"Sometimes you gotta keep it simple, just to get to the rock," Thomas says, as a huge black-and-white tabby named Remo -- after the drum manufacturer, natch -- waddles into his living room. The cat's there, but Howland isn't -- he's a teacher in North Carolina, where he now lives. Thomas is flying south in September to meet with him for a tour.
The pair's less-is-more credo is proving popular these days. The Detroit duo the White Stripes have taken stripped-down blues to the edge of the mainstream, while fellow backward-looking rock bands like the Strokes and the Hives have also made waves of late. It's all good for Thomas and Howland: The times seem to have caught up with the Bassholes, a band that has spent the last 10 years sweating out heated, weed- and whiskey-fueled barnburners.
"The White Stripes, the Strokes -- I'm not really trying to be affiliated with them as some kind of movement or anything. But labels are able to sell these bands, and they know that it's time for somebody to get back to doing something halfway normal: a dude, a guitar, some songs, and some people backing him up that are solid. Some sex appeal, some fun, some laughter -- some true fuckin' laughter -- we need that shit," Thomas insists, "instead of all these statements and movements and all this tunnel vision."
For now, Thomas is enjoying his role as something of a scene forebear ("I wish those bands luck. Hell, if I can get some shine off of them, right on"), as groups following in the Bassholes' footsteps shimmy into the limelight.
One of them is Akron's Black Keys, who will be sharing a bill with the Bassholes at the Beachland on July 19. A young duo in their early 20s, the Keys have dropped one of the best albums of the year, their smoldering debut The Big Come Up. A rambunctious, resonant blues firecracker with throaty catcalls and 10-alarm guitar set to a bare-naked beat, the disc has garnered a nationwide buzz and major label interest.
"The first time I got an e-mail from a major label, I was flipping out. My dad was like 'You gonna get a jet or a limo first?'" laughs Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney from the porch of his rickety house in inner-city Akron. "In two days, we got two e-mails from two pretty big labels, then we got an e-mail from a huge booking agent the other day. Things seem to be slowly snowballing."
And rightfully so. Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Big Come Up is how authentic it sounds, despite the fact it sprang from two whitebread kids from Northeast Ohio. That authentic vibe has been hard-earned: Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach's Mississippi travels, in search of blues great T-Model Ford, have already become the stuff of legend.
"I walked up to him, he nodded and just handed me his flask, didn't even say anything," Auerbach recalls of his first encounter with T-Model, outside a Greenville club. "He was sitting in the driver's seat of his white Lincoln, with a little baby in his arms. It was totally unreal."
Auerbach began making the rounds with T-Model that very night, playing juke joints and barbecues, and sleeping on the floor of T-Model's trailer.
"I don't think I learned a whole lot from him musically, just feel. Everything nonmusical about it, I was picking up on: the way he walked, talked, smiled -- he's very rich in character. He'll wake up and have a sandwich for lunch -- nothing else -- then drink all day long."
Such unruly living is manifested in the Black Keys, who pulse with reckless vitality. The same could be said of the Bassholes, who've been drunk and disorderly for a decade. Together with their Detroit neighbors the White Stripes and bawdy Bantam Rooster, they've made the Midwest something of an epicenter for ballsy, broken blues.
"The Midwest, that is the place for the best fuckin' rock and roll," Thomas says.
It's a simple truth, befitting simple sounds.