It was somehow agreed upon during my conversation with William Tyler that he would do the transcribing — the difficult, tedious part — and I would write the intro. This is consistent with William’s character: he is the classic overachiever. Add him to any band — even great ones, like Silver Jews, Lambchop, or Yo La Tengo — and that band’s music is instantly made greater by virtue of his virtuosic guitar playing and heavy spirit. I write as a beneficiary of his talents: William has joined Wooden Wand on a couple of tours, and performs brilliantly on the just-finished Wooden Wand album, due out next year. In person, William is affable, intelligent, quirky, brilliant, and kind; much like his playing, the man himself is a veritable fount of imagination, generosity, and positive energy.
I’m not sure when, or if, dude sleeps: in addition to a constant touring schedule, most recently in support of his magnificent new album Impossible Truth (Merge), he is co-owner, with his sister Elise, of the great Nashville music venue and restaurant The Stone Fox. The music he releases under his own name stands above fashion; indebted to no one scene or sound, it also belies a familiarity with country and rock and roll fundamentals cultivated by years of detailed, deep listening. He loves Suni McGrath and Roseanne Cash, and doesn’t seem to find anything particularly strange about that.
As an instrumentalist and solo performer, he is first among equals.
It was a pleasure to speak with him for Aquarium Drunkard. – JJT
James Jackson Toth: So…you’ve been really busy!
William Tyler: I’ve been real busy. I got home two weeks ago from a three-week tour and before that I had only been home for a week after another three-week tour. I’m having the ‘home for a while letdown’ thing. You know how it is.
JJT: It’s like inertia.
WT: It is like inertia. It’s kind of like, “Wow, real life is complicated! All I used to have to do was drive eight hours to play!”
JJT: Yeah! That’s so easy! (Laughs)
WT: Yeah, no big deal! How bout you?
JJT: Kind of laying low. The Three Lobed LP (Wooden Wand & The World War IV) just came out, and the new Wooden Wand record, which you are prominently featured on, will be out early next year. Have you been recording?
WT: No, I’m trying to write. Now that I am back home I’m trying to finish stuff. I’m not very prolific, but I haven’t had a lot of general discipline about being creative in the last few months, since the touring cycle has started.
JJT: I know it’s something we’ve talked about before, but it’s so funny how uncreative most of the time being on tour can be, unless you’re like the Grateful Dead or maybe Comets on Fire or something, but if you’re playing the same thing more or less every night, with nothing but driving in between, there’s not a lot of time to be creative. Writing is creative, and recording is creative, but after that…
WT: Well, for me, sure, I have been touring most of the time completely by myself. There’s plenty of time to reflect and ruminate–probably too much–driving around, taking trains. I really value that time alone, that calm, but it’s not musical alone time, it’s travel time. When I finally get to play a guitar at the end of the day it’s essentially a fixed set. I’ve been playing the stuff from Impossible Truth and (previous album) Behold the Spirit so much that, at this point, sometimes it feels like I am covering (these songs), that I am almost a cover band. I don’t like the feeling of being comfortable enough with knowing what you are playing, to where you can almost think about other things going on in your life while you’re playing. Your consciousness drifts a bit; you might even say something to yourself like “I wonder what I’m going to eat for dinner tonight?”
JJT: (Laughs) It’s so true. There are at least one or two songs in the Wooden Wand repertoire–I won’t say which ones they are–but I know, if I’m playing them, it means I’ve essentially checked out. It reminds me of when I would work telemarketing jobs: the first two or three weeks you are learning the script, figuring it out, but if you’re there long enough, you can be having entire conversations without being present. It’s the weirdest thing.
WT: It’s interesting you say that because lately I have been fascinated with the idea of what consciousness really is, or what being self aware or conscious is. I was reading the Julian Jaynes book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind on tour with Michael (Taylor, Hiss Golden Messenger) and his theory is that ancient people, up until a certain point, weren‘t really what we would consider “conscious” or self-reflective. They went around every day hearing these voices in their heads that, of course, we would just associate as the ongoing inner dialogue of the self, but to ancient people must have seemed like ‘voices of the gods’ or something. Jaynes starts the book ruminating about what consciousness really is, and he gives examples of playing a musical instrument or driving a car, and that if you were really aware of what you were doing at the moment during one of those actions you would most likely mess up. There’s a lot of anxiety attached to driving long distances on the road or playing an instrument and not messing up, so you have to be present, but not necessarily so self aware that you lose your mental balance so to speak.
JJT: I haven’t gone back as far as you, to the ancients, but I have been re-reading Walden before bed lately. Besides the fact that it really holds up as literature, I think there is something to the awareness of the present and being awake. There’s all this talk in Walden about “sauntering” and being aware of the details, and there seems to be a lot more of that in pre-modern literature.
WT: I definitely feel like the more “modern” the world gets, the more I long for that kind of space and silence that we’ve lost. I try to avoid interstates; I listen to a lot of AM radio. I feel like I am turning into one of my grandparents.
JJT: Well, the processes are just so exponential now. It already feels like we’ve been through five generations of culture in a single lifetime. Our grandparents only had the transition from Dixieland to bebop to rock and roll, and that’s just music. We’ve had, like, five times that amount of change already.
WT: We are also having to process memory and nostalgia, I think because of what you’re saying. We’ve been through so many different eras. You and I are about the same age, we’ve watched music change and we’ve had to process that change. At times the 1970s seems closer in time than the late nineties, which is of course insane because I wasn’t even alive back then. But maybe it’s having this imagined kinship with people that were making records forty years ago and then looking at clips of MTV from the late nineties or even old issues of Magnet and you just ask “When was that?” It seems like a thousand years ago.
JJT: A lot of it’s just the proliferation. I find it harder to even follow bands I like lately; sometimes I just opt for silence. Do you remember that Onion headline from a few years ago, “Lifelong Love Affair with Music Ends at 35”? (Laughs). I mean that’s not it, obviously; I still love music just as much as I ever have. But these days, I just literally can’t keep up.
WT: It’s interesting hearing you say that because I have always looked at you as one of my friends that’s a music guru. Whenever I am at a loss for something new to listen to I will just think to myself “I’ll call James,” because I know you’ll have like 20 recommendations. Lately I have been buying one record and really trying to get inside of it for a while, spend a lot of time with it. But it makes me understand why kids are so insane now because anything that’s ever been recorded is on a blog, something on the Nurse With Wound List I never thought I would get to hear for instance, and you can just download anything. And I wonder at what point people really stop being able to process because there’s so much information.
JJT: I think I told you this recently, but I had this idea that I was only going to listen to two records a month. When we were in high school, two albums a month is about all you got.
WT: It was all you could afford!
JJT: Right. Your allowance or whatever. Or if I happened to do well on a spelling test or something, maybe my mom would take me to buy a Carcass tape (laughs).
WT: My mom would take me to buy an REM tape.
JJT: See, that’s why you are a better guitar player than me to this day. (Laughs) But I mean, there are records I bought this year that, I don’t even know the song titles. When I was a kid, I knew the titles of every song on albums I didn’t even like.
WT: That’s true. Even when I was a kid I would go through my dad’s record collection and really pay attention to liner notes. That’s what hooked me. “Oh yeah, this guy played guitar on this track,” etc. I think that’s kind of thing people aren’t as cognizant of now.
JJT: Let’s go back to something you were talking about earlier: You were saying something about not feeling prolific. What is your writing process usually like?
WT: It’s fitful. It tends to be an elongated process. When I started writing guitar music it was purely for myself. I didn’t have the intention of releasing it, it was just a form of expression outside of the context of playing sideman guitar with other folks.
JJT: This is when you were using the Paper Hats moniker?
WT: Right. I recorded on 4-track cassette, I passed it around to friends, it grew, and it became more guitar-centric and less noise collage type stuff. But it was so private, and I did it outside of the context of playing live. I would put a guitar in a certain tuning and leave it in that tuning until I finished a song. It might take a while to finish something because the melodies came in spurts. And it was all memory; I mean I can’t really read tablature. So now that I have a lot more songs it’s challenging the limits of my memory to retain all these different tunings and fingerings. I need to figure out how to chart them or document them in some fashion.
JJT: I have a Tascam recorder and I will speak into it and…God forbid anyone ever finds those tapes! I’ll just hum a melody sometimes when I can’t figure it out on guitar.
WT: That’s how Joe Meek did it!
JJT: That’s right! Also one of my heroes, Jackie Gleason did the same thing. He never read music, didn’t play an instrument, and he conducted whole orchestras. Back to how we make records–I find sequencing albums so difficult now. I used to go by the After the Gold Rush blueprint: the long song is third; the rock song is here, the short one is at the end, whatever. Now I realize people don’t always make it to the end of albums. I think some of the best Wooden Wand songs are at the end of the records, but I realize that people, even reviewers, occasionally don’t make it past the first four songs. Do you front-load, do you try to work with that model? Or do you stick to that idea of the album being a ‘journey,’ even though that word is really corny?
WT: All of my favorite albums, from Black Flag’s Damaged to Radio City by Big Star, they begin and end in very different places; they move at a weird pace. The first Big Star record is like that, it starts off hopeful and pop and by the end it’s a downer folk record. They obviously did it on purpose. Radio City gets more fucked up sonically the longer it goes on and then it just kind of peters out. But as far as sequencing now I wonder how much people apply the same methodology. For me it’s important because my stuff is instrumental and I want there to be some story there even if there aren’t lyrics. I was very deliberate about sequencing Impossible Truth. The first chord of the first song is on a 12-string guitar and it’s the same as the last chord of the last song, so the record is cyclical. But I am not under any illusions about how many records I might make. I might make five; I want them to be well thought out. And I also feel like anyone who gives a shit about instrumental music will listen to an entire album, but maybe I’m wrong!
JJT: I like what you said about Impossible Truth being your singer-songwriter record without vocals. You nailed that perfectly.
WT: I appreciate that. Living and growing up in Nashville, I was always very aware of the singer-songwriter tradition, and for a long time I sang and wrote lyrics. I guess I feel like when people press me on “when are you going to sing?” maybe I get more obstinate about not singing. I like having a kinship with guys like you, Mike Taylor, David Berman, who I respect as great lyricists, but for me that’s enough. That leads me to something I wanted to ask you though. There’s something going on in culture now that I see as a sort of “death of narrative” and Douglas Rushkoff touches on it explicitly in his book Present Shock. I think a lot of it is just due to the absolute inundation of information we have now and how we have to instantly process everything, the meme society. You’re one of the only people I know who I feel like is still writing really good narrative songs and I wanted to ask you if had any thoughts about where we were as a society when it came to narrative.
JJT: Well, zeroing in on something that applies to music, I think even in reviews people fail to mention lyrics a lot, whether they’re good or bad. I think a lot of times now it sounds like lyrics are scribbled down in a taxicab on the way to the session, and I wonder why no one gets called on it. But having said that, once in a while someone will ask me something very specific about a Wooden Wand lyric, or make some connection, and I feel like all hope is not lost. There’s something to letting a narrative unfold; I mean I can’t read a novel in one night. Keith Fullerton Whitman said something, and I’m paraphrasing here, but he said that nowadays you write something in the morning, you record it in the afternoon, and by night it’s on Bandcamp. You don’t necessarily have time to sit with it or be critical of it. And you can’t blame people for looking at it as somewhat disposable when you’re presenting it that way.
WT: One of the things I value about living in Nashville is having fairly affordable access to studios and being very businesslike about doing a record. Going to a place where you don’t necessarily have a sense of time, you can just focus on the work. Part of it is the fact that I just don’t like recording at home; I don’t have a lot of gear. But a great deal of it is that I value the process of going to a separate place with a couple of other people and being very methodical about recording. I think I need that spatial differentiation of home and work. Sometimes I wonder if people, to a large degree, are even reflective of what they declare. It’s why I don’t tend to pay much attention to political rants on Facebook, for instance. People are so reactive; we’ve set up this culture where everyone, because of the Internet, has this ability to instantly respond in an opinionated matter to whatever suits their fancy, almost without consequence. So you’ve created this “Yelp culture,” a mimetic culture that is essentially narcissist. The more people who are conscious of it can move away from this and back to the methods that maybe are a little more tried and true, whether it’s churning your own butter or going to an analog recording studio, I think these are important distinctions.
JJT: I’m glad to hear you say that about home recording.
WT: Well it became a means of production because studios were too expensive; you and I were teenagers when the people who pioneered home recording came to the forefront…
JJT: But it’s an end unto itself now, and the studio system has suffered because of it.
WT: I had to run an errand to by a recording studio, Quad, here in Nashville yesterday. Lambchop did a lot of Is a Woman there and Neil Young did quite a bit of Harvest there as well. Anyway, I was amazed at how trapped in time the studio seemed. Like, it hadn’t changed since the last time I was in there over ten years ago. The TV in the lounge was from the eighties, none of the furniture was new, everything was so old school and funky and it made me wonder, are these guys feeling the pinch too? They’re on Music Row.
JJT: Well a lot of it is getting older I guess, having that perspective…
WT: True. So different subject…what have you been listening to lately?
JJT: The new Califone record. I think it’s my favorite of theirs. Lotta stuff on the Cold Blue label out of California: James Tenney, Peter Garland…some of it’s pretty academic, some of it straddles the ‘new age’ line…
WT: Yeah man, but new age is back!
JJT: True. And always reissues. Mountain Bus, McKay, that Anonymous reissue. The Mountain Bus is great, they were east coast but it sounds really Dead-y, very San Franscico. Also, Date Palms. What about you? What are you jamming on those long road trips?
WT: Well, when I went out west I had a rental car and it had satellite radio. I got pretty hooked on this station called ‘Deep Tracks’. The format was essentially lesser-known cuts by super famous bands…Like the b-side to “In a Gadda Da Vida” or an album cut off Desperado or Physical Graffiti that you never hear. The other station that was foolproof was ‘Willie’s Roadhouse.’ All the old country stuff.
JJT: That’s a great station.
WT: Dude, on that last Silver Jews tour that station is pretty much all we listened to. That and Titans games. The only things we could all agree on. There are also a couple of oldies soul stations that I defaulted to a lot. I also love AM radio trawling. You get a lot of right wing talk nonsense but you also hear weird outer space church stuff or countries oldies or livestock reports. I can listen to that kind of weird stuff all the time. I have to say when I am on a road trip I love it when someone else is djing. So it’s tough driving alone, I don’t have anyone else to bounce ideas off of.
JJT: Jeff Lewis taught me this trick on tour where someone else Djs off of your iPod, so you hear something that you didn’t even know you had.
WT: That sounds like a great method. We need to do another road trip together so we can test that.