The infamous GG Allin was just recently a stranger to the indie sanctum of Daytrotter, the Illinois recording studio and website that captures and catalogs songs by the hippest bands in the land. But late in December, California garage rock wunderkind Ty Segall got nasty, interrupting Daytrotter's general polity with a sputtering, glorious cover of Allin's "Don't Talk To Me," from the 1980 debut Always Was, Is, And Always Shall Be. Sure, it's one of Allin's tamer songs—there are no overt references to murder, rape or excrement—but for Segall, it's a telling move.
"You're not supposed to play certain rock 'n' roll songs because you're just not supposed to. And I think it's really funny to watch people react to that, whether it's negative or positive," Segall says by phone from a tour stop in Florida. "The point is not to be offensive with what you say. Everybody's done that. But if you bum people out playing a classic rock song and then get a tomato thrown at you, that's pretty rad."
Nobody has thrown produce yet. But it's not all about baiting audiences, anyway: The cover songs Segall has chosen to incorporate into his albums and live shows are at once cheeky contrarianism and sincere tribute. The covers actually weave a complex web of context for Segall's own work. From Pink Floyd's "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" and Captain Beefheart's "Dropout Boogie" to the Ramones' "You Should Never Have Opened That Door" and The Vibrators' "Baby Baby Baby," Segall's selections range from far-out psych to hook-heavy punk and rock 'n' roll.
Segall and his band might rip through a Black Sabbath cover, garage rock expectations be damned. "I wouldn't cover Black Sabbath if they weren't one of my favorite bands," he says.
For Segall, the decision to cover a song isn't usually deliberate. "We're always in the car and we're always like, 'Dude! We should cover this song. That'd be awesome!'" he says. "Most of the time it never happens."
Melted, Segall's third LP, was released last year by garage rock powerhouse Goner Records; it contains no cover songs. "I don't think I want to put cover songs on LPs anymore," Segall reasons. "I want to try to focus on making a whole LP of my stuff and try to make it the best it can be by itself."
Segall's 2007 debut is a punchy affair that gets by mostly on charisma and concision, even as it shows Segall's knack for hooks that cut through the fuzz. Album No. 2, Lemons, is a fuller, more reaching record. There, Segall started shaking loose some of the lo-fi fog and letting the songs start to reveal themselves.
But sound didn't really become song until Melted, which is, by leaps and bounds, Segall's most ambitious and successful collection. Here, he doesn't need Captian Beefheart or GG Allin to elicit a reaction. For an artist whose first two LPs were marked by their captivating fitfulness, Melted is remarkably laid-back. Ranging from the jangly shuffle of "Caesar" to the blown-out boogie of "My Sunshine" (in which Segall demands, "Put a hole in my head/ my sunshine"), Melted finds Segall at his most omnivorous.
"With Melted there was definitely some paranoia stuff going on," Segall says. "A lot of my songs are about problems in my brain trying to get worked out. There's not a lot of love songs, and there's not a lot of teenybopper kind of things. I like being a little vague, but still having a meaning that can be interpreted different ways. Maybe."
Wrapping abstract, evocative lyrics into melodies warped like plastic in the dishwasher, Segall creates an unsettled landscape for his paranoid visions. "Imaginary Person" finds Segall's speaker arguing with the voices in his head; "Finger" is about going totally crazy.
The dizzied, heatstroked sound of the record turns simple song structures into repetitious labyrinths, begging the listener to get lost, too. Segall's honed his skill at crafting impressionistic, ambiguous songs.
"Super literal songs are amazing," Segall says. "I wish I could write better literal songs that have super strong meaning. But I think when I do that it comes off tacky and weird, and maybe preachy."
Given Segall's anxiety-ridden songs and willfully odd sounds, it's little surprise many have looked at him as Jay Reatard's heir in garage rock. "I loved the Reatards for years, and Blood Visions was like a total mindblower when that came out," Segall says. "I just honestly don't see a similarity in how we sound."
And outside of stray moments, like the oh-nos and oh-yeahs on "Imaginary Person," Segall's likeness to Reatard is more in spirit than in letter. His San Francisco psych-garage has much more in common with the cloudy rock of his friends and collaborators in Sic Alps and Thee Oh Sees than with Reatard's Memphis punk 'n' roll.
Like Reatard, though, Segall is prolific. His next batch of songs—which is slated for a summertime release via indie stalwart Drag City Records, also home to Sic Alps—is shaping up to be more straightforward in sound and further out in theme.
"I'm trying to spend more time on each song, instead of rushing through," he says. "It's nice just making yourself sit down and work on something for a long time."