William Tyler is a guitarist and songwriter who has collaborated with Lambchop, the Silver Jews, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Charlie Louvin, Candi Staton, and many others. His first solo album, Behold the Spirit (Tompkins Square) dropped in 2010 to critical acclaim, establishing him as one of the most creative and innovative guitarists working today. William Tyler has a new album out called Impossible Truth (Merge Records), that was heavily inspired by Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California and Mike Davis’ The Ecology of Fear.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with William to discuss his musical history, up to and including the making of Behold The Spirit and his new album, Impossible Truth.
Hi William, congrats on Impossible Truth! And thanks for taking the time to participate in this interview. Before we dig into the making of Impossible Truth, I'd like to start with some of your history for readers new to your work.
Your website describes you as someone who "comes from good Southern stock, a Nashville lifer who’s played with Lambchop, the Silver Jews, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Charlie Louvin, Candi Staton". Can you briefly share some of your most influential experiences leading up to your first solo album: 2010's Behold the Spirit?
William Tyler: That’s quite a question to lead off with, and while there have been a lot of challenging and influential experiences I have had that I probably don’t want to share because they are alternately shameful, too personal, too painful etc.- I am usually a fairly open book. Not writing lyrics, you might not assume that about me.
To keep it tied to the discussion regarding my music though, I went through a really challenging time creatively before I started recording and releasing instrumental music under my own name…I had spent so much time backing up other singer songwriters, Kurt (of Lambchop) being chief among them, that I had really lost my ability to feel confident about writing songs with words that even resonated with me.
Or maybe it was just too much insecurity, or too much self-examination. I wrote lyrics for years and honestly they were pretty good, but I just felt like the medium of lyrical songwriting wasn’t the forum for me to convey what I wanted to in my own music anymore.
So I stepped away very consciously from that. This is going back about eight years now. I was listening to a lot of stuff from the Siltbreeze catalog, a lot of Six Organs of Admittance, old Folkways records of sound effects and field recordings, Sandy Bull, Fahey. I decided I wanted to change the approach of how I made music and keep it mysterious, personal, open to interpretation, and yes, instrumental.
Please discuss your experiences writing the material that would ultimately become Behold The Spirit.
William: A lot of travel, a lot of driving through the mountains of east Tennessee, that’s why there are a couple of specific geographical references to the Chattanooga area on that record. A lot of dabbling with melodies on the guitar by myself and waiting a while for them to take shape into compositions.
I am pretty meticulous when it comes to writing; it takes me a long time to finish songs and I need them to have a lot of context. They could be about an unrealized romance, a book I just finished, a town in mississippi where my grandparents grew up, a dead language. Lots of ghosts, dead languages, out of print books, ephemera in my music. My songs are like jingles for products that don’t exist anymore.
Did you have a pre-conceived vision for that record?
William: A little bit. I wanted it to be like an imaginary lost psychedelic Nashville record from the mid seventies. Like Barefoot Jerry doing Led Zeppelin III. With some Miles’ Get Up With It and Faust thrown in.
How did it all come together?
William: The first song on the record, “Terrace of the Leper King” was actually the first tune we recorded. It was a cold dark weekend in January and my friend Adam Bednarik (who engineered the record) and I were snug in the confines of the House of David, a super old time vibe Nashville music row studio. All of Nashville was in stunned winter mourning cause the Titans had lost to the Ravens in the playoffs the day before.
Anyway, we cut that song, just me with the guitar, and the sound of it was just so rich I knew we were going to be able to do this record the way I wanted. It had little to do with my playing and more with how Adam was able to coax this washed out deep acoustic tone; I don’t know, there must have been some friendly ghosts in that room.
Behold the Spirit came out in 2010 on Tompkins Square. Can you talk about your experiences after the record's release and how these prepared you for writing the next record?
William: I had the opportunity to tour a lot and play in wildly different scenarios with that music. I opened for Yo La Tengo, I played acoustic sets wedged in between two hardcore bands, I got to travel and play with Michael Chapman, ditto with MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger. Just a lot of amazing traveling, playing outside of any perceived comfort zone, meeting so many disparate folks here and in Europe.
I think the best thing that travel provokes in me is having time to think and muse away from the comfort and routine of home life; and while I don’t usually write a lot on tour, I come up with a lot of ideas that help refocus my creative attention when I return.
I read that you were inspired heavily by Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California and Mike Davis’ The Ecology of Fear. Can you discuss how these books influenced you (on the material that would ultimately become Impossible Truth)?
William: It was a happy accident of reading books concurrently on tour. I was actually juggling a few books, two of which were the ones you mentioned. Another was Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert. And perhaps not coincidentally I was also touring out west, driving in a van with Wooden Wand through vast stretches of open land, you know, Colorado in a snowstorm, Kansas on a clear blue day, the kind of clear blue sky that is monumentally overpowering.
I started thinking I wanted this next record to be a song cycle about the decline of the American empire, the weird myopic and sort of delusional imperialism that led us to do things like poach water from a river so that Los Angeles could have green lawns, that created the sprawl of the interstate, the very tenuous fabric that holds this whole thing up and the fact that it seems to be nearing the end of its reality right?
I guess reading two books about LA back to back, Davis’ and Hoskyns’, I started noticing all the weird delusional/ sometimes self aware and apocalyptic thinking of the Laurel Canyon seventies scene. I mean, those dudes like the Eagles realized everything around them was fantasy and unsustainable, the same way the city they were living in was.
I also really enjoyed reading that these works inspired you to "compose a story rooted in apocalyptic expectation and bittersweet nostalgia. Or as you put it, "This is “my ’70s singer-songwriter record, it just doesn’t have any words.” Can you elaborate on this?
William: Well, I was just touching on it. I am very conscious of history and sense of place; I am also the kind of guy who feels like I was born out of time, like I should have come of age in the time my parents did. At least the music and movies of that time period are a lot more resonant with me than anything now, and I have pretty much always felt that way.
I feel like I have a lot of angst about where we as a culture are going and honestly, where we already are. The reality of Zero Dark Thirty, the Kardashians, four dollar gasoline, bank bailouts, etc. I mean, these are troubling things that keep me up at night right! I’m a concerned citizen of the universe.
At the same time, I think nostalgia almost has a tyrannical hold on certain segments of our generation, maybe I give it too much power, but I do feel like there are a lot of people my age longing for a time where, at least culturally, there was more room for being intellectual, deliberate, difficult. Maybe we are going to return to it though.
What were you listening to and inspired by most musically while writing?
William: Gavin Brayrs, Sandy Bull, Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Popol Vuh, Bill Orcutt, Leo Kottke, and Brian Eno.
What were you listening to while recording?
William: There were songs where I really wanted to go for a very particular sound from a record, like on the first song “Country of Illusion”, I asked my friend Luke Schneider who played pedal steel on the track to listen to the way Red Rhodes played steel on Ian Matthews’ version of “Seven Bridges Road”.
Or on the song called “The Last Residents of Westfall” I wanted to get a very definite Durutti Column feel. Or on the last song “The World Set Free” I asked the trombonist Roy Agee to imagine what the low brass sounded like in the theme to the film All the President’s Men. A lot of details like that, but with the overall feel of a seventies cinema soundtrack.
How would you say Impossible Truth connects most to your previous records?
William: I tried to incorporate more of an ‘arranged’ feel to the vibe of the record, with like I said a conscious ode to film soundtracks, whether they be Popol Vuh’s or Ry Cooder’s or David Shire’s. The guitar here is like the front person or the singer but not the only important element.
What would you say sets it most apart?
William: Ah I don’t know….I don’t like trying to say what sets this or that apart and I don’t know if I can be that objective. I guess I did want to move away in a fairly obvious manner from the Takoma sound but really that just meant using a lot of electric guitar where in the past I would have used an acoustic guitar.
And I wanted to feature the electric twelve string prominently because it’s an amazing instrument that I don’t feel has been explored very much. Outside of the context of “hey we want the Byrds-y well really Tom Petty-ish jangle sound thing”.
Why did you go with Merge for the release?
William: I have known the Merge folks for a long time through my relationship with Lambchop and other bands. They are amazing people, a remarkable record label, and they happen to be headquartered in the Triangle are of North Carolina which is one of the only other places I would consider living besides here in Nashville.
What have you been listening to lately?
William: I have been listening to Lustmord and Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay as I have been writing this interview. I’ll probably listen to the Tennessee/Florida basketball game tonight on the radio. A good balance of sports and esoteric music.
What are your plans for 2013?
William: Touring and trying to start all over again on making another record. I have a concept for the next one but I don’t have any songs yet!