FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: William Tyler

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Interview with William Tyler.

“I look at someone like William who was in a band signed to a major label when he was, like, sixteen or something, seventeen or whatever, and he’s never known anything but playing music to people. He’s about the most steady, normal, grounded person that I know.”

—Kurt Wagner (‘No Such Silence’ Documentary, City Slang, 2007)

Words: Craig & Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

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This spring sees the release of ‘Impossible Truth’, Nashville-native William Tyler’s second solo LP and much-anticipated follow up to his debut masterwork ‘Behold The Spirit’ from 2010. ‘Impossible Truth’ will be William Tyler’s Merge label debut (his debut ‘Behold The Spirit’ was put out on the Tompkins Square label). The first taste of the new album, ‘Cadillac Desert’, is a truly astounding composition and its recent presence online has ensured ‘Impossible Truth’ will be one of the most keenly anticipated albums for 2013.

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, William Tyler has spent his life playing music – whether for himself, collaborating with friends, or as a band-member to firmly established bands. Tyler has played with an array of musicians (as both recording artist and touring band-member) over the years; Lambchop, Silver Jews, Wooden Wand, Hands Off Cuba, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Charlie Louvin and Candi Staton just to name a few. Tyler has been a Nashville native (where it’s not uncommon to play in several bands at any one time) all his life so he knew music would be his destiny early on. As he has said himself: “I think the good thing about being in Nashville is that we have a lot of good role models of people that have been doing it for decades and still do it.” From a young age though, Tyler would be all-too-aware of the many pitfalls associated with life as a musician in Nashville: “It was an interesting way of growing up and learning about music because it seemed – honestly it was really unattractive to me – because I saw the good and the bad but a lot of what I noticed as a kid was just how hard and how much of a struggle it was.”

William Tyler’s debut solo record ‘Behold The Spirit’ was put out by the Tompkins Square label in 2010 to wide critical acclaim; Tyler’s incredible artistry backed by familiar friends and colleagues from both Lambchop (Tony Crow on piano, Adam Bednarik on bass, ) and Hands Off Cuba (Ryan Norris on synthesizer, Scott Martin on drums, percussion and electronics). Tyler himself shared production duties on ‘Behold The Spirit’ with Lambchop’s bass player Adam Bednarik (the album is also recorded and mixed by Bednarik). Across its nine tracks, it’s very difficult to surmise in mere words the sheer beauty and breathtaking achievement on display throughout. From the opening strum of ‘Terrace Of The Leper King’ ‘Behold The Spirit’ unfolds majestically. What is most impressive throughout is how the various instruments work alongside Tyler’s guitar playing. Subtle use of sound recordings (field recordings from the natural environment – ‘Missionary Ridge’ opens with the sounds of  a dusk scene; or the use of fuzzy tape recordings – sometimes of indistinct voices), some beautiful brass and string arrangements (Alex McManus on brass, Kelli Hix on violin), and the delicate piano notes played by Tony Crow. All the while though, it is Tyler’s stunning array of guitar playing that weaves the ‘Behold’ tapestry together so magnificently. The compositions, very much like a painstaking oil painting, all layer together gradually culminating in a stunning climax for the beholder. In fact, if these pieces of music were ‘paintings’ they would be more likely abstract but in the representational mode (Sean Scully for example), very much rooted in the real world of rich experience and human emotion.

Of course, William Tyler’s talent would have long-ago been noticed by many, most notably anyone who has witnessed Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop on record or live in concert over the years, whether touring the soulful wall-of sound masterwork ‘Nixon’ or the sparsely arranged gem ‘Is A Woman’, or indeed any one of their sonic masterpieces. Take, for example, the ‘Damaged’ tour where both Hands Off Cuba and the Dafo String quartet would join the core Lambchop group; William Tyler would memorably open up proceedings alongside both Scott Martin and Ryan Norris of Hands Off Cuba where beautifully manipulated electronics and percussion-backed arrangements would backdrop Tyler’s patiently looped meandering guitar work. Some of my own favourite Lambchop live memories involve Tyler. Standing stage right (to the seated Kurt – with obligatory ‘Co-Op Horse Feeds’ peaked hat over his eyes), Tyler would navigate the Lambchop songbook effortlessly on guitar; from the groove and brass-aided ‘Grumpus’ to the intimate ‘The New Cobweb Summer’, or from the ‘older’ classics like ‘I Will Drive Slowly’ to the ‘newer’ classics like ‘Fear’ or ‘Prepared [2]’.

In fact, under Wagner’s direction, Lambchop would have served the greatest possible ‘stage’ for Tyler to hone his craft as a guitar player but also, possibly more importantly, to learn and appreciate the arrangement of a song and the painstaking choices (and time) inherently involved. For, in short, who better to appreciate than Nashville’s Lambchop for what makes music work. On listening to the Lambchop catalogue one truly appreciates the full potential inherent in music in all its beauty.

In the wonderful Lambchop documentary ‘No Such Silence’, William Tyler recalls when he was first approached by Kurt Wagner to join Lambchop:

“He just came up to me one night at a bar and said, “Do you want to play with us? Do you want to do this tour with us? We need a keyboard player. Do you play keyboard?” And I said, “Well, no…not really.” He said, “Well, that’s not really that important. Do you have a keyboard?” 

“Well, no.”
“We’ll get you one.”
(William laughing)
It was a pretty convincing sell, you know. That worked for about a year and then I think he realized that I’d be more happy playing guitar and he sort of let me started letting me play the guitar.”

—William Tyler (‘No Such Silence’ Documentary, City Slang, 2007)

‘Behold The Spirit’ was a true beauty to behold; and, together with ‘Impossible Truth’, William Tyler has earned for himself the reputation for being one of the most truly original and utterly compelling artists making music today.

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Interview with William Tyler. 

Please discuss the inspiration behind your latest solo album ‘Impossible Truth’ and the diary of time this music is taken from?

Well my music tends to be pretty deliberate, both in mood and in composition. I have friends like James from Wooden Wand who are ridiculously prolific and I am like the total opposite. It takes me two or three years to write a record usually; I was joking with a song writer friend once that my role model was Terrence Malick and his was Fassbender because our rates of completing projects were so different!

So I started a few of these pieces in 2009 when I was touring on my own for the first time to support my album “Desert Canyon”, but a lot of these melodies and sections never really gelled in an arrangement form until late 2010/2011 when I started focusing on recording again.

To give you a little bit of context, the song “The Geography of Nowhere” contains a minor key melody that was inspired by a long distance train ride through Turkey…I was traveling from Istanbul to Antakya which is near the Syrian border; it was the summer of 2010 and I was taking a sort of crazy impulse solo trip along the shadow route of the Orient express. Anyway, I was in the dining car of this long distance train and there was this old folk song playing on someone’s mp3 player, just over and over, one of those amazing mournful Turkish melodies….it was the only piece of music I heard in a 12 hour period and when I got to a hotel that night I tried to transpose it on the guitar….that’s how that song began.

But all of the songs are similar travelogue type stories…none of them have words but they all have a pretty interesting and singular genesis point.

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‘Cadillac Desert’, taken from the new album is breathtaking. The layers of instrumentation and intricate arrangements is such deeply affecting music that is rare to find. The opening cello line could be Van Dyke Parks. The different sections to this piece is like that of movements in a concerto. My favourite moment comes towards the final close just as the lap steel floats along the ocean of sound. Can you please shed some light on this piece of music, and the title choice? 

Well, as a Capricorn and a Mississippian I am always flattered at any comparisons to Mr Parks! Ha. But thank you. In actuality, it’s a fuzz bass that I played underneath two 12 string electrics with a vibraphone in the background…I guess all together it gives the illusion of a concerto, which was the effect intended.

The title of the piece is in reference to a book of the same name by Marc Reisner that deals with the twisted history of water policy in the American west and how the great irrigation and dam projects evolved before and after World War II. It was a book that I was reading on tour in context along with Mike Davis’s “Ecology of Fear” and Barney Hoskyns’ “Hotel California”…it gave me the idea for this kind of apocalypse song cycle about the decline of the American empire and the tyranny of nostalgia.

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What is the live line-up for your ‘Impossible Truth’ tour? Do you plan a European tour later in 2013?

I do plan on touring Europe, I am coming over to England and Ireland in May with Hiss Golden Messenger but it will be solo…I would love to bring along other musicians and I think at some point the music really calls for more complex live arrangements but right now it’s still one man band economics.

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Can we go back for a moment to ‘Behold The Spirit’, your 2010 solo album. This really is a work of art. The guitar instrumentals create an otherworldly odyssey of sound. It’s spiritual, folk, country, blues in one whole gorgeous spectrum of sound. Can you discuss for me please the recording process involved with ‘Behold The Spirit’? Looking back on the record now, how do you feel about it? You must be deeply proud.

I recorded “Behold” at a studio called House of David with my friend Adam Bednarik, a great bass player and engineer who has collaborated with Lambchop and the myriad of side projects associated with that group. House of David is a great warm old school Nashville studio, wood-paneled walls , low ceilings, ghosts of John Prine, Barefoot Jerry, and Neil Young creeping around. 
 We recorded all analog to tape, mixed in pro tools…I played most everything, a few friends came in to help with drums and piano, but it was a supremely fun and gratifying experience doing that record the way we did. It took a long time though, on and off through 2009, basically whenever Adam or the studio was open.
In terms of inspiration, I mean obviously there is a heavy Takoma vibe in there, there is also a pretty defined nod to acoustic Zeppelin , Terry Riley, Nicky Hopkins’ “Tin Man was a Dreamer”, Bill Frisell, Skip Spence. I envisioned it as an imaginary lost Nashville psychedelic record of the mid seventies…the kind of thing session guys did late at night stoned in the studio after a country session. It’s a very acoustic and folk informed record, and the framing of the acoustic guitar as the central instrument made that pretty obvious.

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You are a native of Nashville. Describe Nashville for me please as you were growing up and how and when did you realize music would play such a vital role in your life?

My father is a songwriter and he and my mother moved up to Nashville from Mississippi in the mid seventies so my sister and I grew up around the music industry…as a kid I thought country music was the lamest most backwards stuff imaginable and I fantasized about British rock music, silent films, being a history professor…anything but what actually occurred in my own life, which was that I stayed firmly planted in my home town and grew to love and respect deeply the music of this community and its history.

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Please discuss Lambchop and the importance this band has had on you to develop as an artist in your own right?

It follows from what I was just talking about…Kurt from Lambchop is another Nashville native and I think the biggest part of being in Lambchop was that it kept me here…It gave me a reason to stay be based out of my home town because I was nineteen, hadn’t gone back to school and was drifting a little, and here was a chance to join a band I had tremendous respect for and tour the world. And musically I was able to grow up in a sense in the context of this band, changing the way I viewed country and soul music certainly, giving me a real focus on the guitar, on ensemble playing, on the power of space and tension. And Kurt has always been such an important mentor and he really allowed me to grow as a person and a musician with the band, I owe him and them quite a lot.

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I’ve seen Lambchop countless times and your guitar playing was an almost constant in those special nights. My memories of Lambchop concerts that stay with me is the wonderful musicianship the audience witness. Your guitar tones and notes has such a characteristic sound, as does Tony Crow’s piano playing and Kurt’s phrasing and rhythm guitar, and so on. Please discuss this special musicianship present in the band and the live performance dynamic playing in Lambchop?

Playing with Lambchop is all about listening. Not just to Kurt but to everyone…The whole reason it ‘works’ is because here are ten people really listening to each other and not playing too much or too little. Kurt is a great band leader because he knows how to get what he wants out of the people he surrounds himself with and a lot of that is being more of a social scientist than an arranger…almost like the way Miles Davis in his electric era used to just assemble a group of folks and let them play together.

But yes, dynamics are paramount with that band. A lot of people on the outside probably don’t understand just how complex the ‘subtlety’ of the music is.

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Take me back please to ‘Master & Everyone’ by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy who you played on?

I played guitar on I think three of four tracks….it was easy, I came in one day and overdubbed. It was the first record Will did with Mark Nevers. I love that album but to be honest I have gotten way way too much credit for it; I’ve never toured with Will or collaborated with him in a bigger context so it’s funny to me that people always bring up that album.

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What albums proved the biggest inspiration for you when it came to recording ‘Impossible Truth’?

Sandy Bull’s “E Pluribus Unum”, Gavin Bryars’ “Sinking of the Titanic”, Kaleidoscope’s “Beacon From Mars”, the film soundtracks of Jack Nitzsche and David Shire, Ry Cooder, Fairport’s “Full House”, “Another Green World” by Eno, anything Popol Vuh.

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Tell me please about your own record label, Sebastian Speaks and what releases are planned?

I have kind of wrapped up Sebastian Speaks as an active entity. It started years ago as a hobby and I released a few things by friends, a few reissues. It was mainly a way of me figuring out the process of actually pressing and selling records, specifically vinyl. A labor of love, but when the labor started outweighing the love I decided to step away from it.

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Discuss please the importance of David Berman and Silver Jews, in which you have played a pivotal role in several records.

I met David through Mark Nevers and came to play guitar on ‘Bright Flight’….and then a few years later when David decided to make the Silver Jews a live entity I was included in that. David is another very important mentor; his intense focus on projects and his very intuitive deliberation and perfectionism really shaped the way I wanted to approach making my own music.

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The person who has recorded a lot of your music is your good friend, the highly regarded Mark Nevers in Nashville, and is of course synonymous with many a Lambchop record among so much more. Can you give me an insight please into his production technique and what makes this place such a wonderful place to record music?

He is an amazing engineer, absolutely the best. Most of his records, including “Impossible Truth” are recorded at his home studio, the Beech House. He’s very organic in the way he approaches recording and hence a great producer for a lot of the stuff that comes out of Nashville…he understands the sonic continuity of Bobby Fuller, Beefheart, the Ramones, and George Jones.
A lot of sessions with Mark are what I imagine people fantasize “Nashville” to be. You show up at nine in the morning, meet a singer for the first time, make charts for five or six songs you have never heard before, and record them. Pretty old school, in the best way.

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‘Impossible Truth’ will be released on Merge Records on March 19 (US) and on April 29 in the UK and Europe.

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http://www.williamtyler.net/
http://www.mergerecords.com
https://soundcloud.com/mergerecords/william-tyler-cadillac-desert

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“To conclude this interview
Many facts and fictions you construe
The dog gives you the paw
You pat his head and you wipe his jaw
He’s the only one who knew
(about) my blue wave”

—Kurt Wagner, ‘My Blue Wave’, (taken from Lambchop’s 2002 album, ‘Is A Woman’)

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