Bill Callahan: “When I get to the party I never want to leave”

A long talk with the legendary songwriter about nature, family and why humans are really not able to handle social media

“I watched The Crown, so I get it.” Bill Callahan is empathetic on the day the news breaks that the Queen has died. We’re meeting to discuss Bill’s new solo album YTILAER but naturally have been distracted by the UK headlines of the day. “She’s on the money right? Maybe people will be panicking it won’t be worth anything,” he smiles. 

YTILAER is Callahan’s first album since 2020’s Gold Record, following a brief hiatus singing covers with Drag City friends like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy; he’s seemingly enjoying being back in the saddle. Still based in Austin, Texas, the previously nomadic former Smog singer tells me it’s the longest time he’s stayed in one place. 

“It’s changed an amazing amount since I moved here in 2004,” he says. “I have never witnessed a city exploding with the amount of people like this one has. It’s still retaining the parts I like about it, which is fine, just the traffic is much worse.” He’s not smiling anymore. “One of the things I like the most about Austin though is the green belt which goes right through the city, a protected natural, hiking area where you can go and that’s not ever going to change – until they build a condo there.” He delivers that last phrase in deadpan style, which I soon find out is his default setting.

Ian Roebuck: Bill, you have a wide and varied back catalogue, but this is the first piece of work that’s inverted letters to spell backwards. What’s taken you so long?

Bill Callahan: I think I’m getting to the end of my creativity and that’s all I could come up with. No, a few years ago I was doing some drawing and very casually wrote reality backwards – just like you see on the album – and I thought that could be something someday. It was when I made this record I realised it was the perfect time to use it. 

IR: The album looks to address the current climate, socially and otherwise. You suggest society is still emerging from something – are we all in a fugue state?

BC: Definitely, yes, and I feel like a lot of people are just realising that things aren’t what they seem with the government and authority – and also just how thin our reality is. We never really know why we don’t tear each other apart like the chimps we are. I guess my whole worldview has been shifted. 

IR: With this record you state it was necessary to rouse people. Can you explain what you are rousing us from?

BC: Well, I think there is kind of a mass hypnosis between the pandemic and social media; everyone was looking for someone to give us an answer. When this all started I also thought that pretty soon they would give us a good solution to all these problems but it never came. There was stalling for time and lying and all sorts of things that don’t make you trust you’re in safe hands. It was basically just chaos that I am reacting to.

IR: It’s been a while since we all looked each other in the eye. Are you enjoying being face to face once more?

BC: My pandemic was not that extreme, because living in Texas no one can tell us what to do. Also having kids, especially my boy who needs at least three different play dates a day with at least three different people or else he goes nuts, I just maintained a normal life really. It’s nice not to have to wear a mask so much – that was driving me crazy – but I do know people who got super freaked out and didn’t see anyone for a year or more. That wasn’t my type of experience at all.

IR: There are horns, multiple instruments, even multiple singers on this album. Everyone will say this is an uplifting Bill Callahan record – are you ready for that?

BC: I expect that. Whenever I write a record I envisage the audience – what I need and what people need at that time. It just seemed the right time to make a record like this. Even now hip hop feels like ambient music, where it used to be this uplifting, power to the people type of thing. It doesn’t seem to be helping very much, to get us out of this moment you know, so I just wanted to make something that was really there, that you can’t ignore. Trumpets!

IR: And what was it like working with other voices?

BC: With social media, particularly Instagram, it’s all about you, one person taking pictures of themselves endlessly. I just thought it would be a better idea to get more people involved so it wasn’t just pictures of me.

IR: Your press release highlights this new record runs for exactly one hour. No more, no less. An hour these days feels like a long time for anything, right?

BC: I found it a little bit daunting myself, you know, when I got the CD test pressing. “I have to sit here for an hour and listen to this!” I don’t know, I am starting to think that the whole album thing might be a soon-to-be archaic form. Like a lot of things, recording analogue, making albums, not being on streaming for a long time, all those things I tried to hold on to because they were things I valued and they were things that other people seemed to value. I just don’t know how long that is going to last. Eventually even I am going to stop caring about the album format and recording analogue.

IR: Does that make you want to cherish these things or jump into the future and see what is next?

BC: I am kind of torn, because I do believe that listening to something on record or tape gives back to me, but listening to digital I feel like something is being taken away from me in this weird way. At the same time music is supposed to change; we’re at a crossroads now and this is just the painful separation of the past from the present.

IR: Would it surprise you to hear that the new album got me moving? Could we see dancing at future Bill Callahan gigs?

BC: I think my music is oddly rhythmic; a friend of mine recently pointed this out and I said, “What are you talking about?”, but then I have been practising for some shows coming up and as soon as I start playing the songs I start moving. I don’t know where the rhythm is coming from exactly but I do think that it’s getting more and more like that as I continue to rehearse. They will change even more as I bring the band in to practice… they’re getting even more danceable.

IR: We’ve got tracks called ‘Coyotes’, ‘Horse’, ‘First Bird’ and a bird is on the album artwork. Nature is never too far away on one of your records is it?

BC: I am totally connected to nature and I use it as symbolism. I think that everyone can get down with that. Everyone has birds around them and things that grow; you know, it’s how I relate to the world and how I conceive of things, through natural images. I was out hiking today with my friend. Usually this time of the week we walk out and find a big rock to sit on, talk about stuff for a while and then walk back. It’s so hot at the moment so we walk like elephants. It gets pretty deep, we usually chat about creating, alcohol, whatever, and how to get through a day feeling good at the end of it.

IR: It comes off the back of your covers album with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Did you enjoy that process and how did it feel returning to writing your own material?

BC: I was getting pretty sick of singing covers… not really. At the time I didn’t want it to end as it was so productive, we even kept going after the release. We had a Scout Niblett cover after the record was done and we did some extra Jerry Jeff Walker covers; we had built up so much momentum. Every week there was a new backing track in our inbox and it was very challenging to put your vocals in last. I am used to putting my vocals in first so everyone else has to go around me and fit in with what I am doing, so it was basically the complete opposite of how I normally work, including recording in my bedroom. There is no money in covers though; it was nice to go back to my own work.

IR: There was a flurry of excitement when you joined Twitter in 2018 and you mentioned enjoying it at the time. What’s your relationship with social media now, four years later?

BC: Well it was just an experiment. It looked like it could be fun, but I think I quit like a year ago now. I just got off as quick as possible. It’s an awfully dangerous thing – we shouldn’t be hearing those many voices, strangers. If you could ride a bus at rush hour and could hear everyone’s thoughts you would go fucking insane right, I mean you would probably be storming the White House. We didn’t think this through, the whole social media thing and if we can handle it. I don’t think humans can at all, to be honest – maybe we’ll evolve to handle it in 100 years. 

IR: How is life treating you as a family man? 

BC: The thing that I had always heard about having kids is that it’s 24/7, and I have always thought “Yeah, yeah I can handle that”, but you don’t really know until you do it. You think “Yeah that’s fine I will get up at 3am,” but it’s 24/7 and for the rest of your life. I have got a little girl now and she’s just the cutest kid that ever… actually I hope my son doesn’t read this. No, she’s adorable and my son is adorable. I think it makes you a more complete human, it opened up so many different rooms in me that I didn’t know I had, or didn’t ever go into.

IR: Finally, the final track on the new album is titled ‘Last One At The Party’. Is this a reference to yourself – are you that guy?

BC: I never want to go to the party but when I get there I never want to leave.

Photography by Hanly Banks Callahan