An interview with Bill Callahan

· Thursday May 21, 2015

Sometimes an artist makes music that is so moving and profound that the idea of actually asking them to explain anything about their life or craft is too intimidating to handle. Bill Callahan is one of those artists. Sam freaked out and crowd-sourced a lot of his questions from Facebook. Here's what happened.


Bill: Hello?

Sam: Is that Bill?

Bill: Yes.

Sam: Hey, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Bill: Sure.

Sam: How are you going?

Bill: I'm really good.

Sam: You're really good?

Bill: Yeah.

Sam: Cool. Well, let's get started. I have to admit, I was a bit intimidated by the idea of talking to you so I crowd-sourced some of these questions. I hope that's ok.

Bill: Might have been better just to get drunk.

Sam: Well, yeah, I'm kind of half tired, half delirious. I think I've developed tinnitus and I'm really pissed off at myself for letting it happen. It kept me up last night, so I'm not very well slept. How's your hearing? You've been performing for a while. Are your ears alright?

Bill: They are. It took me a few years of touring with the amp pointed right at my head to kind of realise that it was a bore to have ringing ears all the time.

Sam: I've recently realised that too. But anyway, enough about me. Should we get started? The first question I've got is: what do you get out of playing these days as opposed to when you first started out?

Bill: The songs are just like exploring the world of music. It's sort of like an endlessly mysterious and satisfying planet to put yourself on, and I think it's just endlessly growing and just interesting. I guess the amazing thing is that I stay interested in it for so long. It really just turns me on, you know?

Sam: Yeah. I know. Next question: if your voice was a mighty old tree, would it be an oak tree or a pine tree?

Bill: I guess more of oaken. I have about five or six really old live oak trees in my backyard and no pine trees, so they probably put their influence on me in the last few years.

Sam: Yeah, I would have picked you for an oak guy as well. Next question: how many birds are too many birds?

Bill: A caged one is too many.

Sam: Good answer. Another friend wanted to know your favourite place to go hiking. Are you a hiking guy or does that just come through your music? I don't know.

Bill: I do enjoy it. I wouldn't say I have a favourite place. There're some really nice hikes in Western Texas and also Big Sur in California. It's pretty amazing.

Sam: Are you still enjoying living in West Texas? I saw in another interview a few years ago that continuing to keep moving is really important to you. Is keeping moving still really important to you? Or have you laid down more roots these days?

Bill: I think that touring provides a way of allowing me to do some movement and also have a home base, which is not something I really cared about seven or eight years ago. Now, it's something that needs to be a part of my life. The two really feed off of each other. Each one supports the other activity.

Sam: So you reckon you found a balance?

Bill: Yeah.

Sam: Cool. Is that your natural hair colour?

Bill: It is.

Sam: Okay, cool. These questions are sounding stupider and stupider as I go along, but these are what your fans want to know so I'm just relaying this stuff to you. Another friend wanted to know: why is a mouse when it spins?

Bill: Why is a what?

Sam: Why is a mouse when it spins?

Bill: I don't get it.

Sam: Apparently it's a riddle that John Lennon made up or that I've been duped into thinking he made up. The answer is because the higher the fewer. I'm not going to go into the deepness of that riddle. We're just going to move on, I think. What is your favourite texture?

Bill: I would say it would be denim.

Sam: Okay. You said once you hate the word Indie. What do you hate about it?

Bill: I think it's the I-E or the Y. The ending makes it sound belittling or cute or something and not for real. But then because it stood for independent, which is a really strong word but -

Sam: They've cutened it.

Bill: I don't know. People say they play Indie music and I guess that's a description, and I don't know what that means. I guess I don't like any word that doesn't have a meaning for me because then I don't know what people are talking about. Know what I mean?

Sam: Yeah.

Bill: Like that riddle you just taught.

Sam: Yeah. Fair enough. What makes a person a real person in your opinion? I mean, I guess we're talking about the authenticity of Indie and the I-E-ishness of Indie. Do you make that distinction with people? I'm just trying to reference a song lyric here.

Bill: I guess it's one of those statements that are meant to be just in a song and not brought down from that platform. You know what I mean? The only place I had to make that statement was in a song because it doesn't exactly play out very well in a conversation. It was more of an abstract seed to plant in peoples' heads.

Sam: Yep. Fair enough. What's the funniest thing you've done or witnessed in recent memory?

Bill: The funniest?

Sam: Funniest thing.

Bill: Oh geez.

Sam: You can skip any of these questions if you want, but they're just - I've got them down here.

Bill: There's a TV show called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that's pretty funny. I'd say that.

Sam: Are you working on any new records at the moment?

Bill: I'm always writing. I did a little bit of recording, too.

Sam: Any new approaches or anything you want to talk about?

Bill: That's something that I'm still toying with - that whole aspect of it. But I'm not really sure.

Sam: You're not really sure. Okay. What else have I got here? How sexy is too sexy when dressing for a funeral?

Bill: You shouldn't be able to see any pubic hair.

Sam: Yeah, alright. That's a pretty good line to draw. Would you rather have Dorito crumbs that you can't lick off or taste stuck to your fingers for life or a popcorn kernel wedged in the back of your throat for life?

Bill: Doritos are disgusting, so I guess I'd go with the popcorn kernel -

Sam: There you go.

Bill:: - and feel like I'm at the movies or something.

Sam: Can you actually get sap from a tree from tapping it? Or is that just like a nice turn of phrase?

Bill: Yeah, that's how they do it. They stick a tap or a faucet in there and it comes seeping out.

Sam: Oh, I thought you were just going along tapping trees with a stick. I've been getting that wrong this whole time.

Bill:: Oh, no. Yeah, no, it's like a faucet.

Sam: You've said that, I guess, vitality in music is the most important thing for you. What at the moment moves you and makes you feel that music is vital or has vitality?

Bill: You mean what aspects of music or other performers?

Sam: Aspects of music or performers. Just that feeling you get where you're kind of deep inside a song - is there anything specific you can describe that gets you there? I guess it's a reference to something you said in an earlier interview. You were watching late night evangelists on TV, church music, or something like that. I read you saw vitality in that music, but, yeah, I guess it's a hard question. I'm going to leave it with you.

Bill:: I guess it's like when you can listen to a record and it sounds like the musicians are in the moment, kind of listening to each other, as if something is really happening at that moment all together. A good song, I think, it just throws that life into the room every time you listen to it if it has that quality. So basically you can tell it was made by living people and it's a good feeling.

Sam: When was the last time you felt that?

Bill: I feel it's a requirement, I think, for anything that I enjoy. There's this guy, Lonnie Holley, who I played a few shows with him last year. He just plays the keyboard and sings, and you can just - oh. You can just feel him there thinking next to you.

Sam: So it's like the living imprint that moves you a bit, do you think?

Bill: Yeah, just like the breaths and the heartbeat.

Sam: Is there any kind of digitalised music you can also feel the living imprint on? Even though it's through the artifice of a computer?

Bill: Yeah, there's ways to do it. Like Kraftwork that's very human-sounding. I don't know how to do it, but -

Sam: Are you still getting into dub music? Or have you moved on from that side of experimentation?

Bill: I still listen to it but not as much as I was a year ago or something. But I still think it's an incredible sort of folk music.

Sam: A friend wants to know, why you're ripping off Smog?

Bill: I got permission.

Sam: You got permission. Ok, cool. Are you still planning to tour after these Australian shows?

Bill: I've finished the majority of the touring for my last record and I think these shows I'm going to play are probably going to be - it's nice to have something really fancy and distinct somehow to put an end to one series of touring.

Sam: Do you get intimidated by the idea of playing at a venue like The Opera House or Hamer Hall in Melbourne. Does the size of a venue affect the way you approach it?

Bill:: Somewhat. I think any room you play has a life of its own, and giving yourself over to that idea, whether it's a bar that holds 80 people or something like The Opera House, all rooms have their own life and they're going to take your music and do what they will with it. So you can't really plan exactly for certain rooms.

Sam: Okay. Do you get to go along to many local shows and take an interest when you can? Or are you just kind of into having downtime when you're home?

Bill:: I went to a lot of shows when I first moved here and kind of stopped doing that. I see more international traveling acts.

Sam: Okay. What's the most memorable one you've seen recently, I guess?

Bill:: Probably, I can't even think of what the last - I get to see Willy Nelson a couple times a year. He was just pretty awesome. Probably that.

Sam: Yep. Willy's good. Did it hurt?

Bill:: Did it what?

Sam: Did it hurt? A friend wanted to know.

Bill:: No.

Sam: Not falling for that. Cool. I'm pretty much out of questions. Is there anything else you want to add to what's going on here?

Bill:: I think you covered it.