Ok so I know it's been a while. To be frank, I wasn't doing that well. I'm doing better now (thanks for asking), but it has meant I've been sitting on this interview for a long time. I've been writing and editing and changing stuff for weeks. Often my problem is more with starting projects, but lately finishing anything has been a struggle. I have all these projects going and for a little bit it felt impossible to finish anything. Slowly, and with infinite patience from others, I've been getting through them.
I didn't intend to get stuck on an interview that is about a song that took five years to finish, but life is funny like that, I guess.
In November, Thank You Thank You– the musical project of Philadelphia based musician Tyler Bussey– put out a song called "Undiminished Life". It came with the explanation that the song started its life five years prior to the release. Most music exists long before the public hears it, but for some reason I found myself fascinated by the concept of a singular track sticking with a musician over time and continually being worked on resulting in something special and unique within a larger catalogue.
Music dorks talk in a really sanctimonious way about albums and that's fine, but I spend so much of my life experiencing music a singular song at a time. To me, a song like "Undiminished Life" stands as a testament to how much intentionality can be put into individual tracks and, more than that, how one song can be a world unto itself.
Tyler was nice enough to let me come over to his house to talk to him and collaborator Lucas Knapp about the start to finish process of creating the song, confident creative direction and the power of working with the right people. It was interesting for me and I hope ya enjoy it, too!
We'll just start with how did the song start?
Tyler: The first thing was– well I was in the band I used to play in and we were in the studio to record a record that we had more or less written, but left a little bit of, you know, like opportunities in the three weeks that I was there to come up with new things or change things up. And yeah, I lived in the studio for three weeks. There's a lot of downtime when you're not tracking and when other people are working on stuff, so I was also working, trying to write new things. While I was there the rough sketch of this song came out and we started tracking it, but pretty much just the structure. Some things stayed the same, but a lot of vocals got redone and I rewrote the lyrics later.
In the press release you said you feel like your voice doesn't even sound the same now.
Tyler: I feel that's true!
I would agree.
Tyler: That was just recorded in different studio, different mics, and like a different approach. It was started in that studio in 2015, didn't get finished, and then was revisited a few more times in that studio over the next two years. But that studio is in Connecticut and I wasn't living there, so it was just kind of like, one of those things of like, "when we're here, we'll work on these sessions."
So when did it build out from that?
Tyler: So then, in 2017, I was still in that band and we were making another record. We were making the next album, and I revisited it then. We had the horn section in the studio to play on that record and I had them play on this song, too. Like, it's just very piecemeal.
I think that– Lucas can probably attest to this, too– is that like, a lot of times when you're recording something there's this sort of, like, figuring out what the song is in real time thing that happens or throwing ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks. And sometimes it's just like, who's around that day? You know? And like, if someone who plays the trombone and the tuba is there, you don't want to miss that opportunity to see if it's cool.
Those things, ended up adding an extra inspiration of like, "oh, I've always wanted to do something with this," because all these tools that are at my disposal. Because a lot of the time I like to make things that involve real instruments that I can't play. The only way to make that happen is if you either ask somebody you know, or they're there for some other fortuitous reason and you just like have them lay stuff down.
There is a lot more of a like electronic sort of aspect to it boiling under like the surface of the song. How did you approach adding that compared to sort of a more folk influenced other Thank You Thank You stuff?
Tyler: Not that differently. You know, to me there's not much difference? In terms of like, I mean, like, there's technical differences in recording a synthesizer or drum machine or something. And maybe the person who plays it thinks it's different, but to me I don't see a huge difference. It's just another instrument and it sounds good or it doesn't sort of thing.
Lucas: He brought a lot of people in different parts who kind of specialize and who work more on those things like with with Nina, right?
Lucas: That modular synth stuff that is kind of bubbling throughout the track.
Tyler: Nina did some shit with like, an actual tape machine and manipulating the speed or things like that. Just like making sounds with it and recording the sounds.
Lucas: Those sounds are so cool and that was really fun to bring out when Tyler brought me into it. It was just like bringing out some of that stuff even more, because I thought that those sounds were so cool.
Tyler: Lucas helped me like mix the song and basically a lot of what I did was just gathering material. How much would you say was, like, in place arrangement wise before you started?
Lucas: I mean, the song is kind of in like a first half second half kind of with a longer coda thing. But most of the first half was pretty done. Like all of the instrumentation arrangement was done when I came in to work on it. I think we just like edited and tightened up some things to highlight some of the first half, but then the second half was more after I started working on it with you. We added a bunch of things. Cuz you brought it to me and it was just like, guitars and vocals?
Tyler: At the ending, yeah.
Lucas: And some bass and stuff and then I was like what if we add some Owl City shit?
Tyler: There was a little bit of synth stuff!
Lucas: There was a little bit of synth stuff– some of the guitar loops and stuff, but there were no drums.
Tyler: Yeah, there were no drums. All the electronic, like, the beat thing that comes in at the end is Lucas, but I want to say too– one of the reasons why it took so long to do is essentially I think that there's this thing about recording where to make certain kinds of records, you need resources. And that means you need equipment and a place to do it. And you need capable musicians, or, you know, to be that capable musician and have all the instruments. So you need a lot of things. And if you don't have access to those things, how are you going to get good at doing it?
I kind of created this problem for myself, like five or six years ago, where it was like, I want to make a certain kind of thing, but I do not know how to. So I was just like, well, maybe if I just like take my time with it and like slowly learn it in a piecemeal way and gather people who know how to do those specific things. Because with– also one of the reasons why Lucas came in to help me get over the finish line.
So you knew how you wanted it to end sort of?
Tyler: I knew how I wanted it to end I didn't know how to do it. Like, at the time I didn't even own a synthesizer or a drum machine or any of those things. And so I just knew, like, I needed someone who was not only like, who had the material, but if I wanted this thing that I've been working on for four years at that point to fucking finally get done, I might as well go with somebody who is proficient on those things. And it was hard to even find someone who had similar reference points. When I talked to you about it initially and I mentioned like some of the stuff that I had in mind in my head you were the first person who was like, "not only do I follow, but I fuck with that shit"
Lucas: Yeah, definitely, I feel like we have similar things that we gravitate towards.
Tyler: And it's like, no shade on other people who I've tried to collaborate with on other things, but like– it's funny because on the one hand I really believe that when you're in a collaborative situation to just kind of let it be what it is and not sort of force in a certain direction too much. But I was so attached to the song that I knew I wanted to be at a certain level to put it out. A lot of the people that I tried working with just didn't get it. Rather than just be like, "Oh, well, it is what it is," and just put it out anyway, I decided no– you know, they're great musicians, but they are not on the same page.
But after Lucas got involved that last section came together? Is that fair?
Lucas: I guess, like, it was there. It was just really just bringing some sort of drama to it or heightening it or just making it the kind of cathartic release that it is now it wasn't as– it didn't feel as emotional or cathartic.
Tyler: I would agree.
Lucas: Before it was like– just kind of breezier, you know what I mean? It was nice and the melody was there and the chords were there and all that stuff was really rock solid and cool. I feel like we just went in and made it hit harder.
Tyler: Yeah, when the beat really drops and when the strobe-y synths really come in– you know, it's funny because the structure of it was exactly the same, but there was a space for it where it could happen– where after that's done, then the beat would drop out and the horns would complete the thing. That was all in my head. I knew this space could work for this. I just was like, I can't give up on this. Like, I had to satisfy the the urge to hear it, if that makes sense. Like, I knew it could happen. And I knew it could be a sound. And I knew it might be amazing. And then I needed help to make that happen. And then when it happened, I was like, okay, fuck yeah, I was right. Like, the intuition was spot on.
Maybe it's a hard question to answer, but what is about like this song that you kept returning to? Is it just like the amount of time that you put into it or what is it?
Tyler: The time we put into it and it was the quality of everything that had been done thus far. It's also just that I thought that things were so close for a long time. So that's why I didn't feel like giving up on it or quitting on it. I would put it away for like, a month at a time and work on other things. Like in the time between when I started [the song] and when I finished it, like, other records by other bands and my EP and stuff were all done. But it was just chilling there waiting for the finishing touches, and then it happened.
Lucas: I think when you're working on something for a long time, kind of on your own and bringing people in and out, it can get kind of like– you just need to bring other people in at a certain point to see it.
Did you at any point with the different directions you were thinking about taking like either the ending or just like the song in general?
Tyler: Well, yeah, I mean originally, I didn't even think it was going to be so electronic. Originally, it was like its start there was a lot more guitar. You know, when we started working on this, I didn't know shit about electronic music production. And like in 2015, as someone who didn't know anything about it and also just assumed that it was extremely prohibitive in some ways or that drum machines were expensive and didn't work that well, or something. It only started to go in that direction when I started to realize that that was possible. And that had a lot to do with the people I was surrounding myself with and the input of other musicians who had ideas and realizing that things that I wanted to do were possible. I actually did kind of abandon it for like, a long time and didn't really think about it. And then when I got Nina Keith to contribute to it, I started to have more faith that it could actually be really good, because the stuff that she added was just so sick.
Lucas: Were there any directions once I started that we took that we scrapped? I'm even more curious just to think like even if you've been working with people where you're feeling like it's going in the right direction, there are moments where you're like, this is not right.
Tyler: No, with you it worked out really well. Again, by the time we got to Lucas, there was so much there that like to a person with, you know, a good, discerning ear it's gonna just be almost implied what I think needs to happen? And he wasn't going crazy. There were no car horns or whatever.
Also, another thing is that I feel like even though it's a really dense track with a lot of sound in it. Like, I still wanted it to be kind of unguarded. You know, the vocals are pretty unguarded, I think. Like they're not pitch shifted or washed in effect or whatever. It's like kind of a very direct and dry vocal on top of all that stuff. And I was certain about that at an early stage, like, I don't want to go too experimental or too vague.
Lucas: You just wanted it to sound like you singing.
Tyler: I wanted it to sound like me singing a song, but with a lot of color.
Lucas: I think the surrounding arrangements sort of color the– it's not a restrained performance from you to me, but it's not the most dramatic. But, compared to everything going on, it's pretty steady. Pretty relaxed.
Tyler: I wanted it to be very clear eyed and very unguarded.
Lucas: What was it like recording the vocal take? I don't know when you did that.
Tyler: Mostly years ago. The last of the vocal takes were probably done in either 2017 or 2018?
I think having a really clear vocal is almost an unexpected choice for what kind of song it is.
Tyler: Totally! But I think that's what I shoot for. At least right now. But I think that this song was when I hit on that it was okay for me to sing more softly– I was very self conscious about that for a long time, but I also kind of don't have a rock voice [laughs]. It would have been so over the top if I had sang this in a really dramatic way. I've worked with people who, in my ignorance about recording and engineering, would encourage me to sing in a certain way and you get intimidated in your earliest recording sessions when you don't know what you're doing and other people seem to know what they're doing and they tell you what to do. Working on this one was as early as I can remember of putting my foot down and saying, "this is what feels right and what sounds good to me" and that working. Just being a little more reserved and not trying to push it.
Just developing greater confidence to do what feels right to you instead of what you feel like you should be doing or what might be more expected.
Lucas: Oftentimes when I'm engineering stuff I will like say, "can you just give it a bit more" or be more emotional or whatever, to put your foot down and say, "no I think that's it" is solid. Oftentimes I'll suggest that, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't.
I think that it's one thing to do that after you've got some usable shit to be like, "once more.. with feeling" that's actually great because the pressure's all off, but it's not a good place to start. It's interesting because some people really do need guidance, but you don't necessarily need to give someone guidance if they haven't even tried yet. Sometimes people aren't confident because they don't know what they're doing, but give them a chance. Watch what they do and see how it comes out.
So how do you know when something like this is done? How do you arrive at knowing it's done?
Tyler: I was just, like, I can't make this any better. In this case it was actually pretty straight forward.
Lucas: It kind of just felt done.
Tyler: Yeah, I mean, to me too. And I trusted you. I think that I do require the nudge, so to speak, and that's one reason why I try to work with someone else when it comes to mixing and mastering stuff. I put a lot of work and energy into the getting things down and piecing it together side and by the time it gets to the mixing stage I hope that it still sounds good when it's mixed, but I'm also bringing someone in, for the most part– like Lucas contributed instrumental elements to this, but not so much that I didn't think he could give an objective opinion.
Lucas: Yeah. That's good.
Tyler: Like if you and I had built the whole thing from scratch together I think we both would have been questioning if this is done, but you can see a little more objectively than the person who's been thinking about it for a really long time.
Hope you enjoyed that and I promise I'll have more regular content soon. In the meantime, my podcast is putting out a zine called Where Those Two Things Intersect that you can preorder! I also have a couple really special zine projects coming up soon that I'm excited to share. As always, thanks for listening thanks for understanding.
Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter to track my emotional downturns through just how often Winter Wheat is my most played album of the week: @mirandareinert. I also have a paid tier of this newsletter for $5 a month or $45 a year! If you do that I'll give you at least one free zine if you respond to this email with a mailing address! Wow! Might want to get in on that! You may also just send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want. But as always, thanks for reading!