In April, the U.K. imprint Faber & Faber published Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, a book-length interview with Oldham conducted by journalist/musician Alan Licht. Anyone who’s ever read a published interview with Oldham will recognize this book as yet another counterintuitive career move by one of indie rock’s premier counterintuitionists — a 382-page interview with an artist who famously dislikes interviews. He’s actually a pretty fascinating interviewee when he’s in the mood, but he usually isn’t. And he doesn’t want his own background and motivations to be a factor in people’s understanding of his music, which tends to put him at cross purposes with most interlocutors right off the bat. Even sitting down with Licht, with whom he’s been friends for years, was a mistake, he tells me: “I trusted the task to Alan, and I couldn’t have asked for anybody better, but it’s still like, ‘Who do you want to do your colonoscopy?'”
It’s not really surprising that Oldham is cagey about supplying A’s for reporters’ Q’s. Almost 20 years ago, he started writing frayed, tender, often harrowing songs about life and death, singing them in the quavering voice of a half-deranged, shed-dwelling Appalachian bard, and releasing them to the public under a string of different aliases and band names, as if to confound completist record collectors and nosy reporters alike. He seemed intent on disappearing into the work; the portrait on the cover of his second album, Days in the Wake, was an underlit smudge. Before long, though, some biographical details came to light. Oldham wasn’t actually a half-deranged, shed-dwelling Appalachian bard. He’d spent some time at Brown and done some film acting, playing the teenage preacher in John Sayles’s Matewan and the dad in a made-for-TV movie about Baby Jessica. More than a few critics held up these facts as proof that Oldham was a charlatan — a hipster acting the part of a Weird Old American savage-savant to goose his college-radio spins.
Oldham, of course, had never actually claimed to be a sharecropper, and his music quickly evolved past folk-blues formalism into spooky, apocalyptic country-rock, but this didn’t matter, at least to some people. It was the ’90s, a go-go time for authenticity fetishism, especially in indie rock circles; we didn’t have Lana Del Rey or Rick Ross to kick around yet, so Oldham sort of became the steadfastly inscrutable Rozay of the Drag City roster. But it’s hard to keep a cult from accruing around a prolific and mysterious singer-songwriter with a fondness for odd creative decisions — recording an entire album (1996’s Arise Therefore) accompanied by the funereal pulse of an antiquated drum machine, for example, or writing a beautifully spare piano ballad for said album and calling it “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick Is Hanging Out.” Whatever Oldham was after, it wasn’t authenticity, unless fealty to his own weird muse counts.
Around the end of the ’90s, he began crediting his albums to a fictional alter ego, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, as if to both honor and frustrate the demand for an identifiable authorial presence in his work; he also grew a big beard that looked like a disguise. The first official BPB album, 1999’s mordant I See a Darkness, became a bona fide Pitchfork-generation classic; Johnny Cash covered the title track on 2000’s American III: Solitary Man. Now 42, Oldham may be American independent music’s most dependably perverse career artist; sometimes it’s as if he chooses his projects based on how much they seem like something Will Oldham wouldn’t do, whether it’s re-recording old songs with a slick band of Nashville session pros (Greatest Palace Music, 2004) or accepting acting roles in music videos for R. Kelly and Kanye West. His latest EP, Now Here’s My Plan, recorded as a tie-in with the Faber book, is a mini-retrospective — five loose-limbed reworkings of older Oldham tunes by Oldham and his current touring band.
We spoke on the phone in late July; I was nervous, but he was great.
You’ve said that you hope Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy will serve as a reference work for people writing about you in the future — the kind of book that clears up myths and misconceptions. But is there anything you enjoy about those misconceptions, or watching them develop and persist?
Yeah. Of course. On some level, the more ridiculous the better. That’s the idea of Bonnie “Prince” Billy — being able to look at this character, and getting to be in the audience a little bit, watching the perception of this character. I think I came into this line of work as a way of extending and expanding my role as an audience member rather than as a performer — like, wanting to be the audience member on steroids, rather than a person that people are watching. It’s like, you’re sitting in the audience; you want to become a part of the work that you’re being swept up by emotionally, and so now I’m doing that.
Was that a feeling that you had as an audience member, when you’d go see bands play?
Well, no, that’s the thing: It never was really with bands. It was more with movies or with books or listening to records. I’ve never been to a show and wished that I was onstage. No matter how much I liked the performance. It feels like a special moment to get to watch certain people put themselves on the line and display incredible ability, either technical or emotional, or both, ideally. But there’s never been a moment where I’ve seen somebody in an arena, in a club, and thought, “Oh, that’s what I wish I was doing.” What I wish I was doing was becoming the embodiment of a book or of a movie. And I’m doing it as close as I can by trying to imagine, when we go onstage to play, that it’s this thing that has a narrative dynamic to it. Like what I vaguely remember to be the [idea] put forward by Aristotle in the Poetics — that everything that appears on a record or on a stage, whether it’s a word or a lyric or an instrument or a person — is a narrative element that’s crucial to the beginning, middle, and end. So I try to think of it in that way — but only as a way of imposing meaning or order on this thing that may or may not have an inherent meaning or order to it.
And that’s the instinct behind crediting the records to a character like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, to set yourself outside?
Exactly. I mean, [music] has to have a theatrical element to it, to justify somebody paying money to see it. It’s not the reality that you can just turn around and take it in for free. And at the same time, [Bonnie “Prince” Billy] is not like Ziggy Stardust, which seems to be a completely separate and constructed reality; for it to have value, it should be distinctly connected and related. I know that there is a difference between Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Will Oldham, but I couldn’t tell you exactly always where the lines blur. And because for the most part, 90 percent of the time, we don’t play these big places where there are big fuckin’ gorillas between the audience and the stage, you know, pushing people away, or even a photography barrier — you know, the idea is that the line is blurry between what we’re presenting and what the audience’s reality is, and as much as anything, that’s because I want to still maintain the ambiguous role of potentially still being an audience member, even as we’re making a record or even as we’re doing a performance.
I remember the first time I saw a rock band play in a place where they were on the same level as the audience, where it wasn’t a club with a stage. It was The Make Up playing in the corner of a record store. It was sort of uncomfortable and exciting at the same time, because you’re accustomed to there being that line between you and the band, and it was disorienting to not know where the line was.
And The Make Up is a perfect band for that kind of experience, because when they’re performing, there’s a barrier. There’s a barrier of intellect, or a barrier of communication style, or presentation, or costume. So you’re in a record store, and they’re on the floor with you. It’s obvious that there’s a different reality, but somehow this reality — you follow the floor line and it goes from under your feet to under their feet. How the fuck is that happening? They’re doing something that’s intergalactic, and you supposedly just walked in off the street and your breath still smells like the hot dog that you ate or something.
I’m different from them in some way, but where does that end?
But it’s like the moment in the Peter Pan story where Peter Pan comes into the bedroom, and he and Tinkerbell throw the pixie dust on these kids, who are normal kids, just sitting in their bedroom, and then he takes their hand. It’s not them telling stories about Peter Pan. It’s not them looking at Peter Pan out the window. It’s the moment where they physically connect with each other and one reality is mixed up with the other one.
Was this all sort of on your mind from the beginning? It was a long time before you ever put out a record that credited “Will Oldham” on the cover; before that, you had this multitude of pseudonyms and band names. Were you always conscious of trying to keep your own identity compartmentalized in some way?
I just knew that I didn’t want to put my banal humanity in with the records, because that was no fun. It was so difficult the first four or five years, just trying to figure out how to — y’know, I didn’t want to not identify a human presence responsible for the singing on this song, or the writing of this song or whatever, but I didn’t necessarily want it to be this person that I’m all too intimate with. So, yeah — really, up until the first Bonnie “Prince” Billy seven-inch, which was maybe “One With the Birds” and “Southside of the World,” it was just me trying to figure out how to be named and not be named at the same time. And it took five or six years to do that. And then finally it was like, “Oh, why not have there be somebody who’s ‘responsible’ for all of this stuff, and have it not necessarily be me?” But then by extension I’m responsible for this person, so you can follow the thread if you need to. But otherwise you can take comfort and joy in the existence of this Bonnie creature.
If you want to really get into the shell game of identity you can, but you —
Yeah, exactly — you don’t have to. And most people who buy commercially produced media don’t really care about who made it, and that’s spectacular. I don’t think there is any reason to get into the stories of the people who made anything, unless you’re hoping to do that [kind of] work yourself. It’s trade stuff. I don’t understand why people aren’t into the CEO of Frito-Lay the same way they’re into Neil Young’s breakfast or whatever.
But you see why that obsession happens, right? Inevitably, when somebody adopts a stage persona like that, people become obsessed with measuring the gap between the persona and the real guy. It’s like the act of creating a false identity actually focuses people’s attention on the “real you” that much more.
[Noncommittally.] Mmhmm. I know from personal experience that whenever I am temporarily hungry for more information on an artist, satisfying that hunger is not a good thing, in reality. It’s actually, I think, a healthy [impulse]. You’re energized, you’re inspired, you’re confused, you’re conflicted by a song that you hear, and you want to take that energy somewhere. But that energy is a gift. And some people think, “Oh, I want to take this energy and learn more about Johnny Paycheck,” when really the point is, you’re stirred up because [the song] applies to something, conscious or subconscious, in your life, and you could take that energy and put it somewhere else, like in a conversation with somebody that you know and love, or in your own work, rather than feeling satisfied by finding out when Johnny Paycheck’s dad left him, at what age, and why he adopted this name and when and how much time did he spend in jail, blah blah blah. Who cares?
The song is for you to deal with your life, not to deal with the performer’s life. I love listening to music where I don’t know anything about the people behind it, because then it’s like, the music is for me. That’s why it’s out here. I gave money, that’s what I gave to them, and they gave me music, and now the music is mine to use in whatever way. And it’s loaded; it’s full of potential energy, each song.
So often I’ll have conversations with people, and when I state my opinion about something, whether it’s music or politics or food or death or whatever, people will laugh as if I’m joking, because that’s not who I’m supposed to be. And I think I’ve always been aware I am not fully the person that people think they’re buying the records of. And I don’t want to have to pay for not being that person down the road, you know? I don’t want to be punished for being who I am one day, because someone has assumed that I’m something that I’m not.
Right, this idea that you must live on a mountain and you exist in a world without television or computers or something like that, and that you’re a hypocrite if you don’t.
Yeah, exactly. Or that I’d listen to vinyl records exclusively or yeah, that I would drive a ’57 Edsel or something like that. Or that I would like something — a great example is the singer Nina Simone, who is somebody who I can’t stand. But I don’t know anybody who can’t stand Nina Simone, and whenever I mention that listening to Nina Simone sing is like having somebody vomit turds into my ears, people are like, “Oh, yeah, right.” And they’ll be like, “Here’s another great Nina Simone song!” and I’ll just be like, “Please. I don’t want to hear any more Nina Simone. I hate it. I hate it.” It’s a sacrilege to say you don’t like Nina Simone. So that’s a little harmless example. I don’t understand why people like Nina Simone, and it’s so deep, and like any moral standpoint that we have, there’s no sense to it. To me, it seems like people are lying when they say they like Nina Simone. I don’t think they are, but I so much can’t understand it that to me it just seems like they’re just pulling my leg.
If you feel a vulnerability or an openness or a connection to anyone’s voice, any artist or writer’s voice, you’re going to assume that you have a lot of common ground with that person, and maybe that happens sometimes, but probably most of the time it doesn’t happen. Most of the time, that communication [in the work] is the sole communication in which there is a commonality between you as an audience member and that specific producer of work. But you shouldn’t hold that against them. One of my favorite writers is Knut Hamsun. He’s very controversial, because he was a Nazi collaborator. I don’t know what to say about that, because I can’t help how his writing makes me feel. It doesn’t have anything to do with fascism or judgment or brutality at all. It’s the opposite. So I don’t know why he did what he did or associated with who he associated with or had the politics that he had, and I wish it wasn’t so, but it doesn’t affect how deeply I seem to connect with a lot of his writing, and I try to dissociate the two things.
You’ve done a few collaborative things with R. Kelly, who’s a perfect example of that — there’s this amazing, one-of-a-kind, strange, wonderful body of work that you have to suspend moral judgment in order to enjoy. Does it surprise you how much attention you’ve gotten for doing things like the “Trapped in the Closet” cameo or the Kanye video, and the way those appearances are seen as these hugely counterintuitive gestures on your part? Like, “Wow, Will Oldham knows who R. Kelly is!” People reacted as if there was no way that you could even exist in that same world.
They’re so close to being right. Because I don’t really exist in those worlds; it’s like this insane moment of intersection that happens through coincidence and coincidence and coincidence, and definitely no decision-making or calculation on anybody’s part. My favorite part about the Kanye video, or working with R. Kelly, is that it kind of literally seems like a dream come true, because it seems dreamlike. It doesn’t seem real at all. It felt like I was getting to walk through the looking glass or through the wardrobe, and all of a sudden be, like, dancing with Aphrodite and Zeus and Apollo. As a kid, I’m reading Greek myths, and I think, “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to spend a little time with Hephaestus.” And it’ll never happen, because Hephaestus is a myth. And all of a sudden I’m standing in the room with Johnny Cash, and it’s the same thing. It helps one’s concepts of where reality ends and dreams begin, certainly, get a little — cloudy.
Yeah, because those people are the closest we have to mythical beasts. You don’t get more mythical than Johnny Cash, I guess.
No, you don’t. Not in our time.
You were in the studio with him when he recorded “I See a Darkness” for American III, right?
Yeah, yeah. For a day. One of the great advantages of being consumed by this work — at times it’s called being in the “time arts,” because music is a time art — is kind of the ability to have my perception of time expand and contract. So spending five hours with Johnny Cash, I can adjust a few knobs on my brain so that time slows down and it’s like being there for a week, you know? And the opposite being, y’know, on certain tours I can turn it around so a tour can seem like 12 hours.
Right, you can bend time. It’s like a drug of some sort.
Exactly, yes. It’s probably like a Total Recall–style drug.
When you’re in a room with Johnny Cash, does it ever become normal? Like, “Oh, there’s Johnny sitting over there.” Or are you constantly just thinking, “Holy shit, that’s Johnny Cash“?
Well, it’s never normal. It’s dreamlike in so many ways, including the dream of thinking, “What would I do if I were in a recording studio with Johnny Cash?” And then to find yourself there and think like, “OK, this is the chance to do what you would do if you were in the recording studio with Johnny Cash.” The most rewarding part about it is when you’re not disarmed or paralyzed by the experience and you find yourself engaging. That’s when the reward comes in; it’s like, “I was able to participate.” And he was an amazingly humble and gracious and respectful and open person. He’s the best person to have that kind of experience with. Because right away, he’s like, “You’ve got as much power in this room as I do, and I’m going to prove it to you as we go along.” And not to be destroyed by that granting of power from this man was very rewarding. To not walk out and think, “Oh, if only I had … ” Because that didn’t happen. There was no if-only. It was a great day.
That granting of power — was that a spoken thing? Did he make that clear to you in some way?
Yeah, it was pretty much immediate. Like, as soon as we met, I said something like, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Cash,” and he’s like, “Please don’t call me Mr. Cash. You can call me JR, you can call me John, you can call me Johnny — please don’t call me Mr. Cash.” And Rick Rubin said, “Yeah, this is Will; he wrote that song that we’ve been working on, ‘I See a Darkness.'” And Johnny Cash is like, “Whoa — then let’s work on that right now.” So it’s him immediately saying: “Oh, this guy has walked into the room; let’s do something with him,” rather than, “Oh, interesting. He wrote that song. Oh, cool. Well, we’re doing something else right now.” But instead he was immediately changing what was going on and making my presence matter. And that’s insane.
Right, that you would matter in that context in any way, that it wouldn’t —
Exactly, yeah. And then as it went along, the way he would want to talk about the song, and the performing of the song. He wanted information about it. That kind of grants me a power to communicate that I wasn’t anticipating and didn’t expect.
What kind of stuff did he want to know about it?
It was a lot of phrasing stuff. Because he claimed that he wasn’t accustomed to — that most of his songs he sang had a different entry point in the measure, so he was finding it challenging to enter in each line where he was supposed to enter. And so that was a lot of what we dealt with for a couple of hours.
It’s weird, because now that song is sort of your biggest hit, by virtue of him having recorded it. Or at least, it’s the song of yours that’s been heard by the most people outside your core audience.
Was that part of why you decided to make it one of the songs you revisited on this EP?
Yeeeeah. Well, the EP basically came about because the Faber people said, “Is there any way there can be a simultaneous audio release that we could promote [along with the book]?” And they actually did 300 copies of this super-fine collector’s edition of the book, with a limited-edition vinyl 10-inch of the EP, in this box. It’s really nice. I was not that excited about it, and then when I got it, I thought, “Oh my goodness. This is actually something to fetishize.”
And yeah, I thought it would be a good song to try to re-record. We’re playing these songs live all the time — we play “I See a Darkness” a lot, and it’s [always] different. And I love Frank Sinatra and I love Johnny Cash, and I love how both of them have re-recorded signature songs throughout their career in different settings, giving it a new take or a new power each time. Merle Haggard has done that as well. So yeah — I don’t like to necessarily do things because that’s what’s done, but then at times, things are done because they are good ideas, and this seemed like a good idea.
We didn’t know how that song was going to sound, though. We recorded the EP with Steve Albini, and I booked two days, for tracking and mixing, so I knew we were essentially going to do all these songs live. So to prepare for it, in the two or three months of touring prior to that, we played these six songs every night. No matter what other songs we played in the set, we played these six songs. And as [the session] got closer and closer, everything was coming into shape except for “I See a Darkness,” which just kind of sounded different every night. Some nights it works, and some nights it didn’t. And then maybe two days or so before the session, all of a sudden it had this new life to it, and that’s how we ended up making it.
But yeah, the idea was — y’know, without doing something I regret, I always want as many people to hear this music as possible, and to have a reason, potentially, to listen to an older record as well. Of mine, or of somebody else’s. But I make a royalty if they buy my record.
So there is that.
There is that. I mean, if somebody gave me a grant to live 20 years ago, I would never have made a record. Because it’s about trying to figure out how to make a living in this world, how to make a way in this world, and it’s like, “Oh, this is how I make a way in this world.” Popular music, or mass media, books, movies, music, the reason it all exists — people talk about different forms of purity and integrity, but that’s forgetting the fact that it’s always been an absolutely 140 percent market-dependent line of work. Even if you look at somebody like Johnny Cash, who seems to be an embodiment of a kind of very powerful integrity — he makes music to make money and always has.
So yeah, so people have a relationship with the song “I See a Darkness,” and I’m so grateful for that. And I love to sing it, because it’s not a repetitive song. It always has the potential to surprise, and it has this little lift built into it toward the end in the progression so that it can be a joy to play.
The new version brings that little lift to the forefront, in a way. It’s a very jaunty rendition of a song I’ve never thought of as particularly jaunty.
You know, in many ways it has a feel that owes a fair amount, I think, to a lot of the great Waylon Jennings recordings, and it’s nice to think about it that way. There’s that brief period of time, in the 1970s, I think, when Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings shared an apartment, so I think, like, “Oh, this is a neat sort of homage to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings sharing an apartment together.” Because if it weren’t for Johnny Cash’s recording of [“I See a Darkness”], it wouldn’t have some of the popular significance that it may have, and just thinking about them sharing musical ideas — I don’t know, that’s just a fun thing I think about when I hear the song.
There’s a tiny bit of that in Walk the Line, right? Where Waylon’s taking Johnny’s phone messages?
Yeah. [Pause.] I watched about five minutes of that movie and I couldn’t stomach it.
Another song you completely reinvent on this record is “No Gold Digger” [from 1996’s spare, drum-machine-accompanied Arise Therefore]. The first time the new version came on, it took me a minute to realize what song I was listening to.
I haven’t listened to the Arise Therefore recording of that one in a while now, but we’ve played it so many times. I’m sure I would be surprised when I hear it, because I associate the song with what it’s become now much more than where it began.
And that’s one that you’ve taken to a lot of different places. Literally — there’s a version of it on YouTube that says it’s from Cuba.
You’ve seen this, right? It’s you and David Pajo from Slint —
Yeah, and I’m playing keys. It’s the one tour in which I played keyboard, yeah.
The quality is terrible — it sounds like it’s underwater because clearly it’s something somebody shot on their phone, but I like the arrangement. It sounds almost like Jimmy Cliff or somebody like that.
That was a really good trip.
Who do you play to in Cuba?
Well, this was, I don’t remember what year, maybe around ’97 or something like that, and my friend and many-time collaborator Bob Arellano, who’s now a college professor and a great fiction writer, but he used to play a fair amount of music, and we played a lot together. His folks were Cuban and came over 40 years ago or so, and he started to visit Cuba a lot in the ’90s. I went once with him illegally, and once we got a license or whatever from the U.S. government, because he got an invitation from this academic music conference in Havana for us to come and play, so he put together this little supergroup — you know, a [somehow audibly makes air quotes] “supergroup.” Me, with my brother Paul and Peter Townsend, a drummer from Louisville. They were both members of this group Speed to Roam, so we did a Speed to Roam song, and Pajo was there, and we did Pajo’s songs, and a couple of my songs and a couple of Bob’s songs. This mixed bag of stuff.
There was no music distribution down there, no radio. I think there was one night when I was there and went into these people’s apartment; they were like, “Look at this,” and they had a Pearl Jam cassette — not even a commercially produced Pearl Jam cassette, but just a cassette of Pearl Jam, and they were just so psyched that they’d gotten this. Because new music, to them, was whatever got into their hands, because there was no radio, no record stores at all at that time. I don’t know what it’s like now.
So we played a show in the town of Pinar del Río, with a Cuban death metal band called Tendencia, and the audience was anybody in town who wanted to see American music. The age range was probably between, like, 4 and 70. And then we played this weird electro-acoustic academic music festival in Havana, and the audience was essentially us and — you know, we were the audience for the other band on the bill, and the other band was the audience for us, because it was in this strange park that taxi drivers didn’t even know existed, in the center of town. They’d be like, “Well, I can get you this close to it, but then it’s all overgrown and not maintained, so you’ll have to walk the rest of the way with your equipment.” And there was no audience.
When you went illegally, how did you get there?
I think we flew from Miami to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and then in Nassau, we bought tickets — just bought tickets from the Cuban airline, and they sell you the visa right there. Or they did; this was late ’90s. They sold us the visas right there, and the visa was just kind of a bookmark thing that slips into your passport and they stamp it and they take it out so your passport isn’t permanently marked. And then flying out, we did the same thing. We flew to Nassau, and we had a quick connection in Nassau back to Miami, and we kind of ran to it, and then found that U.S. Customs and Border [Protection] had their desks, for some reason, at the airport in Nassau, instead of in Miami. So, you know, they see us breathless, running from this Cuban air connection and they’re like, “Where’ve you been?” “Well, we’ve been here in the Bahamas!” “What hotel did you stay at?” And immediately, I was just like, “At some point, they’re possibly going to catch me in a lie, so I’m just going to say: We were in Havana. We were in Cuba.” And they kind of rolled their eyes kind of in anger and disgust, I think, that I couldn’t come up with a better story than that and make their day that much harder, but they proceeded to go through our bags and take every scrap of potential evidence that we’d been in Cuba — anything that we could’ve spent money on in Cuba — and confiscated it. I’d bought these great records off the street in Cuba and they took those and they broke them in half, you know? And then I think they just flagged my passport so that for the next five years of travel, every time I was reentering the United States, it took me an extra 15 minutes of questioning, etcetera.
Because you might still be smuggling Cuban music?
I think in my case it really was — I think they probably would’ve preferred if I just had a better story, because it would have made less work for everybody down the line, and I wasn’t worth the trouble. They flag your passport, and then it’s every customs guy’s job over the next five years to delay me further, because my passport is flagged. Because it’s their job; if you see a flagged passport, you can’t just say, “OK, go on through,” even if there’s no evidence of me doing anything wrong. So I think they were just like, “What an idiot. What an amateur.”
You could’ve just rolled the dice and said you were at the Hilton.
I know! See, I was thinking I would say the Hilton and they would say, “You mean the one that closed 18 months ago?” or something like that. I just thought, “How big of an idiot do I want to appear?” But if I had prepared for three minutes, it would’ve been fine.
Instead you just folded.
When you Google the title of this record, one of the things that comes up is an old Shel Silverstein cartoon — that classic setup, with the two guys chained to the wall of a prison cell, and the caption is, “Now here’s my plan.” But it’s sort of a strange name for someone who’s almost 20 years into a career to give a record. Like, now here’s your plan? Are you finally getting down to business?
Well, you get the feeling those two guys have been in there for a little while.
Sure. So is it also an ironic joke about being imprisoned in some way?
I love this work, but especially in the first few years, it was so hard that I would think, “I can’t continue with this. I don’t have the stamina to keep doing this kind of work.” And I kept thinking like, “OK, well, this is going to be the last record,” or “This’ll be the last tour,” and then finally I stopped thinking that. But then, with technology, and distribution, and the economy, I sometimes think, like, there’s no way that this is going to end well. [Laughs.] You can’t make a record good enough to have a future right now that compares with something you would truly be excited about 15 years ago. [Back then] you’d think, “Eventually it’s going to reach this many people, and that will trickle back to me and I can make another record because I can make a penny from this sale or from this person listening to it or whatever.”
Now, you’re thinking like, “I don’t know. If a million people hear this record, what percentage of those people will have paid for it? And what percentage of them will give it their [full] attention?” And so, yeah, it’s me thinking, “What is this? Is it too late to escape at this point? And if so, what plan is going to be realistic?”
You have to continue to approach it with a degree of excitement and a degree of optimism, as if there is a future to it. But even in the best of times, you know, 20 years ago, I would [right now] be entering, or on the outskirts of, or with one foot in, or at least looking closely at, a period of life that traditionally is not that rewarding for writing and performing artists. There are many exceptions, but for the most part, we lose track of writing and performing artists once they reach a certain age, for whatever reason. And this isn’t the best of times.
But at the same time, the guy sitting there in that cartoon, his eyes are wide, right? He’s going for it. And Edmond Dantès was in the same situation, and he had his chance to wreak havoc and vengeance upon all that had wronged him. And so there is something to look forward to, potentially.
Edmond Dantès — he’s the Count of Monte Cristo, right?
He fully believes in his ability to get out of that room.
Yeah, because at any moment during the first two-thirds of Edmond Dantès’s imprisonment, if you happened upon him, he would’ve said, “Don’t worry. I’m working all this out.” You would’ve just been like, “Oh my god, that’s so depressing. This guy’s insane and delusional” — and of course, it’s all fiction anyway. But that’s the kind of fiction that keeps me going.
You’re choosing to believe something that maybe you know intellectually is not the case, by continuing to pursue this career?
I’m aware that most optimistic actions are undertaken with a great degree of willful blindness. So, y’know, the chances are, things will not end well. There are very few people for whom the end is good. But being optimistic ends up being so much more rewarding than being pessimistic, and I think that we do have a hand in making our own luck, and optimism serves that purpose.
But the idea of achievement is kind of a strange one. I’ve thought a lot in the last couple years about certain recorded performances — records, music on records. There are so many times when I sit down and I listen to a record and think, “That’s maybe the best record I’ve ever heard, or the best vocal performance I’ve ever heard, the best rendition [of that song] I’ve ever heard.” And then I think, “So? So what? What happens now? What happens now that that’s the best record?” Nothing! Nothing at all. Nothing for me, nothing for that performer, nothing for anybody. That’s the best there ever will be, and nothing will happen next. You think like, “Oh, Aretha Franklin. She achieved these heights of expression.” And? Yeah. Do I wish I were Aretha Franklin now? No. No fucking way! No fucking way would I ever want to be Aretha Franklin, y’know? So why do I love where she has taken music at certain moments in her life? I don’t know.
Why doesn’t a musical achievement grant the achiever something? Something, y’know? I don’t know. It doesn’t grant the person anything. And yet I’m still like, well, I still want to figure out a better relationship between this timbre in my voice and a recorded bass guitar and a lyric about family. Why do I want to do that? I’m not sure. Because you can play the best show of your life and it doesn’t mean [pause] anything. It doesn’t change anything. Especially a show. Because even if someone’s sitting there with a fucking cell phone recording it — that show is over. That cell phone is not a representation of the show, it’s not a representation of the experience that the audience had or the performer had. So the show is over. And you can try to be satisfied with it, but you also may be at the beginning of a degenerative memory disorder, and the next day you might have no concept or recollection of the achievement that occurred the day before or the month before, and so does that mean it’s valueless? Kind of. It kind of does mean it’s valueless. [Laughs.]
I imagine that’s why incredible success fucks people up so much more than struggling —
— because suddenly there’s this wild disconnect between how you feel about it as an achievement and what everyone around you and what the world is telling you about it.
And then there’s the examples of Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, who did achieve an approximation of what everybody told them they achieved, and so there’s this sense then, like, OK, I have done the ultimate thing that I would ever want to do, and not only do I think it, but the world thinks it. What’s next? And there isn’t anything next, and so they’re screwed. Because that achievement doesn’t give them a thing, but they have done it. Inarguably. They have achieved something in music, and in connecting to people that we all want to do, and it worked, and then that’s it. There’s no follow-up to that. It’s not like, “And now, the world is a better place.” Or maybe it is, but in such small and subtle and dispersed ways that that performer will never have access to, really, and so they go insane. Or they try to maintain, through prescription drugs, a brain space that resembles what they know is real.
Do you feel like you have access to any of that — any awareness of your effect on people, if not on the world? The cliché is always, “It’s worth it, because I’m touching the audience in some way” — does that do anything for you?
It does. There’s an energy I put out there and it comes back in strange and interesting ways. I get to meet a visual artist, say, who claims a connection to the work, or inspiration from the work, and I’m like, “Really?” And that could potentially lead to a collaboration between me and that artist, and that’s awesome. Also, it’s great to do a tour and come back and have some income from that tour, because then it’s like, no matter what, I can feed myself for the next one month, six months, however much ends up in the bank account, based on all that work, and that’s, maybe, the ultimate goal. So it might be that maybe we had these peak moments of psychic connection with individuals in different parts of the world, and peak achievements musically, but maybe that manifests itself in the most appreciated peanut butter–and–jelly sandwich of all time today, and that’s good enough. You know, that should be good enough.
We played a show in Lexington, Kentucky, a few weeks ago, and it was one of my favorite shows ever. And there were some people who said that the audience was noisy or disrespectful or maybe not a demographic that they appreciated. And I liked hearing that, because [when I heard that], I thought, “OK, I wouldn’t trade that show for anything in the world, and this is a good, healthy way for me to realize the difference in the perception of some people who were in the exact same room at the exact same time and mine.” Because there’s nothing that could diminish that experience for me, and maybe it’s better that my experience wasn’t shared by all these people, because then I would be more in danger of having a distorted reality today than I am experiencing — I think.
You’re able to sort of check your relationship with the good and bad parts of it, because you realize you’re never going to have the same experience as someone else.
I really love that live album Summer in the Southeast, and in some ways that sounds like a terrible audience. It sounds like you’re playing for a bunch of drunks, possibly in a cage.
Yeah. Oh my gosh, that was a great tour. That’s something one is in danger of losing with greater quote-unquote success, because it becomes a constant struggle to try to find spaces where there’s a maximum interaction with the audience. The booking agent’s like, “Oh, we got you this beautiful theater, and the costs are low, and so your guarantee can be that much higher.” It’s like, “That’s great, but we’re going to lose a little bit of audience interaction possibly, so if you could balance it out with another show here or there … ” And he’s not always happy to hear that. But I’m also frustrated locally, that people know me locally, to the extent that it’s no longer practical for me to heckle a band, because people will be like, “Oh, fuckin’ get off your high horse. Why are you coming in here, Mr. High and Mighty, and insulting the band?” It’s like, “No, that used to be how we had fun!” Onstage and off — we were challenging the band, or showing them support by saying, “I’m here! I’m listening! Play it better! Play a better song! That song was OK — now play a good one!” But I can’t do that anymore, because you want people in the audience to look at the band, and not the local musician who is being an asshole.
At this point, you doing that in Louisville or wherever would be like Springsteen going down to the bar in Asbury Park and yelling at people.
Yeah, yeah. Although, probably, everyone would think that was hilarious and honorable.