It’s hard to picture Ty Segall without a guitar strap over his shoulder. The L.A.-by-San Francisco songwriter is one of the most quintessential guitarists of the 21st century, as well as one of the most famously prolific, having released dozens of full-lengths and gobs of singles under his own name. Across all of those projects — which span dingy folk-pop, crunchy glam, psychedelic funk, and stoner-rock so blatantly infatuated with its textures that the band’s name is actually Fuzz — Segall’s playing has been the centerpiece. The guy is known for his room-rattling chords, eclectic pedal tones, and lip-smacking solos.
Therefore, it’s shocking that his new album First Taste doesn’t contain a single guitar note. It’s still a loud, raucous, freewheeling rock adventure that sounds like a Ty Segall album. But instead of reaching for his trusty axe, he initiated himself with a variety of different, mostly exotic instruments — many of which he had no idea how to play. From the medieval-looking bouzouki, to the traditional Japanese koto, to mandolins, Moogs, electric omnichords, and this hokey thing Segall dubbed a “mouth horn,” he purposely wanted to push himself out of his comfort zone.
“It was freeing in the sense that it was new and different, and that was very cool,” he tells Entertainment Weekly. “But definitely a little scary because you have to figure out other ways to fill up a song and make it interesting. You can’t put a guitar solo in there, or you can’t just put six guitar tracks on top of each other.”
His experiments resulted in a capella psych-rock, Eastern-influenced jangle-pop, mind-melting synth mutations, and some of the grooviest and most danceable garage stompers he’s ever recorded. During a phone call from his home in L.A., Segall spoke about his motivations to leave his guitar on its stand, how that informed his songwriting, and the ideas the experience gave him for his next record.
Fans of your music know you’re a guitarist through and through. But there’s not a single guitar on this album. Why is that?
I wanted to do something different, more of a songwriting challenge, you know? I guess [it was] also an aesthetic choice to try to not rely on guitar sounds. But really the main thing was to challenge the songwriting cycles that I feel like sometimes I fall into. Especially in guitar world, where it’s verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/chorus. It’s like, I don’t want to do guitar solos on the record. I don’t want to write using a guitar. What can I do instead?
Originally it wasn’t the idea to do that. But I think after I wrote a couple songs using different instruments I felt like, “Okay, actually I think I can do the full thing without guitar and it might be a little bit more interesting album.”
How did the songwriting techniques and the way the songs were coming together change when you put down the guitar? Did you notice a specific way that they were coming out differently?
There’re instruments where I’m not familiar with the chord changes or how to phrase a chord or even how to really even play them. So everything I’m doing is kind of new and an experiment. And it yields different things. I couldn’t communicate what I was doing to myself the way that I would with a guitar. With a guitar it’d be like, “Alright I’m playing an A, I can go to a C. Or I can do this phrasing, or that.” With these other instruments I’m like, “I don’t know what this movement with my hands does. Oh it sounds like this? Okay, what about this?” It’s that kind of a thing.
Would you say that you were bored of playing guitar, or feeling constrained by the instrument? Or were you just like, “Eh, I just want to do something different”?
I think every record I do is informed by the previous record. And I think the one I made before this, Freedom’s Goblin, was extremely guitar-centric — probably the most guitary thing I’ve done, in the sense that I kind of tried to make every type of guitar song that I could think of. There’s a hardcore song on there, there’s ballads, there’s funk and rock and almost metal. So it’s kind of, like, I think I’ve exasperated that creative perspective for now.
And what’s cool about experimenting with the other instruments is that now I feel like those instruments will be just part of the bag of eclectic tools that I have. They’ll just join the conversation from here on out.
How did your bandmates react when you said, “Hey we’re gonna do this one with no guitars”?
They were all really, really excited by it. I think they know that when I commit to something, I’m gonna do it. But Charles [Moothart, drummer] did say that at the end of the day he thought that I would definitely put at least one guitar note in there. He thought maybe he was gonna listen to the record and at the very end of the record there’d be a guitar chord, as a “f— you” move or something. [It’s] a good idea. I could have done that [laughs].
I see you played a bouzouki on the album, which is a Greek instrument that sort of resembles a guitar. What about that instrument in particular appealed to you?
It’s just a beautiful sound. I mean yeah, it does sort of emote the same kind of thing as a twelve-string guitar or something. But there’s a little something else going on. It’s lighter in pitch, there’s more space to it so it kind of floats in this nice frequency. And it kind of replaced the acoustic guitar feeling. I used it a lot, on all the acoustic-y sounding songs. I’d say the two main instruments on the album are the koto and the bouzouki. All of the heavy, fuzzed-out stuff is the koto, and then all of the nice, pretty acoustic-y sounding things are the bouzouki.
The koto is such a crazy-looking instrument. Was there a learning curve to playing that?
I’m still learning how to play it, it’s totally different. I think it’s just really fun to experiment. It’s not really that hard because you just press buttons down. So it’s not like you have to force different chords with your fingers.The interesting thing is that you can tune it a million different ways. There’s a drone note that you can’t press down with the rest of the chord so it’s always droning, so there’s a lot of openness to how it’s played. So that was really interesting and fun.
Was there anything else you knew you wanted to do going into this record? To differentiate it from your previous works or just to try new creative moves?
I wanted to do more piano but I don’t know how to play piano. That was one thing. There’s a lot of stuff I tried that didn’t really work that well. I tried to do more drum machine. I don’t know how to describe it, it wasn’t hip-hop sounding but it was more modern sounding. It didn’t match but there was something to that I want to chase down. I would love to do an album with no acoustic instruments; meaning, like, no drums. There was one song where I was like, “Okay the only acoustic instrument allowed will be my vocals.” It sounded cool but it didn’t really work. A lot of experiments like that.
Despite there not being any guitars, First Taste still sounds like a Ty Segall album. It doesn’t sound like anything is missing. Was maintaining your signature sound something you thought of consciously during the making of the record?
No, I mean I was pretty open to trying to make something super different. But I think in the end it kind of just fell into my style. Which is cool. I think I would’ve liked to make something more different. But there’s plenty of time to continue to make stuff.