Read the complete unedited transcript of Derek Walmsley's conversation with Will Oldham which formed the basis of this month's cover feature
D: Is it Louisville you’re living in these days?
D: Do you play gigs down there?
W: There probably would be opportunities to play gigs. I dunno…. We did a kinda of show a couple of weeks ago, just where we played a gig with about 50 people.
D: Do you still play with your brothers at all, Ned and Paul?
W: We had a couple of shows in Charlottesburg, Virgina in the summer time. Paul has gone to a school to learn to build guitars in Arizona. Hopefully Ned will come out to some of the shows… at least open the shows.
D: I always really liked Ned’s output. You produced one of those albums back in the day, didn’t you?
W: Yeah, maybe a co-production credit….
D: Was it Ned who originally encouraged you to write songs?
W: He did, like there was one time, one of a number of unpleasant periods on many levels, the late youth I guess, I was living with him, he’d taken me in. We lived in Madison, Virginia, more or less in the woods. When we were there, my daily activity was to walk through the woods to the public library and read for a couple of hours and come back. That was kind of what I did. [he chuckles] And one day I asked what I was going to do. And I said, ‘I’m not sure’. And he said “why don’t you write a song today?”. I think there sort of three significant times where someone did that, twice in 1989, and that time was probably in 91.
D: 89 would have been the first time you picked up a guitar?
W: Yeah, think so. When I could put three chords together as opposed to just one.
D: When you were growing up and fairly young, how important was it to become an actor? Was it always the plan when you were growing up to act?
W: Well, as much as a kid has a plan… but it was the only thing that I could imagine participating in, that I could see myself in the future being involved with.
D: Maybe it’s quite unusual for kids to see themselves as actors. What inspired that?
W: I don’t know [sighs] Maybe I didn’t like myself or something, and liked the idea of being words to speak, and adventures to have.
D: Did playing roles come easily?
W: It looked more natural and easy than it actually was.
D: The reality of acting and reading someone else lines didn’t satisfy?
W: It kind of didn’t, exactly. And I kept sort of waiting for the moment when I would figure it out, and things would click, and I would have the emotion that I felt like I was seeing in stage actors I admired in Louisville, or film actors. I was waiting for that sliding in…
D: Which stage actors?
W: They were a bunch of local actors… Michael Kevin, William McNulty, Ray Fry, John Peelmire, sometimes visiting actors, a guy called Randall Mau. Holly Hunter came to Louisville and was in a play, Mary McDonald as well. They made huge impressions.
D: Theatre was a big thing in Louisville?
W: A big thing.
D: I wonder why it didn’t click for you, that moment of emotion. Because you’re given different lines each time, because you have to put on a front, a face?
W: I think it was more that I read into most actor‘s performances a freedom or a freewill that effectively isn’t really there when you’re acting, when you’re being directed. They were good actors, and they made it seem as if they were the character. And I guess I sort of realised I never really wanted to occupy the character in that way, and have the character something that was completely separate from my own inner life. I think that’s what it was. I saw them as … I imagined that they were …
D: This was a slice of life?
W: A slice of life, and that this character was part of some kind of life trajectory that they’re on. And I think most great actors that isn’t the case, most great actors have their own life trajectory, the character motion doesn’t have anything to do with their life motion. But when I was a kid, you just observe and try to learn from what your observe.
D: You were in Matewan. Was that a good experience?
W: A great experience, although I didn’t feel very satisfied with my own work, but everything else about it I completely loved.
D: John Sayles is obviously a left-wing director, did that resonate with you?
W: Well, left wing or political, I don’t think those words apply as much as…. Again, my view of what actors do or they did. That, indeed, Sayles and other people involved with that movie seemed to incorporate things beyond the characters, beyond the story. That the storyline of the movie, the characters of the movie, and the action of the movie, somehow was integrated into their world view. It was reassuring, and it was also misleading, because I thought that that was potentially a normal practice in the world of professional filmmaking. But I think it’s not, it’s [anomalous]
D: Screen acting, the camera can be in close, the little twitches in the face can give the emotion to the performance. Was it the same with the early albums, the twitches in the voice, the little inflections are what give the emotion maybe?
W: Yeah, fully. Especially I feel like I’m a much better, more fluent singer than in 1993 when There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You came out. I think that I struggled during that recording of that, on the microphone, to use the tiny tics and twitches and inflections to express what I wished that I could express in a larger melodic way, or in a larger vocally … I dunno…. Vocally flexible way. I felt that at least if I gave a little hint or clue as to where my voice could be going, that that would read. Because people can listen closely, you know, you can sit with headphones or you just concentrate on music, you can just hear, sometimes, the desires of the voice itself.
D: There’s a moment in the title track where as you’re singing a high note, your voice breaks. Was that emotional thing, or the voice wanting to go?
W: It’s the voice wanting to go, completely. And it was kind of … it surprised me a bit unpleasantly when people would remark about the voice cracking and that being a some sort of strange defect or something, because at the time I really thought I was singing the best I could, and didn’t notice those things, I thought like, just going for it.
D: What was the mood like recording that album? It seems to have a singular atmosphere
W: Well, all the material was pre-written, and all the song structures existed basically as they were, in terms of bars and measures and chord progressions and all that, they were pretty set. But then it was about taking advantage of what group we were, and the record is the same six people, I think, all over the record, but on one song, Brian McMahon might play drums, on another song he might play guitar, and another might play bass. Everybody is switching around on every song.
D: So there was no need for credits?
W: Well, I felt like credits, I thought that would be distracting, because I thought that people would try to puzzle over who plays what were, or just that it was too much detail that had nothing to do with people having a pure experience with the music. You know, like, records up until, say, the 70s it seemed like pop records, a Frank Sinatra record was like, The Nelson Riddle Orchestra. No more information. Elvis Presley records, zero information. Or even…. Like, The Rolling Stones started at a certain point with something like Let It Bleed, to say Mick, guitar, Keith, Bass…
D: And the magic is gone?
W: Actually, at that point that was more exciting, because the Rolling Stones started sounding like weird lab experiments from that point through to the early 80s, I think, for the Rolling Stones.
D: At one point, didn’t you want There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You to be a bit of a Let It Bleed type record?
W: Let It Bleed or Beggar’s Banquet, kind of record, yeah.
D: That kind of creative messiness, or the organic way it develops?
W: Organic way it develops, and as well, like, my impression of how those records were made, at least, was to treat each song as if it was a single, kind of? So when we began each song, to try and fully get into that song, and that’s one thing that allowed for different people playing different things, because it just meant, OK, now our world revolves around this song, now our world revolves around that song, and letting everybody’s playing and everybody’s imagination go as far as possible with that song, and not necessarily thinking about… yeah, just like that. I feel like that was something that I had read about how the Rolling Stones approached specifically those records…. But I think they did carry on that way through, even like Black And Blue probably.
D: Is that a long process for recording? Was it a pro studio?
W: I dunno… I still haven’t witnessed enough of other people making their records to know what is long and what is short. If I even picked my favourite records, if I could, I have no idea if they were made in a day, or made in a week, or made over a year, or five years… so I have no idea. I feel like we spent about…. A month, more or less with that record? The engineer was a guy named Grant Barger who had been at audio engineering school with Todd Brasheer, who is very significantly over that record…. And he had an eight track cassette recorder, and that's what it was recorded on in two locations, one was in a sort of super-sized shotgun house in a neighbourhood of Louisville called Butcher Town. A shotgun house is sort of a detached row house…. I guess it’s kind of a trademark architecture of cities like Louisville, where it’s a way of minimising the frontage, but having a long skinny house, basically, vintage, say, 1880 to 1920 or so was the heyday of shotgun houses in the Louisville area. And this was a kind of neat, big, old shotgun house that had been built on what later turned out to be just the riverside of the flood wall. Because there were a couple of significantly damaging floods, when the river flooded, so they built this floodwall at some point, in the latter half on the 20th century. And so this house was on the other side of the flood wall, like on the riverside, so my friend was able to get it relatively cheaply, because it was potentially under threat, it was difficult to insure. And he had essentially occupied the upstairs, and the downstairs was just a big, dusty unfinished brick open space. And it was winter, no heat, but that’s where we did about half of the record. And the other half we did in kind of like a cabin, a modern cabin vintage, say, 1975, in the woods in country called Mead county, on a piece of land called Big Bend, because it’s where the Ohio River does essentially a full U turn. So that house was in the woods, and kinda far from everything, and that’s where the other half of it was recorded, with all of us sort of sleeping on the floor there. The other house we could sleep in our own houses, but when we were at this house, this house was called Merciful, on Big Bend. And to some extend I think the vocal qualities were affected by the wood burning stove that we used to heat the room, and the smoke, it made the air a little harsh. And then eventually we went, I think, to Todd’s house, and maybe just mixed in his bedroom. He actually just gave me the stereo amp and speakers that we had used to mix the record on, he just gave them to me a couple of months ago, which was pretty neat.
D: It’s something I only found out recently, but you took the photo on the front cover of the Slint album. I imagine at that time you were maybe making a little bit of music?
W: None. I had no interest at all in music at that point. I was in acting, and had never played a note of music at that point, never imagined that I ever would. So, they were my friends. My father actually took the photo of the first Slint record, the car, and I’m sitting in the car with a motorcycle helmet on. But it felt great, being part of the Louisville music scene, something that I started to hear about through my older brother, he sort of left the house and went to punk shows and hung out with the boho, punk, art scene, and would start to hear about David Grubbs, or Tim Harris and Tara Key who are now in Antiedam. Antiedam is a supergroup, Tara Key’s an amazing guitar player, they were like a generation before. So I knew there was a some kind of crazy music scene going on, and my first introduction to it was going to see my brother’s band, Lanquid And Flacid, at a Sunday all ages matinee, that was kind of crazy, being flung into the pogo, slamdancing floor by some of the older kids, although to me they seemed like adults at the time. And then I remember one day sitting in Social Studies class one day in like 83, and Britt Walford and Brian McMahon saying that they were going to drive to Newport Kentucky, which is like half an hour away, to see Husker Dü play, and said, you wanna go?
D: Did you know Husker Dü?
W: Only from my brother’s room, and specifically I kind of knew
Metal Circus, because I always remember the song “It’s Not
Funny Anymore” coming out of my brothers, because the rest of it at
the time sounded like noise …“It’s Not Funny Anymore” and ““Diane”
from Metal Circus, I could say ‘hmm, those are songs’.
But, you know, I was mostly listening to Elvis, and the Everly
Brothers and Buddy Holly and things like that, so it was a far cry,
sonically. I think this was between the release of Zen
Arcade and New Day Rising, and it was insane, we had
to get really, really poorly fashioned fake ID, just where we’d
stencilled onto Public Transport identification, they didn’t have
space for date of birth, so we just put it on there, you know,
totally different font and everything. And that was sort of the
beginning of understanding how interesting and exciting music was
in Louisville, and then as well, starting to be turned onto what
was the independent or underground music world at the time, labels
like SST or Touch And Go or Homestead, specifically. And pretty
soon this great relationship with the Chicago scene started to
form, specifically though, like, Grubbs and Clark Johnson and
Squirrel Bait, tying into, like, Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill and
Big Black, so yeah, it was really fucking exciting times. And then
when Squirrel Bait got on Homestead, that opened up, by proxy, the
community to Dinosaur or Sonic Youth, who did at least one record
on Homestead, and even Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds had a record or
two licensed to Homestead. So it was incredible, really exciting,
you felt like you were connected to it in some way, it was just a
couple of people removed, between me and, like Mike Watt…. And he
was still, you know, an icon.
D: How did the release of the first record come about?
W: The release of the first record came about…. Essentially, I didn’t understand, it took me a while to understand… spending so much time in the music scene was en education, like while I was doing it, it was my joy [laughs], and it was my free time, because I was doing all this theatre stuff, and then I realised I had learned so much through Squirrel Bait, and Slint, and King Kong, which is another huge deal, Louisville group King Kong, who are still in one form still in effect. But I lived in Limington with Todd and Grant who had recorded their first record, and just kind of, you know, one of the things we had decided to do their, because Todd and Grant were still in this audio programme, was just do some recording over the course of the summer, and we did some recording at the house, on Grant’s eight track cassette, and then we did some recording in the university studio, and in the university studio we did "Ohio River Boat Song" and the version of "Riding" that’s on the Lost Blues And Other Songs. And then at the house we did "For The Mekons Et Al" and "Drinking Woman", and another song, "Two More Days". And I just thought…. I was pretty out of touch with most of the world at that point, kind of, and I thought it would be …. Great, if someone would consider releasing a 7”, specifically of "For The Mekons" and "Drinking Woman", I thought, this would be a really cool 7” record. So I sent those around, to a couple of labels. I sent it to Drag City because I’d met this woman named Tanya Small, who’d said, oh, I’m going to give you a record I played on, and she gave me the Silver Jews, Dying Map Of The Reef 7”, and she’d played percussion on one other songs. And I’d never heard of Drag City, never heard of Pavement, but I liked this Silver Jews 7” very much, everything about it. And Dan from Drag City wrote a letter back saying we like this, we’d like to hear more. And I sent them, I think, "Ohio River Boat Song" and "Riding", I think that was done at that point in the summer. They were like, yeah, we’d like to do a 7” of "Ohio River Boat Song" with "Drinking Woman", and then that was also while I was writing all these songs that were to be on this first record, even though I was just writing songs, and I was kind of blown away when Drag City went, so when are you going to do a full length? So as soon as they said that I was like, [adopts businesslike voice] now, right now.
D: the acting skills come into play!
W: Kind of, yeah. It’s definitely important to be open enough to seize an opportunity when the opportunity is there.
D: At one point, were you studying at Brown College, is that right?
W: Brown University, yeah. I went their off and on after graduating from high school… I started there, went from just a semester, hated it, and then moved to Los Angeles, and then I did a movie in Montana, and then I met a guy who became one of my closest friends, and went to live with him and a bunch of other people in New York, then eventually went back to University for another Semester and hated it again, left for another full year’s cycle, and then went back, did a full year, then moved to Indiana with Todd and Grant, did this initial recording and writing, went back to school, and hooked up with a music professor called Jeff Titan who’s like an ethnomusicologist, and said “would you, for one of my classes, could I bring these songs to you that I’m working on, and if I explain to you their historical relevance, like where they come from, I’ll just keep working on these songs and I’ll weekly come in and meet with you and explain everything I’m doing", and he was into the idea.
D: So there was always historical references in your songs? I know there was the Washington Phillips.
W: Yeah, and generally, all the songs were drawn specifically from different kinds of old Scottish, Irish ballads as well as some R&B, some gospel, some blues things, that I could sort of draw specific lines … I figured that was the best way I could present it to this guy, so I could continue to work on the songs, rather than devote myself to a bunch of schoolwork that I didn’t really give a shit about.
D: Did he help?
W: Hmmm, no….. he essentially helped by being supportive, he didn’t really have much to say. He seemed to be…. The kind of professor who doesn’t really probably care that much about teaching, I think he has the university job because he loves what he’s studying, he loves his research, and teaches because that’s the best way, that’s a way of following through with that. I liked him, but I took one class with him, he wasn’t very charismatic or informative necessarily.
D: There’s a lot of literary references in those early works.
Where did they come from? Just reading widely?
W: I guess so. The Alain Fournier came from .. I just found that book at my parent’s house, they had it, and it compelled me because the edition we had had an Edward Gorey cover, and even as a kid, Edward Gorey was attractive to certain minds, and definitely was attractive to mine. In English it’s called The Wanderer, and it’s just a very compelling book. And Pushkin…. My friend Brian who I met in Montana who I had lived with in New York, he then moved to Russia, and I went to visit him, and Pushkin references more, like, the experience of seeing the Pushkin statue. And then there was a famous dedication speech that Dostoyevsky gave … I’ve never read a lick of Pushkin that I enjoyed, and I’m still waiting to be turned on to Pushkin himself, but that speech was very inspiring and the statue is completely awesome.
D: The later Bonnie 'Prince' Billy records, there’s a lot more of your voice with a woman’s voice. Is that a change which has happened a lot over time. Do you miss that communal feel of those older albums?
W: No, I mean the communal feel is completely there, completely, and probably more so, I think. I feel like the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy are much more communal and natural than any of the records before than one. It was a very hard record to make, that first record. It was very difficult. They are… some of those gentleman are very complicated people.
D: That’s not a bad thing.
W: Sometimes it is a bad thing.
D: How do you feel about how your voice has changed over the years?
W: Um… it seems I can do much more with it. Singing a lot and recording a lot as well as… it’s always super informative. And to sing with other people and for other people, that’s when you can really learn something about your voice. You can only learn so much if you create your own boundaries all the time. But then, other people can really teach you something. You know, if you’re trying to sing with them, or if someone brings a style…. Like, singing with Björk and Matthew Barney on the Drawing Restraint 9, record. That’s an amazing class, given that piece of music, and that set of words, and figuring our how to use my voice and phrasing to put the two together. Really wild.
D: It seems to me you approach each album afresh.
D: When did you start thinking about the current album? When did you start writing songs for it?
W: I know that when I turned in Lie Down In The Light to Drag City and to Domino I wrote both labels and said this is this record, this is how I’d like to treat this record, and it’s the opposite of everything you’d like to do with a record, but just to prove to you that I’m not trying to be difficult or self sabotaging, in four years I’ll bring another record to you that you can do whatever you want with.
D: Was Lie Down In The Light a harder record to market?
W: No, I just don’t really like marketing records. So it was kind of like doing a record…. I wanted to fully enjoy that record, in the writing, in the recording, and the releasing of it, so that meant not marketing it. Because I don’t enjoy the marketing process at all, really. And so I wanted to enjoy that record. I was determined to enjoy every part, even in the recording process, when things get, as they usually do in the recording process, more difficult, more strained, I’d just say “no, don’t do that, how could you enjoy this moment rather than finding it to be super-unpleasant and difficult and challenging, why not just see what you can get out of it’s that positive”. And I knew that would be impossible with an extended promotional, touring… I just wanted the record to sort of be, to have its own kind of life, but again, I didn’t want them to think that I didn’t believe in my own work, and that they shouldn’t believe in my work, so that’s why I made that sort of deal with the devil, that there will be another record and it won’t be too long from then. Because at that point I also determined that I wouldn’t play any shows for a calendar year, sort of a new year’s resolution that began in mid June, so I knew that I would be able to focus on writing at some point during that calendar year.
D: Was that a positive experience, not being on stage, not being
W: More than not being on stage, more than not being on tour, it was… you know, one thing that Merle Haggard said at one point, the worst thing about his life – which was otherwise a pretty incredible life – was having to live a year in advance. And it is terrible. I mean I have a great life, but that’s terrible. So it was basically wanting to live a week in advance, a month in advance. I’ve known about certain shows that are coming this spring for 5-6 months already, and I still have a couple of months before I start. And so it’s really inhibiting, it makes you feel like, no matter what I do today, no matter what happens to me, no matter who I meet, I have to be there, playing music, from 8:30pm to 11pm on that day, in that city, in that state. To me that just means, that’s it, you don’t have an unlimited potential of what your life can become between now and that moment.
W: You’re living in the past all the time?
D: Kind of, yeah. So that was the good thing about that, and it did allow for a couple times I performed with other people, I think I sang with the Mekons at three or four shows in the Mid West, I sang with Valgeir Sigurðsson who recorded The Letting Go and put out a record of his own that I sang two songs on. I could do them relatively last minute.
W: You do a lot of guest appearances, for instance the Current 93 one. Is that almost like a double life? Do you still work with the Boxhead Ensemble?
D: No, I haven’t…. that was a really, really good experience working with The Boxhead Ensemble on that tour. I met a lot of musicians I’d never before, and… got to perform with musicians in a primarily improvisational way, in front of an audience, but, you know, the strength of the other musicians was such that, and the vibe in general was such that… because also the other reason we were playing the shows was to tour with this movie. So, it was like, this opportunity to play music with people I’d never had the chance and potentially would never otherwise have had the chance to play with, and there’s no pressure, because the audience is there and they get to see this movie, and then they also get to see all these musicians do different things…. It’s all gravy. Travelling with Ken Vandermark and Fred Lonberg Holm and my friends David Grubbs, Jim White, Mick Turner… and the structures of those shows was always that, whathisname, Michael, our musical director… it’s been a long time. But he would basically each night say, “OK, first you and you and you go up and play and do a piece, and then person B should leave and then just a duo do another piece, and then these three people will come on and add to that, it’ll be a quintet kind of thing, and that quintet, you remember that thing you were doing last night? Could you play that one theme you got into? Essentially directing but leaving a lot of things open. And every night was different, you know, the groupings that he put together were different. So that’s why it was such a great experience.
D: I’ve heard before I think Steve Albini saying the way you work in the studio can be quite spontaneous. Quite a lot of trying to capture little moments. On "Come In", there’s a bit where the last 20 seconds is like a piano solo that meanders off into nothing. Is it still easy to capture that sense of intuitiveness? Do you think some albums captured it better?
W: It’s all…. It’s all different. Primarily I have memories of… you know rather than listening… to me that’s what making a record is kind of all about. So if that wasn’t there on Beware, I wouldn’t find any value in the record. Something like "Come In" and "Trudy Dies", Neil and Jennifer from Royal Trux were the producers of that, which was really … great because at that time I was still very much learning about recording. And Neil and Jennifer both are very confident and accomplished people in the recording studio and also on stage. And their records then and now, there’s definitely… you don’t hear the control. If it was a balance of chaos and control, the chaos was overshadowing, but that isn’t the case. With any of their shows that they’ve ever done, any of their records that they’ve ever done, that isn’t the case, it’s definitely the opposite. The sound of chaos is a value that they had, and Neil still has more, Jennifer’s music gets tighter and tighter with RTX. But Howling Hex definitely has it… he’s sort of precise about his chaos in some ways.
D: Are you playing much guitar on your new album?
W: Yeah, I am, Lie Down In The Light I didn’t play at all. And on this record I played, at least tracking on every song. I know in "Heart’s Arms" when we mixed it we pulled my guitar out, but I think it’s at least somewhat present in every other song.
D: To me my initial impression is that it seems to be one of your funniest records. There seem to be a lot of good gags. Is that intentional, that finely honed humour?
W: Well… I don’t know. I’ve had comedians tell me that all comedians wish they were musicians… which I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but a comedian did tell me that… and I know that on some level, among say The Marx Brothers or Abbot And Costello or The Little Rascals or the stand-up comedy of Steve Martin or Richard Prior, when you’re experiencing that, the impression is they’re living on the correct plane of existence. Living moment to moment, and very quick with their brains, quick with their voices, or in the case of Harpo Marx, quick with their actions. And also using that speed of thought to turn dark situations into light situations. So they’re the ultra-wizards of society, because they can conquer the most complex and devastating of issues and turn them into something that’s nothing but laughter, really just release the power of those things.
D: Laughing at death? One of the things no animal can do.
W: Amazing, yeah. I wonder, I wonder if there’s any footage of wolves rolling on their back and laughing when they’ve just been chomped on by an elephant. I’ve always tried to make the records kind of as funny as possible. But that is kind of a comedy song, that 'you don’t love me' song. There are very few songs that are, from beginning to end, intentional comedy.
D: The way you’ve got two voices, with give and take between the two, it kind of recalls June Carter and Johnny Cash on "Jackson", or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours where they’re prodding each other with bilious lyrics. Do either of those examples appeal at all?
W: Yeah, they totally do. And also in that there can be different kinds of listeners, there can be listeners that it slides right by them and it doesn’t matter, there’s another content that’s available besides the word play, and then there’s some people who might give it a deeper listen, ideally something like another musician or songwriter would hear, hear like the joy of putting something together that has these moments in there.
D: Looking at the track titles of the new album, the track titles seem simpler, more I’s more You’s, were you trying to pare down your writing in any sense?
W: No….. because in the titles it’s not necessarily in the way the lyrics run. Titles, just as it was, …. The titles of songs has always been kind of …. ‘ah, it has to have a title? Ok…’ so on There’s No-one That Will Take Care Of You, on some of the songs, I just used the first line, or the refrain of “Oh Lord Are You In Need”, just, “…Ok.”. So on this record, other than something like “Without Work You Have Nothing” … there’s a couple of little like Elvis moments on the record, and that title is like an Elvis moment, because even though the song, there’s no Presley anywhere, the title is a reference to the “Without Love” song. In general it’s like pulling out a simple, memorable …. 'Cause there’s other way, you can title songs in strange, obsequious ways…
D: What’s the significance of Elvis to you? Was he a constant presence?
W: Kind of, I guess so, there’s a few people, like The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presely, Leonard Cohen, people that I listen to a lot from early childhood to the present day, I continue to find things in them that is very exciting, and it’s all the more exciting, because there might even be a song now that I’ve known for thirty years, and all of a sudden I’ll just be like “Oh, wow…” Or with someone like Elvis, he went through so many musical stages… that’s a lot of meat [laughs].
D: And that appeals?
W: Well it’s great that, all of a sudden, realise that you can find a whole new, you can dig really deeply into a year of recording sessions of Elvis, and it’s all there, something new for you there.
D: Which eras stay with you most?
W: Well, it’s like a matter of familiarising, and then it becomes like genetic material. Intensely, in the last year, it’s been the period from like 1974-75 or something like that, and just getting way into the hugeness that he invests in very simple, light love ditty kind of things. But it’s big, and he uses the same powerhouse rhythm section, and he uses the black chorus and the white chorus combined just to put across this song that could be done in a very, very simple way and still be a powerful song, he gives it a different kind of power.
D: Does the artifice of Elvis appeal to you? The reinventions, the way he can use the image to embody what he is?
W: I don’t see any artifice in Elvis. I don’t know if that’s me being blind. If anything it’s something that contributed to his decline and destruction was that he wasn’t using any artifice, and he couldn’t live as what he’d created himself to be.
D: The Bonnie 'Prince' Billy persona. Where were you at when you
were coming up with the idea of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. What most
appealed about the name? And it’s been going a long time now, would
you consider ditching the name? Does the persona outlive its
usefulness at some stage?
W: I don’t really believe so, I don’t think I’d ditch it… the first few years was just trying to learn everything about making a record, and what significance an artist name had, and it didn’t really seem to make that much sense for a while. It was difficult to get to the place where I understood why an artist has a name, and what it signifies and what it can potentially signify. And I like Bonnie very much, he’s got a lot of room I think yet to grow, and a lot of maturing yet to do as well. The only reason I can think if it outlives it’s usefulness is if some radical transformation, if I had some radical transformation, would come over my whole being… which could happen with some catastrophe or revelation or whatever, I certainly won’t rule those out.… I’m very, very happy with my relationship with Bonnie. At a certain point I couldn’t figure out, I spent the first few years of making records trying to reconcile going in to making records, I’d never made music,
My experience of listening to music, how can I reconcile that with the process of making music. And it was difficult, that’s one thing I didn’t understand about the artist thing, what does it matter, you know, I just want to make this music and be able to listen to it and have other people listen to it. Why play shows when I just want to listen to the records, you know, and have people listen to the records? Why would they want to see a show? You can’t drive a car when you’re seeing a show, you can’t make love to your partner while you’re seeing a show, or cook breakfast or go to sleep, you have to stand in a club, why would you do that? That’s not listening. And Drag City, Domino, they’re always talking about shows and promotion and all this stuff. And it sort of got to the point where this is not fun, this is not interesting, this sucks. Especially after making Arise, Therefore, which up to that moment was one of the most fulfilling things that I’d ever been a part of in my life.
D: Some people would say that’s you most difficult record. What is it about that?
W: Well, I think it’s that the songs are kind of a piece, and I worked on them really hard, and I felt I’d learned a lot from the three records and four singles and Hope EP up to that point, I felt like I’d learned a lot about writing songs. Before that it was always a question, like, are these songs? I’m not sure. That as the first time I thought, these are eleven songs, I know these very well now. And making a record with Grubbs, my brother Ned, and Albini, who are three very important people to me musically, and having it be this incredible collaborative piece. It was all those things together…
D: Even with the drum machine?
W: Even with the drum machine… the drum machine was kind of a late entry, because I’d asked Britt Walford to play, and he said he could, and at the last moment he said he couldn’t, and my younger brother had that drum machine and he loaned it to me, and I sort of reworked the songs all around the drum machine. But the drum machine, I’d been introduced to Albini by Big Black, and that was a drum machine band…. I didn’t care about a drum machine, and I also knew Steve couldn’t say anything about it. And he would approach it like it was an instrument, so that was kind of exciting. So when Britt couldn’t do it, that was disappointing, but I didn’t feel like it was a trade down for the record overall. Not to say that the drum machine has anywhere near the worth of Britt, but it’s different, and I didn’t feel like the record was marred beyond value. But even after doing that, life didn’t get better, in terms of being related to the other things that go on with making music. It was still confusing and difficult.
D: So BPB helps in terms of diverting?
W: Yeah, kind of. And there was another couple of years of doing stuff, there was the Joya record, another couple of sessions of doing stuff.
D: And you’re not happy with using the name Will Oldham?
W: No, not at all. I thought it was great to put out Arise, Therefore with no name on it, but I knew that that wasn’t something most people would appreciate, especially people who had to work with the record, whether it was the distributor or record store or writer or the record labels. I liked that, but I knew it was kind of a one time thing. But I couldn’t think of another name [frustrated] it doesn’t matter, put Will Oldham on it.
D: BPB, how did you come up with name?
W: I was thinking about it that other day, and starting to realise the significance of when it happened was flying back from a tour in Australia, and the band was essentially Jim White, Mick turner and Liam Hayes. And we had so much fun, with such good musicians, great people, intense people. And I think coming back from that trip I started to think, like, fun needs to be built in, no matter what else, it has to be part of it. And in that 17 hour flight over the pacific ocean, I just thought, who should be singing these songs, or something. And the idea of how could I make it totally integrated into what’s going on. So, essentially, let’s bring in this Bonnie person. Because people are always going to be looking for the singer, for the root of the song, for the meaning of the song, for the identity of the song. That always made me uncomfortable, and I thought, well, I want to keep on making records, but I don’t want to be uncomfortable, so let there be somebody I can look to, also. So when someone talks about where the song comes, or is identifying with singer, that I can say, yeah I know, I do too sometimes, I really do, isn’t that cool. And honestly say that, and that’s how I feel.
D: It’s a good way of overturning expectations?
W: Yeah, but also, if I want to play shows a hundred times a year, or less or more, and say I wanted to sing the same song at every show. A hundred times a year, singing the same song. How else can I honestly occupy the song, unless there’s some other way, some other interface that can honestly occupy the song at every performance. Because there’s no way an individual can without remaining static in their development and their emotion. And that definitely shouldn’t be part of equation.
D: Bonnie suggests youth.
W: It does over here, in the States it just is a feminine thing. No one ever uses Bonnie for anything expect if it’s for a woman’s name.
D: If you can bring on this persona, is there a risk that persona become fixed? If you put on a mask, the mask becomes fixed to the face?
W: Again, I think that was Elvis’s problem, among other people. I think Bela Lugosi probably had the same problem. Because I haven’t given that many rules to what Bonnie’s existence can be, and because I pass in and out of it often unawares – happily so – to where, sometimes I’m aware there’s a little bit of both in the present moment, and sometimes I all of a sudden realise there’s no Will at all, or no Bonnie at all, at any given times. It just seems to be … it just happens. It’s not restrictive at all, it’s the opposite, it’s very free. So in my mum’s living room, or in church, or with friends, and I’m Will, completely Will, there’s no Bonnie anywhere nearby. But I could also be on a tour, or in church, or singing somewhere, or driving somewhere, and can be almost completely Bonnie Billy. And then realise, ah, this feels so great to be free of Will, at this particular moment.
D: Is BPB the more outgoing face, the more hell raising face?
W: No, it’s not this simple
D: There’s less of your guitar on this album. Is there less physical connection of you and the music?
W: I feel kind of the opposite, because I feel much more physically connected to my voice, and I like the physicality of the voice, and I like the physicality of the voice, and how the voice can physically occupy a song. So that was the reason for that, because I wanted to fully occupy the song, rather than do something that I don’t feel that comfortable doing. I wanted to do something that I feel more comfortable doing. Sometimes playing the guitar requires a cerebral … I thought it would be better for the song, more fully realising of the song.
D: Is this the first one you’ve got echo on the voice?
W: Right, there may be, and I think I went into it with a couple of ideas…. I’ve never been comfortable using echo and using reverb, and sometimes I think this is just a weird hang up of mine, because so many people use it so well, And there’s often times when I’ll be, use a bunch of reverb on there, and I’ll be like no, less, and he’ll say, like this? No, no less, less. And he’ll be like, there’s no more on it. And I wasn’t sure why that was, so I thought I was going to try and let it happen, let the reverb happen, oh and there’s echo on "Heart’s Arms", the full echo… which I don’t think has ever… there might be something on I See A Darkness that has an echo. As well as doubling the vocal… but there’s certain moments, where I thought, let me try the doubling…
D: I was thinking echo on the voice detaches it a little bit…
W: Normally I’d think that, but to me, "Heart’s Arms" is one of the most direct songs I’ve ever recorded.
Also I like the idea of sometimes drawing attention to the fact that it’s the record. The honest, the purity…. But I also like drawing the fact that it’s a record.
Not only is it a moment in time, it’s a construction. And there’s something beautiful about that.