Bill Callahan is an elusive man. His sometimes cryptic, baritone poetry has been entertaining legions of lo-fi fans for years under both the moniker Smog and his given name. His music is hard to pin down too, despite his instantly recognisable voice it’s not easy to merely lump the Maryland native into a genre or style, each of his 14 albums manage to add a slant to his previous work and Callahan maintains to employ some sort of different innovation or experimentation on each. This is probably underlined by the fact that Callahan doesn’t regard his previous work when creating fresh material. “My grasp of the old records is probably skewed because I don’t listen to them. I only know them through memory and through continuing to play some of the songs live which have mutated from their recorded form, although in my mind they represent the albums. But they don’t really.”
Males are now adopting the restrictive clothing previously worn by women… Maybe this can be blamed on computers too?
But if Callahan’s music can change and shift from album to album, one thing remains the same, that unmistakable slightly Southern brogue that can be both powerful and solemn, harsh but lulling. Though the context of his lyrics can change entirely throughout albums, and often become indecipherable to the non-initiated, his work seems to still maintain a masculine aura. Rarely does the image of sleeping horses and ranch life seem so powerful. Callahan muses on why, in the modern world, the masculine image seems to have hit an all time low. “Males are now adopting the restrictive clothing previously worn by women – cleavage shirts, tight pants. You can blame most things on computers. The way of singing is very feminine. Maybe this can be blamed on computers too? The higher registers are clearer on computer speakers and ear buds. It’s also the idea that trends and fashion are in 20 year cycles. So the big new wave thing that is happening now has brought back dying your hair, wearing neon clothing. It’s like that book by Adam Carolla, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks. And computers have brought out the gathering side of males, in the hunter/gatherer idea. Stuff on the Internet is just like picking berries off a bush, it’s just sitting there waiting for you.”
I believe we think and exist in metaphor. There is almost no real thing, just things we relate to other things.
However, obviously manly still sells to some audiences. Callahan has maintained a hardcore following since his genesis as Smog back in 1990, a point Callahan duly acknowledges; “It’s nice when you get a feeling that some people are sticking with you. And that you are a regular thing to them. Some kind of reliable entertainment and stimulation. I don’t worry too much about them. They can think something I do is great or terrible and it’ll be funny to me either way.”
Callahan’s latest album, Apocalypse, is another lo-fi, baritone dedication to his world of ranch life, musings and observations. The catchiest number of the record is ‘America!’ Which, to the casual, perhaps too-clever-for-their-own boots observer, seems deeply ironic. “It’s not ironic at all. It’s odd that when I am trying to be as honest and straightforward, as unpolluted as possible, people always say, ‘That must be ironic.'” The point is that most of us, fans or not, will misinterpret what Callahan means in his music. His slow images of country life, horses, cattle and “skin mags in the brambles” seem so deeply personal to him that they may not even be worth exploring to an outsider. What seems like a chilled laid back existence to city dwellers may contain the contrary meaning to him.
“Have you ever worked on a ranch? I wouldn’t call it slower living. It’s faster than taking a subway and sitting in an office. I believe we think and exist in metaphor. There is almost no real thing, just things we relate to other things. It’s like crossing a river on stepping stones, we jump from one to the next and we’re never really one place or another, we’re hopping from rock to rock.”
Even aiming to break down the structure of one of his albums seems pointless and futile, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle seemed like his most dense, heavily structured work in a while, Apocalypse seems more stripped back. The question is; is there a conscious decision when songwriting whether to write a song a certain way, with a particular approach? “A song in its nascent stage should be flexible enough to survive in any form be it dense or bare. The form it takes on a record has little to do with the song and everything to do with the record. Whatever type of record I want to make at the time is what is made. And the songs are just the songs on the record. It becomes a parallax when performing live, as I mentioned earlier — the songs in a live setting have little to do with the record and everything to do with the song.”
Perhaps the best thing to do is just enjoy Callahan’s music and poetry on surface value alone, which is easy. His songwriting and lyrics are so fantastically absorbing and enjoyable that its just as easy to lay back and fall into his music. Yet one must find it almost impossible not to ponder the question; what is the deeper meaning to his words? “Well, it’s a good question. I think probably what I am returning to is exactly what the question is – am I trying to work anything out, am I getting closer to it?”
Bill Callahan plays The Academy, Dublin on Thursday, May 5th.