Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bonnie Prince Billy Interview

The following interview with Will Oldham was conducted over the phone on May 25, 2004. I had previously been warned that he is a notoriously difficult interview. For more on this see the Palace Bros. entry in the No Depression book, An Introduction to Alternative Country Music (whatever that is). Looking back on the situation I think Oldham's belligerence with the ND writer probably had more to do with the generally poor quality of the questions she was asking, but that's a matter best left to the eyes and ears of the beholder.

I found him to be one of the most accommodating and genuinely engaging people I have ever been lucky enough to interview.

At the time of our discussion he had recently released Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music (Drag City) and would be passing through Atlanta on tour with Bright Black a few weeks later for a show at Echo Lounge. The tour later yielded Bonnie Prince Billy’s live album, Summer in the Southeast and his discussion of collaborating with Matthew Sweeney ultimately came to fruition on the 2005 release, Superwolf.

Chad Radford: So you’re touring right now for the Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music CD.

Will Oldham: I’m doing the third annual tour with Bright Black where we spend a longer time in a given state or region than most tours do. The record came out a couple of weeks ago, but that’s kind of a coincidence.

CR: Who is Bright Black?

WO: Bright Black is a band based out of Port Reyes Station, CA. They come from Alabama and we’ve been friends for a few years. Our first year we did Oregon, Washington and California over the course of a month. Then last year we did the next set of states east of there. This year we’re doing Texas through the Carolinas.

CR: What’s the line up you have touring with you?

WO: If all goes well we should be a 7-piece band with my younger brother Paul playing bass. A guitar player named David Bird, and Matt Sweeney playing guitar. Pete Townsend on drums, a woman named Pink Nasty singing, and my cousin Ryder will be playing piano.

CR: What was the impetus to re-record 15 Palace songs as Bonnie Prince Billy?

WO: Well, we actually recorded 21 songs and I was thinking we would release 12 of them, but then I liked 15 of them. The idea was basically … We play shows all the time and make records as Bonnie Prince Billy. People don’t have the time to do research or whatever, and they like the record I See a Darkness. So they come to see a show and they hear a lot of songs that aren’t on that record. They don’t know where to find these songs. So rather than making them do a lot of research we decided to do a record that’s Bonnie Prince Billy but has a lot of the songs we play live. So now these songs are officially part of the Bonnie Prince Billy repertoire.

CR: Are you happy with how it all turned out?

WO: I am sort of overjoyed about it.

CR: What sort of feedback have you been receiving?

WO: It’s a record that has such a variety of people in terms of friends, family and other musicians from all different walks. Whether it’s professional, sonically or nominally recognizable, or older session people who have completely different kinds of audiences … And then old friends and new friend and family are on it … Most of the people that I talk to like it for a lot of the same reasons I do, which is that it’s fun to hear all of these people playing on it together. I’ve read some reviews and heard some people talk about some things, but I don’t really know. I pay attention, but at the end of the day it doesn’t make a practical difference if not everybody likes it.

CR: Do you listen to a lot of music?

WO: Yes, I sure do.

CR: Pretty eclectic taste?

WO: Yeah, I think my tastes would be described as eclectic. I listen to a lot of music because I like the way it influences me. I like it when somebody pushes my buttons in a surprising way. I just recently got out and listened to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Ballads, Banjo Tunes, And Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. Do you know that record?

CR: No I don’t.

WO: It’s a fantastic record. He’s from North Carolina and it was recorded in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Probably the ‘60s. I’ve had that one for years, but recently I’ve also been listening to another record by a woman named Aunt Molly Jackson. I just bought that one a few months ago at a record store here in Louisville. A guy at the store asked ‘have you heard this? I think you would really like this.’ So I felt pressured into buying it, but actually it’s awesome. Sometimes people at the record store pressure you into buying something and then you take it home and shake your head.

CR: Are you familiar with the Goodbye, Babylon box sset?

WO: No.

CR: It was released this year by an Atlanta label, called Dust-to-Digital. It’s a big pine box with a bunch of CDs in it and its all early American and Appalachian music…

WO: What ties it all together to make it a compilation?

CR: It’s all recordings made prior to the 1950s and it’s all sort of regional to the South: the Carolinas, Appalachia, Georgia. It’s also a very spiritual collection of songs. It’s black music and back then music was a means of expressing spirituality, especially amongst black communities.

WO: Is there a common source for the material, like did it all come from a common label?

CR: All of it comes from 78s that haven’t been manufactured for decades, which means these songs haven’t been heard for decades. A lot of it would have been forgotten forever if this label hadn’t gathered it all up and given it the deluxe treatment.

WO: It sounds awesome.

CR: Your songs have been influenced by a lot of early American and Appalachian music, and a lot of that is very spiritual music. There is a definite Biblical dialogue in a lot of your songs. Even with this record a song, like “Pushkin” pops up. Do you hone in on this for the aesthetic value or do you think of yourself as a spiritually minded person.

WO: I’m not clear of how to deny spirituality or separate it from music. Let’s say you listen to Goodbye, Babylon, for example. You listen to it and so much of it is great music and it makes you happy and sad and there are a lot of religious references in there. Some of them make zero sense … You’ll hear something about (he sings) “Elijah walked through the wooden gates …” You think I don’t know who the fuck Elijah is… (still singing). He’s not here in my house … But he means something to somebody somewhere in this story. I think whatever religion you are or aren’t, God pretty much means the same thing. And so it’s as much a part of music as it’s a part of everything else. It is an aesthetic thing, but it’s also a spiritual thing.

CR: In the grand scheme of indie rock or any kind of modern underground American music you don’t hear a lot of religious references.

WO: People are afraid of feelings in a big way. Boys are as afraid of their own nut sacks as they are afraid of God. It’s not a healthy fear, like I’m afraid of what this thing could or couldn’t do to me. More like I’m afraid of it, so I’m going to avoid it.

So that’s God in a nut sac… I mean in a nut shell.

CR: What do you think about the notion in the media about how you get off on perplexing your audience?

WO: I have noticed it, but I figure it’s like … join the club. It shows the level of confusion that I deal with on a daily basis, now being multiplied by however many copies of my records that get pressed.

CR: This record feels like a resting point where you get a chance to revisit a lot of your older songs, which makes for a nice segue way into what you’re going to do next.

WO: Over the course of the year it took to prepare and put this record together and concentrate on all of these musicians and arrangements I didn’t have time to write new songs, but I did write lyrics. So I started talking to Matt Sweeney about doing a record together. He wrote the music and I wrote the words. We’ve been recording all of that this year and we’ve put together an 11 song record that we’re about to master. It’s a significantly different approach to music than I’ve ever done before and it’s been very rewarding. I love the records that I’ve been involved with, mostly based on the contributions of other people. This is half somebody else’s record and I feel great listening to it.

CR: With pretty much all of your records you’ve been the main songwriter. Do you have an aversion to putting out records as just Will Oldham?

WO: I do, primarily for a personal sanity kind of thing. I like to live in this pretend existence where if someone says ‘I love Will Oldham’s records,’ it means they love this pile of records that I see sitting in front of me right now, which includes records by Phil Oakes, Madonna and shit like that. That gives me a chance to pretend that I have a life. Bonnie Prince Billy can make records and people can say they hate him or they love him, and then my mom can call and talk to Will.