Sometimes a record creates an even bigger conversation than its maker had originally intended. This is exactly what happened to William Tyler when he released Modern Country back in 2016. “We stand at the precipice of the twilight of empire,” he declared, fully aware of the “weird tapestry” – as he calls it – between rural and cosmopolitan life. Among the left, it felt comfortable to maintain a sense of denial, scoffing at the idea that Donald Trump would actually win. But Tyler knew deep down that his ruminations on a vanishing America – and his panoramic sonic adieu to its vast splendour – would dovetail into this nightmarish real-life scenario.
Over Skype, I ask Tyler whether this coinciding of circumstances became in some way cumbersome to him. “When Modern Country came out, I ended up doing this really long tour in Europe supporting Wilco,” Tyler recollects in his typically brisk Southern twang. “It was during the election, which is always a strange time to be out of the country. The tour was fine, it was a great experience, and honestly, looking back, I had a bad sense that Trump was going to win the whole time. I felt there was this huge historical paradigm shift happening. This really bad feeling just came over me. Knowing that I was going to be away when it happened, that he was actually going to win. Meanwhile, I had gone through a really bad breakup, I was already kind of depressed about that.”
I remember watching Tyler play in Utrecht, mere days after the election results. Though he was still cracking jokes in-between songs to maintain some sort of levity, his body language looked malnourished, slumped and defeated. The skeletal versions of ‘Highway Anxiety’, ‘Gone Clear’ and ‘Sunken Garden’, stripped from their lush symphonic embellishments, aptly captured the mood. Sure, Modern Country’s raving critical response validated Tyler as one of America’s great contemporary storytellers, even without the use of lyrics or voice. And yes, the country rock establishment of his longtime hometown of Nashville, Tennessee finally embraced his outlier approach to American roots music. But Tyler, a roving individual ceaselessly curious about the world he inhabits, suddenly found himself in a strange disposition. He was somehow “stuck”.
Like most of the Southern states, the disparity between the left and right in Tennessee became increasingly jarring. Tyler needed to be away from that bleak energy in order to move on personally and creatively. “My sister had moved out to California because she works in film, so she was already living out in Los Angeles. I had a recording session planned there, so I came to visit her. Some months later, I ended up staying out here for like a week while she was traveling for work. And weirdly enough, pretty quickly, I felt like this could be my neighborhood, it felt pretty comfortable. I remember sitting down at a café one night thinking: ‘I’m just going to do this: I’m going to move here.’ Going to California felt like going to a different country almost.”
Tyler’s upcoming LP is aptly titled Goes West. And this time, he doesn’t address his work so clearly with weighty statements or rhapsodic narratives. It’s just William Tyler making William Tyler music: that permeating warmth of his intricate guitar playing, a virtue that seamlessly co-exists with his knack for baroque classical arrangements and iconoclast krautrock experimentalism. No artist really does what William Tyler does, and on Goes West, that’s enough vindication for now.
It’s an album that doesn’t move in transit like its predecessor, yet there are still typically Tyleresque reflections – cogent and tongue-in-cheek (‘Virginia Is For Loners’) – embedded within each individual track. It’s hymnal final cut ‘Our Lady Of The Desert’, featuring the great Bill Frisell, has a totemic quality, imbuing telltale spiritualism into crude realism. “The track is named after this place I drove by in California called Apple Valley, and there’s a Catholic church there called Our Lady In The Desert. I just thought the imagery was interesting because you think of the desert being this harsh and unforgiving place that eradicates life. And next to it the imagery of the Mother and the Holy Spirit, the protective element of that. I think I was trying to bring those concepts together.”
DiS: You grew up in a musical household; your parents played music around the house and later earned their bread in music publishing. Have they encouraged you to become a music lifer in some way?
William Tyler: When my dad moved to Nashville – both my parents lived in Nashville before I was born – he started out as a lawyer. He took a pretty hard turn from corporate law to entertainment law, because it was really all he wanted to do: work in the music business. So he started working for this company writing songs and a few years later, doing that with his own company. My mom worked with him on and off throughout the years.
I was incredibly lucky that they were both very encouraging whenever I showed an interest in something. I was really good in school, and I think that was important to them. It’s funny looking back on it. They were both just really supportive. I think my dad had some serious misgivings of me getting involved in the music business, cause I mean, it’s hard. He understood how hard it was. And it was a lot easier back then, honestly, twenty years ago. But really, when I graduated high school, I think it was the last time, in 1998, I’m pretty sure that was the peak year of record sales and cd sales. In my short time of doing music, things have completely changed.
When you graduated from high school, what was your mindset? Did you have a goal set? Or did you want to explore more on your own? Or was there, to quote one of the songs, like a failsafe option?
I’m not sure if I had any specific…God it’s so funny when you think back on how confident and reckless you can be when you’re young. Without having any actual goals. I’m very goal-oriented now; when I started doing music, I was attracted to the experimental aspect of punk music, collaboration with other people that were my peers. As a kid, I didn’t partake in such a thing, because there’s only so many things you can do: when you’re involved with a church, you play sports, there are not a whole lot of collaborative experiences for young people. Growing up, I was interested in weird stuff no one else was interested in. And here is this one thing I could share with people my age. Later it reminded me that music wasn’t even age-specific. Because immediately out of high school, I started playing with older people. There was a common ground, you could connect over a piece of music or playing music together, that takes the age difference out of it.
Is 'Failsafe' maybe a nod to that kind of naiveté?
No. ‘Failsafe’ is an all-purpose term for a thing to fall back on, a safety point, but specifically a reference to. There is a saying in the Cold War, when America had all these bomber planes flying close to Russia, and they had this term call failsafe point, and if they got past that it meant that they weren’t going to be contacted again, which meant that they were going to drop the bombs. [laughs] So it’s actually a reference to that. I always try to put in a war reference on every record. There is also a film from the sixties called Failsafe.
At the very least, it’s an interesting contrast to the sheer warmth and levity the music evokes.
Well, that’s the whole point!
So pairing your other pet interests and your music – no matter how far apart – is your way to storing information you acquired?
No, it’s pretty conscious. But that’s the whole thing with instrumental music: it’s always completely open to interpretation. You always provoke specific imagery, even if it is just in passing.
You said your sister is also in the film business, and you’ve shown an interest in doing soundtracks. Was going West a means to reach out to other people and projects that apply your music in a more complementary way?
That was one of the motivating factors of deciding to move to California. The film industry is pretty much based out here. But it seems there’s no proven formula for getting into that world, there’s a lot of people floating around it. But I definitely have met more people that work in film since I moved. It would almost be this magical coincidence, synchronicity, to really be able to meet to the right person. But film scores are definitely something I would love to do, I’m open to it. I think about music in those terms more, an element that’s complimentary to something else. And as you said, I’m interested in soundtrack music, how it sounds within or without the movie, how a piece of music can be enhanced by being paired with an image. There are so many sequences in my favorite films I could never dissociate from the music that’s going on. There is a lot of power in the marriage of those mediums.
The record you released before Modern Country, Impossible Truth, tackled the notion of West Coast romanticism. Is there is some sort of spiritual connection you feel between that album and Goes West?
Yeah, I definitely think so. The funny thing about the time Impossible Truth came out, I hadn’t traveled out West that much. I was sort of imagining things in a very specific way. I do remember that I first toured California under Impossible Truth. I mean, I’ve played in LA and San Francisco, but I had never driven upstate by myself. On that tour, I finally did. I started out in Seattle and drove all the way to San Diego in three weeks, and sort of stopped to play in-between the whole time. It was the first time I saw the Redwood Forest, all the places in-between the cities. And I actually got a real sense of what California actually looked like. But there is a connection, for sure. In a weird way, the more I think about it: I have been dreaming about these different parts of the country for a long time. Even though I wasn’t familiar with them yet.
You said that going to California felt like going to a whole new country. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, it’s been nice to explore California, it’s an incredibly beautiful state. It huge and there’s so much diversity to it, geographically speaking. Within one hour of LA, you can drive up into the mountains and there will be snow, and then you can drive into the desert and there will be like forty degrees hotter. And then you have the ocean right next to you as well. So it’s kind of a pretty weird, magical place, from that perspective. It’s been pretty amazing to have the time to be able to explore that more.
It’s harder and harder to be truly away, at least in America I would say. Seeing that you’re connected to modern culture and civilization. Even if you are traveling to middle-of-nowhere places, your phone usually still works. I’m sort of obsessed with radio, as that seems to be the last thing that stops working. When you are out in the middle of nowhere, you can still pick up radio signals, even if you can’t pick up a phone signal. You can still hear some kind of reminder of building a civilization somewhere, in a way that’s surreal but kind of comforting too. Radio is a real thing, it exists in our atmosphere.
There’s this element to digital technology and media: when it stops working, there’s always this harsh comedown. When your computer crashes or your DVD starts skipping, when these numbers translate into images or sound. There’s something robotic, something not really sexy about that. You don’t have that with photographs, radio, or analog things. I think it’s really important to have reminders of that, the further we move away from the more tactile things.
With Modern Country, you communicated a pretty specific narrative on the American landscape, whereas with Goes West, it feels a bit more oblique. Was that a conscious decision?
There’s no narrative, no. And it isn’t to break from this feeling that there has to be one for every record. I do feel it’s cool to put a record out that has some thematic thread or starts a conversation, the same way you would talk about a book, an art show or a film. Like an identity and a universe within each project. That’s not specific to any genre; look at Miles Davis and David Bowie, for example. But then I also think about a lot of my favorite musicians, and they just put out records that are basically just literally a collection of songs. And they put out one or two each year. And there’s no conversation, other than ‘this is the new record by…’. So for me, because I’m interested in a lot of subjects outside of music, I think I’ve probably – to a fault even – got into this mindset of wanting each album to be this precious concept with its own identity and talking points. I didn’t want to repeat myself. But going back to your question, the answer is no. This record is literally a collection of songs.
When I listen to it, I feel like I’m just hanging out with you. Your guitar playing is immediately recognizable of course. But also these cool idiosyncrasies, like references to astrology (‘Venus in Aquarius’). They feel like a signature.
‘Venus in Aquarius’ is a reference to a Robby Basho record called Venus in Cancer. But also, my planet is in that sign. I’m very interested in astrology.
Is astrology like a proxy religion for you in some way?
I don’t know, maybe it is. But I consider myself sort of a ‘pan-spiritualist’: I believe everything is true and nothing is true when it comes to metaphysical things. I’m much more of the Timothy Leary or Aleister Crowley-mentality: just absorb everything and take what you want from every field. Do you know Alex Chilton, the musician?
Yeah, of course. Big Star.
Through my parents, I got to meet them, towards the end of Alex’s life. I remember Alex was obsessed with astrology. That was actually his religion. But he was also a hardcore atheïst. And I remember actually having a late night argument with him. He was one of my heroes – I was like eighteen or nineteen at the time. We were sitting in my dad’s living room and he was really high, and I guess I got really high too. Which was weird because I was really young, but my dad let me smoke pot. I wasn’t very into astrology at the time, to be fair. But Alex was talking about stuff like my birthday being aligned with this planet. And I scoffed: this is just as stupid as people who go to church every Sunday, it has nothing to do with reality. [laughs] It’s really strange to suddenly yell at one of your heroes. But I do remember he didn’t really have a response, he just laughed and changed the subject. But astrology is definitely a proxy religion, going back to what you asked.
Was it a sarcastic laugh? Or a warm belly laugh?
Well, everything was sarcastic with Alex. He had a way of making everybody feel uncomfortable. A control mechanism in a social situation. In fact, he was really shy actually.
But you came around with immersing yourself into astrology. So Alex had a point?
Yeah, I think he had a point. But in his own weird way, I think he respected the fact that I sort of stood up to him. But I do feel people can be very fundamentalist about astrology, in a way that’s fascinating to me. Because it’s similar to the fundamentalist way people interpret Bible verses. Especially when you realize that these writings have been translated over a hundred times for over two-thousand years. And it probably doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as when it was written originally.
It’s like sitting in a circle with thirty people, and you start whispering a message in the ear of the person next to you. As the message gets passed around and returns to you, it will be changed and distorted.
Yeah, totally. If you took a Bob Dylan song and you translated the lyrics into six different languages over ten years, I don’t think they’d be the same as the original. I’m going out on a limb and say there’s a high probability for that. It might turn out to be closer to a Jimmy Buffett-song.
Is that the same case with classical music, and the way iconic classical pieces were performed after they were first conceived?
It’s interesting you make that point. This is where it goes back to language. What fascinates me about written language. A Chinese person can read a piece of Chinese literature from hundreds of years ago and basically read it. Same with Greek, it hasn’t changed that much. With written music, you can look at a score that Bach or Beethoven wrote and a musician now is going to be able to play essentially the way it was intended. Because the language of the way we write down music hasn’t changed radically, in the hundreds of years since we started applying notation. It’s fascinating, and it’s what I love the most about classical music: I can feel like I can listen to it, and at the same time imagine it existing in this place that was so long ago.
Wow, I have never thought about it in that way.
Yeah, just the realization that this is the actual way a piece has been performed, for this long. It’s what you were talking about earlier about being in nature: it takes you to a more cosmically vast space than your own individual experience.
Goes West is out now via Merge Records. For more info about William Tyler, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit his official website.
Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson