So, I wrote this for the Quietus, and they must not have liked it, because it never ran. I thought I'd share it with the 5-10 people who read my blog anyway.
Ty Segall: All Alone No More
SF’s one-man punk phenomenon Ty Segall has grown up quickly, collaborating with most of the Bay Area’s psych garage mainstays and churning out a series of increasingly melodic, psychedelic albums, but these days Segall says he can feel the aggression coming back.
“You can literally hit a drum and sing and it’s a great song,” say Ty Segall, the Bay Area garage rocker who has evolved, in less than five years, from a frenetic one-man punk band to one of his generation’s best psychedelic songwriters . His latest album, Goodbye Bread, swirls blues-based 1960s-influenced romps with Beatle-esque multi-colours, slows things down and ponders looming questions like whether or not to purchase a couch. It’s a far cry from the fuzzy mania of early records like “Horn the Unicorn” or the ramped-up, amped up raves of the 2008 self-titled LP, but Segall shrugs off the differences. “I don’t think there are any rules about what makes a good song good.”
Segall, raised blocks from the shore in Orange County, first found punk rock through skate-boarding videos, latching on, as an early teenager, to Minor Threat and Bad Brain, the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits. He knew right away, he says, that he was going to be more than a bystander. “The thing about punk rock is that anybody can do it,” he observes. “It’s kind of understood that from the beginning, you just have to want to do it.”
Segall formed Epsilons while still in high school, playing guitar and singing in a band that released three full-lengths before he packed off to college in San Francisco. There he hooked up with the Traditional Fools, whose lo-fi and primitive take on Nuggets-era rock caught the attention of Eric Butterworth at Make a Mess records. Butterworth, who is also in Nodzzz, asked Segall if the Traditional Fools could play a show in San Francisco sometime in 2007, and Segall agreed. Then he forgot to tell his bandmates about it, they couldn’t make the show at the last minute, and, just like that, a solo career was launched.
“Instead of cancelling it, I asked if I could just come and play. I had some songs I was working on – the songs that ended up on the first record -- so I was just going to show up and play the guitar,” says Segall. “Then I got there, and I saw a kick drum and a high hat, and I said, ‘Man, can I borrow a kick drum and a high hat and try to make some noise with my feet?’ I had never done that before. “
The show went well enough that Segall began performing by himself, one foot on the bass drum, one on the high hat, a guitar cradled in his lap and a tambourine within swatting distance. His high-energy stage show won some key fans. In a spring 2008 Listed feature at the online magazine Dusted, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees included Ty Segall and The Traditional Fools in his ten favorite bands of the moment, saying “Ty has started doing a one-man band thing that is ridiculously killer.”
Mike Donovan of Sic Alps remembers an Oh Sees, Sic Alps, Ty Segall tour through the south in the fall of 2008, where, he says, Segall impressed him as “supremely talented and a great singer.” Afterwards, Sic Alps invited Segall to join the band, and he and Donovan played a series of East Coast shows with Eric Bauer shortly after. (Donovan also penned Segall’s Goodbye Bread bio, as a joke signing it Andrew Loog Oldham.)
Dwyer’s Castleface Records released Segall’s self-titled album, the record that documented Segall’s one-man band phase, late in 2008. “I recorded that first record live in a buddy’s basement,” says Segall, adding that, as at the live shows, he played all the instruments and sang, sometimes all at the same time.
“After we did that, I was like, ‘Cool, that sounds good, but I don’t really know if I want to do another one-man band record, ‘ “ he adds, “That’s the one man band record. It’s pretty unique.”
Segall was also just plain worn out from his madly-energized live show. “It’s definitely tiring,” he says. “If I haven’t done it for a while, I have to take a week or two to get back into it. It’s really hard for me to just jump back into it. And my legs…it’s just kind of a full-on feeling. You have to get back into it.”
He adds, “It’s fun now, when I haven’t done it for a long time, but I was doing it for two years straight. I realized it was just too much pressure. If stuff gets screwed up, it can go downhill. It really sucks because everything is you.”
So, with his first album finished and his body aching from night after night of constant thrashing, Segall began to think about forming a band. He went first to his college friend, Emily Epstein, a drummer. “I had to convince her to play with me, because she hadn’t played drums in a band for a long time,” he says. “I was like ‘dude, come on, please, please!’ and it took a month or two of trying to convince her to play. I think she was just shy or something.”
He also began working with a succession of bass players, Shayde Sartin of the Fresh & Onlys, then Mikal Cronin (with whom he later recorded Reverse Shark Attack in 2009), then Tim Hellman, then a girlfriend named Renee and then back to Cronin.
With a full band in place, Segall was able to push his songwriting in different directions, evolving towards a slower, more melodic, trippier sound in Lemons , Melted and, finally, Goodbye Bread, his first on Drag City. “I guess I’m just trying to make things sound a little different than they have in the past,” says Segall, struggling to articulate a process that is, clearly, at least for him, mostly intuitive. “It’s just experimenting with how to write a song, with tunes or whatever…I’m just trying to get better. I don’t know how to explain how I’m doing it.”
One thing that has changed is Segall’s mix of influences, which has broadened considerably since his skate-punking days. “For sure, back when I did that first record, I was mostly into garage rock. But now lately I’m into glam and pop and softer music and weirder music, like noise music and really crazy psych music and krautrock and stuff like that. Definitely I think that me being interested in types of music than in the past probably has gone into my songs. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it.”
As a result, like Melted, Goodbye Bread has a definite downtempo vibe, its sounds winding hazily through folky guitar cadences, Segall’s voice slowed to a codeine-sticky crawl. If the self-title edged evoked the Ramones and Dexter Romweber, Goodbye Bread sounds like late Beatles psych, though a bit unstrung and more casually delivered. Segall acknowledges the change in pace, but says he might be almost done with this particular phase. “I did kind of mellow out for a while, but the aggression is coming back,” he comments. “What I want to do is to make music like Goodbye Bread but with more aggression. I want to do that for the next record.”
Meanwhile, Segall is living the life of a working musician, spending 40% or more of his time on the road and re-acclimating grudgingly, in his rare time off, to mundane tasks like paying rent or buying groceries. You can hear some of his reservations – about the 9 to 5 and, conversely, about its more bohemian alternative – in Goodbye Bread. In “Comfortable Home,” for instance, he struggles to understand why a girlfriend wants to buy a couch. “I Am With You,” later on, lists a litany of things that Segall has had enough of: trumpets, kids, hats, dresses, the man and home or, as he puts it, “the place with the fuckin’ fog.” The dog on the cover of Goodbye Bread is not Segall’s dog. There’s no way he could have a pet given the way he lives right now.
Both on the record and over the phone, Segall sounds like a man who hasn’t wholly decided whether a regular life is preferable to touring, or vice versa. “That’s definitely part of the record, “ he says, when asked about the tension between home and the road. “but it’s not just about wanting that [settled] lifestyle because part of me doesn’t want that. There are things that I miss having but there are also things that I’m thankful for being able to do.”
For instance, when we speak, Segall is just back from Australia, where he played shows with Melbourne’s UV Race, hung with Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s Mikey Young and absorbed a scene that is very much like the one that surrounds him at home. “It’s maybe the combination of the surfing, having the ocean near by, and the music scene,” he says. Punk rock, obviously, doesn’t require sun and surf, Segall says, and some of its greatest bands have come out of snowy, landlocked cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Still, there’s something about the combination of garage-rock energy and sunniness that sets San Francisco’s current scene apart from the others.
“It’s hard to say whether there’s a San Francisco sound,” says Segall. “There’s a psychedelic element and a pop element that everybody shares – well, not everybody, but bands like Thee Ohsees, Sic Alps and Kelley Stoltz.”
“I’m definitely influenced by my friends,” he adds. “It’s not like I pick up something from John Dwyer, or learn something. It’s more like I say, ‘Oh shit, this new Oh Sees album is amazing. Damn, I’ve got to make a good record, too.’”