Madison musician Tyler Fassnacht prepares to release his solo project’s first full-length.
Photos by Steven Spoerl.
Tyler Fassnacht’s face will be a familiar one to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of punk shows in Madison. Between playing in The Hussy, Fire Heads, Proud Parents, and under his solo moniker, TS Foss, Fassnacht has been an unmissable presence. While those first three acts may constitute the bulk of Madison’s overall familiarity with the songwriter’s work, it’d be a mistake to brush aside TS Foss as just an outlier. Later this spring, TS Foss will be releasing a self-titled tape, which will mark two distinct firsts for the project: the full-length debut and Fassnacht’s first release for Pittsburgh-based Unread Records. Two previous EPs, 2016’s Improvident and 2015’s Active Adult, found the project establishing a distinct, well-versed folk foundation that skewed much closer to the genre’s forebears than its contemporaries.
Looking at the music through the lens of its classic influence, how TS Foss wound up on Unread Records seems entirely appropriate. On a tour a few years ago, Fassnacht was playing out a cover of one of cult folk icon Simon Joyner‘s songs in some of his sets. At a fateful show, one of Joyner’s touring band members happened to be in another band on the bill and took a phone recording of the cover and passed it on to Joyner.
Fassnacht saw an opportunity to follow up on that exchange and emailed Joyner, who would become one of the first people to hear TS Foss. Joyner responded in kind, providing some personal feedback and putting Fassnacht in contact with Unread Records’ Chris Fisher. Through nothing but word-of-mouth, dumb luck, and some determination, TS Foss found its way to the right people at the right time, mirroring the trajectory of a means of artistic ascension that’s been all but lost to time.
Ahead of the new album’s release, TS Foss will be playing a Thursday, February 27 show at Mickey’s Tavern with Graham Hunt. Joining Fassnacht for that performance at various points will be Claire Nelson-Lifson (also of Proud Parents), Maggie Denman (of projects including No Question and Margerat Dryer), and Emili Earhart (of Woodman/Earhart and Cave Curse, and a versatile solo artist as well as a Tone Madison contributor). Nelson-Lifson and Denman will both contribute vocals at various points while Earhart will be playing piano, rounding out a stellar lineup of musicians who have impacted Madison’s music community in memorable ways. New songs and old songs will be featured in that set list, underscoring one of the lasting points TS Foss makes over its runtime: sometimes outside forces change and sometimes internal compulsions don’t, but the adjustments that restore a healthy balance between the two are worth welcoming.
Fassnacht took the time to sit down and talk with me recently about the album, balance, duality, and the virtue of patience. He comes off as especially passionate about self-reliance. “TS Foss has always been a project that’s consistently on the back-burner, because I’ve got so many other things going on with The Hussy, Fire Heads, and Proud Parents but with all that, I love being able to do things by myself and having a project that was just me was really helpful,” he says.
“I always liked to write things that started off as poetry and lyrics that were a little more involved and kind of complicated that just didn’t really fit [with the other three projects],” Fassnacht continues. “I had the two EPs that I released over the past couple years but I wanted to do a full-length album.” It’s around this point in our conversation that it becomes clear Fassnacht has an endearing tendency to get lost in thought, but a commendable habit of interlinking everything on his mind by the time he’s finished speaking, a clear trait of those who have spent a lifetime navigating an ingrained tendency to over-analyze.
Before long, the conversation turned to touring and Fassnacht expanded on the practices of intentional isolation, which acts as a necessary counter to his other projects. “TS Foss is something that I can build up and always do, to tour with, and record with, and I can always have that,” he says. “Just be in a car with an acoustic guitar and go for a couple weeks on the road.”
“It’s funny because when I told people I was doing a solo tour, they were all like ‘Oh, for three weeks? By yourself? Aren’t you going to get lonely?’ and I don’t know, I was kind of worried about it, maybe, but it was the exact opposite,” he says. “I don’t think I realized that when you’re touring with a band how much you depend on your bandmates to share the burden of a lot of things.”
Touring solo has offered a whole new lesson in logistics. “Having to get to the show, talk to the people running the show, sell merch, talk to the people I’m staying with, and do everything myself. It’s non-stop talking and socializing and when I was finally back in the car, driving to the next city, it was the only time I had to myself,” Fassnacht laughs, reflecting on the seemingly paradoxical nature of what it means to be a solo touring artist. “It was much more socially difficult than I anticipated.”
That social aspect also got Fassnacht thinking about taking better care of himself on the road (which may or may not include his playful series of “first sip” videos), and the need to push through when it stops being fun. “You’re kind of working a job, you might not always want to play every single show every single night. But you do… When I’m on the road solo, I really cut back on my drinking. It’s easy to fall into some of those habits on tour, people give you free booze all the time, or in lieu of payment they’ll give you more drink tickets. But if you’re going to do all of the driving, talking, and socializing, it’s better to drink very little, if at all.
“I try to eat better too because I find that affects my mental state as well,” he continues. “Drink a little water. Listen to podcasts. Listening to talking and other people socializing kind of helps [me] a little bit with it too,” laughing again, “honestly, my favorite spot to eat on tours is salad bars in grocery stores. That’s my go-to.”
There’s an element of both warmth and certainty when Fassnacht talks about the foundations of TS Foss, evidencing a long process and the feeling of lightness that often accompanies the completion of a large project. Beyond just that, there seems to have been a slight shift in worldview, which can be a byproduct of the process of a more intimate searching. All of this is also present on the record, though slightly more concealed by its context.
“After mostly playing in punk bands, garage bands, sort-of pop bands, the majority of the time the emphasis has been on short and direct songs,” he says. “So, over the last couple years, I have been getting more into records and artists that require some patience and effort to get into. With [TS Foss], I was specifically trying to take my time with things. Trim the fat on certain songs but not be afraid to add a verse if I have words that I feel are important.”
Fassnacht also thought a lot about what it means to release an album into a musical landscape where immediate gratification is only a click away. “I definitely wanted to explore the theme of patience a little more on this album,” he says. “I think [TS Foss] does reward those who are willing to sit down, relax, and engage with it.”
The willingness to engage with hesitation and patience pays dividends on TS Foss, which is bookmarked with short sound collages and is bridged by another at the record’s center. Those three pieces aren’t just key to the record’s structure but illuminate larger points about the profound impact that nature and industry have on our personal growth.
Using field recordings that Fassnacht took in various locations (during a thunderstorm, doing landscaping work near a creek in Stoughton, and during Sunday traffic), TS Foss is strung together by a pattern of chaos, a return to normalcy, and ultimately, a tacit acceptance. Or, as Fassnacht puts it, “finding the beauty in small things.”
He adds: “If you really dig deep there is so much beauty and terror in the mundane.”
That quote resonates throughout TS Foss, especially on “Trying,” a song you can stream below. “I’m trying to focus on just walking down the street” is as unassuming of an opening line as anyone could expect. But there’s a malaise in the delivery that conveys the weight of the statement, pulling the listener into a position of attentive empathy. Images of a storm resurface, echoing the field recording of the intro track before the narrative works its way to an indifferent conclusion, capped off by a small but oddly moving guitar solo.
A near-microcosm of TS Foss’s overall arc, “Trying” is plaintive, considered, and centered in a place of modesty. Quiet and even hesitant in some of its habits, TS Foss is exactly the kind of record that Fassnacht has been warming to, a slow-burn grower that requires a level of repeat investment to unlock.
TS Foss and TS Foss both seem to have gained a greater understanding about the world that encompasses their being. Both Fassnacht and the record he’s made have seemed to gain an innate understanding that when there’s a breath of fresh air, the onus shouldn’t be exclusively on the air but expanded to include the breath; without the act of the former, the full effect of the latter becomes unknowable. By exercising a lot of thought and a little patience, TS Foss has embraced its place in the world.