Bonnie Prince Billy on Fogged Clarity

In a rare interview, the songwriter and actor discusses his work, philosophy, and the motivation behind Bill Gates’ philanthropic efforts.

** Also in this issue: Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s acoustic Fogged Clarity Session.

** Will Oldham’s latest work is the album, “The Wonder Show of the World,” it can be purchased here.


TRANSCRIBED BY DYLAN BROCK

Ben Evans: Will, thanks for sitting down.

“The idea of making a song is that it can be an emotional experience for the listener, but it would be impractical for it to be an emotional experience for the creator.”

Will Oldham: I’m standing up.

BE: Well, thanks for standing up… I talk a lot about catharsis in these interviews, but I can really think of no better term to characterize some of your music. It’s haunting, melancholy. Is there a point where you embrace and come to rely on hurt as a muse, as an empowerment toward creative vision?

WO: I hope not. I have wondered that myself in the past. It’s hard to tell… From what I’ve seen in others, I don’t believe that I would have less pain in my life were I to embark upon another career path. It seems that pain is fairly equally distributed among people… I strive for joy and communion definitely more than striving for anything that resembles pain… We’re going to get our share of pain anyway, no matter what we do, and if that is sometimes the point from which we write, that’s good. Better to use it than to let it fester.

BE: I’d imagine that writing the songs themselves is great ventilation, emotional ventilation.

WO: I’m not sure that it is any more than any other kind of work. The idea of making a song is that it can be an emotional experience for the listener, but it would be impractical for it to be an emotional experience for the creator.

BE: What if the song emanates from an emotional place?

WO: It’ll have its roots in emotion, otherwise it won’t have any emotion to give to the listener, but it’s not therapy, y’ know?

BE: Right. Is there an existential conflict you try to work out in your music- a fear of mortality, a search for meaning? How would you describe your approach, your ideology?

WO: I don’t approach it. It’s ever changing. It’s different on different days, different with different songs. I’ve always had kind of a sour grapes feeling toward the field of philosophy or philosophers as much as toward a lot of people, theologians for example… I guess I’ve always wondered, “Why ask questions? It’s such a circular activity, such a waste of time. If I see somebody who’s really smart, who has a great sense of humor, and she’s really hot, or he’s really cool, and I see that they are also into philosophy, I get really angry. I get angry at the world that this mind is being turned back on itself, that this human being is eating his or her tail rather than looking outward and trying to answer questions that on our time here on Earth, could be possibly answered rather than those that will never be answered.

BE: I don’t know. I think the intellectual conflict and the ideological struggle lends itself to new insight and development in a lot of people.

WO: Yeah, I’m in disagreement with you there, a fundamental difference I guess.

BE: Your 1999 song “I See a Darkness” [was] covered by the late Johnny Cash. Can you discuss the place that song personally was written from, where you were at in your own life in 1999, and why you think the song resonated with Johnny Cash?

WO: When I wrote this song, I was living just north of Shelbyville, Kentucky, in a house, a fairly remote house, living there with my younger brother and it was far enough away from things that that was what there was to do in the day, work on songs. I had a friend who I still have who was at somewhat of a confusing point in his life, wrestling with ideas of creativity as well as addiction… The voice of the singer imposes upon the object of the song a kind of a hope, or an assumption that that person will rise and keep rising, even though that person, the object of the song is not displaying those qualities at that moment, that that person will rise and keep rising… and its an entreaty or a prayer that as that person rises, he or she will have the strength in hindsight to carry the singer up with him or her.

I think Rick Rubin and his team, his crew, his assistants, were foraging for material, and I’m not sure how many songs Johnny Cash heard. I have heard, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, that Rick Rubin had originally presented the song “Death to Everyone” from the same record as an appropriate song for Johnny Cash and somehow the song “I See a Darkness” rose above that in Cash’s eyes and ears. And it seems like it’s almost a caricature, sort of a melodramatic expression, the comic booky kind of song, like one of his signature songs, “Man in Black”, where he makes in three minutes on country pop radio a song that’s a call to arms, and a description of his stance and his intentions as a warrior for good. So it’s apparent that these kinds of things resonate for him, or resonated for him, and it feels good to be able to encapsulate telling emotions in a song, and it feels good when some of those emotions are carried to the brink of being ridiculous and to know that that’s what resonates with people are things that teeter on the edge of complete absurdity. Everybody can talk about their place in life, but it takes pushing it to the edge of absurdity for people to understand that people are on the same page as them.

BE: Although you sing about these incredibly serious things, there’s always a tone of, what seems to me, sardony of… subtle irony. Is that the case?

WO: I don’t know. What does that mean, subtle irony?

BE: As if you understand how emotionally vulnerable you’re making yourself… and it’s the absurdity you touched on. I feel as if you’re fully conscious of it.

“…It’s like when you walk down the street, and you say, ‘look at that girl’s ass, it’s so great.’ You’re ignoring also the fact that she farts and shits out of that ass.”

WO: Well, it’s the absurdity of expressing it, the absurdity of commerce… making records is commerce and it’s about fooling yourself as a writer and a performer and fooling the audience into not thinking about it and accepting it. It’s like when you walk down the street, and you say, “look at that girl’s ass, it’s so great.” You’re ignoring also the fact that she farts and shits out of that ass. It’s the same kind of thing. And it’s ridiculous that we look at girls and say, that is amazing, that is so awesome, but we’re trying to do the same thing with a song, saying like this song that addresses the more terrible sides of our character is awesome. Now that’s kind of fucked up. But that’s our goal. To make a song about fucked up things that is awesome, and that makes people point and look and say, oh my fucking God.

BE: I think it’s that a lot of people empathize with the hurt and where it’s coming from, panic attacks, death in the family, whatever that is, everyone’s felt that and for you to characterize it in a song… you talk about that communion – I think that’s where it’s established.

WO: One of the paths that I feel is important to making music that goes to any of these places we’re talking about is to be sure that the progress of the song is considered, that the arrangement and the melody are considered, so that it becomes not just a support group thing, but something that keeps the mouth and nose of our character above water. It gets constructed. It gets built. It gets recognized as something that’s beautiful, or potentially beautiful, or potentially admirable, and the only way to make it admirable or beautiful is to put energy into it, and not to take energy away from it, not to hide it away, not to criminalize it or criticize it, but to acknowledge that it shares a place with courage or nobility, or with charity. We seem to say that depression is wrong, and so we medicate it, because it’s “wrong”. That’s so disturbing and messed up to say that we fix people by giving them anti-depressants, because they are broken if they’re depressed. We are broken if we are depressed, we’re broken if we’re down. We need to be fixed so that we don’t feel bad. That’s the society of the future or the society of a future. I don’t know.

BE: So basically you’re saying that the song has to go past brooding and achieve something?

WO: Go past brooding and the statement of fact and make it into something beyond the statement of a fact. It’s not two chords. It’s multiple chords. There’s not a repeated pattern from first verse to second verse, because it’s more complicated than that.

BE: It’s very similar to poetry as a medium, especially your songwriting, to me, I think that something needs to be resolved, or established, or celebrated. You’ve been in so many projects and put out such a catalog of work, but I’m always impressed that you’ve never compromised your vision, and never allowed yourself to be constrained by a particular image. How have you managed to do that, and what commercial sacrifices have you had to make, if any, to maintain your artistic freedom?

WO: What’s an example of a commercial sacrifice?

BE: A collaboration, perhaps an album that you didn’t want to do, a video that goes on popular television… have any of those opportunities arisen that you’ve declined.

WO: I think so, if I understand what you’re saying. I think they happen on a regular basis… sometimes it hurts a lot to say no to certain possibilities or opportunities because it feels like a shortcoming of mine that I can’t see the value in a certain experience, or the money that’s being refused… it’s painful to refuse certain figures… I don’t always feel that fully, but I feel it enough to make those decisions. It’s based on the idea that by saying no something better will happen. I’ve always believed that, that when you begin to say yes, to things that you really don’t want to say yes to, it’s not just painful then, it will be painful for a long time to come. Whereas when you say no to something that you don’t want to do, it’s painful for a while, but that pain goes away and you feel better.

BE: To your credit, you’ve certainly maintained your integrity as an artist by refusing to do these things. There’s a certain mystery that revolves around, and contributes to your… persona.

WO: What is that mystery? What does that mean?

BE: Hemingway said that the beauty of writing is what is left out. A lot of you, your image, is left out for some of your listeners, and I think it creates a mystery in your music that adds to the intrigue and the beauty of it…by not knowing the artist… though here I am trying to delve into that, to spoil that… .

WO: Unless someone is going to help you out with your life there’s no reason for them to know anything about it. It’s a handicap and a hindrance for people who do not participate in your life to have a relationship to it or a knowledge of it.

BE: I always have this urge to share things.

WO: You’re not alone. That’s why we have social networks.

BE: I don’t social network.

WO: But that’s what it is. People have this desire to share things that is baffling.

BE: No, [I share] through my work as a poet, and you have to do it very subtly and very artistically, so it’s not belligerent catharsis. It’s ventilation, but it has to be done eloquently and it has to be done right. That’s what I’ve been trying to talk to you about. You say it’s this craft and you’re trying to create a song for the listener, but when I hear an album like Days in the Wake, that album physically hurts me. I feel my heart beating. I worry about my chest. I feel this dread and beauty… there’s beauty there. I have to think, if that is not Will Oldham, if that is not your rawness, than I’m not sure I believe in anything as art.

WO: But I think the reason I feel comfortable with that record existing is because… what you describe you couldn’t map using the lyrics. But that’s the idea. To some extent, some kind of struggle is inherent in some things. What is it? It’s trying to assemble a bunch of elements with that record…. going from what key of one song to what key of another song, or how long should it be, or where should the songs go, and in performing the song again and again, and figuring out the takes, it’s trying to get something across that has to do with the relationship of the instrumentation to the voice, to the lyric to the speed and energy and volume and juxtaposition of one image to another, or one song to another that brings an overall thing that can’t be, at least by my little brain, explained, and just to know that there’s a reason for it all being together in the way that it is, and what comes across is an emotional experience, but again that emotional experience I don’t think in my mind can be traced just to the lyric. It’s about all these things. It’s about the very existence of the record. To me, the existence of that record, that it exists, and that it sounds the way that it sounds, but also that it exists, is the central theme of that record.

BE: The nuance and the merit and beauty of it really goes far beyond the songwriting, and it is… it’s the orchestration of the piece, of the album as a whole, the songs belonging where they are, that make it what it is. Was it consciously done as a minimalist piece?

“…finally, out of a combination of desperation and determination, figured that on a practical level [Days in the Wake] had to be a relatively solitary endeavor.”

WO: With different records, and Master and Everyone was the same, in that they both began their existences, they were conceived as bigger pieces, especially with Days in the Wake coming on the heels of There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, and Master and Everyone coming after Ease Down the Road, both of which were big, lots of people involved…Big casts involved and thinking well this is the goal, working with people, and then going in and trying to make a record that has a similar volume of characters or talents involved in bringing it to life, and then finding that the material couldn’t sustain all these contributions, which was disheartening, but looking back it seems like the communion ends up being with the audience, or just a smaller group of collaborators on the making of the record. But I believe we tried a couple of different ways of making that Days in the Wake record, but finally, out of a combination of desperation and determination, figured that on a practical level it had to be this relatively solitary endeavor. But in order for that to not feel like a compromise or a failure, starting to think about what would make that work, what records do I have to look at and listen to, that function, that I will know that this won’t be an indulgence or a compromise that sags under the weight of giving up.

BE: I think in hearing you talk, and your music evidences this, that you’re very deliberate. It’s almost as if you’re a painter putting together a project, as opposed to just hammering out song after song, and that’s a testament to your thoughtfulness as a creator. I wouldn’t expect anything less. In asking these questions, I don’t want to paint you as a dark songwriter. You actually have a pretty great sense of humor; you appeared in a Kanye West video with Zac Galifianakis, which I watched last evening for the second time, and on the bizarre and under-appreciated comedy Wonder Showzen.

WO: They seemed to each lead from one to another. I think that some of the people who have been involved in comedy these last few years, Galifianakis, Hamburger, Tim and Eric, and Vernon and John from Wonder Showzen – they have questions; they have problems; there are things that strike them as offensive or absurd or horrifying or ridiculous about what we do and what we’re confronted with and a refusal to regurgitate it in the same way or to let it be an oppressive force and say what we’re going to do is… we’re going to work hard and make this funny in an intricate and complicated way, and use lots of resources and turn it into something funny. Turn it into laughter. And so it’s been pretty nice… being able to do things with these guys, and it’s said that, and I think it might be true among comedians that a lot of them have a secret desire to be rock stars. I don’t think the reverse is necessarily is true. I think it’s something that singles me out among a lot of people involved with music, is that I would prefer to be a Marx Brother rather than Mick Jagger if I had my choice.

BE: Speaking of which, Tim Heidecker is releasing an album. Did you see that?

WO: No, but I know they make all that music in every episode of Tim and Eric. They make all that music, and they just toured, doing a comedy tour. But I’ve heard that that incorporates a full set of music, so it doesn’t surprise me.

BE: Did you watch the Chrimbus Special?

WO: No I haven’t seen that yet.

BE: It’s quite funny.

WO: I just saw last week that it existed. I saw a DVD of it and I was like, “Where did you get that?” but I haven’t seen it yet.

BE: It’s a DVD that they plug throughout the show. Purchasing the DVD is actually part of the comedy in the show. Those guys are great.

WO: You mean the live show?

BE: The Chrimbus Special… Do you write outside of songs? Do you do fiction, poetry, essays?

WO: Not really. No. I think I’ve had two poems published in my life…I just got to interview Merle Haggard last year for Filter magazine, I got to interview Dwight Yoakam, also for Filter magazine, maybe a year or two before that. I got to interview R. Kelly for Interview magazine. So I get to be this sort of kid on the beat… Its painful to me when they say, okay now if you could just write an introduction to this interview you just did, it’s just painful, putting prose together. I don’t know why it is but it is. Usually in my letters or email correspondence, I’m fairly terse. I get to cite that Hemingway rule that you cited earlier.

BE: How has Louisville and growing up in the south, your geography influenced your music?

WO: It’s pretty unconscious. I think there’s just a little more acceptance of certain kinds of religious traditions, certain kinds of racial tensions, certain kinds of music that is maybe more of a given… That I’ve learned as I read about comments on work that I’ve done, or I go to different places, I learn when I go to other parts of the country what people think of this part of the country or parts further south, more specifically, and I can’t really relate to it. A lot of what they say seems like a given, I guess.

BE: Not brilliantly insightful.

WO: It seems as if they’re saying, oh you write… There’s a greyhound and someone asks it, why is it that everything you write is about running around the racetrack?

BE: What do you read? Outside of songwriting, what do you enjoy?

WO: A friend of mind gave me a book that I just started that’s very promising. It seems to be a combination of literature – by a guy named James Crumley – and it seems to be high-brow pulp. Some kind of hybrid between a refined world and a non-refined world.

BE: Did you read Franzen’s novel yet?

WO:, No and I’m not sure if “yet” qualifies. I haven’t been able to get into a lot of… I feel like there’s maybe there’s a school of writing that comes from Pynchon and DeLillo. It feels like someone sitting at a typewriter pouring their brilliance out. I can’t find anything to relate to, and I don’t know if Franzen falls into that or not. It seems like those books are exclusively for smart people.

BE: You’re a smart person.

WO: I’m not sure if my brain works smart in that way. If something is going to be… I don’t know for some reason. It’s like writing prose. I can’t write prose. For some reason I can read a Capote book really well, and get high off of that reading experience. But when it comes to reading something more cerebral, my concentration goes some place else

“Any one of our brains could be mapped. I think a model of the brain could be made from any given religion.”

BE: I wonder what the chemistry is behind that?

WO: It feels very chemical. It doesn’t feel like it’s a personality thing… I feel like I have an inability to take these kind of books in.

BE: I’m that way about drawing and painting. I have absolutely no skill. It baffles me how other people can do that.

WO: Yeah, that’s true You see people who can sit down and make sense of line and make sense of shadow, and some people are trained, and some people are just natural, and I sit down, and I just think there’s the apple. Why should I draw it?

BE: That literalism centers around everything you’ve said. Were you religious growing up down there?

WO: We went to church in my earliest years, and there was some religious iconography around the house, and some religious music around the house. But at the same time… at our grandfather’s house we said grace, but at our own house we didn’t say grace. Sometimes I think that the religions of the world including Scientology in all of their expansiveness and intricacies… seem like one day, fifty years, a hundred years, five hundred years in the future, if there’s anybody left, I could imagine there might be a way of mapping human consciousness, picking a religion and it might even say, this is how memory works, this is how thought works, this is how instinct works this is how they’re tied together and how it’s related to this chapter, or this directive, or this commandment.

BE: That’s really interesting. You might be right. Just as I can’t draw and you don’t like to write prose, maybe our affinities to certain religions are chemically determined.

WO: They just feel very organic. I wouldn’t say that someone born in the Middle East has a brain like Islam… Any one of our brains could be mapped. I think a model of the brain could be made from any given religion.

BE: Want to hear something crazy?

WO: Sure.

BE: My buddy, he’s a Baptist or something, and he said if you don’t take Jesus into your life you are going to go to hell, and you have no chance at heaven. And I asked him what about a child who has AIDS who lives three months and has a slightly developed consciousness, and he said, yup they’re going to hell. Just obstinate in it. I just don’t understand that intolerance.

WO: I have a friend who’s a theologian and he’s baptist and he belongs to one branch of the baptist faith, and he believes that baptists from other branches are going to go to hell because they are interpreting scripture improperly, which I find to be pretty amazing. He’s a guy I’ve known all my life, he’s a compassionate person, a friendly person, a warm person, an open person and so it’s… staggering.

BE: Same case with this guy, but I feel like the problems of these religions is that they feel like intellectual laziness, an inability to look beyond, to look outside, to challenge belief.

WO: Well, it’s created to be the mortar of alot. Our brains are so powerful and language is so powerful, but language that is so incomplete is like the bricks, and religion and philosophy end up becoming like the mortar that holds those bricks together. And we don’t have time as individuals to understand the history of how this language that we’ve been forced to learn came to be. And yet there are so many gaps in the logic of this language and how it can explain our plight, our existence, our successes, and that’s where religion seems to fit in… Many people who are very religious, they just want to hold these bricks of ideas and concepts together because they don’t make sense to them on their own. Language is too incomplete and religion fills in. Why do I feel bad when this happens? Well, religion comes in and says why you don’t have to think about it. You can go to work the next day or do whatever you don’t have to think about it. It fills in the cracks of what we can’t speak, what we can’t say.

BE: It is, and when you keep pushing and asking the questions like I have a tendency to do – I love Kantian philosophy – it only leads to real conflict, and real struggle, and real dissonance in your mind, and I don’t know why I continue to do it. Perhaps I’m hard-wired that way, but I keep asking questions. I wish…I didn’t question everything like you. It seems like I’d be a bit better off that way.

WO: That’s the thing… we feel like we’d be be better off, and then we would be people that we despise if we don’t question. People that we fear. People who don’t question are like Dick Cheney. It’s very frightening. If I didn’t question things I’d be like, Dick, way to go!

“Or like Bill Gates… ‘I want to eradicate cholera, so I can get another motherfucker to buy my computer.’ That’s why he wants people to live”

BE: What’s the difference between what we talked about earlier?…Ah, You’re saying the philosophical questions, the redundant questions that we continue to ask ourselves. The cyclical reasoning…

WO: Exactly. I’m going to write twenty pages on this question so that I can write a hundred down the line – that’s what gets me frustrated, rather than saying, why don’t I write a paragraph or two. And if that doesn’t solve things, let’s move on to something else. We have a limited capability for the answers we’re going to be able to come up with, and the more answers we try to get the more the illusion we have of the progress of the human race. We’re seeking answers and the answers that we come up with are giving us iPads and Nuclear War. You know we want to eradicate cancer and eradicate colds and eradicate malaria so that we can destroy people with weapons. That’s why we want people to be free with of these diseases: so that we can control who dies and how.

BE: I don’t know about that. But I will agree that there’s many contradictions in being a human being.

WO: Or like Bill Gates… ‘I want to eradicate cholera, so I can get another motherfucker to buy my computer.’ That’s why he wants people to live: because if people are alive they have money to spend and they will buy his fucking computer. He doesn’t really want people to live. He loves people because they have made him wealthy beyond every human being’s wildest imagination. That’s why he loves people.

BE: So you’re taking out the altruistic motive, you don’t think he has any true desire to help? None?

WO: No. I don’t. He loves people because they made him wealthy.

BE: Well that’s a good reason… What are you working on now music-wise? What are your plans?

WO: A single. We’re in the process of laying out the artwork, and actually, just before you called I was listening to the final test pressing of the single that’s by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang. Depending when we get another test pressing in should be out in January or February.

BE: Hey Will – I really enjoyed it. It’s was great talking to you and thanks a lot for taking the time today.

WO: All right! It was quite an adventure.

Will Oldham is a musician and actor living in Louisville, Kentucky. Since 1993, he has released over twenty albums as Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, and the pseudonym under which he has recorded for the past twelve years, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. As an actor, Oldham has appeared in the films Junebug, Wendy and Lucy, and Old Joy, among others.

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