Bill Callahan: L'Apocalypse Des Animaux

By: Ron Hart

Bill Callahan by Oto Gillen
For over two decades, Bill Callahan has been one of the most fearless survivors of indie rock's evolution from its earnest roots in DIY integrity to fickle accessory for the Pitchfork-abiding hipster masses.

Under the guise of Smog, the 44-year-old Maryland native’s style of homemade, lo-fi rock has inspired nearly two generations, even as his sound evolved from its humble tape deck beginnings to a more produced style under the direction of such studio wizards as Jim O'Rourke, John McEntire and Neil Hagerty. However, it was only after he emerged from the – ahem - smog of his pseudonym did Callahan see his most fruitful years as an artist, expanding the spare base of his initial format to a fuller, richer veneer that helped to earn his first two albums under his own name - 2007's Woke on a Whaleheart and 2009's Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle --the most success he has enjoyed yet in this industry.

With this year's Apocalypse (released March 29 on Drag City), meanwhile, Callahan delivers an album unlike anything he has done before. Recorded and mixed in the great state of Texas with a small live band and produced by the man himself, the seven tracks comprising this LP delve into the darker territory of the Lone Star State's "outlaw" movement, evoking the teachings of Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury. It all cumulates in a beautifully raw love letter to the American landscape depicted in the Paul Ryan painting that graces the cover of the artist's loosest, most freewheeling title to date.

JamBase recently had the chance catch up with the otherwise elusive Callahan during an exclusive electronic exchange. The man may be one of few words, but at least he makes the little he says matter, whether in song or in conversation.

new album
What was the reason behind the decision to record this album live in the studio?

In truth, all my records are recorded like this - tracking the keeper vocals with the band. This record has more of a live sound though because it was recorded with only room sound, no machine reverb, except one song, so it sounds like real things sound like, not a machine replication of what is real, which is what recording has become. Which I think is cool, just because it's the language of sound that I learned from listening to recorded music for however many formative years. But I'm also interested in the underside of that language. There was also the desire to be able to present the songs in a live setting and have them sound a lot like the record.

How much did improvisation came into play while creating the music for this album?

Not really improvisation. I mean, there's a fine line between improvisation and composition when you are recording in a quick fashion and without charts. Things change a little or a lot with each take, but it's more feeling your way through and being in the moment and happenstance than what is considered improvisation. There's something comedic about doing multiple takes of anything, so I try to keep it to a minimum. If you capture the songs early on in the process – i.e. after only a few takes - they are caught in an amorphous state that serves me well as far as living with and playing the song for the time that follows it touring. If it gets too structured, for me, I wouldn't want to play it in a live setting for long.

Please tell me the story behind the gorgeous painting on the cover of Apocalypse. What was it about Paul Ryan's painting “Apocalypse at Mule Ears Peak, Big Bend National Park in West Texas” that inspired you to use it as the cover for this album?

He wrote me asking if some movie makers could use a couple of my songs in a documentary about him, as he paints while listening to my music. I needed a cover. So, I told him he could put a couple songs in his movie if he made me a painting I could use as I saw fit. My stipulations were that it be of West Texas landscape and be entitled “Apocalypse.”

What is it about the culture of the early American West that inspires you?

Bill Callahan
I like the minimalism of it. The desires were plain and straightforward. There were no tourists lining up at a frozen yogurt store. There was just the essentials.

Do you have a favorite Western, be it film or novel?

The Misfits, though I don't want to really declare it as "my favorite." I don't have favorites, like Richard Christy. It's one of those movies you see as a youngster that shows you a world you weren't sure anyone saw but yourself, where the ideas of youth and age melt away.

On "America!" you mention some of your musical heroes by their military ranks but admit that you yourself never served your country. Did you ever harbor any aspirations to join the Armed Forces?

The recruiters started calling me when I dropped out of school. The school must give them a list of dropouts. I didn't want to join, but I did sign up for Selective Service.

What is your favorite era of American history and why?

Civil War era, probably. It's kind of the teenage years of the country. I like coming of age stories best. It was a parental struggle couched in a fraternal struggle, in a way.

Inside Fort Sumter in 1864
Do you have a particular period or battle during the Civil War that you find most interesting?

Beginnings are interesting, so maybe Fort Sumter.

What do you believe is the most significant turning point in the last hundred years of our history that led us to where we are today, and why do you think so?

You mean U.S. history? It might've been aviation. I think the Wright Brothers’ big breakthrough was around 1908. How long after that did people start using those planes to drop bombs? World War I, I guess was the big turning point. But I'm no historian.

In regards to the album's title, do you have any theories on how the world might end?

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

How confident are you about the future looking at the presidential prospects for 2012?

I don't have much confidence until we have a true multi-party or no party system. The Republican/Democrat thing is just not working.

Is there any party in politics outside of the Republican/Democrat tandem that you follow?

Not lately. I expect my interest in it will pick up closer to the erection.

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