Onstage at the Teragram Ballroom for the first of two sold-out shows, Ty Segall's new band The Muggers builds up to a furious crescendo for the instrumental bridge to "Feel" from his 2014 album, Manipulator. As they play, Segall bolts off the stage.
He rushes into a side stairwell, where a handful of friends have been dancing for the last hour of his set. Cannonballing past them in his studded Canadian tuxedo, he pauses halfway down the stairs, next to the one person not rocking out. He abruptly sits, leans back against the handrail and rests his hands in his lap in front of him, mimicking the guy's relaxed pose, save for a mischievous grin.
Even in the midst of one of the most intense moments of an important gig — the official L.A. debut of the backing band made up of his closest friends and collaborators, playing his latest album, the just-released Emotional Mugger (Drag City), in its entirety — Segall is still screwing around. For a brief moment, the rock-star persona switches off and out comes the playful character we've come to admire — and remain curious about — for the better part of the last decade.
Moments later, he springs back onstage, accosts his mic stand and delivers a psych-rock sermon to a packed crowd.
A garage-rock prodigy from Laguna Beach, Segall released his self-titled debut album on lo-fi mastermind John Dwyer's Castle Face Records when he was a 20-year-old college kid. Now 28, he manages to walk the line between approachable local hero, known for popping up to play $5 shows at the Smell, and one of the L.A. music scene's few bona fide rock stars, though he would be the last to admit it.
"I don't know about that, man, that's crazy," he says with a laugh in response to the rock-star tag. There's a note of humility in his voice, but his tone leans more toward genuine disbelief. He stutters slightly through attempts to talk about Ty Segall the Artist, a persona he downplays with comments such as "My head is always fuzzy" and "I don't always have an answer for these questions" in response to queries about the messages behind his music. His magnetism is a mystery, even to himself.
Segall churns out tracks like a factory, through an ever-expanding list of touring bands, one-off projects and unexpected collaborations — such as Broken Bat, a punk trio formed with Redd Kross' Steven McDonald and The Melvins' Dale Crover, and the Stooges-esque GØGGS, featuring Ex-Cult's Chris Shaw. He also adds constantly to his already impressive résumé as a producer, working with everyone from White Fence's Tim Presley to his own hard-rock trio Fuzz, usually in his famously cramped home studio, which currently occupies a tiny, converted laundry room.
But for someone who's constantly releasing new music, Segall remains an enigma. Which is exactly what he's going for.
"I just think that, especially in the modern world, when you can look up all the personal details of your rock idols, it's nice to try to hold your cards a little closer to your chest," he says, noting that his own favorite artists — David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop — "have always been the ones to almost try to pull a fast one on everybody."
In fact, Segall rarely gives interviews, and originally declined L.A. Weekly's request for one. He prefers not to delve into the meaning of his music; he doesn't want the stories of what went into writing it to overshadow any possible interpretations of his lyrics or his intent.
"I've never been a direct person. I appreciate more obtuse and loosely defined things," he says. "I think it's more fun, it's more rewarding — at least for me — [and] I hope it's more rewarding for people that buy my record, or listen to my music."
Segall likes to have fun with listeners; on every release there's an Easter egg — a surprise hidden in the song titles, album packaging or the music itself — which he leaves for fans to discover. There are a couple on Emotional Mugger, and he notes that nobody has found the secret hidden on Fuzz's II since it was released in October. "I wonder if they ever will," he says, admitting the trio did make it nearly impossible to find.
Most of the time, though, Segall's art is less premeditated. Even he doesn't know the meaning of a song until after it's finished. "All of these songs for Emotional Mugger were not intentional," he says. "There wasn't a moment like, 'I'm gonna write this song called 'Breakfast Eggs' that's about a guy who works for the mayor's office, but the mayor just wants to have sex with him.' ... To me, I'm just writing this weird song, and afterwards it's like, 'Oh, I guess that's what this is about.'"
Though its lyrics lack conscious intent, Emotional Mugger does serve a larger purpose. "It was pretty much a full-on reaction to Manipulator," he says. That album, a career highlight, required months of grueling, 15-hour days to complete. "I wanted to make a very clean and shiny-sounding record. I'm very proud of that record, and I love that record, but there was a very intense, perfectionist kind of process ... I just wanted [Emotional Mugger] to be super nasty. I needed to make something really nasty after I made something that clean."
To help create that raw, nastier sound, Segall enlisted a sort of L.A. indie-rock supergroup: King Tuff's Kyle Thomas, Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang, Wand's Cory Hanson and Evan Burrows and longtime collaborator Mikal Cronin. The new band, called The Muggers, joins Segall both in the studio and onstage, where he introduces them by pseudonyms like Harrison Ford, Tang and the Whole Enchilada. They take on the shredding while Segall, as a baby-mask–wearing character called Sloppo, plays the frontman, sans the electric guitar or drum kit he's been known to murder onstage in the past.
"I just wanted a really intense band to be able to play super dynamically, whether it's very pretty shit or the nastiest, grossest stuff," he says of The Muggers, whose other projects he cites as among his few sources of contemporary inspiration. "I'm not the biggest fan of modern music, to be honest," he admits, though he notes Kendrick Lamar and Madlib as shining exceptions. "A lot of modern rap is really interesting, but it's hard to be interested in modern rock music. ... I'm really lucky, I admire mostly just my friends."
Segall's lack of interest in modern rock doesn't come as a shock; he's known for music that is obviously informed by the 1960s and '70s. But he doesn't want to endlessly mine the past, either. "I feel like nostalgia is great, but I think it's pretty cool to have a nostalgic thing with a heavy dose of modernism thrown in," he says.
To that end, he constantly seeks new ways to shake up his process. "At this point, I'm way too aware of what I've already done. There needs to be a different way in to that creative process now, whether that's a keyboard, getting stoned, laying down drums first or trying to write a song at 6 in the morning."
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But while he's always chasing ways to evolve, Segall remains at heart a lover of solid, simple, unironic rock & roll.
"It's very crucial to not hyper-intellectualize music so much," he says. "You can intellectualize all day long, but if the song sucks, the song sucks. All this stuff doesn't really matter if the music is bad. That's always been the focus."