Composition for solo guitar and its discontents.
Nashville-based William Tyler is one half slick Music City sideman and one half inheritor of the free-roaming lineage of instrumental guitar luminaries like Sandy Bull and Robbie Basho. But the thirty-four-year-old would likely balk at being defined by those he has backed up (David Berman of Silver Jews and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop) or by the American primitive school of guitar soli that is currently having a moment.
On the heels of 2013's acclaimed LP Impossible Truth, Tyler is set to release the three song EP Lost Colony on April 29 via Merge Records. The expansive release clocks in at around twenty-seven minutes and marks Tyler’s first foray into full electric rock band, a new development after the largely solo guitar arrangements of Impossible Truth and 2010's Behold The Spirit. Backed by bassist Reese Lazurus, drummer Jamin Orrall, and pedal steel player Luke Schneider, Tyler's dexterous electric picking embroiders three rustic yet vaguely prog-inspired tracks including a cover of Neu! founder Michael Rother’ “Karrussell”. The record is a whole new take on New Weird America, locating the common ground between "Terrapin Station" and Krautrock, and yet another document of Tyler’s restless exploration of guitar idioms, American primitive and otherwise.
I caught Tyler on the phone while he was on tour in Santa Fe. We discussed his approach to composition, how to move the fingerstyle guitar conversation past its defacto reference points, and his predilection for heavy reading material.
Andrew Aylward So I guess I’ll just dive right in. Can you remember the first time you played a guitar?
WT No I can’t. My Dad was a songwriter around Nashville and there were always guitars around the house and I was always a little bit afraid of them, and also just sort of not interested in music really.
AA Was that because your Dad was a musician?
WT Yeah, and I grew up around it. I think at a young age I sensed the kind of prolonged adolescence that a lot of male musicians tend to revel in. (laughter) I was like, Oh, I want to grow up and be a history teacher. When I was fifteen, I did the normal route of taking lessons for long enough to feel like I was into different music than my guitar teacher at the time. I wasn’t super technical. I didn’t grow up with metal—a lot of my friends who really could play, technically, grew up playing metal or bluegrass. I was into new wave, punk stuff and older rock—I didn’t really want to learn how to play lead guitar the proper way. I didn’t play finger-style guitar until my mid twenties, and at that point I had started playing with other people. I don’t really remember why I ended up coming to that particular style of guitar, I had no knowledge of it, but something about it really suited me. Without really knowing what I was doing, I taught myself the different picking patterns. I dove right in and was really bad at it for a long time and had to learn how to play it in front of people. It’s like anything—having a kid or owning a business—you just have to go right into it and be a little bit arrogant or naïve about it.
AA I like that combination of arrogance and naivety. Did you have a big movement away from playing in bands or was becoming a finger-style player something simultaneous with being a guitar player in other bands?
WT I’d say it was being interested in trying to carve out a creative identity apart from the people I was playing with and for whatever reason it came in the form of guitar-based music. At first I was doing more sound collages and noisier stuff. I was really into Siltbreeze Records, Tower Recordings, Six Organs of Admittance, and underground New Zealand stuff like Expressway Records. As I was doing that though, it kind of grew into a guitar thing. I was definitely influenced by the Takoma Records guys, though maybe a little more by Jim O’Rourke and that whole Chicago scene.
There was a moment about ten years ago that I remember very specifically, when I was writing the song that ended up becoming “Whole New Dude.” Originally, I was going to try to write lyrics to it. At the time I was trying to figure out a way to write songs with lyrics and I kept hitting dead ends, because I was just more interested in instrumental music. I remember thinking at that moment, I’m just going to make this an instrumental song.
AA I really enjoy the energy on this EP. You’ve got these great musicians playing with you. Did that change the writing process for you or like when did that become something you knew you were going to do?
WT I’m changing the writing process now because I’m trying to figure out if I want to do something along the lines of writing for other musicians, specifically that kind of band. When you write for a rock band, the melodies don’t need to be as busy because there’s so much energy that carries the momentum. That’s why I thought the song “Whole New Dude” would be a good choice for the band because there’s so much room in it.
I’m not sure if I want to write for a specific group of people though, because that a tour. You have to represent your record. I don’t want to make an artistic decision based on an economic decision, but I am kind of at the point where I can’t go out and honestly duplicate that stuff without a band, and I can’t necessarily afford to take a band all of the time.
The way I structure the songs I’m going to write when I know it’s just going to be me, or me and a couple other people, is very different then when I write for a band. There are lot more stops and starts. I’m trying to fit in a lot of ideas and thinking of how to make it move—I’m not a huge fan of music that sounds too busy. I like Bach and all that but I don’t really listen to it very much. Does that make any sense?
AA It does, yeah.
WT I mean the dream scenario would, for me, be to find a groove that was halfway between Waylon Jennings and Neu!. (laughter) Which is why we covered a Michael Rother song, but with peddle steel guitar.
AA Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that song. Why’d you choose that song to cover?
WT I wanted to explicitly do something that made everyone realise I was a fan of that kind of music, the German music of the ’70s and ’80s, especially anything that’s around the Neu! axis. That’s just super influential to me. Popul Vuh is one of the biggest influences on my guitar playing. Probably people don’t hear that, but I don’t know—as an acoustic guitarist you are either influenced by John Fahey or influenced by people who were influenced by him. But having said that, I’m interested in moving solo guitar away from the whole Takoma thing—
AA It’s somewhat unavoidable. It’s like he’s the mafia of finger-style guitar.
WT Well it’s crazy when Chris Forsyth—he’s a friend of mine—gets compared to John Fahey. I’m like, Okay that’s literally just not true. He’s in a band, he doesn’t finger-pick, and he plays electric guitar! (laughter) Sir Richard Bishop doesn’t finger pick, he plays an acoustic guitar, but I don’t think he’s influenced by Fahey. I am not an authority on this at all; I am not Glenn Jones, or Jack Rose. I didn’t come up in that world; I’m just interested in music and I do love the Takoma stuff—but I’m probably just as influenced by Leo Kottke or Robbie Basho or Peter Lang as I am by Fahey.
The thing that’s really amazing about Rother’s music is just how static it is. It really doesn’t build at all—that’s the whole beauty of motorik music. I always thought it’d be cool to add a building dynamic to it. If Yo La Tengo or like Booker T. and the MG’s were trying to cover that song, what would they do?
AA I know sometimes at shows you’ll try to bridge a thematic gap with the audience by talking about the songs and sharing their stories, since they’re instrumentals. Do you know what you’ll say about the songs on this EP?
WT “Whole New Dude”: like I said, that was a pretty old song. The joke about that is that I was on tour with Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger about a year ago and we were in England on trains. I was reading—I usually bring very non-light reading material like dense, non-fiction history books. (laughter).
That’s my tradition for tour, what I do to keep healthy—I’m not exercising, but I’m reading. I had this book, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes—which I found out later is what David Bowie was reading when he made Low. Jaynes had a theory that ancient people were not fully what we would consider conscious. We were going around all the time with all this stuff in our head that everybody thought was the voice of the gods, but was really just our inner dialogue. His theories are hard to back up but it’s kind of like—I love those kind of books even if I don't agree with them. So I was reading that book on tour and Mike and I were joking about modern country song titles and one we came up with was “Whole New Dude.” I was like, Oh man, that would totally work with this book. I explained that to him and it became an inside joke on tour. (laughter) Then I was like “I’m actually going to use that title!” One of us was going to use it first.
AA You’ve backed up some great songwriters and in particular some pretty amazing lyricists like Dave Berman in the Silver Jews and Kurt Wagner in Lambchop—what, if anything, do you take from the story-telling abilities of those guys and how do you get apply that to your own musical narratives?
WT I’m proud that I had an association with David and his records, but when I listen to those records—really just Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea and Bright Flight,—even though I definitely hear me and my voice coming through on the guitar, I was very much in session man territory. The live band probably became more of its own entity which was probably something that tripped David out a little bit because he couldn’t really control it sonically. When I play with a band, there are things I love about it but there are also things I miss about being able to control everything by myself. That said, getting close to David and being able to get inside his head was one of the best parts about being in that band. He was the most intellectual person I’ve ever been in a band with, just because he reads a lot of books and a lot of people in bands don’t read books. He always had interesting advice and he’s funny as shit—he could be a college professor and he also happens to be one of the great voices of our generation, as a songwriter and lyricist. Being around him and watching how hard he works on lyrics—
AA It makes you think twice.
WT Not me, because I don’t even sing. But dude, there are a lot of people who do sing and I immediately think, wow you really wrote these lyrics on the way to the recording session, or maybe at the session. (laughter) Mike is another exception. He’s a great lyricist. He’s a very thoughtful, sensitive and mindful person and that’s rare these days. He has a lot in common with David and I think he’s probably going to end up being one of the more significant song-writing voices of our generation. Another guy I play with a lot—and whom I put in the same company—is James Toth of Wooden Wand. I think he’s an incredible songwriter and also a very underrated storyteller and lyricist.
The thing that James and David have in common is that I think that they write songs that would sound great if anybody else sang them. Their songs are so good and they translate so well to other vocalists. I think that rhythmically, the way Mike writes songs is very interesting, but I think it would be hard for somebody to cover his songs. You’d have to arrange the song differently. Kurt is similar in that Lambchop songs are really hard to cover. His words, for me, work best when he’s singing them. Some people have a way of writing more to their own voice and some people are writing just for their own voice and some people are writing for their own voice but it translates to a lot of other people’s voices. That’s probably why everyone wants to be Dylan, because as “Wagon Wheel” has proven, even his toss-off outtakes end up being number one hits. (laughter)
AA I have this hunch that by some degree you’re inspired by classical music. I’m interested in how and if narrative classical music influences your work and if you ever employ musical gesture; the most obvious example of which is the knock of fate at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
WT Nothing that explicit, but yeah, I think more and more I think I’m getting influenced by Classical music. I listen to a lot more than I used to. I really don’t listen to rock music anymore—I know that’s going to sound really pretentious but it’s true. I am also definitely interested in storytelling without lyrics. (laughter) Impossible Truth was an attempt to make songs be about something very explicitly and to tell a very rounded story. I’m definitely interested in finding ways of incorporating more thematic elements into the way I write, but it’s sort of new for me. In the past melodies were coming out and a lot of it was me just exercising technique and putting songs together. Now I feel like I’m making songs that are a little bit more expressive. I’m also at the point where I’m trying to not repeat myself all the time.
AA I guess going off the very oversimplified idea of music that a major chord indicates positive emotion and a minor chord indicates negative emotion; do you have any kind of harmonic queues in your mind or maybe other intervals—
WT I use a lot of major to minor interval changes. I like tuning guitars to where you’re just in between a one and a five element where you don’t have your positive three and you don’t have a minor or a major chord. A lot of songs I write are like that. I’m not really conscious of a lot of the tricks I use though. I didn’t go to music school and I don’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge. I’m sort of teaching myself that as I go along. That’s probably why Fahey is always such a relevant marker. I don’t know how schooled in theory he was, but in terms of bringing together lots of elements of different things he was listening to at the time—from classical to delta-blues—I definitely think he had a really good understanding of useful dissonance. I probably don’t use dissonance enough. I’m very interested in melodies and not in writing as an exercise in theory. I just write what comes out.
Andrew Aylward is a musician and audio engineer living in Washington DC.