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Ty Segall pulls out all the stops for 'Manipulator'

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Prolific rocker Ty Segall took his time with 'Manipulator,' trying for a 'Tony Visconti kind of record'
Ty Segall's thinking in making his new album 'Manipulator': 'Let's try and pull out all the stops'
Ty Segall says 'Manipulator' 'might be the best one I've ever ... but I feel uncomfortable saying that'

By the time that Ty Segall hit age 26, he had already recorded and released six solo albums, appeared or collaborated on a dozen or so other albums of frantic guitar rock, issued 20 singles or extended-plays through various record labels, appeared on dozens of compilations and composed a few hundred songs.

In that burst of inspiration, the Laguna Beach-born guitarist, singer, surfer, skater and songwriter toured nonstop, gigging hundreds of shows across the country.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Ty Segall: An article in the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition about musician Ty Segall says that he played all the instruments on his new record except cowbell. In fact, although he played the majority of the parts, members of his Ty Segall Band contributed as well. The error was caught after the section went to press.
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He produced similarly minded bands, played punk and indie festivals and tore through many wickedly searing guitar solos. The Memphis garage rock label Goner had already released the first Segall singles collection by the time he was 24.

His titles for these records included "Sleeper," "Gemini," "Horn the Unicorn," "Lemons," "Melted," "Reverse Shark Attack," "Twins" and "Goodbye Bread." Each recorded with immediacy and on the cheap, they captured the uncontainable energy of a muse so busy both consuming and producing music that few but the most devoted could keep up.

Before starting work on his new album, "Manipulator," Segall (pronounced like the bird) had accumulated a bulldozer's worth of distorted rock 'n' roll riffs, amassing ideas while sweating the proverbial 10,000 hours required of an expert craftsman.

"That 'Slaughterhouse' record took us three weeks to write," Segall, now 27, told me of his 2012 record between bites of a salad at Auntie Em's in Eagle Rock. "I love those kind of records where they're really in the moment, and you can feel that on the recording."

Then, in 2013, the artist, "Midnight Cowboy"-handsome with a surfer's wash of dirty blond hair, stopped touring and churning and for the first time in his creative life paused to pull back. He returned to Southern California from his then base of San Francisco — where he and other artists including Thee Oh Sees, Mikal Cronin, Sic Alps and White Fence had codified a solid scene of tripped out, distortion-heavy rock — and called a timeout.

Landing first in Glassell Park and then a few miles east within the scrappy, thriving artistic community of Eagle Rock, the artist issued himself a challenge: "Let's try and make something like back in the day, when they had a ton of money, like a glam rock album. Let's try and pull out all the stops."

Taking his own dare

Enter "Manipulator," the product of that labor, which comes out Aug. 26 on the Chicago label Drag City. Later that week he'll celebrate its release with four consecutive sold-out shows at the Echo in Echo Park.

Awash in clean, shimmering guitars, textured vocal harmonies, the occasional string section and a trash compactor's worth of rock 'n' roll riffs, the hourlong record seems to simultaneously draw on all of Segall's avowed inspirations. Growing up in Laguna Beach, his mom was a Guns N' Roses fan, his dad a lover of K-EARTH hits of the '50s and '60s, and you can kind of tell. From that foundation came a love of the Kinks, Black Sabbath, 13th Floor Elevators, Marc Bolan, Hawkwind, the Troggs, garage rock and first-wave Southern California hard-core.

Double-tracked guitar solos battle with extended drum breaks, boogie funk bass lines and coy rock references. Just before that epic drum solo, for example, Segall tears through a note-for-note, sped-up quote from Neil Young's extended guitar solo in "Down by the River."

Segall spent about a year in Northeast L.A. writing and refining its 17 songs, then locked them into place over a straight month living and recording at the Dock, a Sacramento studio run by producer-engineer Chris Woodhouse. "The idea was to focus more on one thing for a long period of time," said Segall.

"Usually I'll spend six months writing a record and then I'll record it. This record I wanted it to be the opposite," he explained, then tossed out one of many rock references from his encyclopedic knowledge of guitar music to David Bowie's longtime producer. "A Tony Visconti kind of record."

Segall is deliberate in his answers and has a demeanor of someone OK with saying no when he needs to. "I think I accidentally got a reputation as a dude that doesn't want to work with certain kinds of people," he said of various label deals he's been offered over the years. "Which is cool. I'd rather have that reputation than the opposite."

Living in the studio's apartment and aside from a few days' respite, he devoted himself to the process. Segall played most notes and drumbeats on "Manipulator," a method he's used on other records. (His band backed him on one song.)

It's almost as if he challenged himself with a dare: Make a new rock record to remind us that it's still possible to make an ideal one using the same tools as ever. That for all the versions of the chair, a striking new one can arrive to offer a new kind of support.

An area that echoes

From certain hills on certain nights, echoes from rehearsal spaces and backyard studios bounce across the Eagle Rock Valley.

Eagle Rock and Highland Park are amid a long-gestating musical arrival. The area in Northeast Los Angeles is home to many of the city's most successful independent labels, including Innovative Leisure, In the Red, Friends of Friends, Now-Again and Stones Throw. Management company Echo Park Records is doubling its space and thriving PR firm Biz 3 (Daft Punk, Skrillex) just opened a Eagle Rock satellite office to its Chicago headquarters.

In recent years four excellent record stores have opened. Gimme Gimme Records was the setting of a recent episode of IFC's hit comedy "Maron." A few blocks east on York Boulevard is Permanent, which just moved from Eagle Rock to Highland Park. Segall used to work there Wednesdays and was paid in records.

Combined, the area has become its own little epicenter, and one of its strengths is fuzzy, strange rock as delivered by artists and bands including Segall, Cronin, Wand, the Zig Zags, Meatbodies, Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer and White Fence, all of whom have released notable records in the last year. Many will perform during Segall's residency at the Echo.

Like Segall, a notable number have recently relocated from San Francisco. Songwriter and Segall's bassist/collaborator Cronin, signed to prominent indie imprint Merge, just relented. "Everyone we know, pretty much, from San Francisco moved down here," said Segall. "Poor Mikal was up there like, 'What? OK, I guess I'm coming down.'"

Wrote Dwyer in a eulogy to San Francisco, nestled within another band's press release, as he prepared to depart for Northeast Los Angeles: "Heed the warning bell about the streets of our home being clogged with the cholesterol of normals …

"San Francisco has long been filling up with noobs," he continued, "but now we face the most dangerous, the most egregious and blandest of them all … people with lots of money. NOBODY can square-up a joint like rich people."

"People are moving down here because there's a lot of stuff going on and it's cheaper — a lot cheaper," explained Segall of the migration. "I was renting a house with my girlfriend, and I was paying less than a room in San Francisco."

Addressing criticism from San Francisco fans disappointed with the exodus, he said, "People were kind of harshing on people moving. It's funny. I'm from down here. My sister lives here. It doesn't have to do with all the stuff you're talking about."

He then offers a caveat, repeating an oft-uttered observation from Southern California artists. "Something that's so great about L.A. is that if you're an artist or musician or whatever, you can hide out and do your work and really get a lot of great stuff done. And then when you want to emerge back out into this place and go to see things and do stuff, it's so easy."

Clean, but not bad clean

"Manipulator" illustrates Segall's point. Sounding at various times like a mishmash of T. Rex, the Who, Nirvana, candy-coated guitar pop, early '70s boogie rock and Segall's avowed major loves, the Kinks and Hawkwind, the album's songs are as confident and catchy as they are surprising.

"It's a clean record, maybe the cleanest record I've ever done," said Segall, whose face opens when he talks about collaborating with co-producer-engineer Woodhouse at the Dock. Among the studio's selling points were a 24-track two-inch analog reel-to-reel recorder and Spectra Sonics preamps identical to those used at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star's classic 1970s records were produced. "The whole goal was to make it a really good-sounding record, but not like bad clean production," he said. (Woodhouse declined an interview request.)

Segall charged Woodhouse with being "the person who decides if the take is good enough" and told the producer to be a tough critic. "You have to say no," Segall told him, "Because I'll be like, 'That's fine, man, whatever.' It was a constant discourse." Segall added, "It was cool working with someone intimately like that."

You can hear that spark from the first tones of the opening title track. Filled with organ clusters, a hard stutter step beat and beefy guitar, it sounds like a lost classic. Each, in fact, boldly goes where other songs have imagined but never arrived. "Green Belly" is a trippy psychedelic pop song. "Mister Main" is a rolling jam that features one of the dumbest brilliant guitar solos you'll ever hear, this warble of notes both messy and inspired. "The Crawler" races like a gritty Thin Lizzy song. "Don't You Want to Know (Sue)" sounds like a Marc Bolan work from his early bongo era.

He pens kaleidoscopic lyrics that suggest themes without committing to narratives. "Tall Man Skinny Lady" is a song of obsession. "It's Over" hints at lost love, or death, or both. One of the most lyrically striking songs, "The Faker," features a singalong chorus, "Ask your bossman for a raise!Tell you mama she better keep her change."Segall calls the songs "personal, but they're not definitively personal, open to tons of different interpretation."

The most important early interpretation arrived via his label Drag City. "It's hard to imagine anything giving us the listening experience we got when we finally heard 'Manipulator,'" wrote Drag City Records co-owner Dan Koretsky in an email. "It was really almost alienating, that kind of rewarding feeling."

His label, which has released Segall's albums since 2011, is responsible for essential releases by artists including Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Pavement, Will Oldham and others. As with those artists' best work, the goal is to support and promote "Manipulator" with a pace and detail similar to the album's creation.

"We all want this record to last for a while. I wanted to do the best record I could possibly do," said Segall. Still, he finds it difficult to commit to being satisfied.

"It's hard for me to say, because I'm so involved with it," he says before trailing off. "But I think it … I'm very...." He pauses. "I think it might be the best one I've ever … but I feel uncomfortable saying that kind of a thing."

Somebody has to declare it, so it might as well be the critic. One of the most vibrant, magnetic records of the year, "Manipulator" manages to feel both absolutely fresh and part of a rock conversation that's endured for decades.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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