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Bill Callahan

Mystery Man: Bill Callahan lets the music do the talking.

By Randy Harward
Posted // June 17,2009 -

There’s no music from Bill Callahan’s—you may know him better under his former “band” name Smog—13th album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City) on his MySpace page. Make that his “Official Fuck MySpace Page,” as it reads. That he cares nothing about social networking sites for promoting his music shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s famously reclusive and, when you get to ask him questions—at least on the phone or in person—elusive.

Funny, ’cause if you had to guess as to the character of the man—like I did, watching him set up for a show at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church in 2007, you wouldn’t see an F-bomb droppin’ bad boy. He was, and usually is, clean-cut, sporting a choirboy’s coif. That night he wore a long-sleeved dress shirt with smart creases and buttoned cuffs. He could’ve been a youth pastor holding a little acoustic guitar, about to serenade the packed pews, as he gave last-minute instruction to the fresh-faced young pianist in the long dress who would accompany his folk hymns with bad end-rhymes and a good heart.

It was a concert (you might even prepend that: rock concert), but the guy onstage was no Christian minstrel. He’s a comparative maverick, with his top button undone and no undershirt— in a house of God, for Chrisssakes. He also appeared to have more than a casual acquaintance with the pianist (he did; it was his then-girlfriend and musical peer Joanna Newsom), and neither of them wore a wedding ring. Callahan didn’t look like a troublemaker, but maybe once upon a time, he was.

Corresponding via e-mail, he sounds downright reasonable. “There are many reasons I prefer the mail. Time, yes. Phone interviews are too rushed—20 or 30 minutes. I dislike talking on the phone anyway—especially cell phones with their taking chunks out of sentences. It is easier to get a feeling of “wholeness” when you are writing out the whole thing. Speaking briefly on the phone, you get the feeling the interviewer is taking these rags and jewels from you and scampering off to fix you up in God knows what sort of clown outfit.”

Er … like guessing he might be some kinda Ned Flanders with an okely-dokely song in his heart? What he means is that everyone should get a chance to say exactly what he or she means. “I just bought the Paris Review anthology of interviews,” he explains, saying that the Review would stage two or three meetings with its subjects and allow them a chance to revise their quotes. “That’s the way it should be, I think. It is still possible to have a conversational tone with a back-and-forth when the dialogue is written.” Also, he’s a night owl—and perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon. “Phone interviews usually have to happen during business hours. I prefer to write them out as soon as I get up in the morning or in the wee hours. Or, whenever I am feeling charitable.”

So—night owl or curmudgeon—maybe he’s a little of both. In 1987, Callahan’s parents had had enough of his shenanigans and told him to get out of Baltimore and “cool [his] wheels” on a freighter cruise to remote, exotic locations like Papeete, the Tuamotu Islands and Suva. What does a young man banished to boat life do? Among the crew, a half-dozen other passengers and crates or pallets of random raw goods, Callahan essentially started a band. Or writing songs, anyway—measured, precise expressions of his thoughts and feelings that would continue to occupy his hands and mind when he arrived home and his parents said it was time to pay his own way. Doing business as Smog, Callahan supported himself with those (musically) rough acoustic sketches.

Twenty years and 12 albums later, Callahan started using his own name, though still to purvey the same baritone poems he sang as Smog. Austin, his new hometown, gives him the kind of attention good boys get—rapt and responsive. “I’ve got it pretty good here,” Callahan says. “People love music in a loving, non-possessive way.” It’s a nice base for him, a good sampling of the worldwide fan base he’s developed over the years, and which, rather ironically, tries in vain to correspond with him on that MySpace page. Just the mention of that annoying little Web portal seems to draw out the grouch in Callahan.

“That site was started and is maintained by Drag City,” he says. “I don’t look at it. I don’t know the password. It’s funny how people believe every page on there is run by the person, no matter how absurd. If you put up a George Washington page, people would write him and say, ‘Did you really chop down a cherry tree?’ The Internet is for losers!”

Yikes. So what does he think of the guy who said, “Everyone knows Bill Callahan is really a 17-year-old girl … with real feelings.” People love to speculate about the demeanor and character of artists. Owing nothing to anyone, would he care to shine at least a glow stick on Callahan?

“I’m a pussycat.”

BILL CALLAHAN
w/ Bachelorette
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Wednesday, June 24, 10 p.m.

 
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