Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is out next week from Drag City. It’s the artist’s thirteenth album, counting work he made under the moniker of Smog. Anthem recently had the chance to correspond via email with Callahan in Texas. Read on for his insights about Knocked Up, shooting guns, and epic poetry.
What have you done today so far?
I drove home from Dallas today where I was mixing a live LP with John Congleton. I stopped at Starbucks about 45 minutes into the trip and got a coffee and a Power Protein Meal or something like that. One free range hard boiled egg, a cute little whole wheat bagel that didn't taste very good, a bit of cheese, 9 grapes, two slices of apple and a packet of peanut butter. I ate it all but the peanut butter. Peanut butter is for kids.
Was being a musician always what you wanted to do?
When I was a little kid I wanted to be a record producer, although I wasn't sure what one did. I thought you just organized people and told them what to do… Which is fairly correct but I wasn't sure what sort of things I would be telling them to do. Being a musician is a way to be on the outside of society and right in the heart of it at the same time. I wanted to do it since I was 16 or so.
How do you go about writing your lyrics?
I just write them. You can feel some sort of story under your skin and know it's time for it to come out. So you just have to work on getting it out and not adulterating the form it was in when it existed before it was told.
Do you write other things besides songs?
I'm working on a book. It's an epic poem in the form of letters. It's called Letters to Emma Bowlcut. Been working on it for several years. I finished a draft the other day and sent it to my editors. I think it is near to being ready.
I read somewhere that you have your albums planned out far in advance—what do you mean by that?
You get a feeling, something vague and distinct at the same time. Like it is looming on the horizon but you can't quite make out what it is. You figure out how to get closer to it. You pick good people to work with so when they play something you like you can say, “Yes, that's what I wanted you to do!”
What’s the nature of your singing voice? Where is it coming from? What affects it?
I don't know the answers to that. You just try to sing in a way that is true. I can feel it in my gut. I can feel when I'm copping out or lying. It's a nauseous feeling. When you get it right, it feels right.
I became interested in giving up some of the control because I have made 13 albums now and thought maybe it'd be a way to make some different sounding records, to take them to a place I may not have gone. It was just a little vacation for a part of myself. But I'm back now and wanting to be in control.
You’ve said the D.C. hardcore scene influenced you early in your career. Did you find the same kind of feeling in the Chicago indie rock scene? How did these communities affect you?
With hardcore it was the closeness of it. I liked classic rock a lot too, but it seemed so far away. The way those records are produced makes them sound far away. Maybe that is where the term rock star came from, because the people seemed so far away. Hardcore was just like seeing the Wizard (the one from Oz) behind the screen. It made it something I could imagine doing. But I wasn't really making music then. I tried a little but it was malformed. By the time I'd got to Chicago I was already settled in to my methods of making records so I don't think it affected me much.
What the hell made you move to Texas? Never been, but I think guns are issued to you when you cross the state border. Any shooting happening?
There are some great road signs out here that say, “No shooting for 250 feet,” along the highway. But I saw and heard more guns in Chicago than Texas. I had to duck behind my car because someone was shooting across the street in Chicago. I crept in and drove off without looking over the steering wheel.
Are there any places outside of the U.S. you’re fond of?
I like [the] USA the best. I would maybe live in a huge teeming city like Rome for a spell, just to shake myself up, but I'm happy here.
“All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast,” off the new album, has swelling strings that remind me a lot of old film scores,…Ennio Morricone maybe. Do you think your music is influenced by film or soundtracks? Seen any good films lately—and don’t say Night Of The Hunter, everyone always says Night of the Hunter.
I'm not influenced by soundtracks. If there were any type of influence from a film onto my music, it would probably be impossible to explain. I find influences to be like that game in the arcade where you roll a penny onto a moving shelf and sometimes the penny pushes a bunch of coins over the edge. If you looked at the shelf of pennies, you probably couldn't find which penny caused the jackpot—and all the pennies sort of contributed anyway, by being in a certain position to cause the fall. That is what these things we take into us are, the influences and how they work together.
I hear you on Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum's got some way better movies than that. Last good movie I saw was The Wrestler. I liked Synechdoche, New York, too. In the hotel in Dallas when I couldn't sleep I watched Girlfight; I liked the girl in it. Knocked Up—which I'd seen before but found it quite touching this time around, especially the end when they're driving away with the baby and then they show all the births of the crew members kids during the close credits. I was bawlin'. Some movie with Kevin Bacon in a ‘death wish’ role. And Good Advice with Charlie Sheen as a male chauvinist who gets his comeuppance. Oh, boy, does he ever!
What’re your plans for the rest of the day? You’re welcome to come over if you want, I do live in the woods and there are eagles.
Rest of the day, a friend invited me out for Indian food. There is also a Bill Hicks documentary at 9:45. I'm not sure I'll do either. Didn't sleep well the past couple nights—mixing the record—and the drive home wiped me out for some reason. That Power Pack breakfast, they need to rename it.
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is out April 14.