Wild Mercury Sound

Bill Callahan: "This is supposed to be a short blurby interview, right?"

John Mulvey

First off, in case you missed it, I posted a second blog on Friday afternoon: the long-promised round-up of links to other blogs. Thanks again for everyone who posted their recommendations – keep them coming.

Today’s blog is something else I promised a while back, in the preview of the new Bill Callahan album, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”. I think I mentioned there that I’d done an unusually successful email interview with Callahan for the new issue of Uncut (out tomorrow, incidentally).

As is the way with these things, I could only use an extract, maybe 200 words, of the interview in the mag. But Callahan’s answers were so diligent, interesting and entertaining that it seemed a good idea to post the whole thing here. No apologies for a certain fixation on Drag City artists at the moment, by the way. So much good stuff coming from that stable, and I should be posting on the new Alasdair Roberts and Magik Markers sets any day now.

But here’s Bill. . .

UNCUT: Can you tell us a bit about the making of the album, and the people who play with you on it?
BILL CALLAHAN: I recorded the basic tracks with a band, in August I think. Then gave the tracks to the arranger Brian Beattie to write some string and horn parts while I was on tour in South America and North America. When I got back we put the overdubs on, in an old fashioned way - four or five string players gathered around one microphone. The basic band is a couple fellers who I'd been touring with a bit lately, Jaime Zuverza on fine and pretty guitar - Brian described his playing style as "unmacho" which I thought was great. And Luis Martinez on special drums. The bassist was Bobby Weaver who was a friend of the engineer John Congleton. I could go on but this is supposed to be a short blurby interview, right?

Why is the producer credited as, “Raven! Are you bleeding? Oh! Raven! I did not mean to cut you! Raven! I was only kicking as a cricket in your beak! Raven! I only wanted to live!” Who is it really?

Don't make me say it twice!

What is life in Texas like for you? How long have you lived there now, and what prompted the move?

There are a million tiny weird towns. You never know what you're going to get into if you drive an hour into the wild. There are long stretches of road where there is nothing but goats. Sometimes they'll hop in the backseat of your car and let you drive them around. And no cellphone reception for hours at a time once you leave the cities. It can be a great excuse for not answering calls. "Oh, I was out in Muleshoe. Sorry I missed you."

After the various styles on “Whaleheart”, “Sometimes I Wish” feels very cohesive. Was that a plan, and why did you choose to orchestrate these songs comparatively lushly?

“Whaleheart” was more of a grab bag, like a Jimmy Webb record - an LA ‘70s songwriter type of thing. The new record is more centred in a place and unmoving. I'd say “Whaleheart” was songs that could be arranged or dressed in many different ways, but on “Eagle”, the songs can only be the one way they are. The arrangements are supposed to be 'illustrative' on this record. In the past, I've sometimes gone for arrangements that mess with the context or are intentionally blank, unguiding. But with “Eagle” it's more, "Come in, sit down."

Can you explain the album’s title?

It's funny, people that I like have loved the album title, and people I don't like so much just look puzzled or uncomfortable. I guess you could say, if you want to dumb it down to a little nub, it is a wish for a true love. But it has - I hope - a little more to it than that, a mindmovie built into it that will be triggered if you let it. Try saying it to your old lady when things are rough. She will treat you right.

I imagine you get tired of people assuming the songs are about you. Nevertheless, it’s hugely tempting to read, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, than I got light again,” as a comment on a public perception of you? Is that fair?

Well, the song is sort of about Jim Cain. An attempt to fantasize his life story. But yeah, the "darker, lighter" line is a poke at how ridiculous a public perception can be for anyone, including me.

Who is Jim Cain?

James M Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and other books. “James M Cain” seemed like kind of a clunky song title so I shortened it. When I'm rehearsing my band I don't want to have to say, "Let's run through ‘James M Cain’ again." Although it does sound kind of classy now that I think about it.
James Cain was saddled with being called the father of hardboiled fiction. Apparently he didn't like this saddle. I tried to write the lyrics in a bunch of different voices at once - a voice that could be his, mine, or one of his characters. He was born in Maryland, like me. And wanted to be a singer. Like me. But was told he wasn't good enough. Like me. He died in alcoholic obscurity. Hmm... No comments from the Peanut Gallery! I also like that his middle name was Mallahan.

Is there a consistent narrative voice for the whole album, or does it vary from song to song?

It’s a pertinent question. A few of the songs are basically the same story but viewed from different perspectives or with different voices. "The Wind And The Dove" and "Rococo Zephyr" are pretty much looking at the exact same thing but from different perspectives. Maybe it is like a bird looking at the wind. A bird can be right in the wind flying in it and looking at it, or it can be on a cliff looking at the wind in the distance and thinking about it.

I think your songs are a lot funnier and more playful than critics often make them out to be (“Eid Ma Clack Shaw” being a case in point here). Do you agree?

People been telling me my songs are funny since the start, so I think that enough people are picking up on it just fine.

Your songs often come back to imagery involving horses and rivers. Why is that? And why are so many birds involved this time?

I don't know about a lot of things. I read a lot but a lot of it just passes through me. I don't retain much. I am kind of dumb that way. Or maybe "I am a simple man," is a better way to say it. I can only just kind of work with a few symbols that are important to me, that's what my language is tied to. I don't need a wide palate. I'm not really a child of this 120 TV channels, a billion websites era. I tried to live that for a long time but recently realized I don't get anything from it. I told myself it was luxury but it was really only annoying. I'd rather just watch the same 50 movies over and over.

Have you ever “dreamed the perfect song”?

I have dreamed melodies that made my heart weep and I have dreamed lyrics that would shatter the world. When I wake they run back into the woods.

Why did you choose to end the album with “It’s time to put God away”?

Because it really is! And it's a culmination song. It's a time-suspending song. You have to put it at the end. Can I just say this is a great record?


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