TY SEGALL: A PUNCH IN THE FACE
Ty Segall didn’t come out of nowhere—he came from the same world a lot of people do, freaking out on the Stooges and Black Flag, writing songs about girls and robots, and playing in a teenage garage band that was as psyched about teenage garage bands as teenage garage bands today are psyched about Ty Segall. But right after high school, Segall left Orange County and headed for San Francisco, where was lucky enough to discover everything he kinda-sorta already knew he was looking for: people going totally nuts with vision, commitment, and purpose. It was a good fit for him, and that led to ripping record after ripping record, each ricocheting off the last. Segall’s level of output is as psycho as his sound, and he’s put out fantastic records with Ty Segall Band, White Fence, and his new power trio Fuzz. Now, leaving plenty of smoke and fire behind him, he’s moved back to L.A. There’s only a short lull left before the release of his newest album, Sleeper, and he’s already found a favorite burger place. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler.
What kind of culture shock hit you when you moved from your hometown of Laguna to San Francisco?
It was a really cool one. OC has the beach, but it’s pretty cookie cutter.
No street drugs?
No one selling me drugs! Although an interesting history of selling drugs!
The Brotherhood, right? International kings of LSD?
My favorite part of Orange County history!
Supposedly that’s what brought the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall to live in a cave in Laguna.
Those caves are really there! There’s a cave next to my parents’ house. It was super small. You could sit in it but that’s it. I’d pretend to climb rocks when I was nine. Like climb ten feet and pretend you were on top of an insane mountain with scientific gear, mapping unknown territory.
Even then you wanted to explore?
But I could only climb ten feet away from my parents. Moving to San Francisco was so great because it was totally different. I was like, ‘I gotta get the hell out of here! I don’t wanna be living on the beach for my whole life!’
Only in California would you hear someone say that.
That’s the thing—I always felt you should be able to come back to the beach once you left the beach. I knew I wasn’t ever gonna appreciate the beach unless I saw other places. You gotta live in the cold a while to enjoy the heat! And moving to L.A. right away was too easy. I didn’t wanna be one of those kids who flipped out six months later and moved back home. I wanted to force myself to be like, ‘I’m flipping out and I can’t GET home!’
Did that actually happen?
You’re 18—you don’t know what the fuck is going on. Drinking a bunch of beer.
Experimenting with the dawn of social networking.
Trying to log in to Facebook—‘Not enough likes!’ I didn’t know what was going on, and San Francisco was a really intimidating place. Now it’s changing. But then it was known to be this socially aware intellectual place in America. There were real-deal thinker people who were awesome, who’d meet and talk and get shit done. And then there were posers who’d get strung out in the park and pretend to talk about shit. Like anywhere in the world. But it was a culture shock to me like—‘WOW THERE’S SO MUCH GOING ON! SO MANY THINGS TO TALK ABOUT AND DO!’ When I moved there, the Coachwhips had just broke up, but there were Numbers and Deerhoof and all these cool noise rock bands—like ‘Whoaaa!’ And I think the best part of San Francisco is all the rad people who move there to try and do shit. There’s a very strong sense of ‘Let’s do something.’ But the shame now is the financial situation really pushed so many artists outside the city. So many bands from San Francisco are now in Oakland or Berkeley or LA. It’s weird. Google and Twitter killed the city.
What if that comes down here? What do you do when a technotopia ruins your home?
You gotta move! I don’t think it’ll happen here. L.A.’s too big. When something booms, something else busts. It’ll always ebb and flow here. San Francisco is a constant boom. It’ll never bust.
Didn’t you get to know John Dwyer and all those people by playing that show with a broken arm?
It was left arm. I was on drums—put a stick on my cast! It wasn’t that good. I can only relate it to the Smell. That was my only other experience with that kind of scene. When I was 17 or 18 and all these Smell bands were asking [the Epsilons] to play, and we were from Orange County like, ‘Whoa! So rad! My lifelong dream!’
Can you run me through every lifelong dream you’ve had in your life so far?
First lifelong dream in music—play the Smell. Second, put out a record. Third, go on tour. It took a while to go on tour, and then it just never stopped. And to be honest, that was it.
And now you’re dreamless.
Now I have a little dream like making a perfect record. A self-involved stupid dream. They’re all self-involved. It’s not like, ‘I wanna give all my money to the homeless!’
You gotta think long-term. If you made a perfect record, you could get more money to give to the homeless.
There you go! I guess it’s just to be able to go on tour. It’s cool to do these things—to actually see what it means to do them. You play the Smell a few times and you’re like, ‘Whoa, OK, cool—that wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it was.’ And that’s awesome. I always get this super-warm feeling in my heart when I’d watch opening bands at the Smell when they’re super-young and super-excited. Fuck yeah—keep doing what you’re doing. That’s the coolest thing ever. Seeing kids stoked on music. That’s kind of the summation of everything, the full circle of records and touring. Actually my lifelong goal is to get kids playing music so they can do it themselves! I’m the luckiest motherfucker cuz I get kids who come say that shit to me, and then my life has meaning cuz before I was just a fucking loser. There’s no greater compliment ever said. ‘Hey man, you made me wanna start to play guitar.’ Done! I can go home! Like Dwyer, who’s like my big brother—that dude made me wanna play guitar. That’s how I got turned on to music. My buddy would be like, ‘Ever hear The First Four Years? Check it out!’ ‘Whoa! Shit!’ I got a guitar in my room, skateboarding with a boombox to the Stooges—back then it was Raw Power. Now I prefer Funhouse. You just sit there like, ‘What the fuck!?’
Cool that’s still your criteria—‘Is this a WHAT THE FUCK record?’
I still find records like, ‘What the fuck!?’ Randy Holden, Population Two—I had to stop right there, like holding on to the table going, ‘What the fuck IS THIS!?’
Do you ever have the opposite reaction?
All the time—like, ‘This is the shit the burns me down! It sucks!’
No—like ‘Why even make music? They finished it! It’s done!’
Yeah! When I see thee Oh Sees play, I think I should just stop. A couple people have asked me like, ‘How do you get to do what you do?’ My answer is, ‘Just do it.’ My favorite music comes from a place that to be honest … I don’t think ‘selfish’ is the right word. But when bands make records for themselves, you can tell. Like Population Two—‘I wrote these songs and I gotta make this record. Something else is driving me.’ It’s a selfish thing, but then it becomes a really non-selfish thing—this other thing is driving you to make what you’re gonna make. It doesn’t even have to do with you! Music becomes its own entity. It’s all about finding that. It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Like ‘Louie Louie.’ Who the fuck knows what that’s about? You can’t even understand it. But case in point—rock ‘n’ roll is that. A punch in the face.
How did you figure out that this was what was important to you?
The only thing I ever wanted to do was to do different things all the time. Cuz it’s more fun. It all comes back to having fun, doing whatever you’re doing—whether you play or record or whatever. And all the bands I really did are almost chameleon bands, or different phases when they turn into chameleons. That’s the only thing I ever lived up to—to be able to do whatever you fucking want! It’s super fun to do things you aren’t supposed to do.
So your new album, Sleeper—possibly an homage to the Woody Allen movie of the same name? Which sci-fi device from Sleeper would be most useful to you right now? An Orgasmatron, a working VW bug or a device that could clone someone from just their nose?
A VW that ran—that’d be pretty rad.
Skipped right over the Orgasmatron, huh?
I can figure that out on my own.
What song are you secretly proudest of on Sleeper?
Maybe ‘Crazy.’ There’s a lot of acoustic stuff on it. It’s been really different for me to let go and get really simple. ‘Crazy’ is just two acoustic guitars, two voices. Maybe the most stripped-down thing I’ve ever done. I’m not hiding behind anything. I’m pretty psyched. It was pretty weird, but there’s a challenge. You get sick of doing the same thing with loud music. It’s like hitting restart.
Are you ever just hunched over a beautiful acoustic guitar, just swearing like a maniac and knocking over flowers in vases cuz you can’t get it right?
Yeah, dude! Maybe not the vases, but it’s definitely frustrating when you can’t sing a certain part. A lot of loud rock ‘n’ roll lets you cover up mistakes. There’s effects, there’s lots of tricks. But as just a person with a guitar, you can’t cover up anything. You gotta perform it right. I got so much respect for Bob Dylan, Bowie, Marc Bolan. Those guys performed it perfect.
You love to paint yourself into a corner.
It’s fun! It’s fun to set up rules or boundaries. It gives records a vibe. Even if it’s just ‘this record will not have cymbals.’ Thee Headcoats did a record like that, and when I realized that, it was like, ‘Cool!’ Or have a song where there won’t be bass, and you have to fill it in other ways. On Sleeper, there are no electric guitars. Well, I broke the rule. There’s one. You can break a rule if it sounds the best! But you should really try to stick to the rules if you make a rule for yourself.
You’ve talked here and elsewhere about how records were basically your religion as a kid. I interviewed Feeding People for Arthur and Louis was talking about how he once thought that way, but then realized it was insane—that music didn’t have any answers.
That’s the thing. In music, there’s personal meaning. There’s no greater truths out there. Maybe in philosophy, some theories work for the majority of people who fall in the same category and there’s lot of things that are like 99.9% true. There’s always gonna be someone who makes it untrue universally! So he is right. There’s no great truth. But there’s personal truth. That’s why interpretation is so rad.
Someone asked you what you do, and you said you were an insecure guy singing about his problems. Why did you put it that way? Why do you put yourself out there like that, instead of just singing about like specific techniques for partying?
I’ve never been the best lyricist. Maybe the only stuff for a while that felt genuine to me was personal stuff. I just wanna be genuine, you know? Maybe the older I get the more I get into …
Loose? Lucidity? Even able to step out of my self-vision or whatever in my writing style. I mean, Epsilons—those lyrics sucked so bad! ‘Yeah, girls girls girls / I’m a teenager / blah stupid stupid shit!’ It’s horrible! But hopefully the older I get, the better at storytelling I get. To be honest, that answer was kinda sarcastic. Like, ‘Fuck you for asking that!’ But there is some truth to it.
The last time you talked to L.A. RECORD, you said the most dangerous thing in music is to be yourself—what’s dangerous about that?
Flaws and all, maybe? You look at all the greats and they were just being themselves. There’s definitely an admiration for copying and stuff, but in the end, the real great stuff is people being themselves. There’s a lot at risk. If someone attacks you or rips on what you’re doing and you’re being yourself, they’re destroying you. It’s not like if you’re in a cover band or just part of a genre. That’s the biggest risk. But the best pay off.
What was Marc Bolan’s greatest flaw?
I don’t like his later records that much, to be honest, but at the end of his career he had a couple singles that were the best stuff he’d ever done. His only flaw is that, like everybody who does great stuff, he ended up being lazy or getting comfortable. If you’re successful, you gotta make sure to keep yourself uncomfortable sometimes so you can maintain perspective. If you become a big rock star in this lavish house with a Cadillac, what are you gonna write about? Only a couple songs can be ‘Pink Cadillac.’ What about after that? I think cuz Bolan had some failure in the middle of his career, he got the fire come back and kill it with ‘20th Century Boy.’ One of the last songs he put out.
You know in like any other line of work, people would be happy to get the mansion and the Cadillac—but in this creative stuff, it’s one more thing to distract you. You can’t win. You get success and it’s just more trouble.
It’s true! I realize now that one of the reasons I got into music—one of many reasons—was distraction! I was an angry kid, I was pissed off, and I’d go to shows and jump around and for a while I was distracted from whatever was going on. It was a positive way to be around people who were into the same thing, who found music important. I think about kids now—coming to shows, having that experience. Maybe that makes me happiest. If a kid can get away from some fucked-up shit and enjoy a show and be kinda hopeful for the future … like when I’d go to shows, I’d be more hopeful there than about what was going on at home. That’s what personally makes me the most stoked. If a kid has an experience like that at one of my shows, that’d be the coolest thing ever.
Are your records autobiographical captures? Like Neil Young puts out an LP, and you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s see how Neil’s doing—oh, he seems pretty bummed! Or pissed!’
No, that’s the funniest thing! Everybody’s like, ‘You’re so prolific!’ They always bring up that three records in a year thing. Hair, Slaughterhouse, Twins—but out of all of those, I only wrote one by myself. The other two were collaboration records. Tim Presley wrote half of Hair, Slaughterhouse we all wrote together—we jammed it out in a week. It’s funny cuz if you look at Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles or Rolling Stones, they weren’t considered prolific. They were just musicians.
Why do you try and tell stories in your songs?
Well—it’s difficult for me to do.
So you do it?
Yeah—it’s so easy to go, ‘Yeah, girl, get together—yeah!’ Everybody can do that. Try to make a concept record. That’s what I wanna do.
Do you always gravitate to challenges? Ever since the ten-foot-cliff?
Yeah, climbing the cliff when I was 9! I think prolific has negative connotations. There’s a difference between prolific and just doing your thing. They all have their own identities. I like to be proud of what I do. I can’t just do the same thing over and over. If I could, I’d just get a job or be in a party band. I’m super lucky that people want to put out my records, and if they wanna do that, I gotta give ‘em something to put out!
So what’s your concept for your concept record?
It has to be good. It has to involve … I’ve been thinking about this so much. The best concept records are like S.F. Sorrow, Tommy … the thing with Tommy is it’s personal without people realizing it’s personal. Pete Townshend lived through the war—when England got destroyed, he was there. There’s a lot of war themes, of parental abandonment and weird shit and rock ‘n’ roll and being a saviour—you gotta get personal. And then the other element—who the fuck knows? ‘THE VOICE!’
How do you not fall in that ego trap? Like, ‘Wow, everything I do is amazing. This should definitely be a triple-LP!’
I’ll never be fully satisfied, to be honest.
So constant doubt and negativity?
I don’t think about it consciously—it’s how I was brought up.
Who was your role model as a child?
I think … Batman.
Is that why you’re so resourceful and disciplined?
I liked Batman. And I really liked fantasy. I didn’t like folks seeing what actually happened. I’d focus too much on that. That’s kind of how I got into music. It was a different sensory excape from like … reality. And it’s complex. It occupies a different part of your emotional definition of what things mean to you—different than film or books. Those things are people telling you what’s happening. Music is poetry with sound, or non-poetry with sound, or anti-poetry with sound.
Or anti-poetry with anti-sound.
And that’s really interesting to me. Isn’t it cool when you see an image in your head? A really extreme example—what do you picture when you think of black metal? In my head, it’s some planet with fire flying around and crazy shit happening.
What do you see with your own songs?
I’m way too involved to think that way.
Why do you like things being so open to interpretation?
It’s an openness—to having anything mean anything to anyone. Why would you call Flipper rock ‘n’ roll if you came from 1959? Weird example, but it’s open to interpretation and that’s the coolest part. If there was no such thing as interpretation, how boring would it be? Some people ask me, ‘What music do you play?’ ‘Oh, rock ‘n’ roll.’ You can do whatever you wanna do with that realm. And with meaning in lyrics. My favorite songs—it blows my mind when you read what a song actually means and it’s meant something different to you all your life. You know artists must get a kick out of that. It makes the music seem so much more personal. So many of my own records, I sing the wrong lyrics to—‘Fuck yeah, that’s my song! My fucking jam!’ And you meet someone else who’s like, ‘That’s my fucking jam!’ High five, fuck yeah! That’s the shit!
What song would you be most likely to sing—and most enthusiastic about singing—in your car right now?
‘Smokin’ by Boston. On the 5. With no traffic, though. That’s my thing.
I feel like they were picturing that when they recorded that.
That’s all Boston ever wanted.
I like music because it still feels open—like someone who never went to school or came from somewhere special can still make something amazing. Or someone who did go to school and trained their whole life can make something just as amazing. Everyone can have a chance.
Anybody could stumble on something. That’s rad. That’s why it’s great. It goes with art or anything, but someone could accidentally say something beautiful—that’s beautiful to somebody else.
TY SEGALL WITH THE ELECTRIC FLOWER GROUP AND ENDLESS BUMMER ON THURS., AUG. 22, AT THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS EAGLE ROCK, 2225 COLORADO BLVD., EAGLE ROCK. 8 PM / $13-$15 / ALL AGES / LIMITED TICKETS AVAILABLE AT PERMANENT RECORDS. AND WITH THE YEAH YEAH YEAHS, TV ON THE RADIO AND MORE ON SAT., AUG. 23, AT FYF FEST AT L.A. STATE HISTORIC PARK, 1245 N. SPRING ST., CHINATOWN. 2 PM / TICKETS START AT $65 / ALL AGES. FYFFEST.COM. TY SEGALL’S SLEEPER RELEASES AUG. 20 ON DRAG CITY. VISIT TY SEGALL AT TY-SEGALL.COM.