William Tyler chats with Phil & Brad Cook about life-changing songs, contemporary country music in America, & Randy Travis tattoos.
(Photo of Brad & Phil Cook taken by Jeremy M. Lange)
William Tyler comes from good Southern stock; a Nashville lifer who’s played with SO many amazing musicians, like Lambchop, the SIlver Jews, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Charlie Louvin, and Candi Staton. 2010’s Behold the Spirit was Tyler’s first album under his own name, and was celebrated as ‘the most vital, energized album by an American solo guitarist in a decade or more.’ On Impossible Truth, his latest long player for Merge Records, Tyler takes it further out than anyone has been ready to go, challenging the listener’s ideas of what an instrumental guitar record can and should be.
Phil & Brad Cook are two insanely talented brothers out of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Together with longtime friends Joe Westerlund and Justin Vernon, the foursome moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina as the band DeYarmond Edison, which dissolved in 2006. From there, the Cook brothers, along with Westerlund, formed Megafaun, releasing four fantastic records before announcing a hiatus in October 2012. Phil, who wears many musical hats, (he’s also a member of The Shouting Matches and recently served as musical director for the upcoming Blind Boys of Alabama LP,) will be playing a handful of solo tour dates in Europe and the UK late August/early September.
In anticipation of both William and Phil’s upcoming EU/UK tour dates, we asked Brad & Phil to come up with a few questions for their old pal.
Brad & William
1. Let’s start simple. What are you listening to? Go ahead and talk about three current records that have your attention.
I just got a copy of the “Enjoy the Experience” coffee table book on private press records the Sinecure put out. It’s staggering, sort of like a cross between Jung’s “Red Book” and the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music. It’s gotten me way back into that world of homemade, self released music. There’s a record they profile in it by a lounge artist named Al Morgan called “A Lifetime of Memories”, it’s something he self released, just a recording of his nightclub show in a hotel in Ohio. The vibe is so comforting and old-timey, he’s doing covers of easy listening stuff and bad jokes in between the songs. Anyway I just found a copy online that wasn’t expensive and it was fresh in my mind because of the book.
Been going down the rabbit hole with South African free jazz thanks to some tips from Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger. Chris McGregor’s “Brotherhood of Breath” record….lots of melodic Ayler/Art Ensemble moves with some pretty out there jamming. There’s always an old country record in heavy rotation. This June it’s been Waylon Jennings’ “Dreaming My Dreams.” It grooves in an incredible, undefinable way and it’s the calling card of a ‘Nashville’ that I wish I had been around to experience thirty years ago.
2. From Megafaun’s observation, contemporary American country music has yet to engage the masses of Europe in the way it has in America. Can you give our fellow ancestors your top 5 modern country tunes of the last 20 years?
Sure. One of them I wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t for you guys. “Time is Love,” by Josh Turner; “Strawberry Wine,” by Deana Carter, written by Matreca Berg; “Neon Moon” by Brooks and Dunn; “Thinkin Problem” by David Ball; and “How Do You Like Me Now?” by Toby Keith. There are a bunch more but those spring to mind immediately.
3. Did you know that there is a man from the Netherlands named Martijn De Jong who has a tattoo in honor of the great American songwriter, Randy Travis. If you were to get a Randy Travis tattoo, what would it say?
Randy has been in a lot of legal trouble lately that involves alcohol, public nudity, and operating motor vehicles. I feel for the dude. I guess it would be something like “drink at home” or “get a driver.”
Phil & William
1. Willy, you told me a story once about your father, who is a Nashville songwriter. You were a teenager deep into studying guitar and he realized that his son was bound to the same path he had taken. If I recall, his advice to you wasn’t all that bright and sunny but it was real. You have been touring the world and in demand for almost half of your life now. You’ve traveled alone. You’ve also been the youngest member of a huge band. You’ve also played with some of the greats. How do his words sit with you now? Would you add to his advice if you had a child who was bound to the same fate?
My dad was always encouraging and generous beyond words with his advice and patience. He still is. I think he was just realistic about how hard a road it is to try to live the creative life. I mean, he was disillusioned about the music business in the mid nineties and that’s when there still WAS a music business. It’s even bleaker now.
Having said that, we are all incredibly blessed to be able to live the way we do, to travel, play music, and see different countries. I cannot imagine living any other way, it’s sort of a no going back proposition once you’ve committed. You become a lifer by necessity, and I have had the privilege of being around some intense lifers, from my dad to Michael Chapman to Kurt from Lambchop. But being a lifer means you’re all in, and I am sure that when I was a teenager and my dad was cautious about encouraging me, it was just because he was protective. John Prine once said, “If you think getting into the music business is hard, try getting out of it.”
2. Describe a moment, even set the scene, in which a friend played you a recording that transported you into a deeper level of music listening. Have blog recommendations ever produced the same effect for you?
I have had so many of these I honestly was having a hard time trying to think of just one example. Two came to mind.
The first one: I had just turned twenty and I was hanging out with my friend Chris Davis who used to have this amazing free form radio show on Vanderbilt’s sadly defunct college station. I had gotten to know him through being a listener and we had some mutual friends and he would let me come down and hang out while he played all this insane music I had never heard, your gamut of Ayler, Luc Ferrari, Zorn, Lee Hazelwood. So this one night we had gone out to his car during a really long piece he was playing and we got incredibly stoned, I mean I think this was probably like the fourth or fifth time I had even been properly stoned. We go back into the control room and he puts on the Incredible String Band, the record was “The 5000 Spirits”. The first song is called “Chinese White” and it’s very sparse, a violin, guitar and the two of them singing. The harmonies are insane, so creepy and transcendent and medieval. Even now that song gives me chills.
The second example is the first time I heard a Bob Dylan song, and oddly enough it wasn’t Bob Dylan singing it. I was about nine years old and my dad played me the Neville Brothers album “Yellow Moon”. It’s got a cover of “With God on Our Side” with Aaron Neville singing lead. The lyrics hit me really hard at that young age, I was a history buff even then and something about the weight of that song struck me. And I remember it was the first time I looked at a record specifically to figure out who wrote the song, and this name came up “Bob Dylan”.
3. When I play the guitar, I tend to think of piano keys, almost like I’m playing piano. When you play guitar, can you describe anything that goes through your head or what your mind frame tends to be? Describe a time in which you stumbled upon or broke through to a deeper level of playing the guitar.
I think the easy answer for me is that if too much is going through my mind, at least too much conscious thought, I mess up. You do have to be hyper aware and at the same time almost totally unconscious to play well. It’s almost a contradiction but we all know it to be true. I spend so much of my time being reflective, self aware, conscious of my environment, my place. Playing music is hopefully an escape from that.