In his songs, Bill Callahan tackles the big subjects: love, nature, death, the passage of time, how the stillness of everyday life belies constant transformation. But he has a way of approaching these weighty topics in a weightless manner, whether it’s inserting a dryly witty lyrical aside into an existential crisis or approaching his words with a remarkably understated vocal, which over time has come to resemble a cross between Leonard Cohen’s stoicism and Willie Nelson’s nimble emotionalism.
That the 56-year-old indie-rock veteran has produced so much good work so consistently over the course of more than 30 years — both as the man behind the ’90s lo-fi outfit Smog or under his own name — ought to not make his latest album due Friday, Reality, any less special. Described by Callahan as a reaction to the forces (political, cultural, technological) that have undermined the verisimilitude of daily existence, the album leavens philosophical musings with music that melds Townes Van Zandt Texas folk with ethereal jazz splashes and starry-eyed psychedelia. It is, of course, beautiful and moving music.
In conversation, Callahan talks the way he sings — softly, deeply, and with thoughtful contemplation. When asked to place Reality in his overall body of work, he pauses. He thinks. And then he is unsure.
“As a whole, I can’t really wrap my head around my entire back catalog as one thing. When you look back at yourself, there are puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit the way that you think of yourself now. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I was living in this apartment, and why would I ever live in that awful place?” But at the time, you were fine with it. I think the records are kind of the same, especially if you’re covering that much time.”
Ahead of Reality‘s release, I asked him to talk about nine of his albums. I could have asked about twice as many, but for the sake of time I selected most (though certainly not all) of the Bill Callahan/Smog albums that mean a lot to me.
Julius Caesar (1993)
That was a very important and surprising record to me. The arrangements are often quite strange and daring, I would say. But they work and I think the songs are strangely catchy. It’s the first time that I made a record where all the songs are great, in my opinion. I think maybe three-quarters of the record is recorded at home on a four-track, but then there’s a few songs that I did in the studio. That was the first time I’d ever been in a real recording studio. And it’s an important record in that respect, too, because I was growing up.
I needed to work with a four-track because it was baby steps. I wasn’t ready to work in a studio. The nature of the way that I worked would’ve cost billions of dollars. There was a lot of exploring and rule-breaking, in unconventional and not aesthetically pleasing ways. I don’t know how I would’ve even done that in a studio, a real studio. And I need to in complete control, which I wouldn’t really be in a studio.
It was all about the lyrics and the overall feel or sound of a song. The type of things that I was trying to achieve didn’t involve pretty singing or nice guitar work. That just wasn’t on my shopping list.
Red Apple Falls (1997)
That is also a very important record. I’m not going to say that about each one. [Laughs.] It was the first time I worked with an engineer or a producer — Jim O’Rourke — who actually cared about the sessions, who liked the music and was enthusiastic. I’d had a bunch of not-so-great experiences leading up to that with just picking random, “Oh, here’s a studio near my house” places. [1996’s] The Doctor Came At Dawn, that album was recorded mostly in a studio, but just with whoever was there when I showed up.
I had recorded some with a drummer leading up to that, but this was the first record where I’d tracked the whole thing with a band. You realize how much the drummer just adds to a song — to the power of a song — so easily. A friend of mine was listening to “Inspirational” — it’s the second to last song on the record — and she was like, “Were you smiling when you sang this song?” And I was, just because the drums made me so happy.
I had ideas of what instruments I wanted on the record, and for a lot of it, I would just hum something for the player to play. I know definitely on Knock Knock, which was the next one, that I wrote some very basic ideas on keyboards, and then Jim wrote them out and made them more musical. He wrote notation for the players.
As I started playing live more, that made me want to make music that could be played live. Whereas the early records were kind of the opposite goal. I wanted to make something that never be recreated again. I started small with the intention of never playing live. I don’t know why. I probably just knew that I couldn’t handle it, so I made up that little excuse.
I did my first show in about ’91, I think. I realized then how different it was. But back then, at least, it was the only way to get people to your music, to just show up on some bill and play it for them, I think I was hoping that there was some other way, but there isn’t really.
Knock Knock (1999)
That’s a very important record. I’m just kidding.
It is though!
Actually it is, yeah. With Red Apple Falls, I believe we recorded and mixed that in five days. That sounds crazy. At the most, it was seven days, but I think we recorded it and mixed it in five days. So that record is just what happened, basically. There wasn’t a lot of time for working on things. With Knock Knock, it took a little more time, probably 10 days or something. Also, as with Julius Caesar, I was surprised by how many good songs I had.
A lot of times I’ll make records where there might be an introduction-ish song to the rest of the record or to a bigger concept. On Reality, the first couple songs, “First Bird” and “Everyway,” they are fine songs, but they’re also very much playing an introductory role to some more freestanding songs. With Knock Knock — I don’t know what’s on there, 10 songs? — they’re all kind of freestanding and they could all be singles or greatest hits. There’s no bridge or introductory or groundwork type of songs. They’re all hits.
Dongs Of Sevotion (2000)
I tend to look at that as a trilogy: Red Apple Falls, Knock Knock, and then Dongs of Sevotion. That record was more pieced together in different recording sessions. I worked with different people, different drummers, and different people for different tracks. And it has the specter of death. There was a guy, Phil Bonnet, who was the engineer for Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock, and he was a good working pal of Jim O’Rourke’s. It was an intense but short work with this guy, and then he died in a car crash after Knock Knock. But I liked the studio that he had worked at and I did some of it there, and that was kind of spooky because Phil wasn’t there anymore.
“Dress Sexy At My Funeral” was the only poem I’d ever written. I wrote it a few years before all the other songs, and I thought, “There’s no way I can sing this” And I just put it in a drawer. I do find that whenever I get an idea to do something that isn’t music, that is writing, I tend to tell myself, “Oh, you’re not a playwright, you don’t write movie scripts, you’re a songwriter, sorry.” Everything becomes songs because that’s what I know how to do. So, that’s a prime example of that.
I have to ask about the album title, as it’s one of the great titles of all time. How did you come up with it?
I think I was considering calling it Songs Of Devotion, and I saw that Depeche Mode had a record called that. So just to make it unique and make it mine, and I stumbled on that.
A River Ain’t Too Much Love (2005)
I moved out of Chicago to Austin, Texas because I was trying to make some big changes in my life. I suddenly wanted to live in a house instead of an apartment. I wanted a yard, I wanted a driveway to park my car, and all these things that are very hard to achieve in Chicago unless you have lots of money. I also learned to finger-pick for that record, and I switched to nylon string, classical-style guitar. So, that was a big difference — learning a new thing, a new thing I was embracing. When you stop strumming and you start finger-picking, there’s a hole in the middle of the song. Because a guitar strummed is the center of the song, basically. If you take that away, that leaves a big space. I was trying to use my voice in the center instead of a strumming guitar with a voice on top.
I wanted to release A River Ain’t Too Much Love under my own name because of all these big changes. It was like, “What is this stupid name that doesn’t mean anything to me?” Someone goes in a record store and they see something by Smog and that plants something in their head — could be appealing, could be unappealing. I didn’t want to plant this thing that didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t want to then expect people to be like, “Oh, I’ll ignore that name and I’ll listen to this record,” which no one does.
It was all part of starting over. But my record label — they apologized for this — but they freaked out and got scared when I said I wanted to use my name, for obvious reasons. So I went with Smog for that last record, and then I changed it on the next one. Some people are still confused, but as far as sales go, they stayed the same. It was not like I was starting from scratch in that respect.
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (2009)
I was ready to make a record with strings again, like I had done for [1995’s] Wild Love. A lot of strings and horns. I think I was thinking in those terms as I was writing the songs, because with something like “Faith/Void,” the feel of the strings is pretty integral to that song taking off the ground and achieving flight. So, if I remember correctly, I was picturing strings and horns as I wrote the songs.
“Jim Cain” is your most streamed song. Any thoughts on why that track in particular is popular?
Well, I don’t know if a lot of people love it. A lot of people have heard it, maybe at a very low volume as they listen to a playlist. Those numbers can be misleading. I just think that happened to get on a playlist or two that was popular. I do think it’s one of my best songs, so that is why I’m constantly streaming it.
Ha! So you’re the one admiring your own handiwork.
I was reading a lot of James M. Cain. I read a little bit about his life and it seemed like he wasn’t really as embraced as much as I felt he should have been. I think he maybe was an alcoholic and died at a pretty early age, if I remember correctly. So I wanted to write a tribute to him. If you feel someone is under-appreciated, you can’t really control popular opinion. All I can do is make my own celebratory song for someone, and that’s kind of what that is.
When I first moved to Texas, I always felt like I was in a Western. Austin was a lot less developed then, so there were a lot more old buildings and things just crumbling and it had a very Western feel. So, I think that just kind of seeped into my perspective. I believe that’s the first record that I worked with Matt Kinsey. Am I right? Do you know? I’m pretty sure that was the first.
I had done a couple little one-off things for compilations with him, just as I was getting to know him and finding out what he was capable of. He had a key role in Apocalypse, the record’s moving into that direction. Matt is capable of playing anything. He can play on a sheer noise record or a top 40 pop song. Without Matt, I don’t know what these records would’ve sounded like.
That record, like all my records, is basically the band recording live, and then we might add some overdubs or fix a vocal word or two. But everything’s live, including the vocal, which applies its own energy and cohesion. And it’s also much quicker, as I found out recording Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest. That was definitely the longest I’ve spent on any record. And that was partially due to the fact that, for the first time, I went in, recorded my parts, and then I started adding people to it, which for some reason really slows down the process. When you record the band, there might be one part by somebody that’s not their best take, but you have to pick the most good version. And it always turns out fine, because the bass note that I hated but decided to live with is actually the coolest thing on the record.
Do you remember recording “Riding For The Feeling”? The performance on the record always transfixes me.
That was probably really easy, probably first take or something. It’s the kind of song that plays itself, because it’s just kind of slow and easy and it’s very obvious.
It’s my favorite vocal of yours.
Well, if a song plays itself, that takes a big burden off of my mind. Kind of like with “Inspirational,” which I referred to earlier. It’s like this song is just an 18-wheeler cruising down the empty highway and I don’t have to do anything but sing. I’m just relaxed and happy.
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest (2019)
Is it true you considered quitting music after becoming a father in the mid-2010s?
I couldn’t find a kind of reconciliation point of going down the path of being a father. There didn’t seem to be any stops along the way that involved making music. It felt like a very full path already. Also, I was learning something brand new, which used up all my brain power and my body power. I was not getting enough sleep for a few years and not having time to myself. I started seeing a therapist to try to help me have a life where both things are possible. It was strange, because we lived in Santa Barbara for about 10 months, so my wife would go to grad school. I thought I’d always wanted to live on the ocean or very close to the ocean. I finally got that chance and I found it actually more of a distraction because whenever I was in my house I was like, “I should be at the ocean now.” It was so close. So that was a lot of energy, as time was absorbed. I got out just in time.
I watched the world fall apart, as everybody did. I watched the country fall apart. I watched the world fall apart in slow motion. And I saw clearly that we had no leader, at least not one that was going to lead us out of this. I just felt like I wanted a guide — somebody smart to tell me what the fuck is going on, what is real, what is propaganda, what’s really going on here, somebody. So I looked to various philosophers and comedians, but no one really worked. Some people would say some things that made sense to me or rang true, but then they would say something else that negated that. And I eventually decided the important thing was focusing on myself and my family and my neighbors and the neighborhood, and that was the best path for me to carry on. What I learned by going through that was I wanted to turn that into songs, in case anybody needed some guidance or corroboration for their thoughts. Just someone saying the same thing that they may be thinking.
Also, there’s the big mess that social media is, and how we haven’t evolved yet to be able to handle that. Everyone talks about how great this shit is, but no one ever talks about how maybe it’s too powerful, it’s too different, that we can’t actually handle it. It’s addictive, in the same way that we shouldn’t all be taking heroin. It’s not going to work, if we’re all taking heroin. Society is not going to last very long.
This is, in a way, a protest record. But you don’t mention a specific thing you’re protesting, which makes it more universal and timeless.
I think in some way that a lot of good songs are protest songs, because they’re protesting the silence of no song. Usually if someone is writing a traditional protest song, there’s a utopic vision somewhere in there of, “Don’t do this, we should all do this.” I do think that songs are little utopias for people to live in for three or four minutes.
There’s dream imagery that recurs throughout the songs, which is not new for you. Why are you interested in dreams?
We don’t pay enough attention to our dreams. Most people treat them as a novelty. Like, “Oh, listen to this silly, crazy thing that I dreamed last night,” But a dream is a hand of tarot cards — you can read it or try to read it. I wonder what would happen if we focused more on dreams. I’ve always said politicians shouldn’t give those stupid bullshit speeches full of platitudes and lies, they should just talk about what they dreamed about last night and then we could decide if we think they’re the person for the job.
I haven’t been dreaming lately. It’s hard when you don’t remember your dreams.
When you remember your dreams, do you remember good dreams or just bad dreams? Because I feel like I only remember bad dreams.
They’re usually somewhat troubling or so puzzling that they upset you because obviously our brains want to make sense of everything, our conscious brains. But I think I remember good dreams, too.
You said you haven’t remembered a dream in a while?
Yeah. I think it’s because I started taking these CBD gummies before bed and I think that blocks, well, all that stuff. It slows down the sleep cycles. It makes the cycles longer and I think it keeps you in the non-dream state for a lot longer than normal. I’m planning on taking some days off from the sweet, sweet gummies.