William Tyler Sees Hope in the Dark Heart of America
By Lewis Gordon
The guitarist, now based in Los Angeles, confronts global upheaval with ‘Goes West,’ a new record of “rural new age” as well as some deep thoughts about what’s going on in divided times.
When the Nashville-born musician William Tyler released Modern Country the spring just before Trump was elected, his accompanying meditations on the decline of America carried the weight of history in motion. No matter who got into power, life would never be the same again. “We stand at the precipice of the twilight of empire,” he said in an a trailer for the record. “The decline of so many national institutions and the vanishing of certainties.” That sentiment was etched into its faded, panoramic guitar tones, a sad Cormac McCarthy sky made into sound.
Having made Los Angeles his home over the last two years, Tyler’s latest record, Goes West sounds more hopeful, but its creation might just have been Tyler’s way of coping with the last few years (hell, there’s nothing wrong with that). The guitarist has traded the electric tones of his last record for an altogether more bucolic, acoustic affair, backed by a full band including Meg Duffy of Hand Habits and warm, sun-dappled synthesizers. His proclamation that he makes “rural new age” feels more apt than ever before. Indeed, the new age music Tyler identifies with emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s amidst similar circumstances, a soothing balm for the scorched politics and technological upheaval of the Reagan era. Fittingly, the former member of Lambchop cites the the very chill output of California-based label Windham Hill Records as a touchstone for Goes West, alongside the French composer Debussy and Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s 1976 debut of oddball, chamber pop.
Listening to Tyler speak about his new home, it’s clear LA has done nothing to dampen his acerbic observations on place and history. He’s speaking to me over Facetime from his girlfriend’s apartment in Echo Park, immediately discussing the nuances of the predominantly Latinx neighborhood and the unavoidable impact Tyler and his peers make on it. “It definitely reflects a microcosm of the struggle between a certain kind of gentrification and a certain kind of innate identity,” he says. His own apartment, meanwhile, is located in the hills of Los Feliz, a hotbed of Hollywood actors, film and television shoots. Tyler tells a funny story in which he heard yelling from his apartment—what he thought was his neighbors arguing—before realizing it was just a film set. He laughs but it’s cut short when he considers the movie industry’s grip over the global imagination.
Tyler explains how Los Angeles’ artifice is most visible in the city’s ecological make-up. “It’s just one of the most environmentally bizarre places in the world,” he tells me. “The weather is basically the same all year round. It doesn’t rain that much and you’re close to the ocean but there’s no water. It’s a mirage. It’s an illusory place. It’s 20 million people, there’s not enough water, there’s fault lines, there could be an earthquake any day, and it just kind of provokes this sense of dissociation from reality.”
In spite of LA’s weirdness, Goes West is Tyler’s most accessible record yet, a primo blend of lilting country, folk and American primitive. While part of the album was written during the Modern Country sessions in Nashville, the bulk of it was composed after he moved to California, fleshed out in a Portland studio under the watch of producer Brad Cook and engineer Tucker Martine. The result is buoyant with light fingerpicked guitar, bright drums and winding, mazey melodies, resplendent with the orange dust of the road in the face of America’s considerable political and social schism.
Tyler knows the USA, its ideas, history and institutions have long been destructive. For better or worse, it’s the people he cares about, and their place in an unmistakable vast landscape. His genius lies in channelling those stories through wordless guitar music: the contradictions, darkness and, ultimately, hope of rural America.
Noisey: Can you explain to me where the writer Barry Hannah fits into the record? M. C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) mentions that he made a similar move from the South to the West in the bio of yours he penned. What is it about Hannah’s writing that appeals to you?
William Tyler: He’s a pretty well known writer from Mississippi which is where all my family’s from. He came out to Los Angeles to write a script for Robert Altman but he was a pretty bad alcoholic and being out here was a little big for him. You know, it’s really easy to get lost, spiritually and everything else.
He’s almost like a Southern version of Kurt Vonnegut, a lot of surrealist humor and absurdism mixed in with a very Southern kind of realism about quirky characters and organic things. I guess I can kind of identity with that because there’s kind of a cosmic aspect to the way he wrote that didn’t seem regionally specific to the South but he had a very strong identity of being a Southerner. I definitely carry a sense of being from the South wherever I end up.
What does being from the South mean to you?
I would say this. First of all, if you’re a white Southerner and you have any sense of history and perspective, you’re taking into account the gravity of the history of the region and how dark it truly is and continues to be. I think the legacy of slavery, the legacy of the Civil War, the history of being so wilfully cut off from the progress going on in the rest of the country has really influenced the way the place feels. And most of it honestly is pretty dark but it’s just a sense of identity I have growing up there.
There’s also a real openness and a warmth to people that I think is very specific. It’s a very passionate culture, very emotional. There’s a lot of dark humor. I mean there’s Southern Gothic. It’s a real thing that permeates culture.
There’s also a certain kind of decadence to it. It’s the most unhealthy part of America but there’s a rich passion of the way people live. It’s still pretty rural—not cosmopolitan, not metropolitan. And huge parts of it are—for better and for worse—really out of time. I think it’s really easy for people on the outside to see that as being backwards. I mean it is. It’s very conservative politically, the white part of the South for sure.
I think what’s gonna be interesting and what I’m hopeful about is continuing to empower voter turnout. Part of the reason the South has been conservative for so long is because for the last 100 or so years there was a really concerted effort to keep people who weren’t white from voting. That’s obviously still at play but I think it’s starting to change. There’s a lot of potential for growth but it’s also the region of America that’s been the most behind. It’s the poorest part of the country.
You’ve described yourself as a socialist. How has your life as a musician fed into or influenced your political convictions? You must’ve seen a pretty broad cross-section of America while touring?
Before Modern Country came out, I started noticing the Trump thing. And a large part of that was because I’d been driving across America through all of the spaces in between the cities and noticing his signs and thinking “Ok this seems like a national phenomenon. This is not just the South or Oklahoma or something. This is everywhere.” It’s kind of everywhere that people don’t live or, at least, where old white people live. But they’re the ones who vote the most. So I had this sense that there are these beautiful spaces in the middle of nowhere but they’re also the most conservative parts of the country.
Where does Goes West fit into this idea of America?
I had these friends right after the election who were both self-employed so it didn’t really matter where they lived. They basically sold everything they had. They bought a camper van and spent an entire year driving around the continent of the United States going around the national parks. I thought that was one of the most patriotic things you could do, if you had the luxury of that, because they’re like the most beautiful part of what our culture is at this point and it almost represents the opposite of what Trump and everything is. It’s a very terrestrial, permanent, natural kind of beauty that doesn’t have any tie to politics.
They’re a manifestation of American naturalism that’s truly romantic. And that’s an aspect of the West that I was trying to capture. It’s more thinking about ghost stories that exist in places that feel a little bit timeless. To me it’s the possibility of a landscape that just seems kind of empty but weighted with so much history and memory.
As a European looking in, those American landscapes are so beautiful and expansive but I suppose part of the reason they’re so compelling is because they carry this deep melancholy.
And I think two of the best depictions of the weirdness of rural America were done by German filmmakers. Stroszek by Werner Herzog and Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Both get at something really specifically unique about rural America that I don’t know if an American director would necessarily have the same vision for.
What was it like discovering these views while you grew up in Nashville? We don’t tend to think of country music and, by extension the South, as particularly fertile grounds for left-leaning politics.
I was really into history at a really early age and I think once you get past the myth of American history, be it the Revolution or the West or the Civil War. I remember being a teenager and reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and being like, “Woah, OK, everything I’ve been taught is kind of a lie and actually the basis of our country is really dark and not romantic at all.” That really shaped me.
You’ve referred to your music as “rural new age.” New age has this strong association with California and, alongside an often spiritual element, it’s often used palliatively, as pain relief. Are you working through a healing process with the landscape, people and politics with your music?
I hope so. To go back to the national park metaphor, I feel like there’s this timeless aspect to nature which is definitely healing. If nothing else, you recognize it’s so beyond the scope of anything we have any control over as humans, especially as citizens. And the landscape doesn’t care about us and it’s gonna be here when we’re not. We can lose ourselves in a way that feels regenerative and hopeful.
William Tyler’s Goes West is out January 25, but it’s available for preorder now.