Smog and The Continued Smokescreen Surrounding Mr. Bill Callahan

I was more than ready to interview Bill Callahan, maybe overly prepared. After his dickish response years and years ago from a fan and rookie writer for a new paper, he had burned me before… and for the first time I had realized that not everyone is going to respect you or care about your story… or care that you care about them and want to promote their show. Thank you Bill for that life lesson. This time I would not be taken advantage of. Callahan, formerly of Smog and, well, (smog) was supposed to do an email interview with me to preview his most recent show at Brighton Music Hall. I’m no stranger to the email interview. As a recluse, I can identify with that option. And I had actually done an email interview with Callahan before—the interview in question was one of the worst, most effortless, meaningless, piece-of-shit correspondences any artist has ever given me in my ten years as a writer. Well, except for Mazzy Star. I am posting the original interview below in case no one caught the Weekly Dig and Skyscraper Magazine pieces that appeared back in 2003.

Despite his lack of respect for the written word or conversation in general, I was still very excited to try and take on the man behind the music once again. Maybe the first attempt was a fluke. We all have off days and maybe that was his… Plus, I also heard that he had recently become more expansive, overt and interested in answering questions in recent years… but that must just be for the New York Times and high-end esoteric bullshit blogs.

The questions were sent, the “interview” was supposedly in the works, and I was very close to, maybe even overdue my deadline with the newspaper, when I received the following email from Drag City Records HQ….

Hi Nolan, I’m very sorry about this but Bill Callahan has decided to PASS on the interview. Perhaps you would like to speak with Ed Askew?

And yes, PASS was capitalized in their email. It is not meant for exaggeration. I inquired as to why he “PASS[ed]” amd received the following response:

He just said he didn’t want to do it after I turned it into him. He might just be burnt out on doing interviews, The questions were fine. So very sorry about this.

Let it be known, I, more than anyone, can understand what it’s like to not want to talk to people and divulge my secrets. Although, on the other hand, I don’t make records and don’t agree to do interviews for writers who have a deadline. So, 0 for 2 in Bill Callahan interviews. And yet I think his decision to PASS is even better than what I got before. Oh yes and oh well. If I were a musician, the constant knocking at my door and ringing of my phone by the inquiring media might bum me out too. I admit we are not changing the world. Just go out and say it… you don’t want to do interviews except for BIG publications, and then when you DO do them, you don’t have to act like a jackass to someone who ACTUALLY likes your music, most PROBABLY UNLIKE the people who you actually grant interviews to. RIGHT? After reading several thoughtful and interesting interviews with Callahan, I went back to the one I had conducted 8 years before. And I want you all to see it as well.

<<THE ORIGINAL BILL CALLAHAN INTERVIEW CIRCA 2003…Looking back I’m still pretty impressed by the Questions—and still mesmerized by the answers.>>

(smog) by Nolan Gawron

So you want to know what goes on in the mind of Bill Callahan of (smog)? Well we thought we did too. After all, (smog), formerly known as Smog, has been making great music for more than a decade. Frequently referred to as one of the finest and most important songwriters and survivors to come out of the lo-fi, 4-trackers home-recording boom, Bill Callahan’s earliest releases could only be found in the sadly extinct medium of cassette tapes. When those signature sounds of an uneasy intimacy found their way into ears of Drag City, Smog found a label to call home and began his great Chicago work ethic by releasing multiple albums per year. Over time, Smog experimented with a bigger sound, but only to return to the stripped down comforts of a more personable style.

Bill Callahan just has a way about him— he’s an irony-soaked minimalist that seems to strike up allusions to traditional American themes, but whose songs also carry with them a dry, mysterious, open-ended element to make sure he doesn’t let you in on his secret. Picture him as a city folks’ country singer who acknowledges the growing relevance of the future. Just don’t expect him to say much outside of his music. You think email interviews were the end of the line in depersonalized communication? Presenting the conversation of the future: the palm pilot email. I helped him with his apostrophes, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna turn his fragments into sentences. One can only hope he’ll give Rolling Stone the same attention span. (smog) has just released a compilation of long lost, rare singles and oddities called Accumulation: None. You should get it; it’ll tell you more than this interview does.

Having a compilation of any kind must seem like a strange experience. I know it’s a rare release collection, but do you in any way see the compilation as proof of standing the test of time?

I didn’t want the compilation to be any reflection of the passing of time, hence the circular timeline included in liner notes.

Is there any significance to the cover art on this new album of old stuff?

The idea that something as unshatterable as the ocean could not be shattered.

Since the early years of releasing records what changes in your songwriting style are you personally conscious of?

It’s not a conscious act. I don’t think anything’s changed.

What spurred the ( )’s around smog?

A way to contain the word.

Your songs seem to have a lot of city vs. country themes. How much of your youth was spent in the country? Do you feel that living in the city has affected your songwriting in any way?

I lived in what were small towns. Bowie, Maryland is not exactly the country nor is it city or suburb. I moved to the city when I was old enough to pick my own destiny.

You also have a couple of songs about horses. Is that just for a more traditional Americana theme? Have you ever owned a horse?

Horses are prehistoric.  That really is all it is that interests me. Same for birds.  They both are from a world that isn’t the one we live in.

Explain the importance of Americana and traditional American symbolism for
songwriters writing from within the city. You sing about things such as breaking horses or traveling and cull the open western feeling. Is that based on any personal significance? Why does it seem that the best music always seem to allude to traditional and mystical American cowboy or open road references? Is it because those things exist less and less in real life?

I just woke up.  Early to call a friend.  She wasn’t home.  So I started taking care of some loose ends.  This interview.  But I haven’t had coffee yet.  I can’t begin to broach
your question about americana w/out coffee.

What inspired the use of the children’s choir on Knock, Knock? Do you think any of those kids have or will turn into indie rockers because of the experience?

I like sound of kid’s choirs. I like to a have wild card when making record.  I think they had a good time so I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see them in bands.

People often refer to you as one of the best things to come out of the lo-fi, home-recording 4 track “movement” or “revolution”. Was there such a thing as this “movement” or “revolution”? Were there a couple of significant people that led to the popularity of 4-tracking or was this a growing phenomenon that just came with the existence of more small labels emerging? Do you find any significance within any sort of connection to a time/scene classification like this?

I never saw it as a revolution.

(more2follow if time permits)

[Time did not permit]




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