Bill Callahan by Jon Raymond

“Cathedrals just seemed like big power chords to me. Or the biggest Marshall Stack you’ve ever seen. That’s what they were built for. They’re reverb units.”

BOMB 108 Summer 2009
BOMB 108
Callahan 02 Body

Photo copyright Tully Grader.

Back in the early ’90s, the record label Drag City had a pretty incredible touch, pulling together a stable of artists including seminal groups like Stephen Malkmus’s Pavement, Will Oldham’s Palace, David Berman’s Silver Jews, Neil Hagerty’s Royal Trux, and Bill Callahan’s one-man band, Smog. They were a disparate bunch of dudes that made American music frightening again by tapping into its most tangled roots.

Callahan was the most emotionally raw. I remember catching a Smog show in Philadelphia around 1992, and watching Bill on the payphone afterwards. He was neat and clean-cut, but it seemed like something heavy was going down; whether it was emotional, spiritual, narcotic, or what, was unclear. Judging from his early oeuvre—gorgeous, literate, bleak-hearted albums like Julius Caesar, Wild Love, and Red Apple Falls, among others—a person could easily have assumed his plaintive baritone was too harrowed to last. Thus, it’s especially gratifying to see Callahan having emerged recently from behind the Smog moniker still in full command of his music and his voice. His latest album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, is a suite of lyrical, open-hearted songs that, while still darkly funny and deeply riven with doubt, also dapple with a new, natural sunlight.

—Jon Raymond

Jon Raymond For the last 15 years or so, a refrain from one of your songs has been a regular visitor in my head. It’s from the song “37 Push Ups” from Julius Caesar: “37 pushups/In a winter-rate, seaside motel/I feel like Travis Bickle/I’m listening to ’Highway to Hell’.” God, I love that song. That image has been stuck in my mind for over a third of my life now. Where did it come from?

Bill Callahan It actually came from real life. I was planning on making a go at doing music as a job. My lease ran out in Maryland and I was looking around for a place to stay that didn’t need a year’s lease because I knew I wasn’t going to stick around long. I looked at some amazing old apartment building with 30-foot ceilings. All furnished with tons of furniture but shared bathrooms. It was a hotel for down-and-outs. I was going to take it. It would’ve been awful, I bet. But a friend offered to let me stay on his couch. He liked me. His wife hated me. She hated everyone. I stayed on his couch for a month or two while I worked looking after a mentally disabled woman. I walked in on them having sex next to my couch one day. That was the last straw for the wife; I had to go. I started drinking a lot to get the image of my friend’s butt cheeks out of my head. I found that seaside motels were real cheap in the winter, so I moved to one. I used to be enthralled with Taxi Driver and some other Scorsese movies. I’m over them now. Except Casino is still pretty good. And Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymoreis one of my favorite movies, ever. But the rest? Meh. I had a boombox and a few tapes. Back when I was a kid the radio would play whole albums by bands. Not new ones. Older ones. I’d taped AC/DC off the radio. So, really, that’s one of the few purely autobiographical things I’ve written. It was too perfect to change or add to. A couple weeks later I quit my job with $8,000 saved up and moved to California after reading On the Road. I read Dr. Sax after that and never considered Kerouac again. But On the Road goosed me into a road trip across the country with one suitcase and a cat I was delivering to a friend. The cat stayed under the seat the whole trip except when I got to Las Vegas she got out and rode on the back ledge of my Plymouth Volaré and looked at the lights of Vegas.

JR It’s funny how Kerouac is such a gateway writer for people. He might be kind of silly as a stylist, but he sure springs people out of old lives. Who came next after Kerouac for you? And who came after Scorsese?

BC Kerouac was a blip. Not a major thing. I can’t say as I remember what came next, exactly. I mean, the exact next thing. As for Scorsese, I became disillusioned with all the biblical-themed stories. Like Taxi Driver. Scorsese is obsessed with Christ figures. It’s boring. There are many other stories besides biblical ones. Rocky feels more real to me. It’s the story of a young fighter and also of a young actor trying to make a great movie. There’s that shot of Christ on the cross at the very beginning above the boxing ring but it feels like it’s saying: Think not of Christ’s struggles, think of the struggles of these men in this ring right here before you.

JR Are you reading anything great right now? Or have you in the last six months?

BC I’ve been going through Ian McEwan’s novels. Reading On Chesil Beach right now, which is good. An excruciating tale of a virginal couple’s wedding night. It’s hard to find a book that deals explicitly with sex, naming names and all that, without it feeling forced. And I’ve been reading James Salter. What do they call him, “the master of the American sentence” or something? It’s true. Those things are like buckled belts. There is a line about a dog in Light Years that has stuck with me: “He slept in a fruit crate on his back like a bear.”

JR I wonder if you could tell me a little about your religious upbringing. For whatever reason—the cathedral on the cover of Red Apple Falls; the synagogue on the cover of Dongs of Sevotion; the title itself, Dongs of Sevotion; and, to me, a recurring sensibility of, I don’t know, spiritual intensity in your songs—I think of you as a God-fearing artist. Were you raised in any kind of tradition?

BC I am not God-fearing. I wasn’t raised to be. Thank you, mom and dad!

JR Did your folks have any kind of religious orientation, though? I’m always so curious about people’s religious backgrounds, even if they were totally lax.

BC In my memory, they never really brought up the idea. When I first heard about religious stuff it was from the street. I was interested in cathedrals and such, the covers of some records, because I was interested in this idea of “reflecting God’s majesty.” Putting it in stone. Encapsulating big empty spaces. Cathedrals just seemed like big power chords to me. Or the biggest Marshall Stack you’ve ever seen. That’s what they were built for. They’re reverb units.

JR I’ve been trying to lead somewhere with the religious stuff because I feel like the last couple albums suggest, to me, anyway, a spiritual evolution in your work. When I think of a song like “Blood Red Bird,” for instance, which always struck me as Symbolist poetry or something—scary, severe, maybe vaguely Catholic at its root—versus some of the newer songs, like “Rococo Zephyr,” where you seem to be singing from the point of view of a river,

I can’t help but think the new stuff comes from a less dreadful, more animistic place.

BC I was reading a bunch of French poetry when I wrote “Blood Red Bird.” I believe more in a collective unconscious that shapes us. Murders and other crimes are handed down through centuries to be our own burdens. Animism might be the religion I would pick if I had to pick one. But not really.

JR I have a friend who had a past-life regression a few years ago and witnessed the murder of a son by his father deep, deep in her family line. She came to see that the entire history of her family had been one of intergenerational male violence. I don’t think I have a question here.

BC You can maybe guess that I don’t believe in reincarnation. But I do think we’ve seen everything that has gone on. Or at least some of it. From our own family lines. I think that’s what babies are working through for the first year or so of their lives. If you can’t talk, you have a lot of time to just think, so they are mulling over the history of the family line. That’s why they cry so much.

JR That’s funny. I cried all the time as a kid, to the point where my mom took me to a psychic to see what was the problem. The psychic said, “Tell him he is safe in his new life,” which is a sentiment I’ve actually taken a lot of comfort in, whether it really means anything or not. So, you’ve written in the voices of a lot of different characters over the years. I’ve noticed in interviews that people sometimes seem to confuse you for the characters. Have any characters recurred over the years? Has anyone made it into more than one song?

BC It’s usually one character per record. So, the character appears in all or most of the songs on one record and then is gone. Though it makes me feel weird to talk about. Because I don’t really think in clear terms of characters. My albums as a whole could be seen as one character with many voices.

JR That’s really interesting. I’ve always thought of you as a “literary” musician, the same way I do about Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed. If it’s too weird we totally don’t have to talk about character anymore, but now I’m curious: does this character you follow in the songs surprise you very often? Or do you keep the reins pretty tight? And if it does surprise you, is there a good example of that?

BC I’ve got a friend whose opinion on music I value. I sent him Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle and he said it was like a novel, while Woke on a Whaleheart was a collection of short stories. I really don’t know what’s going on when I write! I’m a blind sailor listening to the seagulls’ wings to know which way the wind is blowing.

JR Okay, one more question on writing. That image in “My Family” of the mom in the bathroom smoking pot, her ass squeaking on the tub, and the dad in the study watching porn: where did that come from? It’s such a precise and subtly harrowing scene. I’ve always been curious about the life it implied.

BC Where do such things come from? I don’t know. You’re a writer, what sort of answer are you looking for here? I wrote a lot of stuff at that time from a sort of frozen teenager point of view. Or a zombie teenager. That was the perspective I was going for. Songs have to have a function. They have to be for someone, I think. For an audience or an individual.

JR I guess I was thinking about how images sometimes hold other images, if that makes any sense. How stories have stories. Like your answer about “37 Push Ups.” I find it amazing how that image just opened up into all those other images. From a seaside motel to a cat watching the lights of Las Vegas at night. That’s a lovely thing. I look at various things I’ve written and they look to me like these quilted ragdolls full of pins and sticks and stuff, and I recognize that all the little pieces come from somewhere and have their own sources. I think some people have the idea that the imagination is this wellspring of rainbows and unicorns and images and voices that just rise up fully formed, but I’m more of the school that imagination is about putting things together in different ways. I don’t find that any less magical or mysterious. So I guess I was wondering if that sound of an ass squeaking in a tub might send you off on some tangent. And I’m totally with you about songs, or stories, or novels needing a function. The point is, I think, that you’re giving something to someone, and it should be something they’ll get turned on by or take solace in or something like that.

BC Oh, well, “My Family” is much less rooted in my personal life than “37 Pushups.” It’s an amalgam of several families I’d heard about. I’m always talking about how much work it is to write, but I think I’m going to start lying and say it’s easy. Just to piss people off.

JR I’ve seen you refer to hardcore music from the ’80s as the last of true Americana. Did you ever consciously choose to write in an American grain? Or did it just happen that way? Or is it even the case?

BC If there is something distinctly American about what I do, I can’t see it. Maybe there is. I certainly feel very American and love living here and being American. I was thinking of those hardcore compilations with Reagan Youth, D.R.I., Minor Threat, etc., as a contemporary version of the Harry Smith anthology. Most of the hardcore records were recorded and produced in similar fashion to each other; mid-rangey and flat sounding. Most Harry Smith stuff was also recorded in a similar fashion to each other. There’s something blurry and so distinct about both periods of that recorded music. Maybe I’m full of shit.

JR Yeah, I think I know what you mean. For me, the Meat Puppets embody pretty much everything I love about America. The open spaces, the weird visions.

BC I loved the Meat Puppets. They were so slippery and unpredictable. I loved those SST bands that were writing in idiosyncratic ways. You could tell a Minutemen lyric in a second. Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Slovenly—they all had real distinct voices. You don’t get that so much anymore. Or if you do, I don’t know about it.

JR You grew up in Maryland, right? What were your neighbors like?

BC I grew up in several small towns in Maryland. My neighbors were my friends. I’m not sure how that always seems to work out when you’re a kid; that my parents happened to move to a house between my two best friends. Maybe less discriminating when a kid. I didn’t even like one of them very much. He told me there was no generation gap between him and his parents. And he said that we left our garbage cans out by the road for too long after it had been picked up. This ten-year-old kid was concerned that we were disgracing the neighborhood. We just used each other to play ball with. But I would try to get him to listen to music. He couldn’t care less about it. He said he liked the Carpenters because that was the only band he could name.

The couple across the way was a severely depressed German woman and her Japanese husband. Behind us were the severely depressed Georgian woman married to a Hungarian. There were a lot of depressed female neighbors, I guess. And foreign, unfeeling men.

JR So American! You totally grew up in America. Do you have any idea what those kids are doing now? Are you on Facebook?

BC It’s funny, Jim White was on tour with me, drumming, and we had a Thanksgiving off, which we spent with my parents. Jim said after that they were quintessential Americans. I don’t use Facebook. I’m not sure what the friends are doing now. I know that the guy who didn’t like music disappeared and resurfaced in a Def Leppard T-shirt the next year. A couple of them joined the army and got disillusioned by it.

JR What music did you listen to in fifth grade?

BC You don’t have much access at that time, so I was always listening to the two albums my parents had: Wings at the Speed of Sound and that Nilsson/Lennon album Pussy Cats. What brought my dad to buy that? Decades later I returned home for Christmas to find that my dad had bought Orange by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I never asked why he had it. But I was listening to a lot of classic rock and trying to figure out how they made records that sounded like that: real theatrical. A bit later, in seventh grade, I was lucky enough to have access to one of the few no-playlist radio stations in the country, WHFS in Maryland. I learned so much. I used to read Trouser Press and call into the radio station to talk to a DJ if they needed some info, if they said they didn’t know where someone was from or something, or to make a request. I kind of like that real ignorant stage of music listening. When you don’t know that the Stranglers are heavily influenced by the Doors. You just don’t make the connection. You listen only to what is there, without thinking of history. My music appreciation has probably deepened since then, but also maybe lost something … the ease of it. But still, when something hits you, it hits you big. It just is fewer and farther between.

JR You were close to DC, I take it, and the whole DC scene. What was the first show you ever went to?

BC I used to hitch a ride with my sister to whatever she was going to see, if she would let me. First show was XTC, Joan Jett, and Jools Holland on one of those rotating stages. I remember it just sounded like white noise to me. I saw the Minutemen, the Stranglers, the Fall, and the first Bad Seeds tour. I liked a Baltimore band called Reptile House—the singer then became Lungfish. Tons of anonymous hardcore shows in VFWs. The DC scene felt kind of guarded to me. It could have been a youthful illusion. The Dischord people were like hallowed royalty. But I was just watching from a distance. My first time in a recording studio, I went to Don Zientara with a friend of mine. He’s the guy that recorded Minor Threat and tons of Dischord stuff. We saved up enough money to record two songs but were so nervous and downplaying it that we just made up the songs in the studio. Don hated us. He wouldn’t listen to our mixing suggestions. He’d just say, “No, I know how this type of song should be mixed.” So, I got a four-track after that.

JR Do you ever fool around with a four-track anymore?

BC No. It’s not in my routine anymore. I know how to handle engineers now.

JR Does new technology affect your recording decisions much?

BC The equipment I record on and with was all made between the ’50s and ’70s. Recording technology began going down an unnecessary path in the ’80s and never came back. I was reading the liner notes to Cat Stevens’s Back to Earth and it says, “This album was recorded using Aphex Aural Exciter.” It was from 1978. Then I looked at The Eagles’s The Long Run from 1979. It says, “This album was not recorded using Aphex Aural Exciter.” Little did they know that digital recording was about to come along and make their squabbling over the Aural Exciter into a piece of dust.

JR You live in Austin now. Are there any bands that really blow your mind there?

BC There are some bands I like. There’s a band called Foot Patrol. The singer is blind and has a foot fetish.

They sing only about feet. They might have one song about smoking pot. They sound like Minneapolis ’80s funk. I liked Horse Plus Donkey. Two of them played on my last record. But they sort of broke up or are on hiatus. They are a band that really seems to be just doing what they want to do, without much outside contemporary influence or guidance. A band called Harlem is good, too. And The Strange Boys.

JR Do you watch The Wire? Everyone loves The Wire so goddamn much.

BC I just started watching it since everyone I’ve ever met has told me I have to. I do like it. I like that Bubbles guy. I hope he doesn’t die. He seems kind of marked for death, though. I enjoy it but I haven’t been knocked on my ass by it yet. Still on the first season. I’m more excited by Twin Peaks, which I completely skipped in real life.

JR Yeah, I watched a few episodes and I was like, This is just a cop show. But now I know I was wrong and I have to find time to watch it all. Are you watching it now? What are your feelings on Lynch in general?

BC I got the Gold Box Edition of all the Twin PeaksDVDs. I’m still on the second season; trying to hold on to it forever. But I can also rewatch episodes quite happily. I love Lynch. Hated him at first! Saw Blue Velvet when it came out and didn’t like it much. Somewhere around Lost Highway, it all clicked and I loved everything from before and after since. He’s definitely on a trajectory headed to a higher plane, I think. The way he mashes humor and horror and melodrama and real tension into one big thing is a higher consciousness, a more complete language. It must be the Transcendental Meditation. I think he is starting to see and portray all sides of everything in everything.

JR That’s an excellent theory. I hope you’re right! I remember pretty vividly the first time I first saw Blue Velvet. I think it was the day after my prom, and although me and my friends hadn’t gone to the prom, we had ended up with some coke. So we went to see Blue Velvet on coke. Kind of an echt-’80s moment, I guess, in retrospect. Anyway, I remember the incredible spell of discomfort the movie put on me. I felt like something strange and dark was really happening. I felt similarly seeing Mulholland Dr., which I thought was weirdly amazing. But that last one kind of went off the rails for me. I felt like he needed an editor.

BC I think the last one, Inland Empire, is pretty sprawling but it’s like the Big Bang. I liked the freedom of it, the boundarylessness. I think he’s going to make something out of the parts. He has a short film called Quinoa, about how to cook quinoa, that is pretty hilarious. Something amazing happens in it but you have to see it. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

JR I have to find that one! We just started eating quinoa, the miracle grain, in our house a couple years ago, and I’m a true believer. You eat that stuff and you actually feel the energy in your cells. If you were to couple that with TM, God knows what you could do.

BC It’s the only energy food that actually has an effect on me. It completes me.

JR If you didn’t make music, what do you think you’d do?

BC I think I would be a boxing journalist, traveling different places and writing for a newspaper.

JR Do you follow boxing? Do you have favorite fighters?

BC I follow as much as I can. But I don’t have a TV anymore, so it’s gotten harder. I might have to start going to strip clubs to watch. That’s the only place that shows fights in Austin. I am more a fan of a good fight, a good story, than a follower of individual fighters. But I do like Manny Pacquiao a lot. And I dislike Ricky Hatton because he’s always talking about what a great sense of humor he has. Just because you say things that are supposed to be funny doesn’t mean you have a great sense of humor. Just because you’ve shown your ass on HBO specials doesn’t mean you have a great sense of humor. James Toney was funny. Big guy with a weakness for food. Real character in him. Bernard Hopkins is remarkable for his winning streak and his almost passive style of boxing.

JR How’d you get into boxing?

BC A friend had done something horribly wrong to me. I wanted to punch him in the face the next time I saw him and knock him out. So I started watching other people do it. It turns out it was not a horrible thing, so much. It was a comedic twist thing. Or almost like a miracle-type misunderstanding. So I calmed down and no longer wanted to punch him in the face. But I was left with this beautiful thing, a love of boxing that stimulates me so much. I’m writing this epistolary epic poem called Letters to Emma Bowlcut that will come out on Drag City. It is the story of a boxing fan. I try to explore what I love about fights in the book, among other things. People don’t think they like boxing but if I show them the right tape, with the backstory of the fighters, they get hooked. I don’t consider it a sport. That great Joyce Carol Oates book On Boxing really explains it well.

Jon Raymond is the author of The Half-Life, a novel, and Livability, a collection of stories, two of which were made into the films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. He is an editor of Plazm magazine, and his writing has appeared in Bookforum, Artforum, The Village Voice, and Tin House, among other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Amen Dunes by Ian Kim Judd

Originally published in

BOMB 108, Summer 2009

Featuring interviews with Dawoud Bey, Dike Blair and Joe Bradley, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn and Michael Smith, Nam Le and Charles D’Ambrosio, Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini, Bill Callahan and Jon Raymond, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, and Jacques Roubaud. 

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BOMB 108