Freedom Rock: The Fuzzbox Liturgy of Ty Segall
Having conquered a variety of genre albums in recent years, the genre this time around is that there isn’t a genre—just a dedication to the sanctity of the music and music alone.
Ty Segall has only tweeted once since 2014. He averages about one Facebook post per three months—and even then, it’s almost exclusively advertising a show. Every “Ty Segall” Instagram account is a fan-made page with a couple dozen photos or fewer. He’s not on Snapchat. His website is updated with only bare-bones contact info, a couple videos, and a simple discography. Even his current label, Drag City, doesn’t post its catalog to Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal, thereby making it impossible to hear the majority of Segall’s studio albums via any streaming service.
By the always-connected tech-centric standards of 2017, Ty Segall barely exists. Yet that’s hardly proven to be an obstacle to his popularity, especially online. It’s just that social networking simply doesn’t appeal to the Los Angeles–based garage rock hero.
“I just don’t trust it,” says Segall in a phone interview from his home. “I don’t know. I just don’t like the interactions on it. I [would] feel like a voyeur if I were to be involved. I’m already a voyeur by owning an iPhone; I don’t need to be more of [one].”
It’s tempting to call him old-fashioned. Despite still being six months away from his thirtieth birthday, Segall indeed embraces an old-school rock and roll sensibility, from a firm belief in the sanctity of the full-length record to his fuzz-heavy analog aesthetic. But, more accurately put, he merely holds one specific thing in much higher regard than the influence of changing business models or technological advances: personal freedom.
In fact, you can hear that declaration of individualism in his music—albeit told in the form of a sprawling and cryptic narrative. On “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned),” the ten-minute centerpiece of his ninth full-length—and second self-titled—solo record, Segall summarizes his belief in the importance of personal liberties via a dystopian sci-fi narrative. The song merges the sprawl and social commentary of Pink Floyd with the blazing guitar theatrics of T. Rex (whom Segall has covered as “Ty Rex”), its protagonist seeking vengeance from a corporate entity that manipulated him as a child: “I wasted life wondering why I was working for you / Now I see clear, have no fear / I know what I must do.”
Still, Segall insists he’s not a political songwriter. And the song itself, which he says was inspired by The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away,” is too entertaining to be preachy.
“Whenever I try to be obvious it just turns out to be a bad song.”
“I was kind of trying to just do more of an opera—a miniature opera,” he says. “A lot of stuff I write is about modern media and subversively topical stuff. But [it’s] never directly, obviously political or anything like that. Whenever I try to be obvious it just turns out to be a bad song. So that song is about someone who’s stuck in a system or a cycle of abuse, whether it’s self-abuse, psychological abuse, whatever.
“Even if it’s self imposed, just like checking your fucking phone every day, and looking up one day and realizing, fuck that,” he adds. “I’ll take my freedom back.”
Beyond the lyrical motif, the album finds Segall embracing freedom from the constraints of genre. In the past, he’s used the album format as a means for exploring a particular sound or aesthetic. On 2012’s Slaughterhouse—one of two albums he released that year—his then-ensemble the Ty Segall Band delivered a blistering set of punk and heavy psychedelic rock. The following year’s Sleeper, on the other hand, found Segall stripping back his sound in favor of an acoustic approach.
His new album spans a much broader spectrum. It certainly sounds like a Ty Segall album—or rather like bits and pieces of several Ty Segall albums pasted onto two sides of vinyl, flowing together like a greatest-hits mixtape. The only overarching theme that holds it together is the sound of a live band—featuring Mikal Cronin, Emmett Kelly, Charles Moothart, and Ben Boye—who perform on every track. Yet that band has a diverse set of talents, ranging from the Dylan-esque country-rock of “Talkin’” to the Sabbath-like riffs of “The Only One” and the upbeat piano pop of “Papers.” If there’s a lot going on throughout the album, however, it’s because the focus was on the individual tracks.
“This is a song record, you know?” Segall says. “Simply put, there’s no spin on it, there’s no veil of concept or whatever. I think at the end of the day these are the nine songs where I was like, ‘These are the best songs I’ve got.’ It felt totally like reaching from all perspectives that I’ve tried out over the years, put together. It felt cool to have a hardcore punk section next to a Dead jam next to a country rock song next to… It’s a genre-hopping thing, which wasn’t necessarily intentional, but that’s just what the songs ended up being.”
Since Melted, the breakthrough 2010 release that put him on many listeners’ radars, Segall hasn’t remained in any one place for too long. That’s true in the literal sense—his tour schedule through most of the past decade makes him one of the hardest-working live musicians in America—and also in a figurative sense, seeing as how he’s rarely repeated any musical idea in the last eight years. If there’s something worth trying, Segall will try it—the weirder the better.
“Finding the weird thing to try… Professionally that’s been my whole M.O. since I did Melted,” he says. “I was going to start doing the same thing over and over again if I didn’t look outside of my comfort zone very quickly.
“I have yet to tap into the dance music market, but that’s something I’ve been thinking about,” he adds with a laugh. “That Dead-Mau-five better look out!”
“I was going to start doing the same thing over and over again if I didn’t look outside of my comfort zone very quickly.”
Ty Segall’s dubstep record is unlikely to materialize, but he’s gotten this far simply by doing whatever the hell he feels like doing. What drives him is a belief in the power of punk rock—the idea that dropping a stylus onto a record can blow a teenager’s mind. He holds his faith in the idea that a power chord can be a life-altering experience. He knows it to be true, because it happened to him.
“Going to shows as a kid was a communal church experience,” he says. “I’m a pretty devout atheist and a pretty devout existentialist, but I follow the church of music and records and going to shows and having it be this kind of communion like that. Especially when you’re fifteen. My youth group was at a punk show.” FL