A Q&A with William Tyler
Nashville guitar ace William Tyler is a musician’s musician, an artist who commands a lot of respect in Music City picking circles. He also seems to have little trouble winning over even the most hard-boiled of critics (read: Pitchfork, who gave his newly-released album Impossible Truth an 8.0 rating).
American Songwriter dropped in on Tyler at The Stone Fox (the restaurant/ bar/music hall he operates with his sister) to film another installment in our Martin Guitars: Sessions series. (Watch video here.) We also chatted about the inspiration behind his new album, and the lessons he’s learned playing guitar for Lambchop and Silver Jews.
The songs on this album don’t have any words, and yet the titles of the songs really grab you from a lyrical standpoint (“Cadillac Desert,” “The Geography Of Nowhere,” “Hotel Catatonia”).
I really like instrumental music but I don’t like that it’s almost an afterthought, like being called “West Nashville Rag #2.” That’s a demo! If you’re going to be presumptuous enough to expect people to pay attention to instrumental music, you should have a story behind it. It’s pretty deliberate music. There are no words; it’s contemplative. It should invoke a lot of things but I think you can help steer that a little bit.
The thing is, a lot of the titles I use are so obscure that I have to explain the context of them, which is fine. I like it when people do that. A lot of what influenced me was modern classical stuff, where there are pieces that are literally about something, like Hiroshima or the crucifixion of Jesus. They’re these really dense, atonal works. There’s a story, a background or a movement to it. It’s not really a concept album. It sounds kind of grandiose to say I was inspired by modern classical music. But it’s true. I feel like the album is one piece and there are different movements to that. There’s kind of an overarching story that I kind of have to explain, but it’s definitely in there. And the titles need to reflect that.
I don’t think modern listeners associate instrumental music with a “story,” so it’s interesting to hear the way you’re talking about this album.
What I’ve talked to people about is growing up in Nashville and being around so much vocal songwriting – that has pushed me more and more into the place where I want to be a bit different. I don’t necessarily sing, not that I could. Like when Robert Ellis played at The Stone Fox, I was like, “That dude can sing.” The dude is an amazing singer; I can’t sing like that. I don’t have a voice that’s that distinct. Needless to say, I am not even sure I could write lyrics anymore, it’s been so long. I’m not trying to be too self-effacing about it. Maybe it will change. Maybe I’ll get back into that kind of music.
Touring with Mike [Hiss Golden Messenger] was the first time in a long time that I was like, “I wish I could write songs with words in them again,” because those were so awesome. He’s got such a distinctive voice. Living here, there are so many people who do it well and have such distinctive voices.
Kurt [Wagner] from Lambchop was a mentor for so long but also a band leader. At some point, I was like, man, this guy has his own style of singing, his own style of lyric writing; it’s incredible. I guess I was just like, if I can’t do something that’s gonna be like that, I don’t know if I want to fuck with it.
Or David Berman [of Silver Jews] with the lyrics.
Exactly. David, too. And those are the two guys I’ve backed up and they’re two of the best out there and they are completely distinctive and very literate about what they do. I guess it spooked me away from lyrics for a while. Doing interviews and talking about this music so much has made me kind of, maybe not interested in lyric writing, but definitely in word writing, because I do so much talking and explaining of this music, but it’s still non-lyrical.
Well that teaser you did for the new album was pretty good.
That was fun. I’m glad people dug that.
The part about the junk food cereal hit me. We couldn’t have it when we were kids, except when we went to my grandmother’s.
Yeah, my parents are pretty liberal but they were almost so liberal they were still like, “We don’t want you to have shitty food.” There is this one cereal I remember, whenever the second Star Wars movie came out, there were C3POs that were shaped like C3PO’s head and tasted like a cross between Corn Pops and Honeycomb and I have been craving that cereal for twenty-something years. They need to bring that one back. But that was what inspired that line.
What was the first Silver Jews album you played on?
How old were you, like 22?
I was 21. It just sort of worked out the way it did. It was a pretty intimidating experience because I didn’t really know these guys. I didn’t know David’s music at the time as well either. It was a very intense period. He was partying pretty hard back then but also a really good friend of his had passed away right before we started recording and September 11th was around the same time. There was an incredibly dark cloud over that album. It was either right before or right after September 11th. It was so weird because it was all going down right then. And I was aware of that kind of energy but I was so young that I was naïve about it. I was pretty sheltered.
It was an interesting experience, having that be my first work on an album. That was before I had done any real recording with Lambchop. The first Lambchop album I was on was Is A Woman. The way we recorded that album was like five people barely strumming acoustic guitars. There were four other dudes, but I was one of them. It was like a muted ensemble. In that album, there’s a lot going on besides the piano and the voice but those are the things that are central.
But the Bright Flight recording sessions were the first time I was in a position where it was like me and three other people and we were tracking a record. But it’s probably my favorite Silver Jews record of them all, not because of my involvement, but because I like the songwriting. It’s really bleak and touching. It’s a great record. All of his records are great.
One of the things I respect the most about David and that I’ve tried to model a bit of what I do on is: the fact that he is so deep. He’s like that with his poetry as well. Most of his career has been spent outside the context of touring a record and having to follow this cyclical process: record a record, tour a record, do press, then go back in, write another record, tour. Ninety percent of people who make music are locked into this cycle. It’s almost antithetical to the way art should be made. He never was a part of that context so when he decided to tour, he was like, well I’m gonna try this out. And two years later, he was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Kurt has the same approach to the way he makes art but I think because he’s always been a band leader of such a sprawling ensemble of people, he hasn’t had the luxury of stepping away as much. He’s always got somebody asking, “When are you going to tour again? When are we going to tour again?” There’s a lot of pressure on him. What’s always impressed me is how he’s put out such amazing work. He’s a de facto manager and band leader and songwriter. That’s a lot of hats to wear, but he always wears a hat.