INTERVIEW: Bill Callahan talks about Smog, Identity, and Columbo!

Bill Callahan is a legend in the indie community. Getting his start under the name Smog, Callahan has quietly created music for more than three decades in some way or another. An innovator, Callahan is a pioneer in the lo-fi movement that so defined the early 90’s indie scene that privileged a raw and unaffected sound over slicker production; it’s all about capturing that urgency and intimacy part and parcel to songwriting, a place where Callahan really shines. You can check out a track from his most recent album, Have Fun With God below, and dig on that deep baritone and kinda alt-country/Americana indie vibe that you can check out this weekend as part of the Cropped Out Festival. We caught up with Callahan to ask about the transition from Smog to his solo work, his production style, and hearing your work covered!

Never Nervous: What was your first band? What did you play in the band? How did it end?

Bill Callahan: My first band was me. Though I tried to make a band with my friend Chris in Georgia. He’d written a poem that we thought could be set to music. It never happened. We just tore each other down. Drank gin and tonics till we passed out.

NN: Perhaps relative to his, but how did Smog start?

BC: It started out of the ashes of that. We’d bought a four track together. I ended up paying off his share and setting out on my own.

NN: Given the lo-fi production, was it meant for a broader audience, or was it just for personal reference? To be clear, I love my own lo-fi recordings and all that they’re about.

BC: I liked the roughness. The rawness. Plus I was just unaware of other options.  I never thought, “why don’t my recordings sound like the radio or the records I like?” I just thought, “How can I make this give me the most pleasure?”  So yeah, for myself, but I’ve always believed things for the self are for other people. Someone makes a quilt out of meaningful scraps and there’ll be a line round the corner to buy it.

“I never thought, ‘why don’t my recordings sound like the radio or the records I like?’ I just thought, ‘How can I make this give me the most pleasure?'”

NN: How do you compose? Is it always solo or do you ever work collaborative? If it’s solo, do you write with your collaborators in mind?

BC: Composing always solo. But there are often other collaborators in mind and they are often with me in spirit form.

NN: As far as lyrics, I’ve read that you write with characters in mind. Is that accurate? Does each album reflect a different character, if so?

BC: You can try to write from the perspective of a character or from the purest part of your being. Sometimes i feel like I just hit ‘pause’ and take a look around, try to make all the songs fit into that one paused image.

NN: Is there a difference between the private and public Bill Callahan? How much is your stage presence a representation of any particular persona (Smog or otherwise), if at all?

BC: I don’t know. There are unconscious behaviors that we adopt and repeat in various situations, say, around a policeman or a mother. I think I just try to let the situation on stage dictate the person I am at that moment. And I probably repeat unconscious behaviors up there that constitute a persona.

NN: Why did Smog end? How does that material differentiate from your current output?

BC: I wanted a change so I took one. No name is best for me.  To me it sounds like the current stuff sounds like someone free of the old yoke.

NN: How would you describe your current music, perhaps to someone that may be unfamiliar with that genre?

BC: It’s always impossible, when a stranger or anyone asks me. I fumfer around and probably seem like I made up the whole story about being a musician. The person backs aways slowly and I’m left wondering what kind of music I make.

“I fumfer around and probably seem like I made up the whole story about being a musician.”

NN: You’ve had some high profile covers of a few of your songs. How does it feel to hear a different interpretation of something you’ve written?

BC: It always feels like traveling back in time, to a time before I wrote the song. It’s like hearing the song that you heard in your head elusive when you wrote it down.

NN: What non-musical things have you inspired lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning?

BC: Watching Columbo every night.