William Tyler’s new album on Merge Records, Impossible Truth, is already one of the most anticipated releases of the year and for good reason. Impossible Truth is the rare album that transcends genres and defies description. From the very first notes "Country of Illusion," it sounds like a classic. Impossible Truth features Tyler on mostly electric guitar (including a battered and heavily stickered early 90s black Epiphone Casino), played solo while simultaneously conjuring a calliope of loops, echo fragments, and choruses from a small assortment of pedals. Tyler creates a Technicolor swirl of sound that orbits a steady rhythmic pulse, giving his audience the sensation they’ve walked into a hand painted Georges Melies film or perhaps, another planet all together.
Impossible Truth, recorded in Nashville, is a singular collection for solo guitar that has a sense of mystery, suspense, and most of all, warmth, that is often missing from the genre, which is policed by a small but fiercely protective (and combative) group of fans and critics who assumed—wrongly—that Tyler was merely passing through the genre, just another young kid under the spell of impressionistic guitarists like John Fahey and Bert Jansch.
But Tyler’s debut, Behold the Spirit, was featured for a full week on NPR and made SPIN’s Top 5 list, which caused many a critic to wonder whether the intensely private world of solo guitar had met its Elvis.
Now, Impossible Truth goes even farther in bringing the audience closer to the action. It shows Tyler to be a gifted, inspired, and wily composer who is not afraid to speak to his audience. On stage, Tyler tells jokes (“
Thanks y’all for coming out in the middle of winter. In Sweden, people don’t even come out of their houses this time of year”), pokes fun at the genre, and makes an impassioned plea for connection--and gets it. For that alone, Tyler already knows he might “catch hell” from the old guard.
Impossible Truth will put all of that past in the shadows for good even though Tyler –with a sense of humor and humility—will insist that his past is always within arm’s reach. Tyler might not agree (or like to hear it), but Impossible Truth is a landmark album both for him and for the guitar as a compositional instrument. It’s unlikely that any serious guitarist (or music fan) will be able to resist its melodic and hypnotic sway and it is surely in contention to be one of the great unclassifiable albums—like Kind of Blue or Tubular Bells, that everyone has to hear at least once in their life.
Epiphone.com spoke with Tyler in Nashville, where he also runs a restaurant and music venue, The Stone Fox.
Let’s hear the William Tyler story in brief.
Ok! Born in Nashville. Grew up in the music business. Grew up around a lot of guitar players.
I was pretty reluctant about getting involved in music until it became inevitable. When you hit a certain age as a teenager, you realize that’s the only thing you can do where you‘re gonna have any chance of girls noticing you, unless you play sports, apparently (laughs).
None of the other interests I had up to that point seemed to have any kind of kinship with anybody else my age. I was a bookworm. I was really into history, really into film--stuff that required me to spend a lot of time alone in my room. And guitar was probably the next logical step. I was totally willing to practice and shut myself off. But it took me a long time to want to commit to that world, I think, because I’d grown up around it and I’d seen how hard it is on everybody, including my father.
And your father was a successful country music writer?
He was more of a mainstream Music Row songwriter. He still had a publishing contract and stuff when I was growing up.
That meant getting up in the morning and going to an office and just hashing out songs?
I think he was transitioning out of that phase. I think he was already starting to think that didn't seem like a very honest productive way of producing music. It’s one thing if you’re getting lots of cuts. So he was in kind of a frustrated transitional phase.
And this was when you were getting known for your own music?
Yes, this was happening as I was starting my own music and beginning to form my own band. So I think that he had very mixed emotions. He’s a really good singer and he’s a good performer but he never pursued his solo career to the extent that most other people around him did. So, when I was 17, I ended up in a pretty serious band that ended up getting a record deal with Sire, which was run by Seymour Stein (Talking Heads, Madonna). It was a band called Lifeboy. It was kind of a new wave power pop trio.
They signed you while you were still in high school?
I was still in high school. I was going into the last year of high school and we started getting pretty well known. We were playing a lot of shows with bands that were older than us. We got a demo deal with Seymour and Sire. The music that we were playing was pretty ahead of our age. I think I was really into Elvis Costello and the Jam and those were the kinds of songs I was writing. And, I was singing. There was a band called Joe, Marc’s Brother, that was from Nashville that was very influential on us. They sort of mentored us. We ripped off a lot of things from them and opened for them and they’ve been friends ever since then. So we got signed, made a record, and that was basically it. The record never came out.
Which happened a lot to bands of that era.
Really, we experienced the last bit of the major label glut where bands got $100,000 to make their first record, which I can’t even imagine that now. I mean you could buy a house for that.
I just watched Sound City and I think you had a bigger budget than Nirvana did.
That’s awesome. Good for them. It recouped a lot quicker at least. During this period when I was 18-20, I hadn’t gone back to college like the other guys in Lifeboy. I was working in a coffee shop with Joe Marc’s Brother, meeting older musicians, learning a lot more in a certain way, growing up a lot quicker. I wasn’t in that buffer period in college where you’re just around each other for four years and you learn certain things but don’t learn other things until you get out. I was sort of getting past that already and I met the Lambchop guys when I was around 19 and started playing with them about a year later. That was the last time I seriously thought about attending college.
In Lifeboy, you were into writing structured songs with quick attack licks. And Lambchop required something different.
Well, first off, when I started in Lambchop, I was playing keyboard. So I had an Acetone Combo organ that I barely knew how to play. But with 13 people and an organ, it’s sort of easy to fake things. I could just hold chords down for, you know, whole verses (laughs) because a lot of the songs I didn’t know. Someone would tell me the key and so I’d hold a C chord down for a whole song. I was pretty much worthless those first couple tours.
But I think the novelty of having a teenager in a band with a bunch of people that were 25 years older was fun. My guitar playing in Lifeboy was rhythm guitar, essentially. I had stopped taking guitar lessons when I was so young, that I think my learning was stunted. I definitely have my own style. I’m very self-conscious about that. But it’s very unique and I think that came out for being a front person, where guitar was sort of an ancillary tool to being in a band where everything was an ancillary tool to the front person.
It did teach me a lot. Lambchop was very important in my musical education. Everybody was educating me a lot about music and different styles. And not only that, when we went on tour, we were opening for bands like Yo La Tengo, Calexico, and Tortoise—bands I really looked up. And I was seeing them live and seeing people do weird things with their instrument, doing things with pedals that I hadn’t really thought of. I didn’t use pedals in Lifeboy.
You seem to use effects as a means to inspire you, as opposed to just changing the tone of the guitar.
I have a strange relationship with the way I use effects and pedals now. I do think a lot of people use them as crutches. But having said that, there are guys who do very interesting things with effects, who are closely guarded about what they’re doing and also have amazing technique. It can be pretty athletic. That’s why my style is different. But I sort of understand a little bit of both worlds. I don’t want it to be the focus of what I do in my own music. I’m very informed by solo acoustic playing, which is completely devoid of effects.
Solo acoustic guitarists reach for dissonance and clash which sounds very acceptable on an acoustic guitar. But you’ve applied that fearlessness to electric guitar.
It’s interesting that you say that about acoustic. When I started playing in a more solo acoustic style—and honestly I was not versed in that at all—I completely stopped making my own music for a few years. Being in a band like Lambchop, who all have their own thing, is hard on someone’s ego. And, you’re also around a lot of bands that are more successful. It made me question whether I would ever make my own music again. And what would it be? It wasn’t going to be power pop. There were all these people around my parent’s age and they’ve all been playing the same kind of music since they were 18--Writing songs about girls and cars. I didn’t want to be one of those guys. You know what I mean? So I just stopped.
But then I started getting into this more experimental music, John Fahey stuff, Sandy Bull. But I didn’t really study it. I don’t know any John Fahey songs. If you asked me to play a John Fahey song, I might know one. I’m not a student of any of that music which is why I really think it’s funny when somebody says: ‘oh you’re influenced by this and that’.
What happened was, it’s sort of like having a great meal and thinking: “ I want to cook like that.” I just decided this is the kind of music I want to make now. I don’t know how to do it and I’m not good enough to do it but I’m going to figure how to do it. So I just retreated and started doing tapes on my own.
You don’t view the fretboard so much as a math but more ‘like this is a piece of wood and I’m going to find some music on it.’
I love guitar players that operate like that. I’d say that honestly, I owe (producer) Mark Nevers the biggest debt of anybody. He really believed in me as a player. He started calling me to do session work. I did a couple records with him including my last one. He understood and trusted my style enough that he would include me on sessions with people that were technically so much more qualified than me.
How did you write Impossible Truth?
You hinted that there was more of a direction to keep the electric guitar as an exploratory instrument, as in what a lot of people do with acoustic music. I decided I didn’t want this album to be primarily acoustic. I was just trying to do something that couldn’t as easily be compared to John Fahey, which has become kind of a weird thing in this critical community. I do think that trend in music criticism is beginning to change. There seems to be this movement embracing pop culture as its own thing. When I was younger, it was a very us
mentality: oh you're popular, you suck
. In Europe they're able to compartmentalize.
And your label Merge went from being a label that made fiercely independent music to a label that has hits.
I have an incredible respect for the label and the people at the label. One of the main reasons I wanted to go with them for this record is they’re not freighted by their success. There are certain indie labels that are so reverse elitist that they really don’t want to anything to cross over—they wouldn’t know how to market that. I think this music should be popular. I think solo guitar music should be big (laughs!) I don’t understand why it’s not. There are no words, there’s no way to offend people. The melodies are often good. This music speaks to me in a way that classical music speaks to me.
Is your engagement with the audience part of that break from the past where a solo guitar concert was like attending a recital?
That’s part of that is my personality but I could pinpoint that influence to Michael Chapman, who’s been very influential on me, even though I’ve only known him for a couple of years. He started out in the ‘60s English folk movement. He was a contemporary of Bert Jansch and John Martyn and had a little bit of major label success but he just kept doing music. He was a lifer—he didn’t’ die. Just kept trucking. He’s the closest thing to a lifer that I’ve had an opportunity to be around, sort of like an English Charlie Louvin.
I did a tour with him in England when Behold the Spirit
came out. I was pretty intimidated because I knew his music and he was much older. But he was incredibly sweet, we got a long great. We had an intense bond and musically there’s lot of traces of him on this record. But the thing about him that was so influential was the style of engagement with the audience. He told great stories. You want
to engage the audience–it’s supposed to please the audience. It’s not confrontational.
Some solo guitarists can give the impression that they feel their audience is an intrusion.
Right, or an enemy. And I just don’t agree with that on any level. Because what I do is completely instrumental, I try to give a little bit of context to the songs in-between because I think it’s necessary to have some sort of voice or personality to go with the music. I think it’s important to maintain a lot communication with your audience when you’re doing this kind of music. You have to be a little evangelical about it, honestly, because I have found myself in a lot situations when I’m opening up for bands who are vastly different than the kind of music I play. There’s not always this mutual understanding between 30 people in a room who all like John Fahey, who are very studious and intellectual and are not gonna say much and they’re not gonna laugh they’re not gonna clap, and will interrogate you after the show on what kind of tuning you’ve played. I’ve played plenty of those kinds of shows. But if you’re opening for a punk band or a rock band—those audiences don’t care. They’re like: ‘cool a guy with a guitar
.’ You have to give them some context if you want them to care at all. It’s show biz. I like Roger Miller so I try to channel a little of that when I play.