Your dad would like Ty Segall. One song into a secret show at Brooklyn’s KCDC Skate Shop, the 23-year old San Franciscan rocker decides that his sound isn’t loud enough to justify letting loose and instead starts to showcase some of the quieter songs from his upcoming record, Goodbye Bread. The show already has the vibe of a backyard cookout, but for the talent to admit he’s not fully comfortable stomping and kicking along to a quiet amp is pretty honest; it wouldn’t be entirely comfortable watching him do that, either.
But just a few songs into that, he realizes he’s out of material and prompts the audience for suggestions; when someone yells for “Pretty Woman,” he delivers the Roy Orbison standard in full, complete with a few mumbled, misremembered lyrics. He plays T.Rex’s “The Slider” (a classic), and tries to ad lib his way through a Sonics tune before petering out. Watching him play, you get the sense his ability is waiting to catch up to his imagination. Considering how prodigious he is already, it’s not going to take very long.
After years of doing work in San Francisco, Segall will release Goodbye Bread in June, on new label Drag City. A few hours before the show at KCDC, we met with him to discuss the record, the San Francisco scene, Neil Young, and being the only indie rocker on your dorm floor.
Does it feel weird to get called a key member of this San Francisco scene when you’re younger than a lot of the people involved?
Oh yeah. For sure. For example, John Dwyer and I are good friends now but I listened to the Coachwhips and Pink and Brown in high school. It’s this really weird closeness of all this stuff I used to listen to so much and yeah, it’s a total trip but that’s the thing with SF, it’s actually a really small city and you really do get to know everyone there when you get there.
Were you always planning on getting to San Francisco?
No, actually, as a kid I really liked LA because I used to go to the Smell. The Smell was amazing. I haven’t been there in a while, but I used to go there every weekend or twice a month, drive up there because I lived about an hour south of LA. So I wanted to move to LA to play music, but I decided that I needed to not live close to home for a while to really figure myself out. Typical 18 year old stuff.
Switching gears for a second: a lot of other “lo-fi” acts made cleaner records that year that weren’t as well-received as their first ones. Was there anything you were trying to consciously avoid doing when you got in the studio?
I believe that if the song’s good, if it’s a great song, then you can record it. It’s the idea of, you know, if you don’t really have a song, and you record it like crap, it’s going to sound cool, but it doesn’t mean you have a great song. And vice versa, if you have a great song… I mean, I think it’s more likely that if you have a great song, you can pull it off, recording it badly or well, so I’ve always just tried to focus on the song. My ears tend to like more messed up, distorted recordings, but I also love cleaner stuff like Neil Young, that classic kind of sound. So I think the idea was just make the best songs, focus on trying to make the best grouping of songs, and it’s also been an idea of mine to really try to get a classic sound.
One of my favorite bits on Melted was during “Caesar” when the piano kicks in halfway through and just shuffles around, that kind of dischord. How do you balance when to restrain those urges and when to push forward?
You don’t really know. That’s what was so cool about taking the time was having the ability to make a mistake and go, “Oh, that didn’t work.” Or doing something ridiculous and off the wall and sitting on it for a week and listening to it saying, “Yeah, we could do something different.” And that’s what was so great, because back like a year or two ago, I would only have like a week to do a record, so it’s kind of like, “It’s done.”
What are your hopes for the new record?
I don’t want to be like, famous or any of that stuff. That’s not fun. The idea is to make a classic record that ten years from now, people will be like, “That record? Oh, that’s that record,” instead of just another record. That would just be cool to have a record that lasts longer than a year.
Do you have plans for another one?
I get a little stir crazy if I don’t record. I actually recorded the new one in December so I’ll be getting a little antsy to do something soon. The only ambition is to try to make a really good record.
What were you listening to when you made this one?
I was listening to a lot of Neil Young. A lot of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. I think it might be my favorite Neil Young record. I just got On the Beach, and that’s a great one. So cool. The story behind that one. He’s amazing. I mean, I’ve been listening to a lot of different stuff: psych, classic rock. I was just listening to a lot of cleaner, poppy kind of psychedelic stuff so I think that’s kind of, it’s a lot more mellow.
Coming from San Francisco, do you feel competitive with scenes in other cities?
Not personally. I don’t. I know some people say SF is the best. I do, my favorite bands are in SF but I think I’m definitely biased. The Nashville scene right now is one of my favorites. Chicago is amazing. New York. Personally, I don’t see that, I just see camaraderie.
So if you had to describe yourself in one sentence to someone who wanted to sign you, what would you say?
That’s the hardest thing. Uh… (raises eyebrow) insecure young man singing about his problems. Maybe. That’s the hardest question you could ask. To describe yourself? I just don’t know how to describe myself. But that’s fine.
What were you listening to when you grew up?
My mom was into Motley Crue and Guns n’ Roses. So I do have a soft spot in my heart for that kind of stuff, which is pretty funny. When I was a real little kid, there was a lot of oldies, every day like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones and Beatles. Those classic 60s hits, like the Animals. My favorite stuff was classic oldies, heavier, Black Sabbath and Cream, then like punk, I got into hardcore stuff like early 80s DC stuff, and then from there to into weirdo areas. But yeah I was really into classic rock as a little kid, one of those funny little skateboarders with the Black Sabbath shirts on at 12 years old.
You make rock n’ roll, but have such a wide breadth of rock knowledge. How do you approach recording when you’re aware of all that history?
Just to try… just to try to do different things, as many different things as possible. That’s pretty relative, because if you listen to my stuff, someone could say that it’s all really similar. And that’s true. But for me, the minute little differences are enough. For instance, the new record is the mellow one and that’s relative because it’s not mellow. But for me the mellow more psych pop kind of record… Melted is the more fried out thing, aggressive.
What else do you want to do?
I want to do a noise rock record. Just completely destroy it, take it so far until it sounds like the tire’s on fire, you know?
Like Metal Machine Music?
Oh yeah. No, not really. That would be cool. Stereo it so it’s just noise in one ear and screaming in the other. I actually just started on that idea. The idea I wanted to do is kind of like, it’s a long explanation, but the idea is to record in as many different places as possible, all of the same songs. So for instance in one song you’d have six different recordings, and you’d cut them up. Verse, recorded in studio A. Chorus in the bedroom. Verse B live on a tape recorder. Chorus 2 recorded at a real studio. The whole record done like that. So it’s literally like, very confusing. I want to do something like that which is pretty weird, but you know.
You graduated from the University of San Francisco two years ago with a degree in media studies. Why media studies?
Media studies, well. When I started out, my dad wanted me to be a little more professional, so I did business for a semester. I guess media studies I wanted to get more into production of media, but honestly, I always wanted to be a recording engineer. Supposedly there were facilities there they told me about that weren’t really real, that I found out about later. There was a couple ProTools type studios, but I’ve always liked analog tape and things. I always wanted to get to know how to use tape machines well and learn about different kinds of mics, that’s kind of stuff. Unfortunately they didn’t really have those kinds of programs there. It was a really weird time when I went to school for that because it was the beginning of the Internet and social media explosion, so all the professors didn’t really know what the hell was going on. It was a really explosive kind of program, just all over the place and changing every day, which is pretty cool.
What did your dad say when you told him you were switching?
Oh, he was totally cool. He wanted me to try it out but he knew that I wanted to do this. A quote from him is, “You can be a garbage man and that would make me happy.”
How was going to college, right before you started doing music full-time?
It was a big eye opener for me because I wasn’t the most social guy in high school. I was one of the weirdos, or whatever. But it was cool to sort of open up and be more social, you’d have the opportunity to like, just hang out with a lot of different people. Everyone was older and didn’t have the same immaturities as high school, no one was like mean anymore. It was nice to just experience that kind of socialness.
Did that make it a little easier to start recording your own stuff?
I mean, sure. It made me feel a little bit more able to relate/communicate with people, because I didn’t think I was very good at it in high school. I was a total weirdo. (laughs) It’s pretty funny. But yeah, college was pretty great. The most important thing for me was just growing up. It made me grow up, which is cool.
Does it feel weird to look at your college friends and thinking that they’re getting into real jobs, while you’re pushing ahead with music?
I’m constantly thinking that I’m self-centered. Focusing on this stuff, it’s a shallow lifestyle, but as long as you’re trying to be a good person to your friends and family, then people will understand you. Everyone who knows me knows that this is what I have to be doing, or else I’m not going to be happy. I don’t think I can work a normal job after doing this for so long, you know what I mean? But musicians don’t even think about how self-centered of a lifestyle it is, so as long as you’re aware of that notion, then you’ll be okay. But it’s a total trip. You just gotta not think about that, and try to be a normal person. And then you’ll be okay.