Will Oldham’s Fourth Dimension

Published February 10, 2016

ABOVE: WILL OLDHAM. PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD BRASHEAR.

For the better part of 23 years now, Will Oldham—better known these days by his chosen nom de plume, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—has released music that has both celebrated and playfully subverted American musical traditions. To say that he is a folk musician or that the music he records qualifies as “Americana” would be a misnomer, as his music toys with these ideas and transcends them. Over the past two decades he has released nearly 20 albums (under the monikers of Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Will Oldham), worked as a film and theater actor (his turn in Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy is particularly fantastic), and generally floated around the edges of popular culture in ways one might not expect (such as having his songs covered by the late Johnny Cash, making a cameo appearance in R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” video).

In short, Will Oldham is equally talented and inscrutable, the kind of wonderfully gifted and gently eccentric artist that one encounters all too rarely these days. And though he is generally reticent in interviews, when he does sit down to talk he is always interesting. We caught up with Oldham in New York City, where he is currently appearing at BAM in the Actors Theater of Louisville’s production of Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World. Ostensibly we’re meant to chat about Pond Scum, a newly released compilation of old Peel Sessions Oldham recorded over the years, some dating back to as early as 1993.  Though there is a certain schizophrenic quality to Pond Scum (Oldham recorded six Peel Sessions for BBC Radio over the years, three of which are represented here) it does provide a fascinating window into his psyche and his ever-evolving body of work.

T. COLE RACHEL: Pond Scum pulls together songs from three different Peel Sessions, some of which date back to the beginnings of your career. What made these songs make sense together?

OLDHAM: I gathered all the different Peel Sessions recordings together—I did six or seven of them over the years—and listened to all of them. These definitely have at least a superficial relationship to each other because they’re all very spare.The less people present in an urgent situation that a moderately high stakes recording session can create—the less people there are in the room—the more openness there can be. These songs share that as well, in addition to just the obvious, basic starkness.

I still make music. I still write music and I record music, I just don’t trust music promotion [and] distribution right now enough to record a new set of diligently worked-upon compositions. I do trust the audience and the audiences very much. With these recordings, I valued the experience of making the recordings, and I value the performances contained therein, and I value so much of what they can represent. I also think they’re a terrific listening experience. Putting them out this way was a way of trying to maintain and nurture the relationship with the audience and also shine a light on the recent past, because we are so apt to be forgetful as human beings that there was such a thing as a recent past. These are some of the reasons for making this record.

RACHEL: When you listen to these recordings, hearing the younger version of yourself sing those songs, does it make you feel wistful or nostalgic at all?

OLDHAM: No, not at all. I have a mantra that kind of explains my feelings on this subject, which is, “The past is the present is the future.” When you’re recording something, you’re making something that will exist in the future. When you’re listening to a recording, you’re supposedly listening to some aspect of the past in the present as you travel slowly into the future, but you also know there’s a very strong likelihood that the future of that recording, whether you made it or whether you’re listening to a Led Zeppelin record, is going to continue probably far beyond where you are.

To me, recordings are little fourth-dimension artifacts, because they already are representatives of past, present, and future, just inherently in their existence. When I listen to them, they’re like they were made as time capsules in the first place. You know that when you’re writing the song and recording the song, you’re already sending a message to the future listener, whoever and wherever and whenever that will be.

For these Peel Sessions, you go into a studio in London and record something that’s going to be played on the radio later on. You’re making something that won’t be what it is until some unknown date in the future. All aspects of the personal disappear. If we were making a record in Kentucky, there might be some more elements that recall a time, a place, or a relationship. Recording for the BBC you enter into this strange and wonderful, but kind of sterile, place with which you have no personal history, and that’s the Maida Vale Studios at BBC in London. All you do is you go back to that, and it feels like you’re in a spaceship. It feels like you’re in 2001 or something like that. It’s massive and well constructed and highly technologically advanced and occupied by these wise scientists, engineers, and producers. Listening to it, it just doesn’t sound like me—that’s a younger self that didn’t know who he was or what he was doing. I can’t identify with a nebulous cloud.

RACHEL: I know for so many bands, getting to do a Peel session was sort of this rite of passage, but it never really occurred to me to wonder if John Peel was actually there when you went in to record them.

OLDHAM: The interactions were all at a distance. I just learned this fact yesterday from a friend of mine who works in country radio here who was friends with John Peel. He said that Peel would commission the session, he sent out the invitation and/or gave the OK for a session to occur, but then he wouldn’t listen to it until he played live it on the air. He got to hear it the same time as the radio audience, which is kind of fantastic.

OLDHAM: The first time we were invited to do it, there was the one full length Palace Brothers record out, There is No-one What Will Take Care of You, and he had heard that, and was intrigued by it enough to invite us to do a session when we were over there playing shows. That was…1993? After that, I guess he remained connected and intrigued enough that he would continue to send out invitations to us. British friends would say, “Oh, we heard your session on Peel last night,” and he said this beforehand, or he said that between these two songs—he really likes your music.

Then, maybe five years in, he sent me a letter and a CD. He sent me a CD of this band Medicine Head. I guess he had a record label for a while in the ’70s called Dandelion. He sent a letter just saying hello, and saying that he thought I would like this Medicine Head record. That was great. Then a few years later, it was his 60th birthday and someone from his staff wrote that they were trying to assemble, as a special surprise, recordings from Peel’s favorite artists covering some of his favorite songs.

It was amazing, because essentially this person was saying we were on his list of favorite artists, which is the best. Then we covered “Crying in the Chapel.” You know, “You saw me crying in the chapel … We were also invited to play his birthday party, which was at the BBC. Sometimes I feel like something’s wrong with me because I feel this way, but I didn’t feel driven to meet him even at that birthday party, and I don’t feel like I missed out by not meeting him, because it did seem like the whole thing was about making music and listening to music. That was enough.

Similarly, last week my friend Matt Sweeney invited me to come see Iggy Pop play on the Colbert Show. Matt is going to be in Iggy’s touring band, so we went in and watched them rehearse. It was perfect. Afterwards, people said, “Did you meet Colbert?” No, he wasn’t even there. “Did you meet Iggy Pop?” I was like, no, I didn’t meet Iggy Pop. It doesn’t even occur to me—Why would I want to meet Iggy Pop? I got to watch him rehearse. That’s what I want from Iggy Pop. I don’t want his handshake, I don’t want him trying to remember my name for 45 seconds or seeing what flavor of potato chips he likes to eat. I want to see him sing, and I want to see him sing a song repeatedly and warm up to it, and use his voice and use his body. This was the ultimate interaction with somebody for whom you have strong feelings.

RACHEL: You are currently appearing in Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World at BAM, which looks like so much fun.

OLDHAM: It is! it’s really fun. I was really looking forward to doing the thing that I do—I basically appear just at the beginning and at the end of the play—but when I got to opening night, I started to get really sad that that was the last time I was going to see the play as a spectator without actually being in it. I do an opening, and then I go up to the high balcony in the back and watch the bulk of the play, but then I have to leave my seat about seven to 10 minutes before the end of that final big scene…and it’s a bummer. There’s nothing that compares to watching that final 17 to 20 minute sequence in one sitting. It fills you with a giddy energy watching that. Then, being gifted with the silence that follows…I’ve never had a theatrical experience like that before, I’m sure.

RACHEL: For people who might not know, the play itself is a kind of birthday party for renowned mystic and Catholic monk Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain. You wouldn’t necessarily imagine that would make for a crazy theatrical experience, but it really does.

OLDHAM: It’s so nuts. As a kid you learn that there are thinkers and there are philosophers and there are theologian, and I’d hear little bits of the ideas that these people pursued or developed or created and I’d be really excited. Then I’ll start to read it and I think, “Wait a minute, this is a rabbit hole. This isn’t a gateway or a ticket to anything except itself.” I feel like, for me, reading Thomas Merton is like that. When you’re a ways into it, you’re five pages in, 20 pages in, 30 pages in, it seems like one of the more oxymoronic undertakings you could attempt. I felt so liberated when I first saw this play, because for me this is the gateway to contemplation, or this is the gateway to love, or this is the gateway to faith, not sitting and reading a book by an isolated monk, god bless him. This is. I was worried before I saw the play, thinking I don’t really want to see a play about Thomas Merton. He probably wouldn’t have either, ideally. Then it isn’t. It’s more about us and it’s about our relationship to what he may or may not have thought about. It’s its own thing completely.

RACHEL: This play wraps up next week. Do you have a sense of what the rest of 2016 will be like for you?

OLDHAM: Yeah, kind of. Last year I began a relationship with this ensemble based out of Chicago called Eighth Blackbird. They’re like a modern chamber ensemble that does modern works arranged for string, percussion, and woodwind—for a five-person ensemble. They wanted to do a piece by this composer Rzewski. It’s called “Coming Together” and it’s a vocal performance, but it’s not a sung performance. It includes rhythm and dynamics and words, but it isn’t sung, and it’s sort of spoken, but it’s spoken rhythmically. It’s scored. It’s very challenging.

RACHEL: That sounds amazing and also very difficult.

OLDHAM: Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s the kind of hard that if you work hard enough at it, you can do it and it feels great, because it was so hard. So we’ll continue maybe even over the next couple of years to perform that and to expand our collaborative repertoire. Sometimes they’ll have performances and invite me to be a featured soloist. I think that is what they call it in that world-“featured soloist.” I also made a record with Bitchin’ Bajas that will come out in March. We’ll play a bunch of shows over the course of the year, probably.

OLDHAM: Those are a couple of good things I think that will happen this year. Then little writings and recordings that thankfully continue to come up. I’m in this kind of wonderful, kind of awkward, off-putting, and strange position where there’s nothing I want to do more than continue to make music, but the ways that I do things are not in tune with how I can do them commercially. My dream 10 years ago would’ve been to continue to write and record songs in record/album form for years to come, but now records aren’t what they were then—and so it doesn’t actually feel very good to make a record of songs.

RACHEL: Is it because it feels like making records doesn’t have the same kind of cultural value to people than it did before, so you’re kind of working on this ephemeral thing that no one wants?

OLDHAM: Absolutely. It feels kind of disrespectful to the songs. It’s good when someone says, “Would you write a song for this purpose,” or “would you record a song for this purpose,” or “would you help me realize this song,” again, for this purpose.

My booking agent, of course, here and overseas, their tendency is to want to build on a certain kind of measurable success, and I was thinking yesterday, what I’d like to do is maybe start to compile a list of the best 200 to 500 capacity rooms around the world and just start going to them again and again and again. Making money is awesome and fun as hell, but they’re saying, “Well, you’re offered a whole lot of money to do this,” and it’s like, well, I do want the money, but I don’t really do that—like headline a big festival or something like that. I could go there and do that, but it isn’t really what I do. It feels weird to me. Sometimes it will be for more money than I’ve ever been offered before. I mean, am I an idiot again for not doing that? I want to be successful and I want people to hear the music and I want to make money at it, but if it isn’t what you do, eventually it seems like that will cause you to not be able to do what you do. If you did that for a couple years, you would just become someone else, which is fine, I guess…but I don’t want to become someone else. I want to do what I enjoy and what feels right.

RACHEL: It’s a vicious cycle that people get trapped in—I need to make a record so I can go on tour so I can make a record so I can go on tour. Then it becomes a means to and end, and it doesn’t become about making a good record anymore.

OLDHAM: Yeah. Also, I don’t have a big machine. We always keep things very, very simple. We can make a respectable living playing a smaller room that somebody else couldn’t, because they’re spending a lot of money. If we can’t get a show up and deliver with what we almost intrinsically have in our brains and our pockets, then I don’t really want to do it.

RACHEL: Do you enjoy playing live?

OLDHAM: I enjoy it when the circumstances are right. You’re hoping that it’s going to be an extraordinary experience any time you create and/or listen to music with other people. I guess what I’ve been saying over the past few minutes is that it’s hard to do that, to create that. There are a limited number of promoters out there who care about that. You rarely meet a promoter who’s like, “I want to be responsible for the best shows, I want to make sure that these are the best shows these audiences have ever seen.” Venues are all the same, all feel the same, these generic blank spaces. I like artists like Lightning Bolt-bands that go in and kind of change things every time, play on the floor, set up in the middle of the room. They go in and they reinvent the space every time, which I feel is like the kind of thing that should just be happening. The ideal is to put on shows where, if you go into the same space again, you don’t remember ever having been there before, because where you were was a space that only existed that one time, created by the music.

 BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY’S POND SCUM IS OUT NOW VIA DRAG CITY