When Guitar World connects with Myles and Layne Ulrich – the two members of garage rock duo Taipei Houston – they’re in Austin getting ready for the eight-hour drive to Arkansas for their next show with alternative rock overlords Melvins, who have invited them out for a second run of dates.
If their surname sounds familiar, as you might have already guessed, it’s because their dad happens to be one of the world’s most famous drummers.
Though it has to be said the music they play actually has very little in common with Metallica, sounding more like the fuzzed-up indie rock you’d expect to hear from groups like The White Stripes, Queens Of The Stone Age and Royal Blood.
Having officially formed last summer, the Ulrich brothers have been working hard on getting material ready for their debut album – titled Once Bit Never Bored, set for release next month. If it sounds like the two-piece are a lockdown band moving fast, it’s because that’s exactly what they are – and in the process making up for lost time just like every other musician on the planet…
“We kinda just ended up back in San Francisco during lockdown and had a lot of time on our hands,” says Myles, who plays drums live but also is responsible for the guitar work on the album, while his younger sibling handles vocal and bass duties.
“Being brothers, we’ve been making music together on and off for a long time. This felt like a real opportunity to dig deep and really focus and get into it. We started writing all the time.”
Two brothers cutting their teeth together musically is nothing out of the ordinary, though having one of the most recognizable drummers in the world sat beside them at the dinner table growing up certainly makes their story more unique. So what exactly did they learn from the man known universally as Lars, though behind closed doors more intimately referred to as ‘Dad’?
“I guess the main thing was seeing how they [Metallica] are working on what they do constantly, trying to see what can be improved on,” says Layne. “That’s the main thing we’ve learned: ‘We like these songs, but how can we grow and make them even better?’ It’s an important thing to be aware of.”
“For me it was so cool to grow up around so much music, getting a chance to be around people who were and are very inspired by their craft,” agrees Myles. “They take what they’re doing very seriously. You can see the dedication and how much of a lifestyle it is. That’s been the coolest part for me: having the privilege to be around that, learning from people who are always trying to innovate creatively.”
Were there ever any introductory lessons to get them started on their musical journeys, we wonder, even if as basic as how to hold a pair of sticks or strum a chord?
“Honestly, when I started, he completely steered clear,” shrugs Myles. “He was like, ‘Go do it with your friends or get a drum teacher!’ Not because he didn’t want to do it himself, but because he wanted us to find our own paths musically, which is really cool and that’s what we’ve tried to do. I don’t know if there’s a soundbite piece of advice he gave us. We both came into being interested in music our own way, listening to bands like Arctic Monkeys, stuff like that…”
Which makes sense, when you think about it. It’s no secret Lars Ulrich is a bit of an Anglophile – he’s definitely the member of Metallica you’re most likely to bump into backstage at Glastonbury or spot watching Liam Gallagher from the side of the stage. As they go on to explain, the two members of Taipei Houston share a similar deep appreciation for British culture. Who knows, one day they might even pack their bags with a one-way ticket and relocate for good…
“I fucking love it over there!” grins Myles. “I want to move down. We came over to play Reading and Leeds, as well as The Great Escape Festival in Brighton, which was so pretty because we were playing right next to the beach. I love the UK very much.”
Here the pair talk us through the head-caving tones on their debut album and explain how they fill out more musical space than your average duo when performing live on stage…
You’re both multi-instrumentalists. Take us back to the moment you decided to take up music and what kind of bands inspired you most…
Layne: “I properly started around 12 or 13. I was taking lessons when I was a lot younger, though that didn’t really go anywhere. My early teens is when I started to get properly interested and bass was my first instrument, or at least the first one I took seriously. It was a great window for me to get into more music.
“A lot of the stuff I started off playing was Arctic Monkeys and Rage Against The Machine, but also music like funk and soul. The bass was a great instrument for me to get into music and learn how to be creative on my own.”
Myles: “I started playing when I was about 12 or 13, too. I was first learning drums and then I moved onto guitar as well, it was all around the same time. That said, I didn’t play much guitar until we made this record!”
Who would you say are your biggest heroes?
Myles: “Dave Grohl is a really big one for me for drums, as is [Black Sabbath's] Bill Ward. On guitar, I’d have to say it’s people like Jonny Greenwood, Jack White and Tony Iommi. All of the Sabbath guys just generally!”
Layne: “For me, it’s mainly Geezer Butler and Lemmy. Both of them have been very inspirational to me because they’re more than just traditional bass players. I’ve always been into people who kinda push the boundaries.
“The main thing we get really interested in are the musicians who are also great songwriters, from Josh Homme to Alex Turner. They’re very song-oriented players. Obviously I have to mention Paul McCartney because he’s a songwriter and a bass player… you can’t not say him [laughs]!”
Bands like Sepultura, Pantera and Gojira have capitalized on the musical connection between two siblings – one handling rhythm while the other focuses on melody. In your case, does the genetic connection have any impact on the chemistry?
Myles: “I mean, I don’t know if I can say for sure at this point. But given how much music we’re making together and how much time we’re spending together on tour, we’re pretty close to being telepathic! [laughs]
“I don’t know how much of it is environment or something else. But I do feel like we’re way more on the same page about things creatively and performance-wise than I’ve ever been with anybody else, for whatever reason. We’ve been playing together for a very long time. And yeah, maybe there is something in the genetics.”
Layne: “What I would say is that the experiences you have growing up together is kinda what becomes the DNA of who you are later on, and also how your creativity works. We’ve gotten to share a lot of things. As he’s my older brother, Myles ended up introducing me to so much music when I was young which naturally affected how I think about music.
“Also, at this point, a year and a half into the band it’s developed even further. We’ve doubled down on working together and building up that partnership and trust, it’s like we’ve invested even further. It’s been a really rewarding experience.”
When performing live, what’s your method to covering bass and guitar sounds at the same time? We assume there’s some signal splitting involved…
Layne: “So we kinda came about that in an interesting way. We never actually said we were going to be a duo, especially as there was guitar in the recordings and we’re always writing with guitars. I guess we were thinking we might end up getting a guitar player.
“At a certain point we realized we were writing all of it and recording all of it – could we just do it with the two of us live? So that’s what we decided, thinking it could be fun to try and trim it down and reinvent it even garage-ier. I started looking at tutorials about how I could get the different sounds, which comes down to signal splitting. Myles did a lot of research and deep-diving into finding specific pedals and crazy sounds.”
Myles: “To make a long story short, the bass rig is essentially two splitting pedals and a bunch of different fuzz pedals to give each different part of the signal its own character. There are also octave pedals being used to bring it into guitar and bass worlds at the same time.
“It’s a pretty simple rig once you can see the signal flow. My favorite thing about it was picking the right fuzz pedals and combining them to create some interesting noises.”
Speaking of pedals, As the Sun Sets has some pretty extreme fuzz and glitch sounds. What are we hearing, exactly?
Myles: “The main guitar fuzz is a Z.Vex Mastotron and the main bass one is a Z.Vex Woolly Mammoth. So on that track and others it’s those two. The diving and glitch at the end I’m doing manually with a [PS-6] Boss Harmonist to dive the frequencies.”
Layne: “And finding those Z.Vex pedals was a bit of a happy accident that came from looking at the bands and artists that we like and the gear they use, then trying out a bunch of different stuff. I’ve seen other people running through their rigs with all kinds of boosts and three different pedals for each part.
“Ours is actually pretty straight the whole time. There isn’t much changing, it just stays as this one thing. The Z.Vex pedals are great because they sound more unique and alien compared to other fuzz pedals. We both really like how different they sound.”
Is the Boss Harmonist what we’re also hearing on Drop Song?
Myles: “Yeah! It’s the divebomb setting. I thought it would be interesting to use that rhythmically as part of the riff. We just chanced upon it and felt it sounded so gnarly, we wanted to find a way to use it more. It was all about messing around creatively and using it as part of the actual riff.”
Layne: “With a lot of these pedals, once you find that one specific thing that you love, they become such powerful tools.”
So what’s the main pedal you’re using for pitch shifting – is it a POG or perhaps a DigiTech Whammy?
Myles: “There’s a bunch of songs on the record that had the [Electro-Harmonix] POG on the guitar, with all three octaves boosted. I just love how insane that makes your guitar sound, like it’s fucking the amp up the whole time.”
The song Respecter certainly comes to mind when you say that…
Myles: “Totally! I just love that sound. When I discovered it, I felt like it made my guitar sound like it was about to blow up. It just sounded so cool.”
Layne: “Respecter is like the POG poster child for the album! One thing I found that was interesting looking back on the album is that whenever we found a strong sound, it would help inspire the direction for the rest of the song. So on that one we found this really cool POG sound and that meant the whole song ended up being like that. It made us think about how far we could take it.
“The gear helped shape the songwriting in so many ways, especially the pitch-diving stuff – that became a writing tool, for sure.”
Talk us through the rest of the rig and signal splitting. What are your main guitar and bass amps?
Layne: “I’m running through a [MarkBass] Little Mark Tube 800. I love the way those amps sound. In the studio, we ran it through a couple of different cabs just for options. Those amps don’t sound like a normal bass amp, they’re almost more synthy or electronic.
“One thing we talked about in terms of production was how some electronic music had made it harder for rock music to hit us deeper – because a lot of that stuff has crazy subs and deep 808s. If you’re using traditional low-end, it’s good to beef it up a little bit. So that’s why I like those amps, they sound very colorful and electronic, which really helps our overall sound.
Myles: “Live, we’re running a [Fender] Twin Reverb and [Fender] Hot Rod Deville. In the studio, we borrowed a bunch of vintage stuff from people, using some crazy old '70s Hiwatt heads. There was a Suhr Marshall clone too, plus a few other things. We used my American Jazzmaster, that’s like my go-to baby. The other main guitar was Layne’s Tele Deluxe.”
Layne: “Because of the pedal rig we’re running, the Fenders work great. They’re really powerful and full-bodied with a lot of definition, but also very simple. They also take pedals very well, which is very important. To get that fuller kind of sound in the studio, we’d balance that with other things. The Fenders were there, but we also wanted other things to make it sound even bigger.”
Hypocrite has what feels like the heaviest riff on the record… Taipei Houston at your most metallic, pardon the pun!
Layne: “There you go [laughs]. Yeah, that was a really fun one. We were just making music together and jamming. That was one of those songs that just happened all of a sudden. We had to get the phone out really quickly to try and record it. That song went through a bunch of different iterations, we were experimenting with different octaves.”
Myles: “Half the album is made of songs that we came up with in five minutes. The other half is like one riff that we came up with that we’d end up completing six months later or whatever, so a lot less simple in terms of being written.”
Hello From the Bottom has some really interesting descending slides, which add a lot of motion to your ideas…
Myles: “When I wrote this song, all the riffs seemed to arrive at a certain moment. I was trying to create industrial sounds that really rocked in an unconventional way. I like different styles of music, so it was me trying to mix them together and find something else.
“I was thinking a lot about the rhythms mainly – all of those riffs started with me playing on drums first. It ended up being one of my favorite songs on the album, I love how alien and weird it came out.”
Layne: “I always say on stage how much I love what Myles did on that song. Because he’s the drummer and the guitar player, he comes at it from a different place to me. Sometimes what I play feels like what I’d expect to hear… while Myles’ background in drums brings some interesting ideas I wouldn’t think of.”
So what are the chances of you guys adding members further down the line?
Myles: “We’re definitely 50/50 on it. There is more material we’ve been working on with more layers. But at the same time we love the challenge and excitement of being a duo. It’s an inspiring way to do it and makes things harder because you have to think and be more creative, which pushes you.
“On the other hand, it would be cool to have another person and have the freedom to switch over to guitar or synth. It would be nice to fill out our sound. Both directions would be exciting.”
- Once Bit Never Bored is out now via C3 Records.