Nashville-born William Tyler is currently one of the most skilled and imaginative proponents of American fingerstyle guitar, a distinction he’s achieved in part by refusing to color inside the idiom’s lines. A longtime member of weirdo-country juggernaut Lambchop (as well a session player with the likes of Candi Staton, Bobby Bare, and Charlie Louvin), Tyler has absorbed ideas from many strains of American music; on this year’s Impossible Truth (Merge), his talent as an assimilator and conceptualist occasionally seems to surpass his considerable skill as an instrumentalist. Under his masterful leadership, the other players enhance his rolling, hypnotic guitar (both acoustic and electric) with swelling brass, woozy pedal steel, and walking upright bass, creating meticulously cinematic music with a powerful sense of self-contained narrative.
For this week’s Artist on Artist, Tyler talks to bassist Douglas McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day), whose long-running project Brokeback opened for the guitarist this spring at the Hideout. Brokeback puts its own peculiar spin on American music, and everything I said about the group’s excellent Brokeback and the Black Rock (Thrill Jockey) for the Reader‘s Best of Chicago issue in June still holds true: “The new lineup has transformed Brokeback’s existing aesthetic—twangy, atmospheric, and wide open, evoking the American southwest as refracted through Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores—into a visceral yet crystalline rock-combo sound that balances the churning intensity of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse with the resonant chill of Tom Verlaine’s late work.” Tyler plays at Constellation on Sat 11/23 with opener Steve Gunn. —Peter Margasak
Hey William. Where are you?
I’m actually in Milwaukee. I’m doing this thing that’s through Alverno College. It’s called Lend Me Your Voice, and the guy who put it together is named Nick Sanborn. He plays bass in Megafaun. Pretty much all those dudes live in North Carolina now, but they’re from Wisconsin and the midwest.
His idea was to get together six or seven people, where everybody comes from a different background and we’re all used to basically being side people in other people’s bands. But in this context we would do a song solo and then do a writer-in-the-round kind of thing, which is a very Asheville concept. Everybody would back each other up on a couple songs. We did it last weekend in Durham, through Duke—Duke and Alverno were sort of cocommissioning it. It went really well, and it was really fun to get to do that kind of piece, because everybody had a turn to be the front person. And everybody also got a turn to be a sympathetic backing musician.
Are you doing any singing?
No, I’m not singing. I’m just playing guitar.
I was just curious about the format, because I’ve only seen you play your own instrumental music. I didn’t know if you did any lyric writing. Do you write any lyrics?
Not really. I have in the past. But it’s been a long time. I think the last time I wrote a song and actually bothered to put lyrics to it was eight or nine years ago. I was at this point where I started writing instrumental guitar things, and I just had this epiphany one day: I don’t feel like writing bad lyrics. I’d rather try to make it its own thing. It just progressed from there. I don’t know what the process is like for you.
I mean, I did go through a little period about five years ago where I started writing lyrics again, which I hadn’t done since the early 90s. I had a little band [Fflashlights] with Chris Brokaw and Elliot Dicks for a couple of years, where we tried to do those songs. But it burned out really fast. It was mostly because of the distance. Chris was living way out on the east coast, and we couldn’t get together to play very often. But I was just curious if that ever was some part of what you do. It occasionally is part of what I do, but very rarely. Usually it’s not even a thought.
Well, we have both been in bands with very confident singers. I started playing with the Lambchop guys when I was really young, and I think I was at that point where I was already pretty insecure about writing my own music. Then after being around older musicians, but also guys like Kurt [Wagner], who were very confident, unique singer-songwriters, it made me really step back. I didn’t write anything at all for a long time, and when I came back around to doing whatever I’m doing now—it definitely started at a point where it’s not now. It evolved, or it changed. Part of that trajectory—the lyrics and having a literal voice to it—just fell by the wayside.
I know what you mean, man. I feel like there are so many things that you can say or do with instrumental music, and there doesn’t need to be another bad lyric on the earth.
I remember a very specific moment when I was about 19. I was working at this cafe that had open-mike nights on Fridays. In Nashville, that can be a pretty mixed bag. I remember one night somebody came in and just played a guitar piece—I think they were doing a Chet Atkins cover or something—and I just remember thinking, “Wow, that was so noninvasive, and actually I sort of enjoyed it. I wish more people did it.” It was probably about the same time that I discovered Tortoise and all the music you guys were doing. Honestly, that was a huge revelation to me. I was like, “Oh wait, you can be a band and not have a singer, and there’s nothing lost at all.”
I find it interesting that 90 percent of people who want to play in bands feel that they would be lacking something without a singer. I guess it just comes down to what is most popular. I’m not even sure—there must be something propagating that idea.
There is a lot to be said for having lyrical songwriting, obviously. I think a lot of people, when they start playing music, are under the assumption that they won’t be able to engage with an audience or a listener without that. To be honest, there probably is a lot of evidence that people aren’t necessarily engaged by something that doesn’t have somebody talking at you. What’s popular would kind of bear that out. But I also kind of feel like [instrumental music] might be coming back around—maybe that’s just, you know, wishful thinking, but I feel like more and more people are maybe coming back around to it. There’s just a general oversaturation factor with what’s out there now. Maybe trying to do what you do without lyrics makes you carve out a little bit more unique real estate.
It totally makes sense that human beings would be engaged more directly by something with a human voice in it. I’m just thinking there’s a lot of evidence that there are other ways to be engaged. I find it curious that with most people, when you say “I’m playing in this band,” it’s automatic to assume there’s a singer-songwriter, or it’s some kind of rock band with a singer.
There’s definitely a way to be lyrical without lyrics. I think what you do speaks to that as well as anybody. I was going to ask you, are you going on tour overseas with Daughn Gibson? Is that about to happen?
Yeah, we’re leaving on a two-week tour—Brokeback and Daughn Gibson in Europe. There’s a Tortoise gig in there too. The last two weekends of All Tomorrow’s Parties are happening at the end of November, so Tortoise is gonna play one of those. I’m looking forward to it. Brokeback has not been over to Europe since probably 2006 or 2007 maybe, and this new version of the band is going to be fun to tour with over there.
Is it the same band from when we did the show together back in April?
It’s essentially the same band that played with you last spring. I just mean that Brokeback was very different before, until about two years ago. It’s gonna be fun to be over there with this band. I’ve been touring a lot. I was just on tour with the Sea and Cake up until about a week ago. I’ve been pretty busy. These in-the-round things that you’re doing, they’re just kind of one-offs? You’re not on tour right now?
I’ve been on tour pretty much since the last time I saw you. I took a little time off in the summer, but I’ve been hitting it hard this year. Pretty much all solo.
I was reading some of your tour-diary entries, and I was getting really antsy to get out to the west coast. But I haven’t been for about a year or so.
I’d never done that before. Lambchop went out west, but I think we would always do that thing where we would fly out to Seattle, rent a van, drive down to LA, and fly back. So I’d never seen the whole country before. It’s a pretty staggering experience, as you know. There’s not an easy way to do it. You just decide, OK, I’m gonna do the whole thing—drive nine hours a day until you get out west.
There’s nothing I like better than touring out west. And also doing the drives—like, the middle part. The long part of the country where there’s no place to play. I like those parts of the country a lot.
There’s still a frontier mentality out there. There were a couple of places I played where it was just like a docking station—I drove nine hours, and I’ve gotta play somewhere tonight and do the same thing tomorrow.
I’ve rented a car. That was one of the wisest decisions I’ve made in the last year—not subjecting my 1998 Volvo station wagon to a five- or six-thousand mile trip.
That’s a recipe for disaster, man.
Most people were kind of like, “Why are you doing this by yourself?” It actually is feasible technically and economically to do. With a band it would be challenging in some ways and easier in others—doing all the driving was pretty brutal.
I’ve never done a big tour like that on my own. Actually, I’ve never done any tour at all on my own. That sounds kind of daunting to me. I love driving until that point where I’m falling asleep, and then I hate driving. It seems like when you’re on your own, you have no fucking choice. You gotta push through it, or drink some 5-hour Energy or something. How do you keep yourself going?
I drink a lot of caffeine, which is not necessarily the best thing considering I’ve always had issues with anxiety—large amounts of caffeine and time for reflection, that can be a dangerous mix!
Pretty inspiring, though. I drove all the way out to Seattle and then went down the coast, and I drove down the Oregon coastline into northern California. I had a day in between to be pretty leisurely about it, and that part of the country is so insanely beautiful. For me, growing up in the south, it’s almost like being on a different planet.
I know Nashville and Chicago are probably similar in certain ways—there are large proportions of musicians and creative people who travel all the time for work. But it’s astounding to me how many people I grew up with, when I see them now, they just never get to travel. Like, literally. But they’re making three times as much money. They have actual jobs and, like, savings. [Laughter.] But they don’t get to see anything.
I mean, whatever. I’m 34 now, and I’m able to have a perspective that I didn’t have when I started being in bands. I’m sure it’s the same for everybody when they grow up in it.
The main perspective I have is that I wouldn’t trade it for anything, except for money. [Laughter.] I’m having the best life I could possibly have, except I don’t have any money. But that’s the way it goes. I think it’s worth it. My wife is a great provider. She makes tons of money, so it’s no problem.
I’m just kidding, she doesn’t make that much.
[Laughter] I was, like, man—I was waiting . . .
You grew up in Chicago, right?
No, I grew up in Peoria. I moved to Chicago right when I got out of high school, in 1980, which was a long time ago.
I grew up in Nashville, and I’ve never moved away. There are a number of reasons why I haven’t left. But having a relationship with a city, especially one that’s supportive of this lifestyle—you get to a certain point where you’re like, well, as long as I can keep doing this, there’s no reason to leave.
If you grow up in a town like that, there isn’t really a reason to leave. But growing up in Peoria, I definitely had no outlet for what I wanted to do. I had to come to Chicago. There are a lot of people like that in Chicago. If I counted all my friends, I bet there’d be like 5 percent of them from Chicago—there’s a lot of people from other places that live in Chicago. It’s that kind of place.
Yeah, it’s a magnet city. Regionally, I think Nashville probably has some similarities to it. People end up there from all over.
Because of what Nashville is, though, right? People move there to get their songs published or play in bands or whatever?
Yeah, I’m sure people have a different version of reality when they think of a city like that, and then they move there. I don’t know. It’s a lot of different things. It’s a totally surreal, country-music world, but there’s a lot that exists underneath the soil that’s still able to survive. It’s an interesting place. I wouldn’t have stayed there if it hadn’t been for Lambchop. At the time, they were the only band that was doing what I thought was anything interesting. I followed them around for about a year, and then I was in the band! I was getting to tour Europe and meet you guys and do stuff like that, and it was—
How old were you when you joined Lambchop?
Twenty. So I was like 10 or 12 years younger than the next youngest guy in the band.
It’s good to get to experience that stuff at a young age—like, just jump right into it. I didn’t start playing an instrument until—
No, I didn’t even play an instrument until I was out of high school—till I was 18 or something. It took me a long time to find people I wanted to play with. When I joined Eleventh Dream Day, I was probably 23 or 24. Maybe 22. I can’t remember now.
To be honest, I was into music, but when you’re 18 or 19, you don’t have any perspective, and you also don’t know what you want to do. It’s very rare to meet someone at that age who’s focused. So the fact that I stumbled into that situation where I was able be in a band at a very young age and learn within the context of that how to be a serious musician—you turn around, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m 30 now and I’ve been in this band for ten years, so I guess this is what I’m doing.” Which is great! I thought I was going to go back to school at some point and be a history teacher, but I finally kind of gave up on that.
I was curious—most of your instrumental work now is based on fingerstyle guitar. What led you toward that?
I kind of stumbled into it. I remember very specifically being in my early 20s, going to the library and checking out some CDs, and one of them was that John Fahey collection. But it was also in the context of all this other weird music. To me, I was just trying to digest as much as possible. It didn’t necessarily become the kind of thing where I was like, “Oh, that’s gonna be something I model my own music after.” But I was aware of what you guys were doing, and of other kinds of instrumental music. And then through Lambchop, I got to meet a lot of those bands.
You know, I think seeing someone do it live, seeing guys like Glenn Jones and Jack Rose come through Nashville and do house shows—literally getting to see someone do it, that’s a defining moment. You’re like, “OK, I don’t know how to do that, but I want to learn.” Especially in Nashville, you’re used to seeing people play acoustic guitar all the time, but of course they’re singing or it’s ancillary background music or something. Just seeing somebody do it live and being like, “Oh, OK. You can do that. You can tour and do that.” But it took me a long time to get to that.
I’m interested in that kind of music too, but it’s all Greek to me. I can get around pretty well on a guitar or a bass, but that sort of complex fingerpicking stuff really eludes me. I can’t really wrap my skull around it too well. I was just curious if it was just natural to you, if it’s just like, “Oh, I hear this, and it’s something I think I can do, and I want to try and do it.”
I think it started from a point where, yeah, I was just so curious about it—but also, I did it for years without really sharing it with anybody. It was a completely solo thing as well, so it’s not like I was in a band where I was like, “OK, let’s collaborate, and this is gonna be the kind of music we’ll all grow together.” I was still playing with other guys and Lambchop.
I don’t know, to be honest—when I detach a little bit about it, especially having a conversation with you about this, I’m sort of like, “I can’t believe I’m doing this at all!” [Laughter.] It’s pretty surreal. Which is probably why I’m not really good at explaining it. It is kind of a mystery how I kind of stumbled into it and how I’m getting to still do it.
I mean it’s all a mystery. Everything is a mystery.
How the fuck did any of us end up doing any of the shit we do?
I don’t know. I think that’s why it’s hard to talk about it, in a way. You’re trying to get back to some vantage point where you can really see: “OK, here’s where it changed, here’s where it turned.” It’s hard to do that.