By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — While she has extensive training as an opera singer and was once on a track to sing classical music as a career, Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Hayley Thompson-King has been earning attention and accolades during the past few years for her excursions into roots-rock. Blessed with a powerful voice that led her to formal opera training as a teen growing up in Florida, it wouldn’t be until after attending college and graduate school studying opera that Thompson-King started exploring more contemporary music.
Delivering an assured mix of heartbroken honky tonk, ’60s girl-group vocals and reverb-soaked garage punk, Thompson-King first got into more traditional rock songwriting in her band the Banditas, who put out their debut album Save the Rats in 2012. But even as that band started to enjoy some success and build a regional following, the singer started working as vocalist for established Boston psych band Major Stars.
Founded by guitarist Wayne Rogers two decades ago, the group has become one of the East Coasts most revered purveyors of modern psychedelia while touring the globe and playing such notable festivals as Terrastock (where the band made it’s live debut in 1997) and the Thurston Moore curated edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK in 2006. Thompson-King would record two albums with the band — 2012’s Decibels of Gratitude and last year’s Motion City for indie label Drag City Records.
But by the time that second album with Major Stars was released, the singer had already moved on from both bands. In the midst of recording a planned EP for the Banditas, she decided her songwriting was taking her in a different direction. Thompson-King would hook up with a new set of musicians and start recording under her own name, broadening her sound while still touching equally on gritty garage rock and country balladry with her new collaborators.
A series of live and studio recordings made available for download have led the songwriter to the next stage, the planned release of her proper solo debut Psychotic Melancholia set to come out on her own Hard to Kill Records this fall. Tracked at her guitarist and engineer Pete Weiss’ Verdant Studios in Vermont, the runs the gamut from raucous country rockers (the canny break-up analogy “Large Hall, Slow Decay”) to melancholy ballads (a remake of her Banditas song “Dope Sick” and “Old Flames”) to blazing garage-punk fury (the Sonics-esque “No Room for Jesus” and “Lot’s Wife).
Thompson-King and her crack backing band make their first visit to San Francisco to preview the wide-ranging material and introduce the talented singer-songwriter to the Bay Area this Friday when the group plays Neck of the Woods, opening for like-minded local singer Lisa Marie Johnson and Friends and Marin County Americana act San Geronimo.
CBS SF: Your path as a singer and musician has taken some unusual turns between your formal opera studies to singing with a psych band to your more roots-rock recordings with Banditas and the forthcoming album. Were you always pretty omnivorous as far as your musical interests?
Hayley Thompson-King: Yeah, I think I was. I had such an operatic voice when I was young. I felt it was really uncool. I wanted to be able to sing more pop stuff when I was a teenager. But I had this great voice teacher all through my whole adolescence and she just made me sing classical music and I loved it. It was such a huge part of my life. I felt like it was really normal.
And then when I went to college, I just continued studying opera. I was always singing Schumann or Mozart. They were songs that I loved and they fit with my voice. But at the same time, I also grew up in a beach town in Florida, but there were lots of horses and my dad was a team roper and a horse trainer. People wore cowboy hats to our homecoming dance. I grew up listening to country and western and we all danced to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” I thought that was really normal too. It was just kind of there and I picked up on it. I’m kind of spongy that way.
My parents had really good taste in music too. I think I’ve always had pretty broad tastes. I like stuff that’s really good [laughs]. I mean, of course, but you kind of know when something is bulls–t, it doesn’t talk to you. But when I first heard the Oblivians, I was like “This isn’t bulls–t. This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard!” And I just took it in.
When I joined Major Stars, being from New England, they were a band that I’d always loved. And to me it was very operatic. I thought, “Oh, this is just like singing opera.” That’s why I loved it so much, because I could really stretch my voice out. That sort of sound, a lot of guitar with a heavy, psychedelic kind of thing, that’s really common in New England, especially in Boston and Western Mass. So that kind of seeped in there too. So I always though, “Oh this feels really normal!” But now that I’m putting it out in the world, I’m realizing it is a little unusual. But we love it and it’s been well received. It’s just a weird little record [laughs]!
CBS SF: So your bio mentions Major Stars and Banditas, but did you do any more pop-oriented music or have any band experience prior to that?
Hayley Thompson-King: No. I would do vocals for friends bands, but I was trying to be a professional opera singer. So all through college and then I went to graduate school in Boston. Right after grad school, I moved back to New York and had voice lessons at the Metropolitan Opera House. My teacher was a resident at the Met and I’d have to take the elevator to her dressing room. She was this wonderful lady from New Jersey, just the sweetest person, and I’d come to her dressing room and she’d be dressed as a Valkyrie. I’d be in her dressing room having my lesson and she’d be dressed as a mermaid.
So I was totally in that world until I got to the point where I decided I wanted to be more in control artistically. I wanted to be saying what I wanted to say. So then I just started writing. So that was when I started Banditas and just wrote that record. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was just trying to be really honest about my life and the influences that were important to me.
CBS SF: So were you working with Major Stars and Banditas at the same time or did Banditas get put on hold when you started singing with Major Stars?
Hayley Thompson-King: I just did them both at the same time. It seemed to work out pretty well. I didn’t write for Major Stars. The main person is Wayne Rogers, the guitar player. He was the writer and I was kind of just the mouthpiece. So it was nice. It was the experience of being in someone’s band, but it was his baby. It’s his brainchild.
CBS SF: So when you were with them, did you make it out to the West Coast on tour? Or is this your first time out here?
Hayley Thompson-King: This is actually going to be my first time in San Francisco. I played in Pacifica solo last year, but I’m really excited to play in San Francisco. Summer of Love [laughs]! With Major Stars, we didn’t make it out West. It’s funny, I’m don’t know if they’re touring now because I haven’t talked to them lately — I left the band to do my solo thing — but they’re touring on the record that I was the singer for. But they kind of do a rotating cast of singers. I was their singer for five years, and now they have someone else who has moved in who is brilliant and wonderful. But the record that they’re be touring on is the last one I recorded. So I’m still kind of there, even though I’m not in the band.
CBS SF: From what I can tell Banditas was essentially a vehicle for your songwriting. What led you to shift from working in that band situation to solo work?
Hayley Thompson-King: I loved Banditas, but it was this project that I felt couldn’t go on. It was just record we put out and a couple of seven inches. I think the reason I just started doing the solo thing was that Banditas were really specific to certain people and exactly that sound. I just changed and became — hopefully — a better songwriter, but when I tried to broaden the sound, it just didn’t seem to jibe. I just evolved as a songwriter.
I was so excited that people liked Banditas, but people expected it to sound really primitive. So when I started to flesh it out, it just didn’t feel like it worked. It felt like I needed to put the project down and reinvent what I was doing under my own name. I have a band that I work with, my guys that I always work with, and they’re cool to let it be my name and be my band. They’re just incredibly brilliant musicians and it just works for us.
CBS SF: Outside of the couple of songs that you’ve previously recorded from the new album — “Dope Sick” with Banditas and “Large Hall, Slow Decay” from your solo EP last year — was most of the material written after you left Banditas behind?
Hayley Thompson-King: Yeah. I don’t know if I should tell this story, but I will. I actually was in the studio trying to make a Banditas record with the people I had in the band at the time, and it just kind of fell apart. It just wasn’t right. We’d listen back and it wasn’t there. It wasn’t working. I don’t any of this material was there, but because I was so frustrated, I wrote “Large Hall, Slow Decay” while I was in the studio and just said “Alright, this isn’t going to work. We’re gonna scrap the project.”
And I got my current bass player and drummer — who, at the time, I had never worked with — to come in and record the first version of “Large Hall” with me. And it just went from there. Everything just sort of evolved. We had Pete Weiss, our other guitar player, join the band and it just went on the be this other project. So that was the moment of the split. That day I wrote “Large Hall” was the start of it.
A lot of the songs I wrote in the last year. But “Dope Sick” just felt like it needed another life. I was lucky because my drummer Jonathan was like “That’s a really special song. Let’s do it!” And it just worked really well. He came up with these drum stops that make the song and we rebuilt it. So it felt OK to do that.
CBS SF: So were you writing with the band or do you come to them with finished songs and sorting out the arrangements with them?
Hayley Thompson-King: I pretty much write what I want and do little demos which, if anybody else heard them, are pretty hilarious. It’s just me with a drum and a can of beans with me shaking them. I do these primitive demos and Pete, who is also my co-producer, he and I will do pre-production and kind of flesh things out together. So we’ll have an idea of the rhythm that we want.
And then Jonathan Ulman, our drummer, and Chris Maclachlan our bassist come up with our own parts. They’re quite brilliant and can figure out what I’m going for. I can use my weird language and say, “This is kind of Sonics meets Loretta Lynn” or “This is ’70s creepy country” and they’ll pick it up and write their own parts. I start the seed and write the songs and then they flesh it out. It would not be the band it is without those guys.
CBS SF: The mention of the Sonics leads me right to “No Room For Jesus.” That may be the best Sonics song the Sonics didn’t write I’ve ever heard. Were you aiming for something in that vain when you started writing the tune? Because it is dead on…
Hayley Thompson-King: I hope it isn’t too much [laughs]! My manager said, “Do you need to get the rights to that?” and I was like, “I wrote that song!” And he said, “It sounds like ‘Have Love Will Travel.’ But I wrote it thinking, “What would Greg Cartwright do? What would the Sonics do?” I just love those bands so much. I had already written that song. Actually, that is an older song. I loved the idea.
It’s sort of about Jesus and Lucifer during the last temptation if they’d decided to have a gay love affair. That was the root of the song. I really wanted that drive. With the Sonics, the drummer is so in front of the beat and so on top of it. I was really inspired by that. To the point when we were recording it, we just used one mic on the drums and this really thin, specific ’60s snare drum to get that sound.
CBS SF: You opera training comes out on the new record at certain points when you hold those longer, ululating notes. Is that something that just surfaces naturally as you sing when you’re recording?
Hayley Thompson-King: I think I’m just trying to just be totally myself and honest in the work. I teach voice and I always describe it to my students as being like throwing up. The best thing to think of is you’re just throwing up through your nose and mouth. It should just be completely going out of you and forward. I know it’s really gross when you think about it, but it should be that you can’t really hold any of it inside. It has to come streaming out of you.
So I think I was just trying to be brave. There’s this great term that my opera coach used to say to me, that you have to have “mut,” which is this German word for physical courage. You have to have courage to let it out in the way that it would come out naturally. I can be a chameleon, because I have a lot of training, but why bulls–t? I guess what I’m trying to get at is I don’t feel like I sound like anyone else and it’s kind of scary. What bands will I play with? Or will they play me on the radio. And I just have to not think about it that way and let it be what it is and let it be weird.
CBS SF: Are you bringing your whole band for this tour or are you doing is solo like the Pacifica show?
Hayley Thompson-King: Yeah, we’re doing the full band: two guitars, bass and drums. It will be me and Pete and Chris, but Jonathan our drummer couldn’t make it. So we actually have this wonderful drummer Matt Musty who plays with Grace Potter who is going to be filling in. He’s a great dude from LA, so he’ll be jumping in with us. In San Francisco, we’re playing with Lisa Marie Johnson and Friends and San Geronimo.
CBS SF: When I was doing research for our talk, I saw that you’d played a few shows with the Upper Crust, but it wasn’t until last night that I realized it was you who performed on “Little Castrato” for the band’s latest album and video. Coincidentally, I just interviewed Nat Freedburg (aka Lord Bendover) last month when they did a West Coast tour. How did you end up working with the band?
Hayley Thompson-King: I love all the forms of the band. There were other bands like the Clamdiggers and the Satanics and the Titanics before they became the Upper Crust. I had always really loved them. They were this great Boston rock band. They’re so brilliant and they’re all such incredible musicians. So when I had the Banditas record release show, I didn’t know them, but I ran into them and asked if they would play the show. They said the Upper Crust was busy, but the Titanics could play it. So they played and it was great and we were friendly.
But then Nat started dating my best friend and we just became really good friends. And those guys have been so incredibly supportive. Even shows that we didn’t necessarily go together on, they’d have me come and open. And last summer I happened to be in Nashville and they were touring through, so we met up and hung out in honky-tonk bars in Nashville. They’re just great friends and wonderful dudes who have given me such wonderful support. Even just coming to my shows and saying I should keep doing what I’m doing.
So when they were recording this album, they said they needed an opera singer for this song “Little Castrato.” And I had told Nat a long time ago, “You guys need a castrato!” I’m a mezzo-soprano, so I always played the boy roles in opera. So Nat wrote the song and I went in and recorded my part. And it’s Chris Cote, the bass player, who is doubling me. So we both do the operatic part on the song. And then they were like, “You gotta come be in the video.” I love those guys!
Chris is a natural opera singer. I had him sit in on a voice lesson for a student and I had him sing for the student, and he can belt up to a high F sharp or something ridiculous. He doesn’t even go into falsetto. He is crazy talented…
CBS SF: So have you performed the song live with them?
There were a couple of times when we played together when I did, but I always feel like it’s not right for anyone to be onstage with them unless they’re in costume. They’ve never said that, but I sort of am respectful that you have to play the part. I feel like if I’m not in costume it’s kind of weird. But we have done it a couple of times.
Hayley Thompson-King plays Neck of the Woods in San Francisco on Friday, June 30, 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15