Continuously traversing the boundaries between rock and psychedelia, Ty Segall returned this summer with Harmonizer, a skillfully curated album full of thick keyboard textures and sleek synthesizers. The evolution of his artistic reconnaissance has been noticeable, especially as of late, covering artists ranging from Hot Chocolate and Funkadelic, to Neil Young and Harry Nilsson. He continues to explore all corners of the musical realm, pushing past limitless boundaries and defying the drift in the rock economy.
“The main goal with the new album was to add to the sounds that I’m familiar with and try to expand as much as possible,” Segall says over the phone while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California. For Segall, focusing on something to distill the sound, instrument or idea into a better version is always at the forefront of his creative path. “There is a whole ethos that I try to think of musically, and always explore and add to; It’s very important for me.”
Over the last few years, Segall has been engaged in the process behind brainstorming, building, and perfecting a three-room recording studio attached to his home in Topanga Canyon, CA. “It was such a blessing and kind of saved my brain in so many moments – I had a place to go and work and distract myself. I’m very grateful for that,” he says, referring to the space which provided him a safe haven during lockdown.
Having a studio in his house is what Segall refers to as “a dream come true.” “I love it. I’m very lucky; I love the process,” he adds. For an artist who has continuously been labelled as “prolific” by the press – a label he often shrugs off – Segall had to create boundaries for himself when working within arm’s reach of his home. “I had a smaller version of the studio in my old house and it can be a problem when I’d realize, ‘oh I’ve been in here for 15 hours and I haven’t eaten, and I need to eat.’ Now I have some funny rules where it’s like, ideally, I’m only in there writing three days a week, but I make that rule because I’ll probably be in there four days a week.”
Harmonizer Studios was finished in early November 2020 and was tweaked during the Harmonizer recording session, allowing him to create a particular sound that would suit his vision. Helping bring this vision to light was Segalls’s close friend Cooper Crain of the Chicago-based krautrock revivalists Cave, who brought his expert knowledge of modular synthesizers to the table, something Segall claims he himself knew nothing about. “We share a love for a lot of important records,” he says of their friendship, “Ones where we see eye-to-eye about how they’ve kind of affected us in our lives. There is a serious musical bond. He comes from a punk and rock world, but he also comes from the electronic world very heavily.”
Evolving at an incremental rate, Harmonizer was written largely before the pandemic, but Cooper’s influence is noticeable. Segall explains, “he is fully responsible for a lot of the sequencing and synth programming on the record. He brought in his modular rig and we had a lot of fun experimenting with that. It was pretty amazing to have it in the production. I give him all the credit for that.”
Building on the innovative techniques deployed, “the idea was a reaction to my last record,” Segall adds. “It was very earthy and acoustic with a lot of air, a lot of space, and a natural feeling. There weren’t a lot of synthetic instruments or electric instruments on that record and I felt like I wanted to do the complete opposite, which was have everything be kind of screwed up or processed in some way.” As if recoiling from the alarming, uncomfortable environment that cemented 2020, he specifies that the album was “intentionally harsh and heavy.” Having written the whole record almost entirely on synth he explains how he stepped out of his comfort zone. “I was writing drum machines and synth instead of acoustic drums and guitars – it definitely creates a different vibe.”
Although the pandemic kept his band, Ty Segall and the Freedom Band, separated during the recording process, in hindsight, he views it as an interesting experiment. “We had all these mini versions of the Freedom Band. For instance, there was one song where I was on the drums, Mikal (Cronin) was on bass, and Emmett (Kelly) was on the rhythm guitar and we tracked the song like that. Then there was another version of the band where it was Charles (Moothart) on the drums and me on the guitar and then Ben (Boye, piano) would come in and record his parts.” However fragmented the recording process was, the use of overdubbing helped shape the sonic landscape of the final cut. “I thought it turned out great because each tune and each version of that has its own unique feel to it.”
Denée Segall — Segall’s wife and long-time artistic companion — also makes an appearance on the album, contributing vocals and lyrics to the single, “Feel Good.” A frequent maker behind the scenes, Denée is the lucent photographer and visionary behind nearly every album cover Segall has released over the last decade. “She’s such an incredible collaborator, vocalist and lyricist,” he says. “I am continuously stoked to work with her…while we destroy everything.”
In order to bring such a complicated selection of sounds to the live stage, Segall explains how much they’ve been practicing to get it right. The result – “it’s just really nasty and heavy.” To maintain the unique sequences of the album on the road, they’ll be bringing in drum pads and a wide selection of different synths. “The difference is there’s no sequencing or modular stuff going on. So it’s going to be really raw, which I like a lot.”
To thematically sum up Harmonizer, Segall believes it’s all about rethinking what you know in order to create a new sound. He views it as “the endless musical journey and the endless search for something new and different.” To Segall, that kind of sentiment can mean a lot of different things. As a person who continuously expresses such animated ardour for his art, Harmonizer is thus an unpredictable charm in his musical inventory and one step forward in his endless dabble for the unusual. “I’m always trying to push past the familiar into something new.”
Harmonizer is out now on Drag City.