Bill Callahan’s Love Song to America

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Four hours before Bill Callahan is set to perform at the Independent, a small San Francisco nightclub, he fiddles with his shoelaces and pokes the tips through a grommet in his navy sneakers. Though his singing voice is unwavering as oak, Callahan is actually a bit shy. In person, his cowboy baritone often decrescendos to a whisper. Still, his eyes flicker with passion when he talks about things like the difference between songwriting and prose, or how genetically modified meat wrecks our bodies.

Callahan recently released his 13th studio album, Apocalypse. It sounds so intimately pressed to his half-singing-half-speaking voice that the microphone could be inside Callahan’s mind. His sound wasn’t always so focused. A Maryland native, Callahan performed under the name Smog from the early 1990s to mid 2000s. Then, he moved to Austin, Texas, and started performing under his own name. Over the course of those two decades, his style drifted from more abstract and instrumental to what it is today: grounded in lyrics. His songs are casual, unhurried, and delivered over minimalist guitar fingerpicking with a dash of distortion. His voice, a soothing low drawl, is reminiscient of Johnny Cash. On his lastest album, we hear tales about cattle drivers and crops, US soldiers and talk shows. It’s part nostalgia, part American apocalypse. In our backstage chat, Callahan reflected on everything from the flavor of bison meat to weird babies and our elected leaders’ secret underground garden plot.

MJ: I understand you’ve moved to Austin, Texas. Has that affected your songwriting?

Bill Callahan: People ask me that a lot. But I’ve never detected a correlation between where I am and what I write. I think there could be something subconscious, though. And I can’t really speak for my subconscious.

MJ: I found your interview with The Rumpus really interesting. You said: “Politics is like heroin in what it does to people.”

BC: I think politics seems like a meaningless substance, like a drug is. At first, a drug has an effect. And then, as you get addicted to it, you’re just normalizing yourself. You don’t feel the high anymore. Politics started out with good intentions to get things moving, help people live their lives and be safe and all that stuff. But now it’s reached this point where politics isn’t doing anything. It’s just this thing that has no effect.

MJ: And yet I’ve heard people refer to your music as political. Is it?

BC: It can be hard to separate human nature and politics. Just like the whole thing with [former New York Congressman Anthony] Weiner, his human nature. Even the personality of the president—it’s 90 percent of how presidents get elected. So I’m more into human nature than politics. But they’re intertwined. Obviously, I live in civilization, so politics are part of my life.

MJ: I was interested to learn you’d published a novelette, Letters to Emma Bowlcut. Why did you decide to set those words to paper instead of setting them to music?

BC: It’s an entirely different way of writing. It’s just prose versus song. They’re different shapes to me. Like a song is kind of narrow and maybe jagged. But prose is like this big block—you write big paragraphs. I feel that when I’m reading and writing, that a prose book is kind of monolithic. But a song is more like a feather or something. It kind of bends to where you are and the situation you’re in and what’s going on in your life. Everyone gets different things out of books, but not as much as music. People like a song for a hundred different reasons. But a book, I think it’s not as flexible.

MJ: In your song, “America,” you sing “Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention.” I was hoping you might elaborate.

BC: I was approaching it like a love song to America. If you start by dating someone new, you don’t have to tell them about all the old relationships you had. And with your country, you have a past that you carry with you. Maybe we did something bad in the past, but you can’t keep throwing that in our face. What we’re doing now is also important. America isn’t not yours, and a person isn’t yours. You share your country with other people, so it’s not a possession.

MJ: You also sing a lot about agriculture, specifically cattle and crops. Do you feel passionate about the way food is brought to our grocery stores and tables?

BC: I think it’s all really fucked up. Just the GMOs, modified foods, and the meat. All the crazy stuff they do to meat. But also there’s a lot of people in this world. I know it would be awesome if small farms and local people could feed the whole world, but there’s so many people in a city like New York. How are you gonna do it? I don’t know how I would do it. Although in Europe, they don’t do the same thing we do. So I think it’s fucked up. It’s just like you’re shooting yourself in the foot to poison your food. I always think the people in power have some secret superfood supply. They’re passing these laws to make things bad for you and they’re eating the food. So I always think there’s some underground garden. Just these amazing healthy animals, like a garden of Eden, and that the politicians are eating that. Or something. [Laughs.]

MJ: So what do you see in Texas, in terms of the land and the way it’s used for agriculture?

BC: I just started eating meat. I was vegetarian for 20 years. I never had a craving, but all the sudden I had a craving for beef, so I thought I should heed that call. I started investigating. I found out that bison is much better for you than beef. So I found this place called Thunder Heart Ranch. It’s a few hours outside Austin. They raise the bison as family, like the parents raise their kids. And they’re just free-roaming.

MJ: What does bison taste like?

BC: It’s a lot like beef. It might be like beef with a little sausage-y spice. It has anticarcinogenic properties and all this stuff that helps you metabolize fat. But that’s about the extent of my knowledge of what’s going on in the meat world in Texas.

MJ: What made you become a vegetarian initially?

BC: I had very little money. And I thought it would be much cheaper. I also read about the treatment of chickens and all that mess, the production of meat. Whenever I was younger and would eat red meat I would get super sleepy. That was probably hormones or something.

MJ: And what do you think made you crave meat after all those years—all those barbeque pork joints in Texas?

BC: No, pork is disgusting. Although I ate it in Spain. I didn’t think I’d ever eat pork, it just does not appeal to me. But we were in the region for the best ham. They’re really proud of their ham there. It’s like sushi. It looks different than anything you’ve seen called ham in this country. So I tried that. Also, because I was really hungry. I had to play a show. They eat really late there and start dinner at 10 at night. All we could get was ham with anchovies. We all ate that, and they were both very salty. We were all very parched on the airplane back. That was in Seville.

MJ: Why did you name your album Apocalypse?

BC: I don’t know, really. It’s a cool sounding word. All my last albums have had really long titles and I wanted something short and snappy. It’s a good word. And you know, it applies to some of the subject of the songs. More the revelation type of apocalypse than the end of the world. I really tried not to emphasize that part of it but people love to talk about the end of the world. It could be an ego thing: You don’t want everyone to have life after you do, so you’re taking everyone out with you. Like we’re all in the same boat. People have been saying the world was going to end since it began. I haven’t really thought about why. It’s just a fear of death, I guess.

MJ: And how does The Apocalypse relate to the songs in the album?

BC: I was thinking about perception a lot. They say we only perceive still images and our brain turns them into a motion picture. There’s that little black spot between each one, but our brain doesn’t see that we just see movement. Our brain is playing a trick. I was thinking about if our brain could see those spots. It’s like there’s a death between each one and a rebirth when the next image comes. The last song has to do with that. We see in photographs, and our brain turns it into a movie.

MJ: What do you hope to communicate with your songs?

BC: I think if I knew, that would be bad. I think you’re not supposed to think about that too much, and [instead] keep it in a different place like an intuition. If I could put into words what I was trying to communicate, I think I would kind of be a jackass.

MJ: How so?

BC: That would be boring, to be someone who can explain everything. Some people love to have theories about the work they do and tell you all about them. When I’m reading stuff like that, I just think I’d rather just see the painting or see the movie or hear the song than hear you explain to me what you’re doing.

MJ: Then what’s your motivation for performing your songs?

BC: It feels really good. It’s enjoyable. Touring is a really rich part of my year. It’s very intense and absorbing. It’s not like sitting at home and doing something passive. It’s kinetic. Things are happening and you really feel like you’re doing something. It’s partially because you’re doing it for people, but you’re also doing it for yourself. Even if only 10 people show up, I’m still putting myself in that situation and dealing with it. It’s that feeling of something happening instead of letting life roll over you.

MJ: What has been the most memorable moment on your tour so far?

BC: My best friend had a baby, and I hadn’t met her baby yet. She was about three months old and I got to meet her in L.A. She was really sweet and quiet for a baby. My friend left the show early and left me these ear plugs on my pillow because she thought the baby would wake me up at 6 a.m. and start bawling. But it didn’t. It was very quiet. Babies are really unfocused most of the time, but she has very focused eyes I hadn’t seen on a baby.

MJ: In the song “Drover,” you sing, “One thing about this wild, wild country…It breaks a strong, strong mind.” Do you feel like the country has broken your mind?

BC: People are taking that as a political thing, which is fine. But it’s more about perception. “Drover” is about how hardscrabble it was for [cowboys] to make their way across the country, and how difficult and bare-bones that whole part of time was. It’s also just about, if you go into the wilderness of your mind, there are a lot of scary tough things in there that can break you.

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