An online conversation
Interview Ric Leichtung
Photography Jason Nocito
I used to deliver singing telegrams in ridiculous costumes. I had played the parts of a rugged cowboy who was “new to this part of town,” a straight-talking sexy cop that “didn’t take no for an answer,” and a sexually ambiguous pink gorilla who “loved bananas”. I traveled from Brooklyn to deliver said jobs, or “Johns” as I used to call them. Turning tricks got me by; it was easy and I was making money off what my mother gave me. But it never got me off. On those long, multi-transfer train rides, I needed something to get my mind off the fact I hated making an ass out of myself in costume for money. Listening to his song “I Break Horses,” I found salvation in the vast world of the man then known as Smog, now as Bill Callahan.
I was a casual listener for years until I chronologically dove into his discography, which expands to 15 albums over more than 20 years. But you don’t just wake up next to someone after a handful of passionate sessions and dedicate your time to truly understanding them. They must touch you profoundly, and “Horses” got me really hot. The song goes, “soon that warmth turned to an itch/turned to a scratch/turned to a gash”. It penetrated deep inside of me. I’ll be the first to admit that I can be pretty easy to get off. Callahan is probably a great lover; he famously had romances with Joanna Newsom and Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power. I suppose I was initially attracted to Smog for the reason many romances start: mystery.
Callahan may be the most enigmatic voice I’ll hear in my lifetime. An expert storyteller who started making noise and later developed his sound in a country/roots direction, Callahan says a lot while saying very little. Drawing from a body of reoccurring motifs like rivers, horses, birds, and getting drunk, his body of work appeared to me like a present wrapped with hundreds of ribbons, all waiting to be untied. Determined to solve the riddle of this man, I kept a notebook that documented repeated themes in an attempt to unlock his secrets. Even more disorienting is the stark juxtaposition between his dense, profound lyrics and his humorous, seemingly absurd album titles (Dongs of Sevotion, The Manta Rays of Time, Drag City and Spunk Records respectively, both 2000) and arbitrary album covers, the most famous, Knock Knock (Drag City), featuring a fat cat photo-shopped to a stormy sky with a massive bolt of lightning (keep in mind this was 1999 and predates the countless feline-themed internet memes). In “Riding for the Feeling” on his latest album, Apocalypse, Callahan himself pops the question that everyone’s had from the beginning: “Who do you think you are?”
Knowing that Callahan is a fan of the written word and playing to his strengths, I opted to interview him in an old school Internet chat way to foster a living, breathing conversation under conditions where he could show off his skills as a wordsmith. The resulting conversation reaches topics ranging from strip clubs to gambling, from creation to the apocalypse. Also, apparently Bill Callahan uses emoticons?
Where are you right now?
I’m in a woodshed behind my house that I work in, in Austin, TX.
What kind of work do you do in the shed? Recording? Songwriting?
Writing songs and playing music, no recording.
Where did you record the last album?
I bought a TEAC reel to reel, the same kind Lee “Scratch” Perry used in the Black Ark, that I hope to use in here some day. I recorded the LP at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX, a tiny border town. The studio is on a pecan grove with a hacienda to stay in. Then mixed it at Public Hi-Fi in Austin a month later.
Do you think you’ll ever leave Austin?
It’s quite likely. I like coasts, oceans. The Gulf Coast of Texas is just nasty. It’s mostly for entertaining the off-shore oil workers who have had an ass-full of the ocean, so when they come ashore they want strip joints and gambling.
Never been to a strip club, or a casino. You?
Of course. I’m a man of the world. I don’t like strip joints though. I don’t understand the role of me and the woman and sex in that situation. There are some joints in ’70s movies that look appealing, where the woman is just dancing in a corner and you can look if you want. I like burlesque stuff. I saw the Suicide Girls Burlesque show and that was nice. Casinos, I don’t get off on gambling in those losing situations.
What about betting man to man? You and me at a card table?
I like one-on-one bets. Bets of veracity. Things that come up in normal interaction. Like, ‘France gets all it’s electricity from the Monkees on treadmills.’ No way, man, want to bet?
I would have thought you were a man who might like the excitement of chance. Of not knowing.
Not when some millionaire is running the casino. Although, I do enjoy experiencing the unknown.
Are we talking literal millionaire or abstract millionaire? A force of nature?
Both are not worth going up against by choice. Although, if you consider a mountain a millionaire, like Mt. Everest, I can see going up against that.
Have you ever tamed a tall mountain?
I’ve enjoyed many books about the topic but I don’t have that particular drive, to scale rock faces on a rope.
What does drive you?
It’s the emptiness of things. The fact that nothing exists. You have to create to see that.
Do you consider yourself a creator, or another facet of the emptiness?
I am thinking about that lately. If that is true or not, that I am a creator. You know when something is good that is created, you know it’s good when it feels like it didn’t come from you, when it bears no mark of effort or being created. But that’s the barometer – does this song feel like something outside of myself?
Is there something you’ve made recently that feels like it has come from outside yourself? A song? A letter?
My whole last album. I have to make the songs be something outside of myself so that I can see them as songs. If something felt from within me, it wouldn’t feel worth sharing.
Why wouldn’t it be worth sharing?
There wouldn’t be anything for other people in it. I’m an observer of my own work, as if it were somebody else’s work.
So you feel that a man isn’t always tethered to himself? Is it something to strive towards, maybe knowing that you may never achieve it? Or is it actually possible to remove one’s self from the work?
That is the devine [sic] nature of creating. Creating is getting out of yourself, making this other thing that isn’t you. I am completely removed from it. That is how I can perform it again and again, because I feel like, ‘Hey, check this song out, what’s the deal with it?’ There may be human faults in my work, but that’s why you keep working, to get them out someday. So, in that way, yes, you are tethered to it, but I’m always trying to saw through that chain. (Pause) Devine is a shitty name for a wine bar.
What would you name your wine bar?
I would call my wine bar, ‘It’s just a fucking glass of wine.’ (Pause) Feel free to hit me up with a smiley face emoticon anytime.
Just look at that little guy. He’s winking at me.
Can I keep him? I’ll take real good care of him, honest!
You can borrow him, but only if you give him a name.
I’ll call him Pip.
He’s all yours.
I’m tired of him already. That incessant smiling…
Maybe if he were more sadlike?
Poor little Pip. Forgive me.
Beyond Pip, do you have pets?
Got a cat.
When did you get her?
Maybe six months ago.
What made you decide to get a cat?
Trying to cheer Pip up.
When you aren’t feeling well, how do you cheer yourself up? How do you find catharsis?
I see what you did there! I declare it an anything goes day. I can go see two movies or drink as much as I want or go jump in the river.
Do you ever go movie hopping? Like pay for one movie and see two, or even three?
I did it a little when I was younger. Now I feel better paying for all things people labored over.
Do you have any vices?
Drinking can be fun but it also feels amazing not to drink.
What’s your drink?
Lately I’m into what I call Hobbit beers. Such as beers made by the Stone Brewery in San Diego.
What do you look for in a good drink?
High alcohol content so I don’t have to go stand at the bar every 10 minutes like a nebbish. Good taste. High quality so you don’t get hung over. I should probably wrap soon.
Okay, let’s go into rapid-fire, quick answer mode. How does that sound?
How do you look at your older material?
I don’t. It’s done.
What did your mother call you when you were little?
What’s the worst, most depressing age to be?
Would you rather be a bird or a colt?
Colt. Birds are always scared, can’t enjoy a good meal.
You’re jailed and about to get the electric chair. What would your last meal be?
I can’t imagine I’d have an appetite. With that diaper crinkling.
How do you like your meat? Rare?
Grass fed, grass finished. I only eat bison. Rare.
Will we see the apocalypse?
You and I? I don’t think so. We’ll see what China does.
Good to know, I feel much better now! Thanks for your time. Enjoy Pip