Just because it’s not the sixties anymore and techies have eaten our once-bohemian city alive with their never-ending greed, does not mean San Francisco can no longer host occasional serendipitous meetings of musical minds. For Tim Presley, the songwriter behind the garage-rock band White Fence, such a moment happened outside Hemlock Tavern in the Tenderloin, where he met his now-longtime collaborator Ty Segall. Segall told Presley he enjoyed the first two White Fence albums Presley had recorded, then asked Presley if he might be interested in recording a split single together.
What was supposed to be a split single eventually turned into a full-length collaborative album, 2012’s Hair. As Presley describes it, the whole ordeal was rather cosmic.
“It was so funny when I look back it. I don’t even remember talking,” he says. “We just made music. The first song on there, “Hair,” we just sat in chairs and wrote it. The only thing I remember saying is, ‘Yeah, cool.’ ”
It wouldn’t be the last time the pair joined forces to make a lo-fi psychedelic fuzz rock odyssey. Segall produced White Fence’s excellent sixth album, For The Recently Found Innocent, in 2014. In addition to speaking “a very similar language musically,” as Presley tells it, they’re both bona fide California garage-rock royalty – a group that also includes Mikal Cronin, Charles Mootheart, Meatbodies frontman Chad Ubovich, and the godfather of it all, Thee Oh Sees frontman and Castle Face Records chief John Dwyer.
Following For the Recently Found Innocent, Presley shelved White Fence – his principal focus since the project’s 2010 debut – and started writing with Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon. Together, Le Bon and Presley formed DRINKS, culminating in 2015’s well-received Hermits on Holiday. With its left-of-center, Krautrock-inspired art-rock, Hermits on Holiday marked Presley’s return to radical weirdness. A few months later, he dived into even more bizarre experimentation with W-X, a project that culminated in a 20-track album of scrambled break beats and twisted droning synths.
But when it came time to make another record not powered by outlandish hip-hop beats, Presley eagerly enlisted Le Bon as producer.
“Cate brings things out of me that maybe I’d be afraid to do,” Presley says. “She’s somehow tapped into a corner of my brain that is pretty liberating creatively.”
Le Bon took a hands-on approach to producing, going so far as to convince Presley to release the record under his own name.
“I always felt using my name was weird or borderline pretentious,” he says. “But there’s something about this new one where it felt like it was time to subtract things and stand naked. This was like, ‘Alright, this is me naked and I’m into it.’ ”
Standing naked came in the form of The Wink, a delightful collection of surrealist, zany, psych-ish pop ditties that feel measured and minimalist compared to his White Fence work.
To be fair, Presley is far from unaccustomed to writing songs that are wildly different from the White Fence moniker and sound. Raised on skate culture, Black Flag, and Minor Threat, Presley came up through the Bay Area DIY scene as part of hardcore bands, most notably The Nerve Agents. Now he recalls those early days – marked by nights at 924 Gilman Street, Oakland’s The Bomb Shelter, and Bottom of the Hill – with nothing but love.
“It was such an amazing scene of kind, genuine people, and I am so glad I was able to have that in my life, musically and socially,” Presley says. “There was no rockstar shit. There was a certain bond that I definitely miss.”
The Nerve Agents split after releasing its sophomore record, 2001’s The Butterfly Collection on Hellcat. Presley went on to helm the blazing psych-rock band Darker My Love, briefly joined The Fall after Mark E. Smith’s backing musicians quit before the tour finished, then committed himself to releasing music as White Fence in 2010.
Shelving White Fence for his new work came with a new willingness to experiment with his live show. He wore dark red lipstick throughout the first DRINKS tour, then painted his entire face with cream white makeup – first worn on a whim while filming the music video for “Clue” – when he hit the road to promote The Wink. The older he gets, the more he finds himself concerned with heightening the performative aspects of his music.
“It’s a show. You want to set a mood. I, for one, am pretty sick of just seeing bands. A fucking guy with a guitar! Fucking kill me,” he says with a laugh.
So his backing band wore a uniform of hooded robes suited for a monk or a sorcerer – Le Bon’s idea, he claims – and he wore the face paint, which ended up acting as a strangely liberating mask.
“When I have that on, I feel like I can play better. I have a mask on. I don’t have to worry about me or my vanity. It’s amazing what that’ll do to you,” he says.
But with the tour completed, Presley has ample time to dive back into his visual art practice. Working mostly within black-and-white freeform painting, Presley’s practice continually employs the motifs of the body and punk subculture. His Instagram is a running collection of his latest artwork, where figures reminiscent of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Matisse’s cutouts sport leather jackets and spiked collars or nothing at all. He’s recently mined Dorothy Iannone’s splendidly vibrant and erotic paintings for inspiration – something that’s proving to be a much-needed antidote to his current case of songwriter’s block.
“I’ve been using art as therapy. I’ve tapped into that more so than writing music,” he says. “I think that’s why I’ve honed in on painting. Otherwise, fuck. I’d be going crazy.”
White Fence plays with Ty Segall and Shannon and the Clams, at 7 p.m., Monday, Feb. 27, at the Fox Theater. More info here.