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William Tyler: “The tyranny of nostalgia”

William Tyler: “The tyranny of nostalgia”

16 April 2013, 11:30

Nashville’s William Tyler is an excellent guitar player.

His guitar work is heard on some of the finest American indie records of the past 10 years, he was the sideman for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Silver Jews and Lambchop. “A lot of the process of doing my own music has been learning how to step away from a sideman mentality, to be comfortable in my own musical skin,” he says, leading to Tyler’s second album, Impossible Truth, an instrumental guitar album that you might actually want to listen to. Joe Satriani this ain’t.

He reflects upon the influence of his contemporaries, the people he has played for in his career, and interweaves them with social and political themes of modern American life. That may sound like a difficult thing to achieve on an instrumental record, but Tyler manages it.

“I guess it’s somewhat presumptuous to say ‘This is an album about the end of the world and the decline of the American empire through the eyes of someone who is simultaneously daydreaming about the end of the 1970s and terrified of the future, with a redemptive love story in there as well’ – and then not provide any lyrics. I think it’s enough to just be explicit with intent, to explain things in interviews like this or to conjure emotions through the titles.”

One song title, ‘Geography of Nowhere’ is also the name of a book by American author and social critic James Kunstler. His books on American suburban history, poorly planned civic areas and peak oil take on great meaning to Tyler. The book itself takes a pretty grim look at a declining landscape. Vacuous malls, hypermarkets, empty buildings, civic spaces declining in function. It becomes part the thematic tapestry of Impossible Truth.

“I knew I wanted it to be essentially about the end of the world, peak oil, vanishing water, dead cities, perhaps even a nuclear cataclysm at the end. And I also wanted it to be reflective, to be about some kind of innocence and cultural clarity we lost at the end of the seventies, not just in politics, but in film and music too.”

“The failure of the film ‘Heaven’s Gate’ had a lot to do with it . It was released right around the same time that Reagan was elected and John Lennon was shot; 1980 was this huge paradigm shift for America and my parents’ generation, and it happened to be the year I was born.”

How do you write an instrumental song, it must be difficult to formulate structure with no words to guide you? “It’s very difficult and it takes me a while to finish compositions,” Tyler responds. “I guess in some abstract way when I feel all of the colours in the room refract the light the right way, or the story seems to have a proper coda etc, some part of me just knows it’s finished.”

To understand the themes of Impossible Truth doesn’t take much undertaking, but an interest in the great American culture of the 70′s and 80′s is key. The album’s title is a reference to an early Saturday Night Live sketch by comedian Albert Brooks. The influence of Laurel Canyon, the L.A. neighbourhood which housed Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is a huge motif of Tyler’s work. It seems to be Tyler’s bag; unambiguous, (somewhat) universal influences presented in an ambiguous way.

Impossible Truth sounds like a stereotypical Laurel Canyon record, more than a lot of records from the era. Tyler says there was intent behind this, but I suggest that his view of the era is romanticised; “I’m not sure if my view of that era is romanticised per se. There is something undeniably fascinating and compelling about that moment in American musical history. For a long time it seemed so utterly naïve and cynical at the same time. All the drugs and hedonism and this smooth music coming out of this small, insular world.”

Laurel Canyon helped form this record in more than a stylistic sense, as Tyler’s girlfriend was once married to someone from the Canyon scene at the time.

“When she and I met, I was aware of who he was and I think I projected a lot into that. I felt as I might be standing in the shadow of this older singer songwriter guy from this bygone era that I had daydreamed about. I think I gave that too much power, as a lot of people do when they feel insecure about new relationships. I channeled that angst into the making of this record.

“A lot of it was a purging, a catharsis. I didn’t want to feel as if I was standing in the shadow of anyone, a past love, a lost era. It gave birth to a phrase that I use to describe a mood in this record, ‘the tyranny of nostalgia’. We shouldn’t let the past, the ghosts steer us too much. They should be acknowledged, honoured even, but they aren’t necessarily relevant to the present. A lot of this album is me laying all these existential ghosts to rest and walking off into the sunset with my lady.”

Impossible Truth will be released on 06 May via Merge Records and William Tyler will be laying the following UK/IE tour dates:

03 Brighton, The Palmeira
04 Edinburgh, Red Lecture Hall
05 Manchester, The New Oxford
06 Cork, Crane Lane Theatre
07 Belfast, McHughs
08 Dublin, Whelan’s
09 Cardiff, 10ft Tall
10 Falmouth, Beerfwolf
12 Winchester, The Railway
13 London, Cafe Oto

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