Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
I like interviewing musicians because they have no talking points and they tend to be good listeners. They answer the question you ask them, not the one they wish you’d asked. This describes Ty Segall, who’s just as happy to talk about his inner life as his career. I found him to be a very warm person, relaxed and casually profound, while still sounding like the California surfer he grew up as.
The new record, Freedom’s Goblin (out Jan 26 on Drag City), is incredibly ambitious, a double-LP that spans the freaky id of the Melting Ty Segall, to the open-hearted Sleeper Ty Segall, while also adding in a new country-waltz Ty Segall, among a whole other spectrum of Segalls in between. The record’s versatility owes something to Ben Boye on piano/organ, guest vocalists including Ty’s Wife, Denée Segall, and a breadth of storied producers and studios (the best combination of these being Steve Albini recording at Ty’s house).
If his 2017 self-titled album hadn’t already, Freedom’s Goblin fully shakes off all the prefixes (garage-, psych-, punk-, glam-) that have been used to describe Ty’s brand of rock over the past decade. Freedom’s Goblin is a rock album. It encompasses elements from too many subgenres to belong to any one of them. Like King Tuff, who joined Segall for the Emotional Mugger lineup, Ty has been making it okay again for cool people to love guitar rock with awesome riffs and bold, simple lyrics.
But Ty himself does not seem to hold such grand visions for himself, nor does he seem to care who likes his music. In longer interviews, I hear him struggle with the amount of self-centeredness inherent to being a big, touring, solo musician. Maybe it’s that the lessons of rock star personas in the bloated hard rock realm which provoked the punk movement have really stuck. Maybe it’s that rock itself (as Ty rather cheerfully points out) has long ago passed its expiration date.
ELEVEN: So I know Mikal Cronin and Charles Moothart are pretty consistent, but across the albums there’s a bit of a rotating lineup. What kind of work goes into putting a band together?
Ty Segall: It’s like a puzzle with different components and varying degrees of involvement. It’s an interesting thing to do, to put a band together. It has a lot to do with having fun for me. If it’s not fun, then don’t do it. Obviously, I think everyone I play with is great—they’re all great musicians––but it’s all about having fun.
11: I imagine you’re not putting out Craigslist ads or anything—it’s probably people you know pretty well.
TS: [laughs] I’ve never done a Craigslist ad for somebody, but I should do that, that might mix it up.
11: Could be a good concept album.
TS: “Oboist Needed.”
11: When did the current lineup start going by “The Freedom Band”?
TS: Basically after we recorded the last record, the self-titled one.
11: Do you recall when you recorded the album? I guess I’m wondering if the election played into your thinking about freedom.
TS: To be honest, I almost called the self-titled record “Freedom.” There’s a huge concept of freedom on that record as well. And yes, I mean the political landscape is a massive influence and a daily, giant monolith in my brain. But it’s not just the political thing. The abstract idea of freedom is what interested me initially, and now it can be taken many different ways. It’s an open concept, talking about freedom. There’s freedom from one’s self, essentially creating your own mind, different perspectives, subjective vs objective realities–all interesting platforms to dive into and trip out.
11: On the new record, you’ve got a track called “I’m Free” that sounds like it’s largely about when you’re most alone, you can be, in some ways, less restricted, like a different person. Would you consider yourself more of an introvert or extrovert?
TS: [Off the phone] Guys, am I an introvert or an extrovert? I guess I’m an extrovert, but I think maybe musically or during shows and stuff I don’t like to be extroverted, to verbally extend myself. As a person, if you were to meet me, I’ve probably had too much coffee and will make a really strange joke and who knows if you would think it was funny. It’d probably just make you feel like, “This guy’s weird.” That’s probably me.
11: Your music can be pretty vicious, but everytime I hear you in an interview you’re very mellow, So it’s interesting that you’d be more introverted in your music, which I think of as super out-there and in-your-face. You’ve done stuff like Twins that’s all about dualities—how do you reconcile these different sides of yourself?
TS: Oh man. I’m sure there’s really aggressive people that want to, like, punch people [laughs]. And then they go for a run. They go exercise and they get that aggression out of their body. I was a very angry person—extremely angry—and very emotionally wound-up as a kid. For me, it was playing the drums. I’d play the drums for an hour straight and I’d listen to Bad Brains and I’d try to learn Bad Brains songs and I’d try to play fast and hard and when I was done, you know, I’ve lost hearing and it feels like I hit myself in the face with a baseball bat. But I felt good. It’s self medication using musical therapy.
Music for me has always been that way—whether it’s escapism; or it’s that you make something, and you reflect on it; or that you’re in a communal space having an experience with other people, and you let out some energy that you need to. You get to have a different kind of relationship with people. All these aspects could be one side of the aggressive or the reflective side of my personality, which is just trying to be a normal person that doesn’t make people upset.
11: Steve Albini played a hand in some of these songs on Freedom’s Goblin. He’s someone that’s famously opinionated about what the role of the engineer is. And you’re still producing bands—is that correct? Is it a home studio?
TS: Yeah, I have a studio at my house.
11: Do you have any rules in your head about how you should operate or what a producer should be?
TS: The only rule I have as a producer is you have a discussion with the band about what they want and their comfort level and you stick to that. If a band wants you to be extremely involved in a different way, and help mold things differently, that’s very cool. If they just want you to help them record their sounds to tape that’s also extremely cool, so you know I don’t have any strict rules with that. It’s more about what a band wants. I feel extremely uncomfortable over-inserting myself into someone else’s art.
11: A few of the tracks on the record share titles with other famous songs, and that happens all the time, but I wonder if any of this was intentional. Is it something you were thinking about?
TS: I think it’s a coincidence, but it’s also a play on trying to make more stereotypical lyrics, that are either lopsided or you interpret them in a different way, you know?
11: More universal, maybe?
TS: I like to write lyrics that can be taken many different ways. I don’t like to spell it, you know [singing] “Trump is bad, Truuump is baaadd.” Probably not a good song. But there’s another way to say that that will probably hit people harder, or longer.
11: Yeah especially because you can’t change people’s mind if you’re just saying something exactly as you see it.
TS: Yeah, for sure.
11: I’ve seen you as someone who came around at the tail-end of a time when, to be a cool rock band, most people would have to be a little cute or ironic about it. Do you now or have you ever paid attention to how your music fits the landscape, the times, or what people are expecting?
TS: I used to. I don’t anymore because I think it’s not good for me as a musician. I think it’s more interesting to stick to what I want to do. I don’t like to let what other people want or what’s going on in the rock world influence the direction I’m going.
11: Do you think about rock as a genre, like apart from yourself? Do you have any predictions about where you think it might be going?
TS: I mean, rock is dead, my friend. Rock’s been dead for a long time. Pop music and rock ‘n’ roll and punk and all these things—a lot of them are on life support in a populist way, but they’ll never die to the true music freaks. And I consider myself a total, obsessive, music freak, so I have lots of fun rethinking all that stuff. I have no comment about the future of the music industry and I don’t care, to be honest.
11: To talk about you as a music listener for a second—are you familiar with the Voyager I probe, when Jimmy Carter sent this golden record into space in case aliens find it?
TS: Yeah. Oh yeah, totally. That’s up for a Grammy.
11: Oh really?
TS: Yeah I knew the guy that put that out, yeah.
11: Amazing. So the question is—if you could curate a new record for aliens, what would definitely be on it?
TS: That’s a very, very difficult question to ask. I would need a long time to really dig in.
11: Hot take—what’s one thing?
TS: Fuck, man. Culturally or musically? What are we talking here? Recorded audio?
11: Recorded audio that can be pressed to gold.
TS: Hmm… I would put on “Signed Curtain” by Matching Mole, which is Robert Wyatt’s band after The Soft Machines. I would put on some fucking Enter the 36 Chambers Wu-Tang shit. I’d put on some…. fuck man, I don’t know. There’s so much. I can’t answer.
11: I imagine you have kind of a lot of stuff in a vault or in in your home studio. You ever think about if there’s a time to release a rarities album or alternate takes or anything like that?
TS: Yeah, actually we’re kind of discussing that stuff now. It’s been like ten years since I started making music, so I thought it would be a good time to do something like that. And, if I’m alive ten years from now, maybe we can do something like that again.
11: Well, this is morbid, but it kind of seems like most of those albums come out once you’re dead.
TS: Yeah. Selfishly, I like how all that stuff sounds, so I’d like to have a copy myself.
11: I don’t think you should wait, but do you ever think about… is there a plan for who gets those recordings when you’re dead?
TS: [laughs] My wife does. And my sister.
11: Oh OK. And your wife sings on one of these songs, right?
TS: Yeah, she sings on “Meaning,” the hardcore song.
11: I could have looked this up, but does she have her own band?
TS: She’s been in a few, yeah. She’s in a band called Vial and she’s in this band called Lamps now.
11: There’s a lot of noise and jamming on the record. “Prison” jumps out to me as something that might have been felt out. Are there any happy accidents that you can point to?
TS: There’s that song “The Last Waltz.” That was fun—it was an experiment in not showing the band how the song went at all. Basically, we went to the studio and I just went, “Alright, Charles play this beat and every four you switch beats to this. Guys, here are the chords—this, this, this. Alright, go.” And take 1 is on the album, which is pretty amazing. There were a couple false starts, to get the feel and get the timing right, but that was literally the first real time we made it through the song.
11: With this one and the self-titled, it sounds like your vocals are getting less distorted as a rule. Is that something you’re thinking about or something that just keeps happening?
TS: Yeah, definitely very intentional to make them more clean and less effected. At least, a lot of the time, you know?
11: There are tracks like “She” that sound like old Ty Segall to me, but there’s other stuff I could play for my parents and they’d like it. Is your audience changing at all?
TS: Um… I don’t know. I can’t really tell if the audience is changing or not. I don’t know, maybe there’s less, like, true garage rock heads that are like, “Oh it’s not trippy enough, it’s not effected enough” or something, but I don’t even know. I couldn’t tell ya. I can’t tell.
11: When I first heard the album, and I think when I saw you at Pickathon, too, you play this Hot Chocolate cover, “Every1’s a Winner.” If it was both times, I didn’t recognize it as a cover either time. So I think that speaks to it fitting in well to the band and on the album, but I was wondering how Fred Armisen ended up playing percussion on it.
TS: [laughs] Well, I know Fred. I’ve known him for a minute. He’s an amazing guy. He interviewed me once for a magazine and I’ve randomly hung out with him a couple times in various scenarios. And, actually, he’s really old friends with Steve Albini. He was in town when we were recording that song at my house—Albini was engineering at my house, my home studio.
It was just really fun, a totally different experience. I was telling Steve I wanted to rent congas and timbales and shit. I was like “I want it to have this Latin percussive feel, kind of go for a bit of a War type thing.” And he was like, “Well, hang on man, you know Fred went to school for that. He knows how to do that shit.” So it was a no-brainer. Fred came over, laid it down in forty-five minutes, drank a cup of coffee and flew out to The Seth Meyers Show or something. It was pretty rad.
Ty’s golden record picks:
Matching Mole: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llRZLq7rquM