Late last year, we reviewed William Tyler’s excellent Tompkins Square debut Behold The Spirit. I recently caught up with William to talk about the making of the record, how he got into guitar, and his upcoming tour with Michael Chapman.
W&W : Talk a little about how you got started in guitar… how long have you been playing, what got you started, and your early influences.
Well I had the benefit/burden of growing up in Nashville, both around a lot of older musicians and a musical family. My father is a country songwriter and he was drawn to Nashville in the mid seventies, back when country singers bragged about smoking pot and reading books, as opposed to now when it’s all about trucks and patriotism.
I started playing guitar when I was a teenager, in spurts at first because I was more interested in drums and piano. I was also somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to rock music; I didn’t start buying rock records until I was fourteen or fifteen. Early stuff that influenced me was REM and Peter Buck, especially all the cross picking he did, the country style stuff in Rockpile and Dave Edmunds, and then stuff like the Sex Pistols and Ramones. I think Physical Graffiti was the first record I heard where I wanted to pick out an open tuning.
W&W : Talk about a few of your other running projects.
I have had the privilege of playing with other Nashville based ensembles, among them Lambchop and the Silver Jews. This all just sort of coalesced in my early twenties. I was wide eyed, wide jawed, and very enthusiastic, but hardly an ace guitar player. I fell in with the group of folks doing session work around Mark Nevers and the Beech House (his studio), and that introduced me to a lot of older musicians, lots of mentors, Mark among them. I think in one sense there are still quite a few vestiges of the “old” Nashville left; the very fluid coalition of a certain group of rogue players and artists around a particular studio or moment in time, and from that a new form of the old tongue is formed.
In addition to doing odd session work I got interested in doing my own label a few years ago, Sebastian Speaks. I was initially inspired by the concept of extreme anonymity and oddball archaeology. The first record I did was a compilation of abandoned answering machine tapes that my friend Garland had largely assembled. Then over the last few years I have moved more into reissuing music of singer songwriters and once in a while putting out one of my friend’s records. It’s still a full time hobby.
W&W : What inspired you to put away the Paper Hats moniker and use your given name on your new album?
When I adopted the moniker of the Paper Hats, I wanted to shroud myself behind a name. I was just starting out with making home recordings and putting tapes/cdrs out. There was a lot of timidity in it, mainly because in a town like Nashville, if you perform and record under your own name there is a kind of presumption that you are another singer-songwriter. Not that there is anything wrong with that! But I was more interested in separating myself from a lot of the music that was going on around me. I was really inspired by labels like Siltbreeze and Xpressway. All that to say in a real roundabout way that when this record came to fruition I finally felt comfortable after several years in recording and performing under my own name.
W&W : What guitars are you currently using, and what did you play on Behold The Spirit?
I am really blessed in that I have inherited a couple of very nice acoustic guitars, one from my uncle and one from my father. My main guitars, at least on “Behold the Spirit”, are my father’s 1955 Gibson B 25 and my uncle’s ’53 Martin.
W&W : Your fingernails are epic! Are they natural, fake, or acrylic? How do you keep them from breaking? Do you wear them so long when you record, or are there times when you prefer a more fleshy tone?
Ha, no I use acrylic nails. I started a couple of years ago after getting some advice from a couple of friends of mine who play a lot of classical guitar. I experiment with wearing them kind of on the long side but they veer pretty quickly into Howard Hughes territory! I know a lot of the old school country guys like Chet preferred them to be shorter.
W&W : Please talk a little about the modern acoustic guitar scene. Which players are you most excited about and why?
There are so many guitar players that are creating their own vocabulary these days and it’s really exciting, especially considering that I have always felt a bit isolated from the “scene”, being based in Nashville. So many friends of mine have inspired me as of late, like Steve Gunn, Eric Carbonara, Ben Reynolds, Alex Turnquist, Chris Forsyth, Cian Nugent. Seeing Jack Rose play a few years ago was one of the seminal moments in inspiring me to try to write for guitar. Ditto when I finally got to see Richard Bishop play guitar; Sun City Girls are probably my favorite band of all time!
W&W : Talk about the recording of Behold The Spirit. As I mentioned in my review, there are generous ambient mic and room sounds throughout the record. Could you talk a little about the recording process, techniques you employed, the setting(s) of the sessions?
Yes, I wanted to make it sound as spacious as possible, and we had the luxury of working in a conducive studio environment. My friend Adam Bednarik engineered and co-produced the album and since Adam works at a studio here called House of David, we were able to work there using a lot of vintage gear and plate reverb units. We tended to work late at night, and because of the nature of it being a sort of an after hours affair, the recording process took the better part of a year. I tracked most of it by myself but gradually we added things like violin, steel, brass, percussion. When we finally got around to mixing it, Adam and I would indulge in a little bourbon and get creative with the fades, almost thinking dub style on some of the tracks. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it sounded really cluttered and confused. But all in all I think the final result approximates what we were striving for.
W&W : You’ve got an upcoming tour with the legendary Michael Chapman, a great picker and a true road warrior. Are you nervous?
Michael is certainly one of my heroes although I haven’t played with him before. Of course I am nervous! I know I will be learning some fierce lessons every night by watching him and I can’t wait! I am just glad that the timing of his record and mine being released makes it somewhat logistical for us to play together…
W&W : Talk about the “soundscape” pieces on the new LP, such as “To The Finland Station” and “Signal Mountain”. Were these conceived specifically for the album? Why do you think the “drone” is so widely explored by today’s guitarists?
Yes, these pieces were built specifically for the album, although the structure of “To The Finland Station” is something I had been messing around with beforehand. It’s odd I guess, I actually was doing tape collage and soundscape-esque stuff before I was composing guitar pieces. The earlier Paper Hats stuff is very much in that territory, a lot of Nurse With Wound and Basil Kirchin influence. I have always been obsessed with negative aural space, drone, and white noise, even way before I discovered more experimental sound artists. Maybe it was growing up in a house with a really noisy but characteristic central air unit that lulled me to sleep for years.