Q&A: Guitarist/Singer TK Webb on Life After New York
"I wish I could write lyrics like, 'Hey baby, wanna fuck?' But I can't."
Since Social Registry released Thomas Kelly Webb's 1996 album Phantom Parade, you might expect his music to be avant-Williamsburg weirdness, just like the label's artists: Gang Gang Dance, Psychic Ills, Telepathe and so on. But Webb's creaky horse-slang has nothing at all to do with that stuff. The illegitimate offspring of Royal Trux's Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, it's as if the dude crawled right out of grooves of the band's 1996 boogie masterpiece Thank You. Like the Trux, Webb's understanding of American-bred classic rock is wholly intuitive. He isn't some reformed emo-nerd who heard his first Crazy Horse jam at age 29 and is now running around the country in vintage buckskin fringe acting like a clown. Possessing a heightened sense of artistry for sure, the dude obviously grew up with the shit, soaking it up on a pretty profound level.
Webb also possesses Herrema and Hagerty's knack for the old switcheroo. Just when you think you've got the guy's m/o pinned he releases an album that screams, "Not so fast, you punk-ass." Over the course of four full-lengths, with each successive album contradicting its predecessor, the restless Webb has explored -- in addition to authentic classic rock -- shambolic country-blues, gnarly stoner-jams and rootsy folk-music. His latest, simply titled TK Webb, finds him returning to the acoustic flavors marking his first couple albums. It's kind of a mindfuck, considering the guy's previous joint, 2008's Ancestor, which featured the now-defunct Visions, was all about megaton riffage and proggy epics. He also has a new label, Mexican Summer, which is now Webb's third, actually.
Most important, he's no longer a grizzled New Yorker. He and his new family -- looking for a little peace and quiet and space -- moved to the Midwest. Columbus, Ohio, to be specific. There, he splits his time between raising his baby, building a home studio, recording even more music and operating heavy machinery. As he told us, the musician life beyond New York can, indeed, be productive and meaningful. And way cheaper, too.
You're living in Columbus?
I am. I met my wife in New York. When we decided we wanted a baby and it made much more sense financially to come here.
Boy or girl?
A little girl.
What's her name?
Yowsa. That's a gorgeous name.
Her great-grandmother is Japanese. She's named after her.
So Columbus, that's got to be one of the best cities in the Midwest, one of my all-time favorite music scenes: Moviola, Scrawl, Jim Shepard, Mike Rep, Times New Viking, Don Howland...
I think so. I'm from Kansas City originally, so it wasn't that much of a culture shock to be back in the Midwest. When I was in New York I always kind of missed things about it. Gear is a lot cheaper. I almost feel bad for the stuff I buy, but it's because I'm used to paying New York prices. I'm building a home studio. It keeps me real busy.
Beyond the demands of raising a family, had you grown tired of the "New York thing"?
During the last year of living in New York I grew tired of the place. But it's weird. Being here, I realize how many really great friends I had there, really stand-up people that were so supportive. Now, when I go back I can appreciate things that I couldn't when I was living there, dealing with the day-to-day hassles. But really, the financial thing is huge. I make way less here, but it goes much further. I wouldn't have been able to set up a home studio in New York.
Musically, I feel young. The music I'm making nowadays is more youthful than what I was making when I was 25. My baby has given me optimism. I mean, I had optimism before, I just didn't touch on it, musically.
Your recent album definitely feels youthful. Both your vocals and lyrics possess a clarity that I've never heard before. For previous records, I had this ritual: I'd spend weeks trying to decipher what you were saying. Then, once I figured that out, I spent more weeks attempting to figure out what you were telling me.
Part of that has to do with going for the abstract, and part of that was, like, speaking from the point of view of "the guy in the corner." Like, not wanting to really say what was really going on. With the Visions, it would've been weird to sing heartfelt things over heavy music. I'm making another record, and it's even more about things that are "really happening."
Not to dredge up ancient history, but what happened to the Visions? Last time we talked -- back in 2008 -- you sounded as if you were ready for a career in stoner rock.
That was a weird time. I went through this break-up with, like, 30 friends all at the same time. Basically, everyone I had been close with in my 20s I estranged myself from. So I kind of went to a weird place, and that's what that record [Ancestor] is about. It was a blast, but ultimately the Visions couldn't last. It was too much of a departure from what I usually do. But everyone has to do that from time to time.
I saw you and the Visions in Atlanta, with Witchcraft and Graveyard. It was a weird show. Those bands are super heavy and well studied in classic psych-rock and doom. But compared to you guys, it seemed as though they were playing rockstar dress-up. Maybe that's a bit harsh.
That's what it seemed like to me -- and that's cool. I just can't do it. I sometimes wish I could make fantasy-rock like that, but I can't. Heavy-metal people are kind of a bummer to be around. I write darker music than most guys, but I also like to have a good time. It was so obvious that we weren't real heavy-metal people, even though we dig a lot of metal.
What I liked about the Visions -- and what I wrote at the time -- was your ability to combine really well-crafted hard rock and really great lyrics. The words, however abstruse, actually mean something. Most stoner-rock bands are great at rocking hard, but so many write silly-ass lyrics.
That was good to read. I was having a tough time then. It seemed as if that project didn't fit anywhere. I think real audiophile-type hard-rock fans dug it, but not average kids. The lyrics weren't dumbed down. I wish I could write lyrics like, "Hey baby, wanna fuck?" But I can't. There's too much shit in my head to simplify things like that.