Bonnie “Prince” Billy discusses Merle Haggard, sailing and Johnny Cash
You have some friends in the comedy world but also friends who are funny as fuck but not comedy professionals. Which camp is funnier?
Oh, the non-comedy guys are way funnier! Improvisational conversational comedy is something you can do with your friends. You riff on it and get to amazing places, but it has a lot to do with chemistry. Stand-up is different. Last year a friend was putting on a series of comedy shows in Chicago and he asked me to perform. I agreed, but as it got closer I got angrier and angrier at him for asking me! My method was to encourage people to participate, to make it a heckling tutorial. But I was ill-prepared for it. I realised that, unless I’m performing as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I get hot, bothered and embarrassed by any attempt to be extemporaneous in public. I was reading Steve Martin’s book about his early stand-up years, and it’s astounding how endlessly honed every line was. Even the most throwaway remark that seemed so fresh and vital had been rehearsed thousands of time, the timing precision-engineered. It’s a science that I’d be terrible at.
I’ve always thought Rod Stewart would do a great version of your song “Gulf Shores”. Is there anyone you would like to see cover a song of yours?
John Paul Brolly, via email
The crass answer is whoever sells the most records! So I would love it if Rod Stewart covered one of my songs. Actually, I love it when anyone covers my songs, whether they sell or not. A while ago, clearance was requested for a cover of a song on The Letting Go called “Lay And Love”. It was for an album to accompany Nick Cave’s The Proposition and they wanted it to be a duet between Emmylou Harris and [bluegrass banjo player/singer] Ralph Stanley. And I don’t think I could describe the way that made me feel. It made tears come to my eyes, just imagining how it would sound! I later found out that they weren’t doing it but, weirdly, I wasn’t disappointed, as I’d already lived the joy of experiencing it in my own little dreamworld!
What was it like working with Royal Trux early on in your career for the “Trudy Dies”/“Come In” songs?
Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip
They were hugely influential upon my professional musical life. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema, both separately and together as Royal Trux, are very complicated people. And that dynamic they had crucially moved me in a variety of ways. Because you’d assume that the only way to get things done is if you’re nice to everybody, if you keep a lot of stuff inside, go along with what people say is the way to behave. Neil and Jennifer were never like that. They’d cherry-pick what’s good and what’s productive and use the whole of modern music history to justify their decision. If a thousand people will tell you that you have to do this to do a great show, they’ll do the opposite. They’ve definitely helped shape the way I approach the music industry.
You’ve worked with great film directors like John Sayles and Harmony Korine, and acted in other great films – have you ever had the desire to make a film of your own?
Stefan James, Skewen, Wales
No. There are certain film directors I’ve developed friendships with, and those friendships are hard, because film directors have to be oblivious to the feelings of others. A film director is the master of his or her little universe, and is blind to the ideas and needs and potential contributions of so many different people. Even if it’s a tiny crew of five – or 15, or 50 – all of those people are going to be cool and great, ’cos you need cool and great people if you’re going to make something cool and great. And logistically, I couldn’t cope with being so ruthless to all those talented people. Making records is a nice parallel activity, but you can have all the people you need in one small room, sometimes as few as three people. And I can deal with that. You don’t feel like you’re messing with anyone’s life or mind, and you’re open to the ideas and energies of everyone in the room.