The only time I ever met Bill Callahan I interviewed him for Hot Press in 1996 just before he supported Palace Music in Whelan’s. I can’t find the published interview, just the couple of pages I typed and submitted, but I think HP published it just as I’d written it. This was not my first time seeing Palace (that was in 1993) but it was my first time seeing Smog, and I was deeply into Smog’s 1995 album Wild Love. I’m still highly attached to that album partly because it’s a fine record and partly because my friend Brian who bought this on vinyl, understanding how great Smog were before most people did, passed away in 2001. I inherited his vinyl and I still own it and play it every now and then. The timing of this Whelan’s show was such that Palace had recently released Viva Last Blues while Smog had released Kicking A Couple Around and were about to release The Doctor Came At Dawn, probably the darkest point in Bill Callahan’s career. Red Apple Falls showed up next. While Bill Callahan playing alone with just his acoustic guitar and a foot-operated tambourine was one of my favourite shows, this interview below was not one of my favourites. I was in awe of him, trembling, and he was really quiet. The piece is about 60% my words not his and that’s about six times too many. Still I thought it ended OK and his statement about signs of life showed where Smog was heading, and Bill’s still going.
SOMETIMES YOU can tell straight from the start when somebody’s going to turn out a little off the wall. You can tell, alright, when instead of doing the normal things with those topsy-turvy teenage years — drinking, smoking, popping pimples and running like the wind at the sight of the opposite sex — they behave like Bill Callahan.
“Yeah, I spent most of that time in my room,” confesses he who is Smog, “sort of trying to think of scenarios for my songs. Sadly, they were extremely bad. I was, like, sixteen, trying to write songs, with no themes, trying to cover up that I had no themes. I used to write about things in Alaska, cold stuff, like moutains, snow. Frozen things.” He smiles, as gleeful as he gets, and stares.
This is all pretty worrying. Puppy love you’d expect, but perhaps not paeans to all that is bleak and barren. Didn’t anyone think to have a word? “My parents never knew,” he confides. “Nobody ever heard those songs. They were for my ears only. Even then, I had my own little world.”
Such youthful intensity was bound to bloom into at least a little full-grown moribund readjustment — a mood that crops up with alarming regularity in Smog’s work (which just so happens to have been, in the eight years of their existence, some of the most wondrous that the American underground has thus far offered up.) I remark to Bill that last year’s Wild Love is the only record I own that can match my blackest moods (and I own all of AMC); he laughs, quietly.
“Well the next one’s worse. It wallows, I guess.”
Death death death, then.
“Yeah, I have this little problem with death. There’s a lot of death on the new one. I was just thinking a lot about death lately. I don’t know why; but it’s not obsessive, just passing visions of coffins, vultures, things like that. That’s all.”
Smog’s current release, the staggering four-track EP Kicking A Couple Around, contains no corpses. In fact, it’s easy listening, all in all: just the falling asunder of friendships that were once your whole life; the all too easy crossing of the line between love and hate; the horror of feeling-free fucking; and there’s more, but you really don’t wanna know. All done by Bill alone, with a single, barely brushed, acoustic guitar (“The thought of doing an overdub made me nauseous”), it has a savage intimacy that only Palace can compete with.
And there’s more than misery. What people miss, when they hear the likes of Wild Love and the current Kicking A Couple Around EP, is what people always miss when a deep throat sings deep songs (see The Sewing Room, The Magnetic Fields, Leonard Cohen, and the rest): they miss the jokes. Of which there are few, but — because they’re surrounded by biological warfare — when they come, they’re damn funny.
“Yeah, that’s unfortunate,” says Bill. “Because you can’t write really bleak songs without any jokes. I mean, it’s possible, but it’s too heavy, you know? It’s kinda foolish. If it’s too serious, it just kind of cancels itself out. There’s only one angle to it.
“It’s funny,” he muses. “Until tonight no-one ever asked me about humour, but tonight, twice it’s come up. There must be a black Irish sense of humour or something.”
Maybe so. But still, sometimes it’s a bit blatant. Take ‘Be Hit’ off Wild Love. “Every girl I’ve ever loved has wanted to be hit / Every girl I’ve ever loved has left me ‘cos I wouldn’t do it / Seems my sensitive shmuck can be given by / Any old shmuck / Alright now”.
“Yeah, well, people don’t get it. They just hear the first line and they get angry, or whatever, you know. It’s just, it’s a subtle thing in the music, but people don’t mention it. They just talk about how depressed this guy is, or something. It’s frustrating. They don’t mention that there’s a sense of humour, which, is, you know … a sign of life.”