Over 20 years, Bill Callahan–who recorded as Smog from 1988 until 2007–has dabbled in hard rock, children’s choirs, French horns, country, darkened synth-pop, and gospel. His throat holds a flat, wheaty baritone–as expressionless as plastic and as self-sufficient as a leather jacket; he never sounds sad, just calcified and distant. And yet even at their most scientifically antisocial, his lyrics are backgrounded by sweetness: “Most of my fantasies are of making someone else come,” confessions both teeth-grittingly awkward and very, very commendable.
Callahan is basically a back-porch cartographer of the chasms between us and other people. Because of this, and because he has discovered fresh and somewhat abstract ways to suss out the particular rush of life’s most prosaic painful moments, I submit that he’s terrific. Tomorrow he releases another album, called Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, on Drag City. (The title “is about desire,” he says dispassionately.) After 20 years, it’s hard to compare Bill Callahan to anyone but Bill Callahan, but I’ll say that Sometimes is my favorite record of his in several years, maybe since 1999’s Knock Knock. So I called him to talk about it.
You’ve traveled a lot and lived in several cities. I wonder, is there a particular thing you notice first in each new place you go? Like, maybe you notice the trees, or the architecture. I notice dogs. Is there something you notice?
My reason for moving is seeing the unknown. I can’t think of first impressions that stand out. I moved to Austin [TX] four years ago because I’d been here a couple days and just got a really good feeling from it.
From what, exactly?
Well, it’s very low key. And the people are nice. There aren’t many angry people here.
This new record has a lot of bird imagery on it. Every time I visit Austin I can’t help but notice all the grackles in the trees, they have that really shrill song. Do you notice them?
Actually, that is one thing I noticed immediately. Before I lived here, I played South by Southwest, and I did a show on Sunday at this record store, and it was really nice, and I went back to my hotel and sat in the car for some reason–well, because I could hear all the grackles, all in one tree. I sat there for, like, half an hour.
Do you have to work? Can you devote a lot of time to writing?
I’ve lived off my music for fifteen years. I lived in New York for a while and had to work then, and I really couldn’t make music–I was just working all the time.
Do you practice guitar? I mean, do you look at it and see this horrible, confrontational demon sitting in the corner of your room, or do you like playing it?
I can play guitar for about fifteen minutes every day. I find it kind of meditative–it calms me down and centers me.
You’ve been performing for 20 years now. Have you noticed any physical changes that change your performance–say, to your throat or voice, or to your hands, or even the kinds of shows your body can take playing?
You definitely learn the more you do it. I learned several years ago to stop having high expectations, because there are so many unknown variables to playing a show. When I started this was stuff I was frustrated about, but I realized it’s just the nature of performing.
But nothing about your body?
I’ve noticed that if I do several shows in a row, my voice gets better. I mean, in a perfect world, I’d sing every day, but I don’t. When I’m at home I can go a month without singing.
Really? You go a month without singing anything?
You’ve worked with people like Jim O’Rourke and Neil Michael Hagerty in the past–these guys with their own musical personalities and reputations. How much leeway do you give them as arrangers and producers, and did that change when working with [Okkervil River producer] Brian Beattie on this album?
Well, with Jim, he would transcribe stuff I played on a keyboard and sometimes punch it up a little. I mean, for the most part, I know what instruments I want on the record and the basic feel of the songs.
And this time around?
Well, I knew I wanted certain instruments–like, I knew I wanted French horns and violins and cellos. I knew the feel of the songs, but I wanted to see what it would be like for someone else to come up with the melodies, so I let Brian do that. There were a lot of discussions with this record–I’d meet with Brian, and he’d play rough stuff on the keyboard, and we’d go from there.
How much of your songwriting is based on going out and watching people, and how much it is rooted in your own personal experiences? I remember you saying in an interview that “I Break Horses”–this song that compares dealing with women to training animals–was written for a female friend who had a hard experience with a man. I thought that was touching, and really contrary to the image of you as a misanthrope.
Well, I definitely get as much out of thinking about other people’s lives as much as my own. Sometimes I know them, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s an imagined scenario, sometimes it’s real. Other peoples’ scenarios are just kind of a springboard for the thought of writing a song, but it would be too awkward if it were directly about them–that’d be too cut and dried.
People who like your songs seem to like it them for their directness. Do you have to spend a lot of time revising, or do these lines just pour out of you at the right moment?
I usually start with a title or a line that I know is the first or last line or something in the middle. Sometimes it pours out of me, but not that often. It’s a lot of work. I’m always writing, but it’s not always successful. Once I get a solid word or concept, I’m on a path–it’s like drawing a circle and then just filling it in. But I have to go back and erase parts that won’t make the bar.
What doesn’t make your bar?
I can just tell when something isn’t true. If I try to sing something that isn’t expressed correctly, it just feels awkward. My mouth feels funny–it’s like I just know I’m trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes