Think of Bill Callahan and, perhaps more than anything else, bold images come to mind. Of rivers and eagles and cattle and horses and all of those rusty American things that so few people authentically understand anymore. Over the course of a long and strong career — the first Smog album was released in 1990 — Callahan has carved and whittled himself into one of the great masters of song craft. In the last 10 or so years, and recently out from under the cloud of Smog, Callahan has been slowly running his fingers over those images we’ve maybe been too busy to notice. He’s stopping, looking, listening. Quietly. He’s trying to make sense of them, and to maybe even have a little fun just looking around. He’s ringing feeling from the momentary.
On Dream River, his latest installment, he glides gently through a world only he could create, an almost literal stream of consciousness–a river of dreams. It begins and ends in a bar room. With a few impeccably chosen words, a drawl that does all it can to deliver each image or word just so, and a crystal clear vision, he’s making some of the best, and most passionate, songs of his already illustrious career. Atop a crawling storm of unstable guitars performed exquisitely by Matt Kinsey, hand drum pulses courtesy of one Thor Harris, Native American flute melodies, and country fiddles, Callahan paints impressions of a world lost, and of a new hope restored.
For Callahan, a contemplative gaze looks sort of like a death-stare. This time around, so does being in love. As SPIN’s David Bevan thoroughly explored, he was recently engaged to his Apocalypse tour documentarian and photographer, Hanly Banks, and much of the album deals with that newfound companionship. “I have learned/ When things are beautiful/ to just keep on,” he nearly cries on “Winter Road”, Dream River‘s exit wound. It’s plain to see that it’s exactly what he’s doing; keeping on amidst the beauty. Like the “Seagull” or Eagle of Dream River, he’s circling the cloudy, occasionally breathtaking skies of his mind. We’re the small animal in his clasp, alive and enjoying the ride.
I spoke to Callahan for a brief 20 minutes over the phone. Intimidated and hesitant myself, I could only imagine how the notoriously enigmatic and reluctant Callahan would respond to my hyper-analytics running off at the mouth, especially under such time constraint. But from the plaintive, deadpan, “Hi this is Bill”, I sensed that the Bill Callahan on record and the Bill Callahan on some cell tower were almost two entirely different people. It was almost like listening to an actor talk about a role he had just played. I found, for all intents and purposes, a normal man on the other line.A guy who, in an almost joke-like ironic twist, had a hard time stringing words together. A guy who used “like” and “um” to unite broken thoughts. A guy whose voice sounded strikingly commonplace, with only a few giveaways that would remind me of who I was actually talking to. There were even some chuckles (or were they sneezes?).
At a few moments, I denied it was actually him. But, just like his vocal delivery in song, answers unfolded in short broken thoughts, almost glacially. Sometimes he seemed to not be saying much at all. I could not tell if he felt any way in particular about the interview, about my questions, or really if he felt anything about his new record at all. I asked what I could, got a few good answers, and before I knew it, it was all over. Like a feather in the wind, he drifted along to the next place he had to be. But hey, here’s what I managed to find out…
First off, I’m interested in your vocal range. And just hearing you talk, your speaking voice is very different from your singing voice. I know that you kind of arrived at this low, low range, and to me, it seemed like you spent a while under Smog singing however, and then you started slowly settling into this range, and that’s when you really changed your name from Smog to Bill Callahan. It always seemed to me that you’d unveiled yourself or there was some new character you wanted to explore. Can you speak to that?
Well, I think when I started out I really didn’t think much about singing or guitar playing. I was mostly thinking about lyrics and album titles and album artwork, and things like that. I wasn’t really thinking of the importance of how I delivered the songs. You know, I just thought the songs were–it didn’t really matter, sort of–that the songs were what was important. Then, around that time–I think it was around A River Ain’t Too Much to Love — I started really thinking about singing and playing guitar. So, I think that’s what changed. I started thinking about it for the first time.
And was that kind of what inspired, “Maybe it’s time to change the name and do something a little different,” or was it just coincidental or incidental?
Yeah. I knew that I wanted to make a change and I thought that changing the name would make me not forget that. Because, I can be forgetful of my goals, you know. And it was just the easiest way to remind myself that this was something different.
And what do you think prompted that desire to shift as a songwriter?
I think I just realized that I had made a lot of records, and I think the longer you do it, the more you need to prove yourself, the more you need to prove that people should keep listening to you. I don’t like to waste peoples’ time and I don’t like to waste my time. So, basically just trying to give a better quality to the product that people might be listening to, you know.
“Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt
Recently, your music has captured a distinct take on the romanticized notion of the old American landscape, old American culture, and what it means to live as an American, specifically an American man. There are rivers, cattle, jail prisoners, horses, eagles, and even references to Country music greats. Where do you think that tendency to romanticize the old west comes from? Do you think America has lost some of its identity recently? Are you trying to re-claim it?
Yeah, I do think with 9/11 and with two terms of George Bush, that we kind of lost our faith in ourselves. And also just the economy–we’re obviously becoming less of a Super Power, and someone else is going to take over. You know, we can see that now. You couldn’t even see that in the ’70s and ’80s, but now I think you can see that light at the end of the tunnel. And I think that it has really taken the wind out of the sails of the populous. And I’ve traveled a lot, playing shows all over the world, and just sort of realized that, you know, it’s actually still pretty cool here. We shouldn’t be that down on ourselves, even if we maybe did some fucked up things. We’ve got to keep it together.
I’m also just interested in the collective subconscious–I believe that it’s the development of Western expansion–I believe that it’s kind of in our blood. Because that was our birth and it’s kind of where we come from. We wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t happened, so it’s like an archetypal–just a memory that we all have that’s kind of shaped us.
It’s like you’re trying to make people remember or get us to a place where we can think, We are American, and this is America, and these are American things. I think especially on “Ride My Arrow” where it just kind of feels as if I’m watching the memories of an old Western movie. It’s a memory of what America used to be, but I never had the memory to begin with.
Yeah, I could see that…
And obviously with the title, Dream River, it’s very clear that this feels like a series of dreams, from which the narrator eventually pulls himself out. Did any of these songs come from actual dreams that you had? Do you lucid dream?
I tried to do that lucid dreaming for a little while, but it’s kind of too much work at the end of the day–I don’t want another task. You know, lying in bed I just want to try to go to sleep, I don’t want to try to accomplish anything else.
But “Small Planes”, that was basically a dream that I woke up and jotted down. That’s the only one that came from a dream.
There’s a playfulness to a lot of your music. While it’s definitely quite serious, I get the sense that you’re also having fun staring at these dark thoughts from a relatively safe distance, poking fun at the very notion of dealing with one’s own thoughts. Things like the Civil War guitar jaunt on “America” and the “Beer…Thank You” on “The Sing” immediately come to mind. Comedy often helps us put things in perspective. Do you find that that humor and darkness are closely related?
I just think that it’s like Sarah Silverman or something. It’s just there are things that are funny, like lots of things are. And, I think that a good way to–the humor thing kind of opens peoples’ minds up. Like, if you’re just trying to be serious all the time, then people get sleepy and their minds start to wander. But, I think that’s just sort of an opening up of the mind, when there’s some lightness in it, you know?
“The Lackawanna Valley” by George Inness
A lot of people might not get that you’re trying to be funny–if you are–are you trying to be funny, or do you just think it’s naturally a combination of these dark thoughts and these comedic ideas?
Well, I think it’s kind of–the dark things are inherently funny. They just are, you know?
Can you give me an example of that from the new album maybe, one of the things that you think is inherently funny that we might not recognize?
I can’t, I don’t remember the lyrics. [Laughs.]
Can you describe your process for Dream River on a day-to-day level, writing and recording?
Yeah. I did it pretty quickly, say over two-and-a-half months maybe of writing. I usually work very long days, and this time I tried to just work an hour or 90 minutes at a time, maybe twice or three times in a day, and do other things in between them. Because a lot of time when you’re trying to work, you do something, and then you spend the next two or three hours just looking at what you’ve done, and it feels like you’re working, but you’re actually just looking at what you did in that little brief spurt. So I realized that I could just do that little bit of work, and then I could go take care of other stuff and come back to it. And it was a much healthier way of doing things. I had time to shave and take the trash out.
Similarly, it seems like a lot of work distilling all these thoughts down to such relatively short sets of words. But you’re really one of the best followers of the idea of “less is more,” lyrically. Do you find it difficult to say less, or is that kind of what comes out naturally?
It’s partially my nature. So it’s not that difficult [laughs]. But, you have to pare it down a little further…It’s kind of natural to me.
Can you talk about your connection to Washington, DC, particularly about the radio station WHFS. I had heard you were a fan growing up in Silver Spring, MD?
Yeah, that was a time that was a huge…that was my main way of finding out about music, really, was that station. Back in the ’80s it was…it changed a lot…I know in the ’90s it tried to be more…like Alternative Rock and commercial I think, but long after I moved out of the area. In the ’80s they had…they played a lot of weird music that I’d never heard.
I love the “Expanding Dub” release. And listening to Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, I had these moments where I thought maybe you liked dub. I was just curious where that dub interest comes from and if you would ever consider doing a little bit more, because I feel like kind of what you’re doing with Americana and Country and Folk music is sort of with a dub ethos–things coming in and out, sort of at will. What do you think about that and where does that interest come from?
Oh, cool. Well, there was a dub show on [now defunct Washington, DC radio station] WHFS back in the ’80s that I used to listen to, which blew my mind. And, ever since then I’ve been really enamored with it. And I do think there’s a lot to learn from it, as far as what you can do with a song, and how it can be arranged. It’s just a beautiful form of music to me.
It was at this point, on the dot, 20 minutes in, with half of my planned questions unasked and unanswered (and even some of the asked ones unanswered), that Callahan cut us off and said he had another interview to attend to. I apologetically slipped in my gratitude and my eagerness to catch his DC show in a few weeks. He thanked me, and either said “talk to you soon” or “talk to you then,” I couldn’t fully decipher it. Either would be good, really.
In many ways, talking to Callahan lifted much of the mystique and allure that surrounds him. He was a person, he talked like one, too. But the difficulty in prying ideas out of him, or in developing any sort of rapport, validated many of my grand ideas of what it is like to talk to an enigma. Of late, it seems he’s lightening up, both on record and in person (if recent interviews and profiles are concerned). But here, I couldn’t get much of a sense of that. For me, it was more like trying to open a can of soup with my bare hands. I loved every minute of it.