Ty Segall Talks About His Latest Album, 'Sleeper'
Fourteen years ago there was Jack White, a 25-year-young new guitar god. In 2013 we have Ty Segall at 25, a prolific noise maker with new generation's admiration, in love with guitars and distortion. And here's a big surprise: Ty Segall's new album, just about to be released, is mostly acoustic. (You can hear Sleeper in its entirety, streaming at NPR's First Listen, until its release on Aug. 20.)
A week before dropping Sleeper, Ty Segall joined us to listen to the whole thing and take questions from All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and Thor Slaughter, and from his fans.
Ty Segall was especially candid in the interview (you can hear the complete audio of our conversation at the audio link, or read an edited transcript below), talking about the recent loss of his father, his move from San Francisco to L.A. to be closer to his sister, and the strained relationship he has with his mother — all weighty themes that inspired and appear on Sleeper. It's his first record since last year's Twins, but there's already a new project recorded under the name Fuzz in which he plays drums. In all this music, Ty Segall makes it look easy, but as he told us, that's not quite the case.
Bob Boilen: Your stuff seems ... the word "effortless" comes up a lot in conversation when people talk about your music, when I think about your music, when I hear this record. Is it really, or is it a magic trick that you do?
Ty Segall: No no, not effortless. It's hard and its fun. That's why its fun: to push it, to try and do different things. But that's awesome that you would think so, that it sounds like that.
Robin Hilton: It definitely feels like that, it feels like it comes to you pretty effortlessly. It's almost funny because we joke sometimes about how many records you put out in a year or over the last few years and we love every one of them and a number of people in the comments section have asked, "How you produce so much? Where does this come from?" I'm wondering if somebody instilled in you this kind of a work ethic or if it's just something you're born with that you feel the need to create?
Ty Segall: You know, maybe the work ethic thing might have to do with it, you know? I was raised in kind of a more strict household, at least dealing with school and going to college and performing well so you could have a future, that kind of thing. All other aspects of my life [were] kind of left up to me. But, you know, playing music is my job now and it's kind of the coolest job to have. I'm a super lucky guy. Literally, when I'm at home and everyone is at work I get to wake up, drink a cup of coffee and go try to play a song or write a song or play the drums or do something weird in my garage. It's pretty ridiculous, you know?
Bob Boilen: Did you record this record in the garage and if so, I'll be geeky and ask you what sort of gear and stuff?
Ty Segall: I actually did it in San Francisco right before I moved. I moved to L.A. in March — the end of March or something like that. So I did it in downtown San Francisco in this apartment, but with all the same gear I have [in L.A. now]. I did it on a 388 Tascam 8-Track reel to reel machine, it's my favorite thing.
Robin Hilton: We were guessing digital.
Bob Boilen: We'd be totally wrong.
Robin Hilton: It sounds good.
Ty Segall: Well, thanks man. Yeah, I don't really know how to use digital stuff. I think the thing with tape is that if you screw up and you blow it out too much or it sounds weird, you can get away with it with tape, because it's just weird, you know?
Robin Hilton: So you don't use digital. You're not on Twitter. You're not on Facebook. Is that something you just don't embrace?
Bob Boilen: Are you one of those people that get around a computer and it breaks?
Robin Hilton: A Luddite?
Bob Boilen: Some people vibe, they get near a computer and it shuts down or goes kaflooey, is kaflooey a word?
Ty Segall: You know, my parents used to say I should test out electronic devices because I would break everything. But no, I have a computer and an email address I have an iPhone and stuff like that.
Bob Boilen: I think 40 people just asked what your email address is. [Laughs] So let's go to that room full of people asking great questions.
Robin Hilton: You talked about writing and recording in your garage. Emily writes, "I'm just curious about your creative process. When it comes to your songwriting, do you usually put down lyrics first or start with music?
Ty Segall: I usually start with the music. You know, I tend to be too direct if I write lyrics first, so I've realize those are the songs I usually throw away first. So the ones I usually end up keeping are the ones I write the music [for] first. I actually tend to just mumble and kind of record a demo of it and then I go back and pick out the kind of words I was mumbling and then it starts the lyrics from there, which is a weird way to do it, but that's how it kind of works out usually.
Bob Boilen: And the mumbling has a sense of melody? Is that what's going on, too?
Ty Segall: Yeah. It's kind of like if I write the lyrics first, the melody gets lost, but by mumbling you start to form the lyrics and the melody at the same time. And then you can pick apart the words and form the idea of where that song is going.
Robin Hilton: Andrew, another listener, writes, he feels like you've developed your songwriting skills a lot over the past few records, and he says especially as a lyricist. He was wondering if there was a turning point that made you focus more on lyrics.
Ty Segall: Well thanks Andrew, that's awesome. When I was younger, like a young man would be that was into rock 'n' roll, it was a lot of girls girls girls party party party party party. When you're 17 it's "Louie Louie" (makes loud staccato guitar noise), "Wild Thing" (makes loud staccato guitar noise in a different tone) and into punk and stuff which is super rad, but I think the older you get the less afraid you get to speak your mind and maybe you're a little more in touch with how you're feeling and, you know, I think that's what it is. I think I've gotten a little less scared to say certain things. Maybe? I don't know.
Robin Hilton: This record does feel very honest and personal. Tom writes that you said recently that Sleeper was a moment-in-time record; he's wondering if you're going to go back to that electric sound? But firstly, maybe you could [explain] a little bit about how you think this record couldn't have been made any other time?
Ty Segall: It's a pretty weird thing — definitely a moment in time. A few people, when I've been talking about this record with other interviews and stuff, they've asked me what the intention behind this record was or what I wanted to do with it, and the funny thing is that there wasn't any intention for this record. It was kind of just what happened. It was one of things that, maybe through the mumbling or sitting there and playing, these are the songs that came out. It definitely has to do with that moment in time with what was going on with me, but yeah, it's a weird thing.
Bob Boilen: This record was written shortly after your father passed away?
Ty Segall: I was adopted by my stepdad when I was 18, but he basically raised me from a young age, and he got cancer when I was 9 so it was kind of this very long, long thing that he went through. He passed away in December and yeah, to be honest, there was just a lot of things that happened with my mom and she didn't handle anything the right way and she did some bad stuff. It was a very weird, intense time, you know? It was kind of a purge, to be honest. It's very weird for me, but the song "Crazy" — that take was basically when I wrote that song. It was all kind of in the moment, so it's really weird. It doesn't make any sense to me; I've never really done something like that before. But yeah, so, there wasn't an intention thing — it was a moment-in-time thing when it happened.
Bob Boilen: That, maybe, goes right back to that effortless comment that some of us feel. It does feel like an outpouring even if you take tunes and you work on them. "Crazy" was one, for sure. It felt just out there. I'm wondering about the idea, I find it very hard to write songs about people who are living. In this case, you write songs about your mom and feelings and there doesn't seem to be any self censorship. That just seems like a hard thing to do.
Ty Segall: I mean, for a little bit more of a back story — I think I was censored about that, about her, for my entire life, and it's kind of that thing where a person crosses a line and you just snap, I was extremely bitter, upset and mad. It's one of those things, and to be honest, it's just weird but you just hit a point where you don't care how it affects that person. You just have to say it so that you can move on. And you can make sure that other people can move on that really matter like my sister and other people in my life. And I'm not going to lie that at that point I was very bitter and angry at that person. And I've never really tried to write a song about a specific person before because I know that that's a pretty wild thing to do and it can get yourself in trouble, but at this present junction if she hears it and she wants to change what she's doing with her life then I hope she does, and we can talk about it.
Bob Boilen: That's the thing about this record: I think just the way it speaks so directly, you know something's going on. Sometimes it doesn't matter that you know really what it is that's going on because everyone interprets the songs for themselves in their own way for their own situation.
Ty Segall: Yeah, I hope so.
Bob Boilen: Have you played this stuff out live and how does it work to play a song like "Crazy" or how does it feel to do that in front of an audience? Is it cathartic still?
Ty Segall: You know, no, its not. It's fun. It's really cool. I mean, when writing a song, for some reason, its super personal when you're writing it and recording it but once it's there it's not yours anymore. It's like that emotional connection to it isn't lost, but it moves on and goes into a different place. So its really cool for me to play these songs live to have them mean something completely different and it's just whatever anybody wants it to be. And live it's cool because "Crazy" has drums and it has bass and it's kind of more of an up tempo thing and it's actually kind of more ridiculous and that's the way it should be. It shouldn't be so heavy live and it's a nice way to look at it in a different way.
Thor Slaughter: You're doing some dates, sort of a shorter tour, which I've heard is really based around this record. You played Pickathon recently, and I've heard you have a great but much more acoustic setup going on. I'm curious what it was like preparing these songs for the live scenario, because you've made a huge reputation as a great live performer. What's it like to think about playing these songs live? And even a few months later you're going on tour with Fuzz, which is a much more different live scenario so what was it like for you preparing that situation?
Ty Segall: You know, it was super scary, to be honest. I've never been ... I mean, I've been an acoustic guy at my house recording stuff but I've never played acoustically and you do think about like, what if people show up expecting these giant stacks of amps and they don't want to listen to that and you have those thoughts. I've always had a good time, not necessarily messing with people but doing stuff different each time and its fun to push it. And if people would want to listen this way then that's really great and I'm honored that they could be that thoughtful to not need the giant amplifiers, you know? Those shows went so great. We were really freaked out and it was really cool. In Santa Cruz people were stage diving to an acoustic set. It was ridiculous and super fun.
Robin Hilton: What about the title of the record? A number of people have written in. Someone named Casper wonders whether the title reflects some sort of escapism from reality? Anything about the title that you can tell us about?
Ty Segall: Yeah. I mean, you know, I've always been really interested in dreams. It's something me and my dad talked about a lot. I was actually having a lot of nightmares at that time about stuff. I mean, who doesn't have nightmares. Its not anything special. But yeah, in the end I wasn't really thinking about it but it kind of reflects death, dreams, sleeping and whatever that means to anybody you know? The song "Sleeper" was actually kind of about my girlfriend sleeping. Initially I started playing guitar and I started playing that. And it took on more of a meaning to kind of the whole idea of the record, so I thought it'd be appropriate to call it that.
Robin Hilton: Do you have a very active dream life?
Ty Segall: It's either extremely not active or very active. I went years without remembering a single dream I had but then now I do. Which is weird; [it] doesn't make any sense.
Robin Hilton: Some people are asking about L.A. Since you've only been there for a few months, now what do you think? How do you like it? How does it compare to San Francisco?
Ty Segall: I love L.A. I grew up around L.A. I'm from Orange County and it's great. I love surfing; I have a bunch of friends down here. Actually, most of my friends from San Francisco are moving down here, because its kind of hard to make it in that city because its so expensive now. I came down here to be closer to my sister and stuff like that, and it's a plus [that] we can rent a house instead of an apartment and that's cool and surfing and it's great. It's very mellow. People have a bad idea of L.A., but L.A. is so big you can sort of do whatever you want with it. It's giant — there's like 8 cities in one, so it's cool.
Bob Boilen: Have you surfed since you were a kid?
Ty Segall: Yeah, just a typical southern Californian little kid, surfing at ten and that whole thing. It's a very typical thing for Southern Californians.
Robin Hilton: So another listener named Abbey writes, "San Francisco has such a great garage rock resurgence." She calls it "an incredible incubator for garage rock" and she's wondering how much that affects what you write and do you think that'll change much now that you're in a new city.
Ty Segall: No, I don't think that'll change because it's really about all my friends in bands. That's what's always inspired me, you know, hanging out with John from Thee Oh Sees and Mike Donovan from the Sic Alps and always playing each other what we're doing and playing shows and stuff. It hasn't changed at all since I've moved down here. The city itself shaped a lot of the music that I listened to and what I wanted to do and sort of instilled in my brain now and moving to L.A. won't really change that part of my brain.
Bob Boilen: What are some of the first concerts that you went to, what was it that you loved to go see and what was it that you wanted from bands when seeing them?
Ty Segall: In San Francisco?
Bob Boilen: Anywhere, when you were a kid, growing up and seeing concerts. What was your first concert?
Ty Segall: My first concert, I think, was Ozzfest, when I was a really little kid.
Bob Boilen: How about nightclubs when you got older?
Ty Segall: There's this all ages place in Anaheim called the Chain Reaction and I saw this band Neon King Kong and this band Gravy Train, which — Hunx and His Punx, the dude Hunx was in that band.
Bob Boilen: Oh, I just saw him the other night.
Ty Segall: They're awesome. And The Make Out party; the dudes from Burger Records, their band way back in the day, they're amazing. This band Bratmobile was my first real show.
Bob Boilen: How old?
Ty Segall: I was fifteen and yeah I'd go to Chain Reaction and see punk bands and this place called Koos Cafe. And I'd go to the Smell in L.A. There were actually a lot of all-ages places in Southern California when I was a kid. It was cool.
Robin Hilton: Just a couple more questions from listeners. One is from a listener named Gavin. He wonders, "How you listen to music? Not necessarily format-wise, but are you doing other things while you listen?" But I am actually curious about format because you seem pretty analog, how do you actually listen to music?
Ty Segall: Well, I have a ton of records. I've always been into records and it started because they were cheaper, which is funny. When I was fourteen or thirteen I went to a record store and I bought Cream's Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire, both for a dollar.
Bob Boilen: Wheels of Fire for a dollar? A two record set? Alright!
Ty Segall: And I got Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap for a dollar, and something else, it might have been a Sabbath record for a dollar and I remember being like, "What!? Four dollars?" And I immediately was like, "Mom, can I get a record player? I want to use my lunch money for records?" And yeah that's the only reason and then I eventually grew to love how it sounded and how big the art is and when you're fifteen you're like, "Whoa, Bon Scott rules! Whoa." You know, I was totally that little kid, and now I break CDs. They get scratched. They're too small. I step on them in my car. You can't break tapes in your car, so that's pretty good. But listening to music I'm just a total spaz, I'm constantly switching records up and switching around and I can never really stay still with a single record but I also love listening to specific records as albums too, you know? I can't help but dissect stuff, but I love head banging and listening to stuff really loud and numbing my brain too so. I'm all over the place.
Bob Boilen: Of the people you don't play with, who do you like to listen to these days?
Ty Segall: So much stuff. I just found this insane Pete Townshend bootleg of him doing a ton of Who songs that he'd recorded in his bedroom.
Robin Hilton: So this obviously isn't the last we're hearing from you. You have another band Fuzz and another record coming out in October. Do you want to tell us what that's about real quickly and your tour plans?
Ty Segall: Yeah Fuzz, that record's going to come out October 1 and we're super excited. We're going to do a U.S. tour and a European tour and that's really cool because Charlie [Moothart] writes all the riffs and I sort of help him finish the riffs and then we write lyrics together and I play drums. So it's super fun to be on that side of the writing for me and just to be able to head bang super hard. It's super therapeutic to just bash on some drums, you know?