INTERVIEW

A chat with Bill Callahan, one of underground rock’s most illusive cult figures

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Searching through a trove of past Bill Callahan interviews, a constant reiteration on the awkwardness of the interaction appears again and again, the reasoning usually placed firmly on the apparently lugubrious, laconic reticence of Callahan to engage the interviewer the way they would like him to. The palpable discomfort and apparent frustration that exists in these encounters really seems to owe a debt to both camps, however, the interviewer believing Callahan to be playing up to the role of a mysterious, fog-screened artist who speaks in riddles, metaphors, or not really at all, and Callahan feeling exasperated that what he offers as insight isn’t considered enough. “I think of my lyrics and interviews as an attempt at precise clarity,” he once said, while in the same Tiny Mix Tapes interview also reaffirming his point with, “I don’t believe it necessarily takes a lot of words to explain something.”

It’s true Callahan’s lyrics are precise, they are carved and constructed with a delicacy, craft and, no doubt, a shrewd fastidiousness. They are ships inside tiny bottles. However, rarely are they singular, and this is where the problem often lies. “I think a lot of stuff I write has two or three meanings,” he later tells me, and with this in mind one might then begin to attach a pinch of irony to his claims of attempted precision and clarity in interviews, but then irony isn’t really a proclivity of Bill’s either. “Humour is sincerity and truth,” he says. “I don’t peddle in irony.” And so it goes, back and forth, back and forth, cutting between monolithic ratiocination and tiny sapid bursts of personal insight. It’s often difficult to work out if Callahan is the very allegory of his own work or the living antithesis, yet I suspect he knows perfectly well which one.

Without meaning to be unctuous, Bill Callahan, even at his most phlegmatic and withholding, still usually eclipses any interpretation and analysis interviewers throw upon him. His original lyrics are always more interesting than listening to the futility of someone breaking them down. So, hoping to avoid being involved in yet another stalemate, I approach interviewing Bill not with a notebook bursting at the seams with lyrical dissections and bloviated thematic assertions, but rather I remain quite content in not really knowing what he definitely means when he sings “you look like worldwide Armageddon” on his latest, wonderful LP, ‘Dream River’.

Bill is doing an interview day as we speak on video call (he in his home of Austin, Texas); a painful day for him, I presume. “It’s actually been…” Bill stops talking for a moment and reaches both arms behind his back and starts wrestling with something that rustles and crackles, he then pulls out a big bag of ice from underneath the back of his T-shirt “…fine. It’s been surprisingly fine,” he says nonchalantly. Bad back, I enquire. “It just feels good to put ice on my neck,” he laughs with a quiet smirk. Laughing and smiling are perhaps not traits that Callahan is renowned for via his ‘interview persona’, but both are something I see fairly frequently during our eighty minutes together.

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Leading up to ‘Dream River’ – Bill’s fifteenth studio album, out September 16 via US indie Drag City – something rather unexpected happened: Callahan allowed a documentary team (led by first time director Hanley Banks) to make a concert (and a bit of behind-the-scenes) film ‘Apocalypse’, the title taking the same name as his superb previous album. “I get asked to do a lot of things like that and they are usually a bad idea,” Bill tells me. “They usually don’t work out. I could tell from the email she sent me that it was just going to be okay; she just had the right attitude. I really wanted that period documented because I thought those songs live with the trio (Bill, Matt Kinsey and Neal Morgan) were really great.  It was finding someone who was agreeable and wasn’t like bringing any baggage or insecurity or weirdness when they’re holding the camera. She was very personable and didn’t ask us to do anything we didn’t want to.”

“She was a first time director, so I wasn’t exactly sure what she was going to do with the stuff – she did say it was just mostly going to be music, not a lot of stupid things of us hanging backstage or anything like that, so I didn’t have to think about the audience because I wasn’t sure what we would be giving them. I just put my faith in her… and…” Bill pauses for a moment, as he often does, letting silence hang in the air as he stares at the ceiling, thinking. “… I also… from the start, I said if I don’t like it, you can’t use it. So…” he laughs with a playful, slightly sardonic smile, “… so, that’s a good line.” Bill also says this with a quiet underlying authenticity that says, ‘and this is how I always work’. “There’s been a couple of people that have tried to make a documentary and it hasn’t worked out,” he attests.

The sounds on ‘Dream River’ are somewhat emblematic of the title. Bill’s voice seems to only grow richer as he get’s older; it courses like gushing water over a sun-weathered rock as flutes and fiddles skip, jump and flurry with a twitching grace and fluidity, like salmon swimming upstream. “If you asked me 10 years ago if I would have had flute on my record I would have just said ‘no way’,” he says, “because it always seems like… the impression is that it’s very weak and watered down. But I really started loving the sound and then I realised all my favourite records have flute on them all over the place, but you don’t always really notice it. So, I kind of fell in love with the flute and I think with this record in particular there’s some dreamy aspects that it fits in with that also fit in with the title of the album – flute is definitely one of the most dreamy instruments.”

Bill offers a taste of his flute-filled record collection. “It’s kind of everything,” he says. “Stuff from the ’70s that has any kind of instrumentation on it at all. I really like ‘Blackboard Jungle’ by the Upsetters and Lee Perry, that’s got some amazing flute on it…” Bill chuckles to himself as he remembers just how much he loves the flute on that record. “… All those Marvin Gaye records, Van Morrison, I mean he uses it like a lead, but a lot of the time it’s just used as colouring. If you go back and listen to some of your favourite records you’d be surprised that there’s flute on them.” Callahan’s relationship to his own voice is apparently more stoic however. “My voice to me is just like a brick or a stone that is needed in the construction of a thing, you know? Listening to my voice isn’t like listening to someone play flute!” he laughs.

“I really wanted congas, hand drums, I wanted light,” he tells me about the intense focus on percussion on the record (largely crafted from the hands of Thor Harris, previous Bill/Smog collaborator and also a Swans and Shearwater member). “I really didn’t want to make a rock record at all with crashing symbols – all that stuff can seem too easy sometimes, to have the drummer make a bunch of noise. I really was trying to stay away from that whole rock thing, like how rock builds up. I wanted a very even keel percussion and then to have the dynamics come from – partly from my voice – mostly the guitar and the fiddle and the flute. I wanted the guitar to be like a bolt of lightening, shooting out of it.”

I mention a scene in Bill’s tour documentary in which drummer Neal Morgan brushes a potato for percussion, suggesting this concentration on percussion took hold and manifested prior to this album. “What’s the potato scene?” he bemuses, as I explain what I mean. “Oh, that’s not a potato, it’s some kind of Latin percussion,” he replies, leaving me looking very much the ignoramus I am, “like he’s brushing it with melted butter, to eat it?” he then follows up, wryly mocking me with a wicked simper.

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Much like the artistic trajectory of Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan’s records can often be intrinsically linked via a common vocal tonality and analogous song structure. Yet for all of Callahan’s momentum and the wriggling around he has done in his career, one unrelenting consistency has been the role of nature in his work. “The mountains don’t need my accolades” he sings on ‘Dream River’, of course by saying so giving them a form of accolade.

“For me, it’s just like I can’t escape it,” he says. “It kind of encroaches on my existence. I’m looking out my window right now and there are these trees that…” He laughs heartily out of his window. “… they are reaching out towards me and in a second there’s probably gonna be a squirrel come on this fence and look at me through the window. I always feel like these things are… anything that’s alive I… I can’t ignore anything that’s alive. It’s like going to the dog pound, you’re gonna come home with a dog.

“As human beings, our consciousness is everything. It’s just the way we see things – it’s all in our head, we don’t really know if these things are really there or if like, our brains are making these things to look like this but it’s actually some other dimension that we don’t even know about. So to me I feel like it’s an externalisation of – when I look at anything that’s outside – what’s in my head, and therefore everything I see is like imbued within my psyche. When I look at a tree, that’s a part of me. It can be a different thing every time I look at it, but I feel like I’m looking at the insides of me when I look at anything, trees and whatever is out there, I feel like I’m looking inside myself.” Bodies of water have surged through Callahan’s work also, and he offers an insight into its relationship to his musical output and why it plays such a vital role in his life that he’s named yet another album after water. “It’s about my favourite thing,” he says. “I don’t know really…” A silence so long hangs that you can almost hear the crickets in his backyard. “… I think just when I’m around a body of water I feel like I’m in the presence of the eternal or something god-like. When I’m around water, I feel so positive and everything makes sense and the whole world seems united. The sheer beauty of it just flabbergasts me, a river or an ocean, it’s just like dumbfoundingly beautiful to me, so just experiencing something like that gives you the desire to make music and make life good for yourself. It’s just like going to church or something, it’s like that feeling of peace or understanding. Indirectly related to music, it’s just a nice thing that makes you feel good and makes you feel productive.”

This productivity has led to Bill being very much a man of the moment. He kicked his much loved Smog moniker to the curb, even with his record label advising him not to, while rarely performing periods of his music other than the current one he exists in. Offering his thoughts on the occasionally retrogressive era we currently find ourselves in, he says: “When all these bands are getting back together and playing their best record from whenever that was, it’s kind of like saying goodbye to music, like it’s over or something. Which, maybe it is, we could be in the dying throes of music right now. I’m set in my ways, I got into the groove like 15-20 years ago of how I work and what I do and I might end up being a crazy old man who’s still pressing records when I’m 70 years old with them stacked up in my house or something but it’s just the way I know how to work and I’m not going to adjust. So, it is strange but there are more new bands than ever. So it’s kind of like this mix of old fogies resurrecting their old songs and then young kids just writing one song and throwing it on the Internet, it’s two extremes. So far I’ve just been able to keep trucking and just keep doing it and some people – like you – are willing to listen to it and write about it.”

Finally, I put forward my pitch to Bill that some people might be getting too locked into extracting a finality from his work that maybe results in – inadvertently and detrimentally – excluding themselves from the natural core and flow of the sonic journey. “I gotcha,” he fires back. “I think that’s maybe a Catch 22. I feel like maybe people don’t even want to be asking those questions but the nature of an interview is to get, like what you said, some finality and closing the book on something. So, they probably just – I know what you mean – and I’m always hesitant to… like these interviews I’ve been doing, people might ask about a specific line and what it means or what I meant and I don’t want to be cagey about it but I do think it can ruin the song for somebody if the person who wrote it says something about it that isn’t what they got out of it and also it’s very hard to pick one – I think a lot of stuff I write has two or three meanings – so it’s kind of hard to pick one. I kind of hate myself afterwards for cementing it in the history of giving an answer that’s going to be ‘the answer’ and ‘the meaning’ of such a thing but you know, you also don’t want to be, ‘oooh, I like to let people decide for themselves’ because that sounds stupid.”

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