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Interview with William Tyler

Last year’s release from Nashville’s William Tyler, Behold the Spirit, conjures immediate feelings of warmth. Without a rough edge in sight, the recording serves as one massive gallery, each track standing as a unique showcase for a thought, style or emotion. Much of the power of the album comes as a result of the years of practice and training the guitarist has invested in his craft; while Behold the Spirit is the first recording of Tyler’s to be released under his own name, he has previously performed and recorded with the likes of Lambchop, the Silver Jews and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, not to mention his previous solo work under the Paper Hats moniker. Pitchfork referred to the instrumental Behold the Spirit as a “sterling mixture of bravado and dexterity”; words that are true, yet only go so far in defining the remarkable craftsmanship behind Tyler’s immensely skilled fingerpicking. Recently speaking to Tyler via email, we discussed his style, the recording of Behold the Spirit, his memories of Charlie Louvin & a couple of items that remain on his bucket list.

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Chris DeLine: NPR recently used the term “hired gun” when referring to your career—how you’ve floated around and performed with such a broad cast of musicians. Looking back on what you’ve accomplished thus far, what would you label yourself as in those terms?

William Tyler: Well, I hesitate to resort to weapons as metaphors, but I would certainly contend that I have spent many years in Nashville as a session player, both on the road and in the studio. In situations like my experiences with the Silver Jews or Lambchop it’s harder to define the exact role of a “sideman.” Obviously there are contours as to what is delegated and what is implied when you are in a band with a figure like Kurt [Wagner] or David [Berman]. I have been fortunate to usually be in musical situations where there was plenty of room for the players to assert themselves, more like playing in a jazz ensemble than a typical rock or country group.

CD: Having played with so many different people, how did you go about deciding who would accompany you on YOUR album; the players who drift in and out of “Terrace of the Leper King” or the drummer on “The Green Pastures” for instance.

WT: Honestly since I have been so blessed to play with a variety of musicians, many of whom live in Nashville, it wasn’t hard to find help! Scott Martin plays drums on the song you refer to. He is an astounding talent, plays drums with Lambchop, Cortney Tidwell, and a variety of Nashville ensembles like Forest Bride and Hands Off Cuba. With “Terrace” I had the idea to send the tapes to my friend Alex McManus, who plays guitar in Lambchop as well but who lives in Omaha. Alex has always been a hero of mine, a totally original guitar player and multi-instrumentalist. I just sent him the rough tracks and let him go to town, which he thankfully did, via brass and violin.

CD: Is there any sort of narrative that floated through your head when recording the album? Do you feel like you’re ever trying to tell a story through your music?

WT: Yes. Place and history are important themes to me. So are mysticism and language. Whenever they can intersect I find a lot of inspiration, as in the Aramaic speaking Christian enclaves that have buried themselves into the mountains outside of Damascus. Or the forgotten alphabet of the early Mormons, called “Deseret.” Or in a bizarre, hand illustrated nineteenth century spiritualist text “channeled” by a nineteenth century dentist, which is what “Oahspe” is based on. And so on…

CD: Not being a musician myself, I really have no barometer for something like this, and for whatever reason I perceive this to be more difficult when dealing with a purely instrumental album, but how did you know when Behold the Spirit was complete?

WT: Adam Bednarik (the engineer/co-producer) and I spent a lot of time going over each song and trying to deduce which ones needed embellishment and which ones would suffer from it. The recording of the album took a while, since we did it by financial necessity in a rather piecemeal fashion. I think letting the tracks sit for some time helped us with the perspective on what was too much in regards to arrangement. Songs like “Tears and Saints” sounded better left alone and then ones like “Green Pastures” that I really wanted to build up.

CD: I believe you had the honor of playing with Charlie Louvin before he passed. Did you ever get to speak to him on a personal basis and is there anything you personally take away from his life?

WT: I knew Charlie through the sessions for one of the Tompkins Square albums he did a couple of years ago. It was a collection of murder ballads, but throughout the course of the recording Charlie would come up with various off the cuff tunes he wanted to try. Old Louvin Brothers songs, country standards, etc. It was a dream realized. The Louvin Brothers are one of the only recording acts I honestly never get tired of listening to. They always provoke something pure and spiritual in me, some combination of totally sublime harmony and often tragically bleak lyrical themes. Working with him was fun for the most part. He cracked a lot of jokes and smoked a lot of cigarettes. I do remember him referring to gigs as “work.” As in “Where we working tonight?” as opposed to “Where are we playing tonight?”

CD: I read a little about how you settled on using longer acrylic nails for your picking hand. That’s just one aspect of finding your comfort zone, but do you still finding yourself picking up new techniques or approaches to music or are you slowly settling into a pattern of consistency?

WT: I think anytime I find myself settling into a pattern of consistency I start panicking. So while, yes, there is a certain framework of tools and methods that you need in order to be able to do linear things like touring or even recording an album, the musicians/writers/humans I most admire are the ones who refuse predictability. That’s not to say I won’t become incredibly predictable! I perhaps already have. But it’s hard to separate things like using a certain pick, or string gauge, or in my case acrylic nails, which are all tools, from things like finger picking patterns, tunings, or a new instrument, which I feel are all methods. You need your methods to be constantly evolving alongside new tools.

CD: When you began toying with the idea of playing instruments you weren’t locked into the guitar; do you still experiment with other instruments at all? Think you’ll be transferring your skills to turntablism any time soon?

WT: I just got a pedal steel. I told my parents two of my bucket list goals were to learn French and the pedal steel guitar. And I have a feeling neither one is going to be easy! I would like to move in different directions. It’s funny that you mention turntablism, because while I wouldn’t claim to begin to understand that world, I see some continuities between the folk music communities and the electronic communities. My friend Volker Zander, who released the first Paper Hats album, lives in Cologne and knows a lot of the Kompakt/A Musik/Sonig folks. Minimal techno to me isn’t really that far removed from folk guitar, it’s just that the tools and the instruments are different.


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