William Tyler on Looking Inward, Hauntology, the Nashville Bombing, and the Gorgeousness of Decay

William Tyler on Looking Inward, Hauntology, the Nashville Bombing, and the Gorgeousness of Decay
Photo courtesy of Merge Records

One thing I learned while talking to William Tyler recently: He does not, in fact, have a co-production credit on Mary J. Blige’s 2017 song “Survivor.” Someone needs to update his Wikipedia! Of course, that’s not why I wanted to talk to Tyler. Even with a multi-decade career as a musician behind him, he’s continued to ascend to new artistic heights in recent times, with last year’s one-two punch of his score for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and the gorgeous New Vanitas that came out last fall.

The latter release especially intrigued me, as it’s completely new territory for Tyler—murky, ominous drones tinted with the same melodic sensibility he’s shown throughout his fantastic run of solo albums. We had a good time talking about that release, as well as what’s gone on in his life as of late. We talked on Inauguration Day, and even though talk steered towards death (when does it not?) I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that we were both happy to be alive.

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What’s the last twelve months been like for you?

It was timed very interesting. I spent all of 2019 and into 2020 touring—hustling and traveling a lot. Looking back on it, it was weird because performing every night produces this myopic sense of reality. You get lost in this rhythm, and it’s not bad—unless you’re treating your body really badly, which I usually don’t. But I was traveling solo, and I wasn’t processing a lot of things emotionally—the end of a relationship, I had a couple of deaths in the family. Looking back, I was totally in denial.

So when COVID happened, I’d already been planning on moving out of my house in Los Angeles, and the shutdown happened the week I moved out, so I drove back to Nashville. I’ve been in a stasis period ever since. Like most people, I’ve been really in-between, because most of my stuff is still in L.A. I’m not really sure where I’m gonna plant the flag, although it does feel like we’re all starting to come out of the waking nightmare of the last few years—but, also, there’s a new sense of accountability that is pretty harmonious with the best things Biden represents.

The last year’s been really painful emotionally, and there’s been a lot of reflection that’s been pretty dark at times. I’d hope that, coming out of it, I’d be leaving some bad patterns behind and try to feel more grateful and optimistic—which is really hard right now, especially as a touring musician.

I think it’s really faulty to sublimate your own problems and not give the grief enough space because you can telescope out and tell how much better you have it than other people. It creates a false sense of self-accountability for your own grief. It’s really important for everybody to be as patient with their loved ones as possible, but also create a space where you can feel disappointment, trauma, and frustration—but also not to get wrapped up in it so you can be an ally to your fellow citizens. Otherwise, you compound the loss, and it grows without you purchasing it.

You mentioned leaving bad patterns behind. Anything specific?

A big thing for me in the last year has been examining my relationship with alcohol. My relationship to ego, too. I’m pretty good at showing up for other people sometimes, but my fallback position in a lot of difficult positions is anxiety, which is just an inverted form of anger. I’ve been doing some long, hard work on looking at the patterns that cause me to get wrapped up in what other people think about me. I’m 41 years old—I don’t know why I’m still carrying that shit around.

Being open to stillness, being present—they’re hard for a lot of people, and they’re hard for me. I’m very task-oriented, but when it’s just me in my house by myself and there’s no one to answer to, I’m not a good self-motivator. Those are hard things to face when you’re by yourself most of the time.

You started your career playing with Lambchop at the age of 19.

There was an indie rock scene in Nashville, but at the time it was so hard to do anything aside from aspiring to be on a major label. It’s just not diverse and big enough to have the indie culture other industry towns have. So I was like, “I like Drag City bands, Lambchop are the connection to that world.” I saw them play and got to know Kurt, and he sensed some sort of potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. For him, I think it was novel to have this young guy in the band, since I was 20 years younger than everybody else. Kurt’s not really direct, both in the way he approaches lyrics and life, so the conversation was literally him coming up to me in a club one night and saying, “Do you want to come with us to play keyboards in Europe?” And then I was in the band for ten years.

What does Nashville mean to you as a place?

Growing up here around a lot of people who were my parents’ age, music tends to break down barriers with age in a way that few other activities do. So when I was younger, I was comfortable hanging out with my parents’ friends, because they were all bohemian types. I learned a lot directly through that.

Nashville’s a really interesting place. It’s very conservative in one way, but it’s also incredibly weird. There’s a lot of possibility here, and there always has been. It’s a great place to make music, and it’s actually a really great place to live, honestly. Most people that land here ultimately want a kind of security spiritually, if not financially. There’s a magic and danger to a place like New Orleans that’s way cooler than Nashville, but a lot of people move here to have a job, be able to afford a house and have a family, and still be able to go to trendy restaurants of the caliber of Portland or Chicago.

I’m really proud to be from the South. It really informs my work. My family’s from Mississippi, and it informs the way I look at culture and identity. I’m very aware of the dark things about Southern history, and it goes into every facet—especially the music business. But people are pretty real down here. It’s a Southern city with a Midwestern quality. I’ve accepted the fact that it’s a central part of my identity with how people see me, and that’s not a negative thing. I’ve been pushing myself away from it for so long because there’s a lot of places you can be from that feel smothering—especially if you’re someone like me who doesn’t play country music. It’s like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. He keeps trying to get away from his hometown, but he can’t, and at the end of the movie he accepts that it isn’t been that bad.

Being back here through COVID has been wild, because I’ve been doing a lot of intense reflection. Every part of the city that hasn’t been torn down and rebuilt still feels so familiar. I feel like a child here. [Laughs] It’s not bad. It’s a great place.

You owned a restaurant and venue in Nashville, The Stone Fox, with your sister at one point.

We were very much into hosting people and putting on events. She’d put on a fair number of shows herself, I’d been pretty involved in hosting shows—not as a promoter, but in terms of helping people find venues. I lived in a house in my 20s that was conducive to house shows, and we didn’t have an artist-run venue in Nashville at the time that was doing weird music but was also a neighborhood bar that you’d want to go to.

We didn’t have much of a business plan or investors. We didn’t know what we were doing, and that’s what made it cool, but totally unsustainable. It was like Union Pool, but it didn’t make money. [Laughs] Creative people can start businesses in a cool way, but I don’t know if they know how to run them in a good way. It was a very humbling experience, frankly. It started off as an ego trip, but real quickly, if you have any perspective as to what’s going on in a business like that, you become very humbled. It’s all about the staff and the bands, and the people who are regulars. I’d worked in the service industry my whole life, but being on the other side of it, I would never do it again even though I’m glad we did it.

Actually, I’m not sure I’d never do it again. Coming out of COVID, the venue landscape…I feel so much sympathy for venues and restaurants, not just as someone who depends on them for an income. I know how hard it is to make something like that to work, even in good times. As a musician, I would hope that moving forward there’s a sense of shared goals between venues, promoters, agents, labels, artists, patrons, staff—that we can leave a lot of this antagonism behind. For the economy of small-to-mid-sized venues to survive, there’s gonna have to be a lot of understood shared liability.

The Nashville bombing took place on your birthday, which is also Christmas Day.

It was really strange. It came at a really strange point in this whole Trump-COVID experience. I sort of assumed it was what it ended up being—a disgruntled right-wing guy—but that’s also very terrifying. He didn’t kill anybody, he basically went out of his way to stage a high-profile suicide that destroyed a block of downtown and completely knocked out AT&T for three days within a huge radius. I was quarantining with my parents in Nashville, so I had a good day, but it was also weird to drive out and realize your phone didn’t work for three days.

It also came at such a point in the year, with the experience of everything we’ve been going through, where it didn’t register in a few different ways. It was a weird, low-level gut punch in the ongoing anxiety about how things are like right now. Nothing’s ever that surprising.

Tell me about New Vanitas. It feels like new territory for you.

I was trying to make something that was of a mood—melancholy without being too sentimental. Most of it was recorded at home on four-track. A few tracks are outtakes or demos from Goes West. I’ve been really curious about exploring ambience and decay in music and sound. When I got back to Nashville, I was listening a lot to old records, and I had a cassette player but not a record player. So I was listening to a lot of cassettes and AM radio broadcasts. I was fascinated by the sonic textures of radio.

I was inspired by hauntology. A friend of mine gave me Mark Fisher’s Ghosts in My Dreams, where he talks about hauntology related to stuff like Boards of Canada, Burial, Philip Jeck—all artists I really admire, but I was in the mindset of chipping away at American hauntology. And, to be clear, I was also putting something together informally for Bandcamp Day. But when I got everything together, I was like, “Okay, these all feel like they’re of a mood, and it’s where my head is at, and it reflects the music I’ve been listening to.”

It feels personal, too, in a way that music that I’ve put out hasn’t in a long time. Most albums I like in any genre have some sort of unifying sonic component. For New Vanitas, it was all about my friend Lonnie, who is my friend and a brilliant engineer from Nashville. I told them, “I really want to run this shit through a series of filters that makes it sound like it was buried underground for five years.” I wanted to back away from the acoustic guitar, which implies folk and country—which, is in there.

That’s why I’m trying to find this American hauntology. I’m a white guitarist from Nashville that started out in Americana acts, but I don’t really listen to music like that—but I don’t want to dishonor that, either. The concept of “Vanitas” is this Medieval concept of death represented in art, but in an ambiguous way—this is a part of life. Modern American culture doesn’t have a very good relationship with language when it comes to how we talk about mortality and transience. In the last year and a half, a lot of people have been like, “Alright, you have to think about this.”

There’s been this wave of corona records by necessity, but I’m really trying to be careful about this not being that. But it is spiritually indebted to what we’re going through, as well as my own internal depression and reflection, and reckoning with some really hard things about loss. I think it’s important to honor the shadow and talk about things like death, because it’s the central anxiety in the human condition. It doesn’t have to be sinister. [Laughs] It can be beautiful too!

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Jamie Larson