Underground Rock King Ty Segall on the Weirdness of Semi-Fame, Defining Success
Ty Segall is about to be on TV and he looks a little nervous. Not that the fiery, prolific rocker hasn’t already made the rounds on the late-night circuit, but as the first musical guest on Comedy Central’s parody news show The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, he’ll find himself on the air without a guitar in hand, bantering with the host. A few minutes later, Segall seems a little less tense performing “My Lady’s On Fire” – a single from his forthcoming album, Freedom’s Goblin – stripping it back to a plaintive ballad strummed on acoustic six-string.
“That was a psychedelic feeling,” Segall admits in a cab after the taping. “I definitely feel like I blacked out while doing the comedy bits. And playing solo acoustic on TV is very far out and really scary, but really exciting at the same time.”
For the past decade, Segall has been on a rampage through the American underground, recording and touring at a breakneck pace. His way with a guitar evokes a Sixties psych-rock shredder, but his penchant for churning out albums annually brings to mind a hungry Internet startup. By his estimate, he’s written close to 300 songs.
His records – Freedom’s Goblin is Segall’s 10th as a solo artist – melt together classic rock’s chops, punk’s DIY ethos and garage rock’s crunch into a speedball of sound. He’s grown his audience steadily, going from making homemade cassettes to selling 100,000 copies of his records. And he caters to his fervent fan base without much help from social media or streaming services (only late last year did his Drag City albums finally appear on Apple Music). Up until 2013, Segall cranked out releases from his home studio in San Francisco, though he and his wife now call L.A. home.
“It felt right having Ty come on as our first musical guest,” Jordan Klepper told Rolling Stone of the Opposition booking, which was fitting given that the aggressive stomp of the show’s theme music comes courtesy of Segall himself. “You see Ty live and there’s no surprise whatsoever that he’s successful and people go see him every time he’s in town. He’s just a performer. He knows exactly what he’s doing; he gives his all.”
Growing up in Orange County, Segall started out as a drummer before he discovered punk rock and switched to guitar at age 15. He says the first tune he ever wrote was “some weird surf song,” before guaranteeing that “no one will ever hear it.” At the ripe age of 20, Segall released Horn the Unicorn, a batch of crusty lo-fi garage rock, on cassette. A year later, John Dwyer – another hyper-prolific underground auteur – released Ty’s self-titled album and Segall hasn’t relented since. Every successive full-length has tweaked his original vision in subtle but important ways. “Each album I do I try to have at least a slight rule, whether it’s the band has to get together and record live, or all guitars all fuzz on all the time,” he said. “It’s varying and slight, but yes, I like having rules.”
For Freedom’s Goblin, Segall recorded at five separate studios, including the one he built in his own garage. He invited legendary engineer Steve Albini to his home in L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood to oversee sessions there. “Ty likes to chop wood, as we say,” Albini told RS. “He doesn’t need candles lit or to wait for the muse to alight. He just spits on his hands and makes the record.” The album’s 19 tracks veer from “Fanny Dog,” a horn-laced ode to his pooch, to the punk blast of “Meaning” (shouted by Ty’s wife) and the George Harrison–esque “Cry Cry Cry.”
In the cab, talk turns from Segall’s unflagging love for classic rock to an enthusiasm for classic disco. “Boney M rules!” he shouts to no one in particular. You can just make out that bizarre Europop band’s baritone croak on a song like the bubbly “Despoiler of Cadaver.” And then there’s the album’s first single, a buzzsaw take on Hot Chocolate’s 1978 hit, “Every 1’s a Winner,” featuring Latin percussion from none other than Fred Armisen, who has known both Segall and Albini for years and lives just up the road from Segall. “To me, Ty’s about ‘make a great record and tour, make a record and play,'” Armisen told RS. “It’s an old-school work ethic, but it’s also a good-art ethic. … It keeps things pure.”
Ask Segall about his steadily growing success, and his voice turns serious. “I’m from the fully existentialist perspective that no one is fucking special,” he says. “No one deserves anything more than anybody else. Because of that fact, you treat everyone the exact same way as best as you can. Same with musical ideas. My ideas aren’t better than anybody else’s. If I thought any other way, I’d be a fucking dickhead.” Accordingly, Segall felt that the first time he put out a record, he had achieved a lifelong goal. “To me success has already happened. I get to make records and live doing that. Success is that,” he says, adding: “All this other shit is just the cherry on top.”