On His New Album, Ty Segall Goes Into Battle Without Guitars

Music Features Ty Segall
On His New Album, Ty Segall Goes Into Battle Without Guitars

Ty Segall and the electric guitar were made for each other. Whether you fell in love with the metallic, overdriven garage rock of Emotional Mugger, the sprawling guitar chameleon Manipulator or last year’s rock ’n’ roll funhouse Freedom’s Goblin, Segall has melted his fair share of faces over the years.

He’s been a mainstay in California’s rock scene for just over a decade, playing in countless bands like GØGGS, Sic Alps and The C.I.A., but he’s best known for his lengthy solo discography, which has established him as one of America’s finest cult garage acts alongside Thee Oh Sees and The Black Lips.

While Segall’s fire-breathing, surefire rock music is still intact on his new solo album First Taste, there’s something missing here, even if you don’t notice what it is at first.

First Taste opens with a hiss—the same muddied sound a VHS tape makes before the footage starts. It’s soon coupled with a brief, creepy utterance, placing you in a pitch black forest full of unknown creatures emitting ominous sounds.

Once the fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll of the first track kicks in, it sounds like an epic horror-action scene where you’re plopped in the backseat of Segall’s car with Texas Chainsaw Massacre villains salivating in the rear view mirror. This animalistic energy and mythical quality is par for the course with Segall, but there’s a crucial omission.

Segall made his latest solo LP without his trusty weapon of choice: the guitar. You won’t hear any six-string battle axes on First Taste, but you will hear a host of other instruments: bouzouki, koto, mandolin, electric omnichord, mouth horn and more. Segall didn’t set out to write and record an album without a single trace of guitar—it just sort of turned out that way.

“I just bought a bouzouki,” Segall says. “I was really into playing that, and I wrote a song on it and then I was like, ‘I wonder what other instruments I could find that could make a record without guitars.’ I was just listening to some of my older records and thought that I might’ve been falling into a formula a little bit. I just felt like I wanted to break out of that songwriting cycle.”

There are plenty of stringed instruments with unusual tones ringing out across the album, so unless you’re a seasoned musician, you might just think Segall went crazy with guitar pedals. He can now add “sonic trickster” to his ever-growing list of titles.

“That’s half the fun,” Segall says of First Taste’s instrumental deception. “It’s still loud rock and roll. I guess it’s rock and roll. I don’t really know how to describe it. There are a lot of sounds on there that sound like a guitar. I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking there was guitar on every song.”

The word “prolific” has become synonymous with Segall, and it’s a label he’s frustrated with. Many assume musicians who release music faster than the typical record label timetable aren’t carefully considering what they’re making. Segall has always employed a smart strategy to subvert those preconceptions.

“People throw the ‘prolific’ thing at me constantly and ‘quantity over quality and yada, yada, yada,’” Segall says. “The only way I can justify putting out so much music is if every record has its own little piece, then it’s justified in its existence.”

First Taste’s experimental bent means it’s clearly distinguishable from his other releases. Segall had to teach himself to play several unfamiliar instruments like the bouzouki—a traditional Greek instrument somewhat similar to a mandolin. There’s also the Japanese electric koto, which Segall says is “the most fun” instrument he played on this record.

“You play it by pushing down buttons that hold the frets down,” Segall says. “It’s a weird drone instrument. You can do really crazy shit with it because you can move faster and with both hands instead of just one hand, playing it like a guitar.”

Even though Segall challenged himself to make this record without guitars, he doesn’t really think of First Taste as a non-guitar album. It’s clear that Segall is a true songwriter and wants people to connect with the songs more so than the means he used to create them. His angelic new single “Ice Plant” is sure to spark a close bond with listeners. It’s one of the prettiest songs he’s ever released, and it’s his first venture into a capella. For all the strange moments and recording techniques on this album, it’s here where he says he feels most self-conscious. He expressed similar hesitations about his lyrical ability, but thinks he’s improved significantly since his early days.

“I think it’s good to be insecure about stuff you make,” Segall says. “I just don’t feel like I’m a poet or anything like that. I enjoy making surrealist kind of nonsensical songs that are open to interpretation. A lot of the insecurity comes from the times where I’ve tried to say something in a song. But I feel good about all the lyrics on this record for sure. The stuff I wrote when I was 22, 23, not all that stuff I can listen to.”

The lyrics also help differentiate First Taste from his other records. The album is concerned with growth—physical, mental, emotional, moral, intellectual—and how it determines our current perspectives. The album presents itself as a loose trajectory of aging, with each phase of the record (apart from the more abstract songs) representing emotions associated with a distinct point in one’s life.

There’s a primal, evolutionary quality to album opener “Taste,” which lists integral human functions. Later, “The Arms” depicts the emotional drowning that marks adolescence, and “I Sing Them” is where inevitable young adult urges of rebellion and identity are planted. On “Self Esteem,” memories begin to morph and fade, and the final track “Young Cowboy,” has morbid lines like “Blood’s a weak rhythm / keeping the time when your life’s gone.”

Segall isn’t one to explain his songs in thematic detail, mainly because he often discovers what they mean after they’re finished. However, he does acknowledge that some of them were inspired by memories of his childhood.

“A lot of those songs are coming to terms with the world that I’m living in and also my whole life’s history of relationships with people, family, et cetera,” Segall says. “In the middle of [making this] album, I changed my perspective of how I wanted to move forward with interacting with people from my past. So I think that was a heavy moment on the album. I couldn’t even really tell you when that happened, but there was a lot of mental changes of perspective.”

Segall’s not big on nostalgia, but he knows there’s wisdom to be gained from one’s past. First Taste examines how he’s interacted in this particularly cruel and unpredictable world, where regulating oneself can provide some semblance of control and compassion.

“I had a big, cryptic realization moment listening to some of my old records where a lot of the songs I’m using the word ‘you,’” Segall says. “I was being accusatory and I had this moment of, it’s bullshit to put ‘you’ in a song if you can’t think about yourself as part of the whole group of humanity. If I’m gonna comment on anything, I’m going to comment on myself right now as part of either the problem or the greater group of people. Perspective and morality, and, I don’t know, kindness—they’re all subjective in a way. So you need to check what your perspective is and look inward and be self-critical before you can really behave appropriately.”

To some, Segall is nothing more than a caricature of the “stoner guitar dude” (even though he doesn’t smoke weed) while others think he’s a profound songwriter and mercurial artist. Beyond the discourse from Reddit threads or the music press, Segall is focused on the same mission he’s always had.

“For me, making stuff for fun is just as valid a reason to make something as having it be a very serious project with deep meaning,” Segall says. “I’m always excited to make music and make weird shit.”

First Taste is out on Aug. 2 via Drag City Records. Listen to Segall’s 2010 Daytrotter session below.

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