The multi-instrumentalist—who’s never off the drums for long, on stage or in the studio—always hits that sweet spot between retro and radical.
At first blush, you’d likely mistake Ty Segall for your stereotypical Southern California slacker. He’s a surfer. He’s a skateboarder. He’s got moppy blond hair. In conversation, he exudes extreme nonchalance. But dial up the dude’s Wiki and you’ll quickly discover that the twenty-seven-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a straight-up workaholic when it comes to kicking out the jams.
Over the last seven years, Segall, a walking rock ’n’ roll encyclopedia, has recorded and released eight solo records and twenty-odd singles and EPs of brilliant psychedelic pop, garage rock, punk rock, lo-fi indie folk, and everything in between. And while the prolific wiz kid is best known for his hooky, tripped-out melodies and scintillating fretwork, he plays virtually every single note on his records—including the drums, which just so happen to be his first love.
“I started drumming when I was eleven or twelve,” Segall says while chatting over the phone from his northeast Los Angeles home. “I learned how to play to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix records. I was obsessed with those drummers. Especially Mitch Mitchell—he’s just the coolest. I would play forever and ever and ever. And then at thirteen or fourteen I started on guitar. My poor parents were bummed. It was always so loud.”
Growing up behind the Orange Curtain (Laguna Beach, California, to be exact), Segall spent a good chunk of his adolescence holed up in his bedroom, crafting songs inspired by classic rock and early West Coast punk and psychedelic bands, and learning how to capture them on a 4-track. “Recording really forced me to focus on rhythm,” he says. “It helped me develop my internal clock, because I was working all by myself and I always laid down the drums first. Everything else would go on top of them, so my time had to be super-solid.”
These days, Segall can afford to pay someone to help him place microphones, thanks to a career that took off shortly after he relocated to the Bay Area to attend college at the University of San Francisco. But while he may take more time to focus on sonic nuance, his overall approach has changed little over the years. He recorded his most recent studio effort, Manipulator, almost entirely by himself over a span
of thirty straight days at the Dock in Sacramento. The sparkling seventeen-track double record somehow manages to sound both familiar and fresh, with Segall sprinkling in a heavy dose of David Bowie– and T. Rex–inspired glam atop his psych-rock potpourri.
A stickler for classic tones, Segall turned to coproducer/engineer Chris Woodhouse to help him replicate the retro drum sounds of his favorite records. “I used my ’50s Ludwig jazz kit—22″ kick, 12″ rack, and 14″ floor,” Ty says. “Chris detuned the front head of the bass drum so that you could really hear the difference between the tight batter side and that loose, boomy front, kind of like a classic funk and soul kick.
He was also into changing the key of the drums on a track-by-track basis, so the toms would be tuned to different notes depending on the song. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Segall handles drum duties on all but a pair of tracks, and several of Manipulator’s songs were written from the ground up, starting with distinct beats. The opening title cut is anchored by a driving, stutter- step pattern that cycles indefinitely as ethereal vocals and piercing guitarmonies swirl overhead. “Tall Man Skinny Lady” kicks off with a snare march that foreshadows syncopated guitar strumming, while “Mister Main” launches with a funky breakbeat, setting the scene for the song’s slinky bass line and delicate falsetto melody. One of the album’s coolest moments occurs on the rapturous “Feel,” when Segall shreds a devastating minute-long Neil Young–inspired guitar solo before dropping into an extended drum and percussion breakdown—a deliberate homage to the classic James Gang track “Funk #49.”
Adding to the throwback feel of Manipulator is Segall’s stubborn refusal to employ a click track or fuss with any superfluous editing of his takes. “I go by the clock in my head,” Ty asserts, “and the takes are always live, straight through—no edits. Don’t get me wrong; I love editing as an artistic statement. Like when it’s super-obvious and almost jarring in a way. But I’m not into the standard way people use editing software nowadays to ‘fix’ their stuff.”
As if his abundance of solo work weren’t enough, Segall also has his hand in myriad collaborations, chiefly with longtime cohorts and fellow songwriters Mikal Cronin and Tim Presley (the latter better known as White Fence). Perhaps of most interest to the drumming community, however, is Segall’s aptly titled proto-metal project Fuzz, which he fronts from behind the kit. Channeling his childhood influences on the band’s self-titled debut, the closet drum nerd flashes wicked chops not often heard on his other albums.
“It’s harder to get bombastic and free-associative on my solo stuff, because, frankly, it usually doesn’t suit the song,” Segall says. “Fuzz has way more room for that kind of stuff. Plus we’re typically all in the same room recording live, so it’s just a different mindset. One is like jamming with somebody, while the other is like putting down the base coat on a paint job.” Segall’s explosive playing with Fuzz is even more impressive considering the haunting, Ozzy Osbourne–esque lead vocals he howls while slamming the skins. “I don’t really struggle with drumming and singing, but sometimes it’s hard just to find the breath to pull it off,” he says with a chuckle. “Especially in Fuzz, because we have marathon songs in general, and then I have to scream at the same time. It’s kind of insane.”
Speaking of insanity, Segall may be long overdue for a break. But with a slew of Manipulator tour dates scheduled all across the globe—and a killer new home studio setup just waiting to be christened—don’t expect a hiatus anytime soon. “It’s good to take a breather now and then, but I’m not too worried about it,” Segall says. “I just really love touring and recording. They’re both very, very necessary for me, you know?”
Story by David Jarnstrom
Photos by Alex Solca