Bill Callahan on misunderstandings and his collaborations
Bill Callahan (due Monday, June 27th) started releasing music under the moniker Smog in 1990. He was connected to the then-emerging underground network of music that included the indie label Kill Rock Stars, which included his song "37 Pushups ." Callahan's emotionally vibrant lyrics serve almost as a counterpoint to his supposedly unemotional vocal delivery. Despite that quality, fans of Callahan have appreciated his distinct voice and its ability to convey emotion without having to engage in overt theatrics. Throughout the '90s, Callahan's spare, honest songs struck a chord with critics as well as fans over the course of several albums, and the list of Callahan's collaborators is extensive and illustrious. For 2007's Woke On a Whaleheart, Callahan dropped the Smog name and took up his own for the releases he's done since, including this year's Apocalypse. We were able to interview Callahan via email, and his typically straight-and-to-the-point responses cleared up some misunderstandings and cast some light on his collaborations.
Westword: How did you find out about Jandek, and in what ways would you say his music and his approach to making music influenced your own?
Bill Callahan: This is a falsity perpetuated by the press.
How did you meet Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire, and what do you feel they contributed to your songwriting or recordings?
Jim came for a few hours to the studio to play cello on a couple songs on Wild Love. That is the day I met him. I didn't see him again until recording Red Apple Falls. John I saw playing with Tom Ze and really liked the guitar he played on one song of Tom's set. They were just some of the first people to treat my music with excitement. The engineers before that acted like they were waiting to die.
What do you think the epistolary novel approach allowed you to express in Emma Bowlcut that a different format might?
Might not, is what I'm guessing you mean. A wider vista, wider swings of the arms and legs. A feeling of perpetuity.
Do you read your reviews, and what do you think of so many critics focusing on the darker side of your lyrics rather than your wry, amusing lyrics?
I don't read this stuff.
The late, great Gil Scott-Heron covered "I'm New Here." Did he approach you about covering that song, and what did you think of his version?
Richard [Russell], his producer, did. And why it's just heartbreaking.
You've collaborated with a number of interesting musicians, like Thor Harris and Jim White. How do you go about making these collaborations happen and, for instance, how did you come to work with Jonathan Meiburg on Apocalypse as well?
Thor wrote me and asked if he could play with me. He was turning over a new leaf and asking for things he wanted. I met him and we liked each other. I asked him to play standing up, so he built a rad upright drum kit.
I became friends with Jim through somebody. I don't recall who at this precise moment. The first time he played with me I dragged him out of bed on an Australian weekend morning [at] 9 a.m. to play on a radio session. I'd been touring Australia with Mike Fellows on drums. The tour was done except for this radio session (part of which became 'Neath the Puke Tree). When Mike found out we weren't getting paid for the session, he refused to play. So, that's how I started with Jim.
The song "America!" seems to have political overtones. Why did politics start to become part of your lyrical repertoire in the last several years?
I'm not into politics, I'm into the human condition.
In a Tiny Mix Tapes interview from 2009 you said, "All music is an attempt to escape seclusion." Why do you think that that's true?
Music is a social act.
In a 2007 interview with Pitchfork, you said how you were still in a "giddy and running stage" right after shedding the Smog moniker for your music. Would you say that spirit informs Apocalypse and if so, how so -- if not, what mood supplanted that creative mood of a few years ago?
Still running, still giddy.
"Apocalypse at Mule Ears Peak, Big Bend National Park West Texas" by Paul Ryan adorns the cover of Apocalypse. Did you commission that painting, and what about that imagery struck you as fitting with the music you wrote?
I commissioned it in trade for allowing some of my songs to be in a movie about the artist. I didn't know what it would look like. It was a gamble.