Ty Segall on Black Flag, T Rex and why the Kinks made so much sense in 90s California

He may be the reigning king of slacker rock – but Ty Segall is as prolific as they come. He explains why the Kinks made so much sense to a kid in 90s California

Ty Segall is 29, but looks younger. He comes across like a relaxed California surfer, with golden hair and a boyish demeanor. He says things are “rad”, that you should only do things “as long as they’re fun”. So far, so slacker.

But as the reigning king of the garage underground, Segall is no slouch. On the verge of releasing his ninth “official” solo album in less than nine years, he has in that time also been in at least three different bands, produced a number of other groups, released two dozen singles and EPs, as well as scores of albums with side projects. He doesn’t think it is odd to be so prolific.

“Look at the Stones or the Beatles back in the day – they put out two albums a year,” he says. “Neil Young has, like, 35 studio LPs or something. I just don’t feel like making 10 songs a year is that crazy or fast, you know what I mean? I’m not making insane prog or orchestral music, or even crazy Aphex Twin-type stuff – I could understand that takes a long time. But rock’n’roll? It’s not that crazy. That’s just my opinion.”

We’re sitting at an outdoor cafe in the hip neighbourhood of Highland Park in Los Angeles, not far from where Segall lives. He has been living in LA for nearly five years, and was in San Francisco before that. “It’s brutal, man,” he says of San Francisco, now the most expensive city in the US. “It’s sad how hard it is for artists and musicians to live there.”

Segall grew up in Orange County, about an hour outside LA, in the affluent, secluded seaside town of Laguna Beach. He took up surfing as a kid, and learned how to play drums at age 10, followed by guitar by 15. His father tuned him into 1950s and 1960s rock and soul; his mother was into hair metal. “Like, heavily into hair metal,” he says with a laugh. “Guns N’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and the like. It’s like, come on, at least throw on the first Van Halen record – that’s amazing. That’s a great record. Instead it was shit like Warrant. ‘She’s my cherry pie’ – you can shoot me in the face, man.”

Orange County had its own scene, centred on punk, and later, pop-punk. “Growing up in Orange County, it was all OC punk, LA punk,” he says. “Black Flag, all the SST stuff. It’s still very important to me, but the OC stuff, the melodic original pop-punk – not what it turned into – was very important to my melodic idea of music. Realising that you can add melody into heavy sounds. I was really into surf music as a kid, too.”

Segall performing with offshoot band the Muggers, August 2016.
Segall performing with offshoot band the Muggers, August 2016. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for FYF

The Kinks were another major touchstone. Though the peculiarly British world of the Kinks and the palm-tree-lined vistas of Laguna Beach might seem worlds apart, Segall found that the Kinks spoke to him.

“I grew up in a super suburban place where the mundane middle-class issues were similar to what Ray Davies was singing about,” says Segall. “All the topics he was singing about were middle-class woes, and humanitarian woes – human-being woes. It’s a class perspective. His critique of that class problem was similar to my upbringing, and the issues I was seeing middle-class Orange County people deal with in a weird way, which is strange.”

Segall has a knack for spinning out garage rock, punk and fuzz with monster hooks – shredders and stompers that recall an earlier golden era – without sounding too much like a throwback to the past. He’s an able drummer and a formidable guitarist and singer, with a slight warble that eerily recalls Marc Bolan at his prime (he released an excellent T Rex tribute EP in 2011, Ty Rex).

The Bolan connection can be heard most clearly on Segall’s rare acoustic ballads. Orange Color Queen, the first single on Segall’s new self-titled album, is one of those ballads – recalling stately and reflective T Rex tunes such as Cosmic Dancer and Monolith. He wanted his new album “to all be songs, like song songs – no experiments. I love experiments, but with this one, I wanted them to all be the best songs I’ve got. I don’t think the songwriting is that crazy different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s just me trying to write the best group of songs I can.”

His new album is his first to be recorded with the legendary Steve Albini, with a full band in the studio. “I’d always recorded overdub records,” says Segall. “I love the weird overdub style, like The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett, where you can tell it’s being overdubbed and it’s kind of warbly. It creates a different experience. Or the White Album, where you can tell it’s overdubbing. But there’s something about a band in a room – it’s a feeling you can’t replicate. There’s a feel to the music. The band is so good, and I love the feel of this record.”

The album retains a raw rock’n’roll feel, but Segall’s band sounds cleaner and more focused than in his previous albums. “He’s a master,” enthuses Segall of Albini. “I think we share an opinion on how to make a record. It’s so much fun. He just wants to help you make what you want to make. There’s no ego. He doesn’t insert himself into the situation in a crazy way; he just wants to achieve what you want to do. What we were doing, I think, is one of his favourite things to do – just a band in a room playing super loud music.”

Segall loves tinkering with sound, and has his own makeshift studio in his garage in LA. A fringed T Rex scarf from the early 1970s, a gift from the former Fall guitarist and now 6Music DJ Marc Riley, hangs on one wall. There is a drum kit surrounded by vintage microphones, the bass drum stuffed with pillows to cheaply filter out unwanted resonance. Vintage Fender guitars, a dusty tape machine and an old-school mixing desk reflect Segall’s priorities. The reel-to-reel tape recorder, Segall says, is key. “I think there’s a sound of tape, of tape compression – it’s got a vibe, it’s got a feeling,” he says. “I know what I like and how I want something to sound.”

Segall’s basement is crammed with vinyl, stacked from floor to ceiling. “I’m just a total nerd, in all honesty,” he says, gesturing to a wall of dusty records. “I’m a massive, insane record fan – that’s how I got into playing music. That’s why I wanted to make an album – I’m obsessed with how sides flow.”

He goes upstairs and plays some songs off his computer, connected to a dusty vintage hi-fi. “This is the new record,” he tells me. The album out this month? “No, this isn’t out yet,” he says – these are the demos for his 10th album, which will be out in a year. He’s already almost finished it. Segall, always restless, is already on to the next thing.

Ty Segall is released on Drag City on 27 January.

Geeta Dayal

The GuardianTramp

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