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Terrible Freedom

TW Walsh on Reclaiming the Humor in Music, Collaborating with David Bazan, and Exercising 'Terrible Freedom'

Music InterviewAarik DanielsenComment

If you’ve dipped even a toe into the artful end of the indie-rock pool over the last 15 years, you’ve heard the work of TW Walsh.

The Boston musician, full name Timothy William Walsh, is perhaps best known as a frequent running mate to songwriter David Bazan, having contributed mightily to Pedro the Lion and Headphones. Bazan immortalized Walsh in verse on the 2004 song “Bands With Managers,” crooning “Vans with 15 passengers are rolling over / But I trust T. William Walsh and I’m not afraid to die.”

Walsh has rewarded that faith in a number of contexts. He is a thoughtful presence behind the boards, mixing and mastering projects for the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Ben Gibbard, Cold War Kids, The Shins, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. But Walsh’s distinct fingerprint is perhaps best observed on his latest, Terrible Freedom, released in late April. For one thing, the respected collaborator did everything on the album himself. For another, the songs are the most fully realized of his career. Building on the momentum from his 2016 release, Fruitless Research, Walsh delivers a set that is painfully insightful and darkly funny.

With its slinky grooves, shimmering synths and magnetic melodies, Terrible Freedom sounds like the lost soundtrack to a Paul Thomas Anderson film; something from the era of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, back when the auteur was scoring his films with 1970s and ‘80s pop hits, before turning to the 21st-century sturm und drang of Jonny Greenwood. For all the retro vibes, Walsh’s singing is as present-tense as it gets. You are in the room with him as he unspools yarns that provoke a knowing smirk in one moment, and make you squirm in the next.

Transverso recently caught up with Walsh for a wide-ranging conversation about drumming, reclaiming the role of humor in music, and Lo Tom, the band he recently formed with Bazan and Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin and Trey Many.

TRANSVERSO: You’re on a good streak with Fruitless Research coming out last year and Terrible Freedom this year. I know that in life, or in art, our experiences build on each other. Was there anything about the process of making Fruitless Research that you feel like led you to what you did on this new record?

TW WALSH: I think over time I’ve been developing a set of skills I’m iterating over these processes for arranging and recording music, using computers and analog instruments and MIDI. Just over time, I think since drums was my first instrument — even though I’ve often had drum machines on my records — I’ve usually felt like I needed to put live drums on a record because I enjoy playing drums. 

So on Fruitless Research, it was about half and half. But on Terrible Freedom, ultimately I liked the consistency and I liked the control I had over the sonic palette when I was using drum machine samples.

If there was any kind of iteration or development sonically, there was a couple things: One, just making a commitment to using synthetic drum sounds and the other was to — with Fruitless Research, a lot of the sound came from this distorted, highly compressed, saturated kind of sound. And with the new record, it’s more like the aesthetic of ‘80s pop music where things are clear and crisp and digital-sounding, but at the same time still warm. I think those were the two factors that were kind of an evolution.

I’m always fascinated by the way that whatever instrument somebody picks up first affects the way they think about songwriting. How do you feel like starting as a drummer has made you a different songwriter than you would be if you picked up the guitar first or picked up the piano first?

I feel pretty fortunate, because I think that drumming really gives you a good foundation in rhythm obviously. And also with phrasing. You learn syncopation early on — and how that develops is in the feel of the music, right? In rock and roll music, I really do believe that the beat is the most important thing.

Often in my arrangements, I’m building the entire song around the beat or the groove. It allows me to phrase my vocals around the beat and vice versa. It’s definitely informed my songwriting because I really focus the arrangements around the rhythm section, around the bass and the drums. It gives the music a unique feel, just because that’s the direction I’m coming from. 

You’ve obviously been a key collaborator on other people’s records. You’ve had people make significant contributions to your records. What was it like this time around to do everything by yourself?

 I’ve tried to make most of my records on my own, and I think that I had some personal failings, either in being able to sustain the attention or the energy it required or just running out of steam. I do music part-time, so I’ve had to make concessions in making records.

The last time around with Fruitless Research, I knew that I had a vague vision of something I wanted to do that was a little bit different than in the past. But I didn’t really have a clear vision of how to achieve that. So I asked Yuuki [Matthews] to help out, and it was just great. It was an ideal situation, because I could put in the amount of effort I could muster to get the songs to a demo, kind of rough form and then Yuuki would take it the rest of the way home. 

That was really good because, just at that time in my life a couple years ago, that’s what I needed because of where I was at in my life. Something just clicked since then. And I made decisions from a technology perspective, as far as the tools I was going to use for a record, which made things more streamlined. And also I think I just have more confidence and a sense of ease about creativity. It was a good confluence of those two factors.

When you’re working with somebody else, obviously they can open you up to new things. They can also — and I think it’s a positive limitation — there’s the limitation of having to work with somebody else, having to communicate with them, having to defer to them in some ways and consider them. Working by yourself, did you feel like you needed to try to impose any limits or any sort of self-editing?

 I think I’m a pretty disciplined person. The limitations, they just develop naturally. I don’t like having to sort through 100 different tracks in a music session. I think a lot of people find that empowering, just to be able to throw a bunch of stuff into the pot and then try to make sense of it later. For me, I really like to arrange, and even mix, as I go along. Every component I put into the song is going to be a key component — I try not to add anything extra.

As you go along and you’re writing the parts for each instrument and you’re building upon what you’ve done before, you just fill in the holes and you build the arrangement in a way to where there’s not a lot of duplication, there’s not a lot of conflict in the sound.

I think one of the issues in the past for me was I felt maybe too exposed. If I was doing everything myself, there was nothing to hide behind. You’re really just putting yourself out there. And I so think with this record it was really, in some ways, the easiest record I’ve ever made in that I just did exactly what came naturally in every situation.

Towards the end of the process, I started to get a little worried. Effectively, if nobody liked the record — this record is so utterly just who I am. So if people didn’t like it, I felt a little bit worried about that sense of rejection that I might feel because there’s really no separation between this record and me. That was one thing I was worried about.

We’ve already talked about your drumming experience. And obviously you’ve worked up facility to whatever degree on all these other instruments. When you think you about the different things that you played on this record, is there one instrument that you still feel uncomfortable on, awkward on, like it hasn’t caught up to the rest of it?

For me, the least fluid instrument is keyboard. Which is funny because that’s probably the most prevalent instrument on the record. For me, for whatever reason, my hands know what to do when I’m holding drumsticks. And my hands know what to do when I’m holding a guitar or bass. These patterns, there’s like a muscle memory there from having put real time in there. And I’m definitely not a technical player on any of those instruments; I’m more of a feel player.

But with piano, it’s really easy to mess up. The notes are very close together. The shapes that you need to do in order to do two drastically different chords are very similar. There’s a lot more room for error. And there’s a lot more possibilities on piano. You have 88 keys there and you have 10 fingers that can be each hitting a note at the same time.

With guitar, you can really only — maximum — hit six notes at a time. And with bass, you’re usually only hitting one note at a time. So it takes a little bit less parallel processing. Piano, for me, I just haven’t put in the hours to get really super proficient at that. I didn’t really even start experimenting with piano until I was well into my 20s. I’m a little bit behind on that.

You already referenced the ‘80s sound to the record. There’s a lot that I like about this album, but one of the things I really dig about it is that it does seem to reference — I hear ‘70s rock, I hear ‘80s rock, I even hear some John Carpenter synthesizer here and there — but it doesn’t sound like any one thing. You can’t just peg it down to one influence. I’m curious, what do you hear on the album in terms of music that you’ve absorbed over the years, music that’s been important to you over the years? What side of your musical education do you really feel is coming out on this album?

I actually don’t feel like it’s one particular side. I feel like for the first time I was able to present a holistic picture of my aesthetic and my tastes and my worldview. That’s what the picture is. It’s this complete picture of my life up to this point.

I was born in the mid-’70s; I grew up as a young child listening to my dad’s record collection and classic rock radio, which was focused on late ‘60s and the ‘70s — Zeppelin and The Stones and The Police. Ultimately Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Neil Young.

And then in the ‘80s, MTV came along and it just opened a new window into the world of early rap and a little bit of punk and New Wave and dance music. MTV was really egalitarian; it would put on whatever videos were available and, at that time, it was just a real crazy cross-section of popular culture.

I started getting exposed to music that had lots of drum machines and synthesizers. I think that stuff shaped my taste and my worldview in a way that is more profound even than classic rock. But I hadn’t figured out how to represent that in a way that was genuine and respectful but still tongue-in-cheek, as so much of the music back then was. It just required a level of maturity and openness I don’t think I had until making this record to present it all in a way that wasn’t genre music, that wasn’t specific.

Thinking lyrically about the record, albums — whether it’s fair or not — they get read through a certain context. If you made a record in the first half of the 2000s, it was your 9/11 record. And everything that comes out the next four years is going to be looked back on as people’s “Trump record.” I just wonder, did you feel like anything about the present moment creeped into the record lyrically or aesthetically? Or do you feel like it’s not fair to read any of that kind of stuff into it?

I think 100 percent that’s the case. In fact, I feel like it’s a bit of a mission of mine, or a calling, to present a thoughtful reaction to where we are culturally and even globally. It’s difficult to do that in an artful way that doesn’t hit people over the head in a really ham-fisted presentation. Whether it be writing really topical material that reacts to very specific events or getting too dogmatic about it.

The key thing I want to get across is that it’s OK to feel the pain that the world is experiencing now, and we are as a country. The way to do that is to confront it and confront the fear and build the character that you have to embody to be able to hold that pain and hold that fear and find a way through it.

I didn’t really approach it from an intellectual standpoint, more trying to represent the way I feel about it and maybe other people will identify with it and find clues that help find a way through it.

I appreciate that approach. I feel like I picked up on that, and I just wanted to be sure about it. There are exceptions, but you read books or listen to records from a certain time — it almost feels like when it’s so specific, when it’s so topical, it feels really dated. But there’s something about a piece of art that tells you what it felt like to live through that time that feels a little more enduring to me. I guess that’s the approach you felt like you were taking.

Yeah, I think so. I think there’s two ways to create art. One is to make something that’s representational. It’s a picture of something that you can identify.

The other way is to create art that’s experiential. And it feels like instead of a representation, it’s a transformation or it’s an immersive, experiential representation. That’s more what I’m interested in — something that’s intangible, but it’s recognizable and there’s some different kind of knowledge or experience that’s transferred.

Are there any moments on the new record, small things, like a little turn of phrase here or maybe a little instrumental passage there, that you’re particularly proud of? Maybe something small that might get missed on the first listen but you really enjoyed putting into the song?

Musically, I like the application of subtle humor. One of my favorite musical things is on the song “Dead Landmines,” there’s this effected bass throughout the song. There’s an envelope filter on it; there was an effects pedal in the ‘70s called Mutron filter — it has this kind of wa-wa effect almost. But then it got really overapplied in funk music.

There’s this kind of silly, almost funny, effected bass throughout the whole song. At first, you might be taken aback by it. Some of my friends and peers were — it made them laugh. Ultimately it wins you over and it becomes this hypnotic, trance-like, almost the hook of the song. I like that idea that something that, on the surface, could be silly and humorous becomes a vehicle for something deeper.

As far as lyrics, again, a lot of lyrics make people laugh on this record. It’s difficult to do that in a way that just isn’t totally silly, but there’s a line in “Dropout” that goes “The graveyard doesn’t care for your type / When you’re eating your bananas way before they get ripe.” I thought it was hilarious to put a reference to bananas in a really serious, kind of existential song.

And then in “High Numbers,” there’s something about wearing a tie “with a presentable pant.” I think it’s time for artists to reclaim humor as almost a Trojan horse for the truth. It’s being underutilized, and I think that there’s a way to do it that it’ll make you smile, but later it’ll hit you in a different way.

I have to make sure that I ask you about this Lo Tom record that’s going to come out in July. You’ve obviously known David Bazan forever; I’m assuming you’ve known Jason Martin and Trey Many for a while too. Why does this feel like the right time to put something out together? 

You’re right — I’ve known Dave for almost 20 years now. And I met Trey and Martin through Dave; I’ve known them all for at least 15 years. I’ve collaborated with Dave consistently since I’ve met him and even after the band Pedro the Lion broke up. I’ve played on Starflyer records here and there. I don’t remember actually who came up with the idea to do a project like this. But one of us did and we didn’t really have a plan for it. Let’s get together for a weekend and try to record something.

Martin and I did some preparation in advance of that first session, and we each wrote a bunch of music. Then we chose four songs to go into the studio with. We had a lot of ideas about how we should go about tracking the stuff; not a lot of bands track live, everyone playing at the same time, anymore.

We weren’t sure if we could pull that off, just because we weren’t doing a lot of preparation — we weren’t even going to be rehearsing at all. But we decided to try it; we thought it would be an important thing to give a shot anyway. We went in there and we were able to do it. Ultimately it’s an excuse to get together and hang out whenever we can. And it started out that way; it’s become something a little more serious. It kind of remains to be seen how it will all play out.

There’s a few songs on the record that are particularly catchy. The band — it’s just a straight rock and roll band: two guitars, bass and drums. It wasn’t intentional, but we didn’t have a lot of time to do this stuff, so it’s very just straight-ahead rock and roll. It could be something that people really identify with, people who liked rock music and indie-rock in the early 2000s, people who like riffs and are just looking for something that has kind of presentation, but maybe a little bit more substance.

I don’t know — it’ll be interesting to see how people react to it.