive physical sensation you get from strange stimuli.
“The whole reason that I added those is because I also soothe myself through music, sounds,” he went on. “If you gave it your attention, it had that real potential to physically calm you down.”
Some in Frederick may have been introduced to New God via the sardonic tune “Friends” recorded in Frederick’s 200 East Art Haus (and included on Flying Dog’s local CD compilation, “Frederick Vol. 1”); they weren’t however a household name (still aren’t), and more to the point, weren’t technically a Frederick band. Kenny and his brother Curt wound up locating to Germantown, closer to Frederick than Frostburg, but also felt the tug of Baltimore and D.C.’s center of cultural gravity. Not long after performing as New God last May at Frederick’s Artomatic event, Kenny and his wife made the decision to relocate to Frederick. “Part of it is aesthetics. It’s a little less modern, with beautiful architecture. … As you move through life, you figure out where you belong in intuitive ways.”
As he’s settled in, the 35-year-old West Virginia native established a routine. By day, he goes to work managing music educators. By night, he returns home and multitasks, creating music, finding talent for Yellow K, and being an actual husband.
Enter: Mr. Husband as a band concept. Early signs were mysterious yet amusing social media posts, evidence of something new brewing, but with a zany twist. A few months ago, a bizarre YouTube video announced the project: “Join us for the Professional Music Experience of a lifetime, Starring Kenny Husband. But that’s Mr. Husband to you …,” and it goes on like that in a low-fi ramble, complete with ‘80s elevator synth music and cringe-worthy ’80s yearbook-pictures-from-hell fashion to boot. Was this for real, or perhaps a rock ’n’ roll inside joke?
A picture of “Hippie” Homer Simpson, with this caption “I’m a 35 year old indie rock ingénue,” surfaced on Tompkin’s social media in April. The shot was taken from an episode where the animated character imagines himself as a svelte sitar-playing rock star with a luxuriously full head of hair.
Then images of the Kenny Husband character emerged, and … how do I describe this? He posted a self-deprecating selfie complete with a hippie wig, ’60s-style hair band and wide brimmed sunglasses (the kind Jerry Garcia would wear), clashing with a Marty McFly-esque orange vest, blue denim shirt combo last seen in 1985’s “Back to the Future.” He sent it out as a publicity shot for Impose Magazine, just as the preview single “Riding a Lighting Bolt” was released in March. This was all in preparation for the official Mr. Husband album due out in May titled “Plaid on Plaid” (a cheeky reference to Bob Dylan’s iconic “Blonde on Blonde”). It was simply bonkers.
The obvious question was, why? Why invent this character, why the videos?
“I’m hesitant to explain it away, but I definitely wanted to do something that was more of a reflection on who I am on a daily basis,” said Tompkins. “The inspiration for the Mr. Husband character is hard to pin down but has a lot to do with not taking yourself too seriously and enjoying life. He’s a tongue-in-cheek mix of rock star clichés, domesticated Everyman, and hippy mystic — a mix of things I personally embody on some level and would rather laugh about than take seriously.”
As to the bizarre social media presentation, Kenny has an interesting take on it: “Everyone knows what a record release looks like. We’ve all digested not just the promo photos — the whole cycle, it feels just so familiar and contrived that I can’t do it earnestly anymore. So I had to add a layer of tongue-in-cheek just to be able to do it honestly and actually want to show you this stuff. And taking it down to a level where I’m comfortable with it. We’re talking about a record, but it’s not the biggest deal in the world. Maybe that allows it to breathe a little more.”
Perhaps this might be the subconscious reaction of a person who runs a record label and does this sort of thing all the time.
“Totally,” he concurred. “Behind the scenes … the stages of how things are released, songs, words, pictures.” That would explain a number of things, including selling band merchandise hilariously out of order (an unwritten rule: You don’t sell band T-shirts before you’ve played for your first show). Starting a band from scratch, Kenny now meant breaking all the rules of proper promotion: “I thought if it’s less boring for me, it’s less boring for you.”
Does Mr. Husband come close to veering into Spinal Tap territory?
He assured me that the focus on well-constructed music was still front and center. “You’ll hear some songs that are in no way funny. They’re [even] sad.” Pointing out a nuanced contrast between his two bands, he said, “New God — it’s not negative music, but it also got, a lot of times, more serious or weighted vibes. … I wanted to make music and match it with an aesthetic that was something I could digest more on a daily basis, and something I can imagine people enjoying more frequently.”
To that end, it is glorious in all its audio treatment that Stereogum so accurately described: “Like Brian Wilson refracting through Animal Collective and boomeranging back to the ‘60s, leaving behind sonic contrails.” The discriminating listener can detect Mr. Husband’s “Pet Sounds” DNA between jangly guitars and sunny reverb-drenched vocals. Tompkins openly worships in the house of Brian Wilson. “Truly,” he happily conceded, “especially that quirky, truly fun side of him that mixes fun and experimentation — that’s exactly what I’m about.”
Combing through the lyrics, you might be tempted to speculate on something he alluded to in our conversation was this inner wrestling, balancing his role as a family man and his music ambitions. While his own bands have garnered impressive attention from national media publications, Kenny is honest about the fact that he “has only reached a certain level of success.”
Interestingly, a moment of doubt briefly surfaced before accepting what he set in motion. “I’m really worried about … who knows how people are going perceive it when it comes out.” He paused. “I’ve already had fun with it. That was my goal. … I’m good. I’m good with it.”
Mr. Husband is Kenny Tompkins on guitar and vocals and includes Jason Reeder from Cotton Jones on bass and Chris Morris of Heavy Lights on drums. “Plaid on Plaid” is now available digitally and will be issued on a limited run of cassettes and CDs and eventually will be on special edition vinyl. The “Plaid on Plaid” tour will wind its way to Philadelphia and Brooklyn before returning to Frederick for The Thing festival at Sky Stage on May 20, along with Tuff Junior, Miss Lonelyheart and Drop Electric.