Bill Callahan

An interview

Bill Callahan is an American musician who, under the guise of Smog, has been making music professionally for almost twenty years. Callahan is regarded as one of the pioneers of the lo-fi genre of singer/songwriters who flourished in the early 1990s—largely through self funded releases. Taking inspiration from the outsider musician Jandek and the post punk noise acts of the 1980s, Callahan’s early albums projected an angsty and introverted home-recorded sensibility. Twenty years on, he remains a stoic figure in American music and the same sense of independence still permeates many of his albums. In 2007 he dropped the Smog moniker and released an album without the overarching sense of control as his previous releases. In the following interview (finalised in late 2008) I asked Callahan questions relating to this and to how he understands his work overall. I was particularly interested in finding out how his approach might relate to contemporary art practice. I wanted to indirectly generate some sort of perspective on the gaps between these two forms. 

Wes Hill: On your album Woke On A Whaleheart (2007) you gave over complete control of the production for the first time. What do you think makes a good producer? You have said that you admired producers such as Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen) and Richard Dashut (Fleetwood Mac). Why?

Bill Callahan: I’ve produced almost all of my own records and I’ve produced a couple for other people. I think you have to be able to read then enhance or dispel a situation pretty quickly. I like Richard Dashut just for the Fleetwood Mac records. A lot of it was the band of course, but I really like the tamed chaos of Tusk (1979); it manages to be freewheeling and slick at the same time. Bob Johnston appeals to me because of the immediacy of his approach. It seems as though he goes for getting just a few great elements happening in a simple setting and that’s enough. 

Wes Hill: In a previous interview you lamented the disappearance of the 1980s Maryland Hardcore scene which you equated with a communally minded Americana. Given your overtly individualistic approach, is it more the market naivety and DIY spirit of that period which you miss?

Bill Callahan: As long as people keep coming to shows then music is communal. The hardcore scene, at least the DC hardcore scene, I found to be extremely insular. There were some wild card bands but mostly it felt really regimented and exclusive. The West Coast scene seemed, from afar, freer, wilder and more fucked up in a good way. But I never really understood what ‘scene’ meant. There would be fanzines like Flipside with ‘scene reports’ from around the country and I’d always be like ‘what the fuck are they talking about?’ But hardcore probably isn’t much of an influence on me. I liked the economy of it. And its existence (the DIY aspect) probably made it possible for me to release my first album on my own label. Well, it didn’t make it possible, I’d say it made me aware that such things are possible. 

Wes Hill: How does your interest in visual art relate to your music career? Did it arise from a need to focus on something other than songwriting? 

Bill Callahan: The most concrete function I could find for attempting to do visual art was that I was doing it for a record cover. This narrows the focus of it all and gave me great drive, a reason; a record needs a cover! But I don’t draw or paint anymore. I moved to this house a few years ago with the intention of setting up a painting studio in one room. Never happened. When I start I don’t stop and maybe I am fearful of that. If I start painting I do it for eighteen hours straight for ten days in a row. I eat food covered in paint. I am not that good. I feel that I’d need to paint like that for five years to get good. It would be nice. Well, it would probably be hell and nice to be able to do that but I only have one life and I chose music. I work just as hard on music but the work is more varied so it doesn’t make you as crazy. Painting is just painting. With music I can work on writing words, playing guitar, piano, etcetera. And I can try to come up with some visual art that coincides—just sketches that may or may not trigger the final idea for the artwork and maybe subconsciously help the songs get written.

Wes Hill: Women are the basis of two books of drawings; Ballerina Scratchpad (2004) and Women (2004). In your music, female characters are often stereotypically feminine and can appear to the male characters in your songs as relatively alien. Why do you think this gap between the sexes is prominent in your work? 

Bill Callahan: There is a third book too called The Death’s Head Drawings (2004). I’m not so sure they’re commenting on women. If I were gay I would probably write about or draw men in the same way. It’s more about commenting on the thing you are attracted to. I was having this thought the other day. I was with a group of people I didn’t know too well—it was a few men and one woman. She was attractive and I found myself fascinated by her every movement; how she placed her feet on the ground, how she touched her head. And further, her clothes and shoes. I just could not get enough of looking at her clothes and in particular the way her shoes looked when they were walking. But not because they were alien. I think the song A Man Needs A Woman or A Man sort of addresses this, and the ‘man’ part in there is to show that it’s not really about womanliness, it's just about desire—be it desire towards a man, a woman, a body of water, a drug, a cookie. There is a gap between you and anything you desire and you can bridge that gap for times but not forever.

Wes Hill: A Man Needs A Woman or A Man portrays male desire in a pretty funny and unique way. I imagine it would have been difficult for you to create the same narrative driven subtleties in pictorial art. Was this why you might have been frustrated or overly obsessive when you were taking painting and drawing seriously?

Bill Callahan: No, not at all. I find painting to be maybe the most multi-dimensional of the arts. A painting can be so rich and devastating with just a few brushstrokes. That’s too powerful a thing to merely dabble in. I think it is the enormity of it that gives me pause. It’s like Laura Dern says in Inland Empire, ‘Fuckers been sowing some pretty heavy shit’. You’ve got to reap what you sow when you paint. Don’t open that door unless you really want to see what’s behind it.

Wes Hill: Your music and lyrics have a lucidity that I’ve always liked. The songs sound like they come from someone who sees the world in factual terms yet as no less mysterious. When talking about your album Dongs of Sevotion (2000), you said that you were looking ‘for an objective affection in the style of [Terrence] Malick or [Takeshi] Kitano’. Is this deadpan (or photographic) perspective something you still identify with?

Bill Callahan: Lucidity is sought constantly. I think that good writing is ‘factual’ in a sense, that is to say irrefutable. I have strayed from the objective affection thing I think—although I remember being pretty chuffed when I thought of that term. I feel like now I am trying to write from within and without. To write from WITHIN a scene but not to be a character within the scene. To write from the perspective that the world exists without you. Neither objective nor subjective.

Wes Hill: Were there certain writers from music or literature who influenced you in this approach or is it something you just found yourself doing?

Bill Callahan: I think when one is just beginning to get interested in writing there can be other writers that influence you and you may write something that is under their influence. But those things you write are usually unsatisfactory as end results. If you stick with it, you kind of just find the voice that is what you feel to be your true voice. I read a lot but I get as inspired by anything, that is to say I get as inspired by non-written things as I do written things. I like the way Cormac McCarthy never uses adverbs or adjectives and never says what anyone is thinking. It’s just there on the page like a scene you can witness. 

Wes Hill: Willie Nelson’s influence permeated your album A River Ain’t Too Much To Love (2005) which also featured a cover of the traditional folk/blues song In the Pines. On Woke on a Whaleheart (2007), a few tracks brought Johnny Cash to mind. Even though your music is rarely quotational, what provoked these more explicit moves towards a genre? 

Bill Callahan: Like just about everyone who likes music, I’ve always liked all kinds of music. The last album was not supposed to be a genre album. I really thought the demo was without influence and that is what the producer said too. It was really just my own music. The country/folk elements in there are more like colours. I see them as tints that don’t really take over the music—except maybe The Wheel which was sort of an attempt to write a traditional song. 

Wes Hill: You’ve been a professional musician for almost twenty years now, where do you think you will be in the next twenty years? Will you be happy touring and making records as you are now? 

Bill Callahan: I reckon I will still be making records and performing live. I’ve already done it for almost twenty years so there is no reason to think I will stop. I’d like to have a dog and a kid, if life affords me that. I’d like to have a wife or partner that likes me. I love America and the culture here jibes with me so I’m staying put. I don’t know what the state of the music industry will be in twenty years. People will be listening to and downloading the songs while they are actually being recorded or they will be watching me on camera twenty-four hours a day and reading my thoughts. Apologies in advance.

Bill Callahan, smog album cover, A River Ain't Too Much To Love.

Bill Callahan, smog album cover, Supper.

Bill Callahan, smog album cover, Rain on Lens.

Bill Callahan, Untitled from the series Women.

Wes Hill is an artist and writer.