MISSION CREEK There he was, all cherubic, eating a "beej" the nickname I've affectionately given the burgers at BJ, a.k.a. Burger Joint. Moments before show time, I spotted Ty Segall in the greasy eatery's Mission District location. He was about to take to the stage at Amnesia, on the eve of an ambitious second solo tour that ventures through the East Coast and the South, even invading Canadian territory for a night in Toronto.
After my own greasy foray into a Popeye's a few blocks away, I was ready to see the wunderkind, who is freshly graduated from the University of San Francisco. Once upon a time, Segall was a one man band, but he's expanded his outfit to a three-piece. Clearly the night's headliner at Amnesia, he packed the joint. After sets by openers Snakeflower 2 and the Rantouls, he mostly played familiar songs from his 2008 self-titled release on CastleFace Records. However, he also delivered a few examples of his self-described "sludgier" work on the brand new Lemons (Goner Records).
Sludge or no sludge, Segall's solid work ethic is evident. He's constantly playing gigs at bars like the Knockout, the Hemlock, and the Eagle Tavern basically anywhere flannel is the prevailing fashion, alongside those straw fedora hats favored by the fixed-gear crowd. Despite his omnipresence on SF's dive bar scene, he's pretty modest about his dedication to his music. "There are a lot of ways that I am a slacker," he explains over the phone a month after the fateful Amnesia show as he and his band drive to New Orleans. "But if I'm not doing music, I feel like I'm wasting my time."
Segall's music is part of a current collective lo-fi/neo-psych/garage rock movement. (I hate to label, but if you're gonna do it, you might as well go all-or-nothing). At times it's hard to decipher which bands from this rubric are legit and which are simply riding the wave of a trend. Segall's contemporaries include his current tour mates Charlie and the Moonhearts, Strange Boys, Gris Gris, Thee Oh Sees, and Memphis' Magic Kids. Some of these groups lean more toward pop, while others favor punk. But they all seem to draw on the past (particularly sun-dazed stretches of the 1960s) for inspiration and direction.
One highlight of Lemons is the wisely-handpicked Captain Beefheart cover "Dropout Boogie," a countercultural should-have-been anthem from the group's 1967 release, Safe As Milk (Buddah). Recorded in a mere 20 minutes, Segall's version of the freakout favorite and especially its pounding bass line has a rallying call effect, taking its cue from Timothy Leary's infamous phrase, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." When I ask Segall why he chose to cover this particular song, especially since he just earned a degree in media studies, his answer is simple: "Beefheart rules." He can't give the psych-blues band enough praise, citing them along with the Pretty Things and Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Pink Floyd as major influences on his current reverb-rich sound.
Compared to Segall's debut album, Lemons has a looser, more experimental sound. Less reliant on melody and catchy hooks, it delves deeper into psych and garage, slowing down Segall's riff-happy original style. The distortion is still there, but you can tell how different effects and levels were employed on a track-to-track basis. One new song, "Like You," is brilliantly melancholy in tone and lumbering in pace. Basically, it's a beautiful downer. The varying volume levels can probably be attributed to the use of vintage reel-to-reel equipment and Tascam quarter-inch tapes. "It gives it that blown-out sound," Segall explains.