It’s the first of June, two days before William Tyler is set to release his third, and most expansive, record to date, Modern Country. “It’s kind of ironic that it’s coming out in an election year, I guess I sort of knew that all along, but I wasn’t necessarily planning on that when we recorded and when we were coming up with the ideas.” The irony here lies in the fact that Modern Country, whilst not overtly political (“It’s instrumental music and the titles are very vague”) it is an album that is in many ways about the quiet decline of the American dream. “Even growing up with Reagan and Thatcher that era, where everything was privatised, there was still that sense of, you’re going to grow old and have a job and retire…and that’s just not a guarantee for anyone anymore.”
Reflecting on the inspiration behind the album, William cites The Unwinding, a book by American Journalist George Packer as an influence. “Essentially it’s like a vignette history of modern America, through the lens of different people living in industrial towns, places in the countryside, and portraits of celebrities from all across the spectrum. I think his basis is that there’s this kind of America, which was kind of illusory, but also based in reality that my parents generation really was rewarded with…this post World War II economic overflow that provided for social security and public education and all these schemes that were, sort of, guaranteed.”
It’s clear that even if Modern Country is not an overtly political record, that the future of America, and to an extent the world as a whole, is playing on his mind, “there’s so much anger and disillusion with it, and it’s coming out in very interesting ways in the American political cycle on both sides of the spectrum. Something I would not have expected a year ago, I didn’t see the Sanders thing happening on the left, and I certainly wouldn’t have seen what Trump was doing on the right, but I feel like it’s very similar types of populist anger…that has me pretty worried.”
William Tyler is of course though in many ways one of the lucky ones, he reluctantly admits to being a full time musician, “I’m also hesitant to say that because I think I’ll jinx myself but I haven’t had a job outside of music in six years.” Although he’s also very aware it’s a privilege that could easily be taken away,”I’m totally joking when I said I hope this sells a lot, but I think when you make music that you think actually could be accessible, part of you is of course thinking…maybe this one is going to be commercially successful not just critically, of course being commercially successful in 2016 is very different thing that it used to be. I think that’s just making your money back.”
Much of Modern Country was written outside of his native Nashville, in the city of Oxford in Mississippi. A decision William admits was partly inspired by a desire to run from responsibility and the distractions of reality and one he admits was, “probably a little bit irresponsible but definitely rewarding.” The rural nature of the setting is something that he says influenced the record, and perhaps inspired the choice of of studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, “Eau Claire itself is a pretty small town, but the studio was even out further into the countryside, it was the middle of winter, and there was snow everywhere so we couldn’t really do anything but music.” The album was recorded in just four days, and the experience was quite contrasting to his previous output, “I feel like the process was so much more immersive…I knew all I was doing was working on the music and when we got back to Nashville after the tracking it was like, “oh we did that, we made a record”…last time I made a record it was a month of trying to do things whenever everyone had time.” The record is greatly influenced by that freedom to concentrate on the music and the almost old fashioned way of working, “when I think about all the records that were made out in country houses in the 70’s that I love, like all the Led Zeppelin albums, I kind of thing that’s the way you’re supposed to work, if you can afford yourself the luxury.”
Speaking to William on the topic of music and his passion and knowledge instantly shines through, he attributes much of that knowledge to the time he spent in his 20’s touring as part of Lambchop and the Silver Jews; “those are both bands fronted by people that could be college professors, I mean David (Berman, Silver Jews) and Kurt (Wagner, Lambchop) both have masters degrees…it expanded my mind from a literary and academic stand point.” Musically his time with Lambchop in particular seems to have left it’s mark, “I learned a lot from it, opening up my mind to so much other music… It’s basically the equivalent of going to college, a multi-disciplinary life experience that’s sort of priceless, I can’t say I regret doing that.”
William’s success as a musician is perhaps made all the more impressive by how unclassifiable, and to an extent unfashionable the music he makes is. He considers himself closer to a composer than a guitarist, “even though I’m not classically trained, I sort of use composer. That’s the way I look at what I do, like someone who’s a folk-artist as opposed to a trained gallery painter.” William’s compositions have drawn plenty of comparisons to a huge variety of artists, and he seems to take influence from a wide variety, speaking effusively about his fellow acoustic players from Robbie Basho to Bert Jansch, but also post-rock acts like Tortoise and Papa M and even Mike Oldfield.
Perhaps then it’s no surprise that William finds his own music hard to classify, and why he enjoys supporting Wilco so much, “they’re sort of like the modern Grateful Dead, this band who synthesises traditional American music with really expansive experimentation. Their crowd expects that so opening for them is a really great opportunity because it’s a very unorthodox crowd…people that come to their shows are prepared to go onto some sort of a trip, so to speak.”
William questions exactly what Americana means any more, “I feel it kind of started with Jim O’Rourke, then it moved onto guys like Six Organs of Admittance and James Blackshaw and then Jack Rose and all that, but none of those guys really have anything in common with each other in terms of the way they play or the way they write, other than the commonality of acoustic guitar. I’ve always just seen my music as existing somewhere, I don’t know what it is, I guess it’s a new kind of Americana-Chamber-Music….I just wish there was a new terminology for it, actually Chris Forsyth, I don’t if he came up with the term but he has the best term for it that anyone has come up with, “Cosmic Americana.” I think that’s a great very inclusive term.”
Music isn’t William’s only interest though, “I was thinking about it today when I was coming back from the coffee shop, I have two great passions: history and music. So far I’ve figured out a way to keep them working in tandem ” His fascination for history, and in particular Southern American history, probably goes a long way to shaping his views on modern America too. “That’s what America is having to deal with now, staring at this irrelevance from a global stand point, yeah we still have the biggest army but really it’s just a facade because we don’t make anything any more… I feel like for so long making stuff in America got sidelined and it was all about economic growth. Now people are like, “oh wait there’s a reason none of has jobs”, we don’t make anything anymore, everybody’s working at restaurants because that’s all we can get.”
William feels these are both worrying, and interesting times in American politics, “what’s worrying for me, someone who doesn’t want to see the Republican’s get power again, is that Trump is such an unorthodox candidate that he does appeal to people, because he doesn’t represent the establishment of the party. Of course Hilary Clinton is like the mascot of the Democratic establishment, that’s a dangerous thing in a year like this… You’re either going to get someone like Trump, and god knows what will happen if he gets elected, then you have someone like Hilary where you almost know what’s going to happen, because she’s just saying “hey, get me in there and I’ll make sure everything keeps staying the same” which is ironic because the vast majority of American’s, myself included, we’re like, no we want a lot of things to change, I don’t necessarily want them to change the way that Trump does, but I don’t want them to stay the same.”
The decision America faces about change is perhaps mirrored in William’s own music, he faced a very conscious decision about whether to move his music onwards, “it was a very conscious decision that Brad, who co-produced the record and is my manager, and I came up with. I can’t remember what we were listening to, Bill Frisell or Ry Cooder something like that, something a bit outside of the traditional reference points. We were just like, man we want to make a record like this, we started talking about how do we put a rad band together? Well Phil (Cook, Hiss Golden Messenger/Megafaun) he plays everything, then we were like lets get Darin (Gray, Tweedy/Jim O’Rourke) and Glen (Kotche, Wilco), and totally not knowing if it was a possibility…we were literally like this is what we want to do, and I said, I want to call it Modern Country and started telling him all these ideas I had about it… It’s kind of funny because that’s what we actually did.”
The result is a magnificent record, and one that is entirely out of sync with the modern world, in a time when people struggle with attention spans and imaginations, is there still a place for instrumental music? “I think the more hyper-modern we get the less time we have for deliberate art and deliberate thinking, it’s something that makes me feel really angry at the times we live in, but you have to exist in it.” And can his music exist in it? “It’s a harder thing to sell in a traditional pop music way, how do you have a traditional alternative rock press cycle for records like this? That you’re not sure how you can present live, or how to talk about it.” That said Modern Country is not an inaccessible or difficult album to listen to, “I’m not trying explicitly to make commercial music but I’m also not trying to make inaccessible music…Definitely there’s a precedent for some of it, even with solo guitar music, with people like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, and with instrumental music in a different way like Mike Oldfield, something that was a big record but that came out of not necessarily a commercial place.”
And what of his aspirations for the record? “Platinum, million selling guitar album, I’m just kidding… I’m trying not to have a lot of expectations. I feel like the music is really good, and pretty different to what I’ve done before, I don’t know if that means there’s going to be new opportunities. I don’t even know if it’ll be different.” A giant commercial leap forward for solo, instrumental guitar music? Unlikely but it’s another giant musical leap forward for one of America’s most intriguing modern composers.
Modern Country is out now via Merge Records. William Tyler’s has a number of dates in the US, click HERE for details.