The Rumpus Interview with Bill Callahan

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Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse is a sparse album of epic proportions, a celebration of American music, specifically what he describes as  “that rich period in the ’70s when all the styles were converging in a loving way.” Notoriously soft-spoken, I’d interviewed him once before via phone just before the release of 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. He chose his words carefully, the reception was choppy and there were moments when I couldn’t decipher what he actually said. I decided this time around to risk an email interview, thinking it might suit his personality to respond that way.  What follows is an edited transcript from one round of questions sent his way.

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The Rumpus: You’ve called Austin your home for a while now. What brought you there and why have you decided to stay there?

Bill Callahan: What I like about it is you can find the edges of the city. There are points where it just stops and becomes miles of grassland. I don’t recall finding edges of other cities. They usually end at rivers or oceans or blur into sprawl.  But with Austin you can see an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Yogurt at the end of a Strip Mall and then there’s a cow munching upon grass.

Rumpus: This is a good segue into my next question, which is about the cattle in the opening track “Drover.” There are a lot of cattle in your state of wide open spaces. Specifically I’m intrigued by your line “My cattle bears it all away for me and everyone.” Talk about this line, and more about the symbolism of cattle in this song.

Callahan: It is more about harnessing the power of the mind. And about seeing all aspects of consciousness and the subconsciousness as being large beasts with legs. It’s also about Western expansion and cultivation as correlating to what is called enlightenment and The Enlightenment in America, as represented by the Declaration of Independence. The wilderness created by breaking the bonds of colonialism. This was an apocalypse. “The real people went away” could be seen as the Native Americans but also many other things such as having untethered perceptions.  A lot of America was founded on dreams of the unknown.

Rumpus: When did you know that you were going to name this album Apocalypse and why did you?

Callahan: I believe the title came toward the end. But it must not have been the very end, because of the meta-ish references to it in the lyrics. I wanted a one word title so I had to go for a big one, the last word. The album is an apocalypse, hence the name.

Rumpus: In “One Fine Morning” you sing that “it’s all coming back to me now/My apocalypse.” Elaborate, what exactly is your apocalypse and what brought you to explore it with this record?

Callahan: In “Riding for the Feeling,” riding for the feeling is the apocalypse. Or in broader terms, the genesis of an idea is the apocalypse.  In “One Fine Morning” the apocalypse is the record Apocalypse and also Man vs. Nature and vice versa! Perceptions collapsing or is it just the angle of light and shadow as the sun moves through the sky?  I wanted to make an inward record, one that just kept going inward and inward deeper in. But to present it in an outward fashion, that is, in the style of Western music. Eastern music carries a different attitude. There is no focus on the performer. The performers are often seated, impassive. The music is the thing. And by being inward they are of course being outward, universal — by removing the self from the equation they are achieving a certain kind of extroversion. Because they are also in a way focusing on the self more than a Western performer usually does.

Rumpus: In “Baby’s Breath” you say “I am a helpless man, so help me.” Talk about this song, where it came from, how it developed and what it means to you.

Callahan: Always looking for an alternate ending to memory.  Or an alternate to memory’s machinations as we know them. That is what this song is about. It’s kind of a series of alternate endings.

Rumpus: My interpretation of Apocalypse sees it as both a tribute and critique to America. Do you agree with this interpretation? Why or why not?

Callahan: I don’t feel I’m really in a position to critique anything. I’m not a critiquer or a critic. I can only describe what I see. Or just throw sentences out there. Or just enjoy it or disenjoy it. I think the American aspect of it is … well, the record is about American music as much as it is about American anything else. That rich period in the ’70s when all the styles were converging in a loving way. The styles are converging in the present day, also, but in a more clinical or unloving way. The current music is mostly like a doctor’s visit. Where you check off the questionnaire about the past and hope they don’t stick a finger up your butt. But back when the Osmonds were making a psychedelic record or soul blended into funk blended into psychedelia it was a pleasanter experience. Hip-hop brought the once radical practice of sampling into the norm. Now bands are trying to play as if they are samplers.

Rumpus: Back to the West. I watched Deadwood for the first time this winter. Are you a fan?

Callahan: I’ve never seen it. I feel like it’s probably good though because I’ve read that there’s a lot of profanity in  it. I haven’t had TV in a couple years. But I’ve been catching up on Friday Night Lights by alternate means.

Rumpus: Who is the most compelling literary character on your mind? What are you reading right now? How did you happen upon this text and how does it make you feel?

Callahan: I like the Chinese man in East of Eden. I’m not reading anything that great right now. I’m floundering between the Lincoln book about how what he read affected what he wrote and his life. That and America, 1908, which is about that which it says. Both were found on the discount table at a local bookstore, which turns out is a better place to do your Christmas shopping than to buy something for yourself to read.

Rumpus: Drag City released what I’ve seen labeled both an epistolary novellete and epistolary epic poem. Why did you write Letters to Emma Bowlcut and how was this creative act different from crafting songs?

Callahan: I wrote it because writing is occupying and  satisfying work. The editing process lets you know that anything can be fixed up given time and application. I don’t consider my songs to be crafted. I just have them be what they should be. I  don’t like the word craft. Songwriting is something that happens if you let it. There is little correlation between writing prose and writing songs for me. A song is a bed sheet used as a sail, prose is a barquentine fully-rigged.

Rumpus: Do you read much poetry? In my involvement in poetry I’ve noticed that few people who aren’t primarily poets read much of it. If you do read it, why/what do you read? Also, do you consider yourself a poet, why/why not?

Callahan: I’m not a poetry guy. I don’t understand most of it. I like the plain spoken stuff OK, like the “Land of the White Donkeys” guy. Is that Tate?  His stuff is more along the lines of Mitch Hedburg though. Emily Dickinson I like. She was a rare seed with a rampant flaring core. I’m surprised no one has founded a religion in her honor. Or maybe they have. All these poetry readings attended by poets. But mostly I find that poetry doesn’t suit my speed. Mostly I cannot understand what is being said. I don’t want to be teased with feathers by someone tittering in a harlequin mask hiding behind a pillar—I want to be high-fived or hugged by a blinged out mothereffer. Hug a thug!

Rumpus: What brought you to music? What is the first engagement with music that you can recall?

Callahan: I remember as a small child thinking that the fiddle in bluegrass music was a baby crying and singing. So I liked it. I thought they just brought their baby on stage with them. Bluegrass was what I first saw as a three-dimensional music—the skeleton and the organs and the skin and face. That is the first thing I remember about music, that bluegrass is like a body with joints  that move and smiles, stretches, etc.

Rumpus: How has your process evolved over time? What was your process in creating Apocalypse?

Callahan: It’s fairly rigid. Apocalypse was a little different though. I knew I had two-and-a-half months of no interruptions. No shows or other duties. So I set up studio time two-and-a-half months in advance and began to write from nothing. I worked 10, 12, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. It was an experiment, to see if I could work from zero and make something I liked. I could! There is always that intense month or two of work before recording, but usually I have about 60 percent of the record done before I enter that phase.

Rumpus: Do you enjoy performing live? How much of a role does audience/ambiance play when you’re performing shows?

Callahan: All those people in a room, they’re obviously throwing a lot of psychic weight around.  It can be a matter of playing with them, against them, for them, in spite of them. But mostly it is getting over yourself.  Getting out of your physical body, or deeper within it? Breaking down some wall inside you. It’s like a wrecking ball going to work. It can be hard to comprehend but playing a show is like knocking down a city and building a new one in the space of an hour or two. You first need to knock down the city the audience has built while waiting for you. Because they don’t really want to be in that city they built, they just didn’t know what else to do with their minds while waiting. Then you build them a city.

Rumpus: Do you consider yourself political? Why or why not?

Callahan: Politics are absurd to me. Plotted frustratingly like a dream can be. And like a dream it is a world that is hard to enter and make much sense or difference. I’ve seen seemingly good people thwarted or diminished or opting for corruption. Politics is like heroin in what it does to people.  All those junkies in the House of Representatives just lounging in their seats, occasionally getting up to hold forth with some nonsense when the drug kicks in and then sinking back to yell something later if they are so moved. It’s like Needle Park in there. And if you took it away from them, it may be the best thing for them, but they’d be lost.

Rumpus: What is a song you’re obsessing over right now? Why? Describe the track.

Callahan: I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye. ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Here, My Dear’ albums. They have a density and an insularity that I like. In that way that you can push insularity to the point of it being so wide open and close. I’m not sure if the mixes are right, I’m still analyzing that. Too much reverb. I might need to do a remix.

Rumpus: Why do you make music? What motivates you to create?

Callahan: You play a note on an instrument and you are back in the same space you are always in. Music shows that time has stopped. Participating in it gives you peace in the complicity.

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Photo by Kirstie Shanley


Katy Henriksen is the music editor for The Rumpus and a classical music and arts producer at KUAF 91.3FM Public Radio. She's written about arts and culture for the Brooklyn Rail, New Pages, Oxford American, Paste, the Poetry Project Newsletter,Publishers Weekly, Venus Zine and others. She also designs book jackets and makes pies. You may keep up with her at Twitter (@helloloretta) or through helloloretta.tumblr.com. More from this author →