Tyler Bussey Talks Impossible Scenarios and Widescreen Arrangements

Photo by Emily Burtner

Over years of touring with bands like The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Emperor X, and Strange Ranger, moving from Connecticut to Portland, Oregon to Philadelphia, Tyler Bussey became well acquainted with the feeling of dislocation. It crops up all throughout Next to Nothing, his debut EP under the name Thank You Thank You: a searching, five-song indie pop set that gently sifts through some of Bussey’s accumulated anxieties.

And while it’s one thing to not always know where you’re going to lay your head at night, it’s another to be without a social safety net. Like a lot of worthwhile pursuits, life as a working musician has its benefits–just not in the form of healthcare, stable housing, or a retirement plan. In sparse self-portraits and twangy cinematic landscapes, Next to Nothing gives an oblique record of life on that ledge, drawn from Bussey’s own experience and his observations of American society.

At the same time, it’s a testament to the strength of community even in the most tenuous circumstances. With a cast of other equally-prolific indie musicians lending field recordings, fiddles, and warm, gooey keys, Next to Nothing never faces its struggles alone.

10% of sales from the EP will go to Amistad Law Project, a Philadelphia-based organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration. Shortly before the release, Bussey spoke to The All Scene Eye about life under a system in need of structural change–and why we can’t count on a tidy movie-screen conclusion.

For the past few years, pre-COVID, you’ve been working with a number of different bands, you’ve been hosting basement shows–when did you first start writing the songs for this EP, NEXT TO NOTHING?

Some of these songs are actually kind of old now. I think the oldest one–I was in Portland from 2013 to 2015, and the second song, “Heights,” I started writing there, but I didn’t finish it till I lived in Philly. Everything else I wrote over the course of my time in Philly, so the first song was the first of the batch, and “Out of Nowhere” was the last one that was written for the EP, so that was only about a year ago, or maybe eight or nine months ago. Everything else has been in between in the past four years.

As someone who’s spent so much time supporting other artists, being part of other bands where people are writing songs, how did you get started writing for yourself?

Basically, I’ve been writing songs for a really long time, but either not recording them or using them for bands that I was in. Sometimes writing full songs for bands I was in, sometimes just taking stuff that I was writing and turning it into, like, a scrap heap. [laughs] I mean, when I was in The World Is, I was generally not writing full songs for that band. I was usually just writing music or ideas, and then sometimes full songs would be brought to the band, but they would become little scrap piles–we could throw away parts and replace them with other parts, that sort of thing.

I’ve always been writing songs, just not necessarily doing anything with them. I mean, I want to qualify what I just said. I think that recording songs is great, but you can just perform, if you want. You can just play and write for yourself. You don’t have to show it to anybody on a tape, or on a disc, or an mp3. You could just have it be something that you do in a basement or in a room with people, or at a venue, or whatever. For a long time, I would work slowly on recordings, but I got a little bit perfectionist, and it has been hard for me to finish things because I got into the editing mode too much, and I couldn’t just let things breathe or let them be what they were. I was always tinkering. 

It honestly took the pandemic to make me finish this particular EP [laughs] because I was at home all the time and I couldn’t play shows anymore. It was like, “Okay, well, I prefer playing shows to recording, and I even kind of prefer playing shows to writing.” I don’t need to have a million songs. I just want to have enough songs to play a show, you know?

Then how did this EP crystallize under pandemic conditions, you know, coming to terms with recording and figuring out how to do that for yourself?

Well, the process of recording the EP began prior to March of 2020. It was already underway by then, and honestly, mostly done by then. Pretty much what happened was that I’d been in Philly–I actually kind of moved to Philly on election day in a weird way in 2016, and it took me about two years to find my footing musically, socially, work-wise, and all those things. I found some friends who I felt comfortable playing my own songs with, and they were down to do it, and it felt like there was a potential for a good live band–a good unit of people. 

That was mostly with my friends Sean Hallock, Corey Wichlin, and Jacob Crofoot. Sean plays drums with Slow Mass now in Chicago, and he plays with Rozwell Kid, among others over the years. Jacob has a project called Bread Boy, and he also played guitar in Another Michael. And then Corey plays guitar and keys in Spirit of the Beehive. The four of us started playing together, and that started to make me feel like I could pursue playing guitar and singing in a band and having the band be primarily a vehicle for my songs.

The process of recording it, that went on all throughout 2019. Finishing it happened during quarantine because [laughs] you know, I didn’t have the excuse anymore of, “Oh, I’m going to go on tour with Strange Ranger for a month, so I’ll work on the record when I get back,” or, you know, “I have these shows to get ready for.” I was completely in the zone, like, “Okay, I have time to actually work on mixing this, and sequencing, and that sort of thing.”

You mentioned that the first song you wrote of this batch was “O,” and it’s very apropos as a first song for a debut EP, being about starting over. Can you tell me about writing that song–where you were and how that came out?

So, I said that I moved to Philadelphia on election day in 2016, which is partially true [laughs] but I’d also done a couple of sublets in Philly at the end of that summer. At one point, I was subletting a room in Brewerytown. I was sleeping in someone’s room who was on tour, and at that point, I’d been on tour for almost a year off and on, and all my stuff was either in storage, or at friends’ houses, or my parents house. I was just kind of floating with very few possessions–basically, all my music equipment–and so I’m in this apartment in Brewerytown, sleeping in someone else’s bed, looking at someone else’s ceiling while I go to sleep at night, and it was kind of a strange and lonely time in my life. It was the second time in three years that I had moved 3000 miles away from where I had just been. So at that point, I felt a little bit of new-guy-in-town syndrome [laughs] and I wrote that song, lyrically, as a reflection on that feeling of moving over and over and over from one apartment to the next.

It gives a physicality to this running theme throughout the record, which is something that you’ve highlighted in press–this sense of dislocation. “KP” is a place where that comes up in a different way, where you talk about–“financial precarity” is the phrase you use. Can you tell me about that song, and where that started for you?

You know, one of the reasons why I made the EP with this batch of songs is just because I thought that there was a loose thematic through-line, for me. I don’t think that the song itself necessarily indicates–there’s no direct reference to financial issues, or like, being broke, but what I was thinking about when I wrote that was about how our institutions are failing us so much and how we can’t rely on them to get us out of a jam or get us the help that we need, and that in this country specifically, there is such an abundance of resources that are either wasted or hoarded. I wasn’t actually documenting firsthand experience so much as something that I was observing around me.

It speaks to something universal in the way you phrase it as, “We’re not allowed to fail,” which is a refrain that comes up, and it carries that sense that there’s no safety net. When did that refrain occur to you?

That might have been the kind of thing that I’d been wanting to use in a song for a while, because yeah, these kinds of things crop up in my writing a lot. In general, I’m attracted to writing about that sense of precarity–not in an existential sort of, “All this is fleeting and impermanent” way, but literally, “If you don’t go to your shitty job, you’re not going to be able to eat, or you’re going to lose your apartment, which you can barely afford for [laughs] a number of reasons.”

I think what I meant by that phrase, or what I think of when I think of that idea, is that it’s not so much that you’re not allowed to fail so much as the consequences are so dire, but it’s like that grind mentality of, it doesn’t even seem to bother a lot of people. There’s a darkness to that idea. Failure should be something that is a normal part of life, but we do everything in our power to not even allow for the occasion of it, including not having a safety net for people.

Somewhere tangled up in this web of ideas is the character of Kitty Pryde, and I’m curious about how that entered the equation.

Frankly, that had a lot to do with a story that I remembered from my childhood about a person that lived in my hometown, and I don’t want to give away too much about what inspired that. But yeah, Kitty Pryde is this X-Men character whose superpower is that they can phase through objects, so they can walk through walls for instance, and bring other people through walls by touching them, and it felt appropriate to me for so many reasons, most of which wouldn’t be interesting to anybody. [laughs] It resonates for me–which, ultimately, when I’m writing something, if it resonates for me, I trust that it’ll probably resonate for somebody else too.

One of the reasons that I wanted to put it in there is because of this idea of, we all are expected to go above and beyond. Like, it’s an impossible fuckin’ scenario that we often find ourselves in, and people would rather keep this impossibly difficult system in place that fails so many people and often requires superhuman resilience, not to put too fine a point on it, [laughs] rather than just having a more equitable society.

“Autonomy” is another scenario of being a human up against impossible force; you wrote that song after being stuck in a van during a tornado. When did that incident happen, and how did you come to write about that?

I want to say that incident happened in the spring of 2018, and it wasn’t really that horrifying of a situation, in hindsight. I didn’t see a cow flying through the sky or anything like that. [laughs] It wasn’t that level of terror, but it was a scary enough situation that I really wanted us to pull off the highway to wait it out, and that did not happen. And there was a lot of frustration involved in that feeling, and a lot of helplessness. Like I said before, certain things keep popping up in my writing because I feel compelled to grapple with them or depict them in some way, and with regard to this particular moment, it felt like, “Yeah, I want to write about this feeling of helplessness that really feels like it could lead me somewhere if I explored it a little bit more.”

It ends where the EP starts, with this question of whether you’ll be able to start over again. “If this is it / no more starting over again / nothing left to do but run.” And it ends without resolving. What made you want to end the EP that way?

I kind of thought it would be funny [laughs] or interesting, and there was a slightly perverse element in my mind of ending it like–you look back on the last few decades of the rise of blockbuster trilogies, and superhero movies especially now have kind of taken over the whole film industry, and the penultimate film in the trilogy or the series is always the one where the bad guys turn it around, and it looks like the good guys are done. Like The Empire Strikes Back or, fuckin’, Infinity War or something. [laughs] I’m making myself sound so nerdy. But one of the things that I was thinking about, beyond the story of being stuck in the van in the tornado, was that life isn’t like the movies, where the bad guys might turn it around for a little bit, but ultimately, the good guys are going to win. A lot of the time in life, the bad guys kill you, and that’s it. [laughs] The End.

I didn’t want to express my opinion in the song too strongly. I wanted to leave it open-ended. I wanted it to be more like a recognition that you don’t know what the fuck’s gonna happen next. You can have a worldview, but your worldview may or may not align with events of your own life. You might be a pessimist who ends up getting everything they ever hoped and dreamed of, and you might be an optimist who meets a really grisly end. Both of those things are valid and real and true, and what does that mean, you know?

Most of the time, it’s just like, “Well, we don’t really know what’s going to happen because life isn’t like movies.” Life is stranger than that, and it’s kind of up to us, both on the micro level of our communities and in our families and relationships, and then on the broader, more political and geopolitical and human scale–the broader human scale.

I think the last year has been maybe the best possible illustration of that, just on the whole–on all of those levels.

One thing that I found when I was finishing working on it and, you know, dealing with the mixing and mastering and planning to put it out is that I felt like the things I was writing at the time still resonated with me. It wasn’t like I wrote a breakup song, and then I had to live with it after getting over it. [laughs] Everything that I was singing about is still exactly how I feel and still applicable. 

Also, though, anybody who listens to this, if there’s one thing I could impart that I would want them to know, it’s that taking into account everything I already said about how I miss making music in a room with people and performing for an audience, a big part of why I am proud of this EP and excited to share it with people is because of what everyone did on it. It wasn’t like I sat in a room and recorded everything by myself. It’s way more like I invited friends and musicians who I really admire and respect into this space to create something that was more than I could have ever done by myself. I still listen to it and I’m like, “Damn, Sean is such a good drummer.” Or like, “Damn, Corey killed it on that synth part. Sam killed it with the fiddles. Alex killed it with the lap steel,” etc., etc.

In “Autonomy,” there’s the strings and pedal steel–it’s a really big, lush arrangement in its understated kind of way. What was it like putting it together?

It was really fun and exciting. My dream scenario for that song was to have strings and sort of a more lush and expansive instrumental arrangement, because like I said, what I was thinking about when I was writing the words to the song were these grand, apocalyptic kind of moments. I was really lingering on the idea of, “What if the scene in the movie where the bad guys start killing everybody is just the rest of your life?” [laughs] I was thinking about movies, so I was thinking in general, “Wow, I really want to go widescreen with this if I can, and I would love to have these elements of what I associate with a big, widescreen situation in the theater.” Maybe even Spaghetti Western-y kind of moments, Ennio Morricone things, but not literally–more a suggestion of it by having all that twanginess of the pedal steel, like a suggestion of something of more cinematic grandeur and splendor.

Actually tracking the strings, though, was as mundane and ordinary as you can imagine. We just got a bunch of string players together in the basement of my friend Matt’s house, we set up mics, and then we spent an afternoon recording and eating Indian food. [laughs] Kind of just arranging it together and trying a bunch of different things, then editing what everyone had done later into what you hear.

On a more granular level, there was one other instrumental moment I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about, and that’s on “Heights.” The guitar on that track–some was played by you, some was played by Corey, and it’s all scrambled, like it was recorded backwards. How did you achieve that sound, and who played that part?

Corey played all the rhythm electric guitar and I played all the rhythm nylon string guitar. The solo thing and all the fuzzy, glitchy little noises at the end, that’s all me. The guitar solo in that song–what we actually did was, I used a Line 6 DL4 reverse delay, dialed in a sound, and tracked the solo as a reverse guitar solo in real time, if that makes sense.

I don’t know–what do you mean by that?

Basically what I did was–a lot of the time, people will record a guitar solo into their interface or whatever, and then in the recording software, they’ll reverse it. So once it’s done, they’ll make it go backwards. This was different. We used a pedal to make the guitar sound backwards as it was happening, so it was actually still kind of delayed–I would play something, then half a second later, I would hear what I just played, backwards. I did that as a one-take guitar solo, and then Sean came back downstairs, because Sean went upstairs to get water or take a piss or something. We showed him the reversed guitar solo, and he was like, “You should reverse the reverse solo so it sounds like it was forwards.”

Then we decided to have both of those things happening at the same time, so actually, when you listen to that guitar solo, you’re hearing the end of it and the beginning of it at the same time, and when you get to the halfway point, you hear this back and forth of the forwards version and the backwards version. Imagine if you had two trains going towards each other on different tracks, passing each other, and you’re just standing in the middle, so you’re watching them come to the middle, and then you’re watching them both leave in opposite directions. [laughs] That’s kind of like what’s happening.

It’s very psychedelic, in a low-key kind of way.

When you actually describe it, it feels so obvious that it’s almost stupid, but I like it when you can have musical or sound elements that correspond with lyrical themes or ideas, and it felt right to have something kind of psychedelic or trippy happening in a song about getting stoned, or just about the fogginess and the haziness of memory and all that.

You said you’d already done most of the recording when the pandemic came about. How much was left at that point?

Right, well, track three, “Out of Nowhere,” that was not done at all. I would say that that came together during the pandemic. I had another song that wasn’t working for me anymore, and I didn’t want to have it be just four tracks. I knew it needed something, so I improvised a guitar idea at, like, 3:00 in the morning in my bed, recorded it on my phone, and liked the way it came out, and then I asked a couple people if they’d be willing to add stuff from their houses without me coming over or anything. My friend Alex added the field recordings and the lap steel, and I thought that was amazing, and that it didn’t need much else, but then I asked Sam, who is just one of my favorite musicians in the world forever–I asked him via email if he would be willing to add some fiddles to it, and he was very gracious to do that. Once I had all that stuff, it was just a matter of editing.

10% of the sales from the EP are going to the Amistad Law Project. How did you find out about that cause and end up supporting that through the release?

Well, there are so many worthy causes that to choose one, I don’t want to necessarily make it seem like I felt that they were the most worthy. [laughs] It was just one of many organizations that are doing amazing things. I live in Philadelphia, and I feel proud to be part of this city, and I want to do the best I can as a person who lives here to think locally and be involved in ways that I can with things that are good for people in the city. The sense I had gotten about Amistad Law Project and many other organizations like it is that they are doing a lot of the difficult and good groundwork here that the city needs.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2021?

For me, personally–I want to give a little bit of context. When the pandemic hit, I was like, two days into a tour with Strange Ranger, and like a lot of people, we were just like, “Should we keep going? Should we turn back?” Then our decisions were made for us because every show got cancelled all of a sudden. Fortunately, we were not very far from Philly, so we didn’t have to go back too far, but I had a strong feeling even in March of last year, like, “This is gonna be going on for a long time, and we have no idea when it’s gonna end.” 

I wasn’t like, “We’ll ride this out for six weeks, maybe two or three months, and then it’ll be back to normal.” I always kind of was like, “I won’t get my hopes up about shows coming back at all. I will just pivot towards things I can do musically that don’t involve playing shows and going on tour.” That was my life, but honestly, since all this started, I pretty much don’t leave the house. I just play guitar and banjo all day [laughs] and I give guitar and banjo lessons via zoom and things like that.

My resolutions for this year, on a personal level and as a musician, have been pretty much to keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is just falling in love with music even more intensely in a lot of ways, because it’s almost like being a kid, where you can’t go to shows anymore–it’s like being too young to go to concerts. [laughs] Like, I’m not allowed to. It’s weird. All I can do is play guitar and listen to records, and I’m like, “You know what? This has been kind of beautiful in a weird, strange way.” So yeah, my resolutions are just to keep working at music, playing instruments, and that sort of thing.

On a non-musical level, I just want to keep building on the things I’ve been building on the past year, like, getting more and more of a firm foothold on my own life. You know, we don’t really have much of a choice until more radical changes can start happening, in the form of a great wave of change. It is this kind of situation where you do have to try to survive, unfortunately.

In the absence of the usual release cycle things, what are your plans for after the EP comes out?

Well, to be honest with you, I am working on the next Strange Ranger album, and that has been very fortuitously lined up with when this recording was finished. I’m pretty focused on that right now. I don’t know if I will do any kind of live streams or anything like that. I don’t really want to present these songs in a solo set right now. I’d rather just wait till I can play in a band again, honestly. 

I’m hoping to pick back up into writing a lot more this year because frankly, I kind of turned quarantine into an excuse to give myself my own private conservatory year, like, not leaving my house and playing guitar all the time, studying it intently. I haven’t really been writing songs because I’ve been trying to learn Bach pieces, or jazz, or something. [laughs]

I will have another single that I’m going to put out in, like, four months, so there’s also that. There’s other new music on the way with this project, I’m just not sure I’m going to perform it yet.

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