GOING ON A SONIC VACATION
TIM PRESLEY of White Fence with Donald Breckenridge
I first heard White Fence in a record store a few years ago. Family Perfume Vol 2 was playing while I was digging through the stacks, and I thought that I was listening to a Pebbles compilation; maybe these were some forgotten songs between volumes 7 and 9. The record spun on my platter for a few weeks after that and each listen brought me greater pleasure. Tim Presley is a four-track small room wizard crafting lo-fi California sunshine punk for people who loathe leaving their homes. His lyrics are simultaneously throwaway and intensely personal—arid yet uncomfortably precise. His most recent effort, For The Recently Found Innocent, out now on Drag City, is his second collaboration with Ty Segall, and one of the most memorable records that I have heard this year. We exchanged a few emails this spring just after the record was cut.
Donald Breckenridge (Rail): What is a writing session for you, are you simply alone with a note pad, tape recorder, and guitar? How many hours a day do you write? How many songs or sketches of songs a day? A week? What time of day or night is the most productive? And what is a great writing day as opposed to an average one?
Tim Presley: I basically wake up and start writing on acoustic guitar. That’s the beginning of the day. I then apply some lyrics or random scribbled prose from the night before. That’s the cycle. If anything good comes of that, I go in my room and start recording it. Then I construct it as it’s happening. It ends up being an all day, all night dance. There’s time where I don’t eat all day. I’m up until 5 or 6 am. I’ve found that to be the best time to work. No emails, no calls, no texting, nobody around—except for my cat. And when I go out to smoke, I see coyotes walking down my street. A great writing day/night is one where I have written lyrics that are good. An average one is just the chords.
Rail: How old were you when you picked up the guitar? How many bands were you in before White Fence?
Presley: I started learning guitar when I was around 9 or 10. It was when Nirvana blew up. Before and around that, I was really into dancehall/reggae and rap. I wanted to learn Hendrix songs, but those were too hard for me, so I started teaching myself Nirvana songs. I was pretty obsessed with that band. Bootlegs and all that, simultaneously, learning Ramones, Sex Pistols, Black Flag songs too because that’s what I could manage. Plus, I came to the realization that simple was powerful; as long as there was a cool song or riff, that’s all the skill I needed. Power chords. A little while after that, I started fucking around trying to play leads over Stooges songs. They were long songs so I had a good amount of time to mess around and jam. I would apply what I stole from Magic Sam, Howling Wolf, or Rolling Stones leads and then add some Sonic Youth or Nirvana discord when I ran out of my limited ability to play a blues lick—like a hybrid of root note blues scale and “fuck it noise scale.” I was in a few punk and hardcore bands at that time so I figured I had a good understanding of or confidence in what I was playing. Once you learn the basics you can let emotion creep in, and then that becomes your style. I feel like I got my sense of rhythm and timing from listening to rap and reggae at a young age—mixed with the discipline of strumming along to Johnny Ramone. Before White Fence I was in the Nerve Agents, Darker My Love, the Fall, the Strange Boys.
Rail: Tell me about your time in the Fall: How did it come about, what was it like touring with the band and recording Reformation Post TLC with Mark E. Smith, and were you ever living in Manchester?
Presley: Basically, I got the call from my bandmate at the time, Rob Barbato, who got the call from our friend Emmet Kelly. Emmet was label-mates with the Fall. So, when Mark’s band members left him in Phoenix, his wife and him called up the label looking for a group to carry on the tour. Emmet knew we were around and up for it. So we learned the songs in two days and played the first gig in San Diego. Right away Elena was very sweet and welcoming. I remember walking into Mark’s dressing room to shake his hand, thank him for the opportunity, and how much of a fan I was. He told me, “Enough with the ass-kissing, go sound-check!” We played the best we could, given the circumstances. By mid-tour I think we got the hang of it.
I’m a little blurry on the timeline, but I remember having only a few days to come up with material for the Reformation Post TLC album. I thought it was really good considering how quick that was sprung on us. We pulled those songs out of the sky. Some people thought it sucked, but fuck them—it’s the FALL. Let’s see you write a record in two days. I think “Reformation” and “Fall Sound” are good songs. Through that year of touring we became good friends. Rob and I would be messing around backstage singing Beefheart and Zappa songs, and Mark would sing along. The next thing we knew Mark would be like, “Ok, good, we’ll play that tonight.” Then we had to learn “Hungry Freaks” in an hour before the show. It was good. Mark drinking in the van, us getting speeding tickets, we must’ve looked like freaks. We got pulled over and the highway patrol officer says to Mark: “Are you drinking beer in the van?” and Mark is like, “No… it’s whiskey.” Also I remember getting pulled out of the van and searched for needles because the cop thought I was a junkie. Mark thought that was funny. The thing I like about being in that band is that it really truly is “us against everybody”—that’s the Fall. It is and always will be a good band because of that. It’s a bubble with thorns on it. Everyone else can fuck off. It’s a gang.
Two years ago they asked me back in to play guitar for a string of shows. I basically lived in Manchester for a month. They put me up in a nice hotel. I wrote a few songs while I was there for the Re-Mitt album. I feel alright in Manchester. I like all the people I met there. It’s not as trendy and ass-kissy as London. I actually love Mark and Elena. They feel like family to me at this point. They always call me on Christmas, and send me birthday cards every year. When I was asked to be interviewed for that ex-member of the Fall book, The Fallen, Mark told me, “Tell them to fuck off, you’re not an ex-member,” and the last time we spoke we talked about doing more recording together.
Rail: What is your favorite White Fence album, your least favorite, and the one that taught you the most?
Presley: If I had to pick a favorite, it’d probably be the first one, the self-titled. Only because those songs were not meant to be an album, or even released. So, for random recordings to end up as an album it’s special. It has zero pretense. I don’t have a least favorite; I take pride in what I do. The one that taught me the most was Cyclops Reap, because I think I got a little better at recording. Which then made me re-think a few things. Like, how do I get back to sounds from the first LP or Is Growing Faith, but then update it with what I’ve learned. I also learned that the vocals were clearer. I don’t know if that was a mistake or accidental confidence. I suppose it taught me to be at peace with my shitty shrill voice. The best part about “making” a White Fence record is that it never feels like I’m “making” a record. I just record, write, record until the well is dry. Then, when the timing feels right I pick out the best ones and that becomes an LP. This new LP I did with Ty came out of a more traditional record making process: pick songs, record them, mix it, done. That was good to do because it shook up the monotony of the bedroom recording. It was like going on a sonic vacation.
Rail: When playing out (outside of L.A. and San Francisco) have you been surprised by the energy people bring to your shows? Do you prefer playing in Europe or on the East Coast when you aren’t playing in California? Can you describe the scene in L.A. that has nurtured White Fence?
Presley: As far as crowd, the U.S., even California can be drastically different. I never know if ten people will be there or if it’ll sell out. We are not really a party band, unfortunately. I have too many fucking songs, with too many fucking time changes and feels. The crowd doesn’t know if they should slam dance or vibe out. I’m just as confused as they probably are.
I was very surprised with the reaction in Europe. Especially Paris. Two times in particular we played there were the best shows I’ve ever played. It was the best feeling, and it felt like real energy. It was a perfect crowd.
I have a hard time with describing the scene in Los Angeles. I love the town and am proud to live there, but I think San Francisco was the city that nurtured White Fence. I think L.A. tries, but it is too vast. Sometimes I don’t feel like White Fence is an L.A. band or a San Francisco band. We are not local heroes. We don’t even play L.A. that much. I mean, half the world thinks I still live in San Francisco. I’m a man without a country. I’ve had plenty of years swimming in “scenes.” They can be counterproductive. No one grows because they are too afraid to leave the bubble. Or they are afraid of what the king and queen would think, so these scene-bands make music that resembles the bosses. But really the music the scene boss likes is 180 degrees different from what they sound like. The only scene I want to be a part of is someone’s mix tape or playlist. Like, amongst a “good song” scene.
The only scenes worth anything are the punk/hardcore/metal scenes, because of the ethos and codes that go beyond music that involve politics, aesthetics, and even diet. The rest are just people who play and make music.
DONALD BRECKENRIDGE is the Rail's fiction editor and co-editor of InTranslation.