Bill Callahan: Interview
“All music is an attempt to escape seclusion.”
Bill Callahan is often looked at as a mystery-shrouded brooder, with furrowed brow, staid and nested in the corner, his disposition not necessarily dark or shadowy but still far from sunny (despite the recent embrace of potentially perk-ifying banjos). He's a man rapt in regurgitated clichés and grandiose mythology (“indie/lo-fi pioneer” with a catalog of scratchy home-recordings); a singer/songwriter whose very genesis defies all sensibilities connected to the tradition; a chronic cryptic and an ever-changing, ever-morphing, ever-moving artist. Yet, you'll often read him dissuading any zealous interviewer with some simply spat philoso-shrug that puts it all into perspective. And, essentially that's also the case here, as the man who recorded as Smog for 16 industrious years guides me into my place like leaves caught in some paranormal breeze from a land of infinite autumn, where empty trees resemble brains and birds hold mystic secrets, a gale blown from the songs of his latest album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. Released via Drag City, the LP is his thirteenth proper full-length and second recorded under his own name.
Covering dream-talk, the decline of the mainstream, and a winged metaphor that harbors an all-obliterating loneliness, Callahan once again slinks vindication against perceived cryptic quips and seclusion-loving-standoffishness, and re-re-reaffirms himself as simply a musician making music and saying all that needs to be said.
You've often reflected, in interviews, on the location of where you write and record and how it may or may not effect your writing – but I'm wondering if time of year, weather, or other factors also effect your operation… and also what toll was taken by the four “sleepless nights” during Eagle's recording?
In truth, I only reflect on location when asked. I can't really see a correlation. Weather may be a factor though, as I believe weather is everything for me. Winter weather is not my soul, as a great man once said. Me. If the weather is too distracting -- unrelentingly cold and gray or non-stop rain -- I don't tend to write songs. If it's raining I'd probably choose to read. If it's super cold, I'll watch movies. If there's a nice temperate or tropical clime, I'm more inclined to work after a nice morning in the ocean. The lack of sleep is not really a factor.
What did you enjoy most about making this record? How much of it was just you; how much of it was collaborated?
It was great to work with John Congleton for the first time and find out he's a good guy and a great engineer. I was also real excited about Brian Beattie's arrangements and the way he understands music when he hears it. I'd say most of the record was collaboration of some sort, except the bare bones -- i.e. the lyrics and the delivery and the overall concept was mine. But, couldn't have done it without all the players' dedication.
"It ain't supposed to be mystifying or cryptic. I tried to be as clear as the Rio Grande."
It seems like you always have to unpack and explain your lyrics. Or, that the questions (as mine are starting to) inevitably drift toward lyrics. [The Silver Jews'] David Berman told me in an interview, more or less, that he was heartened to be a force for continuing to bring an intellectuality or literary inflection into music since the mainstream, as he saw, was de-evolving into instrumental/dance/disco/shopping-soundtrack music. What's your take?
I do think that lyric-driven music is on the wane. Drag City is the flagship for keeping good lyricists fed and clothed. The mainstream has dumbed down since the '40s to '70s. Some of the dumbed language can be used to great meaning, such as Lil Wayne. But a lot of it is just dumb and underachieving.
Do you ever think of, or envision a particular type of listener, music listener or art appreciator, when you write? Are you ever conscious of your audience?
I think of A Listener. They are like me, at least in the way they listen to records. They are not listening on their computer. They are sitting before their stereo as if it is about to be some kind of trip. But I don't really think the listeners that like it are like me. I think that is just my target, knowing that it is a broad template that many different people can fit into. I had an ex-Marine who was just crazy about "Drinking at the Dam." I was listening to the song in a totally different way than he was, but it was also similar. He latched on to the jarheads aspect of the song and listened to it from that perspective. That was heartening.
You're often perceived as cryptic, in lyrics and in interviews – does this frustrate you… or is it the flipside – do you take any comfort or enjoyment from that, and why?
I don't get it. I think of my lyrics and interviews as an attempt at precise clarity. Maybe not this interview 'cos I just got home from out of town and realized the interview was due two or three days ago. So I'm doing it after a long day of travel just before bed. I'm tired, Tiny Mix Tapes!
Reading other interviews, or just telling a longtime Smog-fan-friend of mine that I'd be interviewing you, there was this looming sense of potential standoffish-ness… towards interviews – is it deliberate to the point of parody, or is it less conscious? Or born from a virulent disagreement with interviews in general?
I don't believe it necessarily takes a lot of words to explain something. I work at boiling things down. But a lot of people feel comforted by a whole bunch of words. I often don't. Unless someone is really explaining the back and forth of something. Longwinded can be fascinating, reassuring, and illuminating, but it's not me.
Was [Eagle single] “Eid Ma Clak Shaw” really born from a dream? There's no weighty question here; I just very much appreciate the song... or am mystified (haunted?) by it...
I found an old notebook with the two words, "eid ma" scrawled on the overleaf in a very shaky hand. Maybe written with my left when I'm a righty. I thought, ‘what the hell was I writing?' I couldn't remember writing it. I may well have scrawled it in half-sleep after clicking on the light. Wherever it came from, I wrote the story of the song from that. Once again, it ain't supposed to be mystifying or cryptic. I tried to be as clear as the Rio Grande.
"Longwinded can be fascinating, reassuring, and illuminating, but it's not me."
What's with trees? There's only a couple Eagle songs that do not directly involve them, and some are very blatant in their depiction: “too many birds,” “eagles,” an empty tree depicted as a brain, “how much of a tree bends in the wind.” What do trees and birds represent to you?
Trees. Well, ain't they a wonderful thing. Each one seems to speak its own history. "All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast" was a poem I had around. I've only written two poems in my life. That and "Dress Sexy at My Funeral." I had "Dress Sexy" in a drawer for years and what do you do with one poem? I decided to just repeat the title as the chorus and turn it into a song. The same for "All Thoughts..." I just added a couple lines to repeat once I realized that it would fit into the tree and birds theme of the songs I was writing for the album. Birds are another story. They live a separate life that runs parallel to ours. I like the idea of the tree bending in the wind being the brain tree.
“All Thoughts Are Prey” is quite an interesting song, lyrically: an empty tree resembling a brain with small creatures referred to as “softer thoughts” being chased away by an eagle who bemoans his loneliness. What does this eagle represent to you? What is it that chases these softer thoughts away and brings loneliness, and why would you wish we become whatever this eagle is?
The eagle in this story is something that obliterates all other things; that is where the loneliness comes in. But if two people could be one eagle, then things would be alright. It is what we strive for. To be an eagle alone is hard to bear, but it may be the plight of some.
With the eagle's loneliness, what's your reaction to your music, much more so with Smog pre-2000, being perceived as loner music, glorifying seclusion?
All music is an attempt to escape seclusion.
Anything you're looking forward to in 2009?
I'm looking forward to touring a lot. I'm looking forward to getting back in the studio and making more records. I'm looking forward to buying the new The-Dream record. I'm looking forward to going to bed.
[Photo: Tully Grader]