Ira Kaplan is the guitarist and co-founder of Yo La Tengo; Marisa Anderson is a guitarist and composer who plays solo, and previously with artists like Sharon Van Etten, Matmos, and many more; William Tyler is also a guitarist and composer who plays solo, and has played in bands like Lambchop and Silver Jews. Marisa and William recently released a collaborative instrumental album, Lost Futures, on Thrill Jockey, and to celebrate, they discussed its creation in depth with Ira for this year’s virtual Supersonic Festival back in October. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Ira Kaplan: Where are you two right now?
Marisa Anderson: I’m in Portland, Oregon. The West Coast one.
William Tyler: And I’m in Los Angeles, so same coast.
Ira: When we were talking before this started, you indicated that you’ve already played live, though, in San Francisco?
Marisa: Mm hmm.
Ira: Have you done a lot of dates?
Marisa: We’ve done six, I think.
Ira: A lot of the songs on Lost Futures have a number of overdubs on them. What’s the process of adapting that material to play it live?
Marisa: The core of all of the songs is two guitar voices, and everything else is additive to a certain degree. Although when we played in Portland, we got to have the violin and viola with us, which was really special, and I hope we get to do that again. I don’t want to speak for William, but for myself, that’s always the process. What I want from each experience [of listening to a record and going to a show] is really different, so I sort of feel like part of that translation process is really natural, to be like, “Well, this is the record and this is the show, and they’re not going to be the same.”
Ira: I couldn’t agree more with that. But so much of the way the live show evolves out of the record happens through lots and lots of practice and just getting together and allowing it to change, and that’s what I was wondering about, with you two in different cities. With that usually organic process, it seems like that’s a real hiccup.
William: Well, it’s interesting, because I played in Lambchop for so long, and making the records and then having the songs evolve live was so different — especially with how difficult having few or lots of people in that particular band was. I’ve tried to never think about, how is this going to be replicated live?, especially with the solo guitar stuff, because all my solo guitar records have other things on them. I do think the expectation can be somewhat different when people come to see you, and like, “Oh, there’s no drums and keyboards.”
But we had a pretty finite amount of time last year when we made this record. We didn’t really know each other that well, and I flew to Portland for a week to practice and write with Marisa, and then we had four or five days with [producer] Tucker Martine. And that was in the middle of semi-lockdown, of course, so we had a dictation of time actually kind of working in our favor on the front end of it.
I think the way we play together, and our friendship and everything that kind of is parallel with that, has grown in a completely different organic way since then. Getting together to make the record — it wasn’t improvisational, but there was an amount of finite decision making time.
Marisa: And that made it a springboard rather than a resting place. It wasn’t like we had all this stuff and we came together and expressed it. It was more like, “Oh, we’re here, let what can we make.” And I feel like the live shows are a continuation of that dynamic.
Ira: William said it wasn’t improvisational, which actually leads in perfectly — well, hopefully — to something I was thinking about: Was all written in the studio, or did you bring in ideas that you already had, both of you?
William: A little of both. We did surprisingly very little exchanging of actual musical ideas before the session, considering that this was a fairly ambitious project for us to take on, especially last year. There were a few sketches that I had, Marisa had some. There was one song that was basically a finished song that I brought. There was a couple of songs that were essentially finished, songs she brought. But I don’t think either one of us really knew going into the process what it was going to sound like. I was totally prepared, like, a year and a half ago to make a record with Marissa that was improvised, I just didn’t know what that would sound like.
Marisa: Having not played with William before writing and recording the record, I wanted to have one of every kind of process available. So I had a couple of songs that were basically written and needed just another guitar, and I had a couple of things that were ideas that were wide open, and then a couple of other things that were sketches and just wanted to be ready for whatever process seemed to be the most generative. And it kind of turned out that all of them were fairly equally generative.
The only thing that really surprised me — and I think this is just because we didn’t have enough time in the studio — was that we didn’t get to do a more extended improvisational piece. We basically met for four or five days, kind of demoed up a bunch of ideas, went into the studio and turned them into recordings. It sort of surprised me how quickly it went.
Ira: Is there more of an improvisatory approach to the live shows, or are you sticking to the record?
Marisa: I think probably it’s about half and half. There’s nine songs on the record, but there’s at least three or four songs that have the possibility for improvisation built into them.
William: Part of it also is that, because we haven’t had a prolonged period of being together — in either doing shows back-to-back, or having casual time to play together — I think that’s just going to be something that will be interesting to see, how the project evolves. Because I think both of us want this to be an ongoing thing. When we did the shows opening for Emmylou Harris, I mean, that was a fun challenge in that it was not a crowd that was probably familiar with our music. We essentially could play 25 minutes, with five minutes of tuning and talking, so that’s, like, half the songs gone. [Laughs.] There’s a lot of editing on the fly, I think, that both of us are trying to do with with all these things.
Ira: When you said that you’re traveling with two guitars [each], is that an electric and acoustic?
Ira: When I was listening to the record and wondering who else might be playing on it, I got the information, and it’s very specific about not only whether it’s an electric guitar, but what model, what brand name. Do you try [the songs] on different guitars and then think, OK, this is the one it works on? How do you arrive at that decision?
Marisa: I think it is a sonic decision as well as a comfort decision for the record. But then live, the limitations of travel, as well as wanting to make a varied set, we kind of don’t have any songs — and don’t want any songs — where it’s just two solid body electric guitars plugged in, playing at the same time in the same register. So there’s an idea of texture and a balance of voices and dynamics.
William: I think there’s an amount of ear fatigue that might come in too. Which is something I have not been as cognizant of throughout my career as I probably should have, with structuring my own sets. When I’m playing solo, I structure my sets around tuning. [Laughs.] Because I have two or three guitars and I have way too many tunings, but that’s a separate conversation.
But this, I think, is like a palate thing. I’ve been pretty stoked on what we’ve been able to pull off even in very short sets — “Marissa will play nylon, I’ll play acoustic on a steel string on this; Marisa will play nylon and I’ll play tele, or I’ll play acoustic and she’ll play electric.” We almost have a set now where there’s no configuration where back-to-back we’re playing the same guitars, which is cool.
Ira: I know that in our band, depending on where certain songs are landing in a set on a given night, I’ll play an acoustic guitar one night and I might play an electric guitar the next. And depending on the tunings and things like that, which electric guitar may change. I like not being a slave to, “Oh, it has to be this guitar and it has to be this way.”
Marisa: We definitely want to do some things that are all acoustic — we did one radio performance that we just brought acoustics, and I think that I would like for most of the songs to have an adaptation like what you’re talking about, so that they’re not dependent on a particular piece of equipment.
William: We definitely want to work up to where we have the ‘70, ‘71 thing, where we can do like a Dead acoustic and electric set. [Laughs.]
Ira: Also think about those Neil Young shows, where he’s got all the guitars behind him in a horseshoe and he just seems to pick one almost at random.
Willam: That would be fun! [Laughs.] I wish we could travel like that.
Ira: [Laughs.] The crew, I think, helps.
William: But I mean, this is a very logistical-versus-aesthetic thing that I think all bands have to think about. I do have an emotional attachment to certain guitars. My Martin is a family guitar — my uncle gave it to me, and he’s dead. And it’s definitely a really nice Martin, but at the same time, it’s a tool. It’s a guitar.
I’m always amazed at drummers and piano players who are playing a different rig — Lambchop used to have a backline acoustic piano, and Tony, the piano player, literally that would be the first time he’d ever played that piano, that night. That’s intense, personally. If I’ve never touched a guitar before and I’m supposed to play some piece of music that’s probably challenging to me on it, and I’m not totally comfortable and familiar with the contours and all the weird little blemishes on it even… I don’t really know what the point of that is, just to say that there should be some variability in it.
Marisa: Well, we have it because of backline amps.
William: Oh, that’s true. Good point.
Marisa: Using a different amp every night, sometimes, I think brings in that element that can either be exciting or terrifying, depending on how the night’s going.
William: Often both in the same night.
Ira: Is this is your duo a band? Or is it something different? How [do] you think your guitar playing changes with the presence of somebody?
Marisa: That’s a good question. Is it a band? I don’t have an answer for that, yes and no. The guitar playing changing is something I’ve given a lot of thought to, in terms of how to approach playing with William. You know, you want to leave enough space in what you’re doing for other voices. I feel like there’s also what William was talking about, sort of the variability — there’s things that are natural moves for him that I’m like, “Whoa, that’s weird for me,” and things that are natural moves for me that are weird for him.
Ira: Is it possible to give an example? I’d be really curious about how that manifests itself.
Marisa: Sure. I think that in sort of broad strokes, William brings more of classical and indie rock in. I am not a rock guitar player — I think I bring more traditional and maybe, for lack of a better word, folk music. But country music and classical music are the places that we deeply and intuitively meet. Which, country and classical aren’t really places that meet.
William: I could definitely say there’s a headspace that I’ve been rediscovering through this project, and other collaborative projects in the last few years, where it’s like, Oh, right, I spent the better part of 10 years playing guitar with other people and not really having much of a creative input on a lot of final decisions. And then I spent the next 10 years playing guitar essentially by myself.
Marisa: You’re much more educated in a certain way of hearing.
William: But you’re classically trained!
Marisa: I know, it’s interesting — I am on my hands, and yours is more in your head.
William: We actually oddly create a kind of incredible one human being.
Marisa: We’re like one guitar player. [Laughs.]
William: [Laughs.] Yeah, we just haven’t merged completely yet. I know this about myself through this project, as well as just being more self-aware now when I’m playing solo — I’m definitely playing ahead of the beat. I play very fast. It’s like the same way I have problems with anxiety, I’m thinking ahead too much.
Marisa: I play behind the beat.
William: Yeah. And I just think almost in a spiritual way, that is a cool balance. Because I definitely, since I’ve become friends with Marisa and collaborated with her, have just slowed down. She helps me slow down, actually in a pacing way. Like, Oh, maybe actually don’t try to do 10 things this morning, try to do this thing this way and be deliberate about it. And that comes out in the way we play together, frankly.
Ira: Are you still using loops when you’re playing or does the other person obviate the need for that?
Marisa: I never have.
Ira: You’ve never used them at all?
Marisa: I’ve tried. It’s not my thing. In fact, I will listen to music that’s like loop-based music, and listen to what is happening and then try to just create that. It’s the way I feel about a lot of processed sounds, where I feel like I can distill that rather than…
William: Replicate it.
Marisa: Yeah, something like that.
William: I mean, I’m using loops in the show, kind of as more of accentuation rather than a foundation, maybe. Because the Line 6 — it’s pretty hard to play to in time. We all know this. But it’s cool for certain textural things like beds. And also that song “Pray for Rain” — we have a kind of a cool version of that that we play, where there’s a lot of stacked stuff that doesn’t have to really be in time. I think there’s a good balance.
Ira: The record sounds so composed — what is the process of jamming on this material? It doesn’t sound very jammy to me.
Marisa: It’s the kind of improv where you just say yes. And there’s trust. That was something I really enjoyed about playing with William, he was up for everything. I was like, “There’s the diving board,” and he’s like, “Let’s go.” We all struggle with the internal censors, but I did not feel that in our creative process. There were some things where it was like, “God, that works,” or “that doesn’t work,” but there was never cutting off an idea before it had reached some place where it was clear what the idea was.
William: I guess for me, it’s just also the emotional landscape that I was personally in last September, because it was COVID and the wildfires going on in the West Coast, and I’m in Portland. It was the first time I’d gone out of town anywhere since the lockdown. There was just a certain kind of fragility, and probably openness, I would say. I was in a headspace where I was very cracked open, in good and hard ways.
It’s not really like jamming. It’s more like arranging and saying yes to a lot of ideas. And then also with editing, paring them back down, perhaps, or building some things up that were kind of what you alluded to with that last piece. Like, “We’ll layer this, maybe this will come back.” There was some of that.
Ira: Were the rehearsals recorded? Like, could you go back and like, “Oh, in minute 12 I did something, I wish I could remember what it was”?
William: You recorded everything right, Marisa?
Marisa: I don’t remember. Probably.
William: The thing I really wish I had — because I was going back through my voice memos on my phone and was sure that I had — from January 2020, the first time Marisa and I actually did jam together. And that was more jamming, so to speak. That would be so cool to hear, kind of like people meeting for the first time.
Ira: I was reading about the meaning that the album title had for you guys, and I was wondering where in the process that title came — if you knew early on that’s what you were working on, or if it sort of ended up speaking to the material you created.
Marisa: More the latter, I think. William, you had the book with you that has that essay in it, right? [Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life.]
Marisa: And he mentioned that phrase, “lost futures,” for one of the songs. I was like, “Oh, that’s a nice phrase.” And to me, everything is just a title in progress until you have to, like, turn in the artwork, you know? I kind of hate that part so much. But I do like it when titles create an arc in the same way that the music does. I don’t like them to be random.
William: There’s definitely, like — “Hurricane Light,” Pray For Rain.”
Marisa: “Haunted By Water”
William: There was this dichotomy, which I don’t believe in many of, but when we made the record Portland and the West Coast was experiencing this wave of wildfires. And the night that I landed back in Nashville, from Portland having been with Marissa for two weeks, it was torrential rain for, like, days, flooding. For me personally, the environmental aspect of water and drought and fire — those kind of earth element things going on in accelerated real time — is definitely something that I felt informed the record as well as the titles.
Marisa: Yeah, the songs were pretty referential to Portland last summer, which was while we were recording. We couldn’t go outside because the smoke was so bad, and there was the George Floyd protests and the marches for equity, and the pandemic. It wasn’t going to be a light by any means. [Laughs.]
William: I’m glad you brought up the point of the “lost futures” as the reference point. Mark Fisher was someone who was introduced to me because I was interested in the concept of hauntology in electronic music and stuff, and it’s a kind of culturally British thing the way he frames it. Also, he had a pretty tragic passing — I think for him, “lost features” implied a finality. I’s like like that phrase, “the end of history.” I think both of us were kind of like, “Well, ‘lost futures’ — sure, there’s a lot of loss here.” But also implied in that is new futures, new paths.
Marisa: And sometimes paths that should be lost, you know? Driving off a climate cliff — I’d rather lose that future and find a different one.
(Photo Credit: right, Eli Johnson)