Muttering Guppies: a garage band all grown up

Walking toward the tiny green recording studio somewhat arbitrarily placed in a far corner of a Fremont parking lot, I watch as the members of The Muttering Guppies set up for another recording session.

The drummer offers me an ice-cold Pacfico and empties his equipment from the back of his gray pick-up truck. I swing my legs off the side of the wooden deck outside, the hot afternoon sun beating down on my face, listening while the guys discuss potential inventions and politics.

In the dark, sweaty studio, James Thomas, creator of the Guppies and a Magnolia resident, stands in the middle of the room in a black T-shirt and jeans fiddling with his microphone. The drummer and bass player lurk in the dim corners of the small space.

A 1970s gold-framed painting of pink flamingos hangs on the far wall, and a pilot hat adorns a mannequin head staring mockingly from the top of the recording equipment, as if to say, "Let's see if you guys can get it right this time."

"There's a lot of fritting around here before we actually get going," Thomas says as he squirts water on his palms and towels off before strumming the guitar again.

Random drumming sporadically erupts from one corner, while the other two shake their heads and continue warming up on their guitars.

"Are we going to actually do some playing?" jokes Thomas. "Or is this one of those setup and tear-downs, you know, I got other things to do."

Then they start playing, raw and unadulterated, a new song titled "For Dad."

Thomas stops mid-song and yells through the pane of glass separating him and the drummer. "It's too poppy, man, slow it down."

"I thought this was supposed to be a sexy song," answers the drummer.

"Dude, it's about my dad dying, that's not sexy. Let's try it again," says Thomas.

All grown up

It's like a garage band all grown up. The punked-out refrains of anguished 18-year-olds have been replaced by The Muttering Guppies, an emotionally honest artistic sound created by a talented group of 40-something guys.

Furiously working on their second album, tentatively titled "Slippery Day," the Guppies blend life experiences with instruments and vocals to create an original musical array of alternative rock/pop/country/jazz tracks. But not necessarily in that order.

Living the dream

Later on, sitting across the table from me in the middle of a crowded Fremont café, Thomas leans over to stuff folded napkins under a leg of the wobbly table. Songwriter, singer and guitarist for the band, Thomas confides that at 47 years old he is finally living his dream. He adds that the collective age of the band members adds meaning and purpose to their music.

Although he was born in Berkeley, Calif., Thomas eventually settled into the "Wonder Bread-esque" Magnolia neighborhood in Seattle about 25 years ago. He has always been musically inclined. Acquiring his first guitar at age 12, Thomas has been writing music for as long as he can remember.

"Music is very therapeutic and emotional for me," said Thomas. "If I was going through a hard time I would write, play and sing until I felt better."

The painfully honest, poetic lyrics of the Guppies are the product of Thomas's years of song writing. Thomas says he has a collection of about 300 songs waiting to be recorded.

"I wish I could just have a song recording factory," he laments.

Referring to himself as a "closet musician" in his early days of song writing, Thomas says he was afraid to perform for other people. He recorded his music onto cassette tapes and filed them away. He still prefers recording in the studio to performing live.

Before embarking on his musical dream, Thomas studied clinical psychology at the Evergreen State College. He later earned his doctorate in literature at the University of Washington. Thomas taught undergraduate literature for a few years before realizing he was sick of the bearded rigidity of the academic structure.

Thomas fled the academic scene and wrote a book. "The Shaman in the Disco: and Other Dreams of Masculinity" explores issues of sexism and masculinity in society through Thomas's own dreams and experiences.

"I knew that once I finished the book, and it took me seven years, that I was going to focus solely on my music," said Thomas. "That was my motivation."

Thomas met up with longtime friend Robert Peterson, now bassist and backup vocals for the Guppies. Thomas and Peterson formed a few unsuccessful bands before finally settling into the Guppies.

"Robert is such a good collaborator," said Thomas. "He adds so much to our sound."

Sasha Landis, drummer for the Guppies, was a lucky find, Thomas admits. The youngest member of the band, Landis joined the Guppies about eight months ago when Thomas happened to be at Landis's apartment. Thomas had been looking for another drummer in the same building when he bumped into Landis.

"Sasha is a little bit crazy, he's younger and runs away with his drumming sometimes, but we really clicked and he has such great energy," said Thomas.

Justin McReynolds is the fourth band member. Lending his creativity and originality to the group, McReynolds plays lead and "atmospheric" guitar.

"It's such a trick, this music thing," said Thomas. "I'm so lucky that I have three great guys on board. [The music] becomes so much more. You can't imagine what someone else's creativity adds."

The turning point of Thomas's music career was the death of his father. Within six months after his father's death Thomas had completed recording his debut album and six months later, one of the songs won a national award.

"I wrote a two word poem after my dad died," recalls Thomas. "It said, 'life ends.'"

After his father's death, Thomas began questioning what he really wanted from his life, and the product of his exploration was his album.

Thomas, with Peterson and McReynolds, as well as a variety of guest artists, released a self-titled album in 2004. Thomas said it felt so good to finally have a completed project. Apparently, the public agreed.

In January 2005, the band's song, "When Anything Comes Between Us," was voted song of the year 2004 on National Public Radio's "All Songs Considered" program. They've also been featured on KUOW's "The Beat," where it was mentioned that they were "one of the best bands of 2004."

"It was a pretty big sign," said Thomas. "I knew I had done the right thing by pursing music."

With any luck, Thomas hopes to complete the second album by the end of the summer. The first album is a diverse, somewhat disjointed mix of songs. Thomas claims the second album will be more cohesive.

Although the Guppies are aiming for an instrumentally thicker, grittier sound on their new album, Thomas says it will still contain poppy elements.

"We've got most of the tracks down, now I'm just looking for the right feel," said Thomas. "In the first album I wrote all the songs and the other guys just added their parts. In the new album we've worked out the songs together from the beginning. We sound like a band."

Comparing the two albums, Thomas considers the first record a collection of short stories, whereas the new album he hopes will play through like a novel. The sounds and textures will be similar throughout the album, Thomas said, but he hopes diverse enough to keep people interested.

Thomas is relieved that the band will finally have a sound that's all theirs.

"We have found our voice together," said Thomas.

So what sets the Guppies apart? Their age, for starters.

"We're not a bunch of 22-year-olds trying to be rock stars," said Thomas. "I like bringing my [age] perspective to my music."

Also, because of his literary background, Thomas takes his lyrics seriously. He strives to bring a poetic literary base to his lyrics. He also asserts that music has no age; everyone has experiences that can be expressed through music.

He reveals that the songs seem to find him.

"When I write a song that moves my body as well as my mind, that's what I like," said Thomas.

As for the future of the Guppies, they are looking forward to completing their second album and will then work on gaining publicity. Begrudgingly, Thomas admits that after the band completes their album, they'll start touring locally.

"Here, put this in your story," he tells me with a glint in his eye. "We're actively looking for a daring venture capitalist who will act as our agent/manager to help get us on the map."

"I am finally in the right place," Thomas says. "This is my axis."

For more information on The Muttering Guppies, visit Their CD can be found at Barnes & Noble as well as Tower Records, Cellophane Square, Sonic Boom Records, and[[In-content Ad]]