Picket Line vs Picket Fence: an interview with Tim Presley

Chris Robbins

Photos by Ruth Swanson

What makes White Fence so special? Owl pellets of fleeting wisdom, calculated personality, and blurry photos of the sky tapped on tiny screens are what pass for personal expression these days. Meanwhile, Tim Presley is fervently committing his messiest doubts to vinyl: seven albums in four years delivered with the urgency of necessity.

Presley is our sunken-eyed John Henry, scribbling honest verse in a race against a world that wants to paint it all one color.

His giant cache of songs act like horoscopescryptic, cosmic, ephemeral snapshots of life that are somehow enriching and edifying without taking themselves too seriously. After all, the planets will keep shifting, earth will keep spinning, and there will always be another White Fence album next year.

For The Recently Found Innocent is White Fence’s most direct effort yet. We called Tim on his landline in Echo Park to talk about things big and small.

When I first listened to this album I was surprised by how clean it sounded. Each record since your self-titled has gotten a little cleaner than the one before it.

That’s just kinda how it happened. It was eight tracks, and I think it was more about servicing the song and not about the sonics of it. Whereas at home, I tend to nerd out and get weird on tracks and fill it up with a bunch of sounds. This was just a more straightforward focus on the bare essentials of a song. It was just guitar, bass, drums and vocals, that kind of thing.

There weren’t songs you heard and thought, this part would sound so much better if there was a weird xylophone right there?

[Laughs] Yeah but if I was gonna do it outside the box, as far as my bedroom goes, I wanted it to be different. If I was gonna go elsewhere I was gonna make it sound different.

Can you describe Ty Segall’s role in interpreting your material? Did he help you choose which songs you’d record?

I had to do my own work at home to kind of go through all the songs, and there were a lot to choose from. I was having a hard time doing that after the first cluster of them, and I was talking to my friend Jack [Name], and he said, “Well, you have Ty and Nick [Murray] on drums, so why don’t you pick the songs that you feel cater best to that scenario?” And that’s what I did. Ty’s really good with basic rock and roll style instrumentation and recording: bass, drums, guitars, vocals, and yeah, I dunno. It was tricky, but I think he has a good handle on that type of setup.

You have a split coming out with Jack Name on Famous Class. Where did that song come from?

There’s so many songs that haven’t been released and that was one of them, kind of around the Cyclops Reap time. I was stoked on the recording of it, and I had nowhere to put it, because this Drag City record was going to be me re-recording everything. It didn’t make sense to have 13 songs with Ty and then one at home.

The lyrics on this record aren’t less personal, but they definitely seem more concerned with what’s going on in the world.

Every song is interpersonal but I think this time there’s more, “and by the way, holy shit people are freaking out about a gay football player.” You know, stuff like that. You’re right, there’s more topical things in there.

You recently described “Like That” as being tongue-in-cheek, but I think it speaks to this overwhelming anxiety that our generation has about money; we’re all in debt and we’ll never have any capital of our own and it’s just frustrating to survive.

There’s no middle class like our parents had, you know? And it’s fucked up because we go to school and we do all these things that our parents told us to do, because if we do it, we could end up like them financially speaking, and own a car, afford a child, have a house, whatever. But it’s like, dude, I don’t even know how to do that. [Laughs] Even if I didn’t try to play music and I tried to make it on my BFA, I don’t know how I’d make money in this world, you know? Or make a career in art.

There’s this idea that because we’re young and our parents made these sacrifices for us so we can make art, or create things, or have a less traditional career, we’re supposed to be grateful for unpaid internships and 30-year student loans.

Yeah I think a lot of us were straightforward and working so hard that, you don’t think about it. But when you stop and think about it, it’s scary and weird. Maybe that’s just my generation, because that’s really all I know. But that song is a simple way of saying that without sounding too political or crass.

It’s tough to make a statement about class or the economy and not sound cheesy or strident.

I also kind of have this “fuck it” mentality too. There’s this horrible Irish poem that I always think about that essentially says, Hell is going to be fine because all your friends are going to be there. You know? It’s just: Well, fuck it. It’s gallows humor.

And right after “Like That” we get “Sandra (When The Earth Dies)”.

Yeah that’s basically like: well fuck, if I knew the world was gonna end I should have been slamming dope into my fuckin’ eyeballs this whole time. [Laughs]

You’ve been married a couple of years. Has being married changed the way you write songs?

Not at all. As far as talking about relationship stuff, which I think is one of my bigger muses, I’ve been burned so hard with that kind of shit I have enough material to write forever. Being married doesn’t take that whole relationship pain thing away. I still got plenty of that. Do you mean like, am I more comfortable writing?

“Being married hasn’t done anything to my hatred. And envy and jealousy and all that.”

I guess I just thought that marriage changes your perception of love, so does that in turn change how you write love songs? I have this ideal of marriage as being an Us vs. Them type of situation, but I’m probably being naive.

Oh, well, no, that hasn’t changed anything. I have a couple tunes, some of ‘em haven’t been released, but they arewell now I have someone to tell this to. Something fucked up happens, now I have someone I can actually tell this to, someone I love, which is important. Someone who actually will care, you know? So that’s cool. But being married hasn’t done anything to my hatred. [Laughs] And envy and jealousy and all that.

The album art, that’s a self-portrait.

Yes.

So has marriage made you less narcissistic or more narcissistic?

Ha! Less, definitely. She calls me out on my shit all the time. I actually have never beenand that might be a narcissistic thing to say, butI don’t think I’ve ever been like that, ever. I’m pretty self-hating, actually.

Is “Hard Water” your “Rich Girl”?

[Laughs] Yeah pretty much, holy shit. I didn’t even think about that. Totally. You fucking nailed it, man. It’s so weird.

I’m just picturing this girl who insists on only drinking Fiji water and it’s a silly image but an effective one.

It’s basically about this girl that I know, I can’t really say much more than that, but, it’s kind of this weirdI’m sure this happens in New York too, but everyone is Los Angeles is searching for something, and a lot of people are in the arts, whether it’s music, acting, or whatever, and they are so opportunistic that it’s disgusting. It’s so strange because a lot of them are being funded by their parents, and their parents are into it. These people don’t have real jobs, and the parents are just their bank. They are their champions, and it’s really weird, and I feel likeI’m not dissing the trust fund crew, I don’t really care about that at all. Some people don’t rock it well, you know? [Laughs] And it’s disgusting to me.

Can you be rich and make good art? Or, do you have to be poor to make good art?

Maybe not poor, but you definitely have to strike out on your own a couple times. If I lived under my parents’ umbrella, like who we were just talking about, I never would have moved into San Francisco, had to work at Starbucks to pay my rent, I never would have found my roommate dead of a heroin overdose, you know what I’m saying? All these weird life experiences that were all mine. I’ve been through a lot, and it’s all because of weird little doors I opened for myself. Like being shit poor, and doing the weirdest things, odd jobs just to pay rent or buy food.

For example, “Arrow Man” is about that. I had to take the bus to Santa Monica to work and that’s where I got the idea for that tune because there was a homeless vet on the bus, and he was just crazy, and if my parents were paying for my car and all that I wouldn’t have been taking the bus.

I don’t want to sound like the guy who’s just bitter about the trust fund kids or whatever, because I really don’t care. And I know a lot and a lot of them are doing cool things. But there’s just a certain faction that just take advantage of it. Spoiled people in general, is what it is.

How long does a germ for a song survive before it dies?

That’s kind of interesting because, all the other records, they die once they’re recorded, you know what I’m saying? The idea has been set in stone, bounced on to tape, it’s done. And these were kind of swimming for a year, a lot of them. “Wolf Gets Red Faced,” for example, that song was around the same time as Cyclops Reap, but I tried to record it at home and messed with it, but some things weren’t right. That took a long time to become a tune. A lot of these songs were just in the air.

Is there a particular reason for that?

I don’t know. I didn’t have writer’s block, but I had this weird recording block, or something. Some of these tunes just didn’t sound cool at home, and I don’t know why that is. It’s actually kind of serendipitous that Ty said let’s do this now, because it took me out of the clouds, and I was like, shit, OK, I have to focus and make these as cool as possible.

If there’s an “epic” song on the album, that’s the one. I can see “Sandra” sounding similar if you recorded it at home, but not “Wolf Gets Red Faced”.

I think the demo is boring! It needed the dynamic drumming that Nick did.

How are your two cats [Gray Charles and Clifford]?

I only have one cat now. His name is Clifford.

What happened to Gray Charles?

I don’t live with him anymore. He was a split child. My old roommate Tony, he took Gray Charles. I have visitation rights, but I don’t live with him anymore.

You don’t seem too bummed about that.

[Laughs] No it’s cool, I’ve just been focusing all my love to Clifford. He’s a handful. We had to have his teeth removed. Those cats are expensive, man.

White Fence’s To The Recently Found Innocent is out now on Drag City.

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