The unedited transcript of Will Oldham's Invisible Jukebox, tested by Anne Hilde Neset
Will Oldham's career began as an eight year old actor. By 16 he had landed a role as a preacher in John Sayles's 1987 film Matewan, about union struggles in an Appalachian mining community. No larger roles were forthcoming, however, and in the early 90s he began to write songs while in retreat in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, whose local music scene included the likes of Squirrelbait, Slint and Bastro. These were released in 1993 as Palace Brothers' There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You (Drag City). Ten years on, thanks to continued support from the Drag City and Domino labels, Oldham has more than 20 albums and EPs under his belt, as well as numerous limited edition singles, collaborations and soundtracks under a variety of aliases including Palace, Palace Brothers and Palace Music.
Employing a rotating cast of musicians including his brothers Ned and Paul Oldham, David Grubbs, and Slint's Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, Oldham has gradually developed a distinctive raw, quavering vocal style, nailed to a threadbare, unpolished folk rock soundworld. With one foot firmly planted in shadowy Americana - psychedelic blues, bluegrass, gospel and murder ballads - and the other in the punk bile of Dinosaur Jr, Patti Smith and Hüsker Dü, his output has ranged from the ramshackle rock of Viva Last Blues (1995), to the desolation of Arise, Therefore (1996), the dark masterpiece Joya (1997), the wounded, introspective I See A Darkness (1999), the eroticism of Ease Down The Road (2000) and the heartbreak of this year's Master And Everyone. Trading under the name Bonnie 'Prince' Billy since 1998, Oldham is an elusive, private character who tends to shy away from giving revealing interviews. He has collaborated with a wide range of artists including Kevin Drumm, Edith Frost, film maker Harmony Korine (a cameo role in 1999's Julien Donkey-Boy), Alan Licht, David Pajo, The Boxhead Ensemble and Jim White. In 2000, Johnny Cash recorded his song "I See A Darkness", and this summer he was the opening act on Björk's US tour.
The Jukebox took place in October while he was in London for Domino's tenth anniversary concerts and the photos were taken at the site of David Blaine's box suspended over the River Thames.
"WHEN I FALL"
FROM SQUIRRELBAIL (DEXTERS CIGAR) 1985
"This is, I know what this is, it's from my teenage years in Kentucky. Squirrelbait. They're from Louisville. That's my high school [points to picture on the back of CD] I think my brother Ned took this photograph even though it's not credited. This was the drama room at the high school we went to."
Were you all from the same school?
"This singer and the guitarplayer, they were really young, 15 or 16 in this picture. I just got in the mail from someone, from a girl that I knew back then, she just sent a photograph of me, I think from a band practise with me sitting in a chair in the corner of a basement when I was 14 or so."
Do you play with these people anymore, you ended up collaborating with some of them?
"Dave Grubbs plays piano on Arise Therefore and Brian McMahan plays on the first Palace records, plays guitar, bass and drums on different songs. Then he went on to do The For Carnation and I just went to his wedding in New York a month ago or something, Clark [Johnson] was there."
What was it like growing up in Louisville? Did you always stay there or did you travel around?
"I always lived there. I left when I was 18."
Do you play with David Grubbs anymore?
"It's been years since I played with David, but I went to his wedding. And Brian doesn't really play music anymore and neither does Clark. And Ben [Daughtrey] the drummer there, I think, not sure, sometimes he is in a band called Love Johns which is sort of a totally gay like Boyz2Men type thing, but a hip version, all these male harmonies and it's ironic music."
What was it like being around all this music while you were so young? Slint, Squirrelbait, Bastro...
"It was awesome. Bastro was later, it started out with Grubbs and Clark after Squirrelbait. And that would have been the same time as Slint I guess. But Bastro was one guy from DC and then Grubbs and Clark from Louisville, and then Grubbs started Gastr Del Sol, moved to Chicago, Jim O'Rourke joined Gastr Del Sol and they made a few records and then split. Clark quit music all together. It was great in Louisville at that time. I started going to shows in 83, I was 13 years old. My older brother [Ned Oldham] was in bands, he was in lots of bands, didn't make any records, lots of art punk things. You know, people playing bass with a spoon, sitting down playing instruments. I think when I started going to shows people were still pogoing in Louisville at least. It was awesome."
Did you think then that you wanted to become a musician?
"No, I couldn't play an instrument and I never thought that I was going to play music."
What did you want to do?
"I thought I'd be an actor, that what I was working on, I started acting when I was 8, locally."
How old were you when you played in [John Sayles's] Matewan?
"I was 16."
Did you go to acting school?
"Yes, I went to a special school which was in addition to regular school, so an additional 15 hours a week of classes after school and on the weekends. When we were doing the Matewan movie Brett who plays drums in Slint, that's when they were starting Slint in '86 and I think at that time we were talking about being in a band together just because we were friends even though I'd never been in a band and couldn't play any instruments. And then I said 'OK I'll try and learn to play an instrument,' but then I didn't learn."
What's the scene in Louisville like now? A similar energy?
"Yeah there's lots of great music. Most of the great bands that are in Louisville now, everybody's in two or three bands."
And there's still a lot that isn't being released?
"Oh yeah. Back in the 80s sometimes people would scrape together some money and put a 7" out. But I think it's even cheaper now to get a CD out or make a CD as a way of documenting what they're going or what they've done because they work so hard at it. But they don't try and get a distribution deal or anything they just make the CD."
Why don't they try and get it out?
"I think it's because ... emmm"
Is it more like a dialogue between the groups?
"Yeah, sure, it's like a dialogue between the bands, life exists around there."
No desire to break out?
"Right, yeah, it would mean touring and playing for other audiences and I think ultimately people like the music and the social life which goes on in Louisville, that's what it seems like, there's no great ambition to leave town to go somewhere else. You know they think it's great if they do a tour but most of the bands don't. And it seems that out of town bands have a difficult time playing in Louisville because everybody will go to see the local bands [laughs]. I've always thought it's very exciting."
TEENAGE JESUS AND THE JERKS
FROM TEENAGE JESUS AND THE JERKS (ATAVISTIC) 1979
[listens] "It sounds familiar but I don't know what it is."
"Is it...is it 80s?"
Very late 70s, '79 in fact
"Is it Lydia?"
Yes, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks
"It's awesome! It sounds so contemporary
Did you go to New York at some point after Louisville?
"The first time I went to NYC was with my mum, as a present when I was 12 or so. When I was growing up I always thought New York was probably the best place in the world because the Empire State Building was there. And my godmother lived there, my mother's best friend growing up, so we went and visited her. And then when I was 15, January '86, I was about to turn 16, Squirrelbait played two shows one weekend there. First one was at Maxwell's in Hoboken playing with Dinosaur - before they had to change their name to Dinosaur Jr. -which was awesome, I went with my friend Steve from Louisville. It was a really cool trip. That night I got to see Dinosaur and there were some Louisvillians there, from a slight generation before, from bands like the Babylon Dance Band who were living in Hoboken playing in a group called Antietam and went there that's when Homestead was in the beginning of it's prime as a record label, and Gerard Colsloy ran Homestead, now he runs Matador. I met Gerard at that time which was very exciting, that was on the Friday night. Saturday night there was a show at the Irving Plaza which was the Necroes opening for Sonic Youth. I can't remember if "Bad Moon Rising" was out but "Death Valley 69" was out - the 7" and the 12" - and so I was totally psyched because I wasn't that much of a Sonic Youth fan although I liked certain songs like "Death Valley 69" but I was very excited by the prospect that Lydia Lunch might be at that show, maybe performing but at least in attendance. And indeed she was. It was really exciting - I went up and introduced myself to her."
You must have had a lot of guts to do that as a 15-16 year old
"It was very scary, she was going out with [Jim} Foetus and I went up to her and she went like 'my boyfriend is over there buying drugs' and he was off in the corner buying drugs so we started talking and she said 'let's sit down' and she pulled a blackjack out of her pocket which I was sure she was going to hit me with and I think she saw the look of fear on my face and said 'no-no-no, I just want to sit down, I can't while this is in my backpocket'. We became penpals after that which was very good."
She's a great writer
Do you still keep in touch
"Last time I saw her was in 1989 in Los Angeles and then we might have been in touch for a little while after that and then out of touch again for years and then strangely only very recently in the last 2-3 months we've made contact again. She's thinking, I guess, of moving to Louisville. So I was out of town when she was last in Louisville to check it out. So anyway the Necroes were really great, Sonic Youth were really good and then the next night I went to see Squirrelbait again at CBGB's which was very exciting to go to CBGC's."
What does CBGB's and Lydia Lunch do to a young mind
"I knew about Lydia's upbringing from her writing and I was a big fan, well there was a cassette of Widowspeak called, I think it was called, Lydia Lunch Uncensored, maybe?"
The Uncensored Lydia Lunch
"And it was just spoken word pieces."
What was the correspondence about? Did it change you in any way at that age?
"We were writing about things that were going on, regular correspondence and there was a lot of recommendations of books which was really good. It felt good to have that kind of fulfilling correspondence with somebody outside of where I was and somebody who had a completely different world. More than anything it probably just helped corroborate and encourage aspects of life that I never would have a chance to do."
In NYC at the time there was this marriage between art music, minimalist music and punk and noise...
"The cool thing about Lydia is that she had content and most of that stuff [No Wave] didn't have any content, it was about pushing envelopes and once the envelopes were pushed for the most part that's it, you can go back and listen to it but it's all dated. I think I like music for a lot of the traditional reasons, like have a good time, or for an emotional experience, or, melody is fairly important [to me] and that wasn't really going on. The Sonic Youth that I liked would be usually the 12"s that came out, "Halloween" and "Flower" and "Starpower" with "Bubblegum" and "Expressway To Yr Skull" on it and "Death Valley 69" both A and B sides and not the records, I didn't like the records very much and I never understood people who are into Sister, even, or Daydream Nation.
What about their current output?
"I've seen them play 6 or 7 times since 86, and the best time was when they were opening for Neil Young that would have been around 91 or 92 and that was in Washington DC and it was just a full-on rock show and it was so good, so exciting, that was for me the peak, probably around the time of Goo."
Did you go back to live in NYC?
"Yeah I lived there for 6 months or so in 89 and then went back again in 98 and lived there for another 8 months probably. I haven't really lived anywhere for any longs stretches since I was 18."
What about Louisville?
"I got a house there last summer but I'm rarely there for more than 2 weeks at a time."
What about the whole No Wave revival?
"I feel like New York is such a fishbowl environment that there is more of a self consciousness to the music than music from almost anywhere else in the world, and that makes it less enjoyable. It seems as if there is something to prove and people are trying to prove it to the local scene. You can't enjoy it because you don't feel that they can just enjoy it, it's always about something. About what they are doing, rather than just about making an expression based on the tools or using whatever fluency they have, it's more like 'well nobody else is doing this, so let's corner this market', so like 'let's make an impression on the NYC scene by cornering this market' is sort of what it seems like."
Did you ever take part in any art 'happenings' there?
"I was just in a performance piece actually, 2 or 3 weeks ago, it was the same night as a bachelor party. It was great. Alan Licht is a friend and I was a Lovechild fan especially for the first couple of 7"s and the first record - the first record was produced by the drummer of Squirrelbait actually. And when I was living in NYC more recently we were playing together some and toured with Run On a couple of times and Alan as a solo artist has opened on tour in the states. So he just wrote and asked 'do you want to be a part of this performance piece' and that was coincidental that I was going to be in NYC so I said 'yeah' and it was great. All I had to do was go to a place and have a beer or two and walk very slowly about 15 feet over the course of ten minutes and then dance with a completely gorgeous woman for ten minutes. And then I just left. It's was loops from "Baba O Reily" and Blondie thrown in, recorded music - The Who and Blondie, easy to dance to."
Do you like dancing?
"Yes. And then there were also lots of people watching which was weird. The second my part was done I had to leave and I wouldn't have wanted to stay because it was an art gallery and they were about the art..."
And you were there to dance...
PEARLS BEFORE SWINE
"IMAGES OF APRIL"
FROM BALAKLAVA (ESP) 1968
[shakes his head]
Record is from '68, the singer also had a solo career, he is from Florida
"Gods or something?"
It's Pearls Before Swine
"Oh yes. I'm not into this, it's weird though, I've never heard it sound like this, this also sounds very current, it sounds like some sort of vanity project from 1999. His voice is so bad, the production is good, but the voice is so bad I can't imagine anyone enjoying listening to it. When I heard about them I was excited to hear them and when I heard the records, they seemed tedious and, you know, whatever, he became a lawyer, right? So..."
Yeah he became a copyright lawyer to help other artists with those issues I think, I think he was badly stung himself and wanted to make it right, get involved.
"That's great, maybe I'll call him."
What's your take on that whole thing, do you get involved, or do have other people dealing with that for you, you have your own publishing company don't you?
"Yeah. When I signed up to do the songs at ASCAP I just went ahead and made a publishing company which is nothing but a name just because the royalties exist so they would just sit on the money otherwise. Sure, it's very important. But I don't deal with lawyers that much or, anyone can as much as they want to."
This album is about war and being made at that time, it chimes in with the Vietnam war. What is your take on protest music, and do you feel that music should be more political? Do you have thoughts on that?
"I guess it was popular to be political at one point."
Do you feel it's important now to be political, or do you think it's a less political climate now? Are your songs political?
"Yeah, I think the insertions of propaganda in all art is a good idea and the more insidious and subliminal the better. But I feel like almost all strong and strongly felt messages support the beliefs of all people, for the most part. Any time someone is well informed and very emotional about an issue and they express themselves then they are going to reinforce the feelings that are already within whoever is in the audience, whether it's somebody with an opposing view or somebody with the same view."
So whatever you say to an audience they will agree, is that what you mean?
"Unless you are trying to manipulate them and succeed in manipulating them and changing their mind through propaganda and consciously try to change their mind in spite of what they may believe. You can educate people but it's mostly through experience that they end up learning anything and not through information. Anything that is great and informative and emotional is going to make a population more exciting and make people more involved, more involvement is always better."
"In everything. In what you eat, in how you vote, in how you dance, more involvement is better. So, if the music works in such a way that it gets people excited then that's really good."
Are you instilling any subliminal messages in your songs?
Are they political messages?
[pause] "Well there's politics and religion and I'm of the belief that for the most part my existence is outside of the institutions of politics and religion. But then there is politics and religion that seep into almost every single decision that you make and to what extent the institution is different from reality - well you can say it's all political, it's all religious, everything that you do. So yeah in that sense, but I don't feel I'm that involved with changing the lives or minds of anybody who lives and works on Capitol Hill necessarily. Most people don't vote."
"I have a feeling that more people will vote in the next election than the last election."
Because of the controversy of the war?
"I think that's a big deal yeah, other things, like the way our economy is, but mostly the war and I think there are a lot of people who regret either having been complacent or having voted for George W Bush. Because it's apparent that if he's not a hypocrite he's just an ignoramus, and I think a lot of people see that, I don't feel I'm making a political statement in saying that. The best thing Arnold Shwarzenegger is probably done for democracy is that he's actually woken some people up to the idea that I could fun to go out and vote. He's put a poster child for politics, so people will be like 'oh this is fun, Arnold Shwarzenegger is Governor of California, I'll vote in the next election'."
So that might have a better effect than, say Michael Moore and his ilk?
"Michael Moore is a big fag I think, he's more interested in promoting himself than any real issue. Having seen his last movie [Bowling For Columbine] the only thing he made me think was hoping more people would unlock their doors."
That was the fundamental message?
"Yeah and I think that's great I think more people should unlock their doors you know, but then I get claustrophobic really easily. I think prior to September 11 the impression was that if we can make it through four years without a major incident then fine then we can get a new president and then a major incident happened and things started to go wrong straight away, you know, from his very first speech. After that it was, it's been is very upsetting, and the newspapers most days are very upsetting since then. Angering."
Does that change your music?
"Probably, but it's just part of, I mean, time passes and who knows, anger accumulates [laughs]. Like this song, I'd rather listen to Roberta Flack's version than Tom Rapp's version. I saw one of this shows recently in NYC I though it was neat I didn't really enjoy the show but it felt neat watching this older guy play music again. It's not my kind of music."
"ZEALOUS ORDER OF CANDID KNIGHTS"
FROM CIVIL WAR, MATADOR 2003
Have you heard this before?
"I don't think so, I keep wishing that something would happen rather than the addition of another instrument."
I think you know them... they live in San Fransisco
"Is this the new Matmos? I have heard it one time, I think David Grubbs is on this record. It's amazing artwork. You know Drew [Daniels of Matmos] is from Louisville?"
So, you are old friends?
"Yes. Drew's a couple of years younger, he went to the same school as David Pajo and both my brothers and my girlfriend at the time, he was good friends with my girlfriend at the time."
You toured with Björk this summer - how was that?
"One of the many fun things about the tour was having Drew there because he's a good person to spend time with."
How did you get involved with Björk?
"The long story is through [filmmaker] Harmony Korine. He was friends with her and he was friends with me and a long time ago we were going to Iceland and he said 'you should hook up with Björk. So there was one time where they were somewhere together and he was like, 'here, talk on the phone', so we then talked on the phone. When we went to Iceland that time we hooked up and it was really nice and then at some point we started communicating again and then she had her baby and the communication stopped."
Did you communicate about collaborations or...?
"Yeah about music things. And then all of a sudden my booking agent called, he seemed really proud that he thought it was some totally random thing, and I let him believe that, [adapts voice] 'its very exciting the invitation to play at these shows'. And I thought I don't really enjoy opening shows, I've opened less than ten shows I think, one of the main reason people open shows is to be a parasite on somebody else's audience and that seems like most of the reason why people thinks it's a good idea to do that."
Do you pick out your support now?
"Yes, well not yesterday, I'm at loss in London I don't know what'd going on musically in London, but in The States we'll pick groups that will be fun to travel with and that I think that I can learn from."
What groups are they?
"Quixotic, we played a bunch of shows with them which was super, and a group called Bright Black, a women named Joanna Newsom and a group called Faun Fables and Sonna out of Baltimore, and Long Live Death from Baltimore."
"I get offers every now and then to open for a big act in the States, and it's like, you know, there is no part of that evening that sounds attractive to me. But it was different because I know that Björk has an amazing attention to detail that she likes quality and it seems to be a multilayered thing, and I assumed, based on just what I know about how people work that it would go down to the front of house guy, and you know, and lighting person and tour manager and stage manager, I figured all of that would be great. And I knew that I wouldn't get a chance to see how something like that is put together so I figured that nobody in the audience would want to see my show or anything like that, so it wasn't about, I didn't think I would win over that many fans either."
And you didn't think your fans would come to that kind of show?
"Mostly because of the ticket price, I wouldn't want to pay 50 bucks for an artist playing before a large and unattentive crowd."
And were they loud and unattentive?
"To some extent they were, the biggest show was 20,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl."
A solo performance?
Y"es just me and an autoharp. There was no requests, no emotional build, the whole thing would be one piece, roughly 12 songs, autoharp only."
Why not the guitar?
"I picked up the autoharp right before that show."
So you figured you might as well learn to play it in front of 20,000 people....
"Well, I figured I had to make my sets valuable to me so part of it was learning a new instrument. It was a really nice trip."
Did it change your songs, to sing in front of so many people?
"I think I was learning form Björk's set more than my own."
What did you learn from her set?
"Just seeing how the songs were arranged, the way that the evening went from song to song. To a certain extent there were a lot of pyrotechnics and fireworks for most of the show. Not that so much maybe but she reversed. Rather than having keyboard, strings and a live drummer and bass it was the opposite, she had Matmos providing the rhythm parts and a live string section and Zeena [Parkins, on harp and accordion]. And nobody does that. And to have a principle instrument to be the voice, you know there aren't that many acts that you see now where the principle instrument is the voice, what the voice is doing, not just the voice as colour or the lyrics but the voice and the lyrics and the voice is doing different lyrics to some extent.
What do you think are great voices today, what voices inspire you?
"The singer in Faun Fables does or Mira and Christina Billotte from Quixotic have amazing voices. Björk, especially live and even one really exciting thing about meeting her in Iceland, just in the course of hanging out, sometimes she would, probably like anyone does but a singer does more often, she would sing, just sing, like you're doing something and you'd start singing a song. Sometimes her records are so pristine that they sound inhuman sometimes but live her voice is great, but I don't feel that often from the records because they sound so flawless. To be there when the voice is actually doing that is a completely different experience. Polly Harvey, totally fucking amazing voice, and maybe the most exciting voice to me of singers alive right now just because of the range and all the things she's willing to do with her voice, from like Diamanda Galas, to Björk and Barbara Streisand to Nick Cave, all dynamics thrown into one voice. And lots of classic blues players like Some Muddy Waters, some Son House, some Bukka White, or Blind Willie Johnson, and lots of country singers and classic voices like Frank Sinatra and lots of foreign voice whose names that I'll probably never know on records that I have."
Are you a fan of Diamanda Galas?
"Yes, I like her a lot, I actually did one interview in my life and I interviewed her for Index magazine, she's such a cool woman, it was so much fun talking to her. I was grilling her about singing and singers, I don't think she felt on the spot."
Did you ever take singing lessons?
"When I was taking all the theatre classes when I was growing up there were voice classes, some were singing and some were about using your voice in different ways."
Did you have an musical epiphany moment?
"When I had sent some music to some different record labels and Drag City were the only ones who responded enthusiastically, so we made a 7" and then subsequently Drag City said 'when are you going to make a record?' and that was the moment, right there, I never dreamed someone would want a record."
And you had your own record label?
"Yes, for a while we split off, we started doing some Palace records through Drag City and then split off doing our own manufacturing and distributing and now it's back in."
And is Palace dormant now?
"Yes, mainly because of time."
Did you ever think of using beats in your music?
"I was on this Groovebox compilation some years ago, maybe 3 or 4 years ago, where somebody, Grand Royal, gave everybody Grooveboxes, these elaborate sequencers, and you were supposed so use that to make a track and your pay was that you get to keep the machine which was like a $800 machine so I made a programmed song on that thing, I sang too. I've done two songs now with this guy Chris Vrenna who's Tweaker, he used to play drums in Nine Inch Nails, now he has a solo project which is lots of programming, sort of like, I never really listened to Nine Inch Nails but I imagine it being like industrial gothic electronic punk, different mixes of things. And so did vocals with those tracks which was totally a blast. And then I did a tour with Run On where I made a backing tape using a drum machine and all beats and just played guitar and sang using this backing tape with strings and organ parts and it's a thrill, totally a thrill."
Is that because it's an area you don't normally go into or because you've got such control over all these boxes?
"It's also more like probably the reason like successful independent label owners are also trust fund babies because there is this security behind you. It's like the beats, I know where the beats are, I know when the strings are going to come in, it's never going to be any different so that means that I know where I can put my voice at this time, I know how I can sing and I know when the verse is going to end and the energy with which is going to end and the intensity which with the band is going to end, so it gives me so much freedom. I can stop at a certain point and it's like that. Like with the Tweaker songs I had the backing track for like a month to listen to over and over again and it's like I know, I can do this with my voice right here and if we do a second take I'm going to be, well, I'm going to do this different. Sometimes when you're playing anything live in the studio anybody can be different, three people can be different, five people can be different, one person could be different so the whole thing sounds different, so it gives you a limited confidence with which you can experiment with each take."
Do you listen to a lot of electronic music?
"Not a lot, mostly because I do like to hear something happening."
More interested in melody and voice?
"I like some of the old Aphex Twin music where the songs don't really repeat, there are different things happening from beginning to end."
SUN CITY GIRLS
THE FLOWER TORCH OF THE MYSTICS
FROM TUPELO 1990
[listens intently] "I guess they are pretty obscure, at least in Europe..."
"Aha....It's not Sun City Girls?"
"I really liked that solo record one of them did on the Revenant label"
Sir Richard Bishop
"Yeah. A my younger brother was a huge fan of theirs, and Harmony is a huge fan of theirs and also Bob Nastanovich who was in Pavement and used to live in Louisville, I used to live with him and Britt [Walford] from Squirrelbait and Slint was a fan. I think the only Sun City Girls record that I own is volume 6 of that series that they did about two or three years ago, a series of like ten or twelve records maybe, it was Sumatra And The Electric Chair was the title of either the volume that I have or the series. It was lots of field recordings that they'd made and, field recordings of themselves and of marketplaces in South East Asia that they were visiting."
They are interested in rituals and shamanistic rituals - does that have any place in your music? Or even religion? Or are you from a religious family, or?
"Who isn't, I don't really know who isn't from a religious family, I wasn't forced to believe in Jesus or anything like that."
Does religion play a role in your music?
"Like I was saying earlier, not the formalised institutionalised churchgoing religion. I guess to the extent that there might be some sort of religion or religiosity or ritual in Sun City Girls music then I would probably say that there is a good deal of that that goes into the records that I participate in. Their music seems not excessively transcendent, it seems very grounded to me, like street level version of ritual, not cathedral, not grand temple, more like someone had a little altar on a sidewalk."
What about the secrecy around them, they avoid showing their faces...
"Yeah I think that's great, it makes complete sense. I mean, I don't know if they all have jobs, I guess they do I can't imagine they could live off the music, but maybe they do, cause their records are sometimes extremely high priced, you know a 7" will come out and it might be 20 dollars so maybe that's how they can afford [pause]. It's a huge effort to keep yourself outside of the process of putting records out. And if it was worth the effort I would stay completely outside of the whole process."
You mean media
"Sure - having any sort of public face or personality. At a certain point it becomes more an effort to stay outside than to just do it, it's more than it's worth, it seems like."
Is the performance aspect of your music important? What do you prefer, the studio or the stage?
"In the beginning it was easily the studio before performing, but it's gotten to the point where touring with a group of musicians is equally as valuable and equally as rewarding as making records. It's a different type of a reward. The scary thing about that, is if you really put a lot of energy into making a record that you really feel strongly about you have the confidence of knowing that all of the work that you've put into it will continue to live over the course of it. Whereas if you're putting all your effort and energy into a live show then what you're doing is perpetuating having to go out playing another live show. If that's what you a) get personal fulfilment from and b) make your living from and c) that's how you have a relationship with an audience, then you have to do more and more and more of that which is great but frightening on some levels because for one it's absolutely completely destructive in terms of trying to have a personal life. Any sort of home life or maintain any sort of relationship with friends or family or a significant other is completely impossible. And then if you got your legs cut off in a terrible car accident then you can't rely on going out to play the next show, it's a day to day existence. But now it's really cool, going out with another band and musicians it's so good."
Going back to obscure artists - are you interested in Jandek?
"I am aware of who that is, I am not terribly familiar with his stuff, I don't think I've ever heard a record all the way through."
He's released a lot of records and stays completely out of the scene
"I guess that music isn't as interesting to me. This music [Sun City Girls] is more compelling."
Why isn't his music interesting?
"Maybe in part because it seems it's somewhere between experiment and singer songwriter music, it's not very interesting music to me."
It's too personal?
"Maybe, and then to top that it just seems like boring music and it seems like I would say 80% of the appeal, or reason that people are into it, is because of the mystery and that's just not enough for me to listen to a record. It seems like you can't have a conversation about him without someone talking about the personality and the mystery and I've never heard anyone say 'have you heard this great Jandek song' ever once, so what's there to get into."
VC LOVE SONG
FROM HO! ROADY MUSIC
FROM VIETNAM 2000 (TRIKONT)
"If you'd played this first I would have thought this was a Sun City Girls record. It sounds great."
It's from a label called Trikont, it's a compilation of buskers and road music in Vietnam, an unadorned document
"Of the records played today this is probably the most likely that I would actually own in my present day record collection. You can hear the person singing, like the Lydia thing was really exciting her voice, it sounded so great, that was pretty tense also, this isn't as tense."
She probably doesn't know she is being recorded, so it's not really a performance. Did you ever busk?
"No. I always give money to a busker unless it's really bad, offensive, but yeah I always listen as long as possible."
Is the process of unadorned music attractive for you, just record it and put it out, no process in between?
"Sort of, but for me to enjoy a record or movie for that matter you have to have the sensation that it is a record of what is happening is being recorded. A lot of records aren't that way, people are at home, they prepare the music and then they take it into the studio and they record it, and it seems like something should be going on in the studio, something should be happening in the recording process for it to feel like it is a special event."
"Either the song can be to some extent written at the time of the recording, or the guitar part, the one you hear on the record, is the first time you ever hear it played combined with elements that are predetermined, so that it's not just all improvisation. It could be something where, like the first Boston record or the new Akelly record, those are two examples of where it seems to be all about the recording experience, an excitement going on how something is mixed or how something is produced and arranged, like that's happening in the studio, or the energy of the producer is what's happening in the studio. It's funny to what the duping of the indie band that goes on, people think they're going to go and record with Steve Albini and that's going to make a magical record and all Steve does is turn on the tape recorder and show them what their music sounds like. And 90% of the time it's unexciting because they go and sit in there and then they play like they're having a band practice and then it's over, then they think 'this is a magic record because Steve Albini made this record' without realising that you actually have to do something. The recording studio is a very special place, it's not just being there that makes it happen, you actually have to prepare and something has to happen while you are in there. A decision has to be made, multiple decisions. It seems like most of the other music that we've heard today was probably prepared prior to the recording or some knowledge as to what was going to happen before 'record' was pressed and it wasn't a surprise to the people who recorded the records what it eventually sounded like. When you go into the recording studio it seems like there should be no conception of what you're going to leave with."
Is that how you make your records?
"Yeah, that way I can listen to it, if it wasn't that way I wouldn't be able to listen to it."
And do you listen to them?
"Usually for a while after and then usually they are committed to memory, every mixing, move, or note, I'll listen to them again as a reference later maybe - 'I can't remember that lyric' - or the great times are when you hear it by accident, you walk into a store and it's playing or you walk into someone's house it's playing, it's not on the radio ever, but then it's like you get to hear things in a different context which is very exciting."
BOB DYLAN AND JOHNNY CASH
FROM NASHVILLE 1969 (1994 BOOTLEG)
[Immediately] "Yeah I know what this is but I don't know what record it's on."
It's a bootleg
[looks at CD cover]
"Yeah, I don' t think I've ever heard him sing this song, I know this song. I think I've heard a lot of what's on this bootleg at one point."
How did Johnny Cash's recording and your collaboration of "I See A Darkness" come about?
"I think someone at Rick Rubin's office contacted Drag City at one point and they were like, 'we want all the lyrics to the Viva Last Blues record' so I had to type them all out, they weren't written down anywhere that I could find, I faxed them back and then heard nothing back. This was like a year or a year and a half before I did the recording with Johnny Cash."
And then Matt [Sweeny] said that he ran into somebody who said they'd been to Rick Rubin's house and that Rick Rubin had my records all over the floor and was listening to them a lot. So I was like, that's cool. And then Matt went to see a show in New York and he saw Rick Rubin there and so he went up to him and introduced himself and said that he was playing with me and stuff like that and Rick Rubin was like, 'well Johnny Cash just recorded "I See A Darkness"'. So Matt calls me and tells me, I was like 'fuck', you know. So then we were playing a show in New York a few days later and so Matt invites Rick Rubin, so he came and sat on the side of the stage during the whole show. And afterwards he came up and told me about Johnny Cash and I was like 'yeah that's really exciting' and he was like 'you should totally come and play the piano' and I was like 'sounds great, sounds really exciting, I'll be there, just tell me when'. And he gave me his phone number and I gave him mine and then he was like 'we'll work it out'. So I went back to Baltimore and I was like, 'I got to call him', so I called him and left a message: 'Hi This is Will Oldham um, I, I, have to tell you something, that is that I can't play the piano' - I of course knew that when we'd talked but I was just thinking I'll put my foot in the door right here and not take it out - 'whatever you want to do is fine, I don't know what's going to happen with this or anything, but if there is any possible way that I could meet Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in any way that would be something really important to me, if that happened. So that's it, bye.'"
And Rick Rubin called me back and said 'well we're going to have a session out here in Los Angeles and Johnny will be there and June should be there if you want to come out and meet them'. And I was like, 'great'. So I bought my plane ticket got out there, got there in the morning on a Sunday and kept calling and no one was answering and I was like 'fuck, I'm fucked' because I had just flown out to California for that reason. And then finally we talked and he said 'Yeah we're about to get started'. It was about one in the afternoon, so I went over. Got there and I was sitting in the office at Rick Rubin's house and I could hear the playback of Johnny Cash's voice downstairs. I think it was that "Lucky Old Son" maybe that was playing downstairs. And then Rick Rubin comes in from upstairs, he was just waking up, basically and we go downstairs and he was like 'Johnny, this is Will Oldham, he wrote that song "I See A Darkness" and we shake hands and Johnny Cash was like 'all right then, let's work on that song then right now'. So apparently he wasn't happy with his vocals on what they'd done so far and it was at that point just guitar and vocals I think, and so he wanted to re-sing it. He was having a hard time on the phrasing because the vocal comes in on a strange beat, or strange in terms of what he's used to, he is used to coming in right away or on the chord change. So I get this idea where I would do a guide vocal so I do a guide vocal then they pulled up his old vocal and my vocal and then they're like, oh the voices sounds great together. So then we decided that I'm going to do the chorus harmonies and then also, he's still having problems with the timing so they get this idea where I'll sit there in the vocal booth are and conduct him, conduct his singing." [pulls a chair up and sits right opposite me, demonstrates his meticulous conducting].
And then after a couple of hours June came in and it was so exciting, you know, sitting on a couch talking to her and hearing their conversations and just the whole day was completely fantastic because there was no, there was nothing disappointing, it was all about music the whole day, either the music that we'd played, we finished that and then they did another song, from beginning to end, which was really exciting, you know, hearing multiple takes, and then he was exhausted and went home and we finished the last overdubs on "I See A Darkness". So just the whole day was amazing, between takes it was just talking about music, talking about different songs, old songs, recent songs, different performers, but always about the musical aspect it was never about the anything else, nothing political, nothing social. Tremendous stuff."