Eli Thomas rides the desert surf
By: Pat Moran
Like the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who penned iconic odes to sun, sand and surfing, Eli Thomas, the 29-year-old indie pop singer-songwriter who records as Balue, often sings about riding the waves. His 2012 debut EP, Worry Toobs, contains reverb-drenched idyllic odes to hanging ten, and his oeuvre also contains surf-and-beach-centered tunes like “West Coast Bros,” and “Beaches be Trippin.” Ironically, Wilson was notoriously afraid of the water and rarely surfed, and Thomas, whose focus on things retro, twangy and surfside spills over into the fuzz-drenched, idealized “Man in the Sixties,” his breakout hit from his 2014 album Quiet Dreamer, writes and records from his landlocked desert home in Aztec, New Mexico. So I had to ask Thomas if, unlike his inspiration Brian Wilson, he has actually surfed.
“I spent a summer in Australia ten years ago when I did quite a bit of surfing,” Thomas remembers. Living in New Mexico he doesn’t get the opportunity to return to the beach these days, he continues, but he’s always loved surf music and culture. “I guess it’s something I’ve always romanticized.” That hazy amber-hued nostalgia is central to Thomas’ music, but there is more to his songs than a groovy Southern California gloss on the 1960s and 70s. Thomas is married with a small child, and the biggest breaker Balue rides a suburban wave, a grounded and relatable meditation on the bills, babies, marriages and mortgages that make up our lives. It’s no accident that he’s titled his forthcoming album Suburban Bliss, and he does so without an ounce of irony.
How did you get into music?
When I was five or six I really got into Elvis and I wanted to learn guitar. I got my first guitar, an acoustic, when I was six or seven. I just messed with it as kids do, and banged it around a bit. I didn’t start learning guitar until I was 14. I took a year of lessons and then self taught from there. Teenage years I was really into hardcore punk music. The punk emo band Say Anything came out with an album called …Is a Real Boy, and it was different from the hardcore I was listening to. It was more about the pop structure of songs, the verse, chorus, verse kind of thing. That opened a door. As far as the surf stuff, I got into the Beach Boys going into college. That opened my mind to stuff with heavy reverb, and the wall of sound. It’s the sound I’m always trying to chase. I call my music Headphone Music because I do everything myself. I record all the instruments, and mix and master as best I can. Based on my experience, everything sounds best in the headphones. It doesn’t always translate as well on laptop speakers.
Do you plan to perform live?
So far there have been no performances. It’s really been a hobby of mine that has gradually grown over the years. I’ve never played a Balue show. To be honest I don’t know how to play most of my songs. I’d have to go back to learn them. I write as I record, and once they’re done, they’re done. I don’t revisit them. I’ve gotten requests to play shows, but at this stage of my life it doesn’t appeal to me. It’s more of a fun hobby, and it’s just cool to see people gravitate towards it.
How did Eli Thomas become Balue?
In 2007 I went to college at a small private Christian school in Denver. Denver had a great music scene and I was absorbing everything around me. I started tinkering with stuff in my dorm room. The first song I made was called “Australian Summer.” I just threw it up on Bandcamp and put it out under my real name. Then I thought I should come up with a band name. I tried to think of stuff I liked, and I really liked The Jungle Book [character Baloo the Bear]. I don’t know why that popped into my head. Maybe it had the carefree vibe I was going for. I didn’t want to spell the name the same way, like Baloo, so I took a
different take on it.
The first song that got traction, “Australian Summer,” I put out on Bandcamp after I graduated. Then I decided to move back to New Mexico where I had grown up. Right before I moved I put out my first EP, Worry Toobs. I threw it up on Bandcamp and [British label] Fuzzbook reached out to me and [offered] a limited cassette release through them. I said, yeah, that’s awesome. I just put stuff on the internet and it found its way to people. It’s pretty cool.
Then I did a limited cassette of Quiet Dreamer on a label called Fleeting Youth Records out of Austin. I did another limited cassette run with them the year after I put out Quiet Dreamer. Then I put out Wavy Daze, and this guy Lucas Bleeg who runs the label Lunar Ruins out of Los Angeles contacted me through the internet, and he put out Wavy Daze on vinyl. We just did a reissue of Quiet Dreamer on vinyl.
In 2013 Quiet Dreamer became your breakthrough with “Man in the Sixties.” What was the genesis for that?
I had just moved back to New Mexico. I wasn’t married yet. I was working at a newspaper doing graphic design. So I found myself suddenly with a lot of time in the evenings to write and record. Over the course of a year I spent most nights writing and recording in my bedroom. It seems like the songs I put a ton of work and thought into never really get traction, but a song like “Man in the Sixties,” which I wrote and recorded in the course of one Saturday night, got a lot of traction which was super surprising to me. That song blew up with tons of people.
There is the perception that there are recurring themes of surfing and the groovy 1960s in your songs. Is that a fair?
Overall, that is the overarching theme of everything I do with Balue. I try to make it fun, surf-y and groovy. I love watching video footage from the 60s and 70s. I love that grainy film look. While I was making Quiet Dreamer I was going on the archival footage websites. I would have that playing on one monitor while I was writing and recording. That definitely influenced a lot of the sound, because I was watching stuff about hippies and the psychedelic movement.
You call 2016’s Wavy Daze Songs about love, and God. Is God important to you?
Yes. I think as I’ve gotten older, he’s gotten more important to me. I think that translates in my songs if you listen to the progression of my music. I think you can hear me in certain songs questioning and wondering if God is real, and also talking to God. So yes, I’m definitely a believer in God. Wavy Days is a record where I was struggling with that more, and wanting answers.
You became a father in 2017. You have a young son. Do you think fatherhood changed your
approach to songwriting and music making?
It’s changed the amount of time I put into it. With Quiet Dreamer and Wavy Days I would spend most nights and weekends recording and writing. But now being a dad, that’s really changed. Friday and Saturday nights I’ll be in my studio, but throughout the week I don’t even consider writing or making music. Fatherhood has also changed me a lot as far as thinking about love.
What’s next for Balue?
I just finished my next record. It’s called Suburban Bliss. It’s about changing, becoming a dad, settling down and prioritizing my life. I’m working with Lunar Ruins again. We’re going to release some singles and build up to the release. It’s an album of contradictions. There are songs where I feel content about where I’m at. But there are also songs about yearning and wondering what life would be like if I was not working a nine to five and didn’t have responsibilities. There are definitely those questions in there, but the overarching theme is about me being very content with life.