Bill Callahan is a man of few words.
At least in interviews. The 45-year-old Maryland native is notoriously evasive when fielding questions, preferring to let others interpret the enigmatic ramblings in his ominous, gothic-tinged folk-rock.
He's got plenty to say in his music though, cryptic as it may be. Most of the tracks on his latest LP, Apocalypse, full of free-form allusions and pastoral praise of an unsettled United States, stretch past the 5-minute mark. Additionally, Callahan sings in an impassive baritone, staying emotionally neutral with respect to his lyrics. Indeed, he chose not to address a question about the subjects that inspire his songs.
Callahan began his music career in 1990, recording under the name Smog. His earliest work was played and recorded on substandard gear, a subject he ignored in this particular interview. Although Callahan has now become almost verbose in his work, his early stuff was largely instrumental. Words or now, his work as Smog made Callahan a darling in the underground rock scene. Upon signing to the Drag City label, his music became more polished, with Callahan adding instrumental accoutrements beyond guitar. His newer work still maintains the mysterious feel of his early, low-fi stuff.
NUVO: What first got you into music?
Bill Callahan: Music. It was a world I wanted to be in. Like when you're looking at TV and wish you could be in the TV.
NUVO: Why was a lot of your earliest music instrumental, considering how lyric-focused your later recordings have become?
Callahan: It was a case of "if you don't have anything to say, don't say anything." I just didn't have words yet.
NUVO: Do you have a standard approach to writing lyrics?
Callahan: I don't. Writ happens.
NUVO: Do you agree with critics who call your style of singing "deadpan"?
Callahan: I wasn't aware of this. I kind of just want to get on with it, get down to business. If you hear and think about what people are saying about you, it slows you down and it's offensive. Critics repeat and repeat, it can feel like an effort to brainwash the readers.
NUVO: Why did you decide to start recording under your own name?
Callahan: Smog was my own name, as I chose it. The name I'm using now was given to me partially by my parents and partially by countless years of family roots. So, it is really like having someone else name your music. A whole committee of history and your parents — it's nice.
NUVO: Why do you generally eschew in-person interviews?
Callahan: I don't. I do about half and half, just for variety. I like variety. Also, when I am super busy, it's better for me to have an email to answer whenever I get around to it at 7 a.m. or 4 p.m., instead of an appointment to talk to someone that janks up my currents.
NUVO: How do you feel about the public part of being a musician?
Callahan: It's funny and nice how easy it is to be unaware of it. I am "public" to my friends, family, band — but outside of that, I don't know what's going on with me.
NUVO: Are you more comfortable on stage or in the studio, or both?
Callahan: Comfort is not something I strive for. They are very different projections of energy coming out of us. In the studio it's a boomerang-type of energy that goes out to the skies and then back inside you and you taste it and feel it and ask yourself how it was, if it was good enough. On stage it's more like a ship you are christening and sending off to sea and guiding and guiding and then it disappears over the horizon and it's gone.
NUVO: Ultimately, how do you want people to interpret you and your music?
Callahan: I don't have a desire in this respect.
See: a promotion for "Riding for the Feeling," from Apocalypse