Ty Segall: Fresh & Clean
Photo credit: Denee Segall
“I’d be happy if people were like, ‘This is just noise.’” Ty Segall observes. “I’d be like, ‘I finally did it. I finally did it.’ I would love to get closer to that. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
He isn’t talking about literal noise— though that wouldn’t be foreign ground for the California native, a shape-shifting multi-instrumentalist who, fittingly, moonlights in the acidic hard-rock trio Fuzz. Instead, he’s surveying the erratic arc of his career, how listeners respond to his constant sonic detours—from early lofi, garage-rock through later explorations of psychedelia and glam. Part of the Segall charm is that no two of his albums are built quite alike. But in his ideal world, the construction would defy easy logic.
“If I were to be completely honest with you, I wish the twists and turns could have been more extreme,” he adds. “I’m actively trying to get outside of the universe I’m comfortable writing in. I want to broaden it.”
For his latest LP, he decided to polish things up a bit. Well, sort of.
Harmonizer—his 13th album, not counting a myriad of other bands and side projects—was first tracked at his recently built home studio of the same name. And the resulting tunes, bouncing like pinballs between caustic distortion (“Whisper,” “Harmonizer”) and comically bright electronics (“Learning,” “Ride”), benefitted from the long hours of craftsmanship: Working with coproducer Cooper Crain, Segall patiently experimented instead of rushing to meet the “time is money” demands of a typical pro studio. The end result is almost aggressively clean, as if a vacuum sucked away any trace of hiss. It’s the rare record that sounds heavier and edgier the more polished it becomes.
“Coop and I talked [about] our favorite kind of records a lot. For some of the parts that have nasty guitars, the coolest way to present that is actually by using the best kind of production and recording you can have,” Segall says. “It’s all about control. If you have the best-sounding drums you can get, or the nicest vocals, then the super fucked-up guitar sound that will come and beat you over the head is extra surprising and affecting. If you’re limited [sonically] in what you can do, then you can’t make [the music] as dramatic or drastic as if you had a giant palette to paint with.
“I wonder if the people who called this record slick would call [The Stooges’] Fun House slick because, technically, that is slick—it’s the shit because you can hear every little thing that band’s doing,” he ponders. “I don’t consider ‘slickness’ a bad word. I’m sure a lot of people do. I think it’s really cool, especially if you’re in control of it. I think there’s a difference between modern slick and going for a more classic sound.”
To be clear, it’s not like they were aiming for Hotel California. “It’s not Eagles slickness, which we didn’t want, of course,” Crain says. “But it was kind of a goal to go hi-fi. That was an idea [Segall] talked about—having things be kind of air-tight. We expanded on that a lot in the process of making it.”
This craving for a more direct sound happened to dovetail with a few additional other creative pursuits— some incorporated, some at least partly abandoned. Segall’s original goal was to record live in the studio with his regular crew, The Freedom Band, and then tweak things from there. The pandemic inevitably led to a gear shift. Instead, he worked in a more piecemeal process, recording with smaller configurations of players—what he calls “mini-bands”—and laying down massive chunks of sound on his own. He’d already been hoping to utilize some additional synthesizers this time around, and this more overdubbed style naturally lent itself to screwing around with different keys.
“I think the discussion was, ‘Let’s bring in more electronics and synthesizers and drum pads,’” Crain says, describing the album’s tough-to-pin-down aesthetic. “A lot of people are saying there are hardly any guitars on the record, but there are like eight guitars on every song. Some songs sound sharp and weird and processed like a keyboard, and I think some people are getting confused. I’m like, ‘This is a very guitar-heavy record, just done in a very different way.’”
It’s almost hilarious, given that framework, just how heavy Harmonizer is at times. For example, the guitar leads on “Whisper” and “Picture” recall Queens of the Stone Age’s chrome-sleek stoner-metal tones. It’s also interesting to consider those sounds in context: They are arriving two years after Segall’s previous solo record, First Taste, which featured a ton of stringed instruments (bouzouki, mandolin, koto) but zero guitars.
“I’d been writing music on the guitar for, at that point, close to 15 years,” Segall says of First Taste. “I was just burned out on it and felt a little uninspired on [the instrument]. I’m a drummer first— that’s where I started playing music, so I used it as an opportunity to be like, ‘I’ll start writing songs on the drums first.’ I’ve always done that a little bit, but it was more of an experimental situation. I wanted to dig into that more. Then, the idea of just abandoning the guitars completely came out of that. But, just like everything you do, there’s a reaction to it—I was reacting to the guitar by ditching it. And then I got inspired again, so I started writing on the guitar again after I toured on that album.”
“I don’t tend to deviate and stick to that deviation when I’m writing,” he continues. “I tend to deviate quickly and do it, and deviate again and again and again. That’s a moment where I was like, ‘Guitar? No.’ Then a year later, I was like, ‘I want guitars with synths.’ I think it was just another excuse to find inspiration in the instruments that are lying around, trying to think outside the box.”
Segall’s mini-bands helped spark some of that inspiration—even if the end product isn’t quite what he originally envisioned.
“It was a really cool thing: It’s like the same universe, but the energy and the vibes, depending on the song, are very different,” he says of Harmonizer. “They sound like the same people playing together but switching it up and changing instruments. I don’t know if anybody can really pick up on that, but there are several different versions of my band on the album. Three or four of the songs are tracked with me on drums, Mikal [Cronin] on bass and Emmett [Kelly] on guitar—power-trio style. I played the rest of the instruments, except for Ben [Boye] playing keyboards on three tunes. And there were another three songs where Charles [Moothart] played drums and I played guitar. Then the rest of the album was just me playing everything with some choice overdubs by either Emmett or Ben. Charles [Moothart] and I are very different but similar drummers. We both basically were grew up showing each other licks on the drums. We started at the same time, pretty much, and have been playing ever since. So it’s a very specific thing. I really love that about the album—it’s this weird hybrid.”
Many of the songs themselves are also weird hybrids. Several transform halfway through into a different tempo or groove, including “Pictures”—which dissolves into electronics-and-percussion chaos and, later, a tranquilized cousin of the main riff.
“I was trying to cram as many ideas [as possible] into a short amount of time,” Segall says. “I’ve done records that are more expansive, like double-LPs, that are an hour and 10 minutes. You get space— that’s the idea. If you make it to side three, you’re gonna listen to some weird shit because there’s time for it. I love that format as a fan. When I’m putting on [Jimi Hendrix’s] Electric Ladyland, I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah, I’m fucking deep in this. This is great.’ But for this record, I wanted to make it really lean, trim it. It was fun to be like, ‘This is one song, but let’s try to make it three songs and try to get away with it and not have people realize.’ There are 10 songs on the album, but it’s probably more like 15.”
(Segall happily recalls the mid-track “electronic music freakout” of “Pictures,” saying that Crain fueled that segment himself: “[I’d] kind of been like, ‘Yeah, do this and this! Can we do that?’ It was totally amazing. I have a couple of weird pedals in my hand and I’m twisting knobs, and he’s fucking with the modular rig. It was really fun.”)
Of course, Harmonizer’s nesting-doll songwriting approach may not actually bleed into Segall’s next project. It’s hard to say what that album will sound like—or what rules he may impose on himself to help create it. But he never has a shortage of concepts and strategies.
“I actually bought this orchestral composition software and was trying to write some pieces. I have no idea what I’m doing, and it sounds horrible,” he says with a laugh. “I’d have to write the way I know how to write and have someone transpose it for me. But I would love to do that. That’s one idea I have: to write a whole album of music and have someone transpose it to an orchestral layout, and then I just sing on it. I don’t know when the hell that’s gonna happen. I also wanna do an a cappella album. There are a couple things that I have in the can that are pretty different but I’m stoked about them.”
Having the home studio, naturally, has helped his productivity. “[Harmonizer] was a really good test run, and I think it passed the test,” he says. “If it sounds good, everything else is gonna be way better because you’re at home: the comfort level, the [lower] stress [level]; you’re not gonna feel like you’re burning money, looking at the clock, like, ‘We’ve only got four hours, and then we’ve gotta get the hell out of here.’ All of those things yield a more free, open atmosphere to be more experimental and make better decisions. You don’t have to rush and cut corners because you’re running out of time.
“I do find myself recording more,” he continues. “But I’m on this trip right now where I think a younger me would have released more of this music and had less of a critical eye. That’s how I used to be: ‘Cool, yeah, put it out.’ Now I’m being a lot more thoughtful about what I release. I think I’m writing and recording a lot more songs, but I’m also cutting a lot more. I want everything to be very intentional.”
That ideology—being more centered, worrying less about his volume of output— emerged partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as Segall started to reevaluate himself as a human being outside of music.
“I had a very up and down experience where I couldn’t write any music for the first half of the pandemic,” he admits. “I had a bad creative streak where I couldn’t get anything done. I had the worry of, ‘I’ve been touring and working like this for I don’t even know how long—it’s such a big part of my identity, and if it gets taken away, who am I?’ I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis, or maybe I had my midlife crisis early. It was like, ‘If I can’t make music or tour, then what the hell am I going to do?’
It’s hard to imagine Segall ever fully slowing down: He clearly thrives on extremes, on the thrill of the unknown. But the homespun, hi-fi Harmonizer— and the era it emerged from—helped give him perspective.
“You’ve gotta take the time to treat yourself well and not fill things with work all the time,” he says, before offering with a laugh, “I think that’s a problem of mine. I need to say, ‘Take a break, take a hike. Stand on a mountain and look around and think about some stuff.’ At the end of the day, it was a good thing. [I realized] I am a bit of a workaholic. Maybe I put too much into making records. It forced me to be more [at ease] with myself when I’m not obsessively making something. It made me feel a bit more comfortable in my own brain when I’m just existing.”