Ty Segall’s music is loud and blistering rock ’n’ roll — raucous and big enough to fill stadium-sized speakers, with a spiritual connection to giants like Led Zeppelin and the Who. But, underneath all that pomp, the thirty-year-old is a doll: The first song on his new album, Freedom’s Goblin, is called “Fanny Dog,” and it’s an ode to his two-year-old dachshund that apes references from classic rock tropes (fanny has a slightly different meaning in Britain). “Fanny knows what her name is/She knows just how to come,” he sings, expressing starry-eyed wonder at the simplest pleasure, of an animal coming when you call. “I know dachshunds have a bad rap as really moody or intense, but she’s the sweetest dog in the world,” he says. “Having a pet, it’s a wonderful thing.”
It is indeed a wonderful thing to have a pet, but it’s also a wonderful thing to notice how wonderful it is and go ahead and write a song about it, instead of some more rock-worthy topic, like groupies or boyfriends or wild nights out. Segall, for all his edge and glam — he has been known to perform wearing metallic silver lipstick — is modest, almost adorably naive, in his intentions. “Friendship,” he says when asked what makes for a good band member. “I don’t want to play music with people I’m not friends with.” It just so happens that the friends who play with him on Freedom’s Goblin are excellent musicians, like drummer Charles Moothart and bassist Mikal Cronin, who tour together as Ty Segall and the Freedom Band. Segall sidesteps his star power when discussing the album. “I think it’s insane for someone to say — at a live show with five other people — that they’re solely responsible for everything,” he says of being the frontman and the one who gets the most recognition for writing the songs. “I love the fact that everyone brings what they can to the table. I’m not the kind of person who wants to keep people in boxes or force them to do something they don’t want to do. The whole point of this band is to be free.”
Segall prefers pragmatism over hedonism, and a steady head has allowed him to be incredibly prolific, averaging about a solo album a year since his first in 2008. “I’m a workaholic,” he says simply. He started to record while living in San Francisco, where he moved for college (he has a degree in media studies from the University of San Francisco), and though the trippy riffs in his music conjure the Bay Area of the Summer of Love, he says while living there he was actually plugging away trying to perfect his take on rock with his group of friends and bandmates, like his longtime colleague John Dwyer, of the Thee Oh Sees and Coachwhips. “It was less psychedelic than you probably imagine,” he says of his time in Northern California. “We were nose to the ground trying to make cool shit — that’s all we wanted to do. We had probably an unhealthy obsession with volume. I think we were the loudest band in town for a minute.”
He grew up in Laguna Beach, California, an affluent oceanside community in Orange County that was once a haven for Beat poets and artists. He describes his upbringing as upper-middle-class. He started banging on a drum set around five — “I just made noise with it,” he says — before beginning to take it seriously around ten years old. His first cassette tape was Abbey Road by the Beatles, and he’d walk around everywhere listening to it on a Walkman. He was raised by his mom — “She was really young when she had me and into hair metal,” he says — and the man she would marry, a lawyer and immigrant from South Africa, whom Segall inadvertently introduced to the family. “My mom and I took a vacation to Hawaii and we were at Waikiki — I was five or six — and I asked a man if I could stand on his surfboard. He was very nice and let me do it, and through that he met my mom.” The man would eventually adopt Segall, and the family expanded by one with the addition of a new daughter.
By his teen years, Segall’s countercultural tendencies were already in motion, and they were a contrast to the rest of his high school, which was the setting for the popular MTV reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, documenting local rich kids and their squabbles. “I hate MTV. They cemented a stereotype of my town on arguably the most influential television channel for teenagers. It fucking sucked. I didn’t tell anybody I was from there for the first few years I was in San Francisco,” he says. He even knew the leads of the show, though he was more of a background rabble-rouser than cameo star. “I definitely ruined some filmings. Walked by them and made a ton of noise so they couldn’t get audio from the shot. It was quite enjoyable.” His musical taste through these years evolved at a rapid clip, cycling through about every important epoch in rock history. “I got into Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And I grew up in the middle of grunge, so Nirvana, and all this guitar rockdom. By the time I was a little older, around thirteen, I had gotten into punk, the Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols. Then I switched over to hardcore — Black Flag and Minor Threat — and at the same time I also got into far-out music, like no wave music from New York, and Nineties noise rock.” When he was ready to move up north, he already knew the plan was to make and explore music, with a little bit of hard living that he says wasn’t more than anything any kid in their early twenties gets up to. “I moved to San Francisco, and kept expanding my mind,” he says.
Freedom’s Goblin was an experiment in process for Segall. He recorded it in essentially five differently wired setups: at his home by himself; at his home with the legendary recording engineer Steve Albini; live sessions at a studio in Memphis and a studio in Chicago; and a couple of studios around Los Angeles. “Variety was the concept. The whole point was to have it be a very schizophrenic record, almost like multiple personalities,” he says. There are songs that float through glam (T. Rex are always a big influence) and metal and, surprisingly for such a rock stalwart, disco and soul. He says tastes have evolved in the last five years, and he had been listening to a lot of Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti in the lead-up to recording. There is saxophone on a number of songs, and a tremendous amount of rhythm throughout. “The idea of rock ’n’ roll was the least exciting thing to me,” he says. “I got into horns on this record, from soul and funk disco — just trying to pull that off.” The best moment on the album is probably its last song, “And, Goodnight,” a twelve-minute jam between the band that is incredibly colorful and evocative without the need of many lyrics. “I don’t want to make jam music that is not expressive, or that’s almost masturbatory. I’m a total Deadhead, and I think they did it the best. They’re emotional,” he says.
Segall is something of a guitar evangelist, notable at a time when music pushes further and further into the abyss of drum machines and synthesizers and sampling and away from classic rock ’n’ roll. “Guitar is just a weird expressive instrument. You can’t bend notes on a piano. It’s like a warm blanket,” he says. He has, most of all, made a place for himself within the comfort of all things classic. “I love what I love, and it never goes out of style,” he says. He was married last year, and his wife, Denée, shows up for some vocals on Freedom’s Goblin. “We didn’t have a wedding,” he says. “We just eloped to San Francisco city hall.” And he turned thirty last year too, though if you expected that to be a traumatic experience for a rocker like him, he actually wears his advancing age with as tempered a perspective as he does everything in his life. “The only difference for me is that I just got to treat my body a little better. I’m the same as I always was,” he says, “just maybe a little more sore.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2018