Striking as ever, Bill Callahan returns to the Grey Eagle

[Editor’s note: This interview is not for the faint. For those not familiar with him, Callahan is a master of melancholy and a striking songwriter, oft-compared to his Drag City label-mate Will Oldham, sharing a similar penchant for recording under a pseudonym (Oldham has many, Callahan had Smog.) Callahan has an earthy baritone voice.—R.S.]

This interview was conducted through email and is more of a “Q & A” than a discussion. The questions were written, e-mailed to the press agent and then sent back. My approach was to listen to the record while writing, and to think of one question in relation to each song. This approach was mostly to anchor my questions to something specific (although not always successfully).

There are nine questions for the nine songs. To call something interesting has no meaning, equal to commenting that this or that thing simply “exists.” That being said, this interview is interesting because it could easily not exist. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle exists, and significantly. Bill Callahan plays tomorrow night at the Grey Eagle, with Lights, and local yé-yé girls, Pilgrim.

1. “Jim Cain”
The “search for ordinary things” is a subtle yet profound idea. However it was meant or not meant in the writing, I’m wondering what you make of this search. For instance, is the ordinary here equated with truth, and the extraordinary then seen as a kind of illusion? In the sense of a detective story, it would seem that the ordinary things, like footprints and lipstick marks can lead to the big breaks in a case, too.

Callahan: Yeah, that’s nice. Me likey. It was supposed to lead to the overarching theme of the record which is disowning all supernatural things. God, ESP, ghosts, fate, luck, UFO’s etc. Although fate is still on the table for negotiation with me. And I realized how much I look at what I’m calling ‘ordinary’ things here. Like a wave in the ocean. I could look upon that and dream and think and meditate and laugh and cry for the rest of my life and never understand how that wave plays me like that.

2. “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”
A few of your songs use imagery and metaphor based on horses, such as “I Break Horses.” With “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” the situation of the narrator is almost opposite, as if the rider has become the ridden. At the same time, both figures are involved with trying to shake off some kind bitter saddle, like a person or a memory of a person. Could you talk about these two songs together, or are they, you know, a horse of a different color entirely.  

They aren’t really related. Or I should say, I have not thought about that. Maybe they are related. It is quite the juxtaposition tho, I never thought of that. A switching of roles. Or perspectives is more accurate.

3. “The Wind and the Dove”
I saw your in-store performance at Grimey’s in Nashville, and you mentioned how you listened to Indian ragas on the ride up from Texas. Did you write the Middle Eastern / Indian-type parts for the beginning and end of this song, and if so, had you been listening to similar stuff beforehand? Also, does the “linger on” lyric refer at all to “Pale Blue Eyes” by Velvet Undergound?

Ah, no. The fancy-dancy fluorishes were written by the arranger, Brian Beattie. We had recorded the song previously with a different band, for some other record. And we always talked about how mystical the song sounded, with the cymbal crashes and such. So when it came time to re-record the song for the album, we’d already been using all these words like, “harem,” “mystic”, “sultan’s palace” to describe parts of the song. And it was supposed to sound like a curtain parting to reveal something. That also goes back to the ‘ordinary’ things i mentioned above. That is why there is so much WIND on the record, because a lot of things attributed to gods and supernatural are just WIND!

It’s not a reference to Pale Blue Eyes. Pretty good song, tho.

4. “Rococo Zephyr” 
I’m trying to think if any songs from records before A River Ain’t Too Much to Much to Love explore the fact of river and its metaphorical dimensions. There are certainly examples throughout “A River…,” “Woke on a Whaleheart,” and now “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle.” Did the prominence of rivers in your writing begin when you moved to Texas, and if so, why do you think that is? 

I think it stemmed from something my mother said. I was describing something I was feeling to her and she said something about floating down a river. Then I wrote the A River Ain’t songs.. Before that there was “Dead River” an instrumental on Forgotten Foundation. There may be others escaping. River Guard, you ever think of that? I started seeing a river when i closed my eyes. It changed my life to know it is there. I think it is like how they say we are 92 percent water, our bodies. I think I can see it…

5. “Too Many Birds”
a. Both birds and touring musicians fly all over singing and sleeping temporarily in places that are there with or without them and for the most part are known, at least by name, by many people who they themselves will never see or know. Do you find any other similarities between the life of birds and the life of traveling musicians?

this isn’t what this song is about but other people have said that, too.

b. Do you think birds think there are too many birds? Do you think there are too many traveling musicians out there?
there are a lot of birds but they blend in quite well with us. too many travelling musicians, yes probably. i now have to book a tour 5 months in advance when it used to be 2 months in advance. the clubs are all full of bands.

6. “My Friend”
There are gallows, and the destruction of “what will harm other men.” Is there a part of you that you find harmful to others that you would like to put to death by hanging? (Alternatively, if this is too personal, supplant “you” with “life” or “human behavior.”)

you’re gettin’ too heavy here.

7. “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” 
So much of the “natural world” is at war in this record, and it’s interesting to consider this song with “The Wind and the Dove.” The wind kills the dove’s flight, the eagle sneaks up on the wind, talons blazing.  In anticipation of the next song, is there some example of thought or logic (reason) which neither preys nor is prey to some beast?
I’m on the verge of a discovery about this. I’m sort of cleaning out my closet. I had the religious struggles of youth and got rid of some stuff and set some in the closet. But I still read of the No Mind, the Buddhist thing. I don’t really believe in all that. I’m still working through it though.

8. Invocation of Ratiocination
Despite the title of this song, it is rather visceral and seems almost like pure emotion in the sense of feeling, like screaming into total emptiness. Is this your perspective on rationality? In other words, I’m interested in how you came to title this song, and how the title relates to the content.

It’s supposed to be like an ocean. Like looking at and listening to an ocean. And it is supposed to clear your mind for the next song. It’s supposed to invoke ratiocination, to let the next idea in incase you’re having trouble with it.

9. Faith/Void
To return to parallel and/or contrasting themes between “..Eagle..” and earlier records, I can’t help but think of “Permanent Smile” when I hear this. God, light, and graves/death are discussed. They both end their respective albums. To not “ask why” could be one way of defining faith, and that same faith is refuted in “Faith/Void.” Anyway, is there something between faith and a void (other than a slash mark) with which one proceeds through life? 

Yeah, there’s rational thought between the two.



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One thought on “Striking as ever, Bill Callahan returns to the Grey Eagle

  1. Eagle

    I love that Bill Callahan says one of your questions is getting too heavy for HIM!

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