William Tyler on Secret Stratosphere

Guitarist William Tyler’s recent outings, like the radiowave-infused New Vanitas, and Lost Futures and Understand, two duo albums with Marisa Anderson and Luke Schneider, have found the Southern-born artist in contemplative moods. Secret Stratosphere suggests a more looser, more celebratory space. It’s the first release credited to The Impossible Truth, which features a cast of Tyler’s longtime collaborators, including bassist Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Greenhornes, The Dead Weather), drummer Brian Kotzur (Silver Jews, Country Westerns), and pedal steel player Luke Schneider (Margo Price).

Recorded live at Yellowhammer Brewing in Huntsville, Alabama, in May of 2021, the show finds Tyler and friends shaking off the lockdown blues, indulging in a heady blend of deep, searching jams, kaleidoscopic reinventions of Tyler classics like “Whole New Dude” and “I’m Going to Live Forever (If It Kills Me),” and a cover of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity.” Along with Tyler’s chatty stage banter, these performances suggest revelry, The Impossible Turth coming on like Ashra meets the Allman Brothers.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking often with Tyler, both as part of an infrequently meeting book club and one-on-one. While this conversation began with the intention of speaking about the new live outing, it quickly wandered off, touching on Tyler’s cinematic fixations, AI, and his desire to escape the “micro-genre” of American Primitive guitar. Our conversation, edited for cohesion, is presented here. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Have you watched Toby Amies’ King Crimson documentary yet, In The Court of the Crimson King

William Tyler: Oh my god, it’s so good.

AD: I watched it yesterday for the first time. I was blown away by it. I knew going in that Fripp is obviously an eccentric dude, but I wasn’t even remotely prepared for how intense he would be.

William Tyler: He seemed a lot sweeter than I would have thought. He seems softer as a person, you know what I mean?

AD: Oh for sure, the movie reveals that side of him too. He’s funny in a very self-aware manner. That leads me to my first question: Like Fripp, do you practice guitar 4-5 hours a day?

William Tyler: Oh god no! I don’t even play guitar everyday. [Laughs] But you know, if I did, I would probably be able to play guitar like Robert Fripp. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a bad thing. I had a friend who was in a bunch of death metal bands here in Nashville; he taught me a lot about guitar. He went to one of those Robert Fripp guitar camps and he just said it was like being in a cult or something.

AD: You and I are both spiritually curious folks—Fripp is totally rooted in that Gurdjieff school, a very intense adherence to certain principles. I’m fascinated by it all and a part of me longs for that kind of discipline—but, like, I struggle to even meditate once a day. I try, but fail. Can you imagine carving out four hours daily to run these insane scales?

William Tyler: No, but it’s also super inspiring too.

AD: I think what I was most struck by is his willingness to completely jettison what King Crimson sounds like and go off in different directions. And this new record of yours, Secret Stratosphere, it’s still recognizably you, but you’re definitely in a new zone. You guys cut this in the summer of 2021—was this one of your first gigs back in the world, post-pandemic? 

William Tyler: Yeah, I was in Nashville most of 2020 and City Winery had done some outdoor shows I took part in, but apart from that and playing in people’s yards casually, this was definitely the first billed show that I had played coming out of COVID. 

AD: I caught you play last summer at the Mesa Arts Center, and you were leaning into more classical moves. But it’s really exciting to hear you guys rock out a bit more on this record. How did this more rock-forward approach develop? 

William Tyler: We came up with that band name about a  year ago—we called it “The Impossible Truth” because we had a kind of Crazy Horse thing in mind. We had been calling it the “William Tyler Band” but people would get confused and wonder if it was just me doing an acoustic thing. We wanted it to be clear this was a different thing.

We’ve all played together off and on for years, but not as often as we’d like because our pedal steel player Luke [Schneider] had a couple of pretty-committed touring gigs and our bassist Jack [Lawrence] was in a similar situation. Brian [Kotzur] plays with the band Country Westerns and he was the drummer in Silver Jews, so I’ve known him since forever. We got this invitation to play outside this brewery in Huntsville, Alabama, and figured it would be a good thing to do. We decided to record it, because we weren’t sure when it would happen again. A local filmmaker, Josh Shoemaker, brought down a couple other camera people and they filmed the whole show and we’ve been cutting videos out of that. We originally thought we’d just put it up on Bandcamp, but Merge was committed to creating a double vinyl edition with old-school packaging. I’d like to make a studio record with [this band] too. It’s very much a different thing. I have a duo with Marisa Anderson too, but I’m almost looking at The Impossible Truth as a totally different project.

AD: Have you been working on the next William Tyler proper record in the meantime?

William Tyler: Yes, it’s much more in the ambient, minimalist world. I’m really stoked about it. There is a part of me that loves playing solo guitar, but there’s just so much baggage with it you know as a micro-genre?

AD: When you say baggage, what do you mean?

William Tyler: I’m talking about the Windham Hill, Takoma, Folkways style—you could broaden it out to include some people who aren’t quite in the folk realm, like Sandy Bull, but I mean it’s still a pretty insular micro-genre. I think there are people doing interesting things with it, but the fact that there are memes…you saw the American Primitive meme right? 

AD: The bingo meme? 

Via The Modern Folk.

William Tyler: Yes! I was like, “Not totally fair.” [Laughs] It hit pretty close to home. Since Modern Country, I haven’t really been making solo guitar records. On one hand, you’re grateful to be accepted into any genre, but I’ve always straddled a few—indie-rock, psych-rock, ambient, new age, experimental, folk, Americana. I’m just interested in making good instrumental music.

AD: Your music draws a lot from the language of cinema too. What have you been watching lately? 

William Tyler: I have a pretty tight group of cinephile buddies in New York, LA, and here in Nashville. There’s an independent arthouse cinema house called the Belcourt, which is like a church for a certain type of weirdo in Nashville. That’s where you go. When I moved back here in August of 2022, if I couldn’t think of anything else to do on a day and the weather wasn’t nice enough to take a walk, I would just go to the Belcourt and sometimes watch two movies in a row. 

I [try to watch] a mixture of things. Tár really resonated with me. So did Triangle of Sadness. My favorite movie of 2021 by far was Don’t Look Up. I thought that was like the final level, a brilliant, iconic satire that people will be watching in 30 years. A lot of people I talked to were like, “Ehhh.” Because everything has to be a comic book movie now, or something trying so hard to be vague and obtuse.

AD: I loved Tár, but think the ambiguity of it might have thrown people. 

William Tyler:I love ambiguity! Well actually, no, ambiguity terrifies me in my personal life, but in terms of art—yes! [Laughs] I love that line between dissonance and consonance. I like the line between dreaming and awake. I like the line between antihero and hero. That stuff is so beautiful to me. 

AD: That makes me think of my favorite “recent” movie, First Reformed, which we’ve discussed before. I don’t think many movies possess the power that one does. 

William Tyler: That’s one of the most underrated movies of the last 10 years, I agree. Definitely my favorite thing Paul Schrader has done for sure. You know what else was really underrated? That movie Sorry To Bother You. That was so next level brilliant. I think it’s one of the most important satires I’ve seen, about so many things in America. Race, capitalism. I think our culture is so much about continuous consumption and aspirational capitalism that anything that really pushes back against it cuts a little too close to home for a lot of people. Same with Don’t Look Up. We need more of that.

AD: I think so too. But I get it. People’s desire for moral clarity right now is so deeply understandable; we live in such bleak and morally challenged times. 

William Tyler: We live in incredible times where our realities are not shared. There are these orthodox ideological and informational portals that are very separate in America—they very rarely intersect. It’s kind of why I like football—I am not a fan of the the violence, of course—but I think it might be the only thing that people in America who don’t vote the same way share.

AD: Social media feeds into it; it feels like The Purge—we’ve created these anything goes spaces where we say the cruelest and most dehumanizing thing about people who, in some cases, we have only minor ideological differences with.

William Tyler: Sometimes they’re not even people, they’re literally robots. Ted Chiang needs to put out another collection of short stories really quick. 

AD: It feels like we’re about to live in one, if we don’t already. Wow William, this interview has gone off the rails in the best possible way. I’m thinking about Chiang’s golem story. We’re all being confronted with the idea of AI, and what is AL if not some weird golem, a strange mirror we’ve created to look at ourselves. Not that I’m particularly terrified right now of its implications. 

William Tyler: I’m terrified. [Not long ago] I heard a guy on the radio talking about the NCAA basketball tournament, and he said, “Computers always pick the likeliest teams to win and they run these percentages and all these probabilities.” It was so creepy, he was basically like “I think computers should pick everything for us.” I was like “No, have you not seen The Terminator? What if the computer turns on us? 2001 was about this, you know?

AD: Well I can’t argue those fears are totally unjustified as we’ve managed, as humans, to use every tool we’ve ever developed to hurt each other. We are maybe a bit too ready to hand it all over to the algorithms and you have to wonder what gets lost in that process.  

William Tyler: Sure, but it’s such bullshit. I’m sorry, but a computer is not gonna write a Beethoven piece, a computer is not gonna write Shakespeare, a computer is not gonna generate Mitch Hedberg jokes, a computer is not gonna write an essay like Bell Hooks. There’s soul, humanity, and spirituality in all of truth and art and philosophy—you can’t program a fucking computer to do that. 

You can program it to play chess, you can program it to make weird psychedelic screensavers, you can even program it to do this infinite Seinfeld spoof that’s running on Twitch right now—which has actually gotten funnier the longer it goes because the algorithm is learning—and that’s creepy. [Laughs] But I’m analog until I die. I hate the digital world. 

AD: It would be one thing if it were making us all happier, but it’s not. We’re only getting more miserable.

William Tyler: It’s making us lazier. We’re less in touch with the natural world, and the world where things are made by hand. Endgame is, we’re all just slobs eating buddy, like WALL-E. 

AD: Like I remember being younger and thinking Mike Judge’s Idiocracy was so mean-spirited. That’s not how people behave. But now I’m like, wow, we sort of are like that. I’m sort of like that. We all are. 

William Tyler: We talked about this specifically when the pandemic began, this sort of other version of dystopia, the Octavia Butler school where it’s actually about revolutionary change and transformation and growth. We have to think about it from that angle—assuming things aren’t just going to devolve, they actually could go in the opposite direction. 

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