YOU'VE seen him tearing it up at Jinx happy hour with Damon and the Shitkickers, smoking everybody with incredibly guitar work in The Grand Gestures, and bringing the house down with his rock 'n’ outfit Tonto: Anders Thomsen is Savannah’s secret weapon, a versatile luminary on six strings.
With an impressive career that began when he was a 14-year-old in Michigan playing with Billboard-charting band The Woolies, Thomsen shows his diverse of musical education on his new LP, Anders Thomsen with The Downtown Sheiks. An alt-country record with Americana undertones, honky-tonk attitude, and sprinkling of all-American rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities, it’s an excellent showcase of one of the Lowcountry’s finest players.
We chatted with Thomsen about his musical roots, giving up guitar for a decade, and his triumphant return.
When did you start working on the album?
I think a year and a half ago is when I started with Charlie [Hodge, former bassist of Damon and the Shitkickers] when he was still in town.
I just thought I ought to make an album for some reason, because I hadn’t done it in a while, and me and Charlie and Rufus had been playing out as a three-piece.
Those are some songs I’d written in six months leading up to when we started. I’ve been writing a lot lately; I forget how much I like writing songs. The Tonto album that never came out, I wrote all the songs on that; that was a good warm-up to get me into writing songs again.
What got you back into writing? Was it Tonto?
Well you know, I didn’t get back into playing until 2011. I didn’t play any music at all—I quit. I played two gigs between 2001 and 2011 and got fired from one of them...so I probably hadn’t written any songs because I hadn’t even been playing guitar. When Damon’s old guitar player Matt moved, I think Igor [Fiksman, pedal steel player in Damon and the Shitkickers] knew that I was in town, and they asked if I wanted to play. I thought, ‘It’s been long enough, let’s give it a try.’ When I started playing with them, I hadn’t played any gigs in 10 years.
Why is that?
Well, my band the Ex-Husbands broke up—or whatever. We never actually broke up. I got married to Sarah...the band kind of split up for a summer.
We did a lot of touring; we were in the van all the time. Everyone was kind of sick of that, which we probably would have gotten over, but then we just never got back together. Then Sarah and I left the country for several years, lived in Australia, then when we finally came back we had a baby that we stole from a dingo, and we came back in 2007 or something, 2008.
And then nobody asked until Damon. Not that I would have expected anybody to, I just wasn’t thinking about it. I was happy not doing it, but I’m glad to be back. It really worked out well, taking that time off—which I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me. But it was good.
Were you still playing on your own?
I didn’t even play the guitar.
That is so wild. You’ve got such chops, I can’t imagine taking that kind of break. What was it like coming back?
There’s still a lot of muscle memory, I suppose, but it took some time to get back to where I was before or as I remember it. I feel like being away from it so long, it’s all new again. It’s like starting to play but already knowing how, you know?
It’s exciting; I’m having a ball playing and I’m playing as much as I can with as many different people as I can. As corny as it sounds, it made me realize what a gift it is to play music. It didn’t feel like it was something that was missing in the time. Before I quit, I’d played for 17 years so it was a lot.
How did you start playing?
I imagine it was my older sister...she bought the single ‘Beth’ by Kiss. And the flip side of that single was ‘Detroit Rock City.’ And that’s when I learned what it was all about. That was it.
Then, I had an imaginary band with my friend Jeff for several years—we’d jump around and pretend to play along with Kiss records.
Then I got really lucky and got in a band that played gigs with a bunch of older guys and it was a blues band and I played gigs in front of people and made money. I started pretty young, about 14. I played with that band about three years and learned a lot; the guy that led the band, he was a really good teacher in certain respects. He just wanted me to play one thing very quietly, but just right. That was a really good education.
Playing blues must have been a great way to start...that’s everything.
Yeah, if you can play that, you can play anything. I was really lucky. You can sit in your bedroom and play all you want, but if you’re not playing onstage, you’re not getting any better.
What brought you to Savannah?
Sarah wanted to move back here; she used to run The Velvet Elvis. The Ex-Husbands would tour and play there, and that’s how we met.
When Sarah and I got together, The Velvet Elvis closed around that time...we left the country and came back because this is her hometown in America.
How do you cultivate originality in country music?
I think you just do what you do. I just wrote those songs and recorded them as much like I heard them as you can.
You could spend more time or more money doing it differently, but I don’t really see the point. I can see the point maybe in other situations to go further with production, but it doesn’t really move me that much, production. I can appreciate certain things, like T. Rex, that sounds a certain way. It’s the players and the room more so than it is now.
Who will be playing with you at the show?
We’ve got Maggie Evans, Rufus Bryant IV, Isaac Smith is going to come and sing some backup and play some guitar, and we’re also going to get Fredrick Hodge to come play piano, and Igor Fiksman, pedal steel extraordinaire, will play on one song.
Anders Thomsen with the Downtown Sheiks
When: Saturday, November 21 @ 10 p.m.
Where: The Jinx