Bill Callahan: Beyond the Smog
Bill Callahan doesn't care about Jandek. At least that's the line he's sticking to during our email interview. When asked about his feelings toward the Houston outsider musician, to whom Callahan has often been compared, he replies bluntly.
"I don't care about Jandek."
Off to a good start, a frustratingly flippant one-sentence response served more like a rebuttal than an answer—but this is Bill Callahan, and this is kind of what you want. The songwriter's reputation as an interviewee is that he is at best noncommittal and at worst cantankerous, and he knows it. He's even addressed his infamous penchant to dispute, calling it "natural in any exchange between someone who has the answers and someone who doesn't." So a grumpy one-liner to open is the best one could hope for; it's what's expected.
This is Bill Callahan, who, over the past two decades, first as Smog, and now under his own name, has built himself up through steadfast studio ingenuity and crafted innovation into one of the best living songwriters. Callahan has carved out a world for himself, one where he can deliver evocative imagery rooted in brevity over soundscapes that skirt the line between harsh and welcoming. For this, he's been called post-punk's Leonard Cohen. If he rattles off short, curt responses to your questions and leaves a few blank, you take what you can get, and you make the best of it. Bill Callahan can kind of do whatever he wants.
That Jandek thing isn't true, though. Callahan has to care, at least a little. The fact of the matter is that comparisons between the reclusive Texas outsider's music and Callahan's—namely his early 1990s no-fi output in the first years of Smog—are nothing new. Callahan has to have an opinion; the two of them even shared a bill at South by Southwest in 2007. But he says he doesn't care about Jandek, so maybe he doesn't care anymore, or maybe he never cared.
Apocalypse is Bill Callahan's critically lauded release from earlier this year and his third since shedding his Smog moniker back in 2007. It's an elegant album that pares down his sound to energetic guitar parts and Callahan's now perfected silky foghorn baritone, which draws an invisible line between Lee Hazlewood and Lou Reed. It's an album that acts as seven short vignettes, and it's a far journey from 1990's creeping, experimental Sewn to the Sky, his Smog debut. Callahan, however, argues that his recent album's success isn't a question of accessibility, at least not entirely.
"I would hope my music becomes more and more accessible as I go on. Like a quality supplement has more accessible vitamin-absorption capabilities," he writes. "The type of accessibility you're probably referring to is not something in my realm of thought."
Perhaps that's true. Maybe Callahan has been pushing in the same direction this whole time, and it's the broader audience that has only caught up over the past few years. He states that in the beginning he started playing music "to make things feel good." And amid the largely instrumental art-as-sound feeling of Smog's early output, there's something darkly cathartic ringing through, a contradictory balance between the obtuse and the clear and heartfelt, the same dichotomous vein that continues in Callahan's work up to today. Asked what he likes about music, he states, "It's very functional. It works in a lot of situations. It's flexible. It's like a faithful ghost dog. There when you want it."
Callahan's lyrical imagery seems to hold this flexibility too, and has throughout the bulk of his career. Bill Callahan songs pair the good with the bad, the vague with the detailed. The world Callahan paints musically, like the song from Smog's Supper release, is "butterflies drowned in wine," and it always has been. He's reticent to elaborate on his songwriting, though, stating with his patent elusiveness that, "It's music. It's a creation. They're songs. Songs are about music. They're musicbiographical."
Albeit enigmatic, Callahan's probably right; songs are songs, and although his ingenuity is apparent, he won't pick it apart. As he sees it, "the best music is unintentional." It can't be denied, though, that his appeal has opened up over the last few years, from the last albums recorded as Smog to the breakout I Wish We Were an Eagle in 2009 and now Apocalypse. And when asked if he has a favorite period of his own work, Callahan's states, "I like what I'm doing lately. Past four or six years"—so, at least in that respect, we're all on the same page.
BILL CALLAHAN performs with Hidden Ritual on FRIDAY, JULY 1, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674
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