How Ty Segall Makes A Record: “You Should Never Be Cautious When It Comes To Getting Sounds”

After 13 years of making and releasing music for his solo project, Ty Segall is ready to let his work speak for itself. So, on August 3 via Drag City, without too much fanfare, he surprise released his latest studio album: Harmonizer

Videos by American Songwriter

Always one for trying out new things, Segall wanted this latest offering to feel like a departure from his most recent release ( First Taste 2019). As a result, the 10-track record sees the garage rock icon embrace all sorts of new avenues for sonic exploration. From drum machines to synth lines to utterly smashed-sounding guitar parts, his explorative process merited a fruitful reinvention of his sound. And perhaps “reinvention” is the most apt word—while the crisp, modern atmosphere achieved through these new techniques is a fresh page for Segall, he still approaches each song with his usual sense of devotion, endowing them with his unique touch. 

That’s why he decided to drop Harmonizer sans warning—on a call with American Songwriter, he explained that he just wanted people to listen to the music themselves, rather than sift through a couple of months of anticipatory promotional material first. Digging into his creative process, the way these particular songs unfolded, the gear he used, the joy of finally having his own full home studio, and more, Segall used the opportunity of the interview to, in fact, speak on behalf of his record a little bit—but through it all, his focus was on one thing and one thing alone: the music. Read the conversation below: 

American Songwriter: You started making this album before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force in early 2020—what was going into quarantine like for you? How did that change the album? 

Ty Segall: I mean, obviously, COVID and being quarantined at home was a different experience (and a shitty one) for so many reasons. For the first half of it, for some reason, I couldn’t write a single song. What’s weird is that I had already finished writing this record before COVID became a thing, so I was already in the process of tweaking things. Like, January, March, and April, I was obsessively going over the lyrics. Then, it was pretty much done… which is interesting because, after that, I got to just sit with the songs for a full year and tweak them even more.

That let me really, really have a hard think on what the whole thing should be. That kinda changed the aesthetic choices and the production ideas and sounds, you know? For instance, originally, I wanted it to be all electronic drums, but that changed because I began to feel it needed to be a hybrid. Now, there are a lot of real drums. So, I got to experiment and do tests and make a bunch of demos. I really got to push the writing about as far as it could go. Usually, I like to just kinda experiment and be loose when I’m writing and recording, but with this one, I got it to a point where it was like “Okay, I’ve pushed this song to what it is fully—there’s no room for experimentation left.” 

AS: You mention that you were able to make some changes to the record with the extended time quarantine provided—what do you think inspired those changes? Were you trying to hone in on something specific?

TS: I don’t often just sit down to specifically write a song, usually it’s more like “Hm, I want to try this thing” and then that leads to a song. Sometimes I’ll sit down with an acoustic and just write something, and that’s super fun and rewarding. But oftentimes, when I finish a record, I start thinking about the next thing I want to do, like, “Well, what’s the best entryway to a new thing?” Like, “What’s a good idea I should try out?” Sometimes, I’ll try something and it doesn’t work… but if it’s not interesting, I’ll just try something else out. 

So, for this record, it was like “Okay, I want to do the antithesis of what my last record was.” That album was very natural sounding with acoustic instruments, with a whole kind of “earthy” sound and a lot of air. So, I wanted this one to be… well, this is a strange thing to say, but I wanted it to feel void of air. There are drum machines, guitars plugged straight into the board, all of those things from that angle. And I’ve never really written a record around synth parts, so that was pretty cool and different. So yeah, it’s always different, like, “What’s the angle going to be this time?” Sometimes, there’s just no angle, but that’s an angle in itself, you know?

AS: That’s cool how something as simple as starting from a different place (like writing with a synth versus a guitar) can actually elicit changes in the compositions themselves—like, you naturally write different types of melodies on different instruments.

TS: Oh, totally. I mean, I’m at the point with the guitar where when I pick one up, my hand just automatically goes to a D chord. You have all of these tendencies and chords and patterns that just kinda fall into place. I realized that I love the F to D change—it’s a very specific sounding change and it’s really cool, but I also used it a lot. Now I have this thing where I’m like “Don’t pick up the guitar and play that chord change.” 

So, I’ve been getting really into different ways to start a song, like, “Okay, I’m just going to play a beat and make up different types of rhythm.” From there, I’ll see how it builds, and then I’ll go over to the synth and see if it works or not. And, I don’t really know how to play synth super well—I’m not a very good piano player. But that’s why I like writing on it, you kinda get to fly blind, going “I don’t really know where I am.” But then you go “Wait, that sounds cool!” So, it’s super fun to come up with different things and you get different results than when you start with guitar. 

AS: On that note, you recently built out a full recording studio in your home—what’s that been like? How did it impact your creative and recording processes?

TS: We’ve been planning and working on building the studio in my house for a couple of years—now, it’s done. I had a studio in my old house that was way smaller, the typical one-room-type situation. This time, I was lucky enough to plan out a three-room studio with a Studer and a legit board. It’s pretty wild—it’s basically like I never have to leave my house ever again. And it was really fun to be able to plan something like that out from conception to completion.

Harmonizer was the first record we did in there and we kinda used it to get all the sounds and figure everything out. We were literally treating rooms while we were recording songs, which was cool. It was basically like a giant blank canvas, we could make the room more dead, we could make it super live. The options were totally up to us and we got to have a lot of fun being very detailed and specific. 

There’s really no clock going while I’m in there, you know? Especially for this record, there was no specific due date. We just went in there and chipped away at it until we were happy with it, which is very, very cool. 

AS: Wow, yeah! It’s one thing to have a home studio, but it’s another thing to literally have a full studio in your home. That’s gotta be like a dream come true.

TS: Oh yeah, totally a dream come true. It was almost like too much of a good thing! Now, I have to tell myself to not go into the studio. I have to tell myself: “You’re only allowed in the studio three days a week and the rest of the time you can’t go in there.” Otherwise, I’d just be in there 20 hours at a time and I’d never eat! 

AS: You mentioned getting guitars by going directly into the board—were there any particular techniques or pieces of gear that you felt were influential for this record? 

TS: I have to give Cooper Crain credit for being the engineer and producing this record with me. Sonically, it was a very collaborative experience with him, which was cool. We would come up with ideas and end up finishing each other’s sentences, which made a lot of the ideas better. We did a lot of DI’ed guitars. I have an Ampex 351 preamp—which is like an old tape machine preamp—and we’d plug the guitar straight into that and, I mean, it’s an amazing sound. Then you put a fuzz pedal on and it can sound like your guitar’s breaking. So, there were a lot of moments where we were pushing the distortion past what a normal engineer would want to do, which is always fun for me. You should never be cautious when it comes to getting sounds. 

But there were amps too—I had just gotten a U67 microphone, which is the main mic on a lot of this stuff. I think the whole idea was that every song should have a different guitar sound. We had a lot of fun being like, “Alright, what haven’t we done? Have we put on the Big Muff?” 

AS: You put out this record as a surprise—what was behind that decision? How does it feel to have it out now? 

TS: I’m super happy that the record’s out. It’s been an interesting experience because of all of the delays. We were sitting on this record for a really long time—I finished it in January. So, for me, that’s like an eternity, but it’s obviously understandable because of what’s going on in the world. So, now that it’s here, I’m just so stoked. 

The surprise release came about because it just kinda made sense when we were looking at all of the options. Basically, we were like, “Okay, the vinyl is probably going to be out in October, but it might be pushed to November.” I was asking myself if I really wanted the album to come out, like, a full year after we finished recording it. Then, thinking about going through four or five months of having the rollout… that’s the standard thing and I totally understand that, but I just feel it’s better to just release the album and have the music be the story, you know? Instead of the story being, like, “Hey, this thing is coming—let’s talk about it a bunch but you can’t hear it,” it’s just like, “Here it is, listen to it.” I think the music was the most important thing to me. So, I was really stoked when everybody was down for the surprise thing—and it’s been a really fun experience. Honestly, I want surprise release stuff more because it makes it just about the music, which is really the whole point.

Ty Segall’s new album Harmonizer is out now and available everywhere—watch the music video for “Feel Good” below:

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