We’re now in the land of Narnia and that’s great. You should go to the land of Narnia.
It can be challenging to find a musician of Willis Earl Beal’s caliber who made it through the makeover machine unscathed. On a gloriously sunny afternoon in Chelsea, Beal is in good spirits. Of course, it wasn’t always laughs. The avant-folk artist endured his share of adversity in the past—a discharge from the Army due to severe illness, temporary homelessness, getting staggeringly drunk before hitting the X Factor stage, his stormy split from XL Recordings imprint Hot Charity—all of which has led him to this moment. On the heels of his latest self-released third album, Experiments in Time, comes Beal’s acclaimed feature film debut in Tim Sutton’s Memphis.
In Memphis, Beal plays a blues musician with a cranky disposition and “god-given” talent. At first a chronicle of his procrastination, he appears to owe an album to somebody but can’t find the inspiration to follow through. Fighting off boredom and anomie, Beal takes long walks and drives around the tree-shaded streets of Memphis. Surrounded by lovers, legends, hustlers, preachers, and a wolfpack of kids, the unstable performer avoids the recording studio and is driven to spend time in his own form of self-discovery. These points inform the film’s series of gentle vignettes, each prizing character and motivation as secondary to the pangs of region-specific textures.
Beal’s kind of determination and inner strength is rare, and when you come across it, you know. He’s acutely aware of what he’s up against, and seems to know exactly how to handle it all, including this interview. “Let me ask you something first,” he says. Honestly, we’re not surprised.
Memphis is now playing in select theaters.
WILLIS EARL BEAL: When you do these interviews, do your subjects usually have a preference in terms of doing the interview or photos first?
ANTHEM: They usually don’t, no. But it’s nice to have the photographer sit in on the talk first so they can get a more rounded picture of the person.
I think every little bit helps.
Uh huh, uh huh, because I have this other gig in town where I’m supposed to sing at a fashion show. This lady tells me to come downtown to the place where the models are gathered. She’s got all of these pictures of models on the table, little paper figurines of the models, and there’s ten of each in a different dress. And she wanted me to look at this. Now I’m thinking, okay, what’s gonna happen? She says, “Look at the faces. Focus on everything. I want you to see the relationship between their faces, their dresses, and your music.” I liked that very much. I couldn’t really find the relationship, but I kinda dug that.
And what did you take away from doing this?
What I took away from it was that every act should be intentional, but you can’t always transmit that to other people. She couldn’t really transmit it to me. It’s her precision and her insistence that I should look that really stuck with me. I thought, she’s a wizard, obviously. She’s got some order inside of her and she’s doing things in a very particular way. And I’ve always been a very disorganized person, but always tried to be organized. I think the world of intention is very good, moving things around in pieces. We just don’t look at what we’re doing.
You always seemed very detailed and unguarded in interviews when you’re, essentially, answering the same questions. Do these talks help you organize your thoughts in any way?
What I find is that the truth changes. I might answer totally sincerely to the same questions, essentially, but I answer them in entirely different ways. I’m sincere, but I feel differently now than I felt an hour ago, which affects everything. The truth is that I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t actually remember what happened precisely as it happened, so everything is the truth and everything is a lie, simultaneously. I can talk for days to different people. I can give interview after interview. I like talking to people because I can reinvent myself every single time. That’s really good because I’m a very lonely person. Being able to alter my perception of life and alter other people’s perception of me—that’s living. Everything else is just something passing you by where you don’t say anything.
Because everything is so pointless. I mean, literally pointless. Point less, no point. You look down a road and there’s a point, but do you ever reach it? No. It’s an illusion of a point. It doesn’t actually exist. There’s no real point to anything. It’s all just what we put into it. So this makes me feel like there’s a point even though I know it’s not. There’s no point to being in films. There’s no point to anything. This makes me feel like I’m doing something that matters, but I know it’s an illusion. But it’s fun anyway. It’s fun to dress up and play masquerade, you know?
Which brings me to the question of this mask you’re wearing. When does it come off?
It comes off when nobody’s watching. I don’t wear it in my normal life. I wear it whenever I’m involved with something to do with entertainment because it’s more difficult to be myself when I’m involved in entertainment things. When I’m wearing a mask, somehow, I’m more sincere. When I’m not wearing a mask and I talk to somebody related to entertainment, I really get full of myself. The mask helps me reveal a lot because people will ask me, “Why are you wearing a mask?” I can’t help but tell the truth. If I’m not wearing a mask, you won’t ask me that question. I’m tired of fucking around. [Laughs] I wanna get in there and get to the meat of the why and everything, you know?
Why take the lead role in Memphis? Why this? Why now?
It just happened that way like a lot of things in my life. It’s not like I decided. I just happened to be ready at the time when it happened. Specifically, the director contacted my manager at the time and we met in a very formal way. We hung out, smoked marijuana, and found out we liked the same films. It was pretty simple, really. The process leading up to the actual film was very straightforward, almost like something falling out of the sky. It was like, now is the time.
Is acting difficult?
It was more challenging than I’d envisioned. I probably took acting for granted, and I’d always wanted to be an actor. I took it for granted because you look at films and everything looks so simplistic. It’s like, all it is just moving around in space, talking, not talking, doing things, and hopefully you get framed in a cool way. That’s what I thought acting was. Acting is not that. Also, I don’t act. I envy people who do act. Being is very difficult and I think that’s what I was doing. What I realized is that acting is not needed for this film. Very rarely is acting needed in real life. People employ way too much. It was difficult, though. It was very hard. But If you were there with me, you’d think, “What’s so hard about this?” Everything’s an internal struggle.
There are a lot of parallels between the character you’re playing and yourself.
The only thing different between me and the character is our environment. That’s the only difference. Apparently the character knows who these other people are. I don’t. Other than that, me and the character are the same person. I like how that sounds: “Me and the character are the same person.” That could be the title of something. [Laughs]
Songwriting can be a personal, solitary journey. Acting in a film, not so much. Did you run into some conflict with Tim [Sutton] on set?
Only when he told me how to dress because I don’t like people telling me how to dress. Yeah, there was conflict. There was tension the whole way and I don’t know exactly where it came from. It probably came from me feeling like I was exploiting myself, wondering if what I was doing was true or false, and if I was being self-indulgent. In retrospect, I don’t feel that self-indulgence is a crime, but I was just worried that I wasn’t communicating properly and they were trying to construct meaning out of lack of meaning. That irritated me so much that I started to drink. Since the character happens to be left of right in the construct of whatever is happening, it was similar to method acting. But it wasn’t. I was pissed off, angry, and confused. I was getting myself into this situation that had no obstacles. There were no actual physical obstacles standing in my way.
I got to a point where I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing and I didn’t understand who these people were anymore. It was like, why don’t we just not do this anymore? Why another movie? Why right now? So I got ready to leave because I quit. I should give Tim credit for saying, “Fuck it then. Go ahead and quit. We’re still going to make the film.” I respect him a lot for that. I’m like, what are you going to make the film with? You’re just gonna make the film? Then he says, “Yeah. I’m gonna make the film.” But then we all came together and talked about it. We talked about my issues because they didn’t have any issues except that I had an issue. We decided that this was a once in a lifetime experience and we should continue, simply because we should. What are we gonna go back to? Now, we’re here. We traveled all over the world with this film. I went to the Czech Republic a couple months ago. We went through a portal when we made that film. We’re now in the land of Narnia and that’s great. You should go to the land of Narnia. Why would you go back to that old English town? [Laughs] There’s nothing there! I’m enjoying my life a little more because of the film. What my music career doesn’t give me, film has given me.
You listen to your own music a lot.
It’s all I listen to!
What is it like to see yourself on the big screen? Is that experience any different from what you get out of listening to your own music over and over again?
It’s no different at all. It’s nice for a little while then it gets to be like, I’m tired of this, you know? But you can’t turn away from it. I can’t turn away from myself. Looking at the film is like looking into a mirror or living with myself. There are times where, when I smoke, I can distance myself from the character and see myself as a character. That’s pretty cool to be able to do that. That’s real cool. Can you imagine that? I’m looking at myself as a character.
You harbor ill feelings toward people who criticize music. Do you feel the same way about film critics?
Yup. It’s completely without merit. A film’s like a tree. Music is like a tree. Why would you criticize it? You either chop it down or leave it standing. It’s like, “You’re a bad tree, so I’m going to chop you down.” The tree doesn’t care. It’s a tree! It’s like the film. Our natural environment doesn’t care what we think about it. Human beings are the only ones that create all of these fucking constructs that don’t even exist. “So, on a scale of one to ten, this film is a… six.” Good for you, buddy. You’re so smart, constructing this intricate system like that. So stupid. I really, really hate film critics. I’m sorry to all the nice film critics out there that I haven’t met yet, but I don’t understand them at all. They’re their own kind of artist. They have the art of bullshittery on their side. I guess bullshittery is its own art, right? You wake up in the morning, straighten your tie, and you’re feeling good about yourself. [Laughs] I don’t understand it!
It poses a problem when critics inject too much of themselves into reviews.
Roger Ebert did that. I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but he seemed like a smart guy. People say he was legendary and stuff, but it’s like, why don’t you go make something rather than sit around criticizing folks and telling people what they should watch? They affect pocketbooks, assisting in the industrial-commercial, fucking, regime. Why do that? It’s something. It’s really something.
Do you want to continue acting?
If they come knocking I’ll take a look and see what I’ve got, but who knows?
Your new album, Experiments in Time, just came out last month. Along with The Golden Hour, which you’re giving away for free.
Well, I should say that I’m only giving away The Golden Hour under the condition that people buy Experiments in Time and they email me proof of that purchase. Experiments in Time is a vocal album, but The Golden Hour is like this character finding salvation. You get salvation when you lay down the ten dollars.
How do you think your music has evolved? Be your own critic.
My treasure trove of, for lack of a better term, songs that I wrote a long time ago is motivating me to write updates of those songs. Everything is so cyclical. I find that some of the things I’d written about have actually transpired in my life, like when I mention trees or convey a certain aesthetic. As it turns out, I express that aesthetic when I wasn’t in that place. Now I’ve arrived in certain areas. At the same time, I haven’t moved anywhere at all. And I’m not trying to be philosophical. Literally, I went from being in Chicago with nothing happening to Albuquerque making music in this environment where nobody can see me and nobody cares. From there, long story short, to traveling around the world. Now that I’m not with a major label anymore, I’m back to square one again. I’m literally just, like, staring out the window and there’s a cat under the chair over there.
This thing happening right now is the biggest thing that’s happened to me in, what, three months or so? Four months? So the songs have the same cycle. It started out very scratchy before getting very clean and shiny. Now it’s going back to the scratchy, but it’s elevated. I see my talent. I see progress in myself. That’s the best you can do—progress and get better. I’m so glad to get better at something because, when I think about it, I haven’t really excelled at anything in my life. I never had the attention span for it nor have I cared. But I love sound, more than music. If I lost my hearing, I don’t know what I’d do. Beethoven… Jesus Christ. Can you imagine? That dude, he probably got to the point where he could pick up on the vibrations of sound without hearing the sound. You dig what I’m sayin’? He had to. He could imagine sound. No joke that guy.
What made you want to pick up an instrument and put words down on paper?
Persona always interested me. I got interested in music as a concept as an adult by thinking about the image of musicians and what it must be like to communicate in that language. I envied it to the point of hatred. I would be at a poetry slam or an open mic night trying to say my words, and the minute a guy got up there with a guitar, I would leave. I couldn’t stand it because I was jealous. But it was always a desire of mine to communicate in that way. The way my life went, and the way that everybody’s life can go, you put intention out there and something goes on and it sort of happens. It happened that way, it wasn’t magic. It was a matter of touching the guitar, and I still can’t play guitar. But I use whatever I can. I find the sounds that I want to find. Now I’m talking the language of musicians and I know what it’s like to be one. It’s a role that I’m playing, for sure, but I feel sincere in that role. I know what I’m talking about. Other musicians are sending me emails saying, “I’ve been playing for fifteen years and I really like your stuff.” I’m like, wow, fifteen years you’ve been playin’? You know how long I’ve been playin’? I don’t know. I never learned anything.
Are you happy with how Memphis turned out?
The editing and Tim’s vision really came through. When I saw how the film was edited, and I see Tim looking knowingly at the film and feeling good about it, I think to myself, Jesus Christ, I wish I’d known that there was this kind of order in play when I was doing it. It’s like, okay, we’re in heaven! We were in an environment where nothing seemed like it was happening, but here we are looking from the darkness at the screen at something that was always the plan. Isn’t that somethin’? It’s great… I feel like a goddamned televangelist. [Laughs] There was a plan! I’m not saying god exists because we made the film, but in the context of what I’m saying, god existed. I’m glad that the film got made. Beyond that, people shouldn’t criticize.