Interview: Ty Segall talks great new album ‘Harmonizer,’ Steve Albini, Def Leppard & lots more
One of the most prolific artists of the last decade, rivalling the output of Oh Sees and Robert Pollard, Ty Segall emerged from a two-year hibernation earlier this month, surprising the world with Harmonizer which he released to the world with no advance notice. (Read our review.) It's the first record he's made in his new Topanga Canyon studio (also called Harmonizer) and is very different from his last one, First Taste, which had him banishing guitars in favor of other stringed instruments like bouzouki, mandolin and koto.
Harmonizer gleams like chrome and latex, employing synthesizers and electronic effects to his glammy, riffy style like never before for a sound Ty describes as "airtight." Cooper Crain of Bitchin' Bajas helped him achieve his vision, and Segall's wife, Denée, contributed to two songs on the album, and sings lead on one of the standouts, "Feel Good." Harmonizer also makes considerable use of harmonizers -- a piece of gear whose unusual properties have been put to memorable use on everything from '70s art rock to '80s stadium hard rock. "I'm kind of obsessed with them," Ty admits.
Just a few days after the album's release, I chatted with Ty over the phone while he endured Southern California traffic. We talked about all three Harmonizers -- the album, the studio, the harmonizer -- as well as getting advice from Steve Albini, why he wanted to release the album with no warning, having to reschedule tours endlessly through the pandemic, his appearance at this weekend's Psycho Las Vegas and upcoming tour, the importance of earplugs, and more.
Read the interview below.
So is this the longest you've gone between solo records?
Does it feel like a long time to you or has pandemic lockdown, and all the other factors with this record, crunched time a bit?
It feels like a very long time and I think that has to do with a lot of things. I'm usually constantly playing shows and traveling and touring and recording either with people or doing my own stuff. To have that kind of stopped for so long itself, it's been a very long, stagnant time.
One of those other factors is that Harmonizer is the first album you've made in your brand new studio, which is also called Harmonizer. What can you tell me about the studio? How long has it been in the works?
I moved into my house in Topanga almost three years ago and it was from start to finish, maybe a two year project from brainstorming the ideas and the sizes of the rooms and then actually building it. It was a pretty wild and amazing experience. I feel very grateful and lucky to be able to do it. It's three rooms. There's a live room and a drum room and a control room and I had a lot of help from a lot of people, not only design-wise but installing it. I called Albini, he gave me some tips and some help and then my buddy Greg Norman came out and installed it and wired it all up. It was really fun. A totally wild experience, for sure.
Is it analog, digital, or a mix?
We have Pro Tools to mix down to and I do want to get a Pro Tools digital in 24 or 32 channel input going on because I want it to be as usable as possible for anyone who wants to use it. But right now it's mostly analog and we just mix down to Pro Tools. I do want to get a two track to mix down to, but I've never been against digital. I just love how analog sounds and I think that the marriage of both is a great way for a studio to be. I've got a 24-track two-inch Studer in there, and just installed a Trident board and I'm very stoked.
I don't know what a lot of that means but I'm sure that it's awesome.
(Laughs) The Studer machine is kind of the gold standard for old tape machines, two-inch is kind of the highest fidelity tape. It's fun.
You said you got some advice from Steve Albini. Any tips that you can pass on that won't take this interview any further into Tape-Op territory?
(Laughs) We were just talking sizes of rooms and heights of the ceiling. You want the ceiling to be as high as possible, that's the most important thing. And air, you want as much air in the room. You also want odd angles for the room. You don't want a box. You want something to be off. Those were kind of all the simple rules for things to follow, and then the rest of it is just to taste, really. If you want a really lively room, if you want a really dead room, all that stuff. And I was asking, is it worthwhile to de-couple the walls from the floors and how much does floating a floor really affect soundproofing and just all that technical stuff. But in a nutshell: Odd angles, high ceilings.
Is the studio a part of your house?
It is separate from my house. It's to the side of my house. Attached by one wall, but it's a separate structure pretty much.
Was this album partially a way to experiment with the studio?
That wasn't the goal of the album, but I'm always into finding something unique about wherever I'm recording. Yeah, it definitely was a part of that and exploring the sounds of the space. Every studio has its own character and that was a goal, to find what the character of the studio was, whether it was a drum sound or room sound or anything like that.
The last album, First Taste, had no guitars and this one is a lot of synthesizers. Also according to the press release, you plugged straight into the board as opposed to mic'ing amps. Did you come in to this record with a clear vision of what you wanted to do or did it just sort of manifest itself through the songs?
I did have an aesthetic and a sonic idea. It was pretty much the opposite of First Taste which was very earthy, natural. There's a lot of air in that record and a lot of dissonance, so you're recording the ambience of an acoustic instrument and the sound of a room or a vocal or a drum set. There wasn't a lot of amps for that album, or plugging straight into a piece of gear where there's an absence of space or air. My original concept for Harmonizer, I wanted it to be all absent of space and air and ambience. I wanted it to be as direct or... I don't know what the right way to describe it is, because it's not clean but I guess it's just the absence of air.
But then that didn't necessarily happen and then when you have kind of a large concept for an aesthetic or a sonic choice, you usually can't follow that 100% so obviously we used acoustic drums. I wanted to use all drum machines and programmed drums, and display drum pads, but at the end of the day I realized that for a lot of the songs, it was just going to sound more powerful with an acoustic drum set. And then it became a hybrid of the two.There are definitely a couple of amps on the album, for sure, but conceptually, I wanted it to be airtight. But there are... I have this one amp that I just love so much, I can't help myself but be like, "it would sound really good through my Quad amp, so we should probably do it."
I noticed in the credits on the record that one of the instruments that's listed is the harmonizer. Is that the famous Eventide H949?
Yeah. I have a bunch of those. I'm kind of obsessed with them. I love the H910, but the 949 has this amazing hold button that you can freeze any sound and it will just repeat forever and then you can tune it, In a weird conceptual way, I've made really odd sounding pieces where I stack a frozen sound, and pitch it extremely low or high. You can really create really odd, sometimes terrifying, sometimes beautiful sounds with that piece of gear. I love that.
And then it kind of influenced the idea of harmonizing where I had a really great thought of how harmonies... I always thought of them as being defined as a beautiful chordal idea, but for some reason, working with this piece of gear it became the idea that a harmony is just anything stacked on top of each other and that in itself is pretty amazing too. It doesn't have to be a chordal, beautiful thing, it could be applied to anything. The idea of "what defines beauty" and "what defines melody" and all these kind of conceptual things.
I had never heard of this piece of gear before a month ago but, weirdly, there are two recent records I really like that feature them, yours being one of them. The other is by this British duo Lump which is folk singer Laura Marling and a guy from a band called Tunng. They said the entire idea of their record came out of acquiring one of these Eventide 949's and it just shaped everything. I don't fully understand what it does, I know Bowie used it on Low. I also was watching a YouTube video and somebody called it the first time machine.
Oh yeah, I think that was Tony Visconti who said that.
Maybe you could explain, in layman's terms, the appeal of this piece of equipment to artists like yourself.
Yeah. Harmonizers were famously used on Low and Berlin era Bowie -- Eno's production and Visconti, that stuff -- but then I think it became really popular and really well-known in a different way in the '80s for giant rock stuff. A lot of studios have them because it's a trick where you can take a vocal and have two harmonizers working --- you have the original recorded vocal up the middle and then you can take the pitch of the harmonizer and barely make it sharp on one and then on the second harmonizer barely make it flat and it just creates this big sound. It's kind of like a chorus or something like that but it's totally different, almost a doubler or John Lennon tape doubler effect. But it's very unique sounding. I think AC/DC used it a lot, but what it's maybe most famously used on is Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me."
So it has this very well known thing that you can pinpoint, I think, to the '80s a lot. But I think people have underused it since then, because the original style of it was so wild and you can do so much with it. If you're using a gate and a harmonizer or drums, it's really extreme and it's very hi-fi sounding too. You can make it do really screwed-up sounding things while it also sounds really hi-fi. It's just a very unique effect and so if you have a couple of them...that's why I became obsessed and I have four now. I've done a couple of songs with all four going. It sounds very awesome.
Can you give an example off of the new record where the harmonizer really comes into play?
It's on every song, so let me think about that.
What about the drum break on "Pictures," it sounds completely mental. It that courtesy of the harmonizer?
That's not all done with the harmonizer, but yes. The harmonizer is definitely going off on that part, for sure. But you can make small changes in a specific way, barely pitched up, and it'll make something sound twice as big. We did a lot of harmonizer stuff to the drums on the record. It's great for drums.
I really noticed this on "Pictures," but Harmonizer is a really cool record to listen to on headphones. I listened to it the first couple of times just on my regular stereo, not that loud, and then I listened to it on headphones and it sounded completely different to me. I know that on First Taste, you did some crazy stereo panning with your and Charles' drum kits, but this one to me seems sort of next level. This is your headphones record.
Cool. That's the biggest compliment because I was a little headphone weirdo, so thank you. I think it's always a goal to make it a different experience on headphones, for me. But I think working with Cooper [Crain], who engineered it and produced it with me, he has such a good set of ears and mixing it together, it was kind of almost like finishing each other's sentences type of thing when we were mixing. And I'm a pretty big control freak when it comes to mixing stuff, so it was so great to mix something with someone that has... you're basically completing each other's thoughts. But it's also, someone who is making sure that everything is as good as it can be. I tend to go a bit extreme with fucking shit up or doing a wild guitar solo move or whatever, and then it's good to have someone there to be like, "Can you still hear the snare?" Like, "Oh yeah, the snare."
That whole "Pictures" drum break thing, that's mostly Cooper because he's a master electronic musician and he's an amazing modular synth master. I had the ideas and he could help me do them because I'm really inexperienced with that type of electronic manipulation and modular synthesis and stuff. My favorite part was to run instruments through a modular synth and use drum triggers. Just super fun.
At what point did Cooper come into the process on this record? From the start?
I was writing and then we basically had talked about it pretty much in the demos, we were like 75-80% done and then we just made a plan and the whole idea was we were going to do it when the studio was done. So, we had extra time to sit on it but we just kept going back and forth with ideas, and then it just kind of went from there. He was involved from very early on conceptually and sonically.
Did the pandemic allow you more time on this or was it a pretty normal length of time to make a record?
Strangely enough, I finished writing the songs before the pandemic happened and then I just spent time tweaking the lyrics for a very long time, maybe more than I've ever done. But I went through the emotional ups and downs of, "Is this good or bad or should I even do this?" before I even recorded it, because I was waiting for the studio to be done, and usually that happens when you finish a record and you're like, "Oh, is this bad? I don't know." But I already went through that before I even recorded it so that was the only thing different. I've never sat on songs for that long before I recorded them.
Did you do any touring at all in 2020? I know you were out for First Taste for a good chunk of 2019. Where were you when it hit?
Funnily enough, we had decided to take nine months off from touring, because we were like, "Man, we've hit it very hard for a long time. Let's take 10 months off and regroup." I was like, "Maybe when this record is done..." And then six months or something into that break was when the pandemic started in America, but before that, I think I had played... I did maybe six acoustic shows and maybe... I don't know off the top of my head. I think I played maybe 20 shows in 2020.
That's still a lot of shows, given when things shut down.
Yeah, I think for me, that's a very light year.
Right. You had planned on... at what point was your other band, Fuzz, originally supposed to go out?
That tour I think was in May.
That tour got pushed a bunch of times.
I honestly don't even know how many times.
What is that experience like for a musician to have? I distinctly remember when your tour got pushed to February of this year and I was like, "Man, that's just not going to happen."
It starts to become kind of like, because everyone's trying to re-book their tours, you have to make a decision as soon as possible or else you're going to not be able to re-book anything at all because everyone is scrambling. It's kind of more about trying to be as informed as you can while just re-booking something because especially six months ago, it was kind of like, "We don't know, who knows? So let's just try." Yeah.Try and see what happens knowing that the likelihood that it will get rescheduled again.
Yeah. Almost like trying to keep the ball in play.
Yeah. Trying to keep something on the books even though the likelihood of it happening is very slim, but if something is on the books at least you have a placeholder. I don't know. It's been a very interesting thing. At some point, you just have to keep pushing it back and having no expectation at all, which I think is a healthy thing anyway. Because we all just want everyone to be safe and healthy, so that's all that matters.
Did the pandemic play into the way you released this record, dropping it in full with no warning?
It did. Vinyl production currently takes so long. I finished this record in January and it was going to turn into a winter release a year later and we all kind of looked at each other and I just felt like the coolest thing we could do is to just surprise release it as soon as we can because I was starting to feel like if the record comes out a year after I make it, I'm almost a different person than when I made it. So, I wanted to be as connected to the record as I could be, to have it be as close to you as possible. I just feel like personally I have a different relationship to a record I've made a year and a half ago than to a record I've made eight months ago. I thought that was the number one goal. And I think it's been really cool. I like the surprise element. I didn't think it would be fun to say, "Hey, this record's coming out in six months." I just thought it was cooler to say, "Hey, it's out."
You also get these insanely long campaigns where singles will trickle out one after the other and by the time the record actually comes out, you've already heard half the album, which can make the release of the record a little more underwhelming.
Yeah. I feel that as a music fan myself. Unfortunately it's the way it has to be, in a lot of ways, where you have to promote the record the best possible way. I understand that very well but as a music fan, in order to listen to an album from start to finish right away, that's a pretty amazing thing. We all kind of made this decision that would be the best way to hear this record, not one song here, one song there. It was meant to be heard as an album. I like to think that every record I make, people will listen to it like that but that's just a very selfish side of my inspiration for making records. I know that's not reality. I felt like if we could control the conversation at least in that way where it's like, "Here's the album. This is what we want to say about the record. It's the whole thing." I thought that was important.
It was definitely a nice surprise and I think the record definitely works as a whole, its a nice length and is easily digestible, but it's also got singles on it. Do you have a favorite song on the record?
I really, really love "Feel Good."
Can you talk a little bit about how that one... because it's a little different than everything else in the record. It's a little more new wave-y and your wife also sings lead.
Yeah. I love Denée's vocals so much. She's got a song on Freedom's Goblin and I love that song. It's one of my favorite songs on that record and I just had this idea for this one -- I kind of threw an idea of a topic and then she wrote the lyrics. It was a very collaborative song and I just really love everything about it. I love how positive it is and the message of it and I love how her vocals sound. That's just a personal, one. I'm proud of that song. I think it's great.
I think that is definitely one of the "singles" on the record. That's the radio hit.
Do you have your next record already in the works?
I do, yes. I have... yeah. A few things.
As always, I would imagine.
Actually, I had a serious writer's block during this pandemic for a long time and then a couple of months ago, it just went away. I'm back to my regular routine of a few days in the studio every week tinkering around.
Have you gone to a concert since things sort of opened up there for a little while?
There's this little club in the Topanga town center and I stuck my head in there for a second and it was really cool, but then I had to get out of there because I didn't have any earplugs and I was not prepared and I have really bad hearing so I'm really kind of paranoid about that. I had to dip. But no, I haven't bought a ticket and gone to a show and I don't think I'm going to until we play because I just want to be as careful as possible, as we have our show in two weeks.
Speaking of earplugs, after the year and a half of no shows, I could not find my good ones, so I had to order a new set.
Yeah. It's weird. I'm so obsessed that I have my earplugs in my pocket every day and for some reason, I stuck my head into this club and was like, "Wow, this is the first time in six years that I don't have my earplugs and of course I'm in a club." It's fine, but... I used to stash them all over the house and stuff too. I used to think it was cool to not wear earplugs. How stupid is that? What an idiot. I was 16 or 18 or 19 or something like, "No, man. You've got to be able to hear it for real." Like, you're an idiot. I wish I could go back in time and be like, "Dude, you're a moron. Wear your earplugs. What is wrong with you."
As you mentioned, you and The Freedom Band are playing Psycho Las Vegas this month and then you've got West Coast tour dates in September. How are rehearsals going? Are there any difficulties with the way that Harmonizer was made and the sounds on it that you're trying to figure out how to do live?
Yeah, we are practicing and I think we always dip a little bit more into nasty fucked up rock and roll live, but that's not to say that we're not trying to have all the sounds that are possible involved in the set. There's a lot of drum pads and weird synths and weird pedals and manipulation boxes and stuff like that going on. We're going to do our best.
Your show I saw at Bowery Ballroom during your First Taste run was incredible and I really look forward to you guys coming back around.
Well, thanks. Man, I can't... it's all I want to do. I can't wait. It will be nearly three years since I was last there. It's so weird. I used to be in New York at least... I don't know, two times a year if not five, so it's strange. Very strange. But we'll be back when it can be safe and fun. It should be both of those.