February 20th, 2014 | Interviews

aaron giesel

Hi, my name is Tim Presley/White Fence. I’ve been asked to sit down with my friend and ask him some questions because he just released his first solo effort, Harlem River. For starters, Kevin Morby (Woods, The Babies) had a thing to do with White Fence being able to put records out on Woodsist. So for that, I am forever grateful. Funny thing is, the first time I ever saw him in person, I thought he was a dick. Turns out he was in a bad mood because SXSW will do that to a person. Eventually, we became great friends. He is one of the sweetest humans I’ve ever met—a true rock ‘n’ roll angel.

When I first heard Harlem River and I saw your first solo show at Permanent Records in Eagle Rock, you seemed like you’ve been wanting to do the solo thing for a while. Is this true? Or was it just a burst of inspiration you had to get out?
It is true, Tim. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. In fact, a lot of these songs are very old, and I felt that before I could begin releasing all new material under my own name, I had to honor some songs I’ve had around for a long time. Which is to say—I wish I had been releasing solo records already, but only recently has my schedule allowed it. So while this album is new to everyone else, a lot of it I’ve had around for five years or so. But yeah, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and am very happy to have it under way.
I think the LP sounds great. Our friend Rob Barbato did the production [and also produced La Sera, Cold Showers, Bleached, the Muslims/Soft Pack, the Babies and Audacity—ed.]. How did that help shape the songs?
It was fun! Again, although the record is under my name, you could look at it as a band, and that band—for Harlem River—would be me, Justin Sullivan, and Rob Barbato. The three of us got in a room, and I had sent them demos of songs I was working on, and we each sort of crafted the record from there. Rob’s good with developing ideas and he’s an excellent musician.
For you personally, what is a standout moment—musically or lyrically—on the Harlem River LP?
Cate Le Bon’s singing on ‘Slow Train.’ What an honor to have her singing right there on my record. She is a living legend—you’ll see. Also, Tim, there’s your harmonica playing on ‘Reign,’ and your bass playing on ‘Miles.’
Yeah, I fucking nailed it. ‘Reign’ seems topical—related to the public shootings of recent years.
I wrote that song in 2009, ten years after Columbine, when I was 19 or so. Columbine happened when I was pretty little, and I vividly remember that day. I had stayed home sick and it was on every channel. My parents were glad I hadn’t gone to school. After that, though, I forgot about it, y’know, cuz I was a kid. But in 2009—with it being the ten-year anniversary and all—it was all over the news again, and I got really deep into it, watching documentaries and reading tons of articles online. It was all so heartbreaking—reading about these two friends going in on something like that together, but even still, there was some sympathy set aside for those two. We all know what it’s like to be the freak in high school—or if you’re reading this, I assume you do—and having gone through high school as an ‘outsider’ and having made it to the other side, you just wish you could go back in time and shake these kids—tell them that it gets better. It’s a shame that in the past three or four years these public shootings have only become more and more frequent. But anyways, long story short—I was reading way too deeply into it, and one day I fell asleep at a friend’s house for an hour or so on their couch and dreamt the subject matter of ‘Reign.’ I woke up in a sweat, horrified, and wrote the song shortly after. Another heavy song is ‘The Dead They Don’t Come Back.’ I know you had a friend who OD’d a couple years ago, and early on he was a big part of your life in New York.
Yes, that song is for my friend Jamie Ewing. The role he’s played in my life has been pretty monumental. My first time visiting New York, I saw him on a bus and thought to myself, ‘I wanna move here and be like that guy.’ I moved there a few months later and by whatever force of the world, I ran into him at a party and we got introduced. And from then on we were pretty inseparable. We were in that honeymoon period that friends go through when he passed away and it’s left quite a bit of pain and confusion over the past five years that he’s been gone. It’s a weird subject for me, but since it’s you asking, Tim, I’ll tell you—I wrote that song four days before Jamie died, about Jamie. I obviously didn’t know he was going to die, but I had a sense that his time was almost up. The way he talked, the way he acted, he just seemed like he was ready to move on. He had almost exclusively been listening to the Carter Family at the time, you know—beautiful traditional Depression-era songs. All songs about God, heaven and dying, and so that’s what influenced that song: my best friend’s last week here on Earth, and the Carter Family.
Damn. Well, it’s a beautiful song. You’ve been known as a New York musician for a long time, but you’ve just moved to L.A. Why did you leave? Did you eat the whole apple?
I didn’t eat the whole apple—I don’t think anyone can. That’s its great magic. It just goes on and on. Long after you’re gone, it’s still there, forgetting you ever once were. I look forward to the day I move back there, if and whenever that happens to be. It’ll be a whole new city all over again.
So why L.A.?
I had spent three winters here in a row. Remember when we lived next door to each other, Tim? So when it came time for me to move on, it was an easy move. I have a lot of friends here—like you. That, and I like the scene out here. It’s nice. It’s relaxing. I’m just getting used to all of it. Driving places. Supermarkets. Restaurants and bars closing at an early hour. Space. Privacy. Silence.
Have you found it inspiring writing-wise? Have you felt a difference?
I write a lot, and I’ve already had L.A. creeping into some of my new stuff, which I suppose is inevitable. No matter how hard I try—not that I try—my environment always makes its way into whatever I’m working on. But aside from being inspiring or not, I find L.A. is incredible to get work done in, and that’s the biggest reason that I’m here.
What song do you wish you wrote?
‘Passing Through,’ by Leonard Cohen. That and, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ by Bob Dylan. They are two perfectly written songs.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary songwriters?
Well, for starters, Tim, there’s you, or ‘White Fence,’ as they say. Then there’s Angel Olsen, Cass McCombs, Jessica Pratt, Ty Segall, Cate Le Bon, Jeremy Earl, Fiona Apple and Steve Gunn, to name a few.
What happened with the Babies?
We’ve hit the pause button. Which is to say … someday we could hit stop or resume, but I suppose we’ll leave that up to time.
Justin Sullivan—drummer of the Babies— is playing with you.
Yes, he is. You could look at the this endeavor—me putting records out under my own name—as Justin’s and my new band. A lot of the songs are developed alongside him, just like in the Babies.
And what’s Cassie doing now?
As far as I know, Cassie is also going forward as a solo artist. She was playing me some songs she had just recorded on the last Babies tour. They sounded wonderful. She just wrapped up her first solo tour too, which went through Europe. Just her and her guitar.
What are your thoughts on Spotify?
I actually really don’t like it. It’s something I didn’t have an opinion on at first, but over time I’ve slowly come to really hate it. I even hate the color scheme and the logo—the whole thing is just unflattering and sort of gross. I don’t have it, but I’ve used it in friends’ cars before, and it’s like being an unsupervised kid in a candy store. You start looking up songs and playing 30 seconds of a track and then switching to another artist—shit’s not meant to be that accessible for a reason. And while it’s fun at first, you end up feeling kind of sick after about ten minutes. That, and I hate how it seems to just sort of promote itself. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me saying, ‘I heard your new record on Spotify!’ That’s all fine, but why feel the need to tell me how you heard it? Is it guilt? Is it excitement? Cuz you wouldn’t walk up to someone and say, ‘I heard your record on my Samsung CD player!’ So what is it about Spotify that has these kids running around like such fucking sheep?
You are a nice boy—what is something that makes you mad?
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
I hope you don’t have to wait too long for your $1.35 royalty check from Spotify. When do you suppose you’ll start working on a new LP? I noticed at your show at the Bootleg that you played new songs.
As soon as I’m done with this next leg of touring supporting Cate Le Bon, which would be March.
This is important: ‘Louie Louie’ or ‘Wild Thing’?
‘Louie Louie’!