The ethereal guitarist, producer, and singer plays March 17 at The Frequency.
This fall, Thomas Meluch will mark 10 years since his project Benoit Pioulard released its first album, Précis, on the Kranky label. That record used lo-fi but resourceful production techniques to wring depth and variety from Meluch’s voice and acoustic guitar, juxtaposing his pop songwriting sense with a sometimes comforting and sometimes unsettling haze. In the years since, Meluch has moved from his native Michigan to Seattle and continued subtly expanding on what he accomplished with Précis. His solo efforts still often feature his voice as a central element—distinctive both in its melancholy but sly tone and in the various ways Meluch finds to process it—but he’s also put out several voice-less ambient releases over the years, most recently last year’s Noyaux EP. Meluch also collaborates with Rafael Anton Irisarri in the duo Orcas, and with ambient artist Kyle Bobby Dunn under the name Perils.
In the live setting, Meluch offers a whole different perspective on the project, touring with just his classical guitar and a few pedals, and using his vocals in a relatively up-front, effects-light fashion. His current tour brings him to The Frequency on Thursday, March 17, and he’s currently working on a vocal-centered album that will mark the 10th anniversary of Précis. Ahead of the show, Meluch spoke with me from Seattle to reflect on where the project has taken him over the years.
Tone Madison: Last year you put out an instrumental EP, Noyaux, and you’ve done instrumental releases before, but was there anything in particular you wanted to experiment with on this one?
Thomas Meluch: Well, I’m always striving to find souds that I haven’t arrived at before. I’ve had pretty much the same setup for the same 10 or 12 years, so it’s just a matter of finding out what I can do with it. In that case, I was in the middle of putting together a book of photography, of pictures that my brother had taken, because he started posting pictures on Twitter that I thought were unintentionally really beautiful. They were just, like, snapshots of his day-to-day life, and I don’t think he made much of them, but I noticed some trends and I decided to just kind of secretly put together a book of his pictures for him, and to go along with it I wanted to make a few pieces of music so that we could kind of have a collaboration of sorts. Each of the songs is intended to represent a member of my family—my mom and dad and my brother and myself—which is why there are four tracks, and each of the lengths of those tracks corresponds to our birthdays. It was a good excuse to just do something for the sake of doing something like that. For example, the last track ["Remind"] is the one that’s meant to represent myself, and it’s 8 minutes and four seconds. I was born on August 4.
Tone Madison: On the records where you have vocals, you’re using them in a really malleable way, processing them in different ways along with all the other sounds. When you take vocals out of the equation, does that give you another vantage point for exploring the other elements of your music?
Thomas Meluch: Yeah. I would say most of the music I listen to recreationally is instrumental stuff. I used to listen to more vocal music, poppier stuff, and I think I absorbed a lot of information that way, a lot of ideas about pop structure and song construction and that sort of thing, and I’m sure that comes through in unintentional ways in instrumental things, too—just the buildups of certain tracks and so forth. But instrumental music is where my heart has always been. I’ve just always also been attracted to pop songs, and I figured that would be the easiest way to be able to play shows and get attention from some label or other. The fact that I was able to write a few songs and put out a few records on Kranky, which is one of my favorite labels, is still kind of a thrill to me. But really, my favorite things to do are always the experimentations, and either things without vocals or things where vocals are just part of the instrumental tapestry, I guess, without being too overcooked or too present in the mix.
Tone Madison: Right, and I first heard you on the records that have vocals on them, like Précis and Hymnal. When I first started listening to the instrumental stuff, it was a bit strange, because I thought of the voice as being such an essential element of your music.
Thomas Meluch: Yeah. I guess when I’m composing and constructing things, I think in terms of texture, mostly. I feel like I’m always striving to combine different textures in a way that maybe shouldn’t work but still somehow does. I don’t know how to phrase that properly. But my particular voice is the one thing that unequivocally sets me apart from any other musician, because nobody else has my voice. But I also have had to build up the confidence to use it in a way more present way. I think on my first couple records, it was way more in the background, even of vocal-driven pieces, and I finally got confident enough where I could put it up front because I had to or it seemed appropriate or whatever, but I also started writing lyrics for things I was recording when I was 16 or 17. They were admittedly not that good, but I didn’t want to make anybody else sing them, so I figured by necessity I should use my own voice and sing and not put that burden on anybody else, and that kind of became a major factor in the whole project.
Tone Madison: Was it then also kind of a big step to start doing the live sets the way you do them now, where you’re just accompanied by your guitar and the vocals are far more naked?
Thomas Meluch: Yes. When I go on tour next week, the things I’ve been rehearsing are mostly just guitar and voice, and by necessity I kind of have to strip it down. I’ve toyed with the idea of touring with two or three other people as a backing band, but logistically it’s just too complicated and I think the money’s just not there to make it fair to anybody else. So for the time being I’m touring on my own. By stripping it down that way, my hope is that it will kind of illuminate a different side of things. And there will still be a lot of instrumental content, too. The first 10 or 15 minutes of a given set, I usually calm my nerves by just making guitar loops and tape loops and things and building up into a more vocal section of the set, allowing myself to kind of inhabit the space and get into the right frame of mind.
Tone Madison: How has your conception of this project changed over the years? What do you think you’re able to do with it now that you maybe couldn’t 10 or 12 years ago?
Thomas Meluch: Well, I guess, like I said, my heart’s always been in the instrumental side of things. Most of what I released last year—I did a couple of self-releases on Bandcamp, and that was all purely guitar and tape work, and that’s the sort of thing where I feel like it’s really hard to garner attention if you don’t have some kind of element that sets you apart. There’s no shortage of really beautiful and well-done ambient music out there, but I feel like it’s kind of a saturated market, and it’s also hard to find things. But now I feel like there’s enough of a built-in fan base that at least, you know, a couple hundred people seem to be paying enough attention to be interested in whatever I put out there. That’s a huge deal. It’s super flattering, and I can’t believe that I’m even at a point like that with just something that just started in my bedroom as a teenager. I’m extremely grateful to have gotten any attention and be able to do what I want and know that at least a few people will hear it.