NAME: Bill Callahan
PROGRESS REPORT: One of music’s most mysterious songwriters talks about the Apocalypse, explores writing songs with a quill, and addresses the apparent futility of hope.
Bill Callahan is the kind of musician that — even if you don’t happen to enjoy or understand what he’s doing — makes music that is almost beyond reproach. Over the past 23 years Callahan has released what is arguably some of the most thoughtful, beautiful, influential, and often totally inscrutable music ever to see the light of day. Whether it be as Smog or recording under his own name, Callahan has flirted subtly with different musical styles but has largely maintained a singular vision: that of the curious outsider looking in. Callahan’s new album, Apocalypse, was released last week and it ranks among his most fascinating and thorniest work. The album’s seven sparse tracks offer a quiet dismantling of various American mythologies, all of them punctuated by fragmented moments of silence and Callahan’s unmistakably plaintive delivery. The album not only further cements Callahan’s reputation as a meticulous songwriter, but also affirms him as one of the few artists that always convincingly evokes a musical landscape that is utterly and uniquely their own.
Not surprisingly, Callahan isn’t much for doing interviews, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about what he’s been up to as of late and just how his Apocalypse came to be. He is definitely not an amateur.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about what you’ve been up to since the release of Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle in 2009? Did you take much time off? What do you tend to do when you aren’t touring or recording?
BILL CALLAHAN: I don’t consciously take time off, I’m kind of always working, because work is just living. It’s tightly bound up with itself like an owl pellet.
STEREOGUM: How did the songs for Apocalypse come together? What can you say about the experience of writing and recording these songs? Who did you work with? How did it feel?
BILL CALLAHAN: I’m trying to not repeat myself in these interviews because there are a couple people who are reading all of them. I remember reading interviews as a kid and being disappointed because the person was always repeating themselves over and over. I didn’t understand it then, but now I do. You get asked the exact same question, worded in the exact same way so many times in a short period. That robot reflex replier wants to kick in.
I wrote the songs in 2 1/2 months straight. Then rehearsed with a band for 2 or 3 days. Then made the drive to Tornillo, TX to Sonic Ranch to record. It has to be one of the last relaxing drives left in America. No traffic, no turns. For 10 hours you just point the steering wheel straight and go. It was the first break I’d taken in 3 months. I recorded at Sonic Ranch with John Congleton for, I think, 7 days. The band was there for the first three days and then for the remaining four I had the fiddle and flute overdubs one day, then worked by myself on the remaining days. There was an orange cat that liked to hide behind bushes and jump out at you when you walked by. I thought its name was Ninja, which is a great name for a cat. I found out on the last day that I’d misheard and it was called Ginger. Please.
One month later I started mixing it in Austin, TX at Public Hi-Fi with John Congleton. I recorded the final version of “Baby’s Breath” there by myself, and had Matt Kinsey come in to do his guitar part. Then we started mixing but it was like trying to walk on a greased floor. We didn’t get anywhere. Or anywhere I wanted to be. I decided to have a fresh start a week later with Brian Beattie in the mixing chair. He’s a family man and requested that we start mixing at 9AM and end around 5PM every day. Instead of the usual “noon til whenever we drop” method. It was efficient. I was delighted. We mixed the whole record in four days.
STEREOGUM: Has your way of working changed radically over the years? What can you say about your typical process for writing and recording songs? Or is there a “typical” process for you?
BILL CALLAHAN: With this record I wrote the songs with a quill and ink. It got to be so annoying to use that I didn’t waste any words the first time. I would only write something I knew was right.
STEREOGUM: There is a great line in the bio for this record — Abacus Coopdawn’s “Apocalypse Assistant” — that reads: “This record makes us wonder what has really happened in the last 100 years. And what will happen in the next 10.” What do you think will happen in the next 10 years? As far as America (and the world) is concerned, what do you think is happening right now?
BILL CALLAHAN: Speculation is the curse of the times. Nostradamus was less annoying than these news stations with their endless speculation. I feel as if we have reality all wrong anyway. I’m still working it out, but they say we’re 97% water. I think we are maybe water with a little bit of things floating on top. What is happening right now is another photograph of American history that we have seen before. Floating on the water.
STEREOGUM: What served as the inspiration (or inspirations) for Apocalypse? Tell me about something that currently inspires you.
BILL CALLAHAN: I listen to a lot of reggae and dub from the 70’s. More than lesser men could abide! Black and White Gospel. Sizzla. These were all things I was thinking of as feasible languages. Lately I’ve been getting deep into Marvin Gaye and Tim McGraw.
STEREOGUM: At just seven songs in length, Apocalypse still packs a mighty punch. Why such brevity? Did you record any songs that didn’t make the record?
BILL CALLAHAN: It’s not brief to me. It’s around 42 minutes, which is about as much as you can fit on a vinyl LP, which is the format I’m working in. There were no extra songs — I’m not an amateur.
STEREOGUM: You published a novel in 2010. How did the creative process involved with writing a book differ from the process involved in recording an album? Do you see yourself writing more books?
BILL CALLAHAN: I do things that are easy, like write books. A book is a quiet process. Music is soundly. You hear it in your head all day. A book is like staring into a distant valley and watching birds swoop into the wind.
STEREOGUM: You’ll be kicking off a long European tour in April. Are you excited to be back on the road? Have your feelings about playing live changed over the years? Do you enjoy it? What can people expect from this tour? Are there any places in the world that you haven’t played that you’d like to?
BILL CALLAHAN: May. I’m paying an extra 5 pounds per day to rent a NEW van in Europe. With leather reclining seats and USB ports. Instead of the vans I usually rent there with unspeakable stains and aromas. People can expect the band to show up, for sure. Don’t worry, we will be there. I’d like to play in India, Senegal, Nigeria, Jamaica, Corsica, and go back to South America.
STEREOGUM: How would your say Apocalypse fits in with the rest of your catalog? And how would you characterize your relationship to your body of work? There will always be those fans who will forever obsess over the early Smog records. What do you think of that early work? And how is it to play those songs now, or do you?
BILL CALLAHAN: I’ve recorded hundreds of songs. It suits me best to pretend they don’t exist. It’s not hard. They don’t help or hinder me in any way. Each new song is it’s own policeman — it’s not related to the past. Music is the most futuristic art, I read somebody say recently. It’s the most fluid, as it has no form.
STEREOGUM: We’re nearly five months deep into 2011, but I still keep thinking of this as a new year. What are your hopes for the rest of the year?
BILL CALLAHAN: Hope is just procrastination. “Let’s hope the economy gets better…Let’s hope it together!”
[Photo by Goya Skye]