White Fence

White Fence on Songwriting as Sickness and Therapy

Zach Phillips

By Zach Phillips

on 07.16.14 in Features

Tim Presley is a veteran musician, and the longevity of his career is a testament to his deep passion and his commitment to songwriting. In 2010, after playing in a string of disparate bands including the Nerve Agents, the Strange Boys and Darker My Love (as well as a stint in the Fall), he began releasing albums as White Fence. A staunch advocate of home recording, Presley’s albums are stocked with asymmetrically structured songs full of meticulous, intuitive guitar arrangements, glissando vocal melodies, steadfast bass and, with the exception of his latest release, sampled drums. Presley uses his work as White Fence to encourage fellow artists and remind us that songwriting is daily work.

I talked with Presley about his new record, For The Recently Found Innocent, the psychology behind his lyrics, the specter of “lo-fi,” and the allure of a lost Gene Vincent record.

Let’s talk about Syd Barrett. I believe in him, in his music. Your songs remind me of his. I learned to play “Like That,” from the new record, and to my mind those are some Syd-style chord changes.

Ah, well, thanks. I like Syd Barrett, too. And a lot of people bring him up.

I’ve been learning some Syd songs straight through. The chords are often simple, structurally speaking, but rhythmically he often doesn’t repeat himself between takes. You’ve probably learned some of his songs, right? I love those Lagniappe Sessions you did for Aquarium Drunkard. Do you regularly learn other people’s songs?

I have tons of covers. When I go through a weird writing funk — “writer’s block,” you could call it — I don’t know if it’s a subconscious exercise, but I end up covering songs. And that just builds up. So when [Aquarium Drunkard] asked for cover songs, I didn’t even think about it. I had a bunch. It keeps me recording and practicing.

I know you did that Jack Name cover on Family Perfume and the Johnny Thunders one on Is Growing Faith. You’ve said you don’t know music theory, but you seem to have a good grasp of it through other people’s music.

That’s how I learned to play guitar — playing along to records. I can read tabs, but I don’t really know anything else.

So what do you get now out of learning other people’s songs?

Well, covering a song, you kind of want to make it sound different, even though the original is what made you like it in the first place. So there’s a paradox. But learning a song is cool because you develop an idea of how different chords go together, and you might never have thought of that.

You get in there and you’re looking for what they’re doing and something might elude you and then it turns out to be a simpler explanation than you can possibly imagine.

Yeah. I’ve noticed that with a lot of country songs. They’ll hold on a C chord for longer than you would have thought. Really fucking simple, but in your mind it’s crazy.

Country writers are formal masters.

It’s crazy. It’s so simple, or so it seems. That’s where the songwriting comes in — the chords are easy, but the lyrics are where the magic’s at.

I like your songs and I like the way you record them — it’s incredible to me — but what really draws me to you and your music is that you’ve been very clear in past interviews in conveying this message of daily work — of songwriting and recording being a practice, and its value to you seems bound up in its daily use. I appreciate your message of “artists: work more, question yourself less, follow your intuition.” It seems to me to be a unique message in the music world today.

Not to sound like a parent, but the more you work at something, the better you get. And you really do get better. And it allows more thoughts to come in — it turns you into a more creative person, I think. If you put out a hundred ideas, the chances of there being a good one in there is pretty high. You know what I mean? But if you’re just indifferent and apathetic, chasing one thing, the chances are lower for a good result. I appreciate that you gathered that message.

Well, we make music, and its value seems to me to be determined by our relationship to it, what we’re getting out of it and what other people might be able to get out of it. “Masterpiece culture” is very uninteresting to practicing musicians because, as you were getting at, everything comes down to a proportional issue. Most of the artists I know are not very arrogant, and maybe one out of five things we make seem to more or less satisfy us. So if you’re wedded to masterpiece culture, you end up rejecting a lot of interesting work because you’re waiting for your next great statement to the public. When, meanwhile, you’re making interesting minor statements all the time.

Exactly. One page out of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbook is as interesting as one of those finished paintings, you know? It’s interesting to see work leading up to the final result. I feel like there’s so much output that I do that — it would feel weird not to have it all out there.

You must have had the thought before, “I could have not released anything ’til now and come out with a ‘best of.’”

Yeah. But I have this urgency to put stuff out. I don’t know why. And I know it’s a lot of stuff, and maybe I’m putting too much into the world. But I feel like there isn’t wrong with having a lot of material. Do you? Is it annoying?

I’ll be stoned or otherwise self-conscious and I think, “I wish a bunch of my rotten garbage wasn’t out there in the world. If I had played it differently and held back a little bit, maybe I could leverage this into a different area.” And then another part of me speaks and says, “Whatever man, you’re just making it up as you go along. At least the art has dispersed, and it’ll all come home eventually. You’re communing with so many people through this.”

Well, yeah. It could be even as simple as — let’s say someone hears a song. And maybe it’s not your or my best tune. But that person’s like, “OK, well, there’s that song, what about this song.” Maybe the stuff that’s not as good could bait someone into discovering the better shit.

Or vice versa. “Man, ‘Like That’ sucks!” “Dude, you gotta check out Family Perfume though, before he got big.”

[Laughs] Exactly.

OK, now we’re getting to where I wanted to be. In past interviews you’ve referred again and again to your relationship to writing and recording songs at home as a kind of a surrogate for retaining a therapist. I’ve been really into this guy Ben Boretz lately. He taught at Bard College and co-designed a music program there called Music Program Zero. I’m going to read you a quote from an interview with him.

“Somebody says to me, ‘I have this terrible problem in sessions,’ whatever it is. I say, ‘Well, you know, you probably have that problem in life, and you ought to be really glad that this problem becomes available to you by coming up equally in music. Because when it comes up in music, you can deal with it within music, and that’s less dangerous than dealing with it in real life directly.’ It seems so simple, but what else could music be good for? ‘Music therapy’ seems quite ridiculous as a category of activity separate from ‘music.’” — Ben Boretz from July 29, 1989: A Talk With Ben, by Marion A. Guck and Fred E. Maus in Perspectives of New Music Vol. 43, No. 2 – Vol. 44, No. 1.

You talk about music in therapeutic terms, but you’ve also repeatedly referred to your activity as a “sickness,” a “compulsion.” I can relate to that, and I have my own answers. But I want to ask you: How can your “sickness” be therapeutic?

It’s like a drug addiction. When you’re not working, you’re chasing the dragon. You’re either doing it or you’re freaking out, going through withdrawal. For example: Let’s say I had to go to the mall to get my computer fixed. That whole time, I’ll be thinking about going back home and working on music. Or let’s say I’m out at a nice family dinner. I’ll be thinking about music. Or even if I’m with my fucking friends! I just wanna be alone and working.

‘The biggest payoff is being able to come up with a line that you’re proud of. That’s the most rewarding thing.’

So the sickness comes in when you’re not doing it.

It’s a sick thought that I cannot have a normal, nice time in my life without thinking about music. When I am doing it, it’s the happiest I could be. And I don’t know if that’s unhealthy or healthy.

Probably a little of both. You’re talking about writing and recording more than playing shows?

Playing shows is a totally different thing.

Some people have a comparable relationship to touring. “I just gotta get back out on the road, man!” I guess you’re traveling somewhere when you work, either way.

Both of those things are an escape from reality. The person who wants to go back on the road just doesn’t want to deal with their home life. Bills, their pets, their girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever. They want to get back out where there’s no problems — you’re living in the moment, and the problem is, “Do I need gas?”, “Are we going to get to the show on time?” It’s a lot easier than being at home, dealing with everything. It’s an escape from reality.

But do you really escape from reality when you write? I hear so much about you in your music.

I guess that’s where the therapy comes in. I’m talking about things in metaphor that I would be talking about in therapy.

Maybe you have to access a clear spot, an area of clarity to do that. When I’m writing, I will have no idea what I am trying to say. By the end, I’ll realize I’ve said something that I can understand very well. So that duality — therapy and an “escape from reality” — that seems accessible.

Yeah, yeah.

‘It has to be important. Can you imagine going on stage and singing a song that wasn’t important?’

The freedom and the concision in your lyrics reminds me of Ariel Pink. It’s not a psychedelic soup — it’s very controlled. You don’t play more than what’s in your hand. But you dance all over. So, therapeutically speaking — do you get new information from the lyrics? Do you find yourself able to express something that was eluding you?

The biggest payoff is being able to come up with a line that you’re proud of. That’s the most rewarding thing. And the only way to get that if it has a touch of poetry in it. Something you almost dare yourself to say. “Holy shit, I can’t talk about that.” Maybe it’s a little too personal. The best lyrics are the ones where it feels weird to write down or sing. Something as simple as saying “7-11″ in a song, breaking tradition. Those are the ones that make me the most excited. Those are the most true to what you’re trying to say.

You’re proudest of risk.

There’s got to be a better way to articulate this. On the one hand, there’s the awesome simplicity of Motown lyrics. Everyone can relate to them, it’s just fucking great. Turn on the radio, I happen to be sad, here’s some country lyrics, I can relate. On the other hand, there’s obscure nonsense. Nirvana was like that, Syd Barrett was like that. You can pull your own stuff from it — or maybe you don’t even care. So I try to ride in the middle.

I watch out for that middle zone, personally. If I know what I’m writing about and I know exactly what I want to say, that’s auspicious, but it’s rare. If I don’t know what I’m talking about at all, but I’m feeling free with my words, that’s promising. But when I know what I want to say but I don’t have confidence in it, I call that trouble — “calculated.” Your words though, they don’t seem calculated. They seem edited. You seem to like going into ambiguous and even self-contradictory areas, reversals and disavowals. Your songs are full of aphorisms — “all confidence is pain” (“Daily Pique”), “there is no protection or guard while you’re growing faith” (“Growing Faith”), “everything is from something/ that’s why the gang must ride” (“Body Cold”) — but do they feel that way when you’re writing them? Does a bit of clarity ever descend onto an initially obscure phrase and settle there?

It’s different for every song, but generally…I want to say it’s very calculated because I labor over the lyrics. That’s most of my work.

What does that work look like?

Thought. There’s been times where I’ve even bounced down the song and one lyric or one line bothered the shit out of me, and I had to redo it because it just wasn’t right. I don’t know, man. Music is music, but the lyrics — that’s the part that makes it personal. You’ve got to get that right, for yourself.

Well, songs have identity, right? A good song seems to have a strong personality. So making sure the lyrics serve to further this identity feels important.

And it has to be important. Can you imagine going on stage and singing a song that wasn’t important? That’s why it takes the most work, because it has to matter. Otherwise, it might as well just be an instrumental. Yeah, the lyrics, dude. That’s the one thing I try to keep a modern twist on. That might be the bane of a lot of other bands, “psychedelic” or not. If you feel like you have to sing about the things all those Nuggets bands sing about, you’re not really doing anyone a favor. If you update it with modern times and your issues, that’s what’s going to make it special. There’s obviously plenty of room in the world for simple, clichéd lyrics — don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan. But it’s important for me to keep it modern lyrically.

‘If you feel like you have to sing about the things all those Nuggets bands sing about, you’re not really doing anyone a favor.’

And by modern, what do you mean?

New information. And using words that are of the time. I remember reading something about the Smiths — Morrissey used the word “walkman” in a song. And at the time people were freaking out, they thought that was so weird to say “walkman” in a song.

That’s funny because, you know, there were plenty of ’60s bands that said “Kit Kat bar,” “Coke,” you know. Have you experienced any self-fulfilling lyrical prophecies? Those are pretty jarring in my experience.

That’s interesting. Nothing comes to mind — I’d have to go back and check the stuff out.

Don’t do it.


Any new music coming out on Birth that you can talk about?

Well, there’s this record I want to get the rights to rerelease. I guess I could just tell you.

You could tell me and we could not put it in the interview so no one “bites your tip”…

It sounds like it’s going to be really hard to do, because it was on a subsidiary of Sony. It was this Gene Vincent record, came out about 1970. It was obviously him trying to get hip to the times a little bit, jump out of the ’50s rock thing and get a little funky, maybe. It would be a cool thing to rerelease. My brother-in-the-law works at Light in the Attic so he’s got a little bit of juice as far as knowing how to do that and contact people. So, I don’t know. We’re trying to do that. But a lot of it, the easier ones are ones that were on little labels and they just don’t care anymore. But this one was attached to Sony or one of the other majors, so it might not be as easy to do. But it’d be really cool, ’cause I really doubt it sold a lot.

Are you working with Jessica Pratt on anything?

She’s working on a new record. I think it’s going to be on Drag City. And I was more than happy about that. I’m sure some people — “Oh uh, she should have done it with you again.”

Well, of course you wanted to give her a leg up, and Drag City’s great. How’s Drag City? Is working with them different than expected?

They have their shit together, for sure. They’re pretty serious, man. It’s cool. It is a little different though — I’d grown accustomed to the friendship route, between Woodsist and Castle Face. That’s easy breezy. This is a graduation. More deadlines. It’s still DIY-style, but it’s on that professional level. Woodsist and Castle Face are pretty pro, and they’re great at being labels, accounting and all that. They’re definitely badass. But Drag City has been doing it for so long — they have an office in London, you know what I mean? Aesthetically, though, it’s the same. They’re not cheesy.

Yeah, they’re wonderful.

As far as premiering that new song, they wanted to stay away from Pitchfork. And I know Ty [Segall] and them get really creative about how to present his music to the world. For Hair, we did a commercial that aired on the Adult Swim channel. That was awesome. New concepts in promoting. If you can do it in a cool way…

Sure. Be the change you want to see in advertising.

[Laughs] Yeah. So Drag City’s old school. They’re not on Spotify. A lot of showbiz people have to buy Drag City records instead of getting them floated to them. To sum it up, they have tons of integrity.

I want to read you another quote, Tony Visconti from the introduction to the Tape Op book, because I want to ask you about the term “lo-fi.”

“…the fixing was part of the art. In 4 and 8-track days the entire drum kit was recorded onto one or two tracks. An engineer had no option but to equalize, compress and sometimes even add reverb or snapback, which were impossible to remove after they were printed to tape. This wasn’t a bad thing. This created a vibe, a sonic reference which would guide the overdubs that followed. … It’s my theory that the constant battle against the diminishing returns of the wear and tear of analog tape and the twice and thrice time processing of the original sound is what younger musicians and engineers mean when they say ‘analog.’”

You’ve said you don’t mind being labeled a “lo-fi” musician, because it’s more a technical designation than anything else, rather than the term “psychedelic” which is a vague aesthetic descriptor. But the commonsense understanding of “lo-fi” is a vague aesthetic descriptor, too. That’s how it’s used in the music press. I wish people could understand that recording to tape entails a methodological approach that’s fundamentally different from the “infinity” of digital recording. I even got frustrated once and made a poem compiling every instance of the phrase “lo-fi” in a Pitchfork record review over roughly a 12-year period — there were hundreds, bandied about totally indiscriminately. I remember one for the band Garbage. It’s really a “sound” thing for non-musicians. What’s your take on “lo-fi?”

That’s a whole giant can of worms. It’s basically like trying to unfold the word “hipster.” It’s either derogatory or “you’re one of us.” But to me, “lo-fi” means “cool aesthetic practices” and honesty in those practices. Dealing with tape, it’s not easy. It’s real shit, like oil painting. So whenever I hear the term “lo-fi,” I always assume that someone took care. They put a little care into their project. It’s this tag word for lazy journalists. The spectrum’s pretty wide on the word. Pitchfork using it in a Garbage review? Shirley Manson Garbage? I would love to read that poem. What’s another question?

I’m interested in your take on what that term means methodologically. You bounce shit, right? Are you working on the blue 4-track?

Yeah, the 414.The actual fidelity is a casualty of your work. You keep bouncing down, it’s just going to get worse and worse. And that’s part of it.

‘When someone says “lo-fi” I immediately think: someone was getting in there. Trying to make it work. You can feel the person working. It’s honest.’

When you’re doing that bouncing it’s not like going on the computer and selecting a preset. You’re actually mixing.

And you’re committing. That’s why when someone says “lo-fi” I immediately think: someone was getting in there. Trying to make it work. You can feel the person working. It’s honest. There’s obviously things that get passed off as “lo-fi”, and they suck because they don’t work that way. But there’s hundreds of amazing “hi-fi” records everyone loves, too. David Bowie…That shit sounds cool.

There’s Visconti again. And the way he worked on those records was by committing to mixing decisions throughout.

That sums it up: It’s a series of commitments. Once you bounce, that’s it. And that gives character to it. Everyone’s so conditioned by how a record’s “supposed” to sound via the radio or Best New Music bands. So when you hear something a little bit off, it’s interesting. That’s why everyone digs those Nuggets records, punk records. To me that means honesty.

The new record was done on 8-track. How did you approach those recordings — did you rehearse selections in advance or work out the arrangements in the studio?

It was basically the same type of method as I do at home, it just happened to be in Ty’s garage on a better-sounding machine. And all the songs, I had already written them, and did actual demo versions of them at home. That’s what prompted me to do it, because my versions at home were not cutting it at all. So it was the perfect time to do it with Ty. I was just like, “Here’s the songs.” And initially he played drums on a couple tracks and Nick Murray, who’s kind of been my sidekick on drums for the last three years, he did the majority of the drumming.

Not to keep harping on “Like That,” but the beginning of that — the guitar riff, it sounds like you triple-tracked it and there’s a stereo cascade effect where one comes in on the left and then on the right and then the main one comes in.

Well, dude, Ty’s a mixing master. What separates him from everybody is that he’s the ultimate risk-taker. In a given school of thought he probably does everything incorrect. He should be doing interviews for Tape Op. People love him for him, but what they don’t know is that when it comes to recording he’s a badass.

It’s definitely new shit. It’s like if you put on Between the Buttons and you hear the stereo stuff and these layers of Brian Jones’s mind, that’s new. New decisions. Did Ty do anything on these particular sessions that blew your mind?

Well, offhand, I remember, there’s a song on the new record called “Afraid of What It’s Worth.” I showed Nick maybe the first 20 seconds of it, in the room, on guitar. And we just pressed record and he nailed it. Having a song there but leaving enough room for improvisation makes it interesting. I noticed he’d put fills on the second bar instead of where it “should be,” things like that.

Who’s playing piano on “Raven on White Cadillac?” That piano’s a joker. That piano playing — the way it hits. It’s funny!

That’s Mikal Cronin. That was one I did at home before, using some keyboard. I’m not good at piano. I wrote that part but I couldn’t perform it, and Cronin was there. He can play piano so he learned it in three seconds and did it. Otherwise it would’ve taken me three hours to get.

Will you tell me a little bit about “Afraid of What It’s Worth” and that other song, “Fear”? You say on the latter, “I live in fear of wasting time.”

That’s typical existential babble. Those two are about exactly that — spending all my time, my life on this. Like a monk. “Afraid of What It’s Worth” is also about rock stuff. Hitting the road, bad diet, drugs, sex, booze. And then “Fear” is about — is there anyone in your life that can understand?

I love that phrase, “Afraid of What It’s Worth.” Like what’s scary to you about what you’re doing is its value. In another interview you were riffing and you said “I build swords and armor all day. I am a blacksmith.” So what are you protecting yourself from?

Well, all of it is a giant question mark to me. I don’t know what I’m afraid of.

Do you realize you sing with a kind of accent?

Yeah, I’ve been told. There’s a certain diction and sting you get when you do it like that. I swear to god I’m not trying to be someone else. It’s just a weird way of delivery where I feel like it means more when it comes out that way. Sharper diction…And it’s an easier way for me to stay in tune. Playing live it pops out even more.

So what are the “recently found innocent” innocent of?

It’s more about what they’re guilty of! But the innocent are people who are free of petty shit. It’s easy for people — at least for me — to be angry, greedy, in anxiety and pain. I succumb to those things. If you can be above all that, good for you.

And that’s part of the message you send through your music and around it sometimes, maybe if you can find an outlet through music to explore those issues…

You grow in faith.