Q&A: Guitarist/Singer TK Webb on Life After New York
"I wish I could write lyrics like, 'Hey baby, wanna fuck?' But I can't."
Since Social Registry released Thomas Kelly Webb's 1996 album Phantom Parade, you might expect his music to be avant-Williamsburg weirdness, just like the label's artists: Gang Gang Dance, Psychic Ills, Telepathe and so on. But Webb's creaky horse-slang has nothing at all to do with that stuff. The illegitimate offspring of Royal Trux's Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, it's as if the dude crawled right out of grooves of the band's 1996 boogie masterpiece Thank You. Like the Trux, Webb's understanding of American-bred classic rock is wholly intuitive. He isn't some reformed emo-nerd who heard his first Crazy Horse jam at age 29 and is now running around the country in vintage buckskin fringe acting like a clown. Possessing a heightened sense of artistry for sure, the dude obviously grew up with the shit, soaking it up on a pretty profound level.
Webb also possesses Herrema and Hagerty's knack for the old switcheroo. Just when you think you've got the guy's m/o pinned he releases an album that screams, "Not so fast, you punk-ass." Over the course of four full-lengths, with each successive album contradicting its predecessor, the restless Webb has explored -- in addition to authentic classic rock -- shambolic country-blues, gnarly stoner-jams and rootsy folk-music. His latest, simply titled TK Webb, finds him returning to the acoustic flavors marking his first couple albums. It's kind of a mindfuck, considering the guy's previous joint, 2008's Ancestor, which featured the now-defunct Visions, was all about megaton riffage and proggy epics. He also has a new label, Mexican Summer, which is now Webb's third, actually.
Most important, he's no longer a grizzled New Yorker. He and his new family -- looking for a little peace and quiet and space -- moved to the Midwest. Columbus, Ohio, to be specific. There, he splits his time between raising his baby, building a home studio, recording even more music and operating heavy machinery. As he told us, the musician life beyond New York can, indeed, be productive and meaningful. And way cheaper, too.
You're living in Columbus?
I am. I met my wife in New York. When we decided we wanted a baby and it made much more sense financially to come here.
Boy or girl?
A little girl.
What's her name?
Yowsa. That's a gorgeous name.
Her great-grandmother is Japanese. She's named after her.
So Columbus, that's got to be one of the best cities in the Midwest, one of my all-time favorite music scenes: Moviola, Scrawl, Jim Shepard, Mike Rep, Times New Viking, Don Howland...
I think so. I'm from Kansas City originally, so it wasn't that much of a culture shock to be back in the Midwest. When I was in New York I always kind of missed things about it. Gear is a lot cheaper. I almost feel bad for the stuff I buy, but it's because I'm used to paying New York prices. I'm building a home studio. It keeps me real busy.
Beyond the demands of raising a family, had you grown tired of the "New York thing"?
During the last year of living in New York I grew tired of the place. But it's weird. Being here, I realize how many really great friends I had there, really stand-up people that were so supportive. Now, when I go back I can appreciate things that I couldn't when I was living there, dealing with the day-to-day hassles. But really, the financial thing is huge. I make way less here, but it goes much further. I wouldn't have been able to set up a home studio in New York.
Musically, I feel young. The music I'm making nowadays is more youthful than what I was making when I was 25. My baby has given me optimism. I mean, I had optimism before, I just didn't touch on it, musically.
Your recent album definitely feels youthful. Both your vocals and lyrics possess a clarity that I've never heard before. For previous records, I had this ritual: I'd spend weeks trying to decipher what you were saying. Then, once I figured that out, I spent more weeks attempting to figure out what you were telling me.
Part of that has to do with going for the abstract, and part of that was, like, speaking from the point of view of "the guy in the corner." Like, not wanting to really say what was really going on. With the Visions, it would've been weird to sing heartfelt things over heavy music. I'm making another record, and it's even more about things that are "really happening."
Not to dredge up ancient history, but what happened to the Visions? Last time we talked -- back in 2008 -- you sounded as if you were ready for a career in stoner rock.
That was a weird time. I went through this break-up with, like, 30 friends all at the same time. Basically, everyone I had been close with in my 20s I estranged myself from. So I kind of went to a weird place, and that's what that record [Ancestor] is about. It was a blast, but ultimately the Visions couldn't last. It was too much of a departure from what I usually do. But everyone has to do that from time to time.
I saw you and the Visions in Atlanta, with Witchcraft and Graveyard. It was a weird show. Those bands are super heavy and well studied in classic psych-rock and doom. But compared to you guys, it seemed as though they were playing rockstar dress-up. Maybe that's a bit harsh.
That's what it seemed like to me -- and that's cool. I just can't do it. I sometimes wish I could make fantasy-rock like that, but I can't. Heavy-metal people are kind of a bummer to be around. I write darker music than most guys, but I also like to have a good time. It was so obvious that we weren't real heavy-metal people, even though we dig a lot of metal.
What I liked about the Visions -- and what I wrote at the time -- was your ability to combine really well-crafted hard rock and really great lyrics. The words, however abstruse, actually mean something. Most stoner-rock bands are great at rocking hard, but so many write silly-ass lyrics.
That was good to read. I was having a tough time then. It seemed as if that project didn't fit anywhere. I think real audiophile-type hard-rock fans dug it, but not average kids. The lyrics weren't dumbed down. I wish I could write lyrics like, "Hey baby, wanna fuck?" But I can't. There's too much shit in my head to simplify things like that.
Your return to a more acoustic-based sound on the new album is definitely a surprise. You said the Visions were in part a rejection of all the indie-folkies then crawling around Williamsburg.
That seems to have died down a bit. The gold has been panned for. Whoever is still doing it really means it. But at the time, especially in Brooklyn, it seemed like a lot of folks were playing acoustic guitar who probably shouldn't have been. Folk music is a really sacred tradition. It has saved my life when I was in dire need.
You don't seem like the type who cares much for playing the games that commercial success, on just about any level, requires.
For years I was kind of waiting for that to come, instead of being pro-active about growing a larger fanbase. At this point, I'm not worried so much about the industry side of things. That's a better place to be. There's no longer that do-or-die feeling when a record comes out, like that opening-night anxiety. It is what it is at this point, so just kick it out.
Did you record the new album in your home studio? And did you produce it?
No. I recorded it with this kid Miguel Mendez, who lives in Brooklyn. He has a couple records out. We would record just about everyday until midnight, then hang out. It was a lot of fun.
So you recorded it in New York?
Some of the music was actually meant for the Visions. A few songs are nearly six years old. It was recorded about a month before I moved, so it definitely came out of the feeling of knowing I was leaving New York. When you spend your 20s in a place like New York and you decide to leave it's a pretty big deal.
This record has a lot more space than previous ones?
Yeah, it has a lot of atmosphere. That is Miguel's influence and the equipment he has. We didn't have time constraints, so we could take our time and experiment.
Who's accompanying you?
It's all me, almost. Miguel played bass on a few songs, and Caroline Sebastian sang on one song. But for the most part I play everything: guitar, bass, mandolin, drums. That's something I always wanted to try.
On the song "Destroy Yourself" [from TK Webb] you double-track your voice. You're basically singing a duet with yourself.
Yeah, one is high, and the other is low. I did a similar thing on Phantom Parade, on that song "Oh Baby No." I did that, because I can't sing really high, and I can't sing really low. So I combine the two, somewhat.
There's a pronounced country-rock vibe on "Fable Thrower" and "Toward the Light." I mean, I know you have a real appreciation of country-blues, but these songs are definitely more country.
There's a honky-tonk vibe that I maybe omitted on earlier records. It seemed like the wrong time. I didn't want to be the kid in Brooklyn playing country music.
Americana can be an aesthetic trap. It's easy to get pigeonholed, if you sound just a little bit country. Some of the best artists are the ones who fight that tag. Like, Neil Young could make a quality country-rock album any time he wants, but he seems more interested in messing with the form.
I sometimes regret making music that's just a little too weird to work in that world, because I do like a lot of that music. But it can be taken too far, like kids these days singing out truck-driving. That's ridiculous.
You definitely seem a little too into subverting the genre to ever be your average country-rock dude.
That's both a blessing and a curse. It's fun, musically. I grew up on Neil Young. He makes folk music, but there's also so much more going on in his music. He comes up with all this weird stuff.
With the newest stuff you're recording at home, have you noticed the psycho-geography of Columbus and the Midwest influencing it?
Definitely. It's a more quiet place, and that has had an influence. But I think being a father has had the biggest impact, especially in terms of learning how to economize time. Having a child to take care of forces you to manage your time.
That's something I've always wondered about. I don't have a kid, but I have musician-friends who do. And some of them have become more productive after becoming parents.
As a parent, you know a certain amount of time has to be blocked out, so you use your spare time the best you can. All my time right now goes into building my studio.
Are you doing anything for work in Columbus?
A couple days a week I drive heavy equipment, which is about as humbling as it gets. I was a set builder in New York, and that was a lot of fun, too.
Driving heavy equipment? That's like the character you sing about in the tune "Lesser Dude" [off Phantom Parade]. That is one of the greatest "average Joe" anthems I've ever heard. It's just so subtle and low-key. Whenever I hear that song I think of the Plains States: vast expanses, crumbling concrete, suffocating heat, all that stuff. It really is sung from the point of view of "the guy in the corner," as you said earlier.
I'm totally that dude now! I feel like I'm the odd man out on my job. It's funny: I wrote that song about six years ago in New York. I was writing about the Midwest when I was living in the city. Weird.
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