Bill Callahan’s music is so durn pretty that it’s easy to forget where the man came from. Once revered by Sonic Youth and covered by Flaming Lips, Callahan’s alias Smog was a leading name in lo-fi experimentalism. But Callahan has a knack for reinventing the past one great album at a time, and the future he’s been crafting is increasingly melodic. With 2007’s Woke On A Whaleheart, his 13th full-length, Callahan left behind the Smog moniker for his birth name and an oddly upbeat album—a surprise coming from someone known for his black humor and deadpan baritone. His new album, the string-laden Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, finds him on familiar ground again, but still doing what he does best: tweaking the format as he continues down an amorphous musical path that dodges genre classification. Sure, it’s little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll, but there’s always an X factor with Bill. The A.V. Club caught up with the inward-chuckling, slow-talking philosopher by phone at his home in Austin.
The A.V. Club: What do the nonsense words of “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” mean to you?
Bill Callahan: I actually found this notebook of mine, but I must have written this with my left hand, because it was really messy. It said “eid ma,” just some kind of note to myself that I didn’t remember writing. The rest of the gibberish just poured out of me. I didn’t have to struggle, so I knew it couldn’t be any other way. It was weird to me, because it had a certain meter and rhyme to it.
AVC: You intentionally conceived “Invocation Of Ratiocination” as the only song on Eagle without normal structure. Is there a part of you that misses working with harsher sounds?
BC: When I was getting started out, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I had to be creative with my recording techniques. Sometimes I miss that, because now I just get someone who can play bass to play bass. I try to carry what I learned from that period with me, but yeah, I was trying to capture some of that abstract again.
AVC: “Faith/Void” isn’t the first time you’ve taken a shot at God. Did you grow up with church?
BC: No, my parents weren’t religious at all. I remember the first time I heard about Jesus was at school. Some teacher said something about him, and I was like, “I wonder if everyone knows about this guy.” My thoughts on it have all been from my own investigation. In my early 20s, I’d read Franny And Zooey, and for a while, I was very interested in Buddhism. It seemed less didactic than some Western religions. People would always ask me, “Are you a spiritual person?” and I would say yes, but it made me uncomfortable. Before “Faith/Void,” I was reading a lot of atheist literature and I realized, no, I’m not a spiritual person, because I don’t know what that means. I like mountains and oceans and stuff, which is where I’ve always felt some sort of power of meaning, but that’s not necessarily spiritual. I’ve realized it’s better if we just stop talking in that language, because it can lead to so many conflicts.
AVC: Does the calm that inhabits your songs extend to your daily life?
BC: Not really. There’s so much chaos in life, I think I make music to make things feel calm and sane, to define something, to bring some meaning into it—it’s a real peaceful thing to me. The same with listening to other people’s music. It’s like the treats of existence.
AVC: Eagle’s opening song, “Jim Cain,” includes the crux lines, “I used to be darker, then I got lighter / then I got dark again.” What happened between the last two records?
BC: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I think Whaleheart, since it was the first record under my own name, was supposed to be from the perspective of a new songwriter who was, maybe, part of the Brill Building scene or something. I wanted to hear a record by me that almost sounded like it was by someone else. I gave Neil [Hagerty] total control over the arrangements so I could have the smallest fingerprints on it, but still have written the songs. With Eagle, it was just a different character—more inward, more pensive—a different perspective to write from.
AVC: But is it that simple, or does the album’s tone reflect the perspective that you personally embody at the time?
BC: I know it must. I’m kind of uncomfortable talking about specifics, but either way, you have all different kinds of personalities within you, and opinions and perspectives, and some of them come close to the surface at times, while others recede.
AVC: You recently contributed a song to a Kath Bloom tribute collection. Have you entertained the idea of doing a covers album?
BC: I’ve been thinking about it for a few years, and I’ll do it someday. For the first 10 or so years of me making music, I didn’t think I could do it. It seemed really alien to me to try to get inside someone else’s song, but now I’ve learned how to do it, and it takes me months. I really enjoy it. You don’t have to worry “Are these lyrics right? Is this melody right?” You can focus on feeling and the delivery.
AVC: Your own lyrics have a less-is-more feel. Are you a pretty dogged editor?
BC: [Laughs.] I cross things out more than I write them. And if I try to sing a line and I know that it’s written incorrectly, I get this weird sort of physical nausea and my mouth curls up all strange. I guess that’s why I always write the words first, because if everything feels okay, I’m ready to put it to music.
AVC: Is that the way it’s been ever since you first started putting words to music?
BC: When I was recording at home, I wanted a more direct approach. Back then, a lot of the songs would be one or two lines, and that was the way I knew to avoid saying any bullshit—just cut myself off. I was really into the idea of having a short song satisfy whatever it is you get out of a full song. I was trying to pare it down so much, I was trying to write songs with only one word in them. [Pauses.] That was pretty difficult. But I did that minimal thing to my satisfaction, and got more interested in seeing if I could maintain that for a normal-length song.
AVC: Would you do a collaborative project with, say, some of country’s old-timers?
BC: I would love to do, but there’s sort of an indie ghetto. I hate that word, “indie,” but it does seem like we’re separate, like we’re in a different world. My apparent peer group is independent musicians, which I really don’t listen to that much. I guess some people have done it, but it’s always novelty instead of something natural, like I feel it should be.
AVC: When Whaleheart came out, you claimed you had four or five other albums already sketched out. Are those still around?
BC: Those ideas have been around for several years. It’s like having a hand of cards and the dealer hands you another, and that changes things completely. This new record was a brand new idea, and the other ones are still in the back of my mind. I don’t really know what those mystery albums’ function is. I don’t know if it’s supposed to give me hope or just something to think about, but eventually something will click with one of them where there’s a void, and it’ll start to flourish.
AVC: Are they just too ambitious in scope to execute right now?
BC: A couple of them are pretty unconventional. They’re intimidating because they’re working in ways I’ve never worked before, and I’m not even sure what those ways are—I just have a feeling. An album always starts as a really abstract thing to me. It can be just a word, or a color, or something even more intangible, then I find some way to manifest it, and it becomes real.
AVC: So what was Eagle to begin with?
BC: I can’t exactly remember for sure, but it was just the thought of something… cerebral. It’s supposed to be songs that are in someone’s head, just kind of staying there, and the arrangements are supposed to back that up, like you’re just hearing the music that’s playing in that space.
AVC: Is there anything specific you can say about the next album?
BC: Well, I’ve been trying to learn piano a bit better, and I’ve been listening to The Allman Brothers a lot, really digging their guitar sound. I haven’t made a big guitar record yet, so that appeals to me, but if you talk to me tomorrow [Laughs.] I’ll probably say it’s a reggae record.
AVC: You toured Whaleheart through Israel and South America. Do you prefer playing off the beaten path?
BC: I’m always amazed anyone shows up anywhere, whether it’s New York or Tel Aviv—I’m surprised people care enough. South America was crazy. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been there, and it was probably the most enthusiastic audience I’d ever had. People had been waiting—I mean literally waiting 10 years or whatever—so all their excitement came to the fore. I would play anywhere, though. Anything can happen and it’s different every night, even going back to the same city. I like it all pretty much the same.
AVC: In another interview, you likened recording Eagle in Plano to being surrounded by a cornucopia of crap. What positive influence has Texas had on you and your music?
BC: There’s something old and ghostly about Texas, a distinct feeling that I’m sure must get under my skin somehow, but I don’t ever feel that when I’m writing. I always feel like I’m just writing from within, but who knows how that within is shaped? Texas is the first place I’ve felt at home, and that’s a strange feeling. I mean, other people always talk about missing home, or feeling at home, and I’d never experienced that. It’s an easy place to live. People seem to enjoy their lives more or something. A lot of cities seem to have a lot of unsatisfied people in them, but West Texas… it’s just peaceful and quiet.