Music Features

Waiting For The Light Of Day: An Interview With Bill Callahan

Somewhere out in the vast openness of Midwestern America is an old bar -- a place where the aroma of stale tobacco, flat beer, and a faint whiff of urine intertwine in a sort of languid, lopsided waltz atop the dusty ether. At the counter, a few aging cowboys sit in varying degrees of drunken exhaustion, a few glasses of the house whiskey straight dangling between thumb and index fingers, their mustaches thick with cigar resin and crusty barbeque sauce, left-overs from a happy hour finished hours ago bagged below their feet. And somewhere off in the corner, lit only by a single neon beer advert suffocating between the window and the tape that keeps it upright, is Bill Callahan scribbling a few stark words onto a napkin. 

Every few minutes, he looks up, takes in the sights, and slips back into meditation, perhaps to astral project himself along the banks of the Snake River or to psychically gaze upon the glory of Mount Elbert. And then for a moment, he pauses and opens up a beat-up parcel post-marked from New Jersey with a forwarding address to somewhere in Manchester. He furrows his brow, curls his upper-lip, makes a few thoughtful etchings along the sides of the paper and places it on the window sill, where the wind sweeps it up and carries it UK-bound.... Or at least that’s what I imagine happens when you send a few interview questions by way of the endless abyss of modems and LCD screens to someone as connected to Mother Gaia as Bill Callahan. In any case, Bill was kind enough to answer some questions for us regarding writing and recording, the muse in his music, and most importantly, beer. Enjoy.

Andrew: When you started Smog, the lo-fi tape-swapping scene was seeing a sort of renaissance. Can you talk a bit about the experience of making/self-distributing your own cassettes?

Bill: I can kind of relate to Rod Stewart on this one thing. You go to the Emergency Room to have an excess of semen pumped from your stomach one time and it follows you around for the rest of your life. But anyway, what I liked about it was that it enabled me to complete something. I could record and make a final product all by myself just by pushing a couple buttons. I was not really big on distributing. That part was not so important to me as the making of it. I maybe made twenty copies, tops, of my biggest cassette. Distribution was minimal. It was enough to do it and make five copies. With all the digital crap around these days, those cassette recorders are seeming pretty sweet. I got a TEAC ¼” open reel recorder recently and have been messing around with that in my shed. Thereʼs a certain satisfaction in recording something yourself, on your property -- on your time, dime and clime. 

A: Was there a different approach that you took to writing and recording on your own, as opposed to operating within a studio with a producer at the helm? 

B: It used to be more immediate. I would stem to stern it in one sitting. Sit down with blank paper and blank mind then write, record, arrange with overdubs, mix it down all in one night. Boom! Ya know? Recording in a studio is a lot more formal. 

A: Structurally speaking, your songs tend to be very repetitious, usually following a simple chord sequence, but your melodies and lyrics never seem to settle in one place. When you set out to write, are you purposefully looking to eschew the traditional verse-chorus structure, or is this more of a subconscious habit?

B: I just donʼt think in verse-chorus ways. My thought tends to scuttle along like a mole with a heavy duffel bag trying to make the train. It doesnʼt return to blocks of thought. 

A: You’ve spoken before about how when approaching vocals, your voice is sort of playing a character thatʼs tailored to that particular record. Is that to assume that each album is also lyrically inspired by a specific perspective that exists exclusively on that work? Or are your lyrics generally written from your own particular perspective and then applied to a character?

B: Iʼd guess that itʼs about fifty/fifty. Each informs the other. You get in a mindset and focus on certain aspects of existence.  Like if you got a new Beemer youʼd think about Beemers and how they affect you and how other people might relate to Beemers.  You wouldnʼt necessarily be writing exclusively about your own Beemer and how you alone feel about it. You would take all perspectives, all temperatures.

A: Speaking of lyrics, I hear The New York Times recently called you “one of Americaʼs best lyricists”. Can you share a few of your thoughts on that statement? Itʼs obviously a pretty big superlative, has it effected your approach to writing?

B: No amount of praise is going to write your song for you. No amount of scorn is going to stop me. But really, those things donʼt even exist for me. They just melt away on contact. Which lately has felt strange to me. Itʼs strange to have people saying things about “you” that donʼt even register in your psyche. But I guess because I know itʼs not about “me” so my brain dismisses it as superfluous to my daily life. But things your friends and family say about you, you carry around to the grave. They shape you, they shape your grave. 

A: Your last album, Apocalypse, obviously had a lot political underpinnings to it, which seemed to really embody the album itself. Lyrically, what was your main focus when approaching Dream River? 

B: I had been inching my way through The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I worked out a system where I estimated how long I expect myself to live and divided the number of words in The Tibetan Book of the Dead by how many days I expected to live. So that I could read only the amount of words per day that would have me finishing the book near my expected expiration date. Turns out I can read three words per day. That was a big inspiration for Dream River, because it would just stimulate my brain enough to work.  Still working on it, obviously! Some people live by, “One day at at time,” I live by “Three words in a day.” 

A: Your music in general comes off very American, not just in its recent political topics, but in its vast, open feel. It seems sort of rhetorical that being American would inform your sensibilities as a songwriter, but does it go deeper than that? Do you consider yourself a particularly patriotic person? 

B: Itʼs just what I know. There are brief periods where you become enamored with Japanese or French or Italian or Scottish movies or music or books or landscapes and you start to think that is the place you are in, where you belong. But it always comes back to my own country. I love it here, but maybe itʼs just because I love to be alive and this is where Iʼm alive. True patriotism is no patriotism. 

A: A lot of your songs seem heavily influenced by the natural world, with subjects including horses, bodies of water, seasons, and various landscapes. Even on a cursory perusing of some of the song titles on Dream River, it seems that nature is still a force that continues to fuel you creatively. Is there any particular reason that you are drawn to these images? 

B: Is there anything but nature in our existence? So what else is there to write about?

A: I’ve heard Dream River described as your most “soulful” album to date. Did you make a conscious decision to move in that direction?

B: Always trying to come from the heart. Thatʼs really all. My patience and interest in that are increasing over time. 

A: Thank you so much for answering our questions! Any parting thoughts for our UK readership?

B: I’ve never had a truly refreshing beer in the UK. I think beer is approached in a utilitarian manner there. In its production and consumption. It feels like an obligation to drink beer in UK. And maybe itʼs partially because it is mostly served tepid. Which gives it a baking soda overtone. A Guinness can sometimes hit the spot but often itʼs in that state where the water is separating so itʼs like drinking two kinds of drink in one sip. Which is nasty.

Dream River by Bill Callahan is available in stores now.