Down by the Bayou
Published April 14, 2009
In the early 1990s, Bill Callahan helped pioneer lo-fi and was known as Smog, an alias he stuck with until 2005, with a few intervening years recording as (Smog). Clearly a man who spends a lot of time outdoors, Callahan-as-Smog sang about things like bullfrogs, tall grass, horses, and walking down to the creek. And Callahan’s second full-length album under his own name, to be released today, hasn’t abandoned these concerns—it’s titled Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. (Note the sneaky “we.”)
After nineteen years in music and twelve beautiful, spare albums under his belt, Bill Callahan has earned the right to take his time. During our interview he speaks slowly, and waits for the right words—he knows you’re listening. (LEFT: BILL CALLAHAN)
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I was curious about your band’s name. First you were Smog, and then for a while you used parentheses. For the last two albums, you’re using your given name: What prompted the changes?
BILL CALLAHAN: I think it was mostly just for the change. I’d been using it for twelve or thirteen years, which seems really remarkable to me, that I would use it that long. It might have been appropriate for the first four or five records, but I realized that I’d been living with this thing, working under this thing, that didn’t mean anything at all to me.
AS: Do you feel like by using your name, you’re revealing more of yourself? You’re not behind the mask of your stage name?BC: I don’t think it’s changed that much. I’m always just writing songs, not really from a particular perspective based on the name.
AS: What about the album’s title, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle? Was that a quote taken from life, or…?
BC: It’s a phrase that I thought of a few years ago, and wasn’t sure what to do with it. I held onto it. It seemed to make sense for this record… I guess it’s the title because I didn’t have a title, and the album was finished without that being a lyric. [LAUGHS]
AS: That’s a good reason. The album starts out seeming like a more optimistic venture than in the past, and then takes a dark turn somewhere in the middle—are the songs on the record in the order you wrote them, or are you hoping to have a narrative thread?
BC: They’re not in the order that I wrote them. But I kind of knew that the first song should be the first song and the last song should be the last song. How do you think the narrative changed?
AS: It starts out in a happier place and then something about that happiness gets twisted near the middle, and it’s less optimistic.
BC: It’s kind of like putting nine abstract things—well, they’re not abstract, but they don’t necessarily fit together, like there’s only one sequence in which these could work. When I’m sequencing, I think of things in a broad way. I think they were changing. There’s “Rococo Zephyr” and “The Wind and the Dove,” which are sort of about wind wrapping around things, and then after that, things change—once that’s realized.
AS: What about “Faith/Void,” the last song? It’s such a powerful song, and also a really expansive one, and you chose it to close the album. What are you hoping to leave your listeners with?
BC: I don’t think it’s really related to the rest of the record as far as a plotline or anything. It’s more just supposed to sum things up. I guess I was reading a lot of atheist essays and literature, and I wanted to write a song that was a companion to those things. A sort of anthem for the epiphany that I had.
AS: Was it an experience of losing faith-did you used to be religious? Or was it more a confirmation of what you already knew?
BC: I’ve gone through different stages, as I was growing up. But then I realized I’d reached a sort of stasis around this unclear, definition-less God or spirituality. I also read a lot of science books at the time, about Darwinism and biology. From the science books I learned that the scientists’ approach is that everything can be explained. So I thought my beliefs shouldn’t be in this wishy-washy place. It should be something clearer.
AS: How do you feel about agnosticism?
BC: Well, people can believe whatever they want. I think the best atheists respect agnosticism, too. It’s probably better not to be too sure. But the song could also be saying there’s a place and a time for God, and a time to put it away. With holy wars, the God question is not helping anything get those things solved, at all. It’s just getting in the way of peace.