Ty Segall
On the Brink
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Though there’s a lot of truth in the old adage about quality being better than quantity, in the case of Ty Segall, that other one about having your cake rings just as true. Over the last few years, Segall has not only lent a helping hand to bands like Sic Alps and Thee Oh Sees, he’s also made some undeniably excellent records on his own in a short span of time. From 2008’s self-titled platter to last year’s Lemons to the recently Goner-released Melted, his name has come to be the mark of a top-notch blend of psych and garage ruckus. Moreover, while his music is forged with a high degree of white heat, it also carries with it the kind of songsmanship that first put the bomp in rock & roll. Melted makes this all the more apparent, with Segall peeling back the self-made layers of vitriol to reveal idyllic moments of melody. That it’s his third—fourth including his recent collaboration with Mikal Cronin (of Charlie and the Moonhearts), Reverse Shark Attack—album in less than a year and a half makes it all the more remarkable.

I recently caught up with Ty by phone as he was getting ready for an even busier summer on the road.

You started out playing with the Epsilons. How long was that band around?

Ty Segall: About two, two and a half years. We started right when I just turned 17 and then we stopped playing when I was 19.

From there you started playing with the Traditional Fools?

TS: Yeah, but there was a little bit of overlap.

I read that you first played by yourself as a one-man band one night when the rest of the band didn't show up for a show...

TS: Kind of. We got asked to play a show with the Nodzzz, and the band couldn’t do it, but I had some songs and asked if I could play it by myself.

Did that spawn the idea of going solo?

TS: Kind of. It was fun because I had never tried playing with a kick drum at the same time (as guitar) before, so I winged it like that at that show. So it was like, “Well, this worked out great and it’s fun and I can do this too.”

But as far as recording by yourself, did that spawn the idea to do that or was it something you’d always been itching to do?

TS: I’ve always recorded myself, but I never played any of my songs live, and a lot of the time, my songs turned into a Traditional Fools song or an Epsilons song when I was younger. But I’d always made demos by myself. When I was about 20, I started focusing on recording by myself.

How has your approach changed with each record, or has it stayed the same?

TS: It totally has changed. I like to always try a new approach every record or something different each time. The first record was all done live, except for the vocals, in my buddy’s basement. It was the same set-up as I used playing live, with the kick drum with a tambourine duck-taped to the front and then the high-hat and then me also on guitar. It was cool because I wanted to do a record that sounded how I did playing live because I wasn’t playing with a band. I didn’t want to put out a full-band record and then go out and not be able to play it. That wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.

But for Lemons, I didn’t want to do the same record twice. I wanted to try out a full-band set-up, but I didn’t have a band yet so I recorded all the stuff myself and then got a couple buds to help me out playing it live. That was a new experience because I hadn’t worked by myself in a studio environment, and it wasn’t live so we could fine tune stuff. It was totally cool.

So you did that one in a studio?

TS: Kind of. It was in my buddy Matt Hartman’s basement, but it was more like a studio than anything I had access to before.

Of course, that brings us to the new record, Melted. This one sounds a lot different than the other two. It seems a bit looser.

TS: That’s cool, thanks. I recorded it at my buddy Eric Bauer’s basement, and his basement is three times as much of a pro studio in the sense that he has so much stuff there—so many effects, so many different mics, pre-amps. We could do so many things down there, it was crazy. But the other huge factor was how much time we had. Eric was so nice and said, “We can take six months to record this if you want, so let’s take our time.” I think that was the big difference: being able to spread it out over a long period of time. I recorded like 22 songs for this record, but I wanted to keep recording until I found the best grouping of songs. So having the time to let it sit and marinate and being able to go back and change and add and throw away and not having the constraints of a normal recording studio environment was the big difference. Even Lemons only took five days to record.

In particular, “Caesar” and “Mike D’s Coke” seem a bit out-there compared to what you’ve done in the past. Was there something specific you were shooting for with those songs?

TS: I guess maybe “looser” is a good word. I was also shooting for a bit more of a classic vibe in another sense. I’ve done garage-y punk stuff in the past and so I was trying to play off some of the other influences I was into at the time. I’m just trying to constantly do a different spin on what garage or rock & roll is considered to be. I’m super into glam music and I’m super into Neil Young and the Beatles and all this other stuff too and not just Billy Childish. I try to do stuff that is harder for me to pull off. I feel like that breakdown in “Caesar,” where it’s “Why must the people cry?” is a lot harder to pull off than just screaming.

Your records have come out pretty rapidly. Are you constantly working on music?

TS: No, I go through phases. I can’t write music for two months in a row and then I’ll go through a month where I’ll write 12 or 15 songs and then I won’t be able to write for another two months and then I’ll go through another phase. It’s kind of cool because each phase is usually a different style or sound, but I do have a lot of writer’s block.

You also did an album with Mikal Cronin recently. Did you have ideas going into that of what you wanted it to be?

TS: No, it was really just like, “Mike, we have to do a record together.” We had done a 7-inch and it seemed like we could get a full-length out with someone if we recorded it. I wrote a song and he wrote a song, and we went into it with those and the rest was done in a week straight of recording and writing on the spot. It turned into what it turned into, kind of noisy, psychedelic rock & roll. We didn’t have any ideas and just went for it as it developed. It’s fun to do that: just go into it without any expectations.

Is that different from how you approach your own music? I mean, do you go into these basement studios with the songs all spelled out?

TS: It’s really all over the place. I’m probably the most spazzed out, schizophrenic writer. It varies between “I have these 12 songs done and let’s do it. We can get them done in three days” to “I have ideas so let me hang out in your basement for six months while I develop these ideas” to “I’m going to make it up on the spot.” And sometimes the songs that are written are the worst ones and the ideas made up on the spot are the best stuff. It’s really all over the place. I also like to go into the studio with limitations, like no cymbals on a song or using a four-stringed guitar or not have any bass. I just try to get weird, get as weird as I can. I don’t want to be bland or do the same thing, and any tool to keep me from doing the same stuff, I’ll use.

It seems like there’s a healthy scene of psychedelic music in the Bay Area right now. Do you see any correlation to San Francisco’s musical history?

TS: Yeah, definitely. San Francisco is such a magical place. It’s like this weird beacon of openness, and not to sound corny, but it’s like a la-la land. There’s all these like-minded, open-minded slightly crazy people that are wonderful, and it lends itself to making this kind of music. There’s lots of other kinds of music here too, but classics are hard to die. And people are realizing lately that hippies weren’t so bad and longhairs don’t need to cut their hair off if they don’t want to—stuff like that. It’s cool. I lived six blocks away from the Grateful Dead house for awhile and there was a lot of weird stuff. I think Northern California in general, with the forest and the fog, it’s pretty psychedelic even just to walk through Golden Gate Park or Muir Woods. It’s not surprising that that kind of stuff came from here.

You had that song “The Drag” on the first record, which was in the tradition of things like “The Twist.” Did you envision having a dance to go with that?

TS: It’s funny, “The Drag” is like the bummer, but I remember watching a zombie movie and thinking someone could be pulling a dead body and be doing the Drag too. So it could be a zombie dance or it could be being too cool, smoking a cigarette, wearing shades and standing off on the side doing “The Drag.” It could be a bunch of things.

I read that you’re a surfer. Do you see similarities between surfing and making music?

TS: Oh, definitely. I see surfing as a therapeutic exercise. It’s kind of like a way of life. It’s a choice and a common bond between people. If you talk to someone who surfs—who really surfs and understands and has a positive reaction to it—it’s going to be a universal reaction. Same with music. You talk to a music head, and if they’ve had a positive, life-altering reaction to it, like many people have, it’s going to be universal thematically in how it fits into your life. I feel like surfing and music are on the same page with that. Honestly, I hold surfing up there just as high as playing the drums as far as balancing my mind out. There is nothing better in the world than going out into the water. It’s the best distraction and medicine.

Are you already working on a new record or focusing on promoting this album?

TS: I’m randomly doing stuff. I have some ideas floating around, a couple songs. I really enjoyed the six months of just going for it and getting over 20 songs done and figuring it out from there. So I think I’m not going to buckle my head down to anything quite yet. I’m starting on something, but I don’t know what yet.