Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in 2007 for the Believer, but for various reasons it never ran. Resting in the lovely shadow of Callahan’s excellent new album, Weird Deer thought it might be as good a time as any to put this up here. Thanks to Bill for his time and consideration, and to Jessica Linker for acting as the go-between.
For twenty years, the executioner’s baritone of Bill Callahan has delivered some of our most emotionally devastating songs. From the amateur 4-track anthem “Prince Alone in the Studio” to the college radio hit “Cold Blooded Old Times,” Callahan’s music has all the uncomfortable intimacy of an early Cassevetes film, but with shabbier clothes. Over fifteen albums, Callahan has developed a sound that is close-quartered and real, at times uncomfortably so (“Most of my fantasies / are of / making someone else come,” he sings on 1996’s Red Apple Falls, “to be of use /like a corkscrew”).
And while the droning guitars and rudimentary beats of Callahan’s early work under the moniker Smog have given way to a more polished outlaw country sounds now under his legal name, the lyrics remain as carefully crafted as ever. Even if the words have the feel of an awkward confession, there’s never one out of place.
This same spirit pervades Callahan’s correspondence. In this interview, conducted over four months of email back and forth, Callahan chooses his words carefully and uses them sparingly. He has a reputation for being a difficult subject, and it’s true he has a reticence in interviews uncommon in the brave new bloggy world of independent music. But after going back and forth with him about his writing, I think much of this perceived difficulty is actually Callahan being direct. His answers aren’t easy, but rather, like his music, cut close to the bone.
I sent my last round of questions just before Callahan left for a short tour of Australia. One question, which seemed to me an absurd one, but one I couldn’t help but ask, was “What does it mean to be a man?” After a week, his publicist wrote back to say that Bill tried and tried, but couldn’t come up with any answers. I happened to be listening to Callahan’s album Woke on a Whaleheart when that message came in, specifically the song “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man.” Which is probably as good of an answer as I was likely to get.
TN: When you were making your first album, Macramé Gunplay, as a teenager, how did you imagine your life unfolding? Did you imagine that you would make a life as a musician, and be recognized for it?
BC: I didn’t have any traditional aspirations. Very little comes to mind when I think of that time. I think I was just a kid jumping in to things. Though there was a certain strong attachment. As I’d been confused and frustrated and pretty disdainful of what paths lay before me. Until I found the music and it was a sensation I knew I’d seek out again and again for the rest of my life. But it was more about soul than anything, it wasn’t about any kind of social aspirations. That early stuff was just like a baby’s ga ga goo goo. A rudimentary language without an enduring structure.
TN: Can you describe the first public show you ever played?
BC: It was funny. I was opening for Pavement on a four-band bill, playing first at a long since defunct venue called Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island. Gerard Cosloy asked me if I wanted to play a show. I hadn’t really thought of playing live before but I said OK. I asked my friend in NY who plays arena rock guitar to play with me. I wanted a big sound to fill the room. He was my Brian May. The sound check was the part I was most nervous about, since that was the first time I’d been on stage with a guitar and voice and mic and monitor. There were a few people in the club already, friends of the bands and label people and other people. The soundman said, “go ahead.” I closed my eyes and went through a song. Kept them closed for the whole song. When I opened them the club had completely cleared out. Even the soundman was gone! (He’s supposed to stay and make the adjustments you ask for until you’re happy with the sound). My guitarist, Tim, said “fuck them, man, they don’t know your music.” A bit later when Pavement did their sound check, the people were back in the audience bobbing their heads and clapping. It was a formative moment for me as the audience looked like utter fools. Monkeys. Chimps. And that was just the sound check! The show was great.
TN: What’s your favorite song to dance to?
BC: My favorite is to move a little to live music that I am playing. That’s the only place where I have that real connected feeling of “dancing to music because you have to” these days. When I was younger–16, 17, 18 –the music hit me in the way that makes you dance. I still do it sometimes now, but its not because the music is making me dance, it’s because I want to dance.
TN: How does a song usually come together for you–do you write the lyrics first, then find the chord structure, or vice versa?
BC: I’ve been wondering about this myself. I mean, it’s the oldest question in the book. But I’ve been wondering because most of the time I don’t know how a song comes to be. The finished product erases the history of its arrival. The song blanks your mind out and that is when you know it is done — when you can’t remember working on it. That said, I have realized that I pretty much have to write the lyrics first. I can’t invest in the tangible musical side of a song until I know I have a good lyric. Because what would be the point of setting bad lyrics to music?
TN: How much revision do you do?
BC: I have my way of writing. It’s brutal and asks a lot of me. Even in that I feel I’ve said too much. I like a messy page. That’s all I’m going to say.
TN: One thing I’ve always admired about your songs is their merging of the private and public worlds, the “ga ga goo goo” and the “Hi, how are you.” There have been the bedroom-y lo-fi sounds and the intimate lyrics, but your music rarely feels “confessional.” A mystery remains about the singer, which makes me wonder how much of this push and pull between public and private is part of an aesthetic plan?
BC: I’ve never been interested in the confessional style as it imparts too much emphasis on the listener’s personal relationship with the singer. I’m more interested in coming up with something beyond that, so that both I and the listener get swept away to some place where we both need and rely on each other equally. Instead of being rooted in the narrator, which is a one-way street. The narrator is looking at the narrator and the listener is looking at the narrator, too. This is wrong to me. Melissa Etheridge. The gaze can go solely in the other direction, too, and be just as weak for it. Such as many protest or ‘finger pointing’ songs.
TN: What kind of relationship do you have with your fans? I could imagine many of them feel a kind of ownership with your music that could turn frightening. But it also could be pretty wonderful.
BC: I’d say I don’t have much of a relationship with them at all. A fan is someone that loves something but has no relationship with the thing beyond their love for it. Sometimes they might try to cross the line and enter the netherworld. You see them in it and they panic. They say strange things that they regret. They lash out, sometimes, because of the newness of it.
TN: I’m really interested in this idea of performer and fan, especially because in some ways I think because in music the equation can get very distorted. Like you say, the love for the music can become all-encompassing, almost obliterating any trace of the musician as a person, or of the listener as a person. It’s almost religious. Music can have this power. And your music in particular has been incredibly important for some people I know at very difficult times in their lives. And they would love an appropriate way to express that to you–or someone in a similar position as you. Do you think there is any way for this to happen? And do you, as a performer, feel like you need to know those people are out there?
BC: Maybe the best thing a person can do is to buy your records, come to your shows. Sounds simple and ‘unspecial’ but it works for me. Also, if someone says to me, “My dad died last year and your music really helped me get through”, that stays with me and means everything to me. It’s one sentence you can hold on to. That’s all it takes. For me, at least. The music’s not designed to have casual listeners. I am aware of that and need to be trusted that I know that, as I trust the listener to know that.
Last night I was listening to a record and one of the speakers was fuzzing, distorting the sound. I noticed the cone was ripped a little so I put my hand on it to see if that stopped the fuzzing. The music was still playing and the way my hand moved over the cone amazed me. It was like I was a great dancer. And it was with no doing of my own. Something else was moving my body. It made me realize in a new way the physical power music has over our bodies. To think that maybe your brain is shaped, altered by music in a similar fashion. And so this is probably something to do with the ‘debt’ felt by fans. As if the musician is a creator of something more than the music. The musician creates something inside the listener almost like a parent or deity.
TN: Did something like that happen with you and the Velvet Underground when you were younger?
BC: I didn’t have any good teachers in my life at schools. Most people I know have at least ONE teacher they value as real important to their development. I think mine was the Velvet Underground. Here was someone who showed me things about life in an engaging exciting way that left me charged up to go out and do things myself.
TN: It’s tragic to me to think that someone as insightful and intelligent as you wouldn’t have gotten any of that good attention from your teachers. But you were able to find your own way, I guess, and you seem remarkably free of bitterness. But you do seem oppositional, or at least, skeptical of the established order. Do you see yourself this way?
BC: I’m not oppositional but I’ve always found the established order to be quite humorous. It always feels like there is a better way to do everything. A better way to renew your driver’s license, a better way to run an election, a better way to feed the hungry.
TN: How has your partnership with Dan Koretsky at Drag City evolved over the years?
BC: I’d say it hasn’t evolved a single bit. From the first day we started working together he afforded me the greatest respect and belief. It has carried on through the years. So far so good.
TN: Do you think Austin has changed your music–or your approach to your music?
BC: There is a really good attitude towards music here that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. The attitude is that music is good and fun and good for you. You don’t really get that feeling in other cities. I don’t think the city has affected my music at all, but its nice not to get a smirk from the guy at the bank when you tell him you’re a musician.
TN: A friend of mine recently caught your show at the 40 Watt in Athens, and he said Andre Benjamin from Outkast snuck in at the end of the set. Did you guys chat at all?
BC: I did not know he was there. He’s quite cuddly. I’d like to give him a little cuddle.
TN: I hear some Calvin Johnson in your voice and some Beat Happening in your music. Did any of the K Records scene impact you at all?
BC: Oh no, I think what Calvin Johnson does with his voice is on the complete opposite side of the spectrum from me. There is no point where they intersect and share anything. I find it hard to believe that anyone would draw a parallel between the two voices.
TN: I’d love to hear a little about how Joanna Newsom’s work has affected you. Can you talk about that at all?
BC: Her approach to music is really radical, wide-ranging, precise. As if she has the powers of the whole world at her disposal. And she is always pushing forward, pushing herself onwards, unyielding to obstacles. This has been a great inspiration to me. I’ve always questioned everything in the music making process, but since hearing her music, I’ve got a hundred more questions to ask myself. Mostly it has made me delve deeper into the relationship between what is being sung and what it is being accompanied with.
TN: Every time I’ve seen you live, you’ve had amazing opening acts, from Devendra Banhart to Empire State to Sir Richard Bishop. How much of a hand do you have in putting together the bill?
BC: I almost always try to pick the opening acts. Music that I like. People that I like to spend time with or have around. Real forces. I didn’t pick Devendra Banhart, that was the promoter Alan Licht’s idea, I believe. I try to make it the best night for everyone — me, my band, the opening act, the audience. But sometimes it’s not possible. For example my upcoming tour through the South. There isn’t much money to play with. So, probably leave it up to the promoters to find people to do it.
TN: What bands are you listening to these days?
BC: A lot of piano sonatas. I just like sonatas, can’t take the whole orchestra clanging. Bach, Debussy to relax at night. And Arvo Part. A ridiculous amount of reggae. Anything Keith Hudson or Lee Perry were involved with. That last Alasdair Roberts record was a corker. There’s a local band called The Strange Boys that I saw recently and liked. Singer’s got a good voice. And they seem really tapped into something they believe in.
TN: Do you think there’s a clear divide between sincerity and irony in your music?
BC: I think the word irony has lost its meaning over the years. I also think people mislabel things as ironic when they are completely un-ironic. Or when something is funny, people label it ironic. There are many other kinds of humor besides irony. Humor is sincerity and truth. I don’t peddle in irony.