Bill Callahan

Text by Jaan Uhelszki
Photograph by Joanna Newsom

Bill Callahan is perhaps one of the most talented – and at the same time haunted – songwriters working today, evoking both the ethos and poetry of a bygone era. Yet, few people know him by his name because he records under the sobriquet of Smog, a name as metaphoric as it is evocative of the dark, melancholy world that he visits in his songs. Nocturnal and unknowable, Callahan obscures as much as he reveals, creating music for endings, epiphanies and revolutions. His latest release A River Ain’t Too Much To Love (2005) is out on Drag City.

What’s the worst job you ever had? Working in a cardboard box factory. Huge pallets of stacked-flat, perforated cardboard would be dropped at your feet. You had a hammer and you worked with seven other people, two per side. As quick as you could, you hammered out a big handful of the stack, then lifted the extricated flat boxes onto a conveyer belt and went back to work on the stack. After three weeks my right arm looked like Iggy Pop’s and my left like Nick Drake’s. All the worst jobs I’ve had have involved pallets.
Does it matter what people think about you? I was going for a pre-show walk in Italy. I got lost in the streets that are laid out like a crossword puzzle. It was approaching show time and I didn’t know how to get back to the club. I started looking for young people and asking them in English if they could tell me where the club was. I finally found a man that said he would be happy to guide me. We talked cheerily as we walked for a good 20 minutes. We got to an unfamiliar looking building and he said, “Here is your club.” I thought maybe I just didn’t recognize it in the dark, so I said, “Well, I’m playing a show here tonight and I could put you on the guest list if you feel like going.” He said, “I know who you are. My girlfriend has a shrine of pictures of you on her bedroom wall. I do not like your music. I do not like you. Maybe I do. You were very nice to talk to.” I said, “OK, well, thanks for escorting me to the club at least.” He said, “This is not your club, your club is across town,” and he walked off. I caught a cab to the club and played one of the best shows ever. So I think it does matter what people think about me. I was totally pumped up by the experience.
What keeps you sane? What is the best cure for the blues? Listening to records is really grounding for me.
You reveal so much in your songs. Where do you draw the line about what is private? I don’t recognize these as parameters. I’m making music and lyrics that are no more private than a guitar chord or a drum hit. Music can’t ever be private or else it’s not music. It is made for other people.
Do you have any pre-show rituals? If possible I like to go on a medium-long brisk walk. I’ve pretty much decided that dressing rooms are not a good place to be before a show. Unfortunately, it can be hard to go for a walk before a show. There are various obstructions. But ultimately the best thing before a show is to go for a walk and get lost, especially somewhere where you don’t speak the language.
Are you religious? Not in any kind of established way. I have what I have and tend to keep it to myself. It’s basically like breathing. There’s no need for me to talk or think or preach about breathing or religion. But I might notice one or both of them when I climb a mountain or get thrashed by a wave.
Is cleanliness next to godliness? A lot of neat-freaks are really ungodly, unhappy people. It is a constant struggle for me. A lot of people assume I’m neat. I guess because I don’t dress like a pseudo-hippie. I am usually very positive-feeling when my home is neat as a pin. You don’t picture God with barbeque sauce stains on his shirt.
Name a couple of legends that are truly legendary. Lee “Scratch” Perry, John Cassavetes, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
What food group do you most identify with? I grow sprouts and become attached to them. Raising them from a seed. They turn green when they see the sun and they angle and grow in the direction of the sun. The whole mass of them struggling for life. Sometimes they even visibly move, when one leaf passes by another one that had been obstructing it. It’s kind of freaky. It can be hard for me to kill and eat them.
What’s the greatest clue to your personality? Private Mustard in the bedroom with the battle-axe.
What is your personal motto? Or a saying that sticks in your head? I used to turn to the phrase “nothing lasts forever” for strength in times of need. I have had to abandon that now that I am starting to suspect that some things do last forever. I think that life is links in a chain of eternity. All you have to do is keep your link or links as whole as you can and that’s the best you can do for yourself and others.
What’s at the top of your shopping list or wish list? A beach house. A comfortable couch. A cat that is good at ping-pong.
What are some records that have influenced your own songs? Roger Miller just did whatever the hell he wanted and made it work. I would say the same for Prince, R. Kelly, Mickey Newbury, Waylon Jennings, Lindsey Buckingham. The spirit of these people inspires me.
What are a couple of things that tick you off? People who walk slowly in front of you or drive poorly.
A book that changed your life? I always say To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Because it finally nudged me into the world of books in my mid-teens. I’ve never gone back and re-read it so I have no idea if it’s any good.
What you were trained to do? Fry chicken. By a kid ten years my junior. A rough period.
Your secret for success? I ask myself in the morning, “What are you going to do today to give yourself the edge?” It’s kind of silly, but it works. When did you know you had grown into your voice? I’m still growing into it. I think it’s like a tree. You see it when it’s 30 years old and you think, “Wow that’s tall,” and it appears to be a complete, finished tree. But then you see it at 40 years old and you realize it wasn’t finished, it could grow taller.
How do you sum someone up? Is there a template? Like, can you tell more about a person by their handshake or their shoes? A friend of mine once observed, “Bill hates anyone whose shoes he hates.” I thought it was funny at the time but I think it’s proven itself to be true.
Do you ever regret calling yourself Smog? How has the name served you? Hurt you? I don’t regret it. But I want to change it with the next record. I wanted to change it with A River but my record label begged me not to. It has served me as it staved off the tag of singer/songwriter for a long time. It has become such a neutral, almost a non-word. Which I think is what I was originally hoping for. Because X was already taken. I have plans for four more records in my head and I think they will be under the name Bill Callahan. But Smog has protected me. Half of the time when I get approached, people say, “Are you from Smog?” It sounds like a planet. They don’t know my name and that is fine.
You say in your lyrics, “Whether or not there is any kind of God / I’m not supposed to say? / God is a word / and the argument ends there.” If not God, what is holy to you? That’s not supposed to say God isn’t holy, it’s supposed to say the exact opposite. It is supposed to say that God cannot be approached by human language, nor used as a pawn.
How does a song come to you? Does it demand to be written? It’s an unsatisfying answer for all involved, but it just comes. You write things down. You get excited and pursue it when it feels right. Is autobiography important to you? I discourage it at all costs. Some day I would like to make a personal album but I don’t see that day coming very soon. I write about things that are outside of me. I write with my eyes, not my brain.
A river ain’t too much to love? So what is? Hitler.